Writing Lessons: How To Explore Self-Knowledge Through Memoir

Love_and_Terror_247_400_80I 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Later in life, still unpublished, but drinking heavily and producing dark sparse prose like my heroes, I came to the sudden and sodden realization that I didn’t like them anymore.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



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.

Author bio

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.


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.




  1. Judy says

    I had never thought of The Elephant Hunter Authors as you presented them, but have to admit you are absolutely correct. I think I need to discard a few authors myself. It boils down to knowing yourself, one more time. You seem to be headed toward your correct direction. Thanks for the descriptive narrative that puts us right next to you.

    • Poe Ballantine says

      Literature more than any other artistic pursuit, Judy, is hamstrung by the name brand. Literature is not much more than letter writing, and I think that’s why our own contemporary views of the world are as important as seventy year old travelogue with bullfighting scenes.

  2. Nathalie D'Arcangelo says

    I appreciate the words of Poe . They came to me today when as a new writer I was just on the brink of thinking myself foolish for attempting to be a “writer”. His description of his own writing journey gives me encouragement and stamina to move ahead and just keep writing with honesty and truth. Than you, Nathalie

    • Poe Ballantine says

      Yes, indeed, you’ve got to pay careful attention to the people you trust and ignore everyone else. I hope also that there have been some people who’ve said you can’t do it. Those types really helped motivate me.

  3. Sharon Roy says

    I love the way he uses striking similes to paint a picture:

    “. . . he had the saturnine bearing of a child looking out the window all alone at the falling autumn leaves.”

    “. . .snowflakes zigzagging down like lacy tissue paper patterns cut by exceptional children with scissors.”

    Yes! I’m going to dare to try this!

    • Poe Ballantine says

      Oh, I think you’ll like it, unless you have a Cluster B disorder personality. Those types get uncomfortable when the subject of love comes up.

  4. Judith says

    Oh, my. Sometimes we’re presented with writing that just grabs us and we want to know more. That’s how I feel after reading Mr. Ballantine’s post. What a gift.

  5. says

    I revisited the way that parents view their children through far more informed eyes than others do, although the exact opposite is said to be true. Whereas the world looks for a pat diagnosis, an easy comprehension, a compartment as it were, we glory in the inexplicable about our children. Just another glory of the memoir genre, the way you can show this through your heart’s eye straight to the page. Thank you for reminding me, Poe Ballentine. Will read you asap.

    • Poe Ballantine says

      The boy teaches me every day. He’s already my navigator, knows at all times west from east, when I’ve never been able to do that. And he’s good at math and astronomy and can calculate all sorts of things for me. He’s developing a sense of humor, too, not like mine at all. Whenever I watch him I wonder about the whole business of stamping kids with non conformity labels and how much hurt that does us all.

      • says

        Nonconformity is a great topic to chat on, around parenting that child who can be called so many labels…(I’m liking ‘typical’ today). My current manuscript looks at raising a giant in an averaged-sized world, an outward exceptionality that voyeurs and everyday-Joes cannot stop themselves from reacting to. My son has gigantism. Big gorgeous 6 foot 11 guy who still looks like he is about 15 (he is 21). It makes me see what typical isn’t from the largest characteristics (no pun intended, well, maybe a little), to his having the most strikingly incredible sense of self. Living large, Patti M Hall

        • Poe Ballantine says

          The best part about raising an “atypical” child for me is the day to day triumphs. I don’t even think about college or what profession he might strive for. I’m just happy he made it through the fourth grade.

          • says

            Given that a shortened life expectancy accompanies gigantism, I literally wake up each day just thankful that he is still on the planet. I get it. Thinking ahead makes us miss the good stuff, anyway. P

  6. says

    As a just-retired teacher I had to chuckle at the ‘Books Are Fun’ comment. How true that nothing fun needs reminders, and how desperately teachers hoped to turn children on to reading. Maybe it worked – tons more kids read for pleasure nowadays than they did twenty years ago. Yes, way better books now too.

    • Poe Ballantine says

      Oh, I hope so. My son hated reading until he stumbled upon Pippi Longstocking, Henry Huggins, and the books of Beverly Cleary, which along with Roald Dahl have aroused his interest. I wonder if older books are better. It sounds such a quaint bias.

    • Poe Ballantine says

      Computers are not capable of randomness so a formula is used, the random number generator, which CAN be cracked.

  7. Patricia Shnaberger says

    Married young to a Viet Nam Vet in the process of obtaining his degree in English Lit, …”But that was the way it had been explained to me, suffering and a short life and insanity were the True Road to Art.” …. He had to get drunk every night on his way home from class and after graduation, on his way home from his teaching position. It was for ART.

    Poe is the first male writer I know to acknowledge that this path was wrong for him. Thirty five years later and beginning my own writing career, I thank you Poe and Marion for bringing him to the attention memoir writers

  8. Sarah M says

    What an unexpected argument for memoir writing and reading. And from a former devotee of the Elephant Hunters, no less.

    Wonderful collection of burning questions. I want to read more.

    • Poe Ballantine says

      For the record, I’m a great admirer of George Orwell, especially his nonfiction, and he writes at length on having to kill an elephant, but it isn’t hunting by any means, and it’s done with dignity and somber sympathy.

  9. Jenny says

    I learned again that discovering new-to-me writers that I enjoy reading increases my confidence in my own abilities to enchant people with words. Thank you for this inspiring lesson, Marion and Poe.

  10. says

    Hey Poe – I just finished reading Love & Terror & was absolutely floored flat by it. Your story, your prose, everything just struck me on such a visceral, pure level – I felt blindsided by it all. Thank you. Truly. I’m a bookseller (in San Diego) who cannot believe I’ve never stumbled across your work before. And – despite my initial gut reaction – I completely agree with your assessment of the elephant-hunting minimalists. I think this is why your book was such a blast of fresh air – not staid & humorless like those crotchety old dudes we’ve “studied” and revered for so long, but inherently personal and honest and raw and hilarious. What more can you ask of a writer?

    I will make it my mission to foist this book on everyone I encounter – starting with the folks reading this blog: get crackin’, people! If you even remotely enjoyed the excerpt posted here, get out to your local independent bookstore and pick up a copy ASAP.

    Again, Poe, thanks.

    • Poe Ballantine says

      Dizzying praise, from a bookseller no less (may favorite people). I remain a well kept secret in the town where I grew up, even if much of my material is about San Diego. Oh, well. I’m tickled that you took the time to write, Seth Marko.

  11. says

    This sounds wonderful! I loved how Poe described his son as himself, without using any sort of judgement. I’m also intrigued with a memoir that also sounds like a mystery – what a great combo. Plus, I’m from Nebraska, so I must read this book :)

  12. Melinda says

    This book went on my “To Read Immediately” list. Thank you, Poe and Marion, for sharing this gorgeous piece. I struggle with my “voice” sometimes — feel it tamped down or lesser or embarrassing, somehow — so this explanation and example of writing for self-knowledge (without judgement!) is lovely. I will be thinking about this for a while.

    • Poe Ballantine says

      Voice is no different than personality, Melinda. You’ve already got it, it just has to be developed and refined.

        • Poe Ballantine says

          It took me a long time to admit to vulnerability, Melinda, and when at last I did, I thought well now they will laugh at me and my parents will be ashamed, but quite the opposite happened. My favorite writers are those who admit to frailty. We don’t need human gods anymore. They don’t exist.

  13. says

    Dear Poe: Thank you for looking directly at our human frailty and, oddly enough, making me feel excited and charmed to be part of the rather disastrous, stumbling, fumbling, unpredictable human predicament. I admire very much that you are an humorist and tragedian at once and apply it with equal opportunity to one and all–yourself, your son, a disappeared mathematician…

    • Poe Ballantine says

      That’s right, Sarah, and welcome, by the way to my disastrous, fumbling, unpredictable human predicament (that ends in death!). I’ve just made a pot of coffee and you’re welcome to a cup.

      • Poe Ballantine says

        And congratulations on your book, an excellent doorstop it will make, and the strong binding will allow you to pitch it repeatedly across the room. It’s also constructed to be read, of course, if you get the urge.

  14. ting says

    Very illuminating indeed Mister Poe! Just confirms that its ok to be different and normal to be abnormal sometimes. And that I can never compare myself to the greatest and bestselling authors. I just need to be ME, simple, honest me- If only I get along with me :) Thanks so much!

  15. Poe Ballantine says

    Por nada, ting, but I’d look at it this way: you don’t need to like yourself (I don’t like myself) or get along with yourself (over the years we’ve learned to get along), to get to know yourself. The self is a great gift of mystery to be explored (James and the Giant Peach just popped into my head), or I’ll speak from a pair of better lips here (Herman Hesse): “Everyman is not only himself, he is also the unique, quite special, and in every case, the important and remarkable point where the world’s phenomena converge, in a certain manner, never again to be repeated. For this reason, everyman, so long as he lives at all and carries out the will of nature, is wonderful and worthy of every attention.”

    Especially with that new hat.

  16. Jan Hogle says

    Poe, I enjoyed your post and the excerpt from your memoir. I’ve never been a fan of Hemingway or Fitzgerald. Recently, I watched Hemingway & Gellhorn and The Great Gatsby and was again reminded that alcohol and writing don’t really lead very far. I was not inspired. However, the notion of exploring self and life appeals greatly to me, and that’s why I’ve written so much of my memoir already. I identify with your situation with your son; mine had various issues throughout childhood that challenged us enormously. But I’ve not written much about that period so far. The piece from your memoir was engaging; it made me want to read it all. I’m very intrigued by the disappearing professor. Thanks for sharing. ~ Jan

  17. Poe Ballantine says

    I’ve tried to understand the disproportionate relationship between writing and alcoholism, Jan. Part of it certainly has to do with having to be wide open perceptually, a state not easy to shut off when you’re done composing. Many writers seem also to come from unhappy circumstances, which are compounded by an abstract existence, sitting alone in a room, everything you accomplish words on pages. Someone like Ray Carver comes to mind here, bad childhood, bad adulthood, he almost seemed relieved to die before he was fifty. By his own admission he wasn’t a good person. I wonder how much more besides a prose style he could’ve given us if he’d sought answers instead of destroying himself in the name of his muses.

  18. Evie Gerontis says

    Thank you so much for this post….I read the Elephant Hunter’s prose and hug myself a little tighter…comforting myself in thinking…I can’t possibly write like those fine folks! It will be okay – I tell myself…writing was meant for the naturally articulate and worldly-educated. This is usually followed by a hot cup of tea….a fuzzy blanket….and numbness back into my “real” world.

    These words sparked a little bit of hope again….touched that quiet dark place where I keep my writing dreams. Maybe it’s not as scary as it seems….maybe that dream can come out to play…..

  19. Poe Ballantine says

    A little bit of hope, well, better than none, Evie. Writing is the realm of the solitary, the dreamer, the window watcher, no not window WASHER. Years ago I read Steinbeck’s letters and it didn’t seem that in the beginning he had the talent to make it. There are many success stories like his. I would venture to say that there are more people with great talent who don’t make it than there are less talented (or worldly or educated) people with PERSISTENCE who do.

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