Malahat volunteer Jake Hólm talks with Rebecca Foust, 2014 winner of the Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Prize, about her winning memoir, "Venn Diagrams," chosen from over 160 entries. Foust discusses truth, memory, and the balance between hot subject matter and cool tone.
Reading “Venn Diagrams,” the creative nonfiction piece that won the Malahat’s Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Prize for 2014, I am curious how to reconcile its more abrasive, messy sequences with the calm affirmation of its tone and pacing. While I hesitate to describe the voice as disconnected—in light of the information you share with readers—your prose doesn’t seem to make much room for the complex emotive response that such a powerful memoir naturally evokes. Where would you say that the matter-of-factness of your writing springs from, and what does it bring to bear on the piece as a whole?
This is an interesting question. I am quite certain that any matter-of-factness in my tone is a result of the effort I have always made not to allow treatment of highly emotional subject matter to veer into melodrama or pathos. One of my writing teachers taught me early on—it may have been John Garner talking in The Art of Fiction, or it may have been poet C. Dale Young talking in a grad school workshop—something along the lines of: “the hotter the subject matter, the cooler the tone should be.” Whether writing poetry or prose, I do tend to exercise restraint in all forms, including in trying to avoid “overwriting” and keeping the writing as lucent and spare as I can. But also, as mentioned above, I try to keep my personal emotions from infecting the writing. I want more to lay out the facts objectively and clearly and to allow those facts, and perhaps some imagery and other figurative language to convey any emotion of the piece. In this essay in particular, which relies so heavily on a trope drawn from logic (the Venn diagram), a tone of restraint seemed appropriate.
In a funny way too, I think my son’s reactions in the past to things I have written about him may have affected this. My son is very tough and brave and tends to shrug off (and not always even to see) callous or cruel treatment by others. A mother, perhaps, sees it all and feels what is not there to see in her gut, in her mother-instinct and impulse to protect her child. So for this essay, I interrogated each potentially fraught fact—did it really happen as I remember it? Was it really that bad? I was, in a way, standing outside these events as I relayed them, testing my expression of them against my memory and trying not to let the emotions that welled up color my rendition of events. I hope that this answers your question, and I hope that the piece does elicit feeling—and thinking—from its readers.
I find it interesting that you describe yourself as “standing outside” of the events depicted. As a reader, I feel an urge to know who wrote this, lived this, what they look like and where they are at now; such is its rawness that it is difficult to separate the writing from the writer, so to speak. I wonder, though, do you find that any attempt to creatively document one’s past naturally places the writer “outside” of the original experience?
Always. The moment a writer turns their gaze on their past they step outside of it, and in several respects. First, the very act of looking at something requires distance and perspective. Writers go further with this, not simply seeing but also attempting to document and communicate what they see. Good writers are interested in telling the truth, and so part of the process is an assessment of the accuracy or truth of one’s instrument of perception. If you are writing about something you’ve seen, you interrogate your literal and figurative vision. If you are writing about what you remember, you interrogate the accuracy of the memory. That memories are notoriously faulty has always been known—recount a family story at a reunion, and you’ll get as many versions of what happened as there are people in the room. Part of the job in writing a personal essay is to pay attention to that and to, as I’ve said, interrogate one’s own memory to assess its accuracy. To do that, you have to stand outside of or apart from it.
In an earlier response I talked about another kind of detachment-aesthetic necessary for all good writing: the ability to assess as objectively as possible the strength of one’s own expression, right down to the level of sentence structure, diction and grammar. And I also talked about the special need for some distance when treating subjects of great emotion and pain, and how a teacher once taught me the adage that the hotter the subject, the cooler the language should be to convey it. The idea is to let facts or events speak for themselves, without telling the reader how sad or tragic or whatever they were.
Another respect in which a writer stands at a remove in a personal essay is in doing what Philip Lopate talks about in his craft essay “On Turning Oneself into a Character.” In order to give the reader “a clear picture of who is speaking” (who the “I” is) Lopate says, “the writer needs to turn herself into a character” much like the characters we see in fiction. And to do that you must “have—or acquire—some distance from yourself.” The idea is not to invent traits we don’t have but instead to dramatize the ones we do—to “mine our quirks” and then present them (preferably through action) vividly to our readers.
Okay, but once the writing process has run its course—the self has become character; the language and narrative voice are precisely as they should be—what of the original experience may be retained, what is most liable to change?
Well, what I hope to retain is the truest, best version of the events being recounted. So what might change is a fact that (by doing research or interviewing others about their memories), I have discovered to be suspect or untrue. At some point I realized that one of my most vivid personal “memories” of my mother was based on a photograph of her (in a canoe) taken before I was born. By the time I came along, that canoe was sold. So if I describe my mother paddling a canoe, it has to be in terms of that photo, or from having heard another person describe it. And to the extent I can, I will let the reader know that my description is based not in my own memory but on these other things. I might say something like “in the photo, my mother is holding the paddle in her right hand,” or “sister tells me Mom was holding the paddle in her right hand.” And if something I remember turns out not to have been true at all—like remembering I was in first grade when JFK was killed when history tells me that could not have been the case, then I cannot present it as “fact.” I have found that it is in precisely those areas where my memory diverges from reality that I often find the most interesting things to talk or write about.
Besides wanting to present the truth of what happened I also want to present it in the “best” way possible, and for me this means making craft choices that maximize clarity of expression and reader engagement. If it is equally accurate to say the geranium was pink and that it blazed up like morning, I might choose the latter way of saying it (or might not, depending upon the goal of that particular piece of writing). And again, making that choice involves standing outside of the actual memory and thinking instead about what it is I am trying to convey and what impact it will have on the reader.
I guess one last thing I want to say is that the place for this distancing, for me anyway, is not in the writing of the first draft of a piece (when it is best to just get everything down, without editing, as quickly and fully as it occurs to you) but in revision. And I acknowledge that in stepping outside of the memory, one runs the risk of becoming too self-conscious, which carries its own threat to the cause of trying to tell a truth. You can begin for example, to worry that you “look bad” to a reader or that you have revealed too much. You can acquire too much distance, wringing all the life and emotion out of a piece. But some degree of distance is, I believe, crucial to the success of any writing.
Yes, this last point is more along the lines of what I was thinking—the potential for self-consciousness to interfere with veracity. I suppose that first drafting the memories “as quickly and fully” as they occur to you, and building from there, is a good way to guard against the possibility of such. But how is it that a brass tacks sketch of memories comes to assume, as judge Priscila Uppal put it, “the clever and appealing visual conceit of Venn diagrams” that ultimately organizes your work? Can you tell us how the piece came together in this particular way?
Before I answer your last question I wanted to thank you for the care and thought you put into your questions. I’d kind of expected this to be more of a fill-in-the-bio kind of interview and what you offered has been a lot more interesting. But I did want to mention if I could my gratitude to judge Priscila Uppal for choosing my essay and to The Malahat Review for publishing it. “Venn Diagrams” is only the second personal essay I have published. That the award is named after Constance Rooke, a beloved alumna of Smith College, whose generous financial aid gave me the chance to be the first (along with a twin brother at Penn State) in my family to graduate from College, makes it all the sweeter.
The only self-consciousness I was aware of in drafting this piece is the concern I always have when writing about my son: not to violate his privacy or offend his dignity. That’s why I withhold his name. And exercise some restraint—at least avoiding too much in the way of lurid histrionics—when, for example, describing his birth trauma.
I originally wrote “Venn Diagrams” as an exercise for an online class—“The Lyric Essay” taught by Sarah Messer for 24 Pearl Street. The class had read and was discussing an essay by Emma Bolden about her traumatic experience with modern American medical practice, and that made me remember the months I spent in the hospital during my pregnancy. Then I began to think about my mother’s experience during her pregnancy with me, struck as before by the irony that the medicine she took to forestall miscarriage may have been the cause of my own preterm labour. At that point I was just writing about our respective pregnancies and was calling the piece “Trimesters.”
Then I started thinking beyond our pregnancies to our whole lives, my mother’s and mine. I considered that when she was the age I am now, the two of us had only another twelve years together on earth. My thoughts came round then, as they are wont to do, to how much more time my son will have on earth with me. And what his life will be like when I’m gone—will he be ready, will he be OK?—that sort of thing. All parents worry about these things. So I was musing about my mother’s life, my life and my son’s life in terms of chunks or swathes that sometimes overlap and sometimes exist apart. And then the Venn diagram representation of that idea just came to me in a completely visual way. But not at that point to structure the essay, more as a tool to try to parse out how lives with loved ones are shared, then not. I remember scrawling all kinds of Venn diagrams on a piece of scrap paper at my desk. I noticed how expressive they were, how one looked like a baby in the womb and another looked achingly vacant, like those diatoms we used to peer at under microscopes in high school biology class. By then the diagrams had taken over and become the organizing principle of my essay.
I had not thought about it before, but I suspect that one thing that led me to the Venn diagram conceit is my son’s fascination and great mental agility with math. He is a brilliant, intuitive mathematician who thinks about math problems for fun and often casts his experiences in those terms. I am not a math whiz myself, but I’ve always liked logic and geometry, find them beautiful in an architectural way. So the Venn diagram idea appealed to me on many levels.
One last thought here about the contrast of the coolness of the form and the heat of the subject matter: parents of all kids—not just kids with issues—take on a huge burden of fear when their children are born. It is one thing to assume the risk of your own peril when, say, getting into a car to drive anywhere and quite another to assume that risk on behalf of a small, defenseless thing you love more than you could ever love yourself. Most parents of small kids walk around with baited breath, poised to rescue them if they have to from all kinds of danger and hurt. As they grow older, we come to understand that our power to protect them is limited. Parents of kids with special challenges feel the pain of this impotence especially keenly, and the fear of how they will manage after we are gone is unbearable at times. So we manage it with reason and action, drawing tight circles around the fear so that we can live our lives. That is part of what I am doing in this essay, managing the expression of something that without structure would just be an inarticulate bleat. So, the structure of the essay mimics how I handle these issues in my own life. When I am in any situation that terrifies me, I count to 100—don’t you?
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