Monday, November 2, 2009

MISMEMORY

Stephen Elliott came here on Friday to read from his new book The Adderall Diaries. I'd known him from the Stegner mafia, though not well--he's a person whom it's easy to know a lot about (for the obvious reasons) without really knowing. But his visit proved to me once again the pleasure of having houseguests. I know, I know! Houseguests: people often dread them. But I love them. I have this place that's sort of too big for me, and I have a guest room, and I'm incorrigibly social, and I live in a town of eight thousand people. One of the most interesting things in Oberlin is the people who come through, the visiting artists and writers and editors and critics who have nothing to do with our everyday student-o-centric college life and everything to do with the whole rest of the world. New faces are so exotic here. We get excited and spend hours drinking too much wine with them at the Feve or Black River or in our living rooms and talking their ears off. Stephen is a great houseguest. I recommend him to anyone. Emmett will back me up on this.


I dragged Stephen along to my radio show and we played songs and bantered a lot between them. Stephen talked about how publishing is the least fun part about writing a book--the writing is fun, and the time between finishing the book and its publication is really fun, and then when the book actually comes out, it can make a person miserable. We know people who have suffered this, lots of them, great writers with great books that do well. Then we played "Johnny Sunshine" by Liz Phair and we realized that Liz Phair went through something similar. Exile in Guyville was one of the greatest albums ever and she could never quite recover from it. So I followed up "Johnny Sunshine" with my favorite song from the unreleased Girlysound demos, "Sometimes A Dream (Is What Makes You a Slave)." Which I think says it all.

The way Stephen does his readings is he reads a little, then he takes questions, then he reads more, then takes more questions, then he reads more and takes one last round of questions. I think every writer should consider doing this. One thing he talked about is how people are weird about being written about. They may say, "Sure, you can write about me," but what they really mean is you can write about two things: 1) their good side, and 2) their bad side. What freaks them out, what they don't want to see in print, is a side of them that they didn't see in themselves--the things you see that don't fit with their own perception of who they are.

Another thing he talked about was memory. The only rule of writing memoir, he said, is that you can't intentionally lie. Memory is what you've got. And it's not always going to match up with someone else's. He cited as an example one of his friends from the group home recounting a story of the two of them that Stephen is pretty sure never happened. But what can you do? he said.

Here's a funny related moment. Stephen's been writing up notes from his book tour and publishing them on The Rumpus. Here's the one he wrote about Oberlin, including this moment in my dining room:
I started to talk about a girl that wasn’t really my girlfriend anymore, and a note I had sent to a few people, not many, asking them to link to my book on their Facebook pages and encourage their friends to purchase it. I imagined this girl purchasing twenty copies of The Adderall Diaries on Amazon.com and pulping them because money and books don’t mean enough to her. I was leaning against the entry to the living room where Chelsey sat at the table. I couldn’t quite bring myself to say it. Instead, I said, “You know when you try to do something with integrity, and you just fail?”
And it's so true: we both busted up laughing and he was wiping tears from his eyes with the napkin and I said I had just the very day before told my students to take note of when people use the second person to mean not you but one or I or not-just-me-right?. But in my memory what he said was, "You know how you try to do things with integrity, and sometimes you just fail?" Of course exact words are always elusive; neither of us could remember it exactly even when we were trying to recount it an hour later. What amazes me is that I swear, swear he was sitting across the table from me. Not leaning against the entry. And he wrote this less than 48 hours later. But which one of us is right?

Memory! Such a slippery critter.

Liz Phair, "Sometimes A Dream (Is What Makes You A Slave)"

2 comments:

Stephen Elliott said...

I want to come back to Oberlin! I miss you, though we hardly know each other. But we know each other better now. I want to stay for a semester.

carrotquinn said...

This entry is beautiful! I want you to talk more about writing. I want to pretend there are other writers out there, thinking the same thoughts as me, having the same sorts of struggles. More!