Having just finished My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland and, on the same day, discovered the journals of Janice Lowry, I’m awash in revelations about the way information can be presented. The linearity of a biography and the logical step-by-step conclusion-arriving-at linearity of an essay aren’t required for information to be illuminating and moving. In fact, nonlinear presentation can be even more powerful because it affects the reader/viewer on a more-than-intellectual level, the level of consciousness that is stirred by metaphor and symbol.
As an archivist, Shapland handled the artifacts of various writers and her description brings home the way our knowledge of another person is deepened by means other than the intellect.
She writes, “I was assigned the clothing, objects, and miscellaneous housewares of four writers: Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Carson McCullers. Before this project, I hadn’t thought all that much about an author’s clothes. But in my hours with random assortments of garments—socks, suits, coats, hats, and vests—I became more convinced of their potential for communing with lives past.”
Reading Hermione Lee biographies, I always enjoy the brief moments when Lee allows her own experience to break through the chronological narrative to tell us, for example, that she was approached directly by Penelope Fitzgerald’s daughter about writing Fitzgerald’s biography and that she had in-person interactions with Fitzgerald. Finding Lee’s presence in Fitzgerald’s life and biography somehow holds Peneleope Fitzgerald in space in a way that 500 pages of words otherwise hadn’t, despite being 500 pages of really well-written, highly enjoyable, biography.
And Shapland’s book evokes Carson McCullers through the descriptions of handling McCullers clothing, living in her home, bathing in her tub, but also the very real way Carson McCullers’s writing and life embedded itself into Shapland’s own life and deepened her self-understanding. The relationship, the way Carson McCullers’ life rubbed up against Jenn Shapland, adds dimension to McCullers.
This idea of nonlinear representation being more effective at conveying a person or an idea strikes a chord in me. I would rather see and hold Penelope Fitgerald’s bulging notebooks about Burne-Jones than read the biography she distilled that information into. Janice Lowry’s journals are enriching and deeply affecting in a way that a timeline of her life or her typed journal entries would not be.
I was always enamored of Michael Dirda’s description of Robert Phelps scrapbooks. Phelps snipped photos of authors from dust jackets and pasted them into a scrapbook where he also added quotations, biographical information. Phelps said, “Parable, fable, fiction are all fine. I want them. But whether I can gracefully justify it or not, I also want diaries, letters, marginalia, table-talk, all the nonofficial forms by which men have also revealed their mystery, disguises, wishes, feints.” (One compendium gathered by Phelps was Belle Saisons: A Colette Scrapbook - truly delightful.)
I don’t mean to suggest one form of presentation is better than the other. I am reading a biography now (D.H. Lawrence by John Worthen) and enjoying it. And I will continue to read biographies. But room has been made in my mind for appreciating a more personal, relationship-oriented, non-linear way of sharing information.
Jill Badonsky always says that creativity is non-linear. I had assumed she meant that the process of creating is non-linear but that the product must, to be valuable, present as orderly and intellectual. I’m seeing now the deeper impact that’s possible when the product is not made intellectually tidy and straightforward.
Reading the book Nightbitch started an avalanche of ideas in my mind. As I scribbled notes and quotes from Bill Plotkin and Joan Halifax and John Burnside’s excellent article about his hyena totem, plus poems by Herman Hesse and Adrienne Rich in the end pages, I thought, “this book is becoming a journal for me.” It’s a collection of ideas that stir me and a document of the relationship that I seem to have formed with Nightbitch.
In Marion Woodman’s and Jill Mellick’s Coming Home to Myself, another book where linearity and logical explanation are omitted, they write:
“Lunar consciousness unites,
Thinks with the heart,
Incorporates past, present, and future
In time out of time.”
So maybe it’s a matter of making room for this lunar consciousness, dismantling some of my conviction that logic and linear arguments are the highest form of communication to acknowledging that there are other valid ways of understanding.
Jenn Shapland trusted her own inner wisdom when she went looking for Carson McCullers’ true story, true self, not the one “paved over by others’ narratives.” Shapland trusts her own experiences as a queer woman to give her an understanding of McCullers’ life and she trusts the physical objects to present a truer picture of McCullers. “All of these artifacts of Carson’s life, fragmentary though they may be — her photos,her clothing, her paralyzed arm that she hid or did not hide, her will, her letters—can also be seen as a memoir. They offer ways of representing, exposing herself to the world.”