I GENUINELY BELIEVE that much like in life, success is writing depends on which details you choose to emphasize. It’s a hard-won illumination, and one that speaks of nothing less than how to explore self-knowledge through memoir, a topic that the truly-marvelous Poe Valentine takes on here for you in his blog post. The great Tom Robbins refers to Poe Ballantine as “the most soulful, insightful, funny and altogether luminous ‘under-known’ writer in America.” I agree. I consider it an honor to have him here. Read on.
Exploring Self-Knowledge Through Memoir
by Poe Ballantine
For many years I strove to emulate my literary idols, the elephant-hunting minimalists, who spoke through their manual typewriters with broad and alcoholic authority on all subjects but apparently knew little of true value, otherwise they would not have drunk themselves to death or shot themselves in the head. But that was the way it had been explained to me, suffering and a short life and insanity were the True Road to Art. Literature, like cod liver oil or a high colonic, was an unpleasant task (not only to read but to produce) which through its ardors improved us in some vaguely esoteric way.
Later in life, still unpublished, but drinking heavily and producing dark sparse prose like my heroes, I came to the sudden and sodden realization that I didn’t like them anymore. They never made me laugh, or shared a personal moment, or shed light on my own condition, or left me feeling anything other than bereft with a headache. The Staid Ones and their manly and ancestral definition of literature, I decided, were solely responsible for the posters on the walls of every public school in America that read: “Books are Fun.” If something is fun, no one should have to be reminded of it. I have never seen posters on school walls that read: “Movies are Fun,” or “Games are Fun.”
I think I was thirty-seven before the Spell of the Elephant Hunters finally broke. No reason in the world why books shouldn’t be fun, I decided, and so I got to pondering what I actually enjoyed reading, the books I studied and traveled with and reread and passed along to friends. These books I realized were all in one way or another about self-examination, a taboo subject in the bygone days of my literary heroes.
And so I stopped writing grim treatments about strangers far away and began to compose instead from personal experience. The first piece I sold for decent money (two hundred dollars!) was a simple introspective recollection of my childhood. The piece was accepted on its first submission. A perfect stranger wrote me a letter of admiration. The reader appreciated my honesty, vulnerability, and admission to ignorance. The sun busted through the clouds. And why not, I thought, in the thick of this mysterious universe with all its emotional afflictions and a drugstore on every corner write about the one thing that might actually make a difference to another human being?
In the ensuing years as I got better technically I began to weave my quest for self-knowledge into the craft of the personal narrative, building my treatments around burning questions that I did not know the answers to: Why did she treat me so badly? Why did I travel for twenty-five years living on four hundred a month when I could’ve gotten a groovy job at the university? Why did Christ befriend me and then hitchhike west without a goodbye? And what were these African chanting voices in my head?
As I’ve grown older, the questions have gotten more difficult. Why is my marriage going nowhere? Why did my neighbor the math professor disappear, and where did he go, and who murdered him? What is autism and why does this specialist I take my son to seem to know nothing? These last questions I’ve addressed in some depth and detail in my most recent book, Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere. I hope you find it illuminating.
Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere, an excerpt
MY PUBLISHER AND HER HOMICIDE COP FIANCÉ COME TO CHADRON
On a snowy day in late November, five-year-old Tom and I drove out to the two-flights-a-day airport four miles west of town to pick up my publisher, Rhonda Hughes, and her fiancé, Kevin Warren, a homicide detective for the Portland, Oregon, Police Department. My son loved the Chadron Municipal Airport, loved taking planes and traveling, and even though he disliked children and had no friends, he loved having guests. Just weeks after starting kindergarten, Tom had been red-flagged as autistic. The symptomatology went something like: slow verbal development, poor social development, repetitive and ritual behaviors (especially rocking and foot bouncing), tactile obsessions, fixations, advanced facility with numbers and numerical concepts, wandering attention. Because Tom met your gaze, smiled readily, pointed to indicate, drank water from a martini glass, owned two rubber skeletons he’d named “Thing” and “Baby Love,” refused to eat anything that might be healthy for him, claimed he would be an alligator when he grew up, and was never once tempted by Barney the purple dinosaur, I didn’t think he was any more autistic than I was. (The father, like his son, is nonstandard, a bit slow, has trouble focusing on things that don’t interest him, is taking longer than the usual time to develop. He is hypersensitive to stimuli, especially loud sounds and nonsense. He is inclined to withdraw, a constructor of secret worlds, seems narrow in affect, and can listen to that Paul Simon song “Mother and Child Reunion” over and over.)
Nevertheless, on recommendation of school staff (an occupational therapist, a special education teacher, the school counselor, the principal, and Tom’s teacher), Tom began seeing a pediatrician who eventually referred us to a psychologist, an autism expert in Casper, Wyoming, about three hours away. Tom liked the long monthly drives to the place he called “Casper, Yie-Yoming,” and he enjoyed the testing and interviews and remembers all his doctors to this day. He could recall the names of his entire extended family in Mexico two years after having only seen them once. But exceptional memory is another red flag of autism, isn’t it?
The plane was late. Tom washed his hands twice, studied the buttons on the coffee maker, pressed his nose against the glass to watch the snow, and announced that in the year 3000 everyone would have four eyes. At last the small, single-engine craft landed and Rhonda and Kevin, ducking whirling flurries, came through the doors.
Rhonda, a slim, urbane, and successful woman of 39 years, hugged me one-armed around the waist and kissed my cheek. Rhonda made her living as a print broker, but had started up a small-publishing outfit seven years before. So far I’d published four books with her, and Rhonda and I had become good friends. Whenever I went to Portland on a book tour I bunked at her ninth-story loft downtown and we stayed up drinking and confessing long into the night. We’d both grown up stoner beach children in San Diego and Rhonda had rescued me editorially numerous times. She’d also taught me how to tell if a woman has had a boob job or not.
Rhonda was also an admirer of The Chadron Record’s weekly published Police Beats, the local-color gems culled from the Chadron Police Department blotter, which she believed would somehow provide the key to a full-fledged literary project about Chadron, Nebraska, though a narrative built around an item such as “7:09 p.m. Caller from North Main St. advised she thought she needed to go to the loony bin” had thoroughly escaped me so far.
Kevin, 40, a liberal policeman with a wry sense of humor, brushed the snowflakes from the sleeves of his coat and said, “Do you think you’ve gotten far enough away from civilization yet?”
I admitted that I hadn’t, and shook his hand. Kevin’s father died when he was young, and he had the saturnine bearing of a child looking out the window all alone at the falling autumn leaves. His hair was thinning. He wore a neat goatee. An Oregon native, he went to Atlantic City once in the folly of his youth pursuing a woman who had no interest in him and spent a year or so as a paramedic there, mostly hauling fat guys with heart attacks out of Trump casinos. Though Rhonda and Kevin had only been dating for a year (they’d met on Match.com) Kevin and I had already become good friends, too. He’d picked me up on my last book tour at the Portland Airport in a police cruiser and later that trip we had sojourned together to Seattle, where I’d read at Elliott Bay Book Company to an audience of 16 then spent the rest of the evening at various bars watching college football games.
Lifelong city dwellers both, Rhonda and Kevin had never seen the Great Plains of Western Nebraska.
Tom was enchanted by his new guests and the stuffed toy beaver they brought him, a mini-mascot of Kevin’s favorite college team, the Oregon State Beavers. “Don’t ya know what?” he asked Rhonda, who had slid into the backseat next to him.
“That snowstorm is coming from the northwest.”
Rhonda rubbed his head. “And when we get home we can have Easter eggs,” he told her. “White Easter eggs,” he said. He meant hard-boiled eggs, which he had just learned to like. He liked them plain, without salt, any time of the day.
“Easter eggs are Italian eggs,” he said
Tom delighted most people with his diamond brightness of smile, his mother’s good looks, and that natural child directness of emotion and vulnerable purity of innocence. But he could also be remote. I watched him once for a few hours through a one-way mirror in his class at the Child Development Center and he treated his mates as if they were ghosts. When he encountered another child, he would simply ice him with indifference. And though he was warm to his teachers and caregivers, he could detach from us as well. He’d go into himself for long periods alone, oblivious as a cosmonaut to the outside world, composing on his dry erase board or rummaging through his toys in the closet. No doubt he had a distinct and winning personality, but sometimes it would recede, leaving in its wake a dark-eyed boy who merely resembled our son.
On the drive home, I showed Rhonda and Kevin around the little haven I had stumbled upon in the darkest days of my life a dozen years ago. One of the big appeals of Chadron, in spite of its viral plastic enfranchisement along the highway, is the agreeable lethargy that presides over all. What in heaven’s name are you doing in this Godforsaken place, I’m often asked. Well, I like it here, is all I can say, and so do my wife and son.
“What keeps this town from drying up and blowing away?” Kevin wanted to know.
“Walmart,” I replied, “and the state college to the south.”
“You’ve got Daylight Donuts, too,” he observed, his hands beginning to tremble. “Do they have savannahs?”
The snowflakes grew larger, zigzagging down like lacy tissue-paper patterns cut by exceptional children with scissors, and Tom had begun to laugh at some private reflection. He was more of a daydreamer than a thinker, I suspected, though he never told his mother and me what he might be dreaming or thinking about.
Van Allen Laine, Chadron’s new math professor, with his outsized wire specs sliding down his nose, shuffled heedlessly through the drifts in his Birkenstocks in front us. Fresh from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, where he’d just earned his PhD, he’d slipped into town without most noticing, the same way he would leave us, and even though his body would be eventually discovered, the reasons for his death and disappearance would not. All I knew about him then was from what two mutual friends, Deane Tucker, a philosophy professor, and Kathy Bahr, a literature professor, had told me: he had perfect pitch, he was compulsively neat, he was a brilliant theoretician, and he possessed a fine and subtle wit. His strides were long and he limped slightly from a recently broken hip. If I’d known what was going to happen to him, I would have run him over then and there, hit him hard enough to break his other hip, put him back in a wheelchair to sing in his office and cipher semicubical parabola and quadratic equations for another 10 or 20 years.
Poe Ballantine currently lives in Chadron, Nebraska. His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, the Sun, Kenyon review, and The Coal City Review. In addition to garnering numerous Pushcart and O.Henry nominations, Mr. Ballantine’s work has been included in The Best American Short Stories 1998 and The Best American Essays 2006 anthologies. His latest book is Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere. It was published by Hawthorne Books, an independent literary press in Portland, Oregon.
AND THE WINNER IS…
I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, each installment of the series will take on one short topic that addresses how to write memoir, and will include a great big book giveaway.
It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by.
The contest for this book is now closed. Please see the next installment of Writing Lessons.
The winner of the book is Sarah Conover. Congratulations, Sarah! I’ll be in touch to send your book.