Tuesday, February 27, 2018

"The Writing of Memoirs"

Sydney M. Williams

Essays from Essex
“The Writing of Memoirs”
February 27, 2018

A memoir isn’t a summary of a life; it’s a window into a life.”
                                                                                                William Zinsser (1922-2015)
                                                                                                On Writing Well, 1976

Not long ago, I was asked to speak on the subject of memoir writing. I complied, but it was a little like asking President Trump to speak on diplomacy – inexperience did not affect a willingness to express opinions. Nevertheless, memoirs have always interested me. I enjoy reading them and have had two books published, which could loosely be described as memoirs – assuming one accepts my belief that everything we write exposes something about us.[1] I believe everyone profits in writing memoirs.

As we age, the past is more with us. Old age summons memories of youth – a time when the future was filled with prospects of playing for the Yankees, skiing the Matterhorn, or living in a castle. We think of people, places and experiences that formed us – parents, grandparents, teachers, siblings, cousins, friends, neighbors, home, school, college, sports, first jobs, marriage and children. We think of the role chance plays in our lives, mistakes we made, losses we endured and of victories and successes we had. Getting older makes us consider a time when we will no longer be here. How will we be remembered? What will be our legacy? Memoirs are one answer.

A memoir serves as a bridge, between the past we knew and the future we won’t. There is no better way for the young to understand the past than to learn from those who lived it. A reading of history provides facts and chronology, but memoirs provide the details that makes history live. They are, as Mr. Zinsser wrote in the rubric quoted above, the “window into a life.” They are not the magical door to C.S. Lewis’ “Narnia.” They make a past we have known become real to future generations. A memoir provides a sense of time and place. Two sentences in Donald Hall’s Essays Over Eighty say a lot in twenty-one words: “Even more, I loved the slow plod back to the barn. My grandfather told story after story with affection and humor.” Think what we learn about him, his grandfather, where he lived and their relationship in those two simple sentences! I began an essay, written ten years ago, titled “The Death of my Father, Some Forty Years On:” “Sitting at the dining room table is where I remember him best. In my mind’s eye my brother Frank is there; we are between the ages of ten and fourteen. Dishes have been cleared. One of us is sitting atop the wood stove, which heated the dining and living rooms, the warmest spot on cold winter days. It is our conversations that stay with me.”[2]

Memoirs are a window into a life – a collection of anecdotes about people, events, ideas and reflections. Aggregated, they allow the reader to learn something of the author. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Barton Swaim wrote of the late Justice Antonin Scalia: “A memoirist needs to interrupt his chronicle with topical discussions or reflective diversions.” I thought of that sentiment, when I read in The Financial Times what Lucy Scholes wrote about the interplay between life and literature – a genre Joyce Carol Oates called “bibliomemoirs.” Ms. Oates refers to such books as “a sub-species of literature, combining criticism and biography, with the intimate confessional tone of autobiography.” But biographies based on books written are not memoirs. Books we have read, however, say a lot about us. I have written essays about books – those I enjoyed, those I learned from and those I collected. Write of a character that reminded you of someone you knew. Write of the books you loved as a child, of those which you kept as a reminder of long-ago days. Write of the look, smell and feel of books on your shelves. A sketch is better than a mural.

There is a temptation to fictionalize our lives. Our minds are molded to remember pleasurable moments and to erase bad ones. But, we do a disservice to ourselves if we leave out the challenges we encountered, the mistakes we made and the losses we suffered. A memoir should be honest, in the sense it portrays. Memories play tricks. We sometimes claim to remember events and people we could not have known, or we remember things differently, as we age. It must have been with humor that Gore Vidal titled his memoir Palimpsest. He wrote that a memoir “is not history. It is how we remember one’s own life.” The comedian Will Rogers once wrote, half-jokingly: “When you put down the good things you ought to have done and leave out the bad things you did well, that’s memoirs.” No, it isn’t. Memoirs are reminders of the difference between egoism and egotism – the first, a preoccupation with one’s self; the second, a narcissistic sense of conceit. A memoir demands the first but should shun the second.

As in all aspects of life, writers must pay attention to details. Writing is both creative and mechanical. In terms of the latter, focus on spelling, grammar and syntax. Heed E.B. White’s Rule 17 in Elements of Style: “Omit needless words.” Eliminate any that consume space, without relevance. Use Anglo-Saxon verbs, whose definitions are never in doubt. Be merciless with adjectives and adverbs. Use short words, sentences and paragraphs. Winston Churchill once wrote that writers should get straight to the point and aim for readers at the primary school level. Re-writing is as critical as writing. Does the essay say what you mean it to say? Will the reader be certain as to your meaning? Look for the errant comma, the misplaced word, or the statement that has not been verified. Avoid repeating words. How many words, sentences or paragraphs can be eliminated, because they detract from the point being made?

For whom are memoirs written? Unless one is famous, they are written for ourselves, our children and grandchildren and for those who love history. They aid in self-understanding. They provide descendants a glance of their heritage. And they help those who wish to understand that, while time changes venues, speech and dress, human nature remains the same.

Memoirs provide a worm’s eye view of the history of mankind, which sluices across time on a never-ending conveyor belt. We are part of that history. In that long history, our lives represent but a speck. We ride the conveyor belt for a brief period and then fall off. Knowing she is about to die, Charlotte (in E. B. White’s eponymous novel) speaks to Wilbur, “After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die.” A sad but true statement. But each life has meaning. It is a link, between people and between the past we know and a future we won’t. We know life goes on. In an essay titled “Another Birthday,” I wrote, “I…look out at the snow accumulating in the fields, sense the cold of the ground underneath, but derive comfort from the knowledge that beneath that frozen soil lives the promise of spring and the resurrection of life.[3] It is why we write. Consider how different ages think of the present. To people my age, the present is the future; to my children, the present is the present. But, to my grandchildren, the present is the past. For readers, memoirs enliven the past…for authors, they allow us to be the child we once were.   

[1] One Man’s Family: Growing up in Peterborough and Other Stories was published in 2014. Notes from Old Lyme: Life on the Marsh and Other Essays was published in 2016. Both were published by Bauhan Publishing in Peterborough, N.H.
[2] One Man’s Family, page 45.
[3] Notes from Old Lyme, page 176.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

"Another School Shooting"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Another School Killing”
February 22, 2018

You can’t talk about f***king in America; people say you’re dirty.
But, if you talk about killing somebody, that’s cool.”
                                                                                                Richard Pryor (1940-2005)

On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman, a former Marine, took a cache of weapons to the observation deck of the main building tower at the University of Texas in Austin. Over the next ninety minutes, he shot dead fourteen people and injured thirty-one. He was only stopped when police killed him. The night before he had killed his wife and mother. This was the first mass killing in the U.S. I remember. (Howard Unruh, a World War II veteran, killed thirteen people in Camden, New Jersey in 1949, but I was only eight, so it had little effect.) The Whitman massacre was different. I was twenty-five, the same age as Whitman. In 1966, I was still in the Army Reserve; though I had not served in combat, I knew what harm guns could do. It was a sobering moment, which I have never forgotten.

The number of school shootings has increased beyond the increase in numbers of guns or population. In the last two years, there have been seven high and grade school shootings; in the fifteen years before that there were four – still too many. Those who govern know this is happening and must work to stop it. There are avenues to explore, such as the ease with which people acquire assault rifles, like the AR-15 that was used in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Screenings must be tightened. Penalties must be increased, for stealing guns and for “straw” purchases of firearms. But other causes may be more pertinent.

We need to think of the “how” and the “why” of school violence. The “how” deals with access to guns and ease of entry to schools. (While I support the 2nd Amendment, I am not a gun lover. Other than my Army experience and once shooting skeet, I have never fired a weapon). We need to keep guns out of the hands of the underage, of criminals and the psychologically impaired. There are those who suggest arming guards within schools. Perhaps we should, but we don’t want a nation of vigilantes. Ross Douthat, a conservative (and sensible) columnist for The New York Times, suggested that, like drinking, driving and voting, age restrictions be considered – a higher age for a more powerful weapon. Perhaps? Certainly, we need to enforce the laws we have. Technology is ubiquitous and should be used to prevent the sale of weapons to those who should not have them. An estimated 300 million guns in the hands of Americans makes the problem difficult but not impossible.

The “why” is more insidious. Common sense says that anyone who walks into a school – or, for that matter, into any place – with intent of shooting people is mentally deranged. Why can’t we admit that psychological problems play a role? Why are not local law officials and gun sellers informed as to those with mental deficiencies? Why isn’t there response when students, teachers, parents, friends contact local law enforcement (or the FBI) about an individual with mental problems? We live in an information age, and government, should they wish, can track any one of us. This is not the pre-emptive denying of an individual his rights. It is yielding to common sense.

Our cultural environment is part of the “why,” and it bears responsibility. Western culture, which brought the enlightenment and illuminated our founding fathers, was adopted by immigrants through most of our history. It has been replaced with multiculturalism, with the uncertainty it brings, including a more divided population. A decline in civility is manifested in Trump-trash-talking late-night TV by hosts, like Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert. Parenting standards have deteriorated. A Pew Research study showed that 73% of all children in 1960 were being raised by two-parents in a first marriage. By 2014, that number had declined to 46 percent. In 1960, nine percent of all children were being raised in single-parent households. By 2014, that number had increased to 26%. Forty-five percent of children who live with a single mother live in poverty. African-Americans have suffered the most. Fifty-five percent of Black children live with a single parent, compared to 31% of Hispanics, 20% of Whites and 13% of Asians. About 40% of all babies born in America are born to unmarried women. In 2014, approximately 19% of all pregnancies ended in abortions. These factors have weakened the moral fiber of a civil, respectful and responsible people, and enervated the comfort and solidity a family brings.

Violence is rampant in movies, video games, rap music and on TV. There has always been violence in the world of entertainment. Simon Wiesenthal once said, “Violence is like a weed – it does not die, even in the greatest drought.” But it has gone mainstream; it has migrated from screens to real life. We have celebrities displaying the severed head of our President and talking of blowing up the White House. Mainstream media is mute. Re-read the comedian Richard Pryor’s quote at the top of this essay. Consider the response of a 12-year-old boy’s reaction to a screening of the movie “Black Panther,” as reported in The New York Times: “The movie makes me want to come back from the dead and take out people with my claws.” Is that what we would hope from a pre-teen? Or think of the lyrics of Eminem’s “Kim:”

Sit down bitch! If you move again, I’ll beat the shit out of you.”

Or DMX’s “X-Is Coming:”

When I bark, they hear the boom, but you see the spark.
And I see the part of your head which used to be your face.”

Is this entertainment? The American Academy of Pediatrics claims that gun violence in PG-13 rated films has tripled since 1985. In the TV show “Stalker,” a woman is buried alive in the first five minutes. Video games, like “Sniper Elite 4,” “Bulletstorm” and “Conan Exiles” use violence to attract young players.

None of these factors, alone, explain why violence has become common in our schools. My son Edward, whose firm Silsbee Partners consults with video game companies around the world, points out that video games, as well as movies and rap music, are global in their reach. Yet, other countries don’t have the problem of mentally unbalanced young men walking into schools and killing innocent children. Strict gun laws in places like Chicago have not prevented that city from becoming the Mecca of gun killings. There are questions without answers. Why have most of these school shootings happened in small and mid-size towns and cities? Why are most shooters students or former students? What is it that parents, teachers, neighbors, politicians and communities miss? Everything, from gun laws to mental health to our culture must be on the table, or re-thought. As horrific as mass killings are, gun violence goes beyond school and mass shootings. The Wall Street Journal reported last Friday that, since 2014, there have been 58,584 gun-related deaths (excluding suicides). Mass shootings account for only 1,584 of those deaths, or 2.7%. What can be done? Perhaps compulsory military service would teach young people how to handle weapons and inform them as to the harm they can do? Perhaps a return to the Aristotelean virtues of prudence, temperance, courage and justice? What is obvious – the path we are on leads to Perdition.

The cynic in me says politicians don’t want answers. Keeping the issue alive is more important to future elections than solutions. Whether my cynicism is justified or not, recalcitrance on both sides has been aggravated by a partisan media. Something must change. Perhaps term limits are a start?