Photo credit: Nancy Bellen.
Writer Ianthe Brautigan talks about applying fiction-writing techniques to memoir, the power of cookies, and rising up to contribute your best.
What sort of writing had you done before you started working on your memoir?
I was actually a Theater Arts major, and I was going to the Junior College, and I fell in love with my English 1A class and ended up writing nonfiction essays. At that point I realized that I was going to be torn between the two worlds, and I decided to choose writing. I still went to New York and worked for Roundabout Theatre and was in the theater world and toyed with that for a little while. And then I came back to Sonoma County and really started writing in earnest and did all the things that writers do -- I took creative writing courses and did workshops and worked with Robin Beeman, who's in the county and is absolutely phenomenal. I got my undergrad in English Literature at Sonoma State, which was the best thing I could have ever done.... You need to read a lot of stuff and get an idea of what's going on. Then I got my MFA at San Francisco State University, and I don't recommend that for everybody.
Going back to my memoir, God, I had started that in the form of poetry right after my dad died. And I'm a terrible poet. But I wrote a prose poem and Don Emblen read it and he said, "You're onto it -- this is what you should be doing; stay away from that poetry stuff." [laughter] And I began writing about my dad. And as you might imagine, it took a long time.
Was the transition from short stories to poetry to memoir writing difficult, or did you feel like you were finding your natural genre?
I think it's important to try all sorts of stuff. I love writing short stories. I've written a novella. I think that in memoir and nonfiction writing, you're using the craft of fiction writing. In fact, a lot of what makes, I think, a good memoir is that it has a lot of fictive elements, except it's based on truth.
Can you elaborate on that -- how fiction-writing techniques can play a role in memoir writing?
Well, you just are set free. Because you've been writing short stories and working in fiction-land, maybe starting novels that you discard, you develop your muscles for description and for structure.
How much of the way you approach structure and description in memoir writing is driven by the linear flow of events versus stepping back and applying a frame to life?
Well it has to be truthful. Memoir has to be truthful. Like, [if] you were speaking about your father and the way that he taught you to jog, that's a memory that's very clear in your head. And you know that that's truth. If you just wrote that down, in three sentences it would be done. But if you wanted to write about that as a chapter of a book or as a turning point in your life, it would be longer, and you would reach into the tools that you've learned as a fiction writer to make that scene work.
You would start to go, where was I? What was there? Were there trees? Was there grass? What kind of tennis shoes was I wearing? All those details, which are real, evoke incredible memory for you as the writer, so you're able to get the soul, you're able to get at the heart of what you're trying to write. But at the same time you're painting a fictive picture.
Not that all of us are Toni Morrison or Jim Harrison or Faulkner, but if you can... rise up to contribute your best -- if we all can do that, in our writing or in our creativity, that would be what creativity is -- can you rise up to contribute what's best in you?
Ianthe Brautigan was born in San Francisco at the tail-end of the Beat Era. Her book You Can't Catch Death: A Daughter's Memoir (St. Martin's Press, 2000), recently optioned for a movie, chronicles her life growing up as the daughter of poet and novelist Richard Brautigan and grappling with his suicide in 1984. Her work has appeared in Cartwheels on The Faultline, The Poet's Eye: A Tribute to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Antioch Review, and will appear in Confrontations. She's taught at Sonoma State University and lives in Northern California, where she's currently working on a novel.
Ianthe Brautigan on the Web: Red Room, You Can't Catch Death
Did you develop techniques for bringing your memories to the surface? I remember one sequence in particular where you were a child in your father's Geary apartment...
You know what? Part of that had to do with getting all his stuff. I have some of that and so looking at that stuff again...
Objects triggered memory?
Was that true for places too? Did you try to revisit specific locales?
No. I didn't go back to Montana until after the book was done pretty much -- it was too painful to go back. I could only go back in my mind. I think when you're dealing with memoir, dreams are a big aspect of it.
Tom McGuane had this great thing he told me. We were talking on the phone, and we don't talk often but I was in the middle of the process, and he said, "What are you doing?" And I said, "Well I'm writing a memoir" -- I knew he would disapprove because those guys, they have their own code of things.
He was a friend of your father's?
Yes, he was a friend, along with Jim Harrison. And I knew he'd -- not disapprove of me writing a memoir in particular, but you know, they're fiction guys, they write fiction.
And he said, "Well, whatever you're writing has you by the back of the neck. And you just kinda have to go with it." It is what it is. You have to accept what it is. And that's the roughest part about memoir writing -- or any kind of writing, I think. I love Toni Morrison; I think she's incredible. I will never write like her in a million years. It's just not going to happen. I have a very distinct style. And it's not that. [laughter] So it's accepting your writing. If you're writing a memoir, accepting that this is what it is.
And then you have to find a structure for it.... I read a million memoirs. And I would find somebody and go, "Oh, OK, you can do this; this is a structure that will work."
What were you looking for?
I was reading books that had writers who were willing to take on way beyond what I had suffered, like Primo Levi, Natalia Ginsburg. And I was going, "OK, so these people are willing to take these heady things on and they survived." Because I think that's the biggest element of memoir writing -- that if you're going to write about something incredibly intense, you better be able to survive it. That's the first thing I tell people -- they'll tell me a really sad story that happened and say, "I want to write a memoir." And the first question I ask is, "Do you think you can? Do you think you have the strength to do it?" Because this is not something you take lightly.
One of the things I wondered was what the aftermath was like in terms of your creative life. Your memoir was also a healing process. What was your writing life like when the book was finished?
To be honest, it kind of sucked. [The memoir] was such a true thing. Now I'm dealing in the world of fiction, and so how do I make my fiction as true as that was?
How did you cope with that?
Well, it has to do with, I would say, writer discipline. I have a new writing pal, and what I'm learning from her is that it's about the pages. It's not about whether it feels good or not because it's pretty brutal, you know? [As I'm writing my novel] I'm constantly questioning myself going, "Have I lost my mind?" You know, all of a sudden these people are going to California -- what is going on?
"These people" meaning your characters?
It's lovely in California.
I know, I know. But they were in Nebraska just last week! My friend who's really helped me with this said, "Don't worry about it, just do the pages." (I have a certain amount of pages that I do every day.) She said, "And don't take a day off because you take a day off, it's really brutal going back." And she said, "Then you can just rewrite it!"
How many pages do you write each day?
I'm trying to do five a day.
Did you consciously decide, "I'm gonna find myself a writing pal" or was that something that just happened?
No, it was an accident. I have a really good writing friend, and we keep each other going, but she's on a different level in writing than I am. She's got it kind of dialed in. This new friend has been really interesting because she's newer to the process. She's writing three books this year. [laughter] I'm learning a lot because she's really disciplined.
There's a Tillie Olsen documentary that's just come out that.... She wrote an amazing book, Tell Me a Riddle. And then she wrote a book called Silences, which is about writers not writing -- women writers.
In this documentary somebody asked, "Why didn't Tillie write more?" She'd been a working-class woman in the Depression, so for a long time she didn't have the money to write. Finally she had the money and time but it was too late in some ways. She was incredibly generous and gave a lot of talks, was very active, but she wasn't publishing.
And Alice Walker said this beautiful thing. I'm paraphrasing, but she said something like, "The mornings are very beautiful; one can do many things in the morning." You know, you can garden.... And I thought, "Ah...." At some point you have to say to yourself, "What do I want to do?" And know that it's gonna be rough. It's not going to be easy.
Where do you think creativity comes from -- what role do you think it plays in our lives?
I think for some people, the genes can run in families because I know that my daughter is a writer. My aunt said the most amazing thing about my dad. She was trying to explain him to me and she said, "Well he was different than everybody." I said, "What do you mean?" And she said, "Well he would say things like, "Look, look at that beautiful tree. Look, look at those flowers over there."
And this was a poor, working-class Depression family, and he was noticing beautiful things. They lived in a beautiful part of the country but nobody would articulate that. So he passed that on to me. And that has been passed on to my daughter -- you know a sense of observation, maybe.
With "look at that tree," there's also that desire to share the observation and not just keep it inside.
Yes! Exactly. And this willingness to suffer to try to say it in the best possible way that you can. Not that all of us are Toni Morrison or Jim Harrison or Faulkner, but if you can, as Tillie Olsen would say, if you can rise up to contribute your best -- if we all can do that, in our writing or in our creativity, that would be what creativity is -- can you rise up to contribute what's best in you?
You know, years ago I'd stopped writing for a while, and I ended up having a bunch of mini-epiphanies that got me back to it -- one of which was actually related to this idea of improvement and had to do with your dad.
Really? In what way?
Well, I love his poetry. And I picked up The Edna Webster Collection, with his unpublished poems from when he was much younger. And this will be blasphemy so I apologize...
But I didn't think that collection was that great. Which was a revelation to me.
He didn't want it published; he called it "juvenilia."
I think he was seventeen or so?
He had so much confidence in those poems. And that picture of someone who wasn't yet great but then managed to bring out that greatness, it really hammered home the idea that we should keep working because we're just here to get better.
Well, my mom said that my dad used to say, the difference between a good writer and a bad writer is twenty years.
The writing world is a strange world right now. You have to be writing, not for somebody to give you tons of money or to say something really fantastic...and at the same time, a writer has to have recognition in some form; otherwise they die. It's what you were alluding to with sharing. You know, when you get an acceptance, you're just thrilled. "Oh my God! Somebody loves this too!" [laughter]
That was one of the questions I had, having never tried memoir writing -- how do you get feedback and recognition along the way for something so personal?
I was in a novel class and I had a workshop, and we had to copy the whole darned thing and give a copy to everybody. My teacher was finishing a novel and she wasn't as helpful as she usually had been. And I had this wretched session where people were giving contradictory ideas and nobody was really making any sense. I was sitting there and this one young woman, she was twenty-two, she came up to me afterwards and she said, "I just had to tell you, I read this on the plane and I cried." She said, "It made me want to write a book about my father because I had a complicated relationship." And at that point I literally came home, threw away all the other remarks and kept hers.
So that showed you she was a receptive reader?
Yes. And at the same time, if you don't agree with something you don't want to be resistant -- you don't want to put up a big fight or make a big deal. You don't stand up in a workshop and burst into tears and go storming out. You just go, "uh huh, uh huh."
Working on the book, was it a challenge to keep your personal life and your creative life balanced?
There was a woman who had a great quote that really helped me when [my daughter] was about five. This woman said, "You can inconvenience your family; just don't damage them." And I like that, and that's kind of how I've lived my life....
I wrote a lot of my book when [my daughter] was little. At that point my office was in the house because when they're littler, for some reason, the kind of noise they make is different than when they become teenagers. When she became a teenager I moved out, and I have a studio outside.
Teenage noise isn't compatible with the writing life?
It's not, it's a whole -- I can't even describe it. Well, you'll find out. Actually it'll be a different noise by the time you get teenagers. But she was around a lot, doing her own thing. She got to observe me, and hopefully that was good. She's an excellent writer. It'll be really interesting to see what she ends up doing.
Is she in high school now?
She's in college. Now we have a fur child -- a little dog. She's a great writing buddy. She keeps me warm, she sits on my lap -- she's here right now. And she just moves wherever I move.
Does she help with your writing?
Animals do. Because you don't want to disturb them too much. Anything that keeps you in the chair a little bit longer....
Is there anything else you've found helps?
You can bribe yourself. I call it "toothpaste-tube writing," which is when you just sit down and squeeze. And one would assume that toothpaste-tube writing would be terrible, the end result would be terrible, and that the days when you "feel the muse" and everything is going really, really well would be better. What I found is, there's really no difference in the writing. You just do it. So after I do a toothpaste-tube kind of session, I'll reward myself with cookies or things like that. Food's a very useful reward.
Looking back, do you think there's anything in particular that you learned about writing from your dad?
I think I learned the inevitability of being a writer. That you just are what you are.
It's not like, "Oh, I'm a writer," and you trot around as a writer. There was this kind of somber inevitability that this is who he was. And it was kind of a comfort to see someone accept a difficult way to live one's life.
And then, it was that he was very disciplined. Somebody recently asked me, "So that was when he wasn't drinking so much?" and I was like, "Oh no, let's be clear -- he always drank a great deal." You know, he wasn't drunk all the time, but that was always a present force in his life. Despite that, he really protected his writing life. So the Wind [So the Wind Won't Blow It Away, the last of Richard Brautigan's novels published in his lifetime], I think, is a gorgeous book. His writing is just beautiful even when he was not doing at all well in his personal life. I mean things were really bad.
I think observing somebody who was so dignified and disciplined and felt hope in the world and wanted to share his feelings about that, and could see life in a different way -- I think that was very, very useful. And [it gave me] a sense of the responsibility that goes with that.
You mentioned when we first got in touch that there were questions you wished you'd asked him about writing -- I wondered what they might be?
I'd have structure questions. You start from an idea, how do you structure it? There would be structural questions for his novels -- what gave him the courage to write something like Sombrero Fallout? Or Hawkline Monster or Trout Fishing -- my God, talk about a structural tour de force. How he had the courage to get an idea and then carry it through....
But I think there's another element. You know, I was listening to [the NPR radio show] This American Life and it had this great episode about a guy whose dad died. He ended up being a physicist and he spent his life working on a time machine because he wanted to go back in time and see his father again. If I had a time machine, it would just be to sit in his presence, just to be with him. That was so comforting. Just to go for a walk with him or something.
That's how I feel about my grandpa too. Whatever questions I might have about my family history and such, ultimately I'd just like to be a kid and sit on his shoulders again.
Yeah, exactly, exactly. That's it I think.
Maybe that's part of what writing the memoir was about -- being in his presence?
I think it was. I really do think it was. It was going back. Also, I just wanted to make sure that certain elements of him were remembered correctly because when you're writing a memoir, and we're talking about using fictive elements, you have a responsibility to the heart of the thing that you're trying to share. And I was trying to do a lot of things in that memoir, but one of them was sharing my dad.
Was there much fear of misrepresentation? Fear that the burden of presenting someone else might be too great? Or was that not something you had to wrestle with?
Not too badly. I would panic, like when I was working on the blue lines [a copy of the book for review before it's printed] -- this is where kids come in really handy. They were all teenagers at the time, and so I had them double-checking things for me, double-checking quotes. Because you start to have a panic about things like that -- double checking the Faulkner quote or double-checking the Ondaatje quote.
Or like in that Geary section that we were talking about earlier. I had written that the bus fare is fifteen cents. And all of a sudden you're just panicking, "Oh my God, is it fifteen cents? Have I remembered that right?" What was really interesting is that you do remember all these things correctly. It was fifteen cents.