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On Composing an Album


Once upon a time, feeling the need to better understand who I was and how I got to be that way, I started to write a family memoir. Because I’d written quite a few articles and essays and literary criticism, I began by researching family history. As a long-time proponent of creative nonfiction, as both scholar and teacher, I wanted to be sure I got the facts right. Eventually, after some time and considerable drafting, my wife asked how it was coming. When I told her I was about up to the birth of my grandparents, she said, “If this is a memoir, you should be in it.” She was right—I hadn’t gotten to me yet and at the rate I was going my family memoir would be longer than Proust’s multi-volume In Search of Lost Time. Frustrated, I tried a different tact. I decided to write about one hundred days in my life, whichever days occurred to me as I sat down to write. I also decided to write about the photographs that had an impact on me whenever I looked at them. Soon, I was writing the rough draft of a more focused and more thoughtful consideration of my family background and the person I became. The book that resulted was Happenstance, a segmented collection of texts and images that, I thought, summed up my life.


I liked the idea of including images and writing about them but also the idea of thinking of the short narratives and reflections as being equivalent to a photo album. When you “read” an album of any kind you’re accumulating a sense of connection that the individual pieces don’t deliberately set out to achieve. My passion for medieval altarpieces, those arrangements of various images that suggest a multi-faceted entity—triptychs, polyptychs, dioramas, myrioramas—reinforced my commitment to this approach. I realized that there were parts of the original Happenstance manuscript that I’d set aside that might become albums of their own. There were aspects of family history that I still needed to consider and eventually I began to recognize the possibilities of their being interconnected. Slowly, incrementally, I pulled together what I thought of as literary remains, not only photos but also texts—family notes, diary entries, letters, my grandmother’s newspaper column and unfinished novel—and realized that I had been generating such artifacts of my own.


As in a family photo album after careful, close viewing, the connections began to emerge and elements of a long, spontaneous lineage surfaced. Everyone’s life is an individual one, and while we wrestle with the lonely challenges of being individuals, we distance ourselves from where we come from. All those people, those ancestors and progenitors, struggled to deal with being individuals in their own time, just as we must do, focusing mostly on how we get through our own time. And yet, as individuals, we replicate, with variations, the kinds of struggles they went through. If we could find a way to get to know them better, we might be able to better know ourselves.


That’s what Lineage attempts to do. All writers write for themselves, to work out the concerns and passions that haunt them, for good or ill, but they know that all readers read to connect to something not merely outside themselves but also to something that connects to them, perhaps unexpectedly provides a window in their own lives. Sometimes that leads to readers writing their own stories, perhaps considering their own lives and what that consideration tells them about themselves. It’s tended to work that way for me.

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