In college, I memorized a paraphrase of Wordsworth’s definition of poetry: the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion recollected in tranquility. It suggests a deceptively modest formula for all writing: simply access strong feelings in a safe space, and good writing will follow. I remember this description as both terrifying and fascinating. Looking back now, I see that writing about myself scared me; a bigger problem was that I could not access the tranquility Wordsworth prescribed. And so I turned my back to introspective writing, choosing journalism instead, where I could write about others with the occasional assistance of literary devices learned from poetry and fiction. It took me nearly three decades to come to writing memoir, and even now, I feel afraid, and for good reason: I am writing about sexuality and love experienced at a tender age. At that time, I hurt people I loved.
Striking the balance between brutal honesty and graceful empathy is an enormous challenge. I’ve come to understand the solution (easier said than done) as a dance between distance and intimacy. Too much space blurs meaning; too little space flattens the emotional pull of the work or overwhelms the reader. As I wrote, I found I needed some way to divert both my own and the reader’s attention ever so slightly, while keeping an eye on the story itself.
I studied how other memoirists use narrative to navigate distance. I noticed that books like Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, which bring readers skin-close to the story, use only one narrative. This kind of immediacy is intense and can leave readers raw, and the authors themselves have reported that the process of writing such books is personally painful. “Everybody I know who wades deep enough into memory’s waters drowns a little,” writes Mary Karr in The Art of Memoir. This is true for all sorts of narratives, but not all writers (or readers) are up for the intimacy required for a single, heart-wrenching narrative.
Other memoirs employ more than one narrative, often a shadow narrative that implicitly follows the primary narrative. These secondary narratives feel to me like peripheral vision—appearing just at the edges of our awareness, reminding us of the wideness of our field of vision. The addition of one or more of these peripheral narratives gives a memoir some breathing room and gives me, the reader, a tranquil space to reflect. This space provides the reader (and, perhaps, also the author) a way to experience powerful emotions without being completely overwhelmed, while uncovering meaning in ordinary and extraordinary experiences.
So what do these peripheral narratives look like? Sometimes, they are like parallel lines, one narrative following the main narrative at a constant distance. Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk follows this pattern as the author tells the story of her grief after her father’s death through her experience of training a young goshawk she names Mabel. (There is a third narrative, as well: her interpolation of The Goshawk by T. H. White, the famous author of The Once and Future King. This narrative is also worth exploring, though I’ve set it aside for this essay.) Despite the book’s title, it can be argued, as many critics have, that her primary narrative is sorrow, brought on when her father dies.
Macdonald purchases the young bird after her father suffers a fatal heart attack. At the time, she believes the hard work of grief is behind her, but over time, she must admit she depends on Mabel to help her navigate or simply forget the shocking, raw despair that re-emerges like waves over the next year: “My flight from death was on her barred and beating wings.” Macdonald’s grief ebbs and flows along with the progress she makes with Mabel. In each narrative, she takes one step forward before taking two (or more) steps back. What Macdonald learns from Mabel, she can apply to her halting progression through sorrow.
But just when Macdonald turns a corner in Mabel’s training, she is overwhelmed by an ordinary but energy-sapping illness that forces her indoors, where she creates a kind of hood and cage for herself:
In a fit of bitter misery, I make a fort out of an old cardboard wardrobe box in the spare room upstairs and crawl inside. It is dark. No one can see me. No one knows where I am. It is safe here. I curl up in the box to hide. Even in my state of sickness I know this is more than a little strange. I am not going mad, I tell myself. I’m ill. That is all.
The author is becoming a hawk, reverting to childlike coping mechanisms. As a reader, I feel her momentary insanity, but the periphery narrative, perched in a dark corner, keeps me a bit sheltered, safe from overwhelming feelings of grief.
When Macdonald begins to intellectualize her experiences with Mabel, she also emerges from her depression. “I am starting to see the balance is righting, now, and the distance between Mabel and me increasing. I see, too, that her world and my world are not the same, and some part of me is amazed that I ever thought they were.” The distance she feels from Mabel is a sign she is recovering. Ultimately, training Mabel was not so much a way to manage her grief but to pass the time while nature took its course. “If you want to see something very much, you just have to be patient and wait. There was no patience in my waiting, but time had passed all the same, and worked its careful magic.”
The peripheral narrative of Susan Faludi’s In the Darkroom curves, swooping to meet the main narrative and then falling below it. Faludi’s main story is about her Hungarian father’s late-in-life transformation into a woman named Stefánie. Against this, she intersperses an analysis of Hungary’s political history, which she is learning as she reconnects with her father. This secondary narrative intersects from time to time with her father’s personal life, both past and present. The result is a rich analysis of identity—gender, religion, ethnicity, and personal history.
It is clear early on that Stefánie is the same opinionated, stubborn person she was as a man. When she playfully asks Faludi to help her choose a dress to wear, Faludi thinks, “Change your clothes all you want, you’re still the same person.” Stefánie is painfully oblivious to the effects she had on Faludi as a father—and now has as a woman. She often dismisses the difficulties of her own life and the lives of those around her, carelessly waving her hand to say she cannot be bothered.
Meanwhile, Hungary is going through its own “identity crisis.” Faludi traces the seeds of current-day, right-wing political currents to the country’s past: from its formation, through the Holocaust, and to Soviet-subject communism. Along the way, she discovers her father’s lifelong struggle with identity, which goes far beyond gender. As a young man, her father subjugated his Jewish identity not only to stay alive during the Holocaust but because he identified as Hungarian before Jewish. Faludi notes the irony in this: “I was someone with only the vaguest idea of what it meant to be a Jew who was nevertheless adamant that I was one. My father was someone reminded at every turn that she was a Jew, who was nevertheless adamant that her identity lay elsewhere.”
Faludi’s challenge is bridging distances created by her father’s laissez-faire approach to his transition and his past. Like her, the reader may find it difficult to understand Stefánie’s stoicism, but understanding Hungary’s culture and politics brings us closer. Faludi also leans on her greatest strength as a writer: using scrupulous reporting to place important (even personal) events in historical context. Over more than a decade, Faludi continues to visit her father, and as her research into Hungary’s past and present crisscrosses with her father’s identity, Stefánie develops into a character more complex and deserving of understanding.
Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby is most daring in its use of multiple peripheral narratives, which appear, disappear, and reappear without warning in an almost stream-of-consciousness fashion. (One peripheral narrative spans the entire book, ticker-tape style, at the bottom of each page, rendering it impossible to digest while reading the main text.) An essayist at heart, Solnit has developed a structure that anchors the core narrative—her final year with her mother—to dozens of parallel and peripheral narratives, each a strong metaphor of the author’s greater theme. The Faraway Nearby gives readers an unabashed glimpse into what seems to be Solnit’s thought process.
The book opens with a question that introduces the overarching theme: “What’s your story?” From that prompt, in diversions both long and short, Solnit explores stories both familiar and less so—Frankenstein, The Arabian Nights, Road Runner cartoons, fairy tales, Inuit legends—that help her tell the story of losing her mother to dementia.
The structure of the book mirrors the workings of a healthy brain, Solnit’s brain: “Think of the brain as an intricate landscape of canyons, arroyos, inlets, bays, tunnels, and escarpments surrounding a buried sea horse [the hippocampus], with the neurons that relay information scattered all through—scientists call this the ‘neuron forest.’” It is her mother’s brain that develops tangles (“the kind of vines you sometimes see creeping up a tree to strangle it”) and barren spots of the “forest” until it literally shrinks.
Solnit puts her strong brain on display, demonstrating her agility with idiosyncratic but well-structured thought. From an analysis of Frankenstein, she concludes that “not to know yourself is dangerous, to [the] self and to others,” and “the self is also a creation, the principal work of your life, the crafting of which makes everyone an artist. This unfinished work of becoming ends only when you do, if then, and the consequences live on.”
Solnit’s chapters are palindromic; she retreads themes from the first half of the book in the second half, only in reverse. (This is also like a brain in dementia, which reverts back to childhood and then infancy as tangles take over the centers of sophisticated thought.) Even with this neat completion of the pattern, Solnit refuses to moor her thoughts completely: “What if we only wanted openings, the immortality of the unfinished, the uncut thread, the incomplete, the open door, and the open sea?” She has accomplished a great deal: telling the story of her mother’s last year, exploring the use of stories to find meaning, allowing her mind to wander, and breathing narrative space into the memoir, granting room for the reader to make her own connections.
In the end, peripheral narratives are structural devices that help the author and reader explore meaning more fully and without constraints. When done well, the reader (and perhaps the author?) is unaware of the conceit, as the narratives are presented side by side or interwoven without pretension or explicit attention. And so perhaps the lesson for writers of memoir is to follow the shadow narrative, even if it seems out of step with the story itself. Taking peripheral glances keeps us in motion, allows us to explore difficult situations and find meaning, all the while feeling secure in the distance created or bridged, creating a tranquil place where we can explore the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion.