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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

two masters

Just in case you’ve been worrying about my cough, wondering if I made it through Bernard Cooper’s reading on Friday night without hacking up a lung, I’ll tell you right away that I did. I *did not* begin to cough so hard and relentlessly that I threw up, as I did, say, earlier on Friday, when I cashed in on the precious pedicure portion of my Mother’s Day gift certificate, and, halfway through the foot soak and leg massage, felt that dry tickle in my throat. My water bottle was in my purse on the floor, and sadly, by the time I reached it, it was too late; the coughing had begun. The very kind pedicurist handed me some tissues, into which I promptly vomited. With dread, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to stop coughing—and if I couldn’t stop coughing, I wouldn’t stop barfing—so I jumped out of the chair, wet feet and legs dripping all over the floor, and ran to the sink along the wall, where luckily there was also a trash can. I slurped water and tried to catch my breath, but couldn’t quell the hacking. I vomited—over and over—into the trash can. Oh please let them not realize I’m throwing up, I thought desperately. (I was clearly experiencing some kind of oxygen-deprived delusion, because of course they realized I was barfing. How could they not?)

When the coughing finally subsided enough for me to stop throwing up, my face was red, my eyes bloodshot, and tears were running down my face. I returned to my chair, apologizing profusely to everyone. (I’m sure I ruined the relaxation of the poor woman next to me, but kindly she didn’t let on.) I coughed my way through the rest of the pedicure (sans vomit), and then stopped on my way home for several bags of Ricola. These things saved me this weekend, and though I’m certain I ingested more than is recommended, I don’t care. I didn’t vomit at the Memoir Festival.

I realize this may be TMI for some of you, so I’ll move on to the real subject of this post: how much Bernard Cooper and Patricia Hampl rock. Really, if you ever have the opportunity to see either of them read or talk about writing, go. They not only know their sh*t, but they are both so engaging that it is a wonderful treat to sit back and listen to them talk about memoir.

Cooper read from The Bill From My Father and from a chapter of a work in progress, which was recently published as “The Constant Gardener,” an amazing essay included in Best American Essays 2008. I’ve probably read this piece twelve times, so it was interesting to hear an un-cut version of it. I’m very interested in what comes first—an essay or a book—and how a writer is able to condense part of longer work into a manageable essay or expand an essay into a much longer work. This is very challenging for me, so I’m always in awe of someone who seems to do it effortlessly.

But though Bernard Cooper’s writing seems effortless, Cooper is very forthcoming about how challenging writing is and how sometimes even a simple sentence can take an incredible amount of energy. On Saturday morning during his keynote speech he described how, while he was working on The Bill from My Father, he sat in front of his computer for hours one day, trying to write a scene in which he was in a laundromat and saw an article in the paper about his father’s divorce. He described the clothes spinning in the drier, tried to recreate the feel of being in the laundromat, but he couldn’t find the sentence he needed to get the paper into his hands. After hours, he finally wrote: “I noticed a copy of the Herald Examiner lying on the empty chair beside me.”

Cooper is charming and funny and down-to-earth. What more could I want in one of my literary heroes?

Patricia Hampl is no less charming. On Saturday afternoon, the wonderful Brian Malloy (whose latest young adult novel, Twelve Long Months, just won the Minnesota Book Award!) interviewed Hampl, the mother of modern memoir. (I’m not sure if I’ve stolen that descriptor or not. Regardless, it’s true.) Hampl described how, when A Romantic Education was published in 1981, there wasn’t even a category for “memoir.” Can you imagine?

There are two things I want to highlight from Hampl’s conversation. The first is about form. Hampl said, “Memoir has as much to do with reticence as revelation. The one who spills the most beans does not get the prize. Form is about what you leave out.” I think this is so important for memoirists, especially beginning memoirists, to remember. You can never—and should never—try to “tell it all.” Choose the information that is important to the story you’re telling, and let the other details fall to the side.

The other thing she said that I love is this: “’Me’ is not the subject in memoir. ‘Me’ is simply an instrument. But in describing the world, you also render yourself.”

I will keep you posted about the next memoir festival. It might be worth a trip to the Twin Cities! And if you live here, you’ll have no excuse!


Lee said...

Wow Kate! You were great at the workshop...who would have known you were under the weather! Thank you for all of your wise advice, sweet smile, and input!
I am also happy to have found your blog! I will keep reading!


The Blue Suitcase said...

Kate, thank you for the recap of the things I loved best from Bernard and The MOTHMM, a perfect moniker I hope she loves! I know it was supposed to be work, but I had a complete blast doing our panel...which deserves a paragraph, too, but you're just too decent to show off. :)

cath c said...

your paragraph detailing Cooper's writing struggle is EXACTLY what i go through more often than not in my writing....the idea is present in my head, but the words to wrap around it simply aren't until they show up in their own time and in a simple manner.

i love the irony of opening with the tmi cough and ending with hempl's advice to memoirists that the art of it is in what's left out!

having said that, i thought i was going to die the other day, choking on homemade lentil soup at lunch. it was a strangely at peace sort of helplessness mixed with violent coughing, severe lack of oxygen, and the gumption to choke out the whispered stunted words 'you've gotta be f*king kidding me!' when my husband asked me to please not throw up on the dining room rug.

i was dying after all, if vomit was going to be how i dislodged that grain of rice across my windpipe, then so be it.

ricolas saved my life many times when i worked in public schools. if i didn't suck on them all day long for weeks throughout the transitional seasons in MA, i never would have survived.

American_in_Cairo said...

Funny about the pedicure barfing - sorry you had to go through it, but it sure was entertaining to read about.
I'm reading The Bill From My Father now - I am struck by how down-to-earth Cooper's narrative voice is.
I like the Hampl quote you chose, as it expresses both the nuggets of wisdom that seem to constantly trickle from her mouth but also the approachable feeling her work (especially her writing about writing) exudes (i.e., the phrase "spills the beans").

kate hopper said...

Lee, thank you. I'm glad you couldn't tell I was popping one cough drop after the other!

Bonnie, I had a blast, as well!

Cath, I love how you put this: "the idea is present in my head, but the words to wrap around it simply aren't!" That's exactly how I feel sometimes, as well!

A, you're totally right about how approachable Hampl is--I wasn't able to articulate that in my post, so I'm relieved that you did!

Kristen said...

I had no idea you were sick that weekend - you spoke so eloquently during our lunch!

I love your comments about Bernard and Patricia - they are wonderful writers and if I can even be 25% as talented as them someday, I will be happy!