MARCH 18, 2014
CLIFF CHASE’S MEMOIR The Tooth Fairy reads like a very honest, very poignant Twitter feed. A collection of single-sentence present-tense moments and observations in the writer’s life, the memoir depicts both Chase’s inward and outward realities. He includes snapshots of his aging parents, the bewildered grief of September 11, his trials with various antidepressants and their side effects, how he continues to mourn his brother’s death from AIDS. Chase includes bits of wisdom from his trusted therapist and snippets from his journal. In assembling this memoir, Chase acts as a keen, nonjudgmental collector of moments both profound and common, universal and singular, mournful and hilarious. Take a peek:
In an e-mail, my friend Cathy, who is legally blind, explained to me for the first time in our twenty-two-year friendship exactly what she sees — that is, a rapid series of blurry snapshots because her eyes won’t hold still.
I begged off having a drink with my boss, saying I had dinner plans, which was true: I had planned to have dinner with myself.
I said I couldn’t have lunch with the salespeople tomorrow because there was something I had to do, which was true: I had to be alone.
Things I liked to do on Wellbutrin: blow my boyfriend; lie in bed switching channels; write one-sentence paragraphs; not get mad at store clerks; masturbate; read stereo-equipment catalogues; plan to go to Rome.
Rather than abrupt, these sentences read like neat, lovely little poems strung together. The effect on the reader is instant recognition and investment. Chase taps into how memory works: arriving as seemingly random snippets, absorbing but transient, moments that feel concrete. The strong footing of this memoir is Chase’s honesty. According to him, it’s honesty, above all with oneself, that gives any memoir a peg. Chase and I recently touched base about how he went about carefully constructing his sentence-by-sentence memoir and why the form worked for him.
I’m in love with the form of your memoir. When did you know this was how you wanted to convey your life? Did you consider other ways to depict the intensity of random moments?
I started writing one-sentence paragraphs in early 2001, regarding whatever I was thinking or experiencing at the time. I had no idea why I was writing this way — in fragments surrounded by white space — only that it seemed to be the best way to describe that period of my life, as I was climbing out of a fairly bad depression. So I didn’t yet have a sense that the method would apply to other parts of my life, only that I had to write that way, for whatever reason, about the here and now. But after I finished that first essay, friends saw the potential for more. Wayne Koestenbaum said, “You could write one or two of these a year for the next five years, and then you’ll have a book.”
So this book took you more than a decade to compose. How did it evolve over those years?
Further into the project, I wanted to go into past events, but since I’d begun by describing almost exclusively what was happening in the present, and since I was flying blind anyway, by radar as it were, I found the memory mode difficult at first. That aspect came together for me with an essay on listening to the B-52’s during my senior year of college (in 1980), which I wrote for Peter Terzian’s excellent anthology on record albums, Heavy Rotation. I was pretty sure then that this could be a book. Another thing that happened along the way was that the book became less disjointed and more linear as it went along, partly because narrative just has a way of asserting itself, and partly because I’d begun quoting long passages from my journals or, in the case of the final chapter, my brother’s AIDS diary.
In the first chapter, you write: “‘The intensity of certain random experiences […] is sometimes unaccountable and makes one wish to live more observantly.’” Were you hyper-observant while writing this book?
I seem to have begun writing this way — in intense fragments — in response to how I happened to be thinking, which may have been drug-induced: I’d just started on an antidepressant, Wellbutrin. In that same chapter, I quote an anonymous woman on a website who said colors were brighter on Effexor (another antidepressant). So my being a bit more observant than usual seems to have come first, and then I stumbled on a way to express that. Maybe this was why the memory chapters were harder — I didn’t have my current state of mind as an intensity meter, so I had to choose moments (from memory or my journals) based on another kind of intuition.
Did you struggle to make single sentences feel like complete snapshots?
I really didn’t know what I was doing, and I had to intuit what worked and what didn’t. I suppose the mystery of that kept me interested in the form — a little moment or blip would feel right, and I didn’t really know why. I’m not sure I could tell you why even now.
Did you create certain rules for moments you would include and moments you wouldn’t?
There were definitely no rules about it, which made the project a little scary, but also exciting. As the book went along, I got better at arranging the moments to create various effects — interlacing story lines, humor, juxtaposition, or … I forget all the effects.
Do you self-edit while journaling?
I try not to. I really want my journal to be my private workshop, where anything can be said, as badly or as eloquently as I like. I was grateful for that when I delved into my journals from the ’80s and ’90s — I discovered both lots of delusion and lots of insight, not to mention all sorts of important information I’d forgotten. I’d been afraid that reading my old journals would simply depress me, but in fact I was fascinated by that combination of what I knew, half-knew, or didn’t have a clue about.
You tapped into anxieties and worries so eloquently. You are aware that you “mingle love with panic, self-doubt, and conjecture.” Does your self-doubt inhibit the ease of your writing?
Yes. One of the nice things about The Tooth Fairy was that I only had to write one sentence at a time, meaning I only had to suspend my self-doubt very briefly. Otherwise, I seek a truce with my self-doubt by meditating. And I suppose the form of the book could be seen as a gigantic mindfulness exercise —this is what I’m thinking or doing right now (or was, back then). I suppose I find it easier to accept myself as an entity on the page than as an entity in the real world.
How do you manage to step over self-doubt in relationships?
I meditate for that, too.
What do you think makes a compelling memoir?
Above all, honesty. And if you’re not willing to let yourself look ridiculous or wrongheaded or ugly or whatever, then why bother?
Do you think you’re finished with this form of expression, or do you still find yourself writing this way?
Yes, the novel I’m working on is taking shape mostly in one-sentence paragraphs. I suppose it helps me focus on the quality of each sentence — to make each one count.