Memoir Notebook is a monthly (sometimes more) column dedicated to longer works. We want you to meander, get caught up, find yourself taken to places you hadn’t intended to go (but are so glad, in the end, that you went). You’ll get thoughts on aesthetics, craft, latest issues, tips and books to read. But it will feel like poetic narrative. And sometimes it will simply be poetic narrative. Come away with us and Wm. Anthony Connolly. Today, to the Iowa Creative Non-Fiction Conference. Or maybe to the blind man on the street.
Tell a lie first.
I am in Iowa City attending the biannual creative nonfiction conference. It might as well be my fiftieth writing conference, for all I know, because they all seem to blend together in a miasma of over-simulation. I enjoy conferences immensely, love the interaction of people and minds, it’s just that I find it so hard to process all the leads, tips, suggestions, koans, and other pearls of wisdom that emanate from the various panelists, speakers, readers, and fellow conference attendees. My brain ends up feeling like the tote bag conference organizers give you. All conference-long I chuck fliers, books, notes into it and when I get home, it’s like a large, unwieldy pouch of potatoes. I look inside and it’s a mess, a tangle of leaves and book spines; spent lanyards and innocuous business cards. Thankfully, I am a voracious note-taker, a throwback to my days as a journalist covering school board meetings all afternoon and then having to by midnight write at least six usable stories for the next day’s newspaper. Usually it takes me days, if not weeks to decipher the fragments and scrawls my journal contains, to come to terms with why I wrote what I wrote and the significance of this or that underscored or snaked line. It’s a farrago, an inkblot, a peak inside my head. It’s impressionistic, my note-taking, and I find slowly over time that the fragments – my on the fly notation – do end up saying something. Until then, it’s merely music without lyrics, a painting without pattern, time without space.
Take the staircase.
Inside the Old Iowa Capitol sandstone and gold domed building, which sits like a palace among the University of Iowa Pentacrest on a hill overlooking the Iowa River, in Iowa City is a grand staircase. The wide dark mahogany steps and oak railings and spindles painted alabaster white spirals down to a small basement. Once down the twenty-two smooth steps and in the small basement of dark, freshly polished, wood flooring, dark brown wainscoting, and white walls greets visitors along with four doorways, partly obscured by the staircase footprint. The doorway at the back, and to the left, leads to the Discovery Room. Inside the room, just as a visitor enters the room and to the right sits a Plexiglas case and inside this case is a master’s thesis. A book is opened to the first page of prose, and it begins: Old Dudley folded into the chair he was grad- (typewritten sentence breaks) ually molding to this shape and looked out the window. Its author raised peacocks in rural Georgia; spoke an argot so sluiced by Southern drawl in the northern climes of Iowa it was indecipherable and she was advised to best communicate through her writing. She seldom spoke in class, the classes the young Georgian Catholic was taking to become a better writer. She sat in the back row, and from time to time when something wry or silly caught her attention she revealed a sly grin. Those in the room with her said her desk glowed.
See the little things.
There’s the wisdom of the crowd, and there’s the heart of the individual. All of us, I believe, find ourselves negotiating these two beautiful realities; it’s a knowing that we together can do such great things, and how we make the world a better place by being someone who can be trusted, a person who listens, a person who lends a hand. I negotiate these two best when I am alone, and when I can put my belief in this by writing. It’s the simple things that cause me to feel such transcendence – a belief in the power of people in multitudes and in the little way individuals display the smallest of miracles. It’s like sleeping in a room with a new friend, sharing a room at an out of town conference, and knowing I snooze quite loudly asking if I kept him from a restful sleep, and he lying saying: I didn’t hear a thing. And then noticing, quite innocuously there on the bed, discarded in the morning before a shower, two small light blue rubber cones: earplugs.
Things are not always what they appear.
During a break at a writing conference I was attending in Iowa City, I set out with a colleague to explore the downtown. We stood outside a local bookstore in the cool, bright later afternoon light, waiting for me to finish a cigar I was smoking. At the time, cigar jutting from the side of my mouth, and on my cell phone speaking with Dyan, my wife, a blind man made his way toward me. His shock of white hair, bright yellow windbreaker and his tap-tap-tapping white cane caught my attention. My voice and probably the scent of my fulgent cigar brought the man to stand at my side. Sir, what year were you born, he asked, and before I could answer, or tell him I was on the phone, which he could not obviously see (or could he sense it), he asked, Where are you from? What do you do for a living? Sir, I said, I’m on the phone. Dyan was kind enough to wish me well and told me to call her back. I turned off the cell phone and the litany of question in more or less the same order came from this persistent walker. Finally he said, Can you take me to Dubuque and Washington, an intersection I had no clue as to its whereabouts. I said I couldn’t and he said, Fine Thank you sir and walked off down the sidewalk. Tap-tap-tapping and I heard him say, what year were you born to another unsuspecting pedestrian. Nearby, a woman was stapling concert posters onto one of those bulletin board posts popular in college towns. Since she’d been watching my exchange with the blind man I asked if he was okay or – That’s Tim. He’s a sweetie. I asked if he was a little challenged, and she said yes. But I never ascertained exactly what, other than his obvious ocular difficulty, his challenged happened to be. He could plainly see, clearly understand little gets done without the arm of a friend, a friend you’ve never met before or one that has known you all your life.
During one particularly boring panel of New York editors I escaped out the back of the ballroom for respite. I had wanted some time to myself, to sit and sift through some of my notes, read for school, doing some catching up psychically. As I was reading an essay a retinue of students in formal wear walk by en route to a debate meet somewhere in the university facility. Every other sentence a group of new students, in pairs or in streams, would move past me where I sat, to the end of the hallway, turn left and disappear. Straight ahead from where I was sitting were the floor’s Men’s room and a water fountain, and a hallway leading to other meeting rooms. Often my reading was interrupted by high school debaters slurping water – a pre-debate moistening of the instrument I supposed. At one point a whole team congregated in the hallway in front of me. The four boys – dressed in dark suits, black shoes, and light blue ties – and the four girls – dressed in formal skirts, black shoes, and suit jackets – formed a circle. Soon the leader, a short girl with frizzy long brunette-colored hair spoke offering some words of encouragement, and then quite naturally, as if they’d practiced and practiced what was to come next, the team began to softly and melodically clap and sing. While teammates were singing and clapping, quietly, and purposively, a single student would enter the middle of the circle, which closed, gently, around them. And the song went Shake, shak shake at the front like this, Shake shake shake at the side like this, Shake shake shake at the back like this. And for each refrain, the team member would dance in any style they choose in front of a teammate of opposite sex. So, she stands in front of him: Shake, shake shake at the front like this. So, she stands beside him: Shake shake shake at the side like this. So, she stands her back to him: Shake shake shake at the back like this – and then that person who was danced with, entered the circle, and the individual dancer was reabsorbed back into the circle and the song cycle began anew. It was so beautiful, I nearly began to cry. The circle was strong and full of support and love, the circle was made of people not yet suspicious of each other, still unwounded, still hopeful, still in love and it showed on their glowing faces. Shake shake shake.
The Triggering Town
The more you move away from a subject, the deeper you move into the subject, says writer David Shields. Sheilds and others speaking of writing cultural criticism and the blurry line between this criticism and the writer’s autobiography. “There’s no fixed position, ” he said. “The only way out is deeper in.” Others, in other sessions, my notes said “Going away from the subject of the essay you go deeper into the subject.” I took this to me the more you speak of yourself in relation to whatever subject you want to address, the deeper you reveal the subject, since its impact on the self is its ultimate goal. My notes show that I met and introduced myself to Dinty Moore, and wrote, “not the stew” in my journal. I note that Richard Rodriquez said a writer’s duty is to write about a family’s secrets, to betray the family, that writing is about remembering what you thought was of no value, but in remembering render it beautifully. I note the word tension several times, and move. Walking Iowa City helps me clear my head, and when it’s almost free of whether or not I should as a writer reflect or refrain from reflection, I see that at my feet, embossed in brass, is a passage from Crossing To Safety by Wallace Stegner – an Iowa Workshop alum. The city sidewalks surrounding the university are frequently decorated this way. Keeping my head down I read some music, some Patricia Hempel, some Flannery O’Connor. My journal contains a passage about a man who wrote a cancer memoir and that the saddest part of the memoir is that he did not manage to save his semen, for having successfully beaten cancer, he was saddened to learn the cure rendered him infertile.
Megan has large, sparkling eyes and a bright easy charm. She works the front desk of the hotel where a colleague and I are staying during the conference. Megan’s eyes remind me that I noticed something quite particular to Iowa City – and this particularity was later confirmed by another colleague making the same observation, which was: Iowans make eye contact and hold it. So while I and my friend were checking in, and while Megan was telling us about the many amenities in this hotel, and out in the community I couldn’t help to notice Megan had a black eye. I left Iowa City not knowing how Megan got her black eye, partially concealed with makeup, how even with the shiner; she never broke contact with us.
But not lost.
After awhile, when I am away from home at a conference I get a little loopy and I have to be on my own, out somewhere in the city. So on the Saturday afternoon of the conference I took a walk around town. It affords me an opportunity to sift through all the material rolling around inside my head, to make sense of all the people converging and diverging, giving advice, reading their words, sharing their stories. It gives me time to think what brings me to conferences, and why I always feel conferences say more about the subject when it doesn’t talk about itself, like it goes away from the subject, only to do deeper. My wandering characteristically finds me in some kind of trance, earbuds in my ears feeding me Glenn Gould, staring at the slant of light and how it hits the path in front of me just so, and in that light the moats, the incredible, infinitesimal, swirling brilliance of dust, of sloughed skin, micro pieces of paper, and words, and fire.
Cool and clear.
The city esplanade of college bars and tortilla vendors; street hustlers on the last ditch power drive; the dancing detritus and mingling people, its easy to see the negotiations, the pleas to be held, to be heard, to be in sight. I amble down the lane glancing at the stars while my friend and colleague scans his umpteenth text message of the day. We negotiate through text; we arrange its letters, write off the subject, take its staircase down deeper where in rows all the writers sit, willing, able, glowing like Flannery O’Connor – sly grins, sluicing consonances, before suspicion, before the wounds, before the lies and accusations. In my last session Lee Martin suggested a writing assignment for his creative nonfiction students: Begin with a lie, expand the lie, and at the end of the essay tell the truth. Okay. I find conferences tiresome – a sham for book marketing, but I love the people, all of them, the short ones, the fat ones, the dark ones, the light ones, the ones with black eyes, the ones who won’t break contact, the negotiators, the family, the betrayal that’s produced in not writing it all down. I don’t think I’ll go to another conference – ever – the beauty will be the death of me. From now on, I’ll write from home.
Just before Richard Rodriquez was to give his remarks at the creative nonfiction conference, before an audience of perhaps eight hundred writers, teachers and readers, I stood before him and he before me. We smiled, and embraced. And when we parted we said in unison – Bueno Corazone. Bueno Corazone. Without moving our lips without negotiation, nor tension, nor sudden moves.