Tooting my own sad trombone
On memoir, imagination, and the insufferable burden of self.
Edification – Newsletter #101 – December 19, 2021
Happy Sunday. Are we staying safe? Are we staying put? Are we ready for this?
The holidays are spinning up and my family is doing a party (and a memorial service) without me. I’m once again having nightmares about tsunami surges.
Doing what I can, I’m reading and learning. Currently reading Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory, on the art of memoir. I tracked it down from a reference in the fantastic creative nonfiction guide Tell It Slant, where Hampl is quoted:
“I am forced to admit that memoir is not a matter of transcription, that memory itself is not a warehouse of finished stories, not a static gallery of framed pictures. I must admit that I invented. But why?” …
“We find, in our details and broken and obscured images, the language of symbol. Here memory impulsively reaches out its arms and embraces imagination. That is the resort to invention. It isn’t a lie, but an act of necessity, as the innate urge to locate personal truth always is.”
It’s not a comfortable concept to consider for nonfiction writers, the almost automatic embellishment that takes place in the mind. But we are not cameras. We dream. We combine. We misremember. Where is the line between acceptable distortion and falsehood? It’s almost easier to throw the shawl of “autofiction” over one’s shoulders and give it a big fat shrug.
In the coming year I’m focusing on a few projects: My current novel is about halfway written and I have a swelling war-chest of poetry (yes, reader, a literal war-chest! except in lieu of a chest it’s a folder, and instead of gold pieces I have scraps of paper), plus some fun story and nonfiction essay ideas.
The songwriting is also really clicking now. Last weekend during our stormy cabin excursion, the dear husband and I wrote three new songs. We’d like to start sharing those soon, so I hope you’ve got your cringe muscles all warmed up.
For the past couple of weeks I’ve been attempting to reduce my online footprint. I pared back my Medium account, deactivated Facebook, and started cleaning up my author website. I also withdrew submissions I had pending at a few lit mags out of a desire to rake the editorial comb over the tangles again. Take things a little slower. What am I trying to prove?
Naturally the best thing to do when you’re dialing it all down is to start a Tiktok, right? Are you on there? Please say hi and tell me what to do!
I was thinking of reading some of my own short, published pieces, along with maybe other people’s poetry but I’m not sure how that works copyright-wise. Any expertise on that is appreciated.
Self-promotion is not really about tooting your own horn. I get that. Good news feels very self-absorbed, indulgent. Boring. Hell, I probably took measurable minutes off your life by subjecting you to that list of my upcoming projects up there. And I’m sorry. But do you know how long it took me to get to the point of being able to recognize my own accomplishments? For decades, the only way I could toot my own horn was in a long trombone glissando. Now I can Coltrane like a coal train.
For writers especially, I think self-promotion is more about fostering conversations, engaging with readers and other writers (non-exclusive circles, of course). It’s about stimulating ideas, bringing humor or compassion or beauty into the world. That’s what I prefer, anyhow. I personally enjoy writers on Twitter who post photos of their daily lives. Walks in nature, animals, city scenes. Updates on what’s going on in their necks of the woods.
I often wonder what I can do along those lines. Every Thursday for this past year, I’ve been posting a drawing to Twitter and often talking about the art.
Sometimes these get several dozen likes, sometimes barely any engagement. I also post photos of live around West Virginia, or relate silly anecdotes. I usually blame the algorithm – why even have an algorithm if you can’t blame it for something! – but it’s hard to not also extrapolate lack of engagement to my own failing, too. Sad trombone.
Writers are often counseled to treat their work as a product, or even themselves as a product, a business, a brand. But we’re not entertainment companies. We’re just out here living our lives and pouring an inordinate amount of time into words on pages. And I hope we all err on the side of more time going to those words than toward keeping up online appearances.
Not that it’s my life’s goal to be interesting to other people. The first rule of being interesting is to be interested. That’s what’s most important.
But, hey, maybe it turns out Patricia Hampl is on to something. Maybe imagination is the spice of truth (so long as you don’t turn the shaker over on it, right?). And gobs of people have already shown it’s more interesting to be a drama queen.
Self-promotion is exhausting. Or maybe I’m just exhausted by everything right now. I exhaust myself.
What do you call an extrovert exhausted by their own antics? A flextrovert. Under social isolation, it’s all a bit much.
Please, let this new year act as a psychic gullywasher. Let us somehow restore our exuberant joy, courage, drive. Fortitude. I suppose in making a list of these words I create my own incantation. May the spell be a prophecy and the prophecy self-fulfill.