Featured Memoir

Dear Friend of Colonus:

As an intern in acquisitions at the Eastern Washington University Press, I presided over the demise of many proffered manuscripts, and on a number of these I still reflect. One, for instance, was the biography of a college teacher and coach at a small liberal arts college in an agricultural region of Washington state—it was written by his daughter who had herself become a teacher. For my purposes here, I shall call her, Anne, because that is a beautiful name, and her attempt, which I shall call My Dad’s Life, despite my rejection of it, was still beautiful.

Anne’s book was especially difficult for me to reject. First of all,  My Dad’s Life was extremely well written, and often when we received books over the transom, they could be rejected simply because of the quality of the writing. For instance, we would receive manuscripts with typographical or grammatical errors in the first sentence, and not infrequently in the first paragraph or page. Although I would read further, an error in that first page was an infallible omen of more to follow. So any well written book on any nonfiction subject always endeared me. Anne had passed my first test, then, as an author.

Secondly, Anne had a profound passion for her subject—the book was, after all, about her father, about her own family. If the old saw “Write what you know” isn’t entirely true, the admonition to write about something which you truly care, something about which you feel passion, surely is. Anne truly loved her father and her family. But even if you write about something which you deeply care, a reader still may not care—such is the nature of the human animal and the condition of ennui under which it labors. Your passion may prove to be another’s mere annoyance.

Why is it that I have decided to stake my fortune on establishing a new press, literally investing thousands of dollars in this new publishing venture? Why is it that I’ve chosen Angie Sarich’s Leaving Parma as its first offering when I rejected Anne’s book?

The answer to the first question is that I have had a lifetime interest in books and in publishing, and I have trained for this. I have an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction, and I added an extra year to my course of study so I could intern constantly with the press as a companion to my academic work. I also took courses on publishing and editing. The most memorable one was taught by the poet and director of our university press, Chris Howell, in which he required us to build our own book from scratch.

On the last day of the course everyone brought their marvelous product. The ingenuity and variety truly amazed. “And what have you learned?” Chris asked, as we passed our books around and examined each other’s work. “That we did it,” someone replied. “Exactly,” Chris said. “There will be a lot of people as you go through life who will tell you that you can’t make a book. But the truth is, if you want to bad enough, there is a way. There is always a way, and no one can stop you.”

So Colonus Publishing, Inc., is, by one measure, nothing more than an outgrowth of Chris Howell’s graduate class at E.W.U. on literary editing. He instilled in us the belief that we shouldn’t let large publishing houses define us. We should never ask their permission to publish, but rather, if we believed in a book strongly enough, we could, and should find a way to build it ourselves. Fundamentally, I believe that a great press must begin with one great book, and that an initial great book will attract the offerings of writers who have written other great books.

The answer to the second question, why Angie’s book and not Anne’s, is more complicated. My Dad’s Life was a straight biography, moved in narrative fashion from the beginning to the end. It chronicled Anne’s father’s life as teacher and coach. Bill Grummel, a classics professor of mine at the University of Washington during the ’60s, used to tell his classes: “The world is naturally divided into only two kinds of people, Aristotelians and Platonists. People make this all too complicated. You can tell the difference between the two this way—the Aristotelian would fashion the shoe to fit the foot; the Platonist would cut the foot to fit the shoe.”

If you put Bill’s notion on a scale running from one to ten, one being purely Aristotelian, and ten being purely Platonic, then My Dad’s Life was a beautiful and perfect one—the shoe that Anne had fashioned fit her father’s foot with stunning and admirable precision. It is not easy to capture in a single volume the gist of someone’s life. The man had had an important impact on a generation of students, had undoubtedly inspired, had proverbially, as we say about teachers in Mr. Chips fashion, changed lives. But the problem with the precision and exactitude of Anne’s book was that there was everything in it for Anne and her family, but nothing in it for the reader.

Anne was so involved with her father’s foot that the book she fashioned approached a kind of hagiography with only familial appeal. There was, however, in My Dad’s Life, a fascinating kernel. Anne’s father had coached everything at this small college: tennis, cross country, basketball—any sport the college played, it seemed. His basketball teams played much larger state schools, schools which Anne said cheated in their recruiting practices so that they could win.

She proudly told the reader that her father was steadfast in his honesty, refused to cheat. And so consequently he paid the price for his honesty. Not only did his teams lose, they lost all the time. The tone that she took was as if she was describing St. Francis of Assisi.

To a reader and an editor, a book about a coach at a small liberal arts college who refuses to cheat and as a result his teams just get pasted, well, it’s a very interesting story that has the promise of delivering some of the flavor of Pat Conroy’s My Losing Season. I have wondered these past several years, if Anne had interviewed her father’s players, whether every one of them would have told her that her father was indeed so laudable when he sent them out onto the hardwood to lose every night. Perhaps to them her father was not so sainted.

I’ve had writing instructors tell me that if someone is famous enough, it doesn’t make any difference if her or his life story is literature, people will be interested in reading it. I have never agreed with this premise. As Anne’s subject was coaching basketball, let’s consider there must be more than a hundred thousand basketball coaches in the world, thousands of winning coaches, and maybe a hundred elite coaches.

Mike Krzyzewski of Duke and Bobby Knight of Indiana and Texas Tech are both in that number of one hundred, roughly equally famous and successful. Knight mentored Coach K. They both coached at Army, both coached the U.S. team to an Olympic gold medal, both are in the basketball hall of fame, have won just a heck of a lot of games. But while Five Point Play: The Story of Duke’s Amazing 2000-2001 Championship Season is unknown and virtually unread, A Season on the Brink about Knight’s 1985-1986 season is the greatest selling sports book of all time.

Out of those hundred elite coaches, John Feinstein chose to enlighten us about the one whose will to self-destruct clashed more than any other coach’s with his obvious will and emotional need to win. This is a story of greater universality than any win-loss record, and is why Bobby Knight interests us far more than Mike Krzyzewski. It is the flaw in the work of art that interests us most, why one of Michelangelo’s prisoners sparks our desire to imagine what could have been, while his David does not.

Perhaps Anne’s reactions to criticism from her father’s players would have been more interesting than the book she wrote, which she felt had to be flawless, but was in result a canonization. If Anne really had looked hard at her father as a subject and not as a father, she would admitted that all his players did not see a St. Francis of Assisi. Some saw a loser. Out of this cauldron of self-realization, then, the tension for real literature is born.

But Anne’s fidelity to that Size Number One shoe of Aristotle’s doomed her book as literature. If she had been willing to explore the consequences of her father’s morality, the cost it exacted from his players, and indeed, from his family—then she would have moved toward the Platonic, say to a five, where she would have been discussing the blood that coursed through her father’s foot; but also, she would have done the hard work, gone beyond that very personal foot to tell us something about the subject of shoe in general. The specific of the Aristotelian only interests us as readers to the extent that it illuminates the Platonic form, the universal as it applies to all of us. Therein lies the pleasure of literature. It relates to our lives.

As Anne discussed her family in My Dad’s Life, she was at a one on the Bill Grummel Memorial Scale. As Plato discussed the family in The Republic, he was at a ten. In writing a memoir, I don’t propose to tell writers where to be on Bill’s scale. But there must be something of the juice of real life that explicates the universal. On the one hand, there is family history that is of interest to no one but the family. On other hand, there is philosophy.

If a writing entitled “On the Death of a Moth” is exclusively about the physical dying of a moth, then it’s entomological research. If it is exclusively about death, then it is philosophy, akin to Kierkegaard’s  The Sickness unto Death, the physical dying of the moth being merely the point of departure for a philosophical discussion, as was the Lazarus story for Kierkegaard.

Natalie Kusz, the author of an excellent memoir called Road Song, was asked once by a student in one of her graduate nonfiction classes, “Does everything we write have to be about more than one thing?” Natalie answered, “Everything you write must be about at least two things, and three and four is even better.”

Just as Anne wrote about her family in My Dad’s Life, Angie wrote about her family in Leaving Parma. But when the reader reads Leaving Parma, sees the pictures of Angie’s family, why should he or she care about Angie’s family any more than I as a reader cared about Anne’s family in My Dad’s Life? The answer is, Anne’s book was literally about her father, while Angie’s book is about what is wrought by the powerful engine of loss in our souls. It does not proceed in linear fashion of a chronicle recounting birth to death. It discusses three generations through a deft selection of scenes, is of spiral construction like the shell of a nautilus.

She starts at a central point, with the death of her uncle in Vietnam, and as she moves around it and away from it in point a view, she is always looking at it from a different aspect, not just from her own vantage point, but trying to understand the experience of her mother and her grandparents and people of the small town of Parma, Idaho. And as the conch of the nautilus expands around its center, becomes fuller, so does Angie’s inquiry into the consequences of loss on the human spirit, the effects of death and disease and injury and the break up of the family. At the end of her inquiry, we are left with a sharing of life experience, not the experience of one life. She has moved from her family’s losses to illuminate the meaning of loss for us all.

Thank you for reading,

Rich Skalstad
Editor, Colonus Publishing, Inc.