virtualDavis

\ˈvər-chə-wəlˈdā-vəs\ Blogger, storyteller, flâneur. G.G. Davis, Jr's alter ego…
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A Lot of Life

Karl Sprague (@karlsprague) just made my day! I met Karl at the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City last month, and his sunny, upbeat personality made him irresistible from our first handshake. He’s the quintessential poster boy for the Sunshine State. Here’s what he tweeted me this morning:

You pack a lot of life into a 24 hour period, don’t you? U keep us mentally sedentary folks updated on writing / travel / life

Karl Sprague

Wow. I think I’ll print and frame that when I get home from Costa Rica. Bold font. Hung front and center over my desk. Or my kitchen range. No, maybe nailed to a post by my garden. Hmmm. Duct taped to the wishbone of my windsurfer? Or the handlebars of my bike? Maybe I’ll just memorize it, repeat it like a mantra each morning. Or any time my enthusiasm sags…

I’m serious. What a gift! What validation. What encouragement. I wonder if Karl had any notion at all how his quick message would impact me. I’d like to think he did. He’s magnanimous, wouldn’t miss an opportunity to give, encourage, thank. And yet, I’m guessing he didn’t. I’m guessing he typed and sent that tiny little tweet out into the ether without thinking too much about it. That’s also the kind of fellow he is, generous with complements but totally unselfconscious about his generosity. Second nature. The kind of guy who smiles by default, laughs to relax, encourages because it’s his instinct.

Thank you, Karl. I’m not sure I could summarize my life’s ambitions better!

Memoir Darts and Regurgitation

Like many writers and readers I’ve been chewing on Neil Genzlinger’s “Problem With Memoirs” and swinging back and forth between reproach and praise. It’s a provocative piece that continues to provoke dramatic responses.

There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occur­rences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment. (NYTimes.com)

My reactions are complicated by the fact that Rosslyn Redux, my current work-in-progress, is a memoir. Besides, I agree with Genzlinger that an awful lot the whiny, angry drivel masquerading as memoir should still be standing vertical in forests.

Over the last few months that I’ve been chasing publishing answers and advice I’ve often heard that the best selling memoirs are born of strong platforms, not strong writing or stories. Celebrity memoirs are the obvious example. Publishers apparently love them because they sell, sell, sell. Makes sense. But doesn’t exactly fuel the sort of mighty memoir creation that Genzlinger craves. He acknowledges that there’s plenty of quality memoir being produced, but it’s swamped by forgettable, regrettable spamoir!

Sure, the resulting list has authors who would be memoir-eligible under the old rules. But they are lost in a sea of people you’ve never heard of, writing uninterestingly about the unexceptional, apparently not realizing how commonplace their little wrinkle is or how many other people have already written about it. (NYTimes.com)

That he lumps unheard-of memoirists with porridge producers continues to bug me. He seems to suggest, albeit obliquely, that memoir writing should be limited to writer’s sitting atop successful publishing careers. Or celebrities? Maybe this is like the agents and publishers and editors drumming the “Platform, Platform, Platform” chant. Or maybe he genuinely believes that  memoirs will be better if written by widely known/read authors. In any case, I don’t understand. And — as a newbie — I’m annoyed to be categorically dismissed. Porridge producers, be damned. But I’m confident that newbies can dish up delicacies too.

Am I being thin skinned? Sure. And this is the complexity of Genzlinger’s piece. I credit that he’s intentionally pushing buttons, intentionally chastising and provocative. And the brunt of his thinking is spot on. He closes with advice:

If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it. Instead hit the delete key… (NYTimes.com)

Sure, he’s posturing and fanning the flames, but he’s right. But who decides? Writing and storytelling and memoir are subjective. And the marketplace often veers wildly from the literary merits of work published. Obviously the authors have a tough time typing “The End” and then condemning the preceding 180k words to the dustbin. And publishers are altogether too happy to pass the porridge along to starving readers with deep pockets. So who decides? Perhaps his point lies elsewhere; perhaps he’s simply trying to redefine what makes a good memoir.

That’s what makes a good memoir — it’s not a regurgitation of ordinariness or ordeal, not a dart thrown desperately at a trendy topic, but a shared discovery.(NYTimes.com)

This sings, soars, then arcs toward the target. Bulls eye! Bravo, Gun-slinger. This is what he’s after, the recipe for a meaningful memoir. And I want to stand and pump my fists in the air as I cheer and bellow, “Hurrah!”Memoir is discovery.

I differ with Penny Jar who’s response to “the great wack-a-doo in the memoir world” unleashed by Genzlinger’s piece concludes that a manifesto to brilliance is at work.

I don’t see the article as being the snobby, dodgy, shut-your-pie-hole critique it may have been served up as. I think it’s a call to brilliance. (Penny Jar)

Brilliance and excellence, yes, but this is always the case in great writing. What sets memoir apart? Discovery. I’m reading Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Storywhich breaks down this discovery even further into the narrator’s discovery of self through a larger, more plot-driven discovery. (I’ll tackle this idea again soon in another post.)

Absent the discovery, memoir is a pointless chronicle, a panful traipse through the wasteland of experience. So what? Who cares? If the reader is to become invested in the story, the author must share their discovery openly, honestly, artistically.

In “Writing Memoir: Art vs. Confessional” Susan Cushman develops this last idea further by referencing a comment made by Scott Morris (Waiting for April and The Total View of Taftly) a couple of years ago during a manuscript critique workshop she attended in Oxford, Mississippi:

A memoir must be artful and not just real. Yes, you’ve lived it—the abuse, the loss, the suffering—now you have to get up and above it, distance yourself, and spin a good yarn. You’ve got to create art from what you lived. (There Are No Rules)

So, where does this leave us? I’m still swimming upstream, trying to distill 400k of regurgitation into a tidy story. I’m enjoying the journey, but the discovery is still unraveling. As for art, though I’m courting her night and day, she’s an elusive soul. Not giving up yet…

Are some memoirs better as fiction?

TrekEast: An Essex-Willsboro Rendezvous


Photo credit: Phil Lacinak

Are you following TrekEast? Essex resident John Davis (@trekeast) is changing the world one pedal, one paddle stroke and one step at a time.

Of course, those who know John would say, “He’s been doing that for years… His whole life!” True. But his latest adventure — an historic 4,500 mile, human powered expedition from Key Largo, Florida to the Gaspe Peninsula in Canada — is a bold challenge to life (and development) as we know it in the Eastern United States. John intends to inspire you and thousands of others to connect the Eastern Wildway in order to save it. Discover John Davis’ TrekEast!

John started out in Florida’s Everglades National Park where he was joined by a wayward band of Champlain Valley friends and adventurers:

That night, my Adirondack paddling friends Brian Trzaskos, Larry Barns, and Reg Bedell arrived, with a week’s worth of delicious food prepared by Brian’s wife Susie and my wife Denise as part of their Flying Pancakes food service. So our paddling team was gathered: Brian (ascentwellness.com) is a physical therapist and teacher of tai chi and other healthy disciplines who is himself extremely fit and strong. He’s an experienced climber, hiker, and paddler, and had done much study of the Everglades in anticipation of this journey (more than I’d found time to do). Larry (larrybarnesphotography.com) is a professional photographer and outdoors person whose work has appeared in many magazines. Reg (essexlaw.organd migratoryhaven.com) is a southern gentleman turned environmental lawyer who longs to see restored the rich wildlife he knew decades ago in the South. Ron you’ve already met, as Wildlands Network’s conservation scientist and Southeast director – one of the best things to happen to our organization in years. We are a varied but strong five, with plenty of outdoor experience but little on-the-water time in the Everglades. (TrekEast Blog)

The laughter and storytelling that these characters enjoyed doubtless inspired John as he set out on his ambitious mission. John will be joined off and on throughout his ten month expedition, my wife and I among the fortunate ones who’ll travel with him in person. And many, many more will follow via social media data stream as John posts updates and tweets and blog posts to transport you vicariously into the bicycle saddle or the soggy kayak seat with him. Consider weaving yourself into the narrative…

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William Zinsser on Memoir Writing

Though I’ve never met William Zinsser (Writing About Your LifeOn Writing Well), he’s been one of my mentors over the last year. In addition to sharing a Deerfield Academy history, his writing and teaching have propelled me toward a simpler and deeper understanding of the memoir I am writing. If it didn’t sound absurd, I might even suggest that Zinsser advice has served as Rosslyn Redux‘s midwife!

In a recent blog post, “How to Write a Memoir” tackles my current mega-challenge, organizing and reducing my memoir.

Most people embarking on a memoir are paralyzed by the size of the task. What to put in? What to leave out? Where to start? Where to stop? How to shape the story? The past looms over them in a thousand fragments, defying them to impose on it some kind of order. Because of that anxiety, many memoirs linger for years half written, or never get written at all. (The American Scholar)

According to Zinsser, writing a memoir necessitates a “series of reducing decisions“, starting with pruning out all non-essential characters. If they don’t absolutely need to be in the memoir, remove them.

You must find a narrative trajectory for the story you want to tell and never relinquish control. This means leaving out of your memoir many people who don’t need to be there. (The American Scholar)

More easily said than done! One of the most transformative aspects of the almost four years which my wife and I spent consumed with renovating our new home in the Adirondacks’ Champlain Valley was the proliferation of stories. So many lives have touched (or been touched) by this historic property. Rather than a home, we inherited a museum-full of lives, histories, artifacts, stories. It was a humbling and fascinating experience. And I wish to preserve as many of these stories as possible.

Early on I saw the memoir as a literary museum à la Plutarch’s Lives: Rosslyn’s Lives. Less ambitious in some respects, but more so in others. I’ve struggled with letting go of many of these stories, not for good, but from the memoir. Out of the memoir and onto the Rosslyn Redux website where I’ll aggregate and curate as many stories as I can before they disappear.

Don’t rummage around in your past—or your family’s past—to find episodes that you think are “important”…. Look for small self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you still remember them it’s because they contain a universal truth that your readers will recognize from their own life. (The American Scholar)

This is helpful, almost a permission to focus and reduce. And yet it is far more easily prescribed than administered! Even on the simplest level, my wife frequently grows frustrated with my omissions. I remind her that my story is different from hers. What may continue to anger her about an error we made or a contractor who disappointed may have become humorous for me. Perhaps she’ll find time to record her own memoir?

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Essex Family Transforms Tragedy

When Louis Comeau headed into work April 8, 2003, he had no idea his life was about to take a tragic turn. As the accomplished attorney rounded a bend on Route 22, a large block of ice flew off a passing truck and slammed into his car. He didn’t have time to react. “It went through the windshield and shattered his skull,” Comeau’s wife, Jani Spurgeon, recalled… (Press-Republican)

This was one of the stories that my wife and I learned early on after arriving in Essex. Even before meeting Mr. Comeau I heard the story from others. I also heard how the community had pulled together to support the family during the darkest weeks after the accident. I was impressed with the depth of empathy among neighbors, the sense of responsibility, the sense of extended family. I remembered the small, tight-knit community where I had spent four years of boarding school.

I’ve only glimpsed faint shades of this since, while teaching at Santa Fe Preparatory School in New Mexico, for example. Living in Washington, DC and Paris and Rome I belonged to looser, more fluid and transient communities. Perhaps it was the places I lived or the people I associated with. Perhaps it was me, my age, my preference. But the idea of community had grown abstract and peripheral for me.

I met Mr. Comeau in person several months after we started renovating a house in Essex. At first we simply exchanged casual greetings passing on the street or when he walked his dog past our front porch. And then one summer afternoon our neighbor invited me up on to her front porch for a cool beer and to get to know Mr. Comeau. He was smiling. He’s always smiling. He told me that he had known my father, that they had overlapped as lawyers a couple of decades prior. He entertained us with anecdotes. He was charming and complimentary. He laughed. We all laughed. It was easy to understand the community’s embrace when his luck faltered in 2003. It was easy to accept that I wanted to be a part of this community.

Reading the article, “Family pushes for proposed snow-removal law“, this morning reminded me that support and nurturing are only one part of a tight-knit community. Maybe they are the easy part. It’s human to reach out and help those we know personally, those we care about. But it’s also easy to stop there, to nourish our immediate community and stop there.

Almost eight years after Mr. Comeau’s life-altering accident, his wife, Jani Spurgeon is transforming his tragedy into a common good. This is more than a close-to-home illustration of civic responsibility. Ms. Spurgeon is transcending loss and hurt and suffering in an effort to help others far beyond Essex, far beyond the community who reached out to her. She is distilling value from devastation. And she is inspiring all of us in the process!

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EBooks: Supplement or Supplant

 

The future of the book Ramin Setoodeh suggests, is coming into view. Quickly. What exactly this future will look like is anybody’s guess, but the publishing industry has reached a tipping point.

Electronic books now outsell paperbacks on Amazon, the retailer recently announced. And Borders, the second-largest bookstore chain in the United States, is reportedly considering a bankruptcy filing. (Newsweek)

Setoodeh asked some book-blokes what they foresee, and here are a few takes on the future of publishing in the digital age.

Books are going to get both longer and shorter. I think they will be more affordable. Books are pretty expensive. Publishers are so silly because they focus on “We’re not going to be selling so many hardcover books at $26.” Yeah, but you’re going to sell infinitely more electronically, so what are you complaining about? ~ Judith Regan(book editor and SiriusXM host)

You have to give readers a choice, between a richer experience with paper and board and cloth, and a more sterile experience through an electronic reader. We just try to make every aspect of the physical book as good as it can possibly be, because that’s our greatest hedge against the dominance of e-books. ~ Dave Eggers(author and founder of McSweeney’s)

The new immigrants don’t shoot the old inhabitants when they come in. One technology tends to supplement rather than supplant. ~ James H. Billington (librarian of Congress)

We’ve maintained in the last few years there will be fewer bookstores. Barnes & Noble will benefit from that. We have the best real-estate and business model in the world. Books are still a majority of what we sell in stores, but they are becoming less and less… ~ William Lynch(Barnes & Noble CEO)

I’m particularly keen on Billington’s take, though I’m not certain he’s right. At first, yes. But over time I suspect there will be more supplanting than he anticipates. Time will tell.

The post wraps up with a quotation from Joyce Carol Oates who reads books and newspapers on her husband’s iPad while traveling but still prefers books. I’m agree. I love books. And yet, I’m a digital native, and frequently surprise myself by opting for digital over print. Sometimes efficiency, accessibility, ease and/or economics trump tastes and aesthetic preferences. Often, actually…

Essex-Charlotte Ferry Breaking the Ice

A true North Country winter! The Champlain Valley is blanketed, no… quaint, but no. Rewind. The Champlain Valley is buried beneath another 15-18″ of fresh snow. Beautiful. Picturesque. Unless you’re pushing a shovel! (Or trying to get somewhere…)

Getting somewhere is the learning lesson topic of the day. Why get anywhere other than right here. Stop driving the desk and go out for a ski! Shortly I hope to do just that. But first a glimpse at the now mostly frozen lake. I shot the fuzzy video on my phone this morning to show that the Essex-Charlotte ferry is still managing despite the ice. This vessel is technically not an ice breaker and can only manage to navigate until the ice becomes thicker than 3″ thick. Which — I’m guessing now — isn’t too far off. In fact, it’s already well beyond that near our dockhouse. Then we’ll reallyhave to stay home and play in the snow!

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