Friday, January 4, 2013

First Person, on the Prairie

Like most people under 50, I didn't grow up reading first-person accounts of orphans in Dickensian London. Whether this was once a practice to make spoiled American children feel better about themselves is open to debate, but the concept that some people were compelled to share what made them evolve into the person they eventually became was a fascinating concept, especially those memoirs rich in detail about another time, another place.

I got on this kick thanks to a grade school teacher who would calm our class, drained from a lunchtime in the tropical heat, by reading aloud the exploits of that frontier rebel, Laura Ingalls, and her constantly on-the-move clan. I discovered through her books innumerable life lessons: how homes could have lawns for roofs (how sustainable!); how you could make dessert by draining a maple tree's syrup onto a bowl of fresh snow; and how - suddenly - your sister could go blind. Life was tough for Laura, but she spared no detail about her little houses, and eventually, little towns.

This was the reason I began my first series of memoirs, using my own family's frequent moving to bracket my 1970s exploits ("Little House by the Orange Grove"?) But, of course, I hadn't done any actual growing up during my growing up, so there wasn't much material to draw upon. Maybe I didn't actually create anything more than design the book covers for each volume - less a writer-in-hoping than a marketer-in-waiting.

Caveat about the TV series: it appeared just as I was old enough to grow a bullshit meter concerning Hollywood's attempts at audience manipulation, so I was not a viewer, preferring the more Eastern philosophies, of, say, Bosom Buddies and Soap.

I wound up spending the remainder of my growing-up years stumbling upon other guys growing up and writing it all down, even if there was little factual about it: Holden Caulfield, Sal Paradise, the fabulously freaked-out Berrys and Louis de Lioncourt all entranced me with palpable first-person narratives until I reached the end of my education in 1985 with the minimalist percussion of Clay's trip home from Bennington. Only then was I ready to begin recording and reshaping my own recollections of what I'd learned (or clearly hadn't) in my young life.

As an adult, I have rarely gone back to fiction for escape, instead continuing to seek out that rare glimpse of wide-eyed, sober detail that only someone who has been there to tell the tale can give me. (I remember girls in college carrying around Anais Nin's diaries when they should have been perusing Frida Kahlo's) I defy anyone to get through either Chris Rose or Joshua Clark's blow-by-blow of life both during and right after Hurricane Katrina without burning their own diaries and journals in envious disgust. Published letters are a particular vice as well, reviving both an archaic means of communication while mining the daily decisions of artists like William Burroughs and Tennessee Williams

So, what happened to my own cautionary tale? Like many young writers, I first attempted to disguise fact as fiction in order to protect the innocent while adding flourish to what was usually mundane. By the time I got back to memoir, it had became more of a self-analytic exercise, not something for others to read. (When I transitioned from the written word to the image, I wondered if I would compose self-portraits or vistas of my favorite "thinking spots". I did not.) I await, I suppose, a decidedly meaningful event to occur and hope I'm in the right place, time and state of mind to make sense of it, render its painfully scented details and be prepared to present myself in the process of growing up.

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