What The Goldfinch Teaches Memoirists

I love memoirs that push the edge of the genre, using fictional techniques to tell a riveting true story. Authors like Alice Sebold (Lucky), Jenette Wells (The Glass Castle), Cheryl Strayed (Wild), and Ann Patchett (Truth and Beauty) spring readily to mind. But fiction writers can teach memoirists a thing or two – Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is a case in point.

In The Goldfinch Tartt masters both a riveting plot and complex characters, as well as an underlying theme that gives the story a compelling through line. Writers of creative nonfiction could learn from Tartt’s techniques. Most illuminating for memoirists are the ways in which Tartt:

Plots her story for maximum impact – Each of her chapters has a narrative arc and closes by leaving the reading wanting more. The story builds through many upheavals for the protagonist, Theo Becker, until about three-fourths of the way through the climactic plot twist is revealed.

 Makes place a character in her story – Each location in The Goldfinch conveys a particular mood and illuminates Theo’s the internal conflicts. New York city is often overcast or rainy, with threatening clouds. Las Vegas is unbearably bright and dry – it is painful to experience the glare Tartt conveys through her descriptions – and the barren, uninhabited spaces – a perfect mirror of Theo’s inner turmoil and outer challenges. Amsterdam is cold, dark, menacing.

Uses dialog to reveal her characters foibles and secrets – Dialog in The Goldfinch reveals deep psychological patterns, secrets, and character flaws. Each character has a distinctive speech pattern. The alcoholic babble of Theo’s father, the socially distant chatter of his Park Avenue foster family, the ironic and twisted monologues of Boris, Theo’s best friend, the calm intelligence conveyed by Hobie, Theo’s ultimate protector and mentor. Even the two women Theo loves have distinctive speech patterns that reveal the differences in their characters.

Creates a sense of intimacy with a first person narrator – The story is told from Theo’s point of view and largely in his voice (which we later learn was shaped by his journals – memoirists take note) in a manner that is intimate and engaging. Yet, because of Theo’s powers of observation, Tartt truly illuminates each character. There is an underlying thread of compassion that allows us to connect as readers with even characters that are unlikeable or “evil.”

 Uses both situation (plot) and story (theme) to enrich her prose – The situation in The Goldfinch is compelling, tragic, and murky – a wounded, grief stricken 13-year-old steals a priceless work of art by the Dutch painter Fabritius –  and the painted goldfinch, chained to its perch, comes to symbolize all the ways in which Theo is a captive of loss. The underlying theme is one of illusion (art, beauty, doctored antiques) versus reality (betrayal, abandonment, greed, death). Tartt keeps the reader guessing by effectively intertwining a compelling plot with a rich, and often perplexing underlying theme.

 Doesn’t rush her story or her protagonist – There were times while reading The Goldfinch that I was tempted to mentally edit overly long passages, but the writing was so gorgeous I trusted Tartt to weave  her spell. Her patience as a writer – and ours as readers – is richly rewarded in a story that moves at the often frustratingly slow pace of the grief-stricken. Theo grows into a man before our eyes, and Tartt refuses to rush that process, as her protagonist increasingly confronts a moral quagmire from which he barely escapes with this life.

There is plenty at stake in The Goldfinch. For those who write memoir, it is worth studying literary fiction to learn the techniques of masters like Donna Tartt. Allowing our stories to gather richness and coherence, and employing fictional techniques to illuminate a deeper truth, is a huge effort. But one that pays off big time for both writer and reader.

A little bird told me so!

Why write poems?

When words wash over you like waves at the beach, make you laugh out loud, or gasp in astonishment, or choke back tears, you know you are hearing a good poem. That’s the beauty of poetry – it’s music to your ears and to your heart.

I write poems in order to hear the music of the language building inside me – and so that  I can share that song with others in call and response.



POETRY SOCIETY POSTCARD (Photo credit: summonedbyfells)

Last Sunday, April 27, I was in the Sierra Foothills listening to ten amazing poets read – and reading some of my recent work. This was my second invitation to the Spring Poetry Series at the Unitarian Church in Grass Valley, California.

The brainchild of artist, writer, and psychotherapist, Ruth Ghio, “An Afternoon of Poetry” was so rich it almost made my head explode. Most readings feature two, or at most three poets. This one showcased 11 poets, and felt like running a marathon decked out in metaphors and similes – instead of running shorts and shoes.

Lines are still echoing in my head like these from poet and writer Maxima Kahn.

You have permission

to want beauty, to press it into the bone
to love our aching bodies, to gather
in the storm, howling into the wind

to want manna and a heaven to shelter us
to long for home and the warm tide of arms
to believe in the broken bones mended

the healed and annealed
to love the spell of words

Max is a dear friend and a master teacher, as well as a gifted musician and dancer – she is an artist through and through. I recently completed an Artist’s Way class she facilitated and so her poem giving permission rings so powerfully in my heart. I felt both challenged and liberated by what I learned in the course, and I can say, with no irony, that it has changed me to my core. For the first time in my life, I am giving myself full permission to be an artist.

Last Sunday’s reading was my coming out party. Two other participants in the class were there as well, and the three of us yakked our heads off at Tofanelli’s restaurant before the reading. Max facilitated the class via telephone, so this was our first chance to meet. I felt held in a circle of support as I read my poems to old friends as well as my new creative “buddies.”

Author of The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron, says that art happens in tribes. Before taking the class, I might not have understood that fully. I do now. She also says, “Making art requires a safe hatchery,” and that is exactly what Max created.

So I read to my tribe, including poems I wrote during the class. Here is one of them for your reading (and listening) pleasure.

Meditations on Water

Mineral pregnant, magic,

it sloshes over the side of the blue bucket

I tip over thirsty plants on my deck,

Nourishing with clear licks of its tongue.

At a crack in the concrete on Rand Street

I observe a small miracle:

A blade of grass with five perfect drops

Lined up like buttons on a sweater,

Giving forth green in tiny translucent mirrors.

That afternoon at the Piedmont community pool

the guy next to me churns up a wake,

his webbed feet slap the surface.

I duck under,

begoggled and taut, lean into the lap lane,

trusting water to hold me.

Entombed in liquid silk,

I stare at the honeycomb of light

under the surface,

alive in a long-held breath,

my heart throbbing in my ears.


 I emerge dripping, 

Washed clean, lightened of whatever I carried here,

My limbs like that one blade of grass

Beaded with holy water.

If you’ve read my memoir Swimming with Maya, you know I’m obsessed with water as an image that captures the fluid connection between the worlds. Water is magic, and along with trees, an important totem for me. I try to read a poem a day. One of these days, very soon, I’ve vowed to start writing one a day too!