The first morning of the 2015 Key West Literary Seminar was filled with discussions of compassion. Wally Lamb began his reading on Friday by talking about Joni Mitchell, and her song “The Magdalene Laundries” in particular. Lamb read a version of an essay that wove Mitchell’s lyrics with his own experiences teaching writing workshops at a women’s prison in Connecticut. He explained that he had originally intended to only do a one-day workshop at the prison as a way of giving something back after the success of his book She’s Come Undone, but following that first day’s workshop, he decided to continue and fifteen years later he still returns to the prison on a regular basis. Lamb said that the lyrics of Mitchell’s song about the notorious Irish “asylums” and their brutal treatment of young Irish women resonated deeply with the incarcerated women in his workshops, and this notion of seeing oneself in the other, and the other in oneself was something that resonated throughout the rest of his reading and on the panel that followed, where Lamb was joined by Patricia Hampl and Marie Howe.
Hampl explained how, as a memoirist, she finds herself more often than not using herself to navigate the lives of others. She cited Whitman’s “Song of Myself” as another example of this, and Howe continued to explore this idea of exchanging the self for the other as a way of generating compassion, saying, “this is the hard part…but that’s where our imagination must take us…Dick Cheney is me.”
Ultimately, Howe said, even though it’s difficult to inhabit the skin of those we may not like, it eventually makes us more compassionate. Lamb picked up this thread by noting some of the negative responses he’d received for his first-person portrayal of a pedophile in his novel We Are Water. He pointed out that his purpose in giving voice to the character was not as a means of exonerating, but rather to remind readers and himself that this person was still “a part of our humanity, another person in our world.”
Lamb then asked Hampl and Howe if there was any aspect of confession in their work, and this lead Howe to instead explain that reading the Bible as a child brought out parts of herself because those biblical stories contained “so much silence for the psyche to pour itself into.” This space, Howe said, allows her to find more of her own voice by writing in the voices of the characters she remembered so intimately from when she was young. Hampl didn’t exactly find her own work confessional either, saying that for her, memoir was the opposite of confession, rather it was “a refuge, not a way to unburden.”
All three authors discussed this idea of narrative as refuge, as a way of giving shape to experience that might otherwise seem pointless or daunting, and a way of giving depth to stereotypes that might otherwise seem shallow. Howe discussed the role of narrative as a helpful part of Alcoholics Anonymous, where members tell stories rather than act, and Hampl said that as a young woman she often wrote of herself in third person “as a way to keep my spirits up.”
Again, the idea of self and other was blurred, both as a way of making it through one’s day, and also of advancing and developing a greater sense of compassion for fellow human beings. The panel ended on this idea, with Howe saying that she sees the world’s problems today coming from an “us and them” mentality, and she hoped that this could be dissolved through forms of “creative activism,” using stories and poems as ways of understanding not only ourselves, but also our fellow human beings.