EXAMPLE OF MEMOIR OF SELF AS A WRITER
|Francine du Plessix Gray
I Write for Revenge against RealityA nightmare recurs since childhood:
Facing a friend, I struggle for words and emit no sound. I have an urgent message to share but am struck dumb, my jaw is clamped shut as in a metal vise, I gasp for breath and cannot set my tongue free. At the dream's end my friend has fled and I am locked into the solitude of silence.
The severe stutter I had as a child, my father's impatience and swiftness of tongue, his constant interruption of me when I tried to speak?
Or perhaps another incident which also has to do with the threat of the Father and the general quirkiness of my French education: One day when I was nine I was assigned my first free composition. From infancy I had been tutored at home in Paris by a tyrannical governess, the two of us traveling once a week to a correspondence school whose Gallically rigid assignments (memorization of Asian capitals and Latin verbs, codifying of sentence parts) were hardly conducive to a fertile imagination. "Write a Story About Anything You Wish," Central Bureau suddenly ordered. Filled with excite-ment and terror by this freedom, I began as a severe minimalist:
"The little girl was forbidden by her parents to walk alone to the lake at the other end of the long lawn. But she wished to visit a luminous green-eyed frog who would offer her the key to freedom. One day she disobeyed her parents and walked to the lake and immediately drowned." (The End)
"Pathetic dribble!" the Father stormed on his daily visit to my study room. "You dare call that a story! What will become of you if you can't ever finish anything!"
It was a warm May evening of 1939, the year before he died in the Resistance. The love of my life (my father was himself an occasional scribbler) was warning me that I should never write again. I still remember the hours I spent honing those meager sentences, the square white china inkwell into which I squeezed the rubber filler of a Waterman pen, the awkwardness of ink-stained fingers as I struggled to shape my letters (I was born left-handed and had been forced to use my right), the tears, the sense that my writing was doomed to be sloppy, abortive, good for naught.
So it may have begun, the central torment of my life, my simultaneous need to commit fantasies to paper and the terror that accompanies that need, the leaden slowness of the words' arrival, my struggle with the clamped metal jaws of mouth and mind. An affliction deepened by that infatuation with the written word that possesses most solitary children. For books had been the only companions of my childhood prison, particularly such stirring tales of naval adventure as Captains Courageous or Two Years Before the Mast, which fueled dreams of running away to sea and never being seen again.
Then came the war, the flight to America, the need to learn a new language. English was learned as a means of survival and became a lover to be seduced and conquered as swiftly as possible, to be caressed and rolled on the tongue in a continuous ecstasy of union. English words, from the time I was 11 on, were my medium of joy and liberation. I fondled them by memorizing twenty lines of Blake when ten had been assigned; I wooed them so assiduously that I won the Lower School Spelling Bee within 10 months of having come to the the United States. (I was the only foreign scholarship student at the Spence School; shortly after the contest a delegation of Spence parents descended on my mother, who was supporting us by designing hats at Henri Bendel's, to verify that we were true emigres and not usurpers from Brooklyn.)
I continued to court my new tongue by struggling for A's in English, by being elected editor of the school paper, which a predecessor had artfully named Il Spenceroso. Omens of a "literary gift" continued to accretea prize in Bryn Mawr's Freshman Essay Contest, the Creative Writing Award at Barnard for three stories of a strictly autobiographical nature. Such por-tents brought no security. I fled from myself by being a compulsive talker, a bureaucrat, polemicist, hack journalist. I had taken no more than two courses in literature beyond Freshman English, thinking I was smartass enough to learn it for myself. One of the other courses had been a creative writing class that earned me a Cfor first-person fictions about situa-tions I knew nothing aboutI seemed always to be a middle-aged alcoholic actor seeking salvation in a Bowery church. After that fiasco I had sought refuge in rigor and formalismphysics, philosophy, medieval history. There was a curious furtiveness about the way I continued to carry on my love affair with literature. I copied entire paragraphs from Henry James or T. S. Eliot into private notebooks out of sheer delectation in the texture of their prose. In a stretch of a few solitary vacation weeks I would memorize two hundred lines of Marvell for the pleasure of speaking them to myself during nights of insomnia. Why all this reluctance and covertness?
"You're writing pure junk," Charles Olson had stormed at me during a summer workshop at Black Mountain when I'd handed him my prize-winning college stories. "If you want to be a writer keep it to a journal." The giant walrus rising from his chair, 6 feet 7 inches of him towering. ". . . AND ABOVE ALL DON'T TRY TO PUBLISH ANYTHING FOR TEN YEARS!" Another paternal figure had censored me into silence, per-haps this time for the best.
I followed Big Charles's advice. I kept my journal in New Orleans where I dallied as if I had 10 lives to squander, drinking half a bottle of gin a night as I followed a jazz clarinetist on the rounds of Bourbon Street. I remained faithful to my secret vice in the dawns of New York when I worked the night shift at United Press, writing World in Briefs about Elks' Meetings and watermelon-eating contests in Alabama. I remained loyal to my journal through a myriad of failed aspirations while flirting with the thought of entering Harvard's Department of Architecture, of going to Union Theological Seminary for a degree in divinity. I persevered with it when I moved to Paris to earn my living as a fashion reporter, dallying with a succession of consummate narcissists to whom I eventually gave their literary due. I continued to write it when I fulfilled one of my life's earliest dreams and spent five years as a painter of meticulously naturalistic land-scapes and still lifes.
By then I was married and had two children. And since I lived in deep country and in relative solitude, encompassed by domestic duties, the journal became increasingly voluminous, angry, introspective. The nomad,denied flight and forced to turn inward, was beginning to ex-plode. One day when I was thirty-three, after I'd cooked and smiled for a bevy of weekend guests whom I never wished to see again,
I felt an immense void, great
powerlessness, the deepest loneliness I'd ever known. I wept for some hours, took out a
notebook, started rewriting one of the three stories that had won me my Barnard prize. It
was the one about my governess. It was published a short time later in The New Yorker, one year past
the deadline Charles Olson had set me. It was to become, 12 years and two books of
nonfiction later, the first chapter of Lovers and Tyrants. The process of finishing
that book was as complex and lengthy as it was painful. It entailed a solid and delicate
psychoanalysis which forced me to accept my father's death. Epiphany achieved, I was able
to write the novel's three last chaptersmy first genuine attempt at fictionin
a mere six months. I may have had to bury my father to set my tongue free.
I write out of a desire for revenge against reality,
to destroy forever the stuttering powerless child I once was, to gain the love and
attention that silenced child never had, to allay the dissatisfaction I still have with
myself, to be something other than what I am. I write out of hate, out of a desire for
revenge against all the men who have oppressed and humiliated me.
McQuade, Donald, and Robert Atwan, eds. The Writer's Presence: A Pool of