Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Is It Possible for Non-Poets to Write Haibun?
I’m going to launch this essay in an unusual way, with an exchange of emails between friends. If you’ll bear with me, my answer to the title’s question will reveal itself.
1. Email: Gary to Ray
Dear Ray, After a walk with Rufus, my border collie, I returned home to find an envelope you had sent containing Harriot West’s collection of haibun, Into the Light. I remember you and I discussing haibun, but until I read her book, I didn’t have an appreciation for the sort of personal memoirs one finds in that genre. I took it to our dining table and read a few pieces to my wife, Joan, and we had quite a discussion.
It clearly requires a person of both courage and great honesty to author such a book. I am sure that West’s writing will invite others to be more reflective of their life experiences. Having read her offerings, I felt as if I was a bit dead to the world and asked myself, “Have I lived life asleep at the switch?”
In my undergraduate years, a philosophy course I took was taught by a man I much admired, Professor Samuels, a bright and warm person, an ex-Marine who wore wide brimmed hats, his black Labrador always at his side. As it happened, I and another chap received the top mark on an assigned paper. Going over mine, Samuelson mentioned that I and the other student had different strengths, mine was logical analysis whilst his was more a poetic or literary bent.
I think I am more of a linear, logical thinker than an insightful type. I wish I had better capacity to see and express what I see in the world—in writing, photography and in art.
2. Email: Ray to Gary
Nice to hear from you Gary. After you had mentioned wanting to write memoirs about your life, I thought you’d enjoy West’s book, which includes a mix of memoirs, reactions to current experiences in her life, and even some fictional stories.
My partner, Nancy, and I had some very enjoyable evenings reading it aloud to each other.
Your comment about where it took you personally—to Professor Samuelson’s pronouncement—caught my attention. Given what you write about your "linear self," I was surprised because your email was well written and it had for me an element of wabi-sabi—a summing up that speaks to transience—the shortness of life, the regrets, and, buried deep, the wish to have become more. And what an irony that is—to have created a piece of writing that claims you have been and are stuck for life in category X, yet there you are expressing yourself in category Y.
I think I can understand your feelings, because I'm having a similar reaction to your "I'm not a poet" feelings as I read E.B. White's short stories in One Man's Meat. While enjoying his memoir on one level, I also see that I simply don't have his prose poetry skills and, thus, I discount my own writing.
Your email, may I call it a memoir? also brought to mind my feelings after having gotten an undergraduate engineering degree with almost no liberal arts courses. Toward the end of our degree year, we grads used to laugh at ourselves and say, “Yesterday I couldn’t even spell Inginer, and now I are one.” Even then, technical whizzes that we were, I think we felt some shame in sensing that in our choice of a professional degree, we’d missed out on something important, something that perhaps could never be replaced. As to whether you are of a literal versus poetic bent, I'd hope that you don’t let your good professor continue to shoehorn you into that singular category. I think that we all have both the analyst and poet in us.
You mentioned before that you’ve had the impulse to write about events in your life. I had the same impulse when I started trying the haibun form. For me, haibun is an attractive genre because the writing tends to be quite personal—autobiographical sketches if you will. In your case, reading West’s personal collection triggered your memory of your professor's pronouncement and brought to mind not only your reaction as a student, but your present feelings about your writing abilities.
Writing memoirs (and other types of haibun) is about learning to recognize these sorts of signals as grist for the mill and imposing the discipline of putting pen to paper. Then there’s the revising, revising, revising, and, most important, wheedling editorial suggestions from colleagues who might be willing to serve as careful readers and say what they truly think. For me, the rewards are deeper insights into the life I’ve lived and pieces that can be shared with family and friends and perhaps even appreciated by readers we will never know.
Indirectly, I’ve used this exchange and example to make the point that as well as learning the skills of composition and diligently applying them, writing also has to do with a person’s self-concept.
People who feel like Gary (and me when I read E.B. White) and yet have a yearning to write about something meaningful in their lives, might deliberately move beyond those feelings and give writing a serious try. Short memoirs passed between friends and family of which Gary’s email is an example is a starting place.
The deeper thoughts and feelings we chat about with friends, spouses or just with ourselves when looking in the mirror, provide the initial seeds of a lived story worth telling. In my mind, the key issue is whether we're willing to put in the time and effort to develop our life stories in writing, and not simply whether we've been endowed with some sort of genetic talent as a poet.
1. The memoir is a written account in which writers describe their past experiences. Memoirs can deal with memories of childhood, school, family, growing up, and the like. Haibun also deal with recent experiences of whatever nature—travel, an everyday event, a reaction to a newstory or article, a conversation with someone, ekphrasis (response to artwork) or even a dream. While most haibun are based on real life events, some writers create fictional stories that read as if they really happened.
2. Harriot West’s Into the Light is published by and can be ordered at Mountains & Rivers Press.
3. The emails above were inspired by an original email from a friend who had indeed read Harriot West’s Into the Light. They’ve been edited for purposes of the points I intended to make. With the exception of my own and West’s, the names and other details have been changed.