Moments of Discovery
Debra Gwartney talks about structure and self-awareness in “I am a Stranger Here Myself.”
BY MARY RECHNER
I Am a Stranger Here Myself, Debra Gwartney’s new memoir, considers her childhood in Salmon, Idaho, alongside the life of Christian missionary Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, the first white woman to cross the Rockies. Gwartney, a former reporter, is equally at home describing the complexities of Whitman’s personality and circumstances—so hated she was killed by the members of the Cayuse tribe she’d given up trying to convert—as she is describing her own mother, father, and extended family.
In an early chapter comparing her two (now deceased) grandmothers, Gwartney wishes she could converse with her Grandmother Lois—a flinty westerner, to be sure, but also a reader of novels. “Mostly I like the idea of hatching with her what I’d make new, how I’d start over if I were forced to begin again, creating something fresh out of the rubble. No more glancing up at the clock and thinking, Where did this day go, so little accomplished? No more wondering if I’ve done enough to earn my life.” Though Gwartney’s rendering of Whitman’s demise is compelling, it’s her inquisitive vulnerability about her own history that fuels the memoir’s urgency.
I Am a Stranger Here Myself won the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize. Gwartney is also the author of the acclaimed memoir Live Through This and one of the editors of Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape. She teaches in Pacific University’s MFA in writing program and lives in Western Oregon. —Mary Rechner
Mary Rechner: Your first full-length memoir, Live Through This, about the years your teenage daughters ran away from home, is told in chronological order. The reader desperately wants to know how things turn out— for them and for you. In I Am a Stranger Here Myself, the structure and content is more complex and wide-ranging. You move between your own story of your birthplace and childhood in Salmon, Idaho, a place you deeply loved, but where you never felt you belonged, and the story of missionary Narcissa Prentiss Whitman. You switch back and forth between your story and hers. At what point in the writing did you realize you would be combining these stories? How did you choose this particular structure? Once you chose this structure, how did the writing of each of these stories influence the other?
Debra Gwartney: This question delights me, because when I submitted Live Through This to my agent, way back when, she insisted that I return to the draft and put it in chronological order. My original idea of the book’s structure was to be more thematic and less concerned with linear time—an attempt to emulate memory, which pings (as we all know) from the recesses of our minds at unexpected moments, triggered by a sound or smell or word. I do think one of the primary responsibilities of the memoirist is to recognize and explore the nature of memory and I was quite invested in such an exploration. That said, I got my agent’s point and I revised the book so that it flowed more logically through time and thus was easier for the reader to track.
When I began work on I Am a Stranger Here Myself, I immediately ran into the mega-challenge of how to handle time. There was no distinct through-line I could follow as in the first book, where daughters leave and then daughters return. And I very much wanted to figure out—an arduous series of attempts in the end—how my personal story might meld with the historical narrative of Narcissa Whitman, particularly her role in the expansion of the frontier West. I was juggling many daunting layers of time. So how to rise above temporal strictures? At some point, I decided that I would organize—though fairly loosely—the book around the tangible items I’d discovered related to Narcissa Whitman. Her hair, her trunk, a trite novel written about the children she had rescued after their parents died. Also, a red wine named after her and a note I’d found in a book while researching. These and others became my structural building blocks. I say “loosely” structured because I had no interest in a tidy organization, such as each chapter focused on a different NW item. Instead, I wanted these moments of discovery, these things I stumbled upon during years of research, to rise from the narrative when it felt right and natural. I hoped the structure would come off as more instinctual than anything else, so I relied a whole lot on gut feeling for where and when to disclose each discovery, both about Narcissa Whitman and about my family.
Rechner: What do you think about the idea explored in a recent review by Claire Dederer in the New York Times Book Review that “in order to balance its innate narcissism, a memoir ought to instruct?” Dederer disagreed with this idea, writing, “It is the job of the literary memoirist simply to write down her experiences with as much art and truth as she can muster.” Do you ever think about the “purpose” of memoir when you are writing? As a fiction writer, I simply want people to be enthralled enough/find the work pleasurable enough to keep reading. People seem to have more exacting expectations of memoirists. What do you think?
Gwartney: I am in total agreement with Claire Dederer’s disagreement of the “instruct” admonition and I am a huge fan of her work as well as her sharp mind (and terrific sense of humor). “As much art and truth as she can muster” rings absolutely true for me. I remember when Phillip Lopate, who I was lucky enough to study with in graduate school, said that for him the one goal of memoir is self-awareness. That’s been my lodestar ever since, backed up by Vivian Gornick’s idea that all memoir seeks to answer one question, “Who am I?” Still, I don’t encourage students I work with, or myself for that matter, to rely on memoir writing as a path to catharsis. Memoir is not therapy. Therapy memoirs, in my view, often clunk and clank and tell the reader how to feel when the reader prefers to reach those feelings on her own. My favorite memoirs, and the memoir I attempt to write, are those that fundamentally ask, Why do these certain moments in the past still have their hooks in me? And, What do I have to face in myself to move on from this stuck place?
It seems to me that many memoirs could have the same subtitle: How I Coped. Because coping involves dynamic interaction between and among characters, and dynamic is what holds the reader in its thrall.
Rechner: For many years you worked as a journalist. How does writing memoir compare with journalism? Which of your journalist’s skills do you bring to your work in creative nonfiction? How is the writing/writing process similar/different?
Gwartney: When I was young and considering graduate school, I asked a writing teacher for guidance and he promptly suggested a masters in journalism, as it would teach me “economy of language.” I believe that’s exactly what I learned over the course of study and then years of practice, plus for those years I worked as a reporter and editor, I managed to figure out some handy research methods. Those skills helped with this project for sure. The sections that deal with the distant past, with westward expansion, Manifest Destiny, the Whitmans and their mission, the Cayuse and other tribes, required substantial research and I feel lucky to have had the skills. I’m also glad that I returned to school in my late forties to get an MFA and to study with the likes of Vivian Gornick and Phillip Lopate and Sven Birkerts, all of whom taught me what it means to write memoir. This book strikes me as a nifty balance of my dual writing life.
Debra Gwartney was born in Salmon, Idaho—a fifth generation Idahoan. Winner of the 2018 RiverTeeth Nonfiction Prize, judged by Gretel Ehrlich, Gwartney’s hybrid memoir-history, called I Am a Stranger Here Myself, was published in March of 2019 by the University of New Mexico Press. Debra’s first book is a memoir, Live Through This, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2009, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, and the Oregon Book Award.
Mary Rechner is the author of Nine Simple Patterns for Complicated Women (Propeller Books). Her fiction has appeared in publications such as Harvard Review, Gettysburg Review, Burnside Review, New England Review, Kenyon Review, and Washington Square. Her criticism and essays have appeared in The Believer, Propeller, Oregon Humanities, and the Oregonian. She’s taught fiction writing at Portland State University and the University of Portland, was the Director of Youth Programs at Literary Arts for many years, and currently teaches high school students for Portland Public Schools.