Connolly/1

Regarding the Golden Monster
By Wm. Anthony Connolly

"…I have set myself no goal but a domestic and private one. I have had no thought of serving either you or my own glory. My powers are inadequate for such a purpose. … I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without pose or artifice; for it is myself that I portray” – Montaigne “To the Reader” “I do not find so much good in myself that I cannot tell it without blushing” – Montaigne “Of Giving the Lie” “I do not know myself; and that it is which, when sometimes I ponder it a night, makes me despair” – Stendhal “Perfect Sincerity” ~~~ Que sçais-je? Indelible blue ink furrows into sheets of white, lined foolscap. On these pages I write, on every line, a story of such importance it surprises Mum. “What? You want to what?” she asks tying a thin seethrough veil over her freshly-curled brunette-dyed hair and running the knot comfortably under her small, round chin. A smoke, Player’s Plain, is wedged in the side of her mouth; the cigarette bobs as she speaks. “I need to take this to the publishers in Winnipeg,” I say looking up holding a sheath of white paper in my sticky six-year-old hands. Dad is in the car waiting for us. We are heading into the Big City for the day. Mum takes the paper from me and reads its titled first page. “The Golden Monster?” She looks down at me with that patient face of hers. “Okay…What’s it about Sonny?” Here, things begin to fade, a succession of dissolves; the throb of my thought is the thrum of the blood in my ears right now. I can’t recall with any certainty what the story “The Golden Monster” was about. It seems important that I do, but I can’t. I prod the then me with words of encouragement from the now me, to no avail. I was a stubborn child. I recall sitting in my bedroom writing it all down, I remember scampering up the stairs and handing the three pages to Mum. Then... nothing but waves and particles – motes in the vitreous humor. The light shines through this tremulous prism, and disperses.

Connolly/2 What do I know?

In 1989, Mum called me about a short story I had written and had published in a magazine. The story “Leaves of the Abyss,” was about two boys playing on the rooftop of an abandoned building and how one eventually fell off the roof to his death. Mum had called because she wanted to know, “who died?” I proceeded to tell her no one had died and that I’d made the whole thing up. She wasn’t convinced. Recently, a lyric essay of mine was published. The essay – a combination of poetry and prose – originated as a creative writing workshop assignment. The assignment was ostensibly designed for writers to interrogate memory and so over the course of writing the piece a memory would be described and reflected upon to facilitate a greater understanding of memory's unique qualities. For the assignment I chose to examine a memory of going on vacation with my family when I was a child. My brother Kevin and my sister Denise came along on the trip, while my memory told me my other brother Michael and my eldest sister Elizabeth Anne were not with us. I had in my mind a photograph taken during the trip and my essay was an examination of the situation the picture depicted. I wrote the essay without having the photograph in front of me because I felt that was part of the endeavor itself, to rely on what my mind, my memories could afford me. My memory told me: We stopped near a stream. Trees, undulating hill, glade, sunshine. To this day I can recall my sense of fright; perhaps it was the rushing mountain waters, its gurgle, sibilant and syllabic, and its cool sheering power. I remember being scared as my family drew nearer to the rushing stream and to stave off my crying, my father noticing my quivering, moistened bottom lip hoisted me up on his side and into the bend of his arm. In the crook of my father’s steady embrace, I was perched over the mountain stream. He consoled me; he might have even jiggled me the way fathers used to as if this stimulation would somehow shake loose my worry. My brother and sister, unafraid and smiling in the

Connolly/3 dappled light for the camera, are on their hands and knees leaning into the water. Mum took the picture. The photograph, the one I used to reply to the prompt, became the cornerstone of the composition. When my sister, Elizabeth Anne, read the piece she sent me an e-mail praising it. She had the picture I had mentioned, Elizabeth Anne wrote; did I want a copy? When the picture arrived through the e-mail, I opened it and much to my surprise found tactile evidence that memory – my memory – is faulty: Elizabeth Anne, the sister I mentioned not there, was in the picture and there all along. I was half expecting my sister to be upset at this fact, the fact that I’d somehow removed her from this childhood experience, but Elizabeth Anne never said so, never called me on it. Perhaps she being older, the oldest of the siblings and viewed as the family’s archivist, understood more about childhood recollection than I did.

These stories illustrate, in part, the particular concern creative nonfiction writers will face, a concern that goes to the very heart of their enterprise – a mastery of the form complicated with vagaries of memory; the portraiture of self; multi-faceted truth (of any given age) and, for persons of faith in particular, the ineffability of religious experience. This essay explores these issues, with examples and arguments from thinkers and writers of creative nonfiction and spiritual writings; in order that one embarking on a career of writing or studying the form can best enter its long and rich tradition. This foregrounding, holds great promise for the practitioner and it helps the reader better understand what s/he is getting into (this might be the more knowledgeable reading public writer Vivian Gornick seeks, mentioned later in this essay). Perhaps by entering into the dialogue of personal narrative – in its many guises – it can be further enriched by both writer and those who read them. Let's begin the journey from Michel de Montaigne, considered by many to be the fountainhead of the personal essay. Writing in “On The Education of Children,” Montaigne maintains that one must know one's past and in conjunction with that know the

Connolly/4 masters of one's chosen field. But he warned that one should not be too shackled to the past nor what one has learned from time or expert. “Let him, at least, know what he knows. It will be necessary that he imbibe their knowledge, not that he be corrupted with their precepts; and no matter if he forget where he had his learning, provided he know how to apply it to his own use.” The application of memory, of self portrait, truth-telling and the explication of religious experience complicates nonfiction, yet their seemingly insurmountable peaks seem less precarious if one is prepared for the ascent and sees the paths furrowed ahead by those who have come before, all the while keeping open to routes not taken. The climb here begins with a brief explication of repeated and important terms, before moving on to memory, self, truth and finally, ineffability in spiritual writing. Creative nonfiction, as a subset of nonfiction, has three main outputs: literary journalism, personal essay and memoir, each representing a fluid category of increasing levels of subjectivity and interiority. In general, creative nonfiction is subjectively composes factual prose; it uses figurative language and imagination in a bid to present factuality. Literary journalism is nonfiction prose akin to reportage, but with facts and observational detail given subjective rendering. Fine displays of literary journalism might be John Hersey's Hiroshima or Susan Griffin's A Chorus of Stones. Personal essay is nonfiction prose characterized by the presence of a narrator and their thought processes over any number of subjects and experiences. The essays of Montaigne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and E.B. White are exemplar of this kind. A memoir, unlike autobiography which covers the entirety of a life, is a composition of a writer's experience over a particular time(s) or place(s) and deals in some respects specifically with memories. The Book of Margery Kempe, the story of a Medieval woman's religious experiences written in the thirteenth century, is considered the first known autobiography written in the English language; other examples include the Autobiography of Mark Twain, Confessions by Saint Augustine and Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited. Exemplary memoirs include Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, Stop-Time by Frank Conroy and The Liar's Club by Mary Karr. For every category of creative nonfiction myriad more titles could be offered; my examples above

Connolly/5 are simply that, examples not my considered opinion as to the best of each category. In fact one of the difficulties of categorizing creative nonfiction is that the terms themselves appear to be quite amenable. The Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, for example, were not written as memoir by Ms Fuller per se, but consisted of letters, conversations, and private writings compiled by three of her friends after Fuller drowned with her husband and son off the coast of New York in a cruise ship accident. This does not diminish in any way the quality of the book – it is remarkable – but it does bring to our attention the elusive, and perhaps frustrating, task of naming creative nonfiction and its works. Augustine's Confessions is autobiographical for nine of its thirteen books before becoming a series of personal essays on memory and the Trinity. For some nonfiction works, time must catch up with it. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee with photography by Walker Evans is a collection of essays the likes of which did not have a term when it was published in 1939 until almost sixty years later. Today Agee's use of fragmentation, music, prayer, poetry, photography, lists, rants, and highly rich metaphorical language would mark his text on sharecroppers and tenant farmers in the rural South as a prime example of lyric essay – a form, arguably, admixing poetry and nonfiction prose, birthed only in the last decade, which has seen an increased public attention onto the form. While creative nonfiction has been practiced since 250 B.C.E. with the composition of The Book of Ecclesiastes followed with works by Libanius, Saint Augustine and Sei Shonagan, its prevalence in the late twentieth century, an epoch marked by public confession, ushered in a new age of readership and a fresh list of inquiries and demands, specifically, and most ardently, a wont for a clear sense of what defines it. Practitioners as a whole find consensus on this request maddeningly indefinable, which speaks volumes to the complexity of the art form. Robert J. Root writing in a special edition of College English on creative nonfiction says of the genres of creative writing, creative nonfiction has the distinction of being asked to “create representations of reality and require craft and design and discovery and process,” within an “unstated definition” of exactly what it is. What isolates creative nonfiction from drama, poetry and fiction, Root writes, is a preoccupation with factuality. The paradox here is that one usually cannot (or

Connolly/6 should not) be creative with facts. It is one thing, say in fiction, to create so-called “facts” to serve a “larger truth,” and quite another to lie when you have promised to stick to the facts. It is paradox in name alone, for the memoirist, the autobiographer, the personal essayist nor the literary journalist isn’t so much being creative with facts; the writer is not creating facts where no factuality previously existed, but rather is expressing reality through subjectivity, via an individual mind suffused with imagination. This is the creative portion of nonfiction prose. Creative nonfiction, the essay, as Cynthia Ozick appropriately terms it in “She: Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body,” is, “…a stroll through someone’s mazy mind.” While Ozick’s surgical strike is aimed at the personal essay, per se, it speaks to the form in toto, for only through the labyrinth of the mind do writers find the koans; the bridges of metaphorical engagement; the rickshaws of memory; the fragments of lives lived in which the exterior world is viewed, conveyed, assembled, and expressed. This is both the blessing and burden of subjective, fact-based, writing: its font is accessible but frequently enigmatic, often oblique and, if left unexamined, a little too expeditious with methodical verisimilitudes. Nabokov “revisits” his autobiography for a reason – his memory could be utter fiction. “Imagination, the supreme delight of the immortal and the immature, should be limited,” he writes in Speak, Memory. Yet he finds himself using it time and time again to fill the “spaced flashes” that memory affords though its a “slippery hold.” Still, Nabokov is upfront and honest (perhaps this is part of his re-visiting his life story), he often uses the phrase “I seem to remember,” and writes “It seldom happens that I do not quite know whether a recollection is my own or has come to me secondhand, but in this case I do waver,” of an episode chasing a butterfly with his mother. The form’s beauty comes in the orchestration of juggling this axiomatic circumstance with honesty that what is chronicled is jerrybuilt without a wink or with fingers-crossed behind one’s back, but with utter wonderment and hope of hitting as close to the truth as possible. Agee writes, “[...] all I want to do is tell this as exactly and clearly as I can and get the damned thing done with.” And this “damned thing,” as he terms it is his mandate to write of his subjects with as much honesty as he could to “give them as they were and as in my memory and regard they are.” To do so, is to recognize that a writer must “select and invent,” but to do so attempting to “write of nothing whatever which did not in physical actuality or in the mind happen or appear.” In this

Connolly/7 way it is not the thought, it is the thinker – the selection, the inventor; it is not meaning, rather it is a search for meaning – the trying. It is a moving target, writes Michel de Montaigne in “Of Repentance”: I cannot keep my subject still. It goes along befuddled and staggering, with a natural drunkenness. I take it in this condition, just as it is at the movement I give my attention to it. I do not portray being: I portray passing. Not the passing from one age to another, or, as they people say, from seven years to seven years, but from day to day, from minute to minute. My history needs to be adapted to the moment. I may presently change, not only by chance, but also by intention. This is a record of various and changeable occurrences, and of irresolute and, when it so befalls, contradictory ideas: whether I am different myself, or whether I take hold of my subjects in different circumstances and aspects. While in fiction (not to mention the other two main genres, drama and poetry) we can make up reality, we can kill people who have never lived, in creative nonfiction we are mendicants to actuality and in its exacting measure – you must tell and show the objective truth – writers invariably fail or at the very least come up short each and every time. Fabulists work to conceal themselves behind the curtain of artifice; theirs is a defensible position – it’s a character, a figment of the imagination. Nonfiction writers stand center stage in the hot glare of Klieg lights, the velvet curtain swaying behind them; their position is rather simple – this is a fragment, this is me. To err might be the default position. The all-too-human penchant for story compels us to tidy up experiences and fill in the blanks to order to fulfill the expectation of narrative arc; reality is recalcitrant and ungainly and hardly a willing participant. We don’t live in narrative, and yet this is the task of those writers seeking the golden thread of their lives through autobiography, memoir and to a lesser extent, personal essay. The thread must be woven partly of experience and memory, but also of folly and myth. “[L]ife doesn’t arrange itself conveniently into chapters,” writes memoirist Abigail Thomas in her guide to writing memoirs. There is no discernable pattern; she writes in Thinking about Memoir that her life felt like “a million moments. I didn’t want to make anything fit together. I didn’t want to make anything up… I wanted the shock of truth.” Emily Fox

Connolly/8 Gordon, writing in American Scholar, agrees saying her memoir Mockingbird Years was stitched together in a narrative that was nearly pure fiction. Fiction requires seamless order, a structure, as a distinctive stay against chaos; nonfiction chronicles a placatory disorder in recognition: out of disarray and lacunae we render art with traces of the ineffable and the unknowable embedded in its composition. We see holes, we fill them. This is memory. Memory Memory is notoriously unreliable; the prevailing wisdom is that it is little more than fiction akin to mythmaking, writes Thomas Larsen in The Memoir and the Memoirist. “…Memories are ‘constantly refashioned’ by age and experience,” he states. While both memory and myth provide invaluable rhetorical assistance and tropes to the creative nonfiction writer, to what degree must these devices and choices be laid bare (the memoirist Mary Karr in The Liar’s Club often writes of relying on her sister for memory cues) before the reader, or conversely buried (as Michael Ondaatje does in Running in the Family), in servitude to honest, situation, and story? Memory remains but in tatters and as writers these threads are used to weave whole cloth. Some writers like Frank McCourt allow the unimpeded memory of a child, narrated in present tense, to hold court, as he does, in Angela's Ashes a chronicle of his impoverished and tragedy-filled childhood in Limerick, Ireland. The much lauded memoir offers brief episodes over a great swath of time (Frank age four to 17), so memory is not here the art of the pointillist, but of the landscape artist; these are broad strokes whose brilliance is in giving the child narrator freedom from adult interference. McCourt's description of his father's Thursday drinking binges illustrates the voice of the child while at the same time providing a scene that is not specified as being unique, but rather a composite of sorts for many, many evenings: There are Thursdays when Dad gets his dole money at the Labour Exchange and a man might say, Will we go for a pint, Malachy? and Dad will say, One, only one, and the man will say, Oh, God,

Connolly/9 yes, one and before the night is over all the money is gone and Dad comes home singing and getting us out of the bed to line up and promise to die for Ireland when the calls comes. Other memoirists devised ancillary methods to enliven deadened memories, to bring clarity to a fuzzy recollection. Mary Karr's The Liar's Club charts a different course to navigate between the fiction of pristine memory and the reality of fragmentation by enlisting the here and now, in particular sensory details. Thomas Larson writing in The Memoir and the Memoirist argues that Karr's brilliance is the result of reenacting a memory by partaking of the experience – he uses Karr's first sip of champagne – now to access the feeling again. “...[A]ccessing not the words that were there at her first sip but the words about that sip that have accumulated in her life since,” Larson writes. While ostensibly serving the interests of sensory connection the method exposes Karr to calls of fabrication; the very veracity of the memory evoked so vividly is called into question – how could see possibly remember details from 1961, 1963, thirty years later? The Liar's Club – unlike Angela's Ashes – is not episodic and expansive, but limited and detailed: In my head, I go back to that open door. My penny loafers outside it are the color of oxblood and scuffed and run down on the inside from how pigeon-toed I am. I can almost feel the thump of my plaid book bag on my right hip. It was hot that day, the air thick as gauze. It's the details – oxblood and scuffed; almost feel the thump – that make the memoir soar or sink and Karr knows this and qualifies throughout the book her ability to get the details straight, “things have been sucked up into the void,” she offers or “Lecia (her sister) says it wasn't that way.” But notice the “almost feel,” which is the adult Karr recalling the tactile upon her former self. McCourt never breaches the subject of authenticity; some have argued the truthfulness of Angela's Ashes can be attributed in part to the story having been told many times as a stage play “enacted” ironically perhaps by Frank and his brother Malachy. While McCourt eliminated the adult interference, Karr introduced it to ensure the reader the wool wasn't being pulled over their eyes. In McCourt's work the child relates a tragedy and the lack of

Connolly/10 an adult narrator helps to heighten and deepen many scenes in the memoir, for example, when his brother Eugene dies and the twin Olive must be consoled. The narration simply reads: Dad says Eugene is lucking to have brother likes Malachy and me because we help him forget and soon, with God's help, he'll have no memory of Oliver at all. He died anyway. Adult interference here would have robbed the scene of its impact, the simplicity by which a child would come to experience the indescribable. Karr's detail serves her well throughout the memoir, but perhaps in no more important a place within the book as when “the grown man who allegedly comes to care for me winds up putting his dick in my eight-year-old mouth.” The detail surrounding this horrific event is enriched by Karr referencing E.B. White's Charlotte's Web, a story she would have access to as an adult and be able to use to provide detail of her experience as a child. Still, the conundrum memoirists and biographers face is whether to talk about the fiction of memory or to simply hold an implicit belief between reader and writer this ground has already been covered and is widely understood. Approaches differ widely. Choices are made. Michael Ondaatje withholds a key caveat to his memoir Running in The Family until he finished his story. “I must confess that the book is not a history but a portrait or gesture,” he writes in the memoir's “Acknowledgments.” Ondaatje has his reasons. “No story is ever told just once. Whether a memory or funny hideous scandal, we will return to it an hour later and retell the story with additions and this time a few judgments thrown in. In this way history is organized,” he writes. This approach helps to create a beautifully flowing story that has at its heart a certainty required to speak, as Ondaatje does, in such poetic and eloquent narration. Fantastic episodes and exotic locales hidden from mainstream scrutiny already strain for believability (a beloved grandmother dies floating away in a monsoon flood); to be fair Ondaatje does indicate the use of photographs, family journals and gossip as modes of story-gathering

Connolly/11 and a professed doubt – this is not history but a gesture, mentioned earlier in the memoir – on the part of the narrator would only erode the memoir's possibilities to speak to so-called larger truths. Larger truths for Virginia Woolf meant exposing the burden of the beast, which for her – while writing “Sketches of the Past” – transmogrified into a hydra, a divided first person accounting: “I now I then.” For Woolf, authors of personal writings should be honest with the readers and admit the tension. In this autobiographical piece Woolf writes how memories are indelibly impressed, but that some memories are far easier to retrieve than others. She terms one kind of memory “exceptional,” because these are memories possessing “being.” The shock of color is what draws Woolf to her earliest memory. Without the color, the shock of an unusual thing or entity brings the memory into being. Another kind of memory – the common place – comprise a “non-being'” she writes. These non-being moments help to bolster and highlight in contrast the moments of being. Woolf suggests (qtd. in Larson) that given time the ideal way she found to pen her memoirs would be to expose the contrast of the present, intense with being, with a part of the past equally intense and “make dueling exceptionalities work on each other.” The duel should be manifested in the writing. Twenty-first century scholars and writers agree. Take Gunter Grass and Thomas Larson. Both suggest nothing is hidden (which is slightly ironic, for Grass, given his latest memoir reveals a dark secret from his past – he was a Nazi Youth) from the reader. Grass pointedly suggests memory is recalcitrant and persnickety. “Memory likes to play hide-and-seek, to crawl away,” Grass writes in Peeling The Onion. “Memory contradicts itself…it will have its way,” he argues. Instead of giving up, Grass advocates taking on the often unreasonable tenor of our memories. Success is possible; memories will come, eventually. “When pestered with questions, memory is like an onion that wishes to be peeled…” Larson is of the same mind. He says memoirist should embrace the ambiguities and dangers of remembrance, but remain cautious. “Don’t worry about remembering events: they have already shaped themselves in your mind and emotion, though you should be on guard for how you reshape them as you write today.” It is this relationship that is grist for the memoir, the relationship of the “I now I then,” of present and past. “[…]

Connolly/12 Whatever we’ve witnessed, we’ve also participated in. And the act of writing memoir allows us to continue participating in what we’ve witnessed. Writing memoir means that we combine what happened with how the exploration of what happened continues to affect us.” Poet and literary critic T.S. Eliot would put it this way: “What we call the beginning is often the end/And to make an end is to make a beginning.” Be both witness and participant. “The best way to deal with tension between fact and memory, as one uncovers the tension in the course of one’s writing, it is to admit to the tension – not to cover it up,” Larson writes, and in this way the most important element becomes not the memory, for it will undoubtedly be approximate, but the perception of the rememberer. Mark Twain dictates his life story in the Autobiography of Mark Twain highlighting his Providence-protected supernatural life as young con, journalist, writer, capitalist and family man. The book is an accounting – almost – literally of moneys earned, swindled, owed and accrued. There are some brief moments of brilliance in a largely prosaic and pedestrian walk through the life of America’s first international superstar. Mark Twain’s early admission in The Autobiography of Mark Twain of remembering his brother Henry, age one week old, walking into a fire outdoors as a false memory – “of course it never happened” – lends the remainder of the book an elasticity or allowance for the quality of memory, in particular Twain’s, and perhaps our own. It is to uncommon things remembered, Twain suggests, that constitutes memory. He illustrates this by recalling seeing “chained slaves,” which he estimates could not have been a common sight in the Hannibal, Missouri, region of the his time, “or this picture would not have made so strong and lasting an impression upon me.” A lasting impression for Twain can be of the profoundly sad, but also of the beautiful. In one of the most moving stories he tells in his autobiography Twain recalls a “slip of a girl,” Laura M. Wright. Twain met her while the boat he was on, Pennsylvania “lapped the fo’c'scle of the John

Connolly/13 J. Roe.” He jumped aboard the John J. Roe and came face-to-face with Wright and for the next three days “I was not four inches from that girl’s elbow.” Dazed perhaps by Wright’s beauty, Twain failed to notice when his lift back home, the Pennsylvania, shoved off, and only reacted after hearing “The Pennsylvania is backing out.” The young Twain had to make a run for it and jumped from Wright’s berth to his boat home just making it. Back aboard the Pennsylvania, Twain turned then and what he saw, he writes in his autobiography, he could still recall with perfect clarity forty-eight years later: “I could see her with perfect distinctness in the unfaded bloom of her youth, with her plaited tails dangling from her young head and her white summer frock puffing about in the wind of that ancient Mississippi time.” Twain writes, “I never saw her afterward.” Frater M. Louis, also known as Thomas Merton, writes in The Seven Storey Mountain that memory is inexplicable. This remarkable book of Merton’s worldly travels, his academic and urban existence setting a trajectory that is overturned at age twenty-six for the lifestyle of a Trappist monk. It is a seminal text amongst modern conversion stories. The autobiography covers Merton’s birth in Europe, an unorthodox family life of bohemian joie de vivre and abiding faith; it tells of Merton’s burgeoning poetry and academic career and covers the young author’s sinful travails, before going through the process of enquiry into and adherence to an ancient covenant of silence and works for God. At every turn the book provides detailed information about Merton, his thoughts, his nagging fears in God, his experiences, but from the onset Merton seems to imply that memory, it recollection at the very least, is beyond explanation; the profane can be the content of a memory just as much as the sacred. He remembers that his grandmother, “put salt on her oatmeal at breakfast,” with certainty, but is less sure – but believes – she taught him the Lord’s Prayer. This admission says several things, most particularly it illustrates Merton’s take on memory. Memory is selective and Merton has no idea – or if he does he doesn’t express it – how a memory is chosen for distinction. The illustration shows the reader too to what lengths Merton the writer would go for honesty; after all, wouldn’t the memory of learning the ultimate Christian prayer be something more fitting his story than say his memory of his grandmother’s culinary proclivity? But he

Connolly/14 doesn’t just say his grandmother taught him the prayer – he expresses uncertainty. The example does double duty here – it sets the foundation upon which the memories in this autobiography rest, and also introduces the book’s sub rosa motif of doubt. Memoirists seeking an empirical foundation for their own memory ars poetic would be best served picking up a copy of White Gloves: How We Create Ourselves through Memory by John Kotre. The book deals in the cognitive science of memory, in particular autobiographical memory. Kotre writes that memory is not a function of time (remember when), but of space and by space he means that we tend to give more space in our cognition for important reminiscences and that these memories are important because they constitute a creation of the self. However, these important memories can be and are often distorted, not only to provide a more positive self-portrait, but also because the brain produces what Kotre calls “generic scripts.” These so-called scripts constitute a “normal” response to a routine event, going to a restaurant, which comes to stand for many instances of the same event, like going into a specific restaurant. The script can and frequently does replace in the memory specific details of distinctive events with profane details. Kotre writes that memory has criteria for recalling an event or experience: it must be novel, consequential, emotional and symbolic for it to be vivid and recalled at a later date. But what colors each criterion is an unintentional wont to reinforce a preferred sense of self – we tend to unconsciously select those memories that confirm our self-identification. In this way memory’s relationship with the rememberer is much like the M.C. Escher sketch of one hand drawing a hand drawing the hand that drew it. “The remembering self, both as keeper of archives and as maker of myth, fashions a remembered self. I establishes me,” he writes. There’s no getting away from this. Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister and Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer, in his one-day memoir The Alphabet of Grace writes: “Introspection in the long run doesn’t get you very far because every time you draw back to look at yourself, you are seeing everything except for the part that drew back, and when you draw back to look at the part that drew back…” We’re doomed, he writes. “… doomed always to see infinitely less than what there will always remain to see.” This incredibly beautiful,

Connolly/15 insightful, and concise memoir, in which Buechner attempts to testify to his walk with Christ in one day, finds memory to be illusionary, perhaps not to be dwelled upon. “You will never see this day again once it has passed, and never again will you be this self,” Buechner writes. Self Literary and psychological theories alike attest to the notion that an objective and homogeneous rendition of self is all but folly. Essayists like Charles Lamb, Vivian Gornick and David Shields advocate the adoption of persona, each suiting their own designs. “When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse – it does not mean – me – but a supposed person,” Shields writes. How then do personal essayists and memoirists navigate their own "self" in hopes of presenting an authentic narrative to readers? Even as Buechner warns that the memoirist drawing back is forevermore bound to redact the self performing the act of introspection, it is nevertheless the reflex required. Memoir requires reflection and this can only be achieved by gazing at something other than your present self, and so when it is you, it is always a former self. Conversations with one’s present self, without regard to past, is mental gymnastics or philosophy, not memoir. Present aspects of self can appear in limited shade in literary journalism, which is dedicated largely to an external event, group or experience; a present self is patently on display through the meander of a personal essay, but the present self is occupied in the memoir with sorting out the relationship between two people –the I and the me. Kotre cognitive science and the narratologists remind us the I ascertains the me and it does via a reflecting I. The etymology of memoir after all is fifteenth century French for memorandum or special use of memory. Gornick, who dedicates a large swath of her book The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative to this very subject of self, writes that to tell her tale (assumingly that of Fierce Attachments), one that involved her earlier self, she needed that distance; room to turn and consider the manifestation before her. It’s hard to discern if she was successful or not by reading her memoir in isolation. Public reaction and its ensuing dialogue helps. The memoir published in 1987 about the author’s childhood in The Bronx raised by a strong-willed

Connolly/16 Jewish mother and educated in sexual mores by a Ukrainian prostitute who was her neighbor, is still to this day highly praised, but its prestige has been diminished. Gornick provides the story herself of the bruising her memoir Fierce Attachments took at the hands of less informed memoir readers. While at an eastern college, she writes in Truth in Nonfiction: Essays, she told an audience of students that she had “on a few occasions in the book… made a composite out of the elements of two or more incidents.” She also said she played around with chronology. Her admissions shocked a reading public, and the discourse was such that Gornick’s memoir became linked with an infamous cadre of writers who have professed to tell the truth in their published works only to have found to be fabulists. Of course the analogies this discussion engendered between Gornick and the others (not worth repeating to be frank) were inappropriate and ill-informed, and she says so writing, that “memoir writing is a genre still in need of an informed readership.” Writing allows for an approximation, a mimesis, of persons, but it never replaces or supplants the actual. Gornick is not exactly like the narrator of her memoir; her mother in the book is not an exact replica of the Mama in real life. Gornick writes: We ourselves were just a rough draft of the written characters. Moreover, these characters could not live independent of the story which had called them into life, as they existed for the sole purpose of serving that story. In the flesh, neither Mama nor I were serving anything but the unaesthetic spill of everyday thought and feeling… But I think Gornick might miss the point slightly. In Situation and Story she writes, “In nonfiction the reader must believe that the narrator is speaking truth.” If writers are not upfront with readers how is trust earned? If elements such as chronology and characterization are manipulated what impact does that have on the reader’s willingness to accept the genuineness of the narrator. Besides, highly publicized revelations of this sort do little to improve the image of the genre furthering an uninformed public’s misguided attitude toward nonfiction’s aims. The integrity of every memoir on the shelf and sincerity of every practicing memoirist is called into question. Belief comes for readers as a matter of confidence they are not being lied to or manipulated. Gornick could have earned more trust and received less shock at her

Connolly/17 revelations if she’d been clearer as to the creation of her story, situation and ultimately herself. Ethos matters. So, if Vivian Gornick is a rough draft of the character found in the pages of Fierce Attachments shouldn’t readers be trusted with this information. She cut corners and morphed real life people into characters. Doesn’t she believe readers could judge this fairly if provided reasons why? Gornick made choices in service of her story; she shouldn’t complain when her choices have consequences. Readers can’t be solely to blame; writers must instill trust by sacrificing elements of artifice for the actual and do so by expressing in structure or content that some elements of the story just don’t seem to fit a larger scheme. There are other ways. The rememberer must be composed. S/he bears the burden of veracity. But this burden is not in providing proofs or evidence, but in laying bear the psyche and the pathology of the person to whom things have happened and are being relayed to readers. Memoirs fail, say Larson and Woolf, because the content is focused in the wrong direction – not so much in the past, they argue, but must be more focused on the present and more specifically on the present self. Grass continuously reminds his readers of his present self intruding on the memoir he is attempting to give its due. The writer must content with the “omnium-gatherum” of memory, the farrago of bits and pieces; the fragmentary nature of memory. He admits memory itself doesn't seem to be a cipher. “Memory likes to refer to blind spots...scrapes of feeling and thought literally fall through it,” Grass writes. The memoirist must interrogate him/herself to ask a series of questions in order to establish the authenticity of memory. But in the end, the writer must admit certain limitations to his or her readers must admit to an engagement, a love perhaps, of necessary evils. “People required by their profession to exploit themselves learn over the years to value fragments,” Grass writes. And in this way, in dealing with a farrago of fragments, the writer goes to work piecing together a story using some kind of exterior structure, conventions, to establish relationships and story. In doing so, Grass argues, “If you write you remove yourself.” By this Grass means that the erection of artifice means the present self makes decisions in order to highlight the former self and the story that is

Connolly/18 there for the telling. The removal of the self now is integral, he argues, to not color, erroneously, the memory or the self rendered on the page. But is the removal actual? James Agee might have disagreed. Explication of the particular is universal. Agee writes in his lyrical prose at the beginning of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: All that each person is, and experiences, and shall never experience, in body and in mind, all these things are differing expressions of himself and of one root, and are identical: and not one of these things nor one of these persons is ever quite to be duplicated, nor replaced, nor has it ever quite had precedent: but each is a new and incommunicably tender life, wound in every breath, and almost hardly killed as easily wounded: sustaining, for a while, without defense, the enormous assaults of the universe. It is the Mystical Body – the one, undivided, visible fully constituted church – Thomas Merton chronicles in The Seven Storey Mountain, the one Catholics heave to and the Bible exhorts; it is this – the unity of humankind – that writers like Agee embrace and stew over in an attempt to render human actuality either of the lives of others, or themselves. It is “incommunicably tender,” Agee contends. It this ardent hope that some memoirists, and writers like Agee, hope against the onslaught of complications to make sense: “I feel that if I can by utter quietness succeed in not disturbing this silence, in no so much as touching this plain of water, I can tell you anything within realm of God, whatsoever it may be, that I wish to tell you, and that what so ever it may be, you will not be able to help but understand it.” For Agee the understanding comes from listening for that still, small voice, a whisper from God and in this knowing the truth. His job is to make it possible. This is the self he projects, an ardent and hopeful servant, and it allows for the advancement of the story. In The Essays of Elia Lamb, writing in the late nineteenth century, adopts the name if not the point of view of an Italian clerk – Elia – he had known while working at the South Sea House in the early 1800s. The essays in the collection were published in “The London Magazine” from 1820 to 1825 years

Connolly/19 after its author left the employ of South Sea. The essays chronicle the city’s chimney sweeps, its inchoate sophistication and mores. The writer took the pseudonym of Elia because when the essays were offered up for publication Lamb’s brother, John, still worked at the house of trade and might not “relish certain descriptions.” The descriptions might be sufficient to warrant his brother becoming the target of recriminations should the author be known as a relative, Lamb admits. Luckily for Lamb at the time the first essay was published under the Elia signature, said Italian clerk was dead. Short of an extended biographical dissertation on Lamb’s life the disguise of Elia can only be safely assumed to have been to some benefit, providing the author a shield of anonymity. Two approaches to illustrating the bifurcation of self in personal narrative can be found in the works of Dan Wakefield and Luc Sante – two vastly different books, to be sure – both contemporary authors writing autobiographical works employing a device to speak of this split self to great impact. Wakefield’s Returning: A Spiritual Journey chronicles the author’s entire life as a writer, alcoholic, and person of faith who returns to religion after being for many years a nonbeliever. Wakefield’s book is told in a straightforward, chronological, manner and is, of the two books here, the more conventionally autobiographical. The book hits all the autobiographical timeline spikes: childhood, early education, early failure and lessons learned, sex, disappointment and adult life; and so on. There are few if any surprises here. But the author makes the conscious decision to speak of his narrator, who he is now, reflecting upon the subject, who Wakefield had been and what had transpired. “Of course none of all of this was said in such a way as I am telling it now, this is my later understanding of what was really happening there…,” Wakefield writes of a scene with an old girlfriend, Amy. What’s laudable here is the prosaic honesty. This is simply the case with memory – any one’s memory – as it is with those who use memory and writing about it. Little is exactly as it was, here, and Wakefield admits it. That helps get readers on the narrator’s side – that trust Gornick says is imperative – through honesty and if that honesty is shown here early in the book, it comes in the second chapter, then the reader will better trust the narrator throughout. However, Wakefield has yet another opportunity to examine the chasm between narrator and the

Connolly/20 narrator’s former self. He has at his disposal the golden standard referencing means for autobiographers and memoirists – his own words. It with some confidence the writer and narrator – as believer – can reflect on his former self – a nonbeliever – and this former self’s secular journey through Jerusalem, a trip Wakefield took in the 1960s as a stringer for The Nation. A collection of letters Wakefield sent home to a girlfriend in New York preserve for us modern day readers and for Wakefield himself, a testimony, a record of his former self. The passage speaks of Wakefield’s amazement at how immature he’d been, at the opportunity lost; at being a secularist in the holiest of holy lands: I can look back now at the self I was then and trace this defensive action by reading the letters I wrote at the time to a girl friend in New York who thoughtfully saved them and gave them back to me years later for the kind of backward look I am now taking. The language here is very special. “I can look back now at the self…” and the “backward look I am no taking…” deliciously showcase the time-bending and reflective nature of the personal essayist, the memoirist, the autobiographer. This admission lets the reader in and it provides the writer, and the narrator, the opportunity to fully explore the essence of self-reflective writings – the arc of personal transformation. Wakefield’s book was about this very transformation and the letters provided tactile evidence for him and for his readers the transformation occurred and he had recognized it as such. Luc Sante takes a slightly different approach – he glances back and sees little bits of himself everywhere. Factory of Facts is Sante’s autobiographical investigation of his own past. “I seem to have memoir from that time, or maybe I’ve simply annexed stories told to me later and retrofitted them,” he writes, exemplifying one of the book’s chief motifs. Unlike Wakefield, evidence of former selves is not opportunities to understand the past for Sante, but rather moments of present clarity. “Like it or not, each one of us was made, less by blood or genes than by a process that is largely accidentally,” Sante maintains here. Born in a Belgian factory town in 1954 and brought to America as a small child, Sante writes that he had never known where he belonged or what constitutes his identity, his self. The Factory of Facts

Connolly/21 chronicles Sante’s investigation of his parents, ancestors and his homeland. The book begins in a mimesis of the book’s thesis that we are made by accidents of birth, parenting and environment. The opening chapter “Résumé” carries ten mini autobiographies each in succession adding new information – some of it fanciful perhaps fictional – illustrating the growing intellect of self. The opening gambit of successively different accounts helps to prepare the reader for an examination of self that is not known, but must be constructed. In one account Luc’s father loses his job and at the suggestion of a relative finds another job; in another account Luc’s father loses his job and his parents, distraught, sit on the floor. Both are true. It depends on what information is given chronological or spatial importance; it depends on what we choose to include or remember. “The past is a quiet place where change occurs in increments of glacial slowness; it is a perpetually verdant landscape,” Sante writes late in The Factory of Facts and in using numerous accounts, each slightly different and increasing in size, Sante illustrates his point beautifully. We are built. This willingness to write of self, and a self in relation to the numinous, can only be attempted – essayed. Composition of self, of a consciousness of what is beyond and above language and conceptualization is largely artifice, a conceit. In order to render what cannot be represented a writer must erect bridges from the subjective to some form of objectivity – from the fastidious to the collective. Symbols and archetypes must be empowered; structures erected; magic must be performed. The substance of things hoped for will be composed of gossamer dream. It will be done with an understanding: We are using a torch in the dark to find that which has no light shining upon it. Truth “I hope you will forgive me if I use the word ‘truth.’ The moment I say ‘truth’ I expect people to ask: ‘What is truth?’ ‘Does truth exist?’ Let us imagine that it exists. The word exists, there the feeling exists,” writes Hélène Cixous in “The School of The Dead.” However, “there are so many,” versions of the truth writes memoirist Phyllis Rose, a writer must decide which one to tell. Creative nonfiction, be it personal essay, literary journalism, or memoir, has had an enduring battle with what is to constitute "truth." In what ways and means, and by varying degrees of standards given the kind of nonfiction, have writers of

Connolly/22 creative nonfiction dealt with this issue, and why is it particularly problematic for contemporary practitioners? American filmmaker and screenwriter Charlie Kauffman has staked his career on the notion that the audience knows films lie to them. In an interview he did following the release of his ground-breaking directorial debut, Synecdoche, NY, Kauffman said that films lie to the viewer, by hiding the fact that it’s artifice. And he said he does not like being lied to. So when it came time for Kauffman to make his own movies he made a decision not to lie. In typical postmodern fashion however (and this just happens to be Kauffman’s motif) the films he writes and directs while intending to show the audience the film is artifice and not life, Kauffman admits the art form requires that he lies. It’s a tad regressive, and infinitely so, but I think it has application to creative nonfiction prose, particularly prose that is inherently solipsistic, which memoir primarily is and arguably has to be. Memoirs about other people’s memories told in first person, is nonexistent or should be viewed as abhorrent and without merit. By all this I mean by exposing an art form’s conventions and devices – compression of time, compositional characters, the intrinsic fabrication of memory – the writer is given another opportunity, another avenue, for a discussion of memory, self and, ultimately, truth. For how can a memoirist expect a reader to suspend disbelief to quell doubt when before them magic tricks are being perform? A writer offering a true accounting must first and foremost establish its composition as parts-per-million pretense before the ambrosia is proffered with its idiosyncratic qualification: it’s subjective. Yes, this is my truth and it might not, could not, flange perfectly with actuality like a dovetail joint. But it’s also art, a miniaturization, a conceit. This admission in conjunction with honest application of available facts – being careful not to add or deceive – would go a long way to help serve the writer seeking to write of truth. And Lord knows creative nonfiction is in need of transparency. Roy Peter Clark in “The Line Between Fact and Fiction,” an essay in Telling True Stories, creative nonfiction has a long history of lying. Writers of not so long ago, perhaps only fifty years ago, made things up, he says and it became such a trend that in the journalism community a term was coined –

Connolly/23 “piping.” This practice, Clark writes, of made up quotes and nonexistent sources was an invitation to invent. The term came from the idea the writer was “high” from consuming a hallucinogenic. It is no surprise then that in the daily production of nonfiction things got blurry. What writers saw in daily dalliance with the facts became an entrenched practice between the covers of a book. Truth got fuzzy or rather it got fuzzier. “Don’t let facts get in the way of a good story,” was and remains a common charge for nonfiction writers whose bylines appear in daily ink. Granted, a succinct medium of truth-telling has never been crystal clear. Novels of the nineteenth century born the moniker of “realism,” and purporting to be supplying the actuality of the ordinary, a literary convention that heard its death knoll sound with modernity’s clamor of the early twentieth century; truth splintered and has never since unified. Everyone now holds a piece. But in all honestly, confusion over what is fact and what is folly and where exactly to find the line has rarely, if ever, been far from the heart of written arts. Sumerians doted over leaves of public accounts in the pristine and inchoate development of writing, but the medium was soon co-opted by everyone from Thucydides to Heraclites, to the anonymous authors of Christian testament and apocrypha. The written arts are strewn with documented folly. Roman à clef; thinly-veiled autobiographical Bildungsromans; confessional poetry; fake memoirs, these all conspire to veil and obfuscate. In an art-wary, ironic, and postmodern age, writers of creative nonfiction prose face daunting issues such as authenticity, composition of self, and explication of memory. Over the past decade, highprofile scandals involving fabrication in memoirs have harmed the reputation of the art form and made the job of writing one all the more fraught with consternation for its writer. The public, expectedly, has become jaded and suspicious of the memoirist and her version of the truth. The fracas has resulted in frank dialogue amongst the both denizens of academia and pop culture’s myriad commentators. Truth is on trial and it ironically has helped writers of nonfiction to examine more fully their engagement and contract with readers. Still, the conundrum remains: truth is elusive and highly subjective.

Connolly/24 Our relationship to truth is a complicated one. Saint Augustine points out in Confessions that, “...nothing is true just because it is beautifully phrased, nor anything false because haltingly sounded out. Conversely, nothing is true because awkwardly phrased, nothing false because voiced grandly.” His assessment exemplifies our difficult task, the task both writers and readers must face in coming to identify what is true and what is false: appearances can be deceiving. You can find much discussion about truth in nonfiction writing and there are myriad cases where publicized squabbles revealed lies behind some contemporary memoirs. But in the memoirs themselves it is hard to assess the veracity of the narrator (I don't know if that's necessarily true); stranger than fiction comes to mind. From the most ludicrous to the mundane, it must be taken on faith that it is indeed true and not made up. These books cannot be fact-checked by readers and Ph.D. Candidates. Perhaps this is why there is much hue and cry over folly in contemporary nonfiction. Writers are lying and the readers only comes to know once the lie has been exposed. In fiction the lie is front and center, even though there are instances where narrative is badly-disguised truth. Still is it intent that is being wagered here and the best wagers are proffered and not by verification of fact, but rather through a belief in the narrator. Might this not then be a matter to be settled within the text rather than exterior to it? After all the narration does not exist outside the confines of a book's boards. The writer does. We hold both accountable, more so the writer who controls the what and how the narrator relates the fabula of the text. Don't add. Don't deceive. Readers know this by and large through the details a narrator provides of their self. Take Montaigne. Writing “Of Three Kinds of Association,” he examines our need for variety in mental activity such as conversation and study. Readers come to trust Montaigne in this assaying because he appears to speak less than highly of his own humors and dispositions. He boasts of his inadequacy over myriad essays – perhaps in all of his prose – but in this essay he offers that, “five or six stories can be truthfully told about me,” (italics mine) as a result of his own failings, in particular his inability to engage in small

Connolly/25 talk. He admits to growing sleepy to withdrawing in, “a dreamy way” and to have a “dull and childish ignorance of many common things.” Montaigne catalogs his faults first before making a pronouncement of his deficiency. In this manner – inductive perhaps – the reader arrives at the truth organically having first been introduced and known, to a degree, the person to which the attribute is to be attached. It allows Montaigne to write, “...this fastidious disposition makes me hard to please in dealings with men.” Selfdeprecation rarely rings hollow and often is the medium of truth in nonfiction. Take Emerson. In “Circles,” he proclaims: “...I am only an experimenter,” giving readers a good indication as to the merits of his reportage. “Do not set the least value on what I do,” Emerson writes, “or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle anything as true or false.” Besides, he famously offers in “Self Reliance,” and in his essay “Spiritual Laws” people are not to be wholly trusted for people are not fully formed but are in a continual process of development. “A man is a method,” Emerson instead states, “a progressive arrangement; a selecting principle...” These are just statements, this is true, but it is my contention that their presence prepare and assist the reader in coming to trust the narrator. Honesty in self, one could assume, bears honesty in other matters. Take Augustine. As per the conventions of spiritual memoir, the bishop of Hippo, begins his autobiography by outlining his sins; his days of doubt and debauchery in Carthage; his engagement with Manichaeism, Skepticism, and Materialism before his conversion. “Give me chastity,” an early prayer went, “but not yet.” His frankness provides readers with a narrator they can trust for anyone willing to admit to sins and insincerity; to admit to licentiousness; is someone who is willing to be vulnerable and therefore with little to lose in terms of self-esteem. This allowance provides the writer with the ethos, the credibility, required for latter exposition. For by the time we come to Augustine's conversion – a steady progression to be sure – as he reads scripture the reader is on his side, metaphorically. Readers trust him, for why would Augustine now lie: I grabbed, opened, and read: 'Give up indulgence and drunkenness, give up lust and obscenity, give up strife and rivalries and clothe yourself in Jesus Christ the Lord, leaving no further

Connolly/26 allowance for fleshly desires.' The very instant I finished that sentence, light was flooding my heart with assurance, and all my shadowy reluctance evanesced. The very instance...light flooding his heart... we trust this narrator because we have seen and read of his transformation, chaste, but not yet. Take any number of classic and contemporary nonfiction writers and you will find similar methods in play – the details writers provide about their narrators, the statements these narrators provide to readers, paves the way for the franchise of trust, and therefore truth to reside within the prose of its narrative. Truth in the Bible is of course more problematic for it requires an attending world view. But an argument can be made that read as literature the Bible does have an internal structure designed to lay a groundwork for revelatory truth in its books, The Gospel According to John, for example. By internal structure I mean in some books of the Bible, in particular John, the prose is composed in a clear pattern progressing from profane to sacred, or from the commonplace to the miraculous in direct mimesis of the transformation of word into flesh. In The Gospel According to John pattern of composition helps to establish veracity for latter exposition of incredulous deeds. The repeated structural argument begins with statements or words expressed and or written foretelling and witnessed ; the pattern then proceeds to highlight scenes and description of the foretold. It might be simplified this way: Word (exemplified, witnessed) before Deed. For example if I say or write that tomorrow the sky will be a brilliant blue and you see tomorrow that the sky is indeed a brilliant blue, the words begin to take on some heft. This is crucial to the gospel. “If I have told you earthy things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things,” asks Jesus. The cadence established here is that of primary importance is the establishment of a foundational truth, a truth found on the material ground before it can be expounded upon via the ethereal and ineffable. The book John wrote applies this very same principle time and time again, here's an example. The book famously begins with “in the beginning was the word,” and goes on to say this word was made flesh and that this flesh was made by God and that all things are made by God. This flesh contains life, in Jesus was life – “in him was life,” John writes. This comes several verses and

Connolly/27 pages before a miracle occurs and then this miracle only comes when proceeded by further qualification and exposition. John quotes Jesus as saying “Ye sent unto John, and he bare witness unto the truth.” So John has told us that God's word incarnated acknowledges the presence of a witness, the witness who is narrating the story, in order to provide the needed credentials as it were to speak of turning five barley loaves and two small fish into a largess for thousands. The pattern progresses through increasing incredulity, to be sure, but at least it progresses rather than halts. For the miracle of the loaves and fishes allows John then to quote Jesus saying: “My Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world.” Lazarus rises from the dead and his reappearance is witnessed by many as credibility for the latter resurrection of Jesus, witnessed by so few. But of course the so-called Good Book isn't entirely fool-proof. The four gospels, the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are replete with contradictions. An essential moment in the life of Jesus is told four different ways in the gospels said to have been testaments to His veracity. In Matthew, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary,” are at Jesus' grave site and witness an angel roll back the stove of the tomb. In Mark, Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, come to find the tomb with its rock already moved; they went inside and found a young man clothed in a white garment who said he was Jesus.. In Luke, the rock is rolled away and when the women enter there are not one, but two men inside in shining garments. Perhaps they're disciples, we're not sure. In John, Magdalene goes to the tomb alone in the morning to find the rock had been rolled away from the tomb's entrance; she finds the tomb empty. She runs back to tell Peter. Peter and perhaps, though it's unclear, John run back to the tomb. Inside they go and find a pile of clothes, but no body. Mary sitting outside weeping is said to have seen two angels in the tomb sitting where Jesus had laid and that they asked her why she was crying. Mary stands, moves back from the sepulcher to find “Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus.” This leads up to the famous “touch me not,” scene; Mary later relates this to her friends, the disciples.

Connolly/28 Why the contradictions over such an integral part of Christianity? Tomes and careers have been written and launched attempting to assay that very question. Might it come down to a matter of faith – faith in the narrator. At the very least John tells us he left stuff out and that you can believe him or not: And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name. For creative nonfiction practitioners, the story and situation are such that all of the aforementioned – memory, self, and truth – is strained by the quality of its composer when that essence is beyond words and idiosyncratic.

Spirituality The concerns of creative nonfiction writers in general are complicated more so for a writer of spiritual memoir whose province is the ineffable. Since spiritual writing by nature deals with ineffable experiences and beliefs – unseen order, poltergeists (holy or otherwise), and ephemeral epiphanies – the question arises: how have writers in the Western Christian mystical tradition developed, over time, the ability to write what is, in essence, beyond words? After all, as T.S. Eliot famously wrote of language and religious experience in his poem Four Quartets: “One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture/Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate/With the shabby equipment always deteriorating.” Writers like Nabokov and Grass agree that their memories are suffused with language that belies the actuality of the experience. Faith is borne of mystery and is often ineffable, borne of words and sacrament and is sometimes indescribable; faith is borne of the beautiful and sublime but mere expressions of its essence fall pathetically short. Mysticism scholar Bernard McGinn writes that Western Christianity sees God manifested in all things, but that no one thing can embody or express God. This has been, and remains, a

Connolly/29 problem for preachers, poets and writers: How to express the inexpressible; how to address an unknowable God? A pattern is suggested through wisdom literature, as aforementioned, but also by the content of its prose and beleif. It was the philosopher-mystic Plotinus who wrote “the soul is a circle.” It was Saint Augustine who wrote “God is a circle whose center is everywhere, but whose circumference is nowhere.” In The Idea of the Holy, Rudolph Otto writes there are three ways to have contact with the mystery, the numinous, with God. One, directly, by an experience that cannot be described because it is beyond words – it happens and only afterwards do you know it; two, indirectly by which imaginative representations are used to illustrate the experience once removed from the experience cognizant of the representation’s inferiority, and thirdly, through conceptual art, which can produce the sublime. So we have: experience, representation and art. Writers, especially spiritual memoirists, are concerned with the numinous, and as such are concerned with the expression of the mystical first – experience or union with God, as Otto suggests. Writers attempt to render an experience with God while composing and sculpting the second – representation – the words, the symbols, and all the while striving for the third – art – transcendence, union with God. This endeavor, this composition of what cannot be expressed or described takes on the shape, the logos, of that which it desires. This is the shape of their words: a beautiful, transcendent circle – setting out, circling away, and rounding in returning. Their craft is a divine poetics first employed in the firth century and is still very much in use today by writers engaging the ineffable – like Annie Dillard. “I have converged with myself in the present... I felt time in full stream, and I felt consciousness in full stream joining it, like the rivers,” she writes in An American Childhood. She marveled at the world around her, a manifestation of a creator, and was amazed. She writes of a storm that hit Pittsburgh, her childhood hometown, and how the storm knocked down power lines. She watched the line sputter sparks as if seeing the once invisible forces of the world come alive; where God could be affirmed.

Connolly/30 The bulk of Western Christianity believes while God can be affirmed in many things these affirmations cannot contain an unknowable God. Here’s an encapsulating illustration: God created everything, like a glowing ball of light. Now the ball of light affirms God; I can point to it and say, “God created that. Wow. He created it, me, you…everything. What a miracle!” But none of it is God. Nothing I see, feel, taste, hear or touch can embody God. God is inexpressible. Nothing my perceptions allow is capable of being an expression of God. The ball of light is not God. However not even when you stare at this light, and then close your eyes and later reopen them with the ball of light magically gone does this in any way represent God. There’s a ghost seared into the back of your vision, but it’s not holy; the ghost is not the ball of light, nor is the absence of what was once present capable of being an expression of God. Neither the presence of the ball of the light in the first place, nor secondly the space that is left in its absence can be an expression of God. This is called the apophatic tradition – apophatic meaning negative, an unsaying. One of the principal writers to engage the ineffable in a divine poetics – a way to express the inexpressible – was Saint Denis, also known as Dionysius the Areopagite. Saint Denis, writing in his seminal work Mystical Theology, is a divine cipher giving writers and preachers of the apophatic tradition the means to crack the conundrum of expressing the numinous – of the numen, above and beyond the good, the self – that cannot be put into mere words. According to Thomas Carlson, writing in Rhetorical Invention and Religious Inquiry, here are Denis’ poetics for expressing and experiencing a mystical union: Affirmation or Cataphatism – God is everywhere and we can see Him in miracles and creations; we can hear him, etc; Negation or Apophatism – God is indescribable, beyond time, beyond words, beyond our comprehension – unknowable and finally, Negate the Negation – God is neither this nor that; neither light nor dark; day nor night. In Mystical Theology, Saint Denis writes: What has actually to be said about the cause of everything is this. Since it is the cause of all beings, we should posit and ascribe to it all the affirmations we make in regard to beings, and more appropriately, we should negate all these affirmations, since it surpasses all being. Now we

Connolly/31 should not conclude that the negations are simply the opposite of the affirmations, but rather that the cause of all is considerably prior to this, beyond privations, beyond both every denial and every assertion. Three writers from different parts of the world, and different times, serve as my examples of how to employ this divine poetics to great effect – this does not exclude other writers, as there are hundreds, who employ the same device. Dominican preacher Meister Eckhart, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing and philosopher Simone Weil all come to illustrate the poetics’ – negative composition, apophaticism – transcendence of time, place and language. For these writers it’s not so much what is known, as what is unknowable. 1

It was Proust who wrote that to write is to remember. But the French novelist extraordinaire also intoned that to read is to remember. The contemporary creative writer, the nonfiction prose writer delving into memoir, personal essay and literary journalism, pays heed to this adage, which instills the discursive essence of these conjoined activities. As we write we remember, to be sure, but it is to books the writer must venture in order to receive assistance. What I don’t know, the writer says to himself, someone else before me might. The leaves of creative nonfiction and spiritual writings are furrowed with warnings; with anecdotes; and suggested structures to aid and comfort to writers mining the spiritual memoir vein. A survey of work over three centuries brings breadth and depth, and provides an assemblage of timeless principles to be adjudicated for possible use. Reading memoirs, autobiographies and personal essays from a historical and contemporary standpoints affords a reflecting surface upon which a present concern or project can be viewed. The anonymous authors of the Bible; Saint Augustine and Saint Theresa Avila; Seneca and Michel de Montaigne; Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb, and others secure a historical foothold on the art form. The works of writers like Annie Dillard and Virginia Woolf; Joan Didion and John Vernon; Vivian Gornick and Terry Tempest Williams among others brings the form
1

See appendix A

Connolly/32 to contemporary concerns and innovations. Theoretical positions like those of Kenneth Burke and Mieke Bal; like those of Paul Heilker and Thomas Larson serve as integral philosophical foundations for the way forward. The interiority and ineffability of spiritual writing is aided by wisdom literature found in the Bible; the works of saints; but also by a cadre of modern writers such as Leo Tolstoy, Dag Hammarskjöld, and Simone Weil; and contemporaries such as Scott Cairns, Kathleen Norris and James Martin. These and many more of primary, secondary and theoretical concern are the voices that guide and commiserate with the writer of memoir, of spiritual memoir. The dark hours creating a sense of self on the page is lit by the torches of these innovators. Amongst them questions of self, of truth, memory and the inexpressibility of it all have been raised, pondered and theorized, and laid on leaves. The works of these fellow writers are Baedekers to a degree, but also a scintilla of solace for the befuddled present-day writer at her desk pen in hand, wondering – Que sçais-je?

My memory of going to Winnipeg – the Big City – that day when I was six, a budding author, a fresh manuscript ready for the book publishers is blank. The only image I can conjure is of me in the back seat of my parent’s car playing with some plastic dinosaur on the back window console. The sun is warm, and something fantastic is happening to the T-Rex in my slimy grip. But the rest of the day, the journey in, the day itself, returning home, the foolscap pages just flutter away from me in the dappled light left shining. As I write this now, my Mum has been dead just a week ago. She was seventy-seven years old. One night lying in her hospital bed, her veins sluiced with pain medication and she in a stupor, Mum called out my name, four times, my sister there at her bedside tells me, as if Mum was calling me in for dinner. I never got to ask her about my memory, about monsters golden or otherwise. I just don’t know… Maybe memory is the monster; some banshee the kind my Irish Papa told me about while I held his hand and walked the ancient streets of a Scottish city when I was a child; the shreds of clothing banshees wore, the stench, or the howl. Sounds like the haunting of memory to me.

Connolly/33

Que sçais-je? “What do I know?” serves as the unofficial motto of Montaigne’s essayistic travail through his life. It might serve me too, to admit self, truth, memory and my faith are parts of an unseen order from which I live my life and give it meaning. I don’t know a lot. Writing it down helps. It assists with banishing the darkness, with understanding just a little of myself and its place in the world. Writing brings me back moments of being that help me understand the principle of my existence. Writing brings me golden monsters described with some urgency on foolscap in the aqueous-light-filled den of a basement bedroom when I was six and my Mum was upstairs calling me. Anthony, Anthony, Anthony, Anthony. I scribbled madly for it was something important I had to say. But what? Maybe what I had to say was that Frankenstein is not the name of the monster it’s title refers to a creator. Maybe then, I am golden, maybe I am the creature, the creator, furrowed into my memory’s foolscap. Mum tugs her scarf in place and takes the foolscap pages from my hands. Then... nothing but waves and particles – motes in the vitreous humor. The light shines through this tremulous prism, and disperses. Que sçais-je? This much is true.

Connolly/34 Appendix A: Simone Weil, Cloud author and Eckhart: Simone Weil, a modern-day philosopher and mystic; a 20th century thinker and writer who was French, wrote in French and had her work translated into English after her death in 1943 – her most famous work being Gravity and Grace. The Cloud of Unknowing is a text of similar kind and approach to those of Weil; it was written by an anonymous English preacher of the 14th Century. The work was originally published in his native Midlands Middle English and later translated into modern day vernacular. It is a book on how to pray. As we move into the first inner ring we see that both Weil and Cloud foresaw a union with God as a relationship, one borne of love. The ultimate expression of love came via the three part poetics I first outlined in Saint Denis – affirmation, negation and negate the negation. In Weil’s corpus – including Notebooks, Waiting for God and Gravity & Grace – she employs the poetics. First she affirms: Weil’s God is one who “creates” who “rewards;” (Waiting 4) the one who “created love,” and “created beings.” (Waiting 72). Her affirmations contend that God is omnipresent and atemporal, but is a being nevertheless, an entity that seeks the cooperation of His creations. “The presence of God. This should be understood in two ways. As Creator, God is present in everything which exists as soon as it exists.” Weil writes in Gravity and Grace (35). The second presence is as spirit in union, which I will get to shortly. As any good apophatic Christian, Weil follows her affirmations with denials: “The entire being of the creatures compared with the infinite being of God is nothing,” she writes in Gravity and Grace (xxxii). Everything created or outside of her soul was to be negated; it is not God. The task of moving beyond negation to an ultimate union with God is a process of internal detachment from things and from concepts and into what Weil calls that second way I mentioned earlier, this is called the “presence of decreation.” (Gravity 35) And by decreation Weil writes in Gravity & Grace is, “to make something created pass into the uncreated.” (28) -- Uncreated, unsaying, apophaticism. This decreation empties the self of all creaturely attributes, save one that of love. Everything is negated by this love. “We must give up everything which is not grace and not even desire grace. … To detach our desire from all good things and to wait. Experience proves that this waiting is satisfied. It is then we touch the absolute good.” Weil writes (Gravity 13).

Connolly/35 “…for God fills the void.” “The intelligence has nothing to discover, it had only to clear the ground.” [Gravity 13] That ground clearing is an act of love and attention, rewarded by God, Weil writes in Waiting for God (4). The unsaying in the soul begins to deny absence and presence. Weil begins then to say the ball of light is not God nor is the absence of light God. Her word choices begin to the oscillation: For Weil there is a sound, but not a sound; a desire -- but not to desire – a sorrow; a being but not an “I”… neither soul nor creature, an entity between gravity and grace – waiting – “separate yet melting into one,” she writes in Waiting for God. (72) When union happens, “secret and silent,” (Waiting 8) -- “…neither my senses nor my imagination had any part; I only felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of a love, like that which one can read in the smile of a beloved face.” (Waiting 27) Metaphor: beloved face; concrete. Staying in this inner first circle alongside Weil we find love is the last negation of the 14th century anonymous Cloud author. The scholars, such as Denys Turner, tell us The Cloud is firmly rooted in the apophatic tradition, positively asserting that while God cannot be known by thought one can know God by love via a process of affirmation, negation and the negation of negation. The Cloud of Unknowing begins with Affirmation: For the Cloud author, God can be seen (Cloud 12) God created man, “ …it seemeth to me that the everlasting love of His Godhead, through the which He made thee and wrought thee when thou wert nought” (Cloud 49) The author calls God a, “jealous lover.” (Cloud 51) He affirms, “He is the maker and giver of time.” (Cloud 58) Then the Cloud author instructs his readers to forget all that, to enter the darkness of God, to enter the unknown. The desire for God consumes all other desires and eventually frees us from desire itself. We are not so much desiring God as loving God in the non-conceptual silence of meditation to the point of self-transference into darkness. Darkness: “I mean a lacking of knowing: as all that thing that thou knowest not, or else that thou hast forgotten, it is dark to thee; for thou seest it not with thy ghostly eye. And for this reason it is not called a cloud of air, but a cloud of unknowing, that is betwixt thee and thy God.” And from here, union is possible: “The soul is oned with God,” writes the author.

Connolly/36 Here, negate the negation is represented, clearly, as the two clouds – the forgetting beneath, which is all of created entities we might have affirmed, then there is the cloud of unknowing between God and man of that which we denied. The union is neither the cloud beneath nor the cloud above. Unknowing, unsaying, apophaticism. The final center ring of this circle finds Weil and Cloud author both employing metaphors (a figure of speech applied to something to which it is not literally applicable) to distill their final negation. Both place the soul between two things: Weil has gravity, which holds the soul down; Grace which lifts up. The Cloud author has the forgetting which is left behind and the unknowing which is ahead. This kind of negation – a negation of negation – puts them in line with the poetics of Saint Denis’ whose final linguistic move we will remember was to insist that union with God was to be achieved by neither this nor that distinctions. Let’s leave this circle now and come to our final one. This is the concentric circles of one of the chief proponents of this kind of writing: Johannes Eckhart. He is the noted Dominican preacher and philosopher who came to be known as Meister Eckhart. Eckhart’s writing for sermons and biblical commentaries is equal parts beautiful, confounding and profound. Moving now to the first inner circle here we discuss Eckhart’s writing. Undergirding Eckhart’s approach to illustrating mystical unions is a belief that we, his listeners and readers, not necessarily need to understand or comprehend, but do as he says: Be rather than find a way to do it. This is clearly exemplified through the myriad paradoxes and linguistic gymnastics Eckhart engages in. “God is a word that speaks itself. (Breakthrough 57) The more God is in things the more he is outside of things. (65) God is spoken and unspoken. (57) God is unlike God by any comparison. (59) Eckhart’s writing is designed to humble us, designed to show how inferior our intellect, or affection for God, is to the actual. While humbling, in order to express the inexpressible then Eckhart engage the divine poetics as did Saint Denis, Cloud author and Simone Weil – by affirming, negation, and negating the negation. Eckhart affirms God’s existence and His creations: “All creatures are words of God.” (58) “God is in all things.” (65)

Connolly/37 “All good things flow from the overflow of God’s goodness.” (166) In German Sermon 10, he says: “God creates the world and all things in a present now, and the time which passed a thousand years is as present and near to God as the time which is now. As the soul that remains in a present now, the Father gives birth to his only-begotten Son into it, and this same birth the soul is born back into God. All this is one birth. As often as the soul is born again into God, the Father gives birth to his only-begotten Son into it. (Teacher 265) Eckhart then negates these affirmations: He does this by highlighting the inability of the human mind to comprehend God, to see God, since as creatures we tend to marvel in creations at the expense of God. The more we seek the less we see. “We should also learn that there is no name we can give to God such that we would seem to be implying that by means of it we had sufficiently praised and honored God, for God is elevated over all names and remains inexpressible.” (Breakthrough 58). “God is nameless, for no one can know or articulate anything about God.” (178). And yet Eckhart believed God reunites us into one, indistinct, by virtue of us shedding our creature habits and thoughts. He writes, “You must know that to be empty of all created things is to be full of God, and to be full of created things is to be empty of God.” (47) “Detachment is wholly free of all created things.” (Eckhart 286, counsel] “Perfect detachment has no looking up to, no abasement or beneath any created thing or above it; it wishes to be neither beneath nor above, it wants to exist by itself, no giving joy or sorrow to anyone, not wanting equality or inequality with any created thing, not wishing for this or for that. All that it wants is to be.” [287 counsels] From here, Eckhart enters that final stage of divine poetics, negate the negation: “and when this detachment ascends to the highest place, it knows nothing of knowing, it loves nothing of loving, and from light it becomes dark.” [49] And union is possible, if only we embrace unknowing… “Unity is a negation of negation and a denial of denial. What does unity mean? It means oneness, to which nothing is added as an attribute… God is one. He is the negation of negation.” (Breakthrough 160) In the final inner circle we find Eckhart’s metaphor – the likes of which we have heard of used in the Cloud author and Simone Weil. Each developing a metaphor to encapsulate Saint Denis’ neither this nor that. A metaphor is the same – neither the term nor the signifier. “His unshaven face was like peach fuzz” – his face is neither a peach nor is a peach his face. Resembles but is not. In Cloud we hear of the cloud of forgetting and unknowing and man in between; in Weil we heard of gravity and grace…

Connolly/38 In Eckhart, finally, the metaphor is far more internalized, at the very core of the soul. Free from the intellect and love of a creature, the soul would be an empty place save one – a uncreated ground – the word of God – which emanates, flows out as the processions of the Persons in the Trinity and returns as the production of all created beings as God. Eckhart calls this flowing out – bullitio (boiling out) and this flowing back as – ebullitio (boiling over) … an imaginative representation of the ineffable, a metaphor of constant flux, …a circle, if you will. For the soul is a circle. & God is a circle whose center is everywhere, yet whose circumference is nowhere.