Memoir, Nature Writing, Biology

I have found in the past that reading widely and apparently outside the field I’m thinking about has helped me write my own books, so I’ve been exploring a bit as I imagine Sea of Intimacy.

I read a review of this book…25002982

in The NY Review of Books a few years ago, and thought I should have a look. It turned out to be much richer and deeper than I anticipated. The fact that I found it in the university’s biology library might have something to do with why it is not better known: people probably don’t quite know how to categorize it. To me it could as easily be a memoir as a book about the natural world.

There are very strong ideas in it–too many to enumerate–and also a beauty of expression that matches the subject matter quite skillfully all the way through. One recurring idea that does not have an index entry but should is the notion of the “fifty thousand generations” during which homo sapiens lived on the planet as hunter-gatherers, in close communion with the natural world. McCarthy returns to it as something of a leitmotif (e.g., “the bond of fifty thousand generations with the natural world,” “the legacy of the fifty thousand generations of the Pleistocene”). Another reminds me of the great chain of being notion (though not religiously inflected in this case) of the wondrous astonishment at what the world can contain.

The author’s many joyful encounters with the natural world are carefully interlaced with personal memories, life encounters, and stories of the dedication and shared wonder with others, including his relationship with his mother (a strong indicator of memoir). The attention to detail in nature even amid the human-made world reminds me of a book I translated, The Other Venice, by Predrag Matvejević, but Matvejević is tonally subdued by contrast to McCarthy, who does not mind at all waxing lyrical, quoting poetry, and finding moments of intense emotion even amid apparently humdrum non-resplendent environments, as when he feels he has discovered a secret in suburbia, namely, “that in the chorale of birdsong silvering the silence, the stillness and the great bursting dawn overhead, for a brief half-hour even the land of the lawnmower can approach perfection” (203).

A major reason the book might very well be mis-categorized in the biology library is that one of McCarthy’s principle propositions, which he borrows from Joseph Conrad, is that “the influence of the artist is more enduring and goes deeper than the work of the scientist” (217), a notion that frames the book–it is first offered up on pp. 27-28)–and provides the main rationale for its manner of exposition, which is beautiful and joyous and definitely worth spending time with, whether one is imagining one’s own book through its prism or not.

 

Writing not lovely

A writer came through Iowa City — they do that — probably in 2011 or 12, when I was still living there. He had published a couple of memoirs that had been well received, or at least that’s what his bio said. He couldn’t have been more than thirty-five or so, and how one writes two memoirs by that age is a little unclear to me, but that’s not what I want to write about.

He used the word “lovely” a lot, and the bulk of his advice — this was something like a workshop — to the under-35-year-old aspiring memoirists (I exclude myself from this category because the years have caught up with me) was to hustle, publish lots and lots, including, especially, little fragments from one’s memoir/s in a variety of venues, and never turn down an interview or publicity request. Also, you needed to tell everyone who did anything for you that she or he had been lovely, absolutely lovely.

I found his presentation really fun and lively and pretty much empty of content. I suppose it was, like his use of lovely, rather vapid. I haven’t been able to remember his name, I’m afraid, so I don’t know what his memoirs are like. Maybe they’re really good, which would mean, contrary to his usage, not lovely at all.