- The Inventors: A Memoir by Peter Selgin
Writing begins with the act of invention—a linguistic exercise that draws from the quiet place of imagination to produce something alive and breathing on the page. Invention begins with questions that blossom, when answered, into beautiful lines of inquiry. For the memoirist, these questions probe the past. “What do we remember? What do we know? Are knowledge and memory the same? Just because we remember something, does that mean that we know it?” asks Peter Selgin in his memoir The Inventors. “Is memory something that we possess, like knowledge, or is it something we do—an act?” Invention, in this work of nonfiction, happens in the art of making sense, of collaging the fragments of memory into a larger, cohesive whole.
In The Inventors, Peter Selgin reinvents the world of his childhood in Bethel, Connecticut, a place where the influence of two men was given freely and poured directly into the mold of the young narrator. Selgin argues that his father, a freelance inventor, and his junior high school English teacher, a free thinker who became a close friend, are responsible for “inventing” him. These two role models imparted wisdom, knowledge, and ways of being that influenced the writer at significant points throughout his life.
Of the first evening spent in his teacher’s cottage in Bethel, playing chess and drinking smoky Chinese tea, Selgin muses that nothing tangible about his hometown changed. The streets, houses, schools, factories, people, and road signs stayed exactly the same. And yet, Selgin confesses early on in the book that after spending an evening behind his teacher’s blue door, his first venture out of the home and into autonomous choice, “nothing would ever be quite the same.”
This sensibility is echoed in all strong nonfiction, most notably in Cheryl Strayed’s introduction [End Page 58] to the 2013 edition of Best American Essays: “When I teach writing I tell my students that the invisible, unwritten last line of every essay should be and nothing was ever the same again.” Everything, Strayed goes on to say, should be at stake when nonfiction is based on personal experience. Through a similar observation, Selgin establishes the stakes for his memoir. When the reader is primed to encounter a life-altering moment, the narrative is given permission to launch. Selgin’s coming-of-age story spans decades from this momentous point.
Place, too, is an important element of Selgin’s story; his father’s workshop and teacher’s home serve as settings where much of the narrator’s “inventing” takes place. As the narrative progresses, Selgin leaves Bethel for Corvallis, Oregon, in pursuit of his teacher, and to New York City, in pursuit of art and self. The present tense writer, a reflective Selgin sitting in an A-frame cabin in Georgia, is as much an invention as any. He presses his memory, asking who, what, when, and where he became the person he is.
A prismatic, wandering structure links the narrator’s adolescence and adulthood. Selgin writes with conscious awareness of this choice: “I write these notes with little respect for order, logic, or causal relationships—not out of carelessness or laziness, but because a person adrift in a rowboat on a lake can hardly be expected to do otherwise.” The Inventors is a memoir that floats from memory to memory, nudged along only by small shifts in the water and air. Reading it inspires a calm and contemplative mood.
From the rowboat, Selgin writes with both a closeness and distance to his own experience. By juxtaposing first and second person points of view, setting scenes both in the present and in the past, and arranging segments non-sequentially, Selgin’s formal play mimics memory. Remembrances occur and splice at random, intersecting the author’s present. Selgin is an author afloat, indeed.
Tangible inventions were as much a part of Selgin’s development as the relationships that “invented him,” the structure seems to say. Sketches of patent designs and schematics, some invented by Selgin’s father in the workshop behind their home, divide the book...