December 18, 2010
I love movies. And watching movies teaches me a lot about how to write memoir.
The other night I saw “Appaloosa,” a Western with Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Jeremy Irons, and Renee Zellweger. I’m not a fan of Westerns, but I adore Ed Harris and would watch him sitting in a chair and not moving for an hour and a half. Ditto Mortensen and Irons.
There’s this scene where Harris is sitting on a chair on a porch with his feet up on the rails, ankles crossed and Mortensen is standing in the doorway, leaning against the frame, ankles crossed. Just watching how the Harris character sits, how the Mortensen character stands, tells you so much about them. There’s the way Mortensen uses a finger to tilt back his cowboy hat; the way he carries his rifle cocked in the crook of his arm. The moment when you know all’s not well when Zellweger, who’s supposed to be “with” Harris, has her neck rubbed by Irons. No words; just that gesture. Mortensen is standing in the doorway, peering around the frame, when he sees this. No words; just that gesture. Trouble lies ahead. And it does – Mortensen shoots Irons: he wants Harris to have a chance for love with Zellweger, the woman who comes west to find a man (any man) to take care of her.
Gesture in fiction; gesture in memoir.
Sometimes when I read early drafts of memoirs, I’m struck by how disembodied they are. People talk to one another. A “character” thinks. There are relationships. Things happen. Sometimes hard things. But it’s as if these characters don’t have bodies. It’s as if they don’t sit, stand, walk, eat or move through space. It’s as if they are thinking, feeling heads walking around on tiny feet.
I think of Richard Dalloway in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway sitting beside Clarissa, taking out his little pocketknife as they have the first conversation they’ve had in years. I see Mr Ramsay, declaiming poetry as he strides up and down outside the window in her To the Lighthouse .
I think of Kathryn Harrison’s The Mother Knot. And how, at the beginning, she peers into the refrigerator to look at the frozen breast milk. How she moves her hand through space and cuts it. How her mother pushes her Kathryn off her lap when she’s a child because her mother doesn’t want varicose veins. How Kathryn moves through the water as she scatters her mother’s ashes into the Long Island Sound. You can “see” what’s happening because the narrative shows you people moving.
I think of Augusten Burroughs A Wolf at the Table, and I can see him moving through space, being chased, in a dream, through woods. Even in describing a dream, there is a body, moving. Gesture.
I think of Donald Antrim, The Afterlife, trying to buy a mattress that suits him, that very act telling us so much about his state after his mother’s death. I see him trying out the mattress, putting his body down on it. Gesture.
I think of Mark Doty, Dog Years, walking with his beloved dog. Moving through space.
I see the corporeal body of Jamaica Kincaid’s body in My Brother, dying from AIDS. Kincaid shows us her brother’s body, how it moves, how it looks. And she is unsparing. As is Mark Doty as he describes his lover’s body in Heaven’s Coast.
When I was writing Vertigo there was a moment when I realized that very little in the draft I’d written showed me or any one else moving through space. So, in time, I added a long walk from my house to a movie theater in the next town with a friend. Before, I just had me in the movie theater. No walk, no moving through space. I added me running out of the house, my clothes torn because of a fight with my father. Before, I just spoke of our arguments, not me running away from him. I added me afraid to take my clothes off for gym because of the bruises on my body. Before, I just had the bruises on my body. I added me lying on the ground outside with my “boyfriend.” Before, I didn’t have us together in this way. I added my mother turning dishes over as she set the table at night to keep the dust out. Before, I just had her setting the table.
I’ve noticed that thinking about introducing gesture for me doesn’t happen in the beginning of my work. This is what I focus on later in the process, as I try to get some distance from what’s on the page, when I try to “see” the words on the page as if it were a film.
Kathryn Harrison, in a memoir workshop she teaches at Hunter, talks about thinking about “the camera’s eye” as a way of understanding what needs to be written. We need to see interior views, yes. But all too often, it’s the external material that gets left out, that’s harder to add. Seeing a scene as a camera would see it helps enormously. When we do this, we often realize what’s missing. That suddenly there’s a character on the stage of our memoir, but that we haven’t had him walk into the room. He’s just there. That, as in the case of Vertigo, we’re suddenly sitting in a movie theater, but we haven’t told our reader about the very long walk it took to get there.
I wanted, in Vertigo, to show how depressed I was as a child. My editor told me that every depression manifests itself in different ways, that saying “I was depressed as a child” communicates nothing. She said I had to show how the depression manifested itself in my body; what my body did, or did not do.
That’s when I wrote the scene where I walk to school, talking to the pretend friend I keep in my pocket. Take a look at the gesture in this scene: “I would take her out of my pocket when we were two houses away from my house, and stand her upright in the middle of my palm, and ask her things and tell her things as I walked to school alone. What the neighbors would see, if they bothered to look out their window at me as I walked along, was a little girl, somewhat small and slim for her age, looking very serious, very troubled, talking to herself, with her palm upturned to the sky, in what looked like a gesture of supplication or benediction.”
I’m proud of that image, that gesture that I refer to as one of “supplication or benediction.” But that came late. It came as I revised. As I stopped at looked at the scene as if I were filming it. I saw that girl. I saw her hand uplifted. And then one of those miracles happened: I “got” the language that made that scene transcendent. But it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t worked with gesture. If I hadn’t visualized the scene as if I were filming it.
Critics say my work is visual. That it often seems filmic. And it is. It’s because film is my favorite art form during non-work hours. It’s because I try to learn from the films I watch. It’s because, at a certain point in my work, I think gesture, I think body, I think “the camera’s eye.”