Tag Archives: CNF

Zen and the Art of Knitting

book by Bernadette Murphy

annotation by Melissa Greenwood

Bernadette Murphy in her first book Zen and the Art of Knitting uses clear and simple language that is simultaneously vivid, evocative, colorful, and, here’s the author in her— reflective—to make apt and often metaphorical connections between life and knitting without overreaching.

“Few things lend themselves so easily, so wisely to a metaphorical understanding of life as does knitting” Murphy says, adding that it “seems to be a metaphor for turning chaos into order” (31, 103). As she interviews knitters from all over the world, she finds some consistent patterns—namely, that knitters “associate their knitting experiences with the lessons they’ve learned about life” (152). Among those lessons: We construct the patterns of our lives as we would a sweater: “piece by piece, stitch by stitch” (31); we can “go back to the place before the mistake and correct it”, thereby “undo[ing] what we’ve done”, which is different, of course, from how things work in the real world (12, 31); “We are all made of the same materials, we are all joined in the knitted garment of life”—the old adage, cut from the same cloth comes to mind here (193); furthermore, “we are each stitches, necessary for a completed work” (193); we can “metaphorically weav[e] the disparate parts” of ourselves “back into a cohesive whole” (which certainly sounds cheaper than therapy) (15); we can, through our craft, build “elements of self-esteem that cannot easily be unraveled” (78); finally, we can reveal “a beautiful pattern” behind each of our distinct lives (154). These connections roll effortlessly off the author’s tongue (or more accurately, off her fingertips) and onto the page for our eyes and ears to soak up. And we know Murphy isn’t getting carried away with double meanings in verb choices like knit, weave, interweave, stitch, hook, and unravel because the folks she interviews make similar connections, too.

Knitting is “‘like praying with beads, stitch by stitch’” a Waldorf School handwork teacher and abbey oblate adds. She’s so quick to jump on the simile bandwagon, you’d think she weaves words—not blankets—for a living. (67)

A marriage counselor whom Murphy interviews is quick to use a simile to describe her knitting practice (not to be confused with her private practice): Knitting is “‘like eating a piece of pickled ginger after sushi to clear the palate’” she explains of knitting’s soul-cleansing effect (53). What an unlikely comparison, and yet—how apt!

Although I personally have the hand-eye coordination of a four-year-old and thus have never tried to knit anything in my life, I think the reason that Murphy and her interviewees manage these comparisons without coming across as overreaching is that they do so seemingly effortlessly—with the ease, one might argue, of knitting itself (once it becomes mindless, that is; once it takes on the Zen-like quality from which this book derives its very name). I don’t get the sense as a reader that Murphy kept a writer’s notepad by her nightstand and another miniature one in her purse in which to fastidiously record one-liners to sprinkle throughout her debut book. And I hardly think her interviewees had the time to rehearse answers over the course of their knitters’ tête-à-tête with the author. On the contrary, their answers flowed smoothly; they weren’t going for the next bud-um-BUM moment. For them, the comparisons were as natural as sitting on the back porch with a cup of tea, a “ball of wool and two pointy sticks” (30).

And that is exactly how I experienced the read: like I was catching up with a good friend I hadn’t seen in years (knitting herself), but it was as if no time had passed. I grew so comfortable around the knitter’s terminology, I almost felt like—to hell with my four-year-old hand-eye coordination! I can totally knit after reading this book. But then I remembered how riding a bike went after I hadn’t done that in fifteen years, and that’s something I actually once knew how to do. (Think: forgetting how to brake or turn and jumping off the thing in frustration, mid-peddle, faster than if I’d seen my own ghost.) So perhaps knitting isn’t in my immediate future. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a well-written, well-researched, well-thought out book on the matter. What makes Murphy so successful is her ability to use knitting as a vehicle to convey universal truths. Perhaps Tara Ison said it best on the back cover: “A wise, illuminating book for knitters and non-knitters alike.”

Just as I don’t have to be an alcoholic to appreciate a compelling memoir on addiction or a survivor of abuse to be drawn in by a powerful story on the subject matter, I also don’t need to be a knitter to know that I like to hear truisms about living and how to do it better. We all want to know how to correct a mis-stitch here, a fumble there. It’s as though Murphy is telling us, we can repair the world by repairing ourselves, and we can do that through the Zen-inducing effects of knitting. And even if we never take to knitting personally, we can bliss out while reading about how others are becoming less tightly-wound while unwinding a ball of yarn. We can read about how they are making connections from self-to-world: the friction of their metal sticks creating the inspirational charge—their knitters’ needles the conduit to universal truths.

As a writer, I am reminded that readers will care if you make them. And that is exactly what Murphy does in Zen: She sticks it to us. (I couldn’t resist.) It doesn’t matter that she writes about knitting. She could write about any topic that is dear to her be it cooking, motorcycling, mothering, or mentoring. That she chooses to write about knitting is irrelevant. What matters is how she’s able to use it as an entry ‘point’ if you will, to speak to the human condition—to weave her way into our collective hearts and minds.

 

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The Chronology of Water

book by Lidia Yuknavitch

annotation by Melissa Greenwood

I could write about Lidia Yuknavitch’s use of fragments, offset by long paragraphs without any punctuation, in The Chronology of Water. Or, I could write about her often colloquial language or self-professed “wise-ass voice” (291). Or how she sometimes addresses the reader directly and other times switches into the second person or the present tense, seemingly without warning. I could also write about her lyrical passages, a contrast to those more informal shorter-than-sentences. Or about how she does sex writing better than anyone else (cue to me racing to include her work in my MFA graduating presentation on How to “Do” Good Sex Writing). But I won’t write about the author’s fragments or point of view choices or tone or tense-shifting or mind-blowing sex scenes because I can’t not write about her reflections—so self-aware, so deep—they moved me to write “YES” in my margins, over and over, often with three or four underlines for emphasis.

Yuknavitch begins the memoir by telling us about her stillborn daughter and then flashing back to her own girlhood, which is equally as horrific as the opening hospital scene. We learn that the narrator’s father molests both Yuknavitch girls and that Lidia turns to swimming for salvation: “Anything in the water felt like home … In water, like in books—you can leave your life”, she writes (148, 152). Her mantra becomes “Hold your breath until you can leave” (73). And leave she does. For Texas. On a college swim scholarship. Which she promptly loses because she’s busy losing herself :

  • in drugs

“I would have put anything in my mouth … breathing in the white, breathing out comprehension and emotion” (64-65).

  • & in sex

“I’d become the kind of woman whose mouth was stuck in a permanent ‘yes’ shape … I was using my body as a sexual battering ram … All that euphoria filling up the hole of me” (64, 143, 69).

  • & in death wishes

“I didn’t know how wanting to die could be a bloodsong in your body that lives with you your whole life” (72).

  • & in marriages

like the one to “poor Phillip”, who was “never cut out for a woman like me with a rage in her bigger than Texas” and the second one to Devin—the “charismatic narcissistic tender hearted frighteningly attractive artistic drunk” whom “you divorced [eleven years later] because he slept with not one but about five gazillion different women” (59, 171, 207).

  • & in a flurry of self-destruction

like “a big blond DUI” (222). Like “count backwards from 100 with your eyes closed and with this stick up your ass and balancing an egg on your left tit …” (208). Like spinning out on the freeway and hitting a “5’ tall brown skinned pregnant woman who had no English” and then “blow[ing] a number out of orbit” because you drank that entire bottle of scotch, and now your car is totaled, like your life (212, 208).

But then Yuknavitch meets Andy Mingo. Her married student. I know. It sounds about as suspect as everything else she’s been up to. And she knows it too. “Yeah. Well. What did you expect? I’m still me, after all”, she muses (238). But as it turns out, Andy is the real deal. He becomes husband number three and number one dad to their live-born son, Miles. And while Yuknavitch jokes about her poor decision-making above in a self-deprecating manner, she speaks eloquently about her metaphorical rebirth. “[Even as we were] working out our childhood wounds at each other … He [Andy] treated th[ese] thing[s] I’d done – this DUI – the dead baby – the failed marriages – the rehab – the little scars at my collar bone – my vodka – my scarred as shit past and body – as chapters of a book he wanted to hold in his hands and finish” (259, 239). That is a sentence I not only wish that I’d written, but also that I were living. For the narrator, finding the kind of love that heals instead of hurts is a shift that borders on revolutionary. Yuknavitch has been to some pretty dark places in her life, but she assures us that “… beautiful things. Graceful things. Hopeful things can sometimes” illuminate the darkness and that “the simplicity of loving” can teach a girl how “to live on land” (293, 272). This is quite a remarkable notion when coming from a swimmer, who’s only ever flourished in pools, rivers, and oceans.

“It is not easy to leave one self and embrace another”, but Yuknavitch has done as much in her new roles as together wife (as opposed to the angry, intoxicated version she brought to her first marriages) and doting mother (as opposed to the grieving kind she was after her first child’s birth and death or even the kind she grew up with—“a numb drunk folded into her own pain” (190, 163).) With those dark hours behind her and nothing but trees in front of her in her magical Oregon home with the family she’s created, the narrator has made it out of the “the cold wet of [her] life” (151). Here, she needn’t worry that her father’s anger built the house (a refrain she repeats throughout the book). Here, she can take solace. Here, she can feel nestled and supported. Planted and rooted. “I felt safety … Something up until that point in my life I’d only felt in water” (256).

In committing her story “about desire and language … About fathers and swimming and fucking and dead babies and drowning” to paper, Yuknavitch “rebuild[s] the wreckage of a life a word at a time”, and what a beautiful and reflective life her words make (141, 202).

 

Truth Serum: Memoirs


book by Bernard Cooper

annotation by Lee Stoops

 

“There were nights I fell into a fitful sleep trying to sex the world correctly.”         ~ Bernard Cooper, in the essay Burl’s, from Truth Serum (19)

There is something special about the accessibility of Bernard Cooper’s words in Truth Serum. He remembers so clearly the experiences of his coming to adulthood, the thoughts he endured as a boy, the way his family dynamics shaped his world. Writing his memories through a mix of reflection and scene, Cooper offers the reader a near cinematic experience, windows of voyeurism into his formative past and the lives of those with whom he shared his struggles, his identity, and his conflicted sexual maturation. Amy Tan said, “Cooper is a master of the language of memory and truth,” and quite possibly no one could have described his memoirs with more accuracy. Cooper’s language and control gives his writing its power, his recall gives his essays their integrity, and his transparency gives his readers access to his truth.

Cooper does more than write: he speaks on the page. His prose might, at times, be identified as lyrical, but I would argue that he generally does not intend lyricism. Given the overall presentation of his memoirs, I would wager that he writes as he speaks – with sharp articulation and strong arcs. The words he uses, the sentences he strings, the essays he crafts exude natural power, even flow, and they display enviable command. Writers of nonfiction aspire to the kind of control with which Cooper writes, especially when it comes to writing such difficult, exposing personal truths about sexuality, family, love and loss.

He broke his glass and his hearing aid in the fall, and when I first stepped into the hospital room for a visit, I was struck by the way my father – head cocked to hear, squinting to see – looked so much older and more remote, a prisoner of his failing senses (162).

These lines are part of the second paragraph of an essay titled Picking Plums. While Cooper’s father exists in the background of many of his stories, this is one of the only ones where Cooper’s spotlight illuminates the man and eventually Cooper’s feelings for him. The language is simple; there are no enormous words, no contrived construction techniques, nothing unsaid or enigmatic. And yet, the control, the exacting choices Cooper makes, give the reader a very, very clear window through which to immediately understand his father and where his father is in life and in self. The words also communicate exactly how much Cooper sees and understands in those times.

Cooper’s memories are not just images or smells or emotions; they’re short films. Cooper details precisely the settings, the characters, even the quality of the air, and then allows the reader to fully experience his memories from his place in each sequence. His essays are not limited to the brief scenes he uses to thread his narrative – he steps around, as if on exposed rocks crossing a creek, exploring the many curious thoughts and connective tissues that are first or difficult experiences in anyone’s life. The second essay in the collection, titled Burl’s, like the rest of his essays, exhibits this exceptional recall in such a way that I could not help but fall back into my own similar boyhood memories of greasy spoon diners, trying on my parents’ clothes, being forced to take gymnastics, or first meeting male transvestites.

When the day of the first gymnastics class arrived, my mother gave me money and a gym bag…and sent me to the corner of Hollywood and Western to wait for the bus…While I sat there, an argument raged inside my head, the familiar, battering debate between the wish to be like other boys and the wish to be like myself. Why shouldn’t I simply get up and go back home, where I’d be left alone to read and think? On the other hand, wouldn’t life be easier if I liked athletics, or learned to like them (23)?

While the setting and the scenes catalyzed my memories, it was Cooper’s recalled interior monologue that offered me the promise of Cooper’s integrity, that he was not just writing stories from his boyhood but that he was sharing his development as it happened.

In fact, it is Cooper’s unguarded transparency that separates his memoirs from those of other aspiring memoirists. One of the reasons I read memoir is for the permission the genre can give me as a writer to access my own mysterious interior, to confront the truths of my life that I don’t understand or don’t want to accept. In a world of memoirs that entertain for their salaciousness, Cooper’s forgives without apologizing. And this is how writers can change the world – by changing minds one at a time, by softening hearts and opening doors.

Touching a match to the first [homosexual pornographic] magazine, I felt a sense of profound relief that I wouldn’t know again until years later when I actually touched a man (72).

Dr. Sward believed that my desire for men could be broken down into a set of constituent griefs: lack of paternal love; envy toward other men for their sexual certainty; a need for identification confused with a drive for physical contact. And then, one day, the blare of light still ringing in my ears, I asked the doctor if heterosexual desire wasn’t also a muddled, complex matter, fraught with the very same helplessness and hurt he attributed to my particular case (107).

If I thought about AIDS while we made love, for the most part those thoughts were fleeting, as remote and muffled as sounds from the street. Sex became an empirical matter: I concentrated on the things I could see – Brian’s ribs, the small of his back, the arch of his ass as he lay on his stomach – instead of on the things I couldn’t – platelets, bacteria, virus. While our hearts were racing, skin hot to the touch, the visible world of weight and shape took precedence over the realm of minutiae. For a few blessed seconds we tensed in release, hurling away from worry (210).

It is surprising to me that this collection of memoirs and personal essays has not garnered more attention outside of MFA and creative writing programs. As an aspiring writer of both fiction and nonfiction, this book has everything I need to study. At the same time, it reads so brilliantly, so personally, that I want everyone I know to read it. The truths in Cooper’s life and his writing are difficult and moving and have the power to help heal current societal rifts. Yet, the book is out of print and now more than fifteen years old. Not only should this book be revived for current readers not steeped in academia, but writers being vetted now need to take Cooper’s lessons to heart: memoir (and every other form of creative writing) needs exceptional linguistic control, absolute accuracy, and blatant transparency.

This River

book by James Brown

annotation by Patrick O’Neil

Sequels are tough. The reader has expectations, a preconceived idea as to what the author has to achieve, and a need for the book to be as good, if not better than the original. However, this also creates another set of problems: the author is either expected to write a continuation of the same sort as their first book, or the author is negatively critiqued for having written the same book twice – it is almost a no win situation, and at best a daunting prospect for the author. Plus, here we’re talking nonfiction/memoir, and time has passed, the author isn’t where he was when the first book was written. Like all of us, he has aged, his life has continued, a lot has changed, and while making new memories, the past hasn’t been forgotten, and is never far from mind.

Taking all of the above into consideration James Brown’s This River, the follow up to his first book of memoir, The Los Angeles Diaries, thankfully not only steers clear of repeating himself, but takes the reader into another evolving chapter of Brown’s life. Where in The Los Angeles Diaries Brown maintained a distance, mostly writing from a point of observation, never really taking responsibility for his actions, instead blaming it all on being an addict. Here, he not only takes full responsibility, but he also let’s the reader know why, argues the irrationality of his resentments and negative thoughts, and makes considerations for those around him. He achieves this in two ways. He shows the reader by using examples of his actions to demonstrate emotions, and with his choice of language for the dialogue in order to convey the sense of love and caring he is capable of, even though he’s a practicing drunk/drug addict. This humanizes the “demon”, and allows the reader into the world of those who live with him, and ultimately lets us see Brown through a more compassionate eye. As, ultimately, all addicts are not cold-blooded sociopaths. The majority are normal/regular folks with an all-consuming dependency that doesn’t allow them the “luxury” of showing feelings. Their focus is solely on whatever substance they’ve become addicted to. And instead of telling this to the reader, Brown has avoided using the overly clinical nomenclature of recovery that a majority of “addict/recovery memoirs” use, and instead presents a complete portrait for his audience to judge for themselves.

Continue reading

The Sum of Our Days

by Isabel Allende

annotation by Ramona Pilar Gonzales

In 1991 Isabel Allende’s daughter Paula developed porphyria, a disease caused by a genetic mutation that affects the either the skin or nervous system, or in some extreme cases, both.  Allende began her memoir Paula while her daughter suffered through the illness that inevitably ended her life.

Years later, Allende wrote The Sum of Our Days as a letter to her daughter, catching Paula up on the family members she left behind and introducing her to the new ones that became a part of Allende’s “tribe” after Paula died.

The book is primarily written in the second person.  It’s this choice that shows how alive Paula is for Allende, and this brings her to life for the reader as well.  Writing about Paula in the third person would have made her solely a memory. Spirits, the supernatural and a multiple planes of existence are always present in Allende’s fiction and she brings those philosphies to her nonfiction work with the same attention to poetic lyricism.  Allende occasionally breaks with the familiar “you” form when relaying particular stories to Paul.  However, she always comes back to why it was so important to tell Paula that particular story.

Much like other “Memoirs of Grief” – The Year of Magical Thinking and Brother, I’m Dying, The Sum of our Days is an example of how writers can use their gift as a spiritual flotilla during times of extreme crisis and pain.  In The Sum of Our Days, Allende frequently recounts the various ways in which writing is a fundamental part of her life, as a means to heal, to grieve, to communicate and be connected to her family.

Allende’s ability as a storyteller is evident in the way she is able to turn people in her life into characters, not turning them into caricatures, but fleshing them out, deftly including the most pertinent parts of them while maintaining focus on the narrative thread.

What is particularly interesting about Allende’s work is that she writes in Spanish. Her works are translated into English by longtime translator Margaret Sayers Peden. Her lyrical language is so much a part of what makes her work a joy to read, in either English or Spanish. It is a testament as to how story, when it comes from the heart, can be strong enough to carry over into other languages and cultures.

Into the Wild


book by Jon Krakauer

annotation by Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo

Into the Wild claims to tell the story of Chris McCandless’ greatest adventure and tragic end in the back woods of Alaska, but often focuses on Krakauer’s connection with McCandless rather than the subject itself. A story that began as a featured article for Outside Magazine grew into a full-length book after Krakauer became infatuated by the story and its hero. He states in the Author’s Notes, “I was haunted by the boy’s starvation and by vague unsettling parallels between events in his life and those in my own.”

As I read this book I began to wonder, when is the author allowed to be part of the story? It is no doubt that this book was written because of Krakauer’s own self-proclaimed connections to Chris McCandless, but don’t we all write on subjects we feel deep connections to? When are we allowed as writers to cross that line from the narrator to the story? Is there a moment? And how can we know when that moment has arrived?

A year after Chris McCandless’s death, Krakauer visits the site where it occurred. Once inside the bus where Chris lived out his grandest adventure and met his untimely death, Krakauer studies the objects left behind: toenail clippers, a makeshift belt around torn jeans, and the boots that appear to be waiting for their owner’s return. Sitting in the bus amongst the objects that made up the last four months of McCandless’ life Krakauer states, “I feel uncomfortable, as if I were intruding, a voyeur who has slipped into McCandless’s bedroom while he is momentarily away.” Continue reading

The Liar’s Club: A Memoir

book by Mary Karr

annotation by Wendy M. Fontaine

Mary Karr may have set the bar in the art of memoir with her timeless book, The Liars’ Club, which tells the hilarious and heart-breaking story of the author’s tumultous childhood in rural East Texas.

The title comes from the group of drinking buddies with whom the author’s father, Peter, swaps tall tales. The story is about Mary and her sister, Lecia, two pugnacious youngsters who raise hell in their neighborhood (first in Texas and later in Colorado) while also dealing with the strain of alcoholism, domestic instability, sexual abuse and death.

Karr wrote the memoir in 1995 as a single mother, long after the events of her childhood were behind her. But her ability to create gritty, vivid scenes brings the reader to the raw center of her years in Leechfield, a swampy, muddy oil town that her father said was “too ugly not to love.”

The scenes are so powerful and real that you can almost see the dirt under your own fingernails.  Karr delivers these vibrant scenes with a language so lyrical and textured that it feels like poetry – fitting, given that she was an award-winning poet long before she wrote her first memoir.

The language is simple and direct, with the tell-it-like-it-is charm of the south; Karr writes the way people talk, which brings this book its credibility and appeal.

“Your mother’s threat of homicide, however unlikely she tries to make it sound,” Karr writes, “will flat dampen down your spirits.” Continue reading