How do we honor the books we no longer identify with that once felt like the perfect articulation of our being? My strategy for the longest time has been to simply not reread them. But that sort of willful ignorance just doesn’t feel sustainable. There has to be a way to honor what the book once did while still problematizing its contents.
I do not believe there’s a certain age at which a writer is suddenly prepared to write a memoir, though I sometimes wish the criteria were this easy, this concrete. There are other metrics that could be used: the amount of major events, the degree of trauma or enlightenment, the critical distance the writer has established from the narrative. By that final item, I mean, how close can the writer approach the material before becoming overwhelmed by it or simply unable to draw out its significance. If only this were just a function of time. And if only we could quantify that perfect balance between sentimentality and ambivalence, when the first threatens to make the narrative so saccharine that it’s barely palatable and the second can just make even the most engaging prose flatline.
“When I teach nonfiction, we talk about writing to a question. If you write what you already know, it’s not going to be interesting for your readers. You need to be looking for some kind of a discovery, and so I went to Yale to see what and what hadn’t changed, because my story needed to be contextualized. After hearing from young women that their experiences were just as bad as mine, it floored me. That’s the moment I knew I had a book.”
“My aim has been to look as squarely as I can, with clear eyes, at the truth of what human beings are capable of doing to each other. This is Paul’s aim too. Denial is a killer, and if we all felt the horror that so many are forced to experience I know there would be less violence in the world. This is a conviction I’ve had about life and about my writing long before I met Paul, though in the past I probably spent most of my time concentrating on stories of emotional violence, often of child abuse. It’s all the same. The weak are exploited and abused by the powerful, and silence, obfuscation, denial is a complicity that must be confronted.”
“I think for me I don’t approach the page with some necessary truth that I’m aware of as I enter a poem. Often my poems start with a story or a fragment that I want to communicate or display for people and embedded in those things is a truth that reveals later.”