Hairography: a memoir lesson

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Years ago, I wrote a book in the voice of a river—Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia's Schuylkill River—and felt it to be my truest book—my least defended, my most vulnerable.  I was speaking in the voice of another, and so I was speaking with undiluted honesty about how I lived lonesomeness, forsakenness, slow faith, trust, and love.

Ever since Flow, I have encouraged my students to write in the voice of another so that they might better see themselves.  Autobiographies of the inanimate have ensued.  Autobiographies of the comb, the toothbrush, the flashlight.  Autobiographies of the ID card, the pink sweater, the dandelion-tattooed iPhone case, the glass horse, the pipe, the yellow post-it (one year old).  While in Miami with the two dozen YoungArts writers, we talked hairography—the pieces I'd asked them to write in the voice of their hair.  We reviewed questions of gender, tense, knowledge, research.  We talked, specifically, about empathy—about how, forced to see one's own self through the eyes of a constant, silent witness, we grow.  Our language changes.  Our understanding steeps.

And so:  Choose an object or a thing that is always nearby.  Imagine yourself into its perspective.  See what it teaches you. 

Here, for example, is my own hairography.  It is speaking to the twenty-four.  It is speaking to you.


Language like fumes.  Language particulate and strange—the caper of a thought, cleaved.  Here are some words:  Efflorescence.  Interjacent.  Lagniappe.  Rune.  Here is the vast task of my existence:  to listen.  I am electrostatic frizz, I am frump, I am inconvenient.  I am fallen, twisted, clawed, resisted, shamed.  There are one hundred thousand of me.  But in the spaces in between, I breathe.
         What I’ve learned (we):
         Language is larger than words.  Language is song and pace, hurry and pause; take it one shivering um at a time.  Language wants to participate and it is afraid and it waits for a sign.  Language bends, and any sentence studied might be a poem.  Make the poem.  Defy the easy tease of ordinary-ness.  Live language large.  Look at me hanging here, desperate here, curling.  Appease me.
         You will have noticed some things:  In the making of the new there will be consequences.  In the struggle to know there will be pain.  In the urge to emerge there will be casual disregard.  In the arsenal of punctuation, on the snowbanked page, in the sudden silence, answers will be found.  Against chemistry, machines, mongers, fads, grandiose insensitivities, and regrettable excess wage war.  
         Corrugated, coruscated, unfit:  Your eyes, through the years, have accused me.  Brittle, broken, lied to, lied for, left to wind and winter, smoke and cure, delusion, bedsheets:  I yet remain.  (We.)  I grow old.  I wait.
         Language like fumes—did you hear me?  Language particulate and strange.  If my gift is how I listen, your gift must be how you talk into the page.  How you tunnel through—cuticle to follicle to brain blood heart.  How you—somehow—remain.

         What did you say?

For more thoughts on memoir making and prompt exercises, please visit my dedicated Handling the Truth page.


Melissa Sarno said...

So much for me to learn here. Thank you. Your hairography is amazing.

Ann said...

Fantastic exercise. "What wild, brooding, manic, conflicted, resigned, articulate, poetic hair you have," says Little R.R.H. "All the better to write with my dear," says Granny/Wolf.

Your class assignments coincide quite nicely with current exhibit at UC Arts League. Eli Vandenberg "Objectifying Identity: family portraits" -- everyday objects and the personal stories they hold. Maybe a field trip a few blocks west up Spruce Street is in order?

a presto,

Richard Gilbert said...

What a great exercise! Brava.

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