Forty-plus years ago for my thesis, An Autobiography of Jesus Christ, I had to choose three professors as my readers. As the title suggests, there was no defined genre for such life writing back then. The readers I chose, although they were considered “experimental” in their various published works of poetry and fiction, were not completely on board with my thesis proposal. All three objected to a statement in the outline asserting that the autobiography would always be in process as I lived it, finished only when I died (not necessarily by crucifixion) or when I turned 33 years old.
University graduate writing programs have transformed dramatically since 1980 when my alma mater – U of I, at Chicago – was the only university in the country offering an MA in Literature with a Creative Writing specialization. Today there are myriad MFA programs being offered in the oxymoronic “creative nonfiction” genre. They recognize that the postmodern era of life writing has destabilized the ontological border between autobiographical nonfiction and fiction.
“Explore a broad and vibrant curriculum of nonfiction writing, including memoir, personal essay, lyrical essay, autofiction, experimental and hybrid nonfiction, and literary journalism. Learn more about creative nonfiction.”
An Autobiography of Jesus Christ, and most of my writing since then, including the narrative I am simultaneously writing in serialized excerpts/posts here, would be classified under one or more of these subgenres of creative nonfiction. And of course all of us are now practicing some facet of life writing through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, etc.
This page will stay in process. It will be an ongoing personal essay that examines its title and its rubric: Life Writings. Readers are encouraged to engage in the comment section about the nature of their own creative nonfiction.
The concrete poet is poised to write their autobiography.
How should they classify the creative nonfiction they are poised to graffiti onto Brooklyn streets?
No, correction, they are poised to wright.
I.e., the rite of life writing is that you first need to build the life before you can write the life,
Or, if you prefer, you may write the life as you live and right it with your writing.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Bump in the Road
15-Second Biopic of a Concrete Poet
For the concrete poet, the page is the canvas where words, letters, fonts are employed to confer meaning (color) beyond conventional usage. What is created is less poem and more object. The page is less the conventional fiber paper (now the digital screen) and more a stage for the poet’s metaphysical performance art.
The actor under the single follow spot or street light; the stage is the same. That light above is more than just a metaphor, it is the metaphysical light of their singular star. Their stardust’s minute of flesh that owns the stage as Words, the Speaker, Deeds, the Doer. The actor faces an audience, but what fills the space behind them? The ancestors gather there and enter through the DNA to speak and do through their vessel, the Actor. Words, the Speaker, Deeds, the Doer affects those just beyond the flesh gathered presently as witness. Their curtain call gesture is gift to the Seventh Generation.
The page/stage is the night sky where the silent k night performs.
That which is below is like that which is above, and that which is above is like that which is below, to perform the miracles of one only thing. ―
At first glance, you may not notice the difference between these two WHITE BOY tags. On further scrutiny, you would see subtle differences, but you would probably still rule both tags to be created by the same hand. Yet for demonstration purposes, consider that one is the real WHITE BOY and the other is the fake WHITE BOY.
The WHITE BOY tag is more than words on the digital screen. Once it was an object that existed on many building walls throughout NYC’s Fifth Police Precinct of Chinatown and the Lower East Side. We think of graffiti, like other painting, as being a two-dimensional art form. Yet when WHITE BOY is sprayed over another piece of graffiti, hasn’t a third dimension been created? Hasn’t an actual object been created? The tag not only negates the graffiti under it, WHITE BOY is now the building itself and that building is now a physical marker of a territory. The surrounding streets and drug trade are owned by WHITE BOY.
Thirty-some years ago my fake WHITE BOY tag was indistinguishable from the real WHITE BOY tag. Like a sealed time capsule, this WHITE BOY tag holds the essence of my life experience at that time.
The trepidation I had years ago about learning to mimic and enact the WHITE BOY tag is similar to my fear of recreating from memory the tag today.
The memoirist cannot write about an experience that did not happen but what if the memory is so compromised by trauma that it is inaccessible except as a dreamlike blur of intense emotions juxtaposed with minute flashes of “what really happened.” If you render what you believe to be the essence of the experience that has been retrieved from that corrupted memory chip, but you know that the data is not “what really happened,” have you crossed the ontological border between nonfiction memoir and fiction? Does it matter? To you? To the reader? Hemingway set the goalpost.
A writer’s job is to tell the truth. His standard of fidelity to the truth should be so high that his invention, out of his experience, should produce a truer account than anything factual can be.
I had a living model of the tag to mimic back then. Now I have only a vague visual memory and perhaps a trace of muscle memory in my right hand and arm.
Tech has been phasing cursive writing out of today’s education but there was a time when everyone created their signatures from cursive. And of course, over their lifetimes, everyone has transformed that signature they first “made up” in grade school. Sometimes the transformation was drastic, necessitated by a name change, but other times just by a creative urge or whim. If we had to recreate our grade school signature today, how accurate would it be?
I try to pull the memory out of the ether, signing the digital paper in front me hundreds of times with improvised tags. I realize that these signatures are mostly “made up,” but what is the essence of memory if not the reinvention of the actual? I see a certain replication emerge and I choose the exemplar of that repetition as the final tag.
Remembering how I had broken down WHITE BOY into elements before I first sprayed it on a wall, I break down this template of WHITE BOY the same way. Similarly, I name each element as I remember doing before. Discovering the “bump in the road” element feels like proof that the metaphysics of the process are sound.
I am writing what I remember, what I am living.
I count the number of steps from my apartment door to the masterpiece that has been painted over, disrespected. 723 steps. Not sure why I need do this. Perhaps at some instinctual level I know I am about to lose my way home again.
I slash WHITE BOY onto SV’s throw-up, onto the toy’s disrespect to a king.
By putting my Black Book online I have ignorantly placed myself in jeopardy with both the street and the authorities. They all now know my name and where I live. Similar to what the fake WHITE BOY did three decades ago.
Arrogant self-righteousness only belatedly reveals itself, and once again, the fake WHITE BOY has become the real.
Today, in the digital world, I could instantly delete the documentation of my crimes or hide access to them behind a password.
“Gabriele had sewn the tipi cover out of 78 mailbags, the number of cards in a Tarot deck. The inner lining consisted of mailbags on which she had illustrated her oil-stick interpretations of the Minor Arcana. Everything about the tipi in the shantytown, from conception to erection, had been initiated through my readings of the Tarot.” excerpt: Mister Lee
And now we were living an evolving Tarot – interpreting and revealing at both an unconscious and conscious level our lives as we lived them. “The portraits of our neighbors that Gabriele drew became living court cards. Hung as the inner lining of the tipi, her models were endowed and special. They had become the Kings, Queens, Knights, and Pages of the Hill. The tipi was a gallery lined with the portraits of royalty.” The Living Museum of the NOMAD MONAD. excerpt: Geomancer
Each portrait reveals the character of Gabriele’s model. For me, her interpretations go even deeper. Of course, it is only in reflection, in memory, that I see the archetypes revealed. Living and sleeping under the gaze of the portraits, while simultaneously interacting daily with the real people they represented, the archetypes primarily provoked at the unconscious level. The Wordsworth quote instructs on not just poetry, but on all life writing.
“Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”
The Tarot archetypes parallel closely with Jungian concepts of the self and personality. For many on the Hill, their addiction, their shadow, had almost completely eclipsed the self. The Hanged Man is the reigning archetype in many of the portraits.
Mister Lee’s portrait was the odd man out, so different from the others. Working on top of his cocoon, he is The Fool, the Sacred Clown. An amalgam of jester, sage, magician whom I had sought as mentor.
My writing in the narrative is primarily a meditation on the court, the portraits of the Kings and Queens, the strong emotions that their personalities and selves still evoke in me. How their souls still haunt and hunt me.
The Geomancer sees through time. He sees a tree grow in the earth and then die. He sees another tree grow and die in the same place. He sees the earth paved over with stone. He sees a man and woman standing on a stone ledge overlooking all creation. He watches closely as the anima mundi animates the world through time.
Traditionally in memoir and autobiography, the author and narrator are the same person, and they tell “the true story of what happened.” Autobiography is a record of chronological events. In memoir, events may move back and forth in time, with emotional truths coloring the facts. This emotional coloring may obscure “what happened.” Since memory not only records events but also transforms them, in memoir, vague, even faulty memory may contain vivid emotional or psychic truths that can be used to tell “the true story.”
Both memoir and autobiography might allow an older narrator to reflect on their younger naïve self’s experience, almost as if they were another person more qualified to tell the true story. Like a parent supplying the context to their child’s story or the psychologist analyzing their patient’s experience. In this way, it’s possible for a memoir to simultaneously convey two different stories of the same events. That was then, this is now. Now is the author and reader appraising then, the more “naïve” person and/or time.
Fiction has another device at its disposal. With the naïve or unreliable narrator, the author creates a place of ironic observation from where the reader views the narrator’s story.
The Hill story will be difficult to classify into a genre. I am writing this accompanying “Life Writings,” also episodically, to categorize and clarify the story’s narration, both for myself and for the reader.
No doubt the narrator of the Hill is me, the author, relating events from thirty years ago as memoir. But as analogy, consider The Matrix Resurrections. Thomas Anderson (Neo on the red pill) is the author of The Matrix video game series based on his faint memories of Neo on the blue pill. If the author and reader of the Hill are on the same red pill, then geomancy, Tarot, and the other auguries that Nick/Chief employs will be categorized under pseudoscience. Chief’s medicine bag which contains his ghost shirt, magic poems and Polaroid will be categorized not as actual talismans, but as proof that Chief is suffering from delusions and the story is a work of fiction with Chief as the unreliable narrator.
But the author and his narrator were both on the blue pill thirty years ago and this is their true story, their memoir and not a video game fiction. It is left to the reader to decide whether the story belongs to the world of fiction or the factual world of autobiography. Swallow the blue pill or red pill before you read.
Removed by thirty years from my life on the Hill, it is difficult for me to remember the person I was back then. Gabriele’s journal does serve as a prompt, but often the facts and events she details do not exist in my memory, and sometimes my corresponding memories even contradict the facts of the journal.
No matter, it is the skinny of the story that is sought. The truth of the story.
Similarly, despite all the details in Gabriele’s journal, I have the same difficulty remembering the exact cultural and political milieu of New York at that time, except for the aspects that I personally experienced.
How is it possible that a tipi by a white boy could be erected in a shantytown and not immediately produce a negative outcry from all corners of the city? How was this art whitey activist not immediately ostracized by his cultural and artistic peers?
We worked not only with the support and collaboration of our peers at the time, but after the tipi was erected, we were in direct counsel with many prominent cultural, social, and artistic organizations. We were even in continual contact and conversation with the Borough President’s Office. The Native American community was, individually, positive and negative and tentatively supportive and offered to adopt us, and was also, collectively, silent. If there was any notion of “cultural appropriation” (a term not in the common vernacular at that time), no peer, organization, or institution so much as hinted at it.
We held a dedication ceremony on the centenary of the Wounded Knee Massacre. The following September, 1991, the venerable Municipal Arts Society listed our tipi as one of New York City’s eight “Memorials of War & Peace” in its publication, The Livable City.
Coincidentally, or prophetically, the film Dances With Wolves was released on the same evening we erected the tipi, Thanksgiving eve, 1990. The film was hailed by critics and Natives alike for its depiction of Native Americans. Breaking with Hollywood’s make-believe history of Cowboys and Indians, the movie portrayed the Lakota people honestly and sympathetically, highlighting their spiritual grace and humanity.
The film’s box office success is also credited for reviving the Western genre of moviemaking which had been waning in popularity for the past couple decades. Many Americans had grown up watching Westerns, which was the most popular Hollywood genre from the 1930s through the 1960s.
Like most children my age, I grew up playing Cowboys and Indians, under Hollywood’s direction. I grew up on a farm in an extended family that included three other households of uncles, aunts, and cousins. Other than school, we spent most of our days as children playing on the farm with my sixteen cousins.
The small town close to the farm was Lemont, Illinois. Every year on Labor Day weekend, starting in 1952 and continuing to the present day, the town held its annual Keepataw Days Parade and celebration. My mother and aunts earlier in the year would have tailored elaborate Halloween costumes for my cousins, siblings, and me. They took the Keepataw Days Parade as the other annual challenge for their skills. My father would drive the farm tractor and hayrack to the parade with the rest of the family meeting him there.
Without knowing the actual Native history of the land, the townsfolk of Lemont, Illinois, who started the parade in 1952, probably knew Keepataw (the original name of the town) was a Native American name in the same way they knew that Illinois was. In the same way my alma mater, the University of Illinois, knew history when they connected the image of the Native American “Illini” to students, athletes, and alumni. The sports teams were and still are the University of Illinois Fighting Illini.
This romanticized identification with Native Americans is not unique to Keepataw, Illinois, but it does instruct as microcosm, reflecting how the whole of America has appropriated Native culture. The genocide is forgotten, replaced with the fairytale that we all now share the same American heritage. This allows the systems of dominance and subordination to continue.
The recent controversies over sport team mascots encapsulates how late White America is in recognizing that the same system used to colonize, assimilate, and oppress Native culture continues to this day. Collectively, and individually, white Americans have been slow learners of the true history and their own personal culpability in its making.
Incredibly, the Lemont High School sports mascot was once Lemont Injuns. The wordpress spellcheck app I am using corrects “injuns” to “indians.” And this is exactly what the Lemont school board did. The name was Lemont Indians from 1948 to 1968. It was changed to “Injuns” in 1968, remaining as that until 2006 when the Board of Education changed the name back to “Indians.” Amidst strong controversy. On Monday, July 19, 2021, the Board of Education decided to discontinue the logo and mascot of “Indians.” Amidst strong controversy.
The sins of the father. Difficult to acknowledge as your own, then difficult to repent. A life-long and generations-long journey of acknowledgment and repentance of original sins.
It’s difficult to decrypt the message my family was trying to convey with our parade float the following year. As kids, my cousins and I remembered it as a “United Nations” theme. But I see from the photo below of the 1959 Keepataw Days float, that the words “LET FREEDOM RING” with music notes were written on the apron of the hayrack. And there in the background is my father and his sister, Aunt Mabel, as Mr. and Mrs. Uncle Sam. So more “my country, ‘tis of thee” patriotism than united nations. A variation on last year’s theme, the jingoism and imperialism of the country, the unconscious and unacknowledged subtext that is ingrained in the European-American psyche, is on full display. The adults are as innocent in their ignorance as their children.
I am the Arab on the far left. Cousin Judy next to me is the Dutch Girl. Cousin Jimmy with the black hat is the Spaniard. Cousin Candy is the Eskimo. Sitting in front, Sister Sue is the Scottish Girl and Brother Rick the Indian Boy. Cousin Marty Lee is the Chinaman. Cousin Janet is the Hawaiian. Cousin Patsy is the Mexican. And for the pièce de résistance, the little guy standing in the center in blackface, with a spear in hand, and a bone in his hair, is my brother Steve. Nationality unknown.
Photo credit: The Drunken Irishman
“Life is not about significant details, illuminated [in] a flash, fixed forever. Photographs are.” –Susan Sontag
In life writing, whether we document the past, or record the present as journal, the story created is only a representation, the preferred edition of reality. The details and context framed as in a photograph.
“To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed.” –Susan Sontag
Life writing does the same by fixating experience and memory into a story, a photograph about “what is not there” as much as “what is there.” Classifying the story as memoir or autobiography does not alter its core. Story is a fiction that appropriates “the facts” of its subject and claims ownership. “Once upon a time” I was this person, and this happened to me.
Nick & Nick merge with Steve & Steve
then Nick & Steve merge with Nick & Bob
The dead ones haunt and hunt you more than the living. They inhabit your dreams even more vividly than they did in life. On the Hill, without fully understanding it on a conscious level, I was reliving a certain period of my life when my brother Steve with his heroin addiction had become the whole of both our lives. excerpt:Family
Our grade school was just a quarter mile down the road. Nick Popovich was the same age as me. We were the only “Nicks” in our grade school, also later in our high school class. Nick and I were both smaller than others in our class, so more than just through our common name, I also identified with him as the other little guy. I probably even admired him a bit. A loner, he was someone nobody ever wanted to fight, always giving as much or more than he received. He was never the instigator, but he also never backed down from a fight, even when the bigger bullies challenged him. Consequently, he was in numerous schoolyard scuffles, earning his delinquency creds early on.
His family had been dysfunctional long before mine. Whereas I grew up on a bucolic farm with an extended family, replete with the adult supervision that came with being involved in Cub Scouts and Little-League Baseball, Nick and his brother Bob grew up alone with their mother and an alcoholic abusive father.
I was never quite Nick’s friend in grade school except for a short time in the winter of fourth grade. There was a large open field of approximately four acres attached to the school playground. In the heavy snows of that year, the concrete playground was cleared to accommodate outdoor activity at recess. However, for that half hour, Nick and I chose the heavy snowfall of the field. We struggled side by side around the field’s perimeter, barely able to walk in the snow above our knees, as through we were on a mission.
I probably first saw Nick one day walking it alone and joined him. We never talked about why we were doing this, but we both knew it had to be done. We walked that mission all that winter. This is one of my most vivid memories from grade school and one of the few I had about Nick. I now find it strange that neither of us ever talked about it, then, or later when as teenagers we became close friends.
Nick’s brother Bob was a year older than us. In grade school, he was even more of a loner than Nick. He too was always in fights, but unlike Nick, he instigated most of them. It was the summer after I graduated from grade school that I started hanging out with Nick and Bob. My brother Steve tagged along. Two years younger, only twelve years old, I know only now where I was leading him.
The walk to the Popoviches was ten minutes up High Road to the corner of Route 171. Just before the corner, we took the shortcut diagonally through Calvary Cemetery, then the bowling alley parking lot, to reach their house. My grandfather, Nicholas James Fracaro, was buried in that small cemetery. Steve and I crossed right by him hundreds of times. This grandfather I never knew. This father that my father also never knew. In what hushed voice from that graveyard did he whisper to us as we walked by?
Although I was not his first male grandchild, I became our grandfather’s namesake, as my brother Steve became our father’s namesake. The Roman proverb is “nomen est omen”: name is destiny. Hearing your name said aloud daily affects you on an unconscious level, and the unconscious knows all, past and future. Psychic events are as instrumental in our lives as physical events. This knowledge of the unconscious Jung calls absolute knowledge. It knows everything about Nick and his child Steve. It knows everything about Nick and his brother Steve. It knows how each of their lives is interwoven into one fate.
My father Steve was only nine months old when his father Nick died. The physical effect of that death was consequential. My grandmother was forced to raise their eight children alone on the farm without the sole breadwinner. But for baby Stevie, the death was stored as a psychic event in the unconscious. That psychic event would likely be causal in many of the physical events in his life. My brother Steve and I were told the story of our grandfather’s death numerous times from an early age. The oral history was eventually written into a family biography by my aunt and cousin.
Nick died on September 25, 1925 from injuries received when a Chicago and Alton train hit Joseph Ambrosini’s car at the 2nd street crossing, Lockport, Illinois. On September 9, Ambrosini was in his new car driving Nick to see his brothers on Clinton Street on the west side of Lockport. At the time, a crossing guard stopped traffic when a train was approaching. There were no lights or gate. Two parallel tracks cross the road at this location. The guard had stopped the Ambrosini car. After the train had passed, the guard waved the car on. The first passing train blocked the view of another train coming from the opposite direction. The Ambrosini car was waved into the path of the oncoming train. Nick lost a leg and an arm in the accident and died 16 days later from gangrene. Joseph Ambrosini survived but lost an arm trying to pull Nick from under the train.
The story I remember growing up was different, probably because it was so entwined with the other stories I heard about Nick. I wanted to hear everything about my namesake, so I heard many different stories from many different relatives. The story about “the accident” that became fixed in my head, my psyche, was that Nick was doing one of his many side jobs to supplement his income as a farmer. The job was hauling barrels of beer from a brewery to local taverns in Lockport in a horse-drawn cart. The horse’s name was Flora. She was killed when she bolted in front of a train. Nick and the cart were dragged into the train. That’s how Nick lost his leg and later died of gangrene.
No matter which of the many stories told about the physical event was more factual, the psychic event stored in the unconscious was the truest story. The story that became consequential in the lives of Stephen Fracaro and his two sons was told in a hushed voice in that graveyard that Steve and I crossed on our way to the Popoviches.
A mystery story with its veiled circumstances and genealogy of birth and death and rebirth.
Only after writing the above memoir did my cousin email me the birth records of the family. She had made a copy of them on her visit to our grandparents’ small town in Asiago, Italy. Incredibly, my grandfather’s birth name was Nicolo Stefano Fracaro. He changed his middle name to James after emigrating to America. James (Giamaco) was his father’s (my greatgrandfather’s) name.
Nicholas Fracaro was born in 1885 in Asiago, Italy and died in 1925 in a car accident in Lockport, IL.
Stephen Fracaro was born in 1924 in Lockport and died in 1971 in a car accident in Lockport, IL.
Stephen Fracaro was born in 1954 in Lockport and died in 1978 in a car accident in Lockport, IL..
Nicholas Fracaro was born in 1952 in Lockport and…
It was Nicolo Stefano Fracaro (aka Nicholas James Fracaro) who died in a car accident in 1925. The hushed voice in the graveyard that spoke to his youngest son Stephen and to his grandsons Nick and Steve. The hushed voice that spoke to me as I was writing the memoir. ”Nomen est omen.”