by Jerry Waxler
The children’s illustrator, Maurice Sendak told an interviewer that when he was little, he was scared of old people. He was afraid of their wrinkled skin and hair growing out of the wrong places. Such scary impressions formed the basis for the monsters in Sendak’s children’s books, monsters that made him famous. The interviewer Marty Moss Coane then asked him, “Now that you are 80 years-old yourself, do you feel you have become a monster to the small children who read your books?” “Absolutely” he answered. “Many children at signings are afraid of me and burst into tears when their mother tells them to hand me their book.”
The conversation stirred my own childhood memory of visiting my great-grandmother in a nursing home. She was very, very old, with white hair and shriveled skin. I couldn’t wait to get out. As I grow older, my own body gradually becomes less perfect, an observation made all the more disturbing by my tendency to prefer lovely and smooth people over flawed ones. If I judge my own vitality the way I judge theirs, I come up short, in fact shorter all the time, as even my height collapses under the weight of years.
I feel an urgency to start loving the flaws in the human condition, because if I don’t do it soon, I will start hating myself. To help me change my perspective, I have been reading people’s stories. Their thoughts and feelings teach me who they are, in the full flower of their differences and imperfections.
Take Gary Presley, for example, a moderator on InternetWritingWorkshop. I admire Gary’s relentless kindness and service to fellow writers. And, it turns out, Gary accomplishes these achievements from a wheelchair. His body was ravaged by polio when he was 17, and now decades later, he has written about his journey in the memoir “Seven Wheelchairs, A Life beyond Polio.”
As I learn about Gary, I recognize in his story, a central aspect of my own ambition. I too pour myself into writing, wanting to be known not by my increasingly flawed body but by the long reach of my curious mind. By understanding him, I learn much about myself and continue to expand my fascination with people of all kinds. His world makes mine richer.
But to share his world with me, he had to figure out how to set words on a page. It is through this strange medium that he, and every memoir writer, shares our world. And so, despite his physical difference from me, Gary has traveled a writer’s journey that has created a voice, strong and deep, through which to present himself in all his complex, rich energy of a creative human being, exemplifying universal qualities that make life worth living — the will to learn, to create, and then to express inner life and share it with the world.
While all of us have a story, not all of us have been to graduate school to study the nuances of writing style and theory. Instead we accumulate knowledge in bits and pieces. One workshop leader shows us how to create a unique character by describing a tic or habit. A book about writing explains the importance of starting a story in the middle of the action. An especially important insight for memoir writers is the difference between essays and stories. Gary Presley’s memoir contains excellent lessons about these two forms because it straddles the fence between them.
I think of pure story as something you can put on a stage. It progresses through scenes, and shows you specific images that you can visualize. So for example, consider Gary’s portrayal of his last walk under power of his own legs. He was milking the cows one evening, felt sick, went to bed, and woke up the next morning unable to move his legs. It’s a story.
I think of an essay as a discussion of ideas. For example, Gary explores his relationship with the Seven Wheelchairs in the title, rapidly traversing periods of time, progressing from one wheelchair to the next, and explaining the importance of this vehicle for his independence. He hates it when people say he is “confined to a wheel chair.” He prefers to see the machine as a sort of external appendage of himself, like a bionic man who uses wheels instead of legs. This discussion of his relationship to wheelchairs is an essay.
Most memoirs are mostly stories. And yet, when you look more closely you almost always find essays, sometimes a paragraph long, and sometimes a page, embedded within the framework of the story. To learn about the relationship between these two forms, read Seven Wheelchairs or any favorite memoir carefully. In one color, highlight the scenes that could be performed as a play. In another color, highlight the parts that describe thoughts and ideas. See which parts you like, and think about how the author has handled the mix between these two forms.
Philosophy of self-reliance seen through the eyes of a crip
Presley tells the story of his life in a wheelchair, a “crip” as he calls himself, when he fell from the teenage graces of an adult into the prison of an iron lung. Then he describes years of life, from reliance on caregivers, to his employment in an office, and so on. Through it all, he faces a powerful inner tension. He is unable to get into or out of bed or clean himself without assistance, and yet his pride demands he be self-reliant. How can he be both self-reliant and yet rely on his helpers for his very life?
He expresses his dilemma eloquently, describing his initial anger and despair in the early years, and gradually he discovers a balance in his attitude that would sustain him through the rest of his life. In this state of inner tension, to survive as a proud individual, he exerts indomitable will, founded upon a rock-solid determination to manage his mind, the part of himself he can still control. He must not give in to depression, laziness, or dependence. Within himself, and with others, he demands the right to be a full person.
Gary’s biography proves that ideas are more than mere garnish. His ideas about self-reliance kept him alive, pushed him to excel, and despite the limitations polio foisted on him, he continued a lifelong commitment to giving and interacting with others. His ideas were crucial for shaping and sustaining his life.
His determination to rise above mere circumstance forces me to look beyond the frustration of traffic jams, the fear of economic downturn, and even the health and wholeness of my body. Idealism is more than all of these things. Idealism provides an image of what life could be. Then we idealists passionately reach towards it, and struggling, come as close to it as possible. By showing me how he arrived at these ideas, he transformed his outer disability into a story of inner strength, providing a noble ideal that I hope to be able to follow.
Here are two more memoirs that combine the story and essay form:
Kate Braestrup’s “Here when you need me” contains essay thinking about the theodicy problem.
Henry Louis Gates’ “Colored People” contains a terrific essay about hair.
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