The Life of the City

A man in my writer’s group often makes the comment that the rough draft of my second memoir could use more plot.  Writing a memoir is a long process of layering, of recalling memories that are revived through old journal entries.  By the end of the process, there is always a plot, but never it seems, before the final draft.

It made me think of all my favorite books.  They don’t follow a traditional narrative arc, but they do capture life itself – ‘Post Office’ by Charles Bukowski, or any book by Henry Miller, for example.

In real life, plot does not take the same shape as in a novel.  It only exists as something to be noticed from many years past.  It’s a narrative device to hold the reader’s interest, a method of pacing and cliffhangers.  In life, we are not aware of the plot until we have reached an entirely different evolution of self.

My second book is difficult to build since it captures the time I spent living in Hoboken, NJ/New York City.  There were always a million things happening at once, much more than what should be captured on the page.  In a three year span I was a poet, a belly dancer, a singer/songwriter on the mandolin, a percussionist in a bossa nova band, a hostess at a popular restaurant, a literary agent, an artist’s assistant for someone famous, a pool player, a coffee drinker, a groupie, and a mad downer of whisky.  I was out every night, and working every day.  Many universes collided, which is part of the fun, and exactly what made it so fascinating to live through.

In New York, the parallel life shifted between being very poor, while often being among the extremely rich.  Within my tribe there was a great deal of tension within the “us verses them”.  We despised the rich.  Abused them if they came within our dive bar territory.  And yet, we often depended on the rich to get by.  To play those games, you had to pretend to be someone you weren’t.  There was a massive growing process that took place within that struggle, and a process of letting go.

This week I read Ernest Hemingway’s mostly memoir ‘A Moveable Feast’.  It’s the first book by Hemingway that I have ever enjoyed, and I’m surprised that I gave him another chance.  I never lose faith in him, though I don’t like any of his novels (minimalism, no adjectives, run-on sentences, bare expanses, macho posturing).

Of ‘A Moveable Feast’ Hemingway writes, “If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction.  But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.”

Is there a plot in this book?  Of course not.  It’s a love letter to Paris and his time spent with Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the love he shared with his first wife Hadley, and their baby, Bumby (including Bumby’s babysitter, a cat named F. Puss).

Hemingway makes Fitzgerald sound like a tiresome alcoholic with a cuckold for a wife; Zelda, a wife jealous of her husband’s talent who makes him drink to distract him from his craft; Stein, an egomaniac with no patience for women other than Alice.  To get through it all, Hemingway drinks plenty of whiskies with soda and lemon juice (a delicious drink).  And then, just when you feel he’s really had enough, supreme, in all of this, is the joy of being a writer in a city like Paris.

“The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of early morning, sweeping out and mopping, and luck were all you needed (Hemingway, 91).”

By the end of the book, you feel the sadness that Hemingway experienced at the loss of this world he inhabited, and his young family.  The rich were drawn to his success and left him feeling empty.  Other women drew him away from Hadley and filled him with regret.  But in the end, there was always Paris.

“We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached.  Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it.  But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy (Hemingway, 211).”

In ‘A Moveable Feast’ the place becomes the plot.  No matter how many people pass through, or how quickly they appear and then disappear.  This is the life of the city: a constant rotation of people and experiences that you should never expect to last.  But it’s beautiful while you are at the center, watching the menagerie orbit around you.

12 thoughts on “The Life of the City

  1. I would really love to write a memoir but the whole ‘plot’ thing is what’s stumping me. Things happened, sure, but how do you start writing if you haven’t a clue what the plot is? I’m sure I’m missing something…

    Awesome post though,I’ve been looking for memoir (or memoir ish) work to read so I might give this one a go. Thanks!

    D x

    1. I begin by writing the stories I want to tell. Then if you keep writing, those stories begin to build and build into something greater. Eventually, you just start filling in the blanks. And when you’ve told everything there is to tell, you can stand back and analyze it from a plot point of view. What can make it more cohesive? How can you shed light on what your character has experienced so far? When I got to that point, I holed up at a Writer’s Refuge for a week, and some great things happened. It’s amazing how much you can learn about yourself and the people in your life from writing it all down, and exploring.

  2. The only Hemingway I’d ever read was The Old Man and the Sea… and I hated it so much I never read any of his other books. Your description of A Moveable Feast makes me want to read it though, especially because I’ve lived in Paris. I think I’ll put that on my to-read list… so thanks!

    1. Ooh, lucky! I went to Paris when I was really young, and didn’t know anything about it then. But after being in love with the culture for so many years since, I want another chance!
      I think you will enjoy Hemingway’s descriptions of the city. I always thought I would have liked to live in Bohemian Paris back then. But as I’ve read in this book and others of how high maintenance the artists and writers were, I’m happy where I am. I love Woody Allen’s ‘Midnight in Paris’ and you can see he got a lot of material for the film from this book.

  3. I agree you that a memoir is of necessity a totally different structure to a novel. The problem I would imagine is that it has to be chronological but so much of our lives is uneventful and we want to talk about the highlights. I do not have a solution to this buy it wouldn’t hurt to write the parts that you deem worthy of highlight and extrapolation as these will probably represent 90% of the finished work. Forget about packaging the pieces into the whole until the big job then seek advice.

    I enjoyed your accurate take on ‘A Moveable Feast’ – I approached it from a different angle and my review is at my blog if you’re interested (I also believe that I have solved the riddle of the preface). I read Hemingway because I learn about writing and get a greater insight into the man, though like you, the more I learned the less attracted I became. ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ is my favourite by far – a story of heroic survival against nature in a place where machismo is a culture.

    1. I really enjoyed your post on ‘A Moveable Feast’ and you had some great insights and information on Hemingway’s life.

      Yesterday, while I was modeling in a studio, the artist said, “Everyday, a studio practice is about solving a problem.” At first, I didn’t like this statement for being so mathematical. But then I realized, that this is the joy of art. Solving a problem. Building a book is like building a puzzle, and seeing where all the pieces fit in the greater whole. There is a great deal of joy in making sense of it all in the end.

  4. Another no-plot book that I loved was Paul Auster’s Brooklyn Follies. He hints at various big-plot things that happened before the book’s timeline and that would eventually happen after, but the book itself was just life. It was beautiful.

  5. Hey, just wanted to stop by and let you know that I have nominated you for a Leibster Award. Check out today’s post on my blog. I love your blog!

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