How do you find a form for the questions that compel you as a writer? What form does a project dictate? How do you coax a subject away from or toward a genre?
These questions are some of my New Year's irresolutions. Aside from the fact that George W. Bush ruined the word "resolve" for me forever, I generally prefer to dwell in (I almost wrote "possibility" but that would be Emily Dickinson, not me), to dwell in what can't be solved but can only be pursued, not one way or another, but in many ways, unpredictably. I don't really claim to live this way, but this is how I write, and I do believe that writing, that literature, as altered state and alternative world, can transform the "real," the life, eventually.
What is it that you are writing or have written?
How often are you asked that question?
To answer the question, I turn to two brief sentences (of a sort) from Gertrude Stein. They appear in her wonderfully long (at least 50 pages last time I checked) prose poem, "Patriarchal Poetry":
"What is it?
She repeats the question and answer in numerous ways. I always took this question and answer to refer to a reader of Stein's "Patriarchal Poetry" who wants to know what it (Stein's poem) is because the reader can't readily recognize its form. And I've always thought of Stein, instead of answering the question, providing a reader both with an adjective (aimless) and a suggestion if not an imperative (aim less). "Try asking a different question," I imagine her saying; or, "this really isn't the best question to ask about this work" — the same question and the only question that is always ever asked about a piece of writing: "what is it?" Ask me a different, a better question, she seems to say, one that doesn't require so determining an answer. Insofar as this is the question that is perpetually asked, she, does, though, answer it, but not with a thing, a definition, or an expected answer but with a descriptor:
"What is it?"
"It is aimless": my writing does not seek to arrive. It is a wander, and a wondering. It is the shape of a thinking on-going.
What shape does Swallow take? In what way is it biographical without being a biography? How does a writer find a form for her material? I approach biographies and biographers with the greatest reverence and awe, but my book is not a biography in any conventional sense. It contains biographical elements and it hews close to a life not my own, but Swallow is neither chronological in the telling of the life, nor even entirely narrative; it's not interested in being definitive or official (words often associated with biography). It's really a hybrid of a book, an extended, deeply researched poem that tries to bring the informative, the beautiful, and the uncanny into the same space.
Chevalier Jackson himself grappled with questions of form in writing his autobiography. His editor wanted him to write a chronological success story, from starting line to finish line, whereas Jackson wanted to orchestrate his book around overlapping, repetitive, and discontinuous "phases" of his life; he wanted to reserve the right to shift between the first and third person when referring to himself; and he wanted the book to be thematically oriented around "Physique," "Hobbies," and "Episodes." (By 21st-century standards, he wanted to write a memoir rather than an autobiography, but that genre did not exist in 1938). He wasn't proposing something formless, just something unconventional. His choice was not driven by an interest in putting an imaginative free-for-all before the public and calling it "The Life of Chevalier Jackson." The form he was working with was meant to be more truthfully representative of the life than a chronology could be.
Swallow follows Jackson's cue, but also, in establishing its form, draws upon the cabinet of curiosity that is its subject. Its drawers are filled with mysteries that I approach as a poet rather than as a detective, desiring not to solve but to divine, to let other mysteries unfold, to let one act upon another.
My favorite articulations of audacity with the nonfiction form include, most recently:
Rosamond Purcell's Special Cases, in which she writes: "This book honors the form of a slide show or an exhibition organized around associative clusters of phenomena, yielding at all times to gravitational attraction."
And Roland Barthes who in his book, Roland Barthes, writes of disparate objects brought into view by contiguity. He describes his book as "not monumental" but as "a proposition which each will come to saturate as he likes, as he can." He offers a curious image for how he expects the work to act upon a reader: "I bestow upon you a certain semantic substance to run through like a ferret..."
In another book that pertains to biography but is not conventionally biographical, his strange and beautiful tryptich (his own Three Lives?), Sade/Fourier/Loyola, he introduces an idea I love, which he calls a "biographeme." It appears in the opening pages:
...were I a writer, and dead, how I would love it if my life, through the pains of some friendly and detached biographer, were to reduce itself to a few details, a few preferences, a few inflections, let us say: to 'biographemes' whose distinction and mobility might go beyond any fate and come to touch, like Epicurean atoms, some future body, destined to the same dispersion...
He closes with "Sade's white muff, Fourier's flowerpots, Ignatius's Spanish eyes."
What would constitute your own life's biographemes, or those of someone you love, or would love to write about?
Swallow is a set of carefully inlaid, contiguous drawers which I invite you to open and enjoy. In the end, literary nonfiction is tantamount to the shape a form of thinking takes. Here is a way we might think of this thing, here is a shape. What is your thinking like, or unlike?