Here’s a strange conceit: My books speak to one another, there, on the shelves, where they live.
Patti Smith and Karl Ove Knausgaard are polishing boots and hanging up their hats to chat. Mary Oliver and Gerald Stern are debating the elemental. Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights (thank you, friend, for the gift) is lifting Maggie Nelson out of her Bluets.
Lately I’ve been imagining a conversation between Elisabeth Tova Bailey and Marc Hamer, authors of The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating and How to Catch a Mole and Find Yourself in Nature, respectively. They’re whispering, of course. They’re abundantly aware of the sound of the spider bungee-jumping from its web, the chatter of the birds beyond the glass, the settling in of old floorboards. They’re neither racing ahead of time nor over-dwelling on the past. It’s the present moment they are distilling, the parenthetical now they choose to share.
Ill and bedbound, Tova, in her book, lives the hour as the minutes tock—and no faster. She devotes herself to seeing, to parsing the rise and fall inside a terrarium, to naming shades of green:
While the snail slept, I explored the terrarium from my bed, letting my eyes wander through the miniature hills and dales of its fresh green landscape. The variety of mosses was so satisfying, from a deep, loose softness to dense mounds with fuzzy and velvety textures. Their hues ranged from bright grass greens to deep dark greens and from sharp lemon greens to light blue greens.
In Mole, Hamer directs our attention to sleep slept beneath stars, fallen leaves molting into soil, the shards of pottery beneath the surface of loose earth. The book reflects on Hamer’s life as a former molecatcher in Wales, tracing back, occasionally, without hurry, to years spent homeless as a teen. Mostly the pages purify time—honor and declare it—which is not, I think, the same as stopping or freezing time, a distinction I’m finally discerning.
There’s no rushing through this gorgeous, sometimes unnerving book. The tempo of the prose ushers the reader into Hamer’s terrain. He teaches us how to see, and how to wait for words:
Often I do not disturb myself with language and I just look and enjoy. At other times words come silently creeping in on insect legs. Some start to build a nest, develop a theme—a twig here, a bud there—so I let them. I like to write bits, tiny bits of stuff that fly by like leaves, insubstantial, scattering, and could be gone if I didn’t grab them out of the air. Bits of ordinary stuff that I see and that I can hold in my head in their entirety.
Hamer questions truth in his book. He questions memory. He carries his readers distances, encases them within his solitude, shelters them beneath a tree:
As I walk around the field I can’t help noticing the odd place, under a massive rhododendron for instance, that might make a safe and sheltered bed for the night—a habit of looking that I have never broken. I notice potential overnight stops as a matter of course, wherever I am. To be able to rest is perhaps the most important physical and mental survival skill that I have. Tiredness is lethal. The most restful place I know is under a tree—any tree other than a holly—on a warm spring evening, watching the webs drift across the branches and waiting for the blackbird to sing me to sleep as the stars begin to show through the darkness.
Tova and Hamer are writers I don’t wish to disturb. I tiptoe in, I sit with them, I don’t assert myself, I don’t make claims. I will watch a snail from my bed with them. I will watch the stars creep in. I will stop wanting to make something with language because language, when we wait, when we are very still, will finally make something of us.
Patti Smith moves through her books—across hotel rooms, into dark cafes, beneath the desert night, toward the company of friends, phantoms, strangers. She dreams on her feet. She writes in her sleep. There is coffee, occasional bad vodka. Throughout it all, she only carries what she needs. It isn’t much. She names those things in Year of the Monkey, her latest meander-of-the-imagination memoir: “I spread my few possessions on the bed: my camera with crushed bellows, identity card, notebook, pen, dead phone and some money.”
Those notebooks. Always those notebooks. Without them we would not have Smith’s books. Without them, we might have lost her mind.
In “A Tibetan Dog,” an essay found in Surfacing by the Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie, a dream wakes the author to a memory. The memory sets her off in search of an old notebook—for details, for provocations, for proof of her youth. In the attic, such stuff is found. Many notebooks. Many beginnings. Many lost things, found, made tangible:
I rummaged down through the layers of my own life, as stored in the notebooks. Some were spiral-bound, good for opening flat on the knee. Some were small enough to slip into a back pocket, most were slim enough to bend.
My many notebooks and journals are right here on a shelf, but they are less complete than I wish they were, less riveting, rarely profound, never neat, and, in places, waterlogged. Still I am glad for what they do yield: A cluster of found words. Treatises on architecture. Dreams for a garden. Notes on books. Amusing (now, anyway) exhortations. My multiple, compounding failures, as research became a novel, a novel became a story, a story became a picture book, and yes, a picture book—that is all. There it is, in the notebook pages, proof of my folly, or is that process?
When Bill and I created Journey: A Traveler’s Notes, we hoped that, within the seedbed of Bill’s art and my own poetic fragments, other artists’ stories would grow. That an odd face, a strange adventure, a half dream, or a near echo would spark something specific, precious, true to those holding the journal in their hands. Something that would have value when it was rediscovered later, or something that would have value right this minute, now.
Lately we’ve been hearing from some of those fellow travelers—who, through art, stories, and one fantastic essay, have described to us the Journal journeys they’ve been on. We’ve been grateful for the news from their imaginations. Heartened by the unexpected blooms. We’ve been so inspired that we’re sharing some of that with you, with the hope that it will send you off on your own journeys—with color, lines, and words.
Try this on for size, then: Go searching for your old journals and find out who you once were. Open the pages of a brand-new journal (we hope you’ll consider Journey) and discover who you are right now, who you’ll leave behind for a future self. Now set the old you and the new you together in one place. Write a page or two that bridges you to you.
Kristina Moriconi starts us off with her beautiful words, and, then, her immaculate pages. Jason Poole follows, with a fantastic story within a folded story (just read it through). And, finally, the beautiful art of the up-and-coming Mei Ling Downey, who brought her colors to our black and white pages with vivid Mei-ness.
Journeying, with Kristina Moriconi
I keep it in the pocket of my laptop bag, alongside my marbled composition book. And, always, a pen. The essentials. My tools. I travel everywhere with them.
Journey—A Traveler’s Notes—, there to inspire, to prompt, to coax words at times when they seem more reluctant to come.
Sometimes, it is the drawing, in its whimsy or riddle, its mystery or revelation, taking me to an imagined place. Or summoning a long-forgotten memory.
Sometimes, it is the lyrical language, like music, lifting me, carrying me from one rumination to another, my own thoughts and words fragmented yet beginning to find meaning beside one another on the page. Or letting me rest (caesura) on a single image, stay there until the pulse of a poem or an essay begins to beat.
The marbled composition book is where I go when a poem or an essay or a project is solid, refined—forming, taking shape.
The pages of Journey are my refuge when I sit down to write and I need to spark the generative process, when I begin collecting the ideas, the imagery, the language that will later become those more refined pieces.
Mei Ling Downey
My brother remembers everything. He’s the genius in the family. He’ll ask me, say, what I remember about a family vacation by the beach some fifty years ago, and I’ll stop and ponder and proudly declare that we stayed in a bungalow, and that the bungalow was red, and that the red bungalow had a white pebble lawn, and also—check out my totally wow memory here—on the day we were set to leave our rented red bungalow behind we scrambled for a lost something in the couch pillows—maybe pieces from a Monopoly game.
My brother doesn’t skip a beat. He blinks once. He says, “Actually, it wasn’t Monopoly pieces. It was Bingo chips.”
He gets me every.single.time.
“Wild Game does not pretend to tell the whole story—” Adrienne Brodeur reports in the Author’s Note of her new memoir, continuing: “years have been compressed into sentences, friends and lovers edited out, details scrubbed. Time has scattered particulars. What follows in these pages are recollections, interpretations, and renderings of moments that shaped my life, all subject to perspective, persuasion, and longing. I am aware that others may recall things different and have their own versions of events. I’ve tried to be careful in telling a story that is not mine alone to tell.”
It’s the sort of prefatory commentary we find in countless memoirs now, the fessing up to the customized lens of the tale. Of course, there are many ways, besides an opening confession, to shorten the distance between what we think we know and what others might remember. In Tyler Wetherall’s No Way Home: A Memoir of Life on the Run, for example, the author recounts a childhood with a fugitive father, a succession of disguising family names, and quick escapes from homes and people that will never be seen again. Wetherall, like the rest of us, is not in possession of absolute recall about those years of long ago. She, like Brodeur, shares an opening author’s note: “The scenes and dialogue in this book are reconstructed from my memories and the memories my family has shared with me….”
But Wetherall also demonstrates, within the story itself, just how she has enlisted the help of family in her quest to get her story right. Here she is with her sister, Cait. The author is flipping through old journals in search of facts. She stubs her toe on a detail:
I seldom wrote about the important things happening in our lives, like whether Dad was going to prison and what that would mean for us if he did. I couldn’t write those things then.
Cait hands back the journal. “I didn’t realize how much we knew,” she says.
“No, me neither. That’s the only entry I can find. I was looking for something about my birthday in Saint Lucia. I wanted to start with Dad in the cornfield from the car window—”
“It was a banana field,” Cait interrupts, matter-of-factly.
“Really?” I say as I scan the cornfield in my memories.
“I don’t think they grow corn in Saint Lucia.”
“Are you sure?”
She pauses, as if in thought, and then: “Yes, definitely bananas.”
It may seem like a small detail—corn versus bananas, both things we eat, both of them yellow. But it’s not. Corn versus bananas changes the view, the texture, the tone. The conversation with the sister—presented not as note but as part of the story—also signals this author’s process, measuring her memory against her sister’s memory, leaving the reader with the either and the or.
Sarah M. Broom begins The Yellow House—a memoir, as the flap copy puts it, “about the inexorable pull of home and family, set in a neglected New Orleans neighborhood”—with an aerial view of the piece of land where Broom’s memories live:
From high up, fifteen thousand feet above, where the aerial photographs are taken, 4121 Wilson Avenue, the address I know best, is a minuscule point, a scab of green. In satellite images shot from higher still, my former street dissolves into the toe of Louisiana’s boot. From this vantage point, our address, now mite size, would appear to sit in the Gulf of Mexico. Distance lends perspective, but it can also shade, misinterpret. From these great heights, my brother Carl would not be seen.
Broom is talking about topography, of course, but she’s also talking about memoiristic distance. The farther we get from the thing that we lived, the more distance, purportedly, we’ll have. But also, the farther away, the more we lose sight of the particulars that shape our perspective.
How do we strike the balance between the near and far, the specific and general, the personal and universal? With what color do we draw the lines? Broom is a family historian but also a social one. She’s obsessed with the yellow house, but she’s also, embracingly, obsessed with issues about home. It’s her deep, deep dive into particulars, ironically enough, that make this memoir bigger that Broom herself.
If you’re searching for a new way into your life story, try this: Read again the paragraph above (I highly recommend reading the whole book). Then give yourself a drone’s-eye-view exercise. Rise in your imagination to a sustainable height, and then look down upon a thing you’ve loved. What do you see? What do you learn? How might this be the start of your story?