15-views-v2-cover“As literary writers…we’re not supposed to just get the job done, we’re supposed to advance the conversation, and part of our challenge is to dig deeper and create something new, or at least approach an existing thing (such as setting) from a unique angle. Yes, our writing relies on social norms and cultural touchstones, but where genre writers tend to follow the old wrinkled tourist map, literary writers explore new territory.”

— Ryan Rivas

Not long ago, Burrow Press released a daring collection titled 15 Views of Orlando, a flash novella written, edited, and published by a team of local Orlandoans. Hardly a cluttered mash of contributions, this compilation consists of intertwined vignettes, which vary in perspective and flair. More than just a writing prompt, editor Nathan Holic challenged the status quo of literary form and function by requiring fifteen writers to submit a story set in Orlando, keep it under 1000 words, and turn it over for review in a single week.

Your most recent book, Missing Lucile, is about your grandmother, who died long before you were born and, in your own words, was no one very significant. Surely you must realize that grandmothers, especially insignificant ones, are unusual subjects. Not exactly bestseller material. Did you expect only grandmothers to read your book?

I would be delighted to know that grandmothers were reading my book, but believe it or not, I wrote it for a general audience. Missing Lucile is about my father’s mother, who died when he was a little boy. All his life he missed having a mother—that loss colored his relationships with his wives, his children, his friends, even the choices he made professionally. It was the first thing I think I ever really knew about him: that he didn’t have a mother, had never had a mother as far as he was concerned. And when, at the end of his life, he was talking about obsessively about his childhood, and his missing mother, I decided that I would try to find out about her for him.

 

That’s very generous. But let’s be frank, why would anyone else want to read a book about your father’s mother?

My goal was somewhat more audacious than finding information about my father’s mother. I decided I would try to find her. The woman herself who had been missing for 75 years. Lucile. So you could say this book began as a pair of impossible tasks: 1) that I would “find” a person I had never met, and who had been dead for decades, and who had left little behind in terms of a personal record. And 2) that I would give another person something he’d been missing nearly all his life.

 

What a presumptuous idea!

The presumptuousness of this project was almost as startling as its possibilities for sentimentality, but writers are presumptuous. We presume that what we know, or think we know, or want to know, is something other people will want to hear about. We have to be presumptuous, or we would never write anything. But with that presumptuousness comes the terrible responsibility to be worth listening to, to have something to say that is, actually, worth hearing.

 

It sounds like you had a real battle on your hands in this case.

Well, yes. Because not only was I proposing to write about my grandmother, about whom I knew next to nothing, but I was proposing to write about a woman who, in the eyes of the world, did not “matter.” She was not famous. She was not historic. She had done nothing spectacularly horrible—had not murdered anyone, or been a drug addict, or a child abuser. Nothing spectacularly horrible had been done to her: she was not murdered herself, or maimed by an accident, or the victim of a monstrous crime. Nor had she saved anyone, discovered a cure for anything, painted pictures or been on stage. She had not even married twice. She was a woman from Cincinnati, Ohio, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, a woman of her times, maybe somewhat ahead of her times, because she had gone to college in 1907, had been for a while a businesswoman, and had gone to France after WWI to help with the reconstruction.

She came back to Cincinnati, married, had children. Got cancer. Died.

She was, as Virginia Woolf would have described her, a person to whom things had happened. And this is exactly what I found so monumentally challenging about her. As Woolf puts it in a “Sketch of the Past”: “Here I come to one of the memoir writer’s difficulties—one of the reasons why, though I read so many, so many are failures. They leave out the person to whom things have happened. The reason is that it is so difficult to describe any human being. So they say: ‘This is what happened’; but they do not say what the person was like to whom it happened. And the events mean very little unless we know first to whom they happened.”

And that was exactly what I was proposing to do–to discover this woman, my grandmother, Lucile, to whom things had happened.

 

Did your reasons for writing this book—by the way, what should we call it, since it’s not exactly a biography, or a memoir, or fiction?

Let’s call it an uncertain book.

 

Did your reasons for writing this uncertain book change as you were working on it?

I certainly had my personal reasons for searching for my grandmother—I wanted to try to make my unhappy elderly father happy, to give him what he had been missing for 75 years, and by doing so give myself some of what I had been missing as his daughter. But I had my own pressing artistic reasons as well. And to be honest, these artistic reasons were my real motivation for writing this book.

What I wanted to address is the presumption that lies at the very heart of memoir and biography: That by telling the story of another person’s life you are capturing the person herself.

As Virginia Woolf also said, and this is from Orlando: “A biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have many thousands.”

How on earth can you capture the many thousand selves of another person?

I managed to find a lot of facts about the things that had happened to my grandmother Lucile. I had a box of small objects that had belonged to her, which I tried to use as a kind of historical DNA to reconstitute her. I had photographs. I had a letter she had written, a few pages of diaries, statements other people had made about her. I had her college transcript. I had her wedding ring. I had my own genetic relation to her, and the shadow of her that had hung over my childhood. But I did not have her. I never had her. Even for an instant. And I knew it.

 

So is that what this book is about, not knowing someone?

Yes and no. Because once I accepted that the subject of a biography—the person to whom things had happened–is always going to be missing, I had another question: So what? Does that mean you have to give up writing about her? Can you write about someone anyway—even someone who doesn’t “matter”–and do it honestly, even when what you don’t know vastly overshadows what you do, like a magic mountain looming behind a boulder in a meadow?

 

You could have written this book as fiction, that seems a fairly obvious answer to your question. You could have made up what you didn’t know. Why didn’t you just call the book Missing Lucile: a Novel?

That’s true. I could have written this book as fiction—but had I done so, I would not have directly addressed another question, which began to seem more and more pressing to me: What if you really do want to find the person herself, what you can find of her, that person to whom things have happened? And what if you want to claim that this person, this ordinary, unimportant person, did matter, if only because she was once alive, as alive as you yourself are now?

 

So what can you do? Is there an alternative?

That is what I wrote this book to find out. And though it is highly debatable that I succeeded in writing a book that would satisfy a reader looking for a biography, or a reader looking for fiction, I did put right at the center my own uncertainty about who my grandmother was. And right beside that uncertainty I put my desire to try to know her anyway. And in the end, this is what I found out: That it is in the act of wondering about another human being that we may come to know her best. Wondering about someone else, looking for clues based on the things that happened to her, and a few things she said, or did—that she liked the word “ribald,” for instance, and read the poems of Heine, and raised chickens, and didn’t wear jewelry—musing about patterns and inconsistencies, that’s what you can do. If you want to find another person, that’s where she is—present within the act of being wondered about. Because as soon as you start wondering about someone, she’s not altogether missing anymore, whether she’s been gone for 75 years or just since yesterday afternoon.

 

But it seems there must be catch here somewhere.

The catch—and it’s a big catch—is to stay honest about what you don’t know, about what you wish you knew, and about what you imagine you know about another person. The danger of any biography is losing sight of how much fiction is going on when you try to write about someone else. It’s fiction we can’t help—we are always going to project ourselves onto other people when we try to understand them. But it’s fiction we should stay clear about.

If we can stay clear about our own uncertainties, then we have a chance at a three-dimensional image of that person we’re trying to understand. Or at least a more nuanced image.

 

Are you saying that focusing on what you don’t know about someone else may be the best way of trying to understand her? That’s a rather radical claim, don’t you think?

A book isn’t worth writing unless it’s radical in some way, though it can be quietly radical. And who’s to say that writing about your grandmother can’t be as radical as writing from the point of view of a cockroach or writing a novel in pieces that a reader can arrange in whatever order she likes? There’s nothing more boring, in a book as well as in life, than something that proves to be just what you think it is. If I have devoted my writing life to anything, it’s to writing books that appear to be one thing and are not really that thing at all.

 

But back to being radical—and perhaps we should point out here that you are a suburban middle-aged woman with a husband, two children and a dog, who votes in every election and believes, more or less, in a two-party democratic system—how are you defining radical, at least in terms of your book?

I am talking about changing the way we think about biography. I am advocating uncertainty as a way to write about someone else. When I see a book described as “the definitive biography of so-and-so” I feel faint. Given the multiplicity of informational sources we have nowadays, most of them contradictory–from blogs and Facebook and Twitter to CNN and Google and Wikipedia to self-interviews–one might be forgiven for thinking that the conventional, unilateral idea of biography would be falling out of favor. But most of us still expect a single product when we read a biography; we are expecting “the life” of the subject. And we want a story “worth reading,” which often means survivor stories, celebrity tell-alls, exposes, confessions. Stories, frankly, that we already know. Those stories have their place, of course, but there is room for a more questioning attitude when it comes to biography.

 

Questioning how?

In the act of wondering about someone else, we take a step out of ourselves for a moment, we step forward to encounter another person. What a radical thing to do! Especially when we acknowledge that it is not the person herself standing there, but a kind of shadow based on who we want to know. A ghost. A silhouette. Our idea of that person.

That idea, that shadow person, has its own dimension, its own vitality, its own ability to shift and change based on how well we’re able to question our perceptions. That idea is animated by our desire to know the person it’s based upon, and that idea is equally animated by our frustration and despair when we’re forced to admit that we cannot, ultimately, succeed.

 

Why despair?

Despair because if we can’t fully know another person, it stands to reason that we cannot fully be known ourselves. We are all mysteries. And perhaps that, finally, is the real job of biography–to acknowledge the mystery of being human, again and again and again.

 

In Greek mythology, the Gorgon is a terrifying creature, so ugly it turns those who look upon it to stone. “Gorgon,” in fact, is derived from the Greek word gorgós, which in English means “dreadful.” Synonyms for “dreadful” include: horrible, terrible, awful, frightful, and appalling…among others.

It’s easy to find references to Greek mythology in modern life. The Oedipus complex as described by Sigmund Freud. Terms like “Achilles heel” and “Herculean task.” The concept of Pandora’s Box. Even an ancient sea creature, the Kraken, has recently been released as a powerful, 94-proof, dark-colored elixir that brings out the fun in certain social situations where writers are involved.

But the Gorgon to which I’m referring, the dreadful monster that for years frightened anyone who dared look up on it, was the golf swing of my long-time friend, Brian Weir. In 1996, when I was first introduced to its complete form, all my own muscles seized up, and I could no longer properly hit the ball…almost as if I had turned to stone. Brian lives in southern California, far away from Oklahoma, so twice a year for a decade the two of us met on golf vacations, enjoying the artistry of many picturesque courses, even if our own games didn’t quite measure up to the beauty of the locations.

On each of these trips I would bring along a video camera to document the experience, footage that never failed to amuse us later. Over time I developed a sizable library of squirrely shots and pushed putts and missed opportunities, but mainly these recordings languished away in magnetic tape obscurity, only emerging when the two of us met again to relive the glory.

Then, in 2005, I saw in ad in Golf Digest, a golf publication that reaches an estimated six million readers per month.

“Do you have the World’s Worst Swing?” asked the ad. “Or know someone who does? If so, make a video and send it to us. You could win six free lessons from Dean Reinmuth, one the top golf instructors in the country.”

The contest was also sponsored by the Golf Channel, which planned to film and broadcast six free lessons awarded to the “winner.” And that’s when an idea occurred to me, an idea that is and probably always will be the best practical joke it’s possible for me to play on anyone.

Until that time I’d dabbled in linear video editing, like hooking VCRs together with cables, but I’d never edited on a computer. I purchased a Windows-based software app and taught myself how to use it over a period of days, painstakingly capturing hours of analog footage in real time. I assembled a collection of the best (or rather, worst) shots, often laughing so hard that I had to stop and compose myself. Then I purchased a microphone and attempted to record voiceover for my two-minute, eighteen-second video. This consumed even more hours, not because I couldn’t figure out what to say, but because I couldn’t go ten seconds without laughing again.

I completed the video two days before the deadline. I watched it again and again and again, supremely confident that, upon viewing, the selection committee at Golf Digest and the Golf Channel would immediately select Brian as the winner. But I also guessed there would be thousands of other submissions, and the chances of them even watching the video were small. Not to mention I was forced to overnight the DVD just to get it there on time.

Then I waited. Every day I would think about the video, and what might happen if my plan worked. To understand the true significance of the joke, you have to know Brian. We met at Texas A&M University. He was a member of the Corps of Cadets, and was commissioned into the military directly after graduation. He served the Air Force for several years, attended Army Ranger school, and reached the rank of Major. He went on to serve local law enforcement in Southern California and is now a sergeant. He is a tough, proud man who does not respond well to ridicule. Of course, we always joke around with each other, but those are private matters. This joke, if it was realized, would be played out on a national scale. Every time I thought about it, it made me laugh.

About two weeks after I mailed the disc, I received a phone call. I looked down and saw it was Brian. I answered, trying to hold my expectations in check. But Brian and I don’t speak on the phone often, and I got that feeling, you know the one.

“What the hell did you do?” were the first words out of his mouth.

“What do you mean?”

“Some chick just called me. She said she works for the Golf Channel. Apparently I’ve been chosen as one of ten semifinalists for a contest to find the World’s Worst Golf Swing. And then she gave me the link to a video. A video you made. She laughed at me, man.”

So did I. I couldn’t help it. Someone had actually watched the video! They even put it on the Internet!

“They’re going to call back and interview me in a couple of days,” he said. “You’re an asshole.”

I laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe.

“I hope you know paybacks are a bitch,” was his answer.

But after the interview, Brian’s position changed. Apparently he’d impressed them over the phone. Had made everyone laugh. “I’d be on television,” he said. “They’d buy me a new set of clubs. I would get lessons from this famous dude. Did you know he used to coach Phil Mickelson?”

Readers and viewers were asked to visit a web site, check out the videos, and vote on their favorites. Or they could watch a special episode of “Golf Channel Academy” and call in their votes. Brian explained how they were going to include some of the submitted footage on the show. I salivated at the thought of a scene from my video being shown on national television. At the time, the Golf Channel boasted more than sixty million subscribers. I told everyone I knew to watch it. So did Brian.

My DVR was ready. If only a few seconds of my footage was shown, I’d be happy. So imagine my astonishment when “Golf Channel Academy” opened with my video, with no introduction and no voice over (other than my own) for almost two minutes. I was floored. I was ecstatic. After the video, Kelly Tilghman remarked, “The guy who did that voice over deserves an Emmy.”

Hahahahahahaha!!!!11 I said to anyone who would listen. The only thing better than this would be if Brian actually won the contest.

A few weeks later, a crew from Golf Digest visited Brian in California, and I flew out to watch. They brought a high speed camera to capture his swing. This is the camera used to make those fold-out, frame-by-frame pictures of golf professionals. Only the most notable golfers in the world get this treatment. Brian was asked to hit into a net, and the photographer pointed out a patch where the net had been repaired.

“We filmed Retief Goosen last week,” he said. Goosen is one of the best players in the world and has won two U.S. Open Championships. “He hit the ball so hard it tore the net.”

By now Brian was basking in the glow of his possible upcoming fame. He swung as hard as he could. He hit the ground so far behind the ball that the club bounced over the ball. A complete whiff. And the impact with the ground sent a chunk of sod into the net, where it stuck, coincidentally, on the patch created by Retief Goosen.

“Let’s see Retief do that,” Brian remarked.

Every day this was just getting better.

Finally, the day of the selection show arrived. The field of contestants had been narrowed to three, and the Golf Channel planned to announce the winner on the air. All three swings were terrible, but Brian and I couldn’t imagine the others would win. He is a born entertainer. I think he could do standup if he put his mind to it. The combination of my video editing and his comedy couldn’t be beat. Golf Channel invited us both to Orlando, and we managed to play Bay Hill, Arnold Palmer’s famous Florida course. We made friends with the other nominees. But would Brian win? Would it really happen?

It did.

Brian’s six lessons were filmed outside of San Diego, shown nationally on the Golf Channel, and I was invited to be on the final show with him. He was awarded a new set of clubs. He was recognized in airports, in restaurants, and especially on the golf course. His game improved dramatically.

And his swing, frame-by-frame, was featured in the pages of Golf Digest. Twice.

A few years later, after it was all over, Brian told me he was getting married again. In Hawaii. He’d sent me the raw footage from the various Golf Channel episodes, and I kept meaning to make a compilation video for him, but I never got around to it. So, as a surprise, I put together a new video, with old footage and new, and called ahead to the hotel. I set it to music and arranged for it to be shown at a reception before the ceremony.

One more final jab, you know?

As I said before, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to play a better practical joke on someone. It’s one thing to poke fun at your buddy’s golf swing in private, but to bring it to the attention of a national audience…that was sublime.

If you’d like, you can view the original video and the encore presentation below. The second link is on Facebook, so if you can’t see it, send me a friend request and I’ll hook you up. I’ve also included links to a few pictures.

But be careful. Watch these videos at your peril. His old swing could easily turn yours to stone.

World’s Worst Swing Submission Video

World’s Worst Swing Encore

Golf Digest Table of Contents

Golf Digest foldout

Brian and Richard on set