An Evening with Pam Houston

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Pam Houston was in Salt Lake last week. She gave a reading at the King’s English Bookstore to promote her new memoir, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country. My friend, Beth, attended one of Pam’s writing workshops and had a great experience. Apparently Pam is attentive and supportive and really liked Beth’s work (which isn’t a surprise; Beth’s work is beautiful.) I’ve never read any of her work, however, so when Beth called and asked if I would be her date for the reading I jumped at the chance to add a new writer to the mix.

Pam is a shy speaker, but very authentic and down to earth. She joked about her friendship with Cheryl Strayed (one of my favorite writers) and how they thought this memoir was, in some ways, fit as a life’s journey follow-up to Wild. She said they even had a laugh about calling it Tame.

I wrote down a few quotes I liked. This one reminded me of my own journey.

“Turning 40, for me, was permission not to have children. 50 was permission for everything else.”

Then she said something about the different between writing memoir and fiction, and I’ve been turning it over and over in my mind ever since.

“The action of fiction is very vertical. Memoir is like a creek: horizontal. And the meaning comes from the saturation. Sometimes you have to sit and stare at it long enough, and then good things will happen.”

I love this so much and I am not going to pretend for one moment that I understand what she meant. As I have thought it over I have made my own sense of it using pottery as a metaphor.  I picture that with fiction, it is like having a slab of clay pre-cut from the earth and placed at my waist level for me to shape to my will. I can add and remove as I build it up, letting my imagination devise what might happen next, and shifting the shape between my hands until I am happy with it.

Memoir is the clay that is still in the ground, on the banks of the creek. And I have to get down on the ground and dig for what is there, collecting it piece by piece.  It is not an exercise of imagination, but of excavation. I have often found with memoir that I am writing something that I thought was in the past, only to discover that the events are ongoing. That is the saturation process. You must to sit and watch the creek as it seeps into the earth, making more clay. And it will make its own progress in its own good time. After all, you can’t write a memoir if you haven’t finished living the story, yet.

Which is not to say that fiction is easy and memoir is hard. They are both hard to do well, in my experience. But I agree with Pam, that it feels like a different process.

The reading was wonderful.  Pam’s writing is stark and furrowed, like the weather-warn mountains that are the background of her story. She lays bare, with gritty detail, a story of abuse and neglect at the hands of her alcoholic mother. I was sucked in immediately and stayed captivated by the way Houston discloses her story, without excuse or apology, seeking a truth, but asking nothing of the reader but to witness. The thought of giving pity to the narrator or her mother never crossed my mind. It simply wasn’t the point.

After the reading we waited in line to get our books signed. Pam immediately recognized Beth and asked about the progress on her manuscript. I could tell Beth was flattered to be remembered and I was thrilled for her. I had just met this woman and had yet to read one of her books, but nonetheless, I found myself star-struck.

I’m finishing up I Was Told There’d Be Cake: Essays by Sloane Crosley right now (which is awesome and so funny!), but I’ve added Deep Creek to the “next to read” stack by my bed. I can’t wait to dive in an witness more of Pam’s saturation process.

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About Rachel Lewis

I am a writer, ceramic artist, knitter, and new stepparent. As a playwright, I had six short plays produced in showcases and festivals in Manhattan, Salt Lake City, and Austin. My full-length play, Locking Doors, was presented by Wordsmith Theatre Company in The New Lab Theatre (University of Utah) in 2005. I co-wrote a teleplay titled “Thank God I’m Atheist” which won the 2015 “No God But Funny” contest founded by the Center for Inquiry. My short nonfiction essay, “It’s Coming Down,” was published by the online literary magazine Halfway Down the Stairs. I currently work in pharmaceuticals professionally and write recreationally, but dream of making the transition to write professionally and do pharmaceuticals recreationally. I am a Utah native and live in Salt Lake City with my Yorkshire terrier, Wensleydale Doggiepants. I am working on a collection of humorous non-fiction essays and a second full-length play. Follow me at: rachelclewis.com @rachel_lewis_ut (Twitter) @rachel_lewis_ut (Instagram)

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