The best memoirs read like novels with their shaped plots and fully developed characters, yet the experience of reading a memoir can have a compelling power that fiction does not always match. The knowledge that the story we are reading is true and the immediacy of the author’s voice bring us into direct relation to the narrative.
In fiction, we remain aware we are reading a created story. Part of the pleasure is in seeing how well the writer convinces us and makes us feel the story has happened to us, too. In memoir, there is no suspension of disbelief. We are riveted by watching the truth unfold and often cannot, and do not want, to imagine it happening to us. The memoirist gives us rare, unique, and sometimes chilling experiences we could not access otherwise.
In recent decades, as memoirs became more popular and prolific, I became an avid reader of the genre, but I could not see myself writing one. I did not have a story of childhood trauma to tell, and my life as an adult has been largely drama-free. There were no great tragedies or crises or adventures I needed to get on the page. I had published three novels and would remain a fiction writer, I decided, as my life and sensibilities did not lend themselves to nonfiction. Then something happened to me that I could not ignore, and I found myself, almost by accident, embarking on a memoir.
The events that led to this had an ordinary beginning, when I got married for the first time at the age of 35 and moved to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. My husband and I rented a house on a narrow dead-end street close to downtown. One of our neighbors in the house next door was an eccentric character and poet named Robert Dunn, who rented a single room from the elderly woman who owned the house and walked everywhere, as he did not possess a car. Robert did not own a telephone, television, or computer, either. He assembled his poems in small, handmade books he sold on the street for a penny.
I was fascinated by Robert, in awe of his ability to live on next to nothing and his freedom in owning so little. As I gradually got to know him a bit – he was a profoundly private person given to few words – I discovered that Robert was a wonderful writer and formidable thinker. He was more well-read than perhaps anyone I had ever met. In our brief conversations when I met him on the street, he made witty, brilliant pronouncements that left me smiling as I went on my way.
After a couple of years, my husband and I bought a house a few blocks away from the one we had rented. I continued to see Robert regularly on my walks into town and at poetry readings. I loved him the way many people in town did, as a fixture in the downtown street scene, someone who made our town more interesting, but when Robert became sick with COPD after years of heavy smoking, I was drawn into a closer relationship with him.
At first I drove him to doctor and physical therapy appointments a couple of times a month. There were several other people who helped him as well. As his illness progressed, and he was forced to move into subsidized housing where he would not have to negotiate stairs, he was in and out of the hospital a few times. I became the one he relied on to bring clothes from his apartment, deposit checks at the bank, and go through his mail.
One time when I went to visit him in the hospital, he told me that he had given my name as the contact person for the doctors and social workers. If there was an emergency, they would call me. He had no immediate family in the area and had lived alone in his single rented room for the past 30 years. There was no one else to take on this role.
The doctors did not think Robert had long to live. I accepted my appointment as honorary next of kin, though he had not asked if I was willing to assume this responsibility. I imagined that for the short time he had left, I could do what needed to be done. Little did I or anyone else imagine that Robert would live for another three years, defying the odds repeatedly and displaying a strength and determination no one thought he possessed.
In those three years, Robert and I were both aware that he might die at any moment. One time when I drove him to a doctor’s appointment, he went into a breathing attack on the way home, and I had to make a quick detour to the emergency room, where they whisked him away on a gurney and then informed me that he had a collapsed lung. He, and I, went from one medical crisis to the next. Yet there were wonderful times as well, when we sat together in his apartment or hospital room and talked about the writers and books we loved and our own writing. In his ability to be profoundly present, Robert was unlike anyone else I have known.
I learned a great deal from Robert about letting go of just about everything – my notions of myself as a writer, my need for financial security and the piles of stuff with which I filled my house, my desire to know what was going to happen and to have some control over the events of my life. Robert had surrendered all of this and seemed to be much happier as a result. When he died in 2008 at the age of 65, I was left with many questions. How had he come to live such an unorthodox yet fulfilling life? Why had he chosen me as the one he leaned on most in his final years?
The experience of the last years of his life had been one of such intensity. I needed to understand what had happened to me, how I had been changed and what I had learned, and the only way I could do this was to write about it. But I was not – yet – writing a memoir. I began with an essay about Robert and my friendship with him. I spent two months writing 25 pages, and when I completed the draft, saw that it was woefully inadequate, barely scratching the surface of the story. It became clear that I had no choice. I was going to have to write a memoir.
Three and a half years later, I completed The Penny Poet of Portsmouth: A Memoir of Solitude, Place, and Friendship. I faced many challenges along the way to completing the book. Reconstructing events that went back to the early 1990s, when I first met Robert, required combing through my journals and day calendars, and interviewing 30 or so friends of Robert’s and local writers. Capturing some of the most difficult times during Robert’s illness required being honest with myself about the conflicts that arose between us and my sometimes reluctant role as a caretaker. But perhaps the most challenging task was getting used to writing in the first person “I,” freeing myself to tell my own story in my own words.
In the end the memoir I wrote is a hybrid of sorts – part my story of finally settling down and fitting life as a writer into life as a wife and member of my community, part a portrait of Robert and our friendship, and part the story of Portsmouth, the city we both loved so much and saw change profoundly due to development. Once I worked my way through successive drafts of the book, I found that writing in my own voice came to feel as natural, if not more so, than writing fiction.
When my memoir was published, I made another discovery. Though readers had enjoyed my novels and given me plenty of wonderful feedback, the response to the memoir has been more personal. Readers connect with me as a person through the memoir to a greater degree than they do through the novels. They share their own experiences of caring for loved ones. They tell me what they have learned from Robert. This is a profoundly humbling and gratifying experience.
Publishing a book is always an act of faith. Publishing a memoir calls for another leap of courage in offering the very essence of who you are to readers. The risks are great, but so are the rewards. In writing and publishing a memoir, I learned more about myself than I imagined possible. I am a better writer, and I hope a better person, for taking that leap.
Katherine Towler is author of the novels Snow Island, Evening Ferry, and Island Light, a trilogy set on a fictional New England island spanning the second half of the 20th century. She is editor of the anthology A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith. Her most recent book is a memoir, The Penny Poet of Portsmouth.
She has published her short prose, poetry, and interviews with authors in Agni, The Sun, Poetry International, NH Home magazine, the Huffington Post, and the Tusculum Review. She teaches in the MFA Program in Writing at Southern New Hampshire University and lives in Portsmouth, NH. Visit her website at www.katherinetowler.com
About THE PENNY POET
n this memoir, Katherine Towler tells the story of her friendship with Robert Dunn, a brilliant poet who never owned a telephone, computer, television, or car and sold his handmade books of poems for a penny on the streets of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Towler chronicles her struggles as a writer and the impact of getting married and settling down on her creative life. From Dunn she learns important lessons about letting go of standard notions of success and being devoted to the work for its own sake.
At the end of Dunn’s life, when Towler becomes one of his caretakers, her understanding of the place of writing in her life – and his – is challenged anew by the difficult circumstances of his illness. Threaded through the story of this unique friendship and remarkable man is a portrait of Portsmouth and how the New England seaport city has changed since the early 1990s when Towler and Dunn met. The elegy for the rougher place that existed then, before development and gentrification remade the face of downtown, is an elegy for Robert Dunn as well.
“A gorgeous meditation on friendship and place, writing and life, and —of course—the Penny Poet of Portsmouth. I loved every beautiful word.” —Ann Hood, author of The Red Thread
Buy THE PENNY POET HERE