Writing the body

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Jul 172012

For those of you who use Richard Hoffman’s essay “The Ninth Letter of the Alphabet” when teaching memoir for WR121, this video narrated by Alan Watts and animated by the creators of South Park, could be a useful companion. It raises some powerful questions about embodying selves/characters in writing—memoir and otherwise—and the contexts and connections inherent in that embodiment.

And in a somewhat related vein, here’s a guide to writing realistic injuries.

The Deep Eye: On the Embedded First Person

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May 242012

The first person is seductive. It feels, for many, like the most natural way to tell a story. We are all first person narrators of our own lives, after all, and surely it is the easiest thing in the world to translate personal experience to the page. That way there is no need to fuss with the peculiar questions that arise when a mysterious and sometimes too-knowing third person narrator appears on the scene.

But the first person is in fact more difficult than the third. As we approach the first person narrator we may discover that it is essentially unlocateable, rather like the electron in orbit around the atomic nucleus. We can approach it, but we cannot actually put our finger on its nature precisely. This has to do with the recursive properties of consciousness, probably, but also with the unavoidable fact that the presence of any teller prompts us to ask how trustworthy the teller is. We never trust anyone telling us anything.

~ Michael Byers @ Fiction Writers Review

If you use Richard Hoffman’s essay “The Ninth Letter of the Alphabet” while discussing memoir in WR121 (as I do) this essay by Michael Byers could serve as an interesting complement/counterpoint, albeit one about fiction rather than memoir. I can imagine a compelling conversation emerging through asking students to consider the differences between their two arguments.

Personally, I’m not convinced seamless inhabitation of a POV is necessarily the goal of first person, but that’s probably just my penchant for fuzzy fiction talking.


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Jan 312012
If the newly published MetaMaus — an engaging 25th anniversary commemoration of the first volume’s publication — is any indication, Spiegelman has yet to recover from the trauma of his creation’s success. And the ironic distance that once separated Spiegelman the artist from “Art” has, if anything, shrunk. The image of Art atop a stack of bodies was, as Spiegelman notes, less a reflection on the impact of the Holocaust on his everyday life than a response to the monumental triumph of Maus itself, its distance from its humble beginnings, serialized as a pamphlet insert in Spiegelman and his wife Françoise Mouly’s avant-garde comics anthology, RAW. “It’s just that after a while it started seeming like Groundhog Day,” Spiegelman laments in MetaMaus of the constant requests for interviews, lecture appearances, and other explanations of and elaborations on his work. “I suppose it led to the image of me perched on a pile of corpses with a lot of microphones aimed at me in the ‘Time Flies’ section of Maus.” “Time Flies,” which partly reverts to the formal experimentation that obsessed Spiegelman before he started working on Maus, is itself “a MetaMaus-like commentary on the whole project.”
@ lareviewofbooks.org

If you’re teaching memoir in WR121, and using Art Spiegelman’s Maus, this review of the new MetaMaus anniversary edition could be useful. I haven’t seen the new supplemental materials myself yet — if any of you have, please share your thoughts in the comments.

Jan 252012

A piece appeared on The Rumpus the other day about revising and republishing a memoir, “Messing with Memoir” by Caroline Paul. Paul brings up a lot of interesting questions not only about changing how one represents oneself by writing an updated version of an already-published memoir, but also about how the world of e-publishing is now making this easier to do and what that means. 

I emerged from my stupor and decided to republish Fighting Fire.

Not only republish, but re-edit, revise and update it. I was a much better writer now. Why let that raw, earnest, adverb-friendly, long-sentenced version of myself linger? With e-books and Print on Demand (POD) as a garrote, I could quietly, efficiently off her. In her place I would seat that wiser, more skilled self.

But was it ethical? I had never heard of anyone tampering with their memoir. A memoir is not only an account of your life, it is specifically an account of your remembrances of your life. So now I would be telling that same story fifteen years later. I was re-remembering a memory.


I’m planning to use this in my 121 class to prompt discussion about constructing identity in memoir and thinking of oneself as a character in a memoir. Paul asks, “Isn’t there a different author (older, wiser me) now? And haven’t I now changed my main character by writing her with this new hand? Did this matter?” Also it brings up some questions and thoughts in terms of genre, ebook vs. book. Another interesting thing is the drastic differences between the covers of Paul’s “old” and “new” memoir, and how each one implies a different audience (the first one appears more mass-market, the second more “literary”)–which also plays into the revisions that were made to this memoir.

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