Friday, November 29, 2013

The Intriguing Structure of Claire Dederer's Poser--How to Link Different Topics, Timelines, and Themes in a Memoir

Author Claire Dederer came to book-writing after being a journalist for about twenty years, working as a reporter, critic, and essayist.  She began as a film critic then developed into a book critic and a writer on culture. Poser, her 2010 memoir, weaves together several disparate topics:  yoga, motherhood, the legacy of 1970s feminism.  I interviewed Claire this week to find out how she decided to structure Poser around all these themes.

Claire Dederer:  I had written for many years on these three subjects.  I'd been thinking about doing a book on motherhood for a while, but the thing didn't really take off till I tried melding the three subjects together.

The way that happened was a little serendipitous. In 2007, my family and I were spending a year living on the top of a mountain in Colorado.  One spring day we were snowed in, with huge drifts around the house, and I couldn't get to yoga class.  So I was doing poses at home. Doing my yoga alone really got me to thinking about what complicated emotions and thoughts I had about each pose.

These feelings, once I thought about them, were almost hilariously rich and developed:  I had a kind of love affair with headstand; I was in a gigantic argument with revolved triangle.

At that moment, I got the idea to edit an anthology of essays by different authors.  Not yoga experts, but writers who are funny and good at parsing their experiences.  Each author would write about a different pose. I told my husband, who is also a writer, and he immediately said, "Why don't you just try writing the whole thing yourself?"

The minute he said it, I was off and running.

Q:  You're also playing with several layers of story in this book--your growing-up years, your search via yoga, and your struggles with motherhood.  How did you decide to weave them together?

CD:  Once I realized I wanted to write a book organized around the poses, I began to mess around with yoking the yoga material to the ideas I'd been having about motherhood and feminism.  
I went away for a few days and stayed by myself in a cabin in the woods.  I wouldn't say the first chapters fell out of me, but it was clear to me pretty quickly that there was a dynamism to bringing these themes together, and that there was a lot to explore.
Incidentally, I can't emphasize enough the value of going away for a few days by yourself to work on a long project, especially for mothers.  You can follow your own schedule and let connections develop uninterrupted by the constant intrusions of home life.  
To put it plainly: you can stay up all night.  
Q:  Do you work consciously with transition techniques when you move between storylines? 
CD:  This was a fun part of writing the book, figuring out how to transition between the different kinds of material. 

I wrote the childhood, the motherhood, and the yoga sections separately, and then wove them together once they were completed.  I looked for ways to guide the reader through the transitions in terms of keeping the story clear and giving time cues, but I also relied on the reader's ability to make the leap.

At times I transition very abruptly, which I think actually works quite well.  In my current writing I'm experimenting with making the transitions even more abrupt.

Q:  Tell us the most challenging experience in writing Poser.   
CD:  Without a doubt, developing the emotional depth and complexity of both my character and the other people in the book.  It was very difficult to find a way to tell complicated stories about people, and especially about my marriage, without feeling like I was crossing some moral line.

At times, the difficulty was visceral--it just felt scary to tell so much truth about my emotional state.  But it was necessary to the story.

After a while I learned that if I was starting to feel uncomfortable about something I was writing, I should go toward that material, rather than turning away. 

Emotional honesty is the raison d'etre of memoir.  It's our job to explore difficult feelings, so the reader can have that experience of recognizing his or herself in the story and finding comfort in that recognition.  Without the generosity (and rigor) of that kind of honesty, memoir becomes a narcissistic wank. I believe that's a technical term.

Q:  What's your favorite part of the book?

CD:  I'm really proud of how funny it is. Funny is harder than it looks; it takes a lot of work.  Aside from that, I adored writing about my hippie childhood.

Q:  Anything else you'd like to share about structure, writing, or advice to new authors?
I urge new writers to read very closely and look for models for their own work; no sense in pretending we're all inventing a new brand-new form.  (Unless you are, in which case good for you, but you should still read constantly and exhaustively to tune your ear.)  
Books you love not only inspire you, but in a very practical way you can rip them off.  Choose well and aspire to greatness.  With Poser I turned my attention to memoirs that are structured around something outside the memoirist.   
Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage was very important to me.  It starts out with his slightly bonkers obsession with D.H. Lawrence and ends up being an intimate self-portrait of Dyer himself.  Other examples:  Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, which is ostensibly about soccer but is really about his parents' divorce. Calvin Trillin's About Alice, a memoir of his wife that is really a self-portrait of the writer as husband.  And Laurie Colwin, one of the great unsung sentence-by-sentence stylists.  Her Home Cooking books are about food, but also give a rich picture of her domestic life.
 To check out Poser by Claire Dederer, click here.

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