"First person narcissist," I called it, though sotto voce, because many of the famous New Yorker writers narrated their post-modern, minimalist short stories and Talks of the Town in first-person.
A rather zealous student of world literature — I'd just graduated with 200 extra units and two majors in English and Comparative Literature — I preferred the spacious and rather fond detachment of the great omniscient narrators: Tolstoy, Balzac, Austen, Dostoevsky, Elliot, Dickens. My favorite New Yorker fiction writer was the all-knowing William Trevor, whose dark and bracing Irish-Anglo stories were darkly radiant, harrowing. On book jackets, Trevor's face was a roadmap of wrinkles, of dismay and a rather forlorn forgiveness. The man who knew too much.
At 21, I wanted to know everything, no matter the cost. No matter if my face ended up creased with omniscience, like Trevor or Lillian Hellman. I was too young to really fear the future. I was eyes wide open and ears alert to any story. Life, and Manhattan, evoked in me a perpetual state of wonder and astonishment. Perhaps that's why I was mugged three times my first year in the City or why I devoted my life to writing. Like incandescent music, stories swirled around me. I had only to listen and observe — more an omnivore than an omniscient narrator.
It did not occur to me then that it's hard to be all-knowing when one is so young. Nevertheless, my first novel, River of light, was written with a strong, omniscient narrator — a voice I've never again found. Maybe the voice found me. The first line begins: "Lloyd Sloan had the sympathy of his family in the matter of his wife's barrenness..."
There I was on the 22nd floor of the New Yorker magazine, amidst towers of elegant, edited manuscripts, writing about my Ozarkian grandparents working hardscrabble land and speaking in dialect: "Rain, rain like a cow pissin' on flat rock. Rain, like a devil whupping his wife and she's a-cryin' up a storm!"
River of Light was full of religious zealots, who handled snakes as their worship of a savage God; healers, like my real step-grandmother, Jessie; and fundamentalist preachers who sometimes told the story of the Fall in the Garden of Eden from the serpent's point of view.
Needless to say, none of this southern gothic world found its way into revered New Yorker pages. The magazine had never accepted Flannery O'Connor or Carson rs. They dismissed Faulkner as "a flash in the pan."
A fiction editor counseled me, "Go to some cocktail parties. You'll find plenty to write about."
But I was from generations of Southern Baptist tea teetotalers and couldn't hold my liquor. So I drank countless cappuccinos and smoked clove cigarettes, like my idol Virginia Woolf.
We New Yorker editorial assistants were paid practically nothing, but encouraged, during slow times, to work on our own writing. I imagined I was an apprentice to Life as Story. When I noted that all the other young writers scribbling about their own brief lives were using only the first person, I concluded, "That's not fiction. It's nothing more than... well, just memoir." This said with a dismissing frown and intolerance that belongs to the young and yes, inexperienced.
Memoir didn't seem to me a real art form. "It's like being trapped in an elevator for hours with only one other person," I'd complain. "Or on an international flight with someone going through a divorce."
In my 20s, I didn't recognize any craft in creating a character of oneself. Didn't we all know ourselves only too well? Memoir seemed a hothouse of Self, simply one flowering when there should be so many. If a time traveler or psychic had told me that I would go on after three novels to write many books of non-fiction in the dreaded first person point of view, I would have said, "Wrong writer, wrong life." To know I would arrive, after 16 books, in my fifth decade, as the author of not one, but two memoirs, would have left the young writer in me dazed and confused.
The turning point for me toward the first person point of view was my third novel, Duck and Cover, which was narrated from nine different points of view — all members of the same family. I named the family the MacKenzies, after my beloved first editor at the New Yorker magazine, Rachel MacKenzie. The first line of this novel is more like my own storytelling voice: "Of the six members of my family, three have top security clearance."
When I imagined the voices of other members of this autobiographical fiction family, I found an exhilarating freedom and expansion. Here's Hawkins, a character who serves as a catalyst (or villain), "If I weren't a heart surgeon, I'd be a murderer." And the most comic of all characters, the mother, Madeleine, who works at the CIA and is trying to convert the other carpool riders to her Rapture vision, "If there's one thing I can count on," she says in what I hear in my head as a headlong, fervent tone, "it's my carpool."
That novel was selected by the New York Times as a Notable Book of the Year and those many voices still ring in my head, begging for a sequel. But my next big book surprised me as a memoir of my life with animals. Build Me an Ark is narrated by the nature writer-storyteller — a passionate witnessing of my decades studying and encountering other animals, especially whales, dolphins, and wolves. Even though I was writing in first person, I was still in service to other stories than my own. I saw myself as a doorway — an "I" and an "eye" to celebrate the animals who, at every turning point in my life, were revelations and guides.
After Build Me an Ark, I believed I was finished with memoir and returned to fiction. But after spending four years writing a speculative novel set in an alternate universe and having it rejected by sci-fi editors ("Where are the elves and fairies?" or "There is no Battle Between Good and Evil"), I found myself facing the writer's dilemma in the current publishing climate. Memoir is in. Fiction is out.
In 2008, I wrote an essay for my agent's Seder that was published in Orion magazine, "Saving Seals." It was very well received and reprinted everywhere from the hip, liberal Utne Reader to England's Green Christian magazine. The story was an affectionate comedy about sitting on my backyard beach protecting a newborn seal pup with my neighbor, who is proselytizing me about the Rapture. I was using humor to defuse my neighbor's religious zeal — something I've long practiced with my conservative Christian family in the South.
So I did: Sword drills memorizing scripture as a child, enjoying the "pious pig-outs" of church progressive dinners, singing gospel and finding rapture right here on earth. Soon I realized I had a rather dark, divine comedy on my hands. And most surprising of all, my Self as character was comic, not tragic. It was as if the humor of Duck and Cover that I had grasped as a novelist was now more integrated into my own life.
This new memoir, I Want to Be Left Behind, is more than the nonfiction backstory of the MacKenzie family I created for Duck and Cover; it is a more mature and yet more humorous look at my roots, my family, and myself.
There is a chapter, "I Love to Tell the Story," set at the New Yorker that is fond and bemused. There are family dinners where relatives declare global warming is "a liberal plot." There are songs and scriptures and even a wry nod to PETA and "apocalyptic greens."
I am so grateful that this spiritual memoir has been so widely welcomed by warm, insightful, and wonderful reviews. It was selected by independent booksellers nationwide as an IndieNext "Top Pick" and "Great Read."
Not all the members of my family see this spiritual memoir as amusing. Some of them are downright appalled and accuse me of making fun of their faith. Others are more moderate and enjoy the family stories. My brother read every word of this book in manuscript and though he is a conservative Christian and a military man, he celebrates this book.
I'm in the studio now recording both Duck and Cover and I Want to Be Left Behind. In the novel, I'm narrating in nine different voices; in the memoir, my own. It's an exhilarating and instructive process and I'm more aware than ever of how much fiction and memoir mirror each other. All the literal conversations about what's "true" and what's "factual" are missing the point: A good story, whether fiction or memoir, must be well told and hold to some core truths.
I hold these truths to be self-evident: that all stories are equal — until told. Then, the craft comes in. I do believe that all storytellers strive toward some art, some self-discovery, understanding, and compassion. And all storytellers try to connect. The first chapter of I Want to Be Left Behind ends with my neighbor and me sitting together in a kind of tender equipoise:
And then I understood something about my neighbor and myself. All of us know what it feels like to wait for someone to call, to finally come home, to recognize our love, to reunite with those of us who seek something greater than ourselves. Maybe it will come in the night, in that twinkling of an eye. Maybe it will save us from a lonely beach.
I no longer believe that memoir is the poor cousin of fiction. If well done, memoir sits proudly right alongside novels on timeless bookshelves. Because life, imagined or truly lived, is the most enduring story of all.
Read the first chapter, originally published in Orion magazine.
City Arts cover story on Want to Be Left Behind.
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Books mentioned in this post
Brenda Peterson is the author of I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth