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Gail Caldwell on Memoir, Persona, and the Writing Process

Posted on Thu, Jun 12 2014 9:00 am by Elizabeth Tannen

Photo by John Earle

Gail Caldwell is the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of three memoirs, including the highly acclaimed Let’s Take the Long Way Home, about her friendship with the late writer Caroline Knapp. Caldwell’s most recent book is called New Life, No Instructions, and it chronicles her experience dealing with recovery from hip surgery in middle age—at the same time that she had taken on a feisty Samoyed pup. Caldwell answered questions about her writing process from Loft Teaching Artist Elizabeth Tannen, who is teaching a class this summer for teenagers on Persona in Creative Nonfiction.

You write that New Life, No Instructions began with an interest in telling the story of your experience with polio and your parents' reaction to it. In what way did the shape of the book, and the parameters of the narrator's persona, shift during the process of writing?

One of the tricky things about this book, unlike my other two memoirs, is that much of its central story was unfolding as I was trying to write. Bad idea, writing memoir in the unfixed, ethereal present. I started out with something very different, in the way that writers often fish in a stream and catch the trout they didn’t know they were looking for. I began by wanting to write a book about attachment—specifically canine-human attachment, or, as I say midway in the book, “why we love what we love.” That premise appeared as I was sleepless and frustrated and lovestruck, trying to raise a hellion Samoyed puppy, and struggling physically to do so. Then I started dreaming a lot about my mother, who died in 2006, and remembering our time on the floor together after I’d had polio. And the webs seemed disconnected, but were really all about the same emotional nexus, I think—why we all do these amazing, difficult, Sisyphean things every day. 

So much of the book is about the way that we see ourselves, and the way circumstances force us to change the narrative. How much does (or, did) the act of writing play a role in the way that you were able to transform your identity? 

I think writing is by nature transformative; it’s one of the reasons people write. It worries me sometimes—narrative is such a powerful tool that you can eclipse the truth or your own personal history, if you’re not careful, by the narrative web you spin. The stories have to match: the 3 a.m. how-I-really-feel story has to bear a strong resemblance to the printed-word story you’re telling. Or at least they must be emotional siblings. Otherwise you have fooled yourself, which is even worse than fooling the reader.

On the other hand, I don’t think core identity really is transformed. I think things happen to influence outcomes, or attitudes, but we are generally stuck with who we are.

As I read the book I kept jotting down different aspects of the narrator's persona: Texan, rower, daughter, friend, mother of dogs, a single woman (a single woman who is stubborn, determined and fierce) would you define the essential persona of the narrator in this memoir? 

Well, I like all those definitions, and hope I’m a little of each of them. It’s tough to define what you call “the essential persona;” it’s like asking what you see when you look in the mirror. I don’t really think about persona while I’m writing. I feel always the effort to be authentic—to find the voice that is the essence of my work. That’s the work of a lifetime, I feel, for any writer—the effort to find her most honest, lucid self, through the voice she uses.

How would you contrast the persona in this memoir with your previous two books?

Each of my books has elicited something profoundly personal, half-unconscious, that I only realize in retrospect. My first book, A Strong West Wind, felt like a story I had to write, about my father and Texas. Long Way Home was a love song to Caroline, and in a way I just had to get out of the way and let the story emerge.  This last book was more of a struggle, because I was undergoing a lot of its plot while also trying to write it.

As a memoirist, what are your most important tools for establishing persona?

Thinking. I spend a lot of time not writing, but instead walking in the woods, planting flowers, swimming. All of these done in silence. Then the story starts to emerge. As said above, I think of voice as such a personal, vibrant and attached phenomenon that it’s like a spiritual limb of sorts—it is just who one is, and you use it. Like singing second alto.

What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of writing memoir? 

Sifting through the flotsam of life to find the three percent that is useful to tell a story, and then shaping that clay into a well-designed structure.

What would you say is the most rewarding part of the process? 

That wonderful joy when you write a good sentence, or a page that matters.