Today, after my mom came to get the girls for the afternoon, I even lay down to try to take a nap. A nap of all things! What sacrilege. But of course I only dosed for a few minutes before I roused myself to read. And read I must—I have five or six (or twelve) books I’d like to post about, so I better get reading. And I must read during the day. I find that at night—and I know I’ve mentioned this before—I am so tired of looking at words (I spend far too much time at the computer each day) that I simply cannot pick up a book, even if it’s a book I’m really enjoying. It makes my eyes hurt (and sometimes my head and sometimes my neck).
In my lethargy this afternoon, I opened The Best American Essays 2009, which I have been ignoring on my shelf for months, and I turned to Patricia Hampl’s essay, “The Dark Art of Description.” I love her essays on writing and memoir, so I thought this might be just the thing to jump-start my tired brain.
In it, she describes doing a Q & A with a group of Freshman Comp students. There was one student who seemed particularly disinterested in what Hampl had to say, but at the end of the Q & A, he sat up in his seat and he said that he understood. He said, “Nothin’s ever happened to you — and you write books about it.”
In the essay, Hampl, says this:
He was right, of course. And in pronouncing this acute literary critical remark, he touched on the most peculiar aspect of the rise of the memoir in our times — namely, that fundamentally it isn’t about having a more interesting life than someone else. True, there is a strand of autobiographical writing that relies on the documentation of extraordinary circumstances, lives lived in extremity, often at great peril. But such memoirs have always been part of literary history. What characterizes the rise of memoir in recent times is precisely the opposite condition — not a gripping “narrative arc,” but the quality of voice, the story of perception rather than action.
She goes on to talk about style and the importance of description and then ends the essay with another story of an encounter with a student. This student was worried that he didn’t have anything important to write about because he came from Fridley, a northern suburb of the Twin Cities. Hampl assured the young man that being from Fridely was actually good news. She told him, “The field’s wide open. Nobody has told what it’s like to grow up in Fridley yet. It’s all yours.” Then she ends the essay with this:
All he needed to do was sit down and describe. And because the detail is divine, if you caress it into life, you find the world you have lost or ignored, the world ruined or devalued. The world you alone can bring into being, bit by broken bit. And so you create your own integrity, which is to say your voice, your style.
Caressing detail into life. I love that. And I also love the idea that each of us has a world that we, alone, can bring into life.
I guess it's time for me to get off the couch.