How Memories Become Memoirs
Walt Harrington is one of the nation's most accomplished practitioners of literary journalism. As an award-winning writer for The Washington Post Magazine, and now as a journalism professor at The University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign, he has pioneered and championed "intimate journalism," his label for extraordinary stories that explore the human condition through the prism of ordinary people's lives.
In a new book, "The Everlasting Stream: A True Story of Rabbits, Guns, Friendship, and Family," Harrington trains his reporter's eye on his own life and the way his yearly hunting trips with his wife's African-American relatives helped him choose a different path than the celebrity-driven fast lane of Washington, D.C. (Read an excerpt from "The Everlasting Stream)
"With its description of crying bears and why it's better to be 'off the egg' than on (i.e., able to bag a bunny)," Publishers Weekly said "The Everlasting Stream," "does for hunting what 'A River Runs Through It' did for fly-fishing."
Not just a good read filled with richly textured scenes, "The Everlasting Stream" is also an excellent model for anyone hoping to write about facts with compelling grace. Of special interest to writers and editors is the book's "Author's Note," which offers an intimate look at the work habits and attitudes of a master craftsman toward narrative reconstruction, "documentary details" and the role of memory in narrative. (Listen to Harrington discuss "The Everlasting Stream" on National Public Radio)
In an email interview with Poynter.org, Harrington amplifies on the making of his book.
Q: You describe The Everlasting Stream as "a hybrid, comprising journalism,
memoir, and essay." How and why did you come to use this form?
A. I wish I could say I had a clear vision of it all before I sat down to write but that's never the case for me. Form follows the demands of story but that story also emerges in a kind of author's conversation with the material. I knew the story was about the four men with whom I hunted, but I also knew it was my story. It wasn't a biography of these men; it was the tale of what I had learned from spending time with them and getting to know them. Realizing this was important to the writing because it shaped the story's emphasis.
I didn't grasp this until I had written a first draft that was much more the men's story, much less my own. Several friends who read the manuscript commented that they didn't understand why the men so fascinated me. I realized then that to answer that question required that I enter the story fully. Large sections of the book still needed to be rooted in traditional reporting -- the backgrounds of the men, scenes and settings, sights, sounds and smells, flora and fauna. Yet, once I decided to develop my own sense of what the men meant in relation to my life, I needed to link the memoir about myself with my perceptions of the men.
That took me into ideas about the morality of hunting, the socially rooted lives the men lead, the power of social class, the traditions of fathers and sons, the nature of masculinity, the changing patterns of friendship among men, the ways of the achievement culture. I drew upon background research but also my own experience and reading, telling stories from my life and quoting poems and writers whose words had touched me. I hope that I defend all these ideas with evidence but, really, they are the musings of an essayist.
So, it's all mixed together.
Q. Is there -- or should there be -- room in newspapers for this form?
A. Why not? We see it in newspapers now, although usually in separate stories: a Tom Hallman feature in The Oregonian; a Verlyn Klinkenborg essay in The New York Times; a Bob Thompson remembrance of his father in The Washington Post Magazine. I'm hard-pressed to think of a hybrid of the three appearing in a front-page story, but as long as the rules of accuracy are followed, why not?
I've actually begun working on what will be either an essay or perhaps even a book of collected readings on the art and craft of first-person journalism. It's interesting that when journalism was beginning to consciously borrow fiction techniques in the 1960s, we adopted as our model mostly stories written in the third person. It makes sense. The form allows us to move in and out of the perspectives of different characters and it also maintains the pretense of the writer's ultimate authority. But wonderful first-person novels -- "Black Boy" and "All the King's Men" come to mind as favorites -- also offer a kind of insight not available through third-person omniscience. We really haven't done enough thinking about the first-person form and when, how and if it can be used without sacrificing traditional accuracy.
Q. Where might journalists inspired to use your book look in their own
lives for subject matter?
A. I think we look in the same places we look for what we consider humanized feature stories. It isn't that the subject matter changes. I could have written only the story of the four very interesting men in my book. Or I could have gone out and found a city-slicker like myself who had been drawn into hunting and told his story and the story of the men with whom he hunts. We do this all the time. Something interesting happens in our own lives -- you coach the Little League team -- and you see that it's a good story, and you tell it through somebody else.
The difference here is that we use our own lives as the vehicle for exploring a subject. I don't mean that you just throw in a few personal observations or that you spout off about your first day of first grade when you are writing a story about a class of real first-graders' first days. That's gratuitous use of yourself in the story.
The subject must be close enough to the writer that he can make himself the subject of the story, the person to whom the action happens. You have to accept this, which isn't always easy for third-person journalists to do, and then structure the story around that assumption. Then you have to try to be honest, which can be tough.
Q. What steps would you recommend to achieve such a reporting and writing goal?
It's important to make a distinction between straight arm-chair memoir and what I think of as "reported memoir," in which you become your story's main character. A chapter in "The Everlasting Stream" titled "Skunk Hollow" is based on an article about my father that I did for The Washington Post Magazine 15 years ago. For the article, I took my then 4-year-old son and spent a week at my father's house. I used the events of the week as an action-line in the here-and-now, which gave me scenes and dialogue. Around that action, I digressed to tell the story of my dad, my son, and myself. It was a deeply personal story but not an arm-chair story.
Pete Earley, a colleague of mine at the Post magazine then, once did a piece on his sister who had died in a motorcycle accident when he was 14.(The story is collected in my book "Intimate Journalism.") Pete didn't arm-chair that story. Instead, he went out and reported it. He returned to his rural Colorado hometown, visited their church and old house, walked the ditch where his sister's body had been thrown in the crash, dug out old police reports, interviewed policemen and emergency room nurses, and tracked down and interviewed the woman who had driven the car that had hit and killed his sister.
Pete's story is a classic of reported memoir. It's Pete's story -- he is the character to whom the action happens, the subject of his own story, the person who is changed by the story's action. But it is given depth and texture through old-fashioned reporting.
Still another example of blending forms is the work of Paul Hendrickson, author of "The Living and the Dead," a biography of Robert McNamara, and "Looking for the Light," a biography of Depression-era photographer Marion Post Walcott. Paul is very much a character in these non-traditional biographies, while he still adheres to the journalistic rules of documentary accuracy.
Q. How would you advise a reporter trying to sell a newspaper or magazine editor on such an approach?
A. Find an editor who is knowledgeable and/or sympathetic. No use wasting your time on an editor who doesn't share the vision. Have an idea that clearly demands a reported first-person treatment, an idea with social heft and deep personal meaning to you, an idea about which you have something to say. You might even put your editor on a training program by bringing in articles and books such as the ones I mentioned above and passing them on to your editor, making him or her realize that journalists use the approach effectively. I should mention that it doesn't have to be only writers and reporters who are enlightening editors; editors can also enlighten their reporters and encourage them to experiment with the approach.
Q. You explain that the "book's quotes and documentary details are real and taken mostly from dozens of hours of audiotapes recorded during actual hunts," along with other source material. How and why do you use a tape recorder to collect "documentary details"?
A. When you have the time to do the transcribing, I believe tape recording is invaluable, especially for stories you are taking part in. In other words, while I'm hiking along with a 12-gauge in my hands or talking with the men as we pass around a bottle of whiskey, I can't also be taking notes. The recorder works on its own and is less intrusive. It also captures all sorts of asides and sounds that would get lost otherwise. I hate the transcribing, but I do it. "The Everlasting Stream" couldn't have been done the way I did it without the tape recorder.
Once I decided to do the book and had gotten permission from the men, every time we went hunting or got together I rigged myself up with a voice-activated recorder in my pocket and hooked the microphone to my collar.
The tape picked up much of the bantering conversation that I love so much in the book. It also gave me the opportunity to annotate our hunts and time together. I could softly talk into the microphone and record the type of clouds billowing above, the look of the dew on the grass, the hawk gliding overhead, the ripe dewberries at my feet. It also allowed me to record exactly what I was thinking at exact moments during the action. There is a place in the book where I quote myself thinking, "Son of a bitch," when I misfire at a rabbit. I actually discovered that on my tape.
But taping isn't enough, especially in evoking the fullness of a setting or scene. I also hunted with a camera around my neck and would frequently stop and photograph the sky, the weeds, the men, a bloody rabbit. These photos gave me a documentary record that I could draw upon later during the writing.
"The Everlasting Stream" has quite a bit of specific description of various plants and weeds in our hunting fields. In order to write that accurately, I spent a couple weeks traipsing around the dozen places we hunt regularly with naturalists making sure I knew exactly what was in front of me. So when I describe a field as "a rabbit smorgasbord -- a table spread with not only blackberry but timothy and honeysuckle, sumac and lamb's-quarters, goldenrod, foxtail, and poke," I know from trained naturalists that these plants are actually in that particular field, and I know from reading technical articles on rabbit habitat that these are all plants rabbits eat.
I also give a detailed account of skinning and gutting a rabbit. To help me write that scene, I arranged to be called by the people at the University of Illinois vet lab just after they had put an experimental rabbit to sleep. I went over and two vet students performed a necropsy on the animal. They gave me textbook drawings of a rabbit's plumbing and pointed out and explained each organ as they went through the procedure. After that, I could write with much more authority about what I was seeing as I cleaned a rabbit in the field.
I could go on with example after of example of such reporting -- the astronomer I went out with at 5:30 a.m. on a clear morning to know for sure what I was seeing in the sky on our hunting mornings; the compass watch I wore to always know which direction was which at any particular moment; the thermometer I used to record the water temperature at the mouth of the Old Collins spring in winter and summer (a steady 51 degrees); the old White House records reporting that I had sipped La Crema Reserve Chardonnay and ate smoked salmon mousse at a particular state dinner; the academic journal articles establishing that 75 percent of rabbits born in any given year are already dead from disease, weather, and predation by the time hunting season rolls around in the fall; the National Weather Service records that give the local temperature and weather conditions by the hour for the days and years I hunted; and the soil conservation map that gives the 700-, 800-, and 900-foot elevations of the mountains in Lawson Bottom.
Pad and pen, tape recorder, camera, experts, documentary records, technical manuals and reports -- all pieces of the technique we use in any kind of reporting, put to use for storytelling.
I explained all this to a young reporter recently and he said, "You mean it's just journalism?"
Q. Tom Wolfe describes the importance of "status details" in literary nonfiction. What are "documentary details?"
A. Status details are observable pieces of material fact that reflect something internal about the people we've covering. A Lexus is a status detail that locates its owner in a certain social universe. Clear plastic on a woman's living room couch is a status detail. Your brand of beer, the artwork on your walls, your choice of dog -- a pure-bred poodle as opposed to a mutt -- are all potential status details. When I refer to "documentary details," I mean those details that we can observe, record and, more or less, agree upon as facts. They may or may not be status details.
When I say that the men's preferred whiskey is Early Times and mine is Wild Turkey, those are status details because they reflect differences in our social taste and how much money we are willing to fork out on a bottle of booze. When I mention that the road we are driving is two lanes and that we are traveling past fields of harvested tobacco, corn, and wheat, you could argue that those are status details because they reflect the rural nature of the world the men occupy. But mostly, they are simple details of documentary fact that are meant to root us in a specific place and bring that place vividly to mind. It's atmosphere.
When I write that a blade of johnsongrass is bisected with a crease down its length, that isn't a status detail by any measure. My attention to that level of precision is meant to reveal an emerging change in my focus, but it doesn't reveal anything about my taste or my social position. So, a documentary detail can be a status detail but all documentary details aren't status details. Documentary details can come from observation or the myriad of sources I mentioned earlier. It is these documentary details that give our literary journalism the feel of naturalistic fiction. But, going back to the master Tom Wolfe, the details can't be made up. They must be real, in a documentary sense.
Q. Pre-publication review is a controversial approach, with some critics calling it inappropriate and in effect allowing sources the power to edit. Reporters who do it say it makes their stories more accurate and actually enhances their quality. You describe reporting "quotes, dialogue and scenes recalled from memory" to your "main subjects for confirmation and approval." What's your rationale for doing this?
A. I don't believe I was practicing the kind "pre-publication review" to which you refer. That kind of review means that you call the subject and read them quotes you are already sure are verbatim. I've done that at times and found that as long as I was tough about not giving in to gratuitous complaints, I almost always got the subject to elaborate more and enrich the story. A subject isn't editing anything if I have the final say. But that's not what I'm talking about with "The Everlasting Stream."
I had 15 years of "memories" of my time with the men. I had to acknowledge that those
recollections may or may not be "correct" -- or at least that they may be remembered differently by my subjects. By interviewing the men about their recollections of my recollections, I could see where we had a consensus or differences. I wasn't going to attribute a decade-old comment to a non-public figure if that person didn't remember it the way I did. Or if, after he was told the story the way I remembered it, he didn't approve it as being probably correct even if he didn't recall it. When I explain this in the "Author's Note," I'm trying to let the reader know the rules of engagement. In that spirit, I also explain that when I tell personal firsthand stories about prominent folks such as George H.W. Bush or Ben Bradlee, I was reporting those stories as I remembered them. Simply put, I give ordinary people special treatment.
Q. Memory, you suggest, can be employed as a reporting tool. Can you talk about its value and any pitfalls that it offers?
A. We almost always rely on memory in the human stories we tell. Usually, we rely on the memories of our subjects. When writing memoir, we rely on our own memories. We should be skeptical of both. No doubt, much of what we recall about our pasts is wrong. Maybe not all wrong, but plenty distorted and shaped by years of experience and re-remembering.
When we interview subjects, we use a variety of techniques to confirm their memories. We check what we can with other sources and we get an idea of how often that subject's memory gibes with those sources. If the sources almost always concur, we are more trusting of the subject's memory. If they often conflict, we are more careful about how we use or attribute the information.
"The Everlasting Stream" has a lot of my memory in it -- memories of my time hunting with my subjects and of my childhood and adulthood away from hunting. But I also interviewed my parents and my sister. I interviewed old friends and colleagues. I went back to my boyhood home and walked the ground.
At one place in the book, I describe my father and myself as a boy driving home in the dark singing "The Red River Valley" as the car bounced through the dip in Ashland Avenue just past Virgil Gray's house. I don't know why, but I have an absolutely clear memory of that. Yet I didn't trust it. So when I was back visiting my old home, I made a point to check. I didn't recall the road's name but learned then that it was Ashland. When I drove the road, sure enough, there was that dip. I knew one of my father's old friends had lived in a house on Ashland, but didn't recall his name. I asked my dad. The man's name was Virgil Gray. From all that, I wrote the sentence as if I just remembered it all plain as day.
But the truth is that in writing memoir, we are often going to rely on our memories. The rule I set was that I wouldn't pretend to have memories I didn't have. I wouldn't embroider them with fiction. In that sense, they are correct.
Q. You explained that you used present tense for "quotes and events that occurred within ongoing scenes," while relying on past tense for that material "that occurred outside ongoing scenes." What was your reason for employing that technique?
A. One of the journalistic strictures of scene descriptions is that when we tell the reader we are in a certain time and place where action is happening that this is true. When we say the gravel crackles under our feet, the sun has turned purple through the clouds, or a flock of birds is swooping overhead, all of it must be literally true. In my conversations with book editors before Morgan Entrekin at Atlantic Monthly Press thankfully said he wanted to publish "The Everlasting Steam," I learned that many editors just don't share this belief. In fact, they consider it narrow and hidebound.
When I explained that I would be using that standard, one prominent book editor told me I was being "too journalistic." He said I had to realize I wasn't being just a journalist now, but an author. Another said that if an event happened to someone at age 40, but it was better for the narrative to have the event occur when the person was 20, he had no problem with using it then.
One editor argued that using tape recorders and taking notes actually made a nonfiction book less accurate because subjects changed their behavior in the face of such intrusions. He said it was therefore more "accurate" to rely on your memory.
Another editor argued that I should write the book as a straight chronological narrative -- not through a series of episodic events and settings punctuated with digressions, as I did write the book. I told him that this would require me to pretend to remember detailed events that I couldn't possibly remember, that I would have to fabricate. He said, no, no, he wasn't suggesting that I fabricate. "I just want you to trust your memory," he said. (I'm reporting that from memory; I hope I got it right.)
A prominent publishing industry attorney suggested that I do what many nonfiction writers do, include a disclaimer at the front of the book saying something like "some details and events have been changed in the telling of this story."
Fortunately for me, Morgan Entrekin liked the narrative feel of my book. I wrote it in what you might call the indefinite present tense. Each chapter is set in a particular hunting event and is written in the present tense. I blur that these events didn't happen in a single year and even that they didn't always happen in the chapter sequence in which they are presented. I just don't raise the question, so I don't believe I am misrepresenting this to the reader.
Around those present-tense and present-happening events, I often slip into using the past tense to bring in material relevant to the now, but which actually occurred at another time. I try to signal this change to the reader but not make so big a deal out of it that it is jarring.
For instance, on page 49, the men, my son and I are cleaning rabbits on a real morning. I want to bring in a time the year before when my son had asked me during a similar rabbit cleaning session to cut out his rabbit's bloated bladder. Rather than pretend that this happened on the day of the present-tense scene, I refer back to a time last year when Matt asked, "Dad, can you get this bladder? I'm worried about popping it." I go on to recount the conversation from the year before, quoting Matt, the men and myself in the past tense. Then I slip back into the present tense and the present-day action.
At another place, I'm outside early one hunting morning talking with Matt. I want to describe the impressionistic feel of being out there, but no one morning has all that I want to get across. So I write: "These mornings have all blurred together over the years but always the sounds of morning unfold with the fresh light. From a neighboring farm to the north will come the neighing of a horse. That will set off one of the four donkeys Bobby keeps mixed in with his cattle to scare away coyotes that he fears will attack his calves. To the northwest, the donkey will hee-haw, hee-haw, hee-haw for maybe fifteen seconds. That will inspire a cow in the field to the west, which will set off the hunting dogs out at the kennels to the south. On the prettiest mornings, the sunrise lays a pink blanket atop the far tree line to the east and the dark sky turns a pale ghost-blue. In the fresh light one morning, a flock of birds flew over in a whirling V formation and, like minnows in a school, dove and swirled in synchronized unison."
Then, I quote a conversation in the past tense that I had with my son on the day the birds flew by. Then, I slip back into the present-tense and present-day narrative of the morning. Later on that same morning, I again refer to the flock of birds I saw "one morning." And I'm careful to call them the flock of birds I "mentioned" earlier in the day, not the flock of birds I saw earlier in the day.
I can understand why some editors would think these distinctions are silly -- what difference does it make? Well, from our view as literary journalists, it's the difference between novelistic nonfiction and journalistic nonfiction. Yet, I don't want to hold myself up as the purest of purists. I diverged from the newspaper standard of never changing a quote. If a man said in casual conversation, as one did, that he hadn't been back to a certain locale in 30 years and later, when we discussed it more seriously, he calculated that he actually hadn't been back in 40 years, I changed the quote. If a personal noun was necessary to make sense of running conversation, I added the name. At one point, one of my subjects joked that I should know where the rabbits are because "Well, you the man who's the professor." At that point in the book, however, the reader didn't yet know I was a professor so, with my subject's permission, I changed the quote to say "Well, you the man with all the education."
I consider these venal sins committed for the sake of clarity and flow. The staunchest literalists on America's city desks must acknowledge that quotes are cleaned up all the time to make them more understandable and efficient, even if you only count deleting the "ah"s and "uhm"s.
There also are plenty of places in "The Everlasting Stream" where I relied on my memory and the memories of my subjects, and such recollections are always suspect. In the chapter "Picnic in Bobby's Wood," Bobby tells a bunch of jokes that I had to recall from memory and then confirm through interviews with the men. At another place, I quote the men having a friendly argument about how to put a fence pole in the ground. It was an old story and I ran my memory of it by the men for confirmation. I know these sections are close to the way events happened, but, let's be honest, reconstruction just isn't as accurate as getting it down at the time. Truthfully, if this were a book about murder, I would have a much higher standard for what I'm willing to present as unattributed fact. In this case, though, if the men were comfortable with my reconstruction, I was comfortable with it, too.
Q. Could you talk about the methods and principles you rely on when you are attempting to reconstruct a scene? Is there a particular scene that you could use as a text for such a discussion?
"The Everlasting Stream" really doesn't have much scene reconstruction, as we normally think of it in journalism. I was in attendance at most of what takes place in the book, although, as I said, I may or may not have been taking notes and recording. That's why I relied on going through these sections with my main characters to see if they believed I had gotten it right.
There are sections that are heavily memoir -- the chapter "Skunk Hollow" about my childhood and my father. It's a blend of the magazine article reporting I did years ago, interviewing I did with my parents for the book, and my memories, which I tried to spur and confirm by going back to my childhood home and walking the territory. There are other places in the book where I use very specific examples of life in Washington.
Naturally, much of that is from memory but much of the detail is also taken from articles I wrote years ago, making me feel comfortable having, for instance, a precise memory of the man who told me that he gave away "$210 Tasmanian wool slacks" after a few wearings because they had lost their soft feel on his skin.
I can say exactly who was at a White House event I attended because the guest list from that night is public record and available through the Bush presidential library. There are places in the book where I blend here-and-now reporting with background research that probably goes beyond what most newspaper journalists think of as reconstruction.
There's a place in the book where my father-in-law and I are walking through a wood we hunt, in a place called Lawson Bottom, and where he spent some of his childhood. He mentioned in passing that as a kid here he could tell the difference between the footprints of foxes, groundhogs and raccoons. He mentioned that raccoon prints look like a kid's handprint. After consulting a pictorial book on game tracking, I wrote his recollection this way: "He learned to tell a fox's rounded five-pad paw track from a groundhog's sharp-clawed print from a raccoon's elongated five-fingered mark, which always reminded him of a child's handprint."
He also mentioned that when he was a boy the land was filled with rabbits and quail and song birds. After consulting a birding guide for that part of Kentucky, I wrote these lines in my narrator's voice: "The Lawson farm was thick with rabbits and bobwhite quail with their pup WAAAYK whistles, as well as numerous chattering birds-sparrows and wrens but also the more exotic yellow-throated warblers with their melodic song descending from nests hidden atop the tallest trees, white-eyed vireos that lived and sang in the scrub brush foliage near the ground, and the inconspicuous Acadian flycatchers that always made their nests in low branches jutting out over the streams."
Again, it's using the wide range of sources available to flesh out a story.
Q. Finally, why did you feel the need to provide such a detailed look at your reporting methods and composition techniques in an author's note and go so far as to state "'The Everlasting Stream' is not -- consciously, at least -- fictionalized."
A. I believe that most readers don't have a clue about how we do our work. They see Frank McCourt's beautiful "Angela's Ashes" memoir on the nonfiction list, and they believe his story is as accurate as anything they read in the newspapers. After all, it's "nonfiction." So I wanted to be upfront with readers about my rules of the road, giving them a roadmap of methods but also assure them that I'm at least telling it to them as I remember it, not making it up wholesale to create a better story. I also probably wanted to give them a chance to give me credit for going to all the effort that this kind of storytelling requires. Finally, I wanted other journalists -- particularly young journalists -- to be reminded that most of this work is craft. I wanted to de-mystify the doings and thus make it seem more possible for anybody to achieve.
Q. What was the biggest surprise about writing "The Everlasting Stream" and what was the biggest lesson you learned from reporting and writing the book?
A. The biggest surprise was how hard it was. When I was young, I believed that someday I'd get to where writing was easy. That hasn't happened. I hope it's because I keep trying to do more than I did last time. But maybe it's because I've never gotten as good as I had hoped to get. Maybe it's because I'm always scared that this story will fail. Whatever, it's still so damned hard. That's the lesson I learned, although it seems I've been learning it again and again for 25 years.
Q. What's next for you?
A. A fiction writer friend once told me he never told anybody what he was working on because people would then forever ask him how that book was going, long after he'd abandoned it. I think I'll stick with his advice.