Two Good Quotes on Memoir

From “Stone’s Diaries,” by Walter Kirn
a review of Prime Green, Robert Stone’s memoir
New York Times Book Review, 1/7/07

Time passes, and what it passes through is people—though people believe that they are passing through time, and even, at certain euphoric moments, directing time. It’s a delusion, but it’s where memoirs come from, or at least the very best ones. They tell how destiny presses on desire and how desire pushes back, sometimes heroically, always poignantly, but never quite victoriously. Life is an upstream, not an uphill, battle, and it results in just one story: how and alongside whom, one used his paddle.

From “Why Write?” byAlan Shapiro
Best American Essays 2006
(originally appeared in Cincinnati Review)

So the work itself always entails frustration and failure; it can damage our most intimate relationships; its public rewards are illusory at worst, fleeting at best. And if you write poetry, hardly anyone is listening. So why do it?

Elizabeth Bishop provides a possible answer in a famous letter to Anne Stevenson. Bishop writes that what we want from great art is the same thing necessary for its creation, and that is a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration. We write, Bishop implies, for the same reason we read or look at paintings or listen to music: for the total immersion of the experience, the narrowing and intensification of focus to the right here, right now, the deep joy of bringing the entire soul to bear upon a single act of concentration. It is self-forgetful even if you are writing about the self, because you yourself have disappeared into the pleasure of making; your identity—the incessant, transient, noisy New York Stock Exchange of desires and commitments, ambitions, hopes, hates, appetites, and interests—has been obliterated by the rapture of complete attentiveness. In that extended moment, opposites cohere: the mind feels and the heart thinks, and receptivity’s a form of fierce activity. Quotidian distinctions between mind and body, self and other, space and time, dissolve.

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