Back in 2003, Harrison Candelaria Fletcher was one of my first advisees in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Program in Writing—his first semester as a graduate student, my first semester teaching in that program; together, we helped each other settle into our respective roles. Harrison came to Vermont as an already accomplished journalist, but he wanted to find the “I” of literary nonfiction. Since that time he has gone to build an impressive career, and his first book, the memoir Descanso for My Father: Fragments of a Life (University of Nebraska Press, 2012), has won a 2013 Colorado Book Award for Creative Nonfiction and the 2013 Independent Book Publisher Bronze Medal for Creative Nonfiction. He spoke recently of his transition from the Who-what-where-when-why of journalism to the less easily structured mysteries of creative nonfiction.
Philip Graham: Ten years ago, when you began working on the essays that ultimately found their way into your memoir Descanso for My Father, you were coming from a journalistic tradition, one in which the voice of the author was muted, if not absent. Could you speak a little to how you made this transition?
Harrison Candelaria Fletcher: It wasn’t easy. And still isn’t. I’d been a reporter, feature writer and columnist for fifteen years before beginning Descanso. I leaned a lot from journalism – detail, clarity, research, deadline – but putting the narrative “I” front and center in the material was tough. I’d been trained to keep my thoughts and feelings off the page – to never let the writer (or the writing) get in the way of the story. Even as a columnist I had a news peg or a subject to play against – or hide behind.
But in memoir, you can’t hide. The narrator and his remembered experience, as you know, is the subject. You’re on stage. Warts and all. Suddenly, I had readers demanding more from the writing – more thoughts, more feelings, more depth, more breadth, more everything. It was a bit like the Star Trek: Next Generation episode when Data got his emotion chip. The restrictions were gone, but I couldn’t modulate my responses. I struggled with the difference between private and personal – writing for one’s self and writing for an audience. I struggled to find the right narrative distance – whether to film with a hand-held camera or wide-angle lens, so to speak.
PG: How did you come to decide between the two, or perhaps more accurately, how did you learn how to zoom that narrative camera in and out
HCF: I struggled to understand that the narrator on the page is not the same as the writer at the keyboard, but only one facet of him. A persona. Once I understood that, it became easier to find the distance I needed to relax into the writing.
I should also say that my struggles were complicated by the fact that I was writing about a sensitive family subject – my father’s death – that we rarely, if ever, discussed directly. When I first started approaching that material, I felt as if my mother, brother and sisters were staring over my shoulder. That strain made its way into the writing. It wasn’t until I had written (and rewritten) a few drafts of the book before I recognized how the silences and gaps could actually serve the writing as a natural part of the memoir.
PG: Yes, your book began as a search for your father, who had died when you were barely a toddler. But your mother has been a major influence in your life, and I remember there was a little too much silence concerning her. Can you talk a little about casting your memoirist’s eye on your mother?
HCF: My mother’s place in this book is particularly complex. In my family, not only is she the authority figure, but the story keeper, the memory keeper, the one who knew my father best. After he died, she never remarried. I always assumed he was the love of her life. I always assumed his death was too painful for her to discuss. Although I later learned that wasn’t exactly the case, when it came to my father, I took my cues from her.
By committing his name to paper, I felt as though I was hurting her, betraying her, making public our private pain. I didn’t want to do that. For years I struggled against two opposing forces – those that wanted to speak and those that demanded silence.
My mother never asked me not to write about my father. She just didn’t understand why I wanted to. And I didn’t understand why she didn’t understand. It took me a lot of time and soul searching to give myself permission to write my version of his story.
PG: How did you finally arrive at that crucial moment of giving yourself permission?
HCF: In her essay, “Writing About Family: Is it Worth it?” Mimi Schwartz says we reenter old lives to discover what they mean to us: to pay homage, to bear witness, to commemorate, to learn something new, and to pass that on. She also says that if we come at it for the right reasons, if we treat people with complexity and compassion, sometimes they’ll feel as though they’ve been honored, not because they’ve been presented in some ideal way, but because they are presented with understanding.
That’s how I tried to approach my mother (and father) in this book. Not only as a character, but as a woman I care deeply about. I hope that comes through.
PG: Those “right reasons” that Mimi Schwartz mentions are tricky. Every writer has to break through a hesitating silence in his or her own way.
HCF: I try to address silence not just as a narrative reticence on my part, but as it relates to family language, and how it helped me structure the book. Chomsky says language determines reality. I think that’s particularly true of families. We all have our own peculiar ways of communicating – of expressing anger, love, fear, loss. We all have our unique vocabularies that work their way into our work and our relationships and influence how we perceive – and receive – our worlds.
I also think every family has its own mythology as well – its own narrative of who it is and how it came to be. I believe that how a family talks about its past – or doesn’t talk about it – shapes what that family becomes, forming patterns lasting generations. Silence is a part of my family language. Gaps. Indirection. Suggestion. Implication. Things unsaid. Nothing is straightforward. Nothing is without subtext. Ours is a language that demands attention not only to words, but also to the spaces between them.
I tried to write this book directly, discussing my father’s death head on, with plenty of reflection, a chronological frame, and a linear structure. But it felt too self-conscious. Too forced. And it was.
PG: Too often, I think writers try to write their first books in the same way they read them: chronologically, from page one of the story right to the end. But memory has a Silly Putty way of resisting that.
HCF: That’s what hit me: If I could not tell my story directly, I’d tell it indirectly. I’d use the pauses and whispers I’d grown up with. I’d invite readers into our negative space of my family. I’d use white space and fragments. I’d let our silence speak. Understanding my family language helped me find my writing voice. It allowed me to step back, distance myself from the subject, and listen to the story asking to be written – a story of spaces and gaps. Understanding my family’s constraints freed me from them.
Harrison Candelaria Fletcher is the author of the award-winning memoir Descanso For My Father: Fragments Of A Life. His work has appeared in many literary journals and anthologies including New Letters, Fourth Genre and the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction, which selected his essay, “Beautiful City of Tirzah,” as among 50 outstanding works since 1970. He is the recipient of a New Letters Literary Award, Sonora Review Nonfiction Prize as well as fellowships from the Arizona Poetry Center and Vermont Studio Center. He teaches creative nonfiction in the Virginia Commonwealth University MFA in Writing Program.
Philip Graham is the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction, including the travel memoir The Moon, Come to Earth (University of Chicago Press), and the co-authored (with his wife, the anthropologist Alma Gottlieb) memoirs of Africa, Parallel Worlds (Crown/Random House) and, most recently, Braided Worlds (University of Chicago Press). His short story collections, The Art of the Knock (William Morrow) and Interior Design (Scribner), and his novel, How to Read an Unwritten Language (Scribner), will be reprinted in late 2013 in Dzanc Books’ contemporary fiction ebook series. Graham’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Washington Post Magazine, North American Review, Paris Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. He teaches at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he is a co-founder and the current editor-at-large of the literary/arts magazine Ninth Letter, and the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA writing program.