- Listening to Memory
san antonio, tx: trinity university press, 2012. 202pages, paper, $16.95.
For the work of memory is to put personal memory in a form that may serve the memories of others.—Kim Stafford, 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared
Kim Stafford’s 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared is one of the most compelling and well-written books of creative nonfiction I’ve read in years. Although 100 Tricks is a form of memoir, it is best read as a mosaic, quilt, or collage of memories, objects, and stories Stafford has lovingly composed with vulnerability, honesty, care, and artistry. In it, Stafford returns to the mystery of his bother Bret’s suicide, how his family shapes his identity, the pain of divorce, and how the experiences of loss, regret, and struggle lead to a wondrous love for life. In a relatively short span of time Stafford lost his brother, his father, and his marriage. But now, in another time, when Stafford has the openhearted bravery to tell what constituted that life, he explores how life changed and continued on, and he honors the silences and mysteries of memory, writing, and life he’ll never fully understand. He speaks directly to the mysteries of these losses when reflecting on his brother’s “disappearance”: “If I could not save him then, I may now save some of his stories, and at this distance from his life, deepen our relations. For if there is one thing my brother’s story teaches me, it is that the trick of life is [End Page 213] harmonious relations, and the key to harmonious relations is talking bravely. This I failed to do then. This I try to do now” (197).
“Tricks” are essential in this book, and Stafford returns to childhood and moves forward in contemplating how he and his brother “were schooled to survive by learning the mysterious ways of the human,” and how “there were many tricks required to get it right—sometimes you had to be angry, or thoughtful, humble, tender, wise—or foolish—but always brave” (6). By searching for the beautiful harmony of composition and memoir, Stafford discovers that although we can never repair what is lost, we can learn from it, and we can honor loss because it’s a blessing that will continue to unfold within the fabric of our lives.
I left Stafford’s masterful storytelling feeling that this book had changed my life and writing for the better. I started to slow down and live with heightened awareness in each moment, striving for the tricks and blessings loss can offer, instead of looking for the right or straight path or narrative to get me through the day. I tried to let various relations come together within a collage of memory and story.
Stafford writes 100 Tricks by bringing together distinct small memories and stories with individual titles, many of which are snippets of dialogue: “Would It Make You Sad?” “Give Me Your Notebook,” “You Cannot Buy This Song,” “Did the World Thank Uncle Bret?” These quotations are important, for Stafford is composing his memories from verbal and written expressions, small phrases culled from his interactions with others, showing that he would not have the language to write this book had it not been for the words of others. These small phrases—and the people who have expressed them—are the muses that inspire and shape his memory. One of the pleasures of reading this poetic book is discovering these phrases, these fragments, that spark the memories Stafford is writing as the past and the present join together, like various voices in a choir—vividly, aurally, and seamlessly.
Stafford’s father, the great American poet William Stafford, once asked, “Why tell what hurts?” The line serves as the epigraph to 100 Tricks; or, perhaps, it is best to read the line as another form of fragmented speech or text necessary for composing his memories. Kim Stafford seeks to tell us “what hurts,” and in order to do so he explores at...