The aluminum bat leaned against the garage wall, next to a rake and a hoe and four bicycles with flat tires and rusty chains . . .
I didn’t think it over, just grabbed the thing by its handle and kept walking, out the back door and down the driveway, cutting onto the sidewalk, all the while possessed by a harsh internal music. Tonight’s was midtempo and repetitive, a minor key blaring silently and in time with each footfall…. I saw the bass tones waving out to drench whatever was before me: houses and parked cars, the roadside mailboxes lining the street. Twelve-something a.m. The kind of boiler-hot Michigan night we got once or so a year.
After a couple of blocks, as if surrendering to the trance, I veered curbward and cocked my elbow and swung the bat just hard enough to ruin a postbox, the hatch of which fell open as the sound of crumpling aluminum snapped through the streets. I stood there feeling it—metal-on-metal impact jolting through my arms. The streets led in every direction. I had no idea how far I intended to go.
—Sean Madigan Hoen, Songs Only You Know.
Sean Madigan Hoen was a student in a nonfiction workshop I taught at Columbia University’s School of the Arts in the fall of 2008. I remember him vividly during the first class. He was very soft spoken and seemed shy—possibly anxious in the way that students often are during their early days in an MFA program. But he was not shy about participating in the conversation that first class. His contributions were thoughtful, earnest, and intelligent. I didn’t quite know what his writing would be like, but I expected something meditative, even poetic—which is to say that I was entirely unprepared for the harrowing and heartbreaking memoir that he would begin that semester and work on with furious concentration over the next six years.
That memoir, Songs Only You Know, tells the story of the brutal decade during which Sean’s father, an executive with the Ford Motor Company, is destroyed by crack addiction, and his sister by depression. Seeing his family falling apart around him, Sean gives vent to his rage and despair through acts of vandalism, through various forms of self-abuse, and by playing in a punk band that Spin magazine called “an art-core mindfuck.” As Sean puts it, “The band was onto some genuinely ugly sounds, our mission being to corrupt all traces of harmony. When notes felt too ‘right,’ we augmented with wrongness. Lyrics were pulled unexamined from some part of myself that I couldn’t otherwise locate. More than tough or hard, we wanted to sound painful. Crazy. We wanted to take it all the way, whatever that meant…”
It was clear after I had read Sean’s first workshop submission that his thoughtful humility was, to a considerable extent, the product of a long and hard-fought moral struggle. As a writer and a human being, he is immensely compassionate, very much an idealist, and yet, on the basis of his own bitter experience, all too aware of human weakness, and particularly of our capacity for self-deception. Though every one of the characters in Songs is deeply lost—including Sean, himself—almost all of them are struggling for some sort of redemption. For Sean, however, the ultimate act of redemption is his determination to witness and render honestly the hard facts of his own transgression, while never losing track of the beauty and kindness that are also, thank goodness, ineradicable aspects of human existence.
Stephen O’Connor (Rail): Could you talk a bit about how it was that you decided to write this book?
Sean Madigan Hoen: I’d spent a number of years in what you might call “a bad place.” There were a couple years there where I couldn’t even finish reading a book, let alone write one. But as I started coming out of that period, getting healthy, my appetite for literature increased by the day and was soon more voracious than ever before. I’d written stories a few years earlier, had published a few, but now I found myself writing for hours, every night, sometimes into the morning. Soon enough it became clear to me that, if I was to progress as a writer, I’d have to confront this story. Anything else—writing fiction and essays—began to feel like avoidance. Writing Songs was something I had to do. Once I’d started, I didn’t have much choice in the matter. I had to finish it, and do so with the full force of my being.
I have a strong faith in literature because I know what it’s done for me. And when I really get down to it, my biggest motivation might have been something as simple as: I want to let someone else witness this story so that I no longer feel so alone with it. I want to communicate with the world…and art, for better or worse, is the only way I really know how to do that. That’s not a claim that I make “good art,” but that I believe so much in the power of good writing and its ability to connect humans to one another. The more clear-minded I became, the more writing became the most important thing to me.
Rail: You say that you know what literature has done for you. As someone who often wonders (usually while sleepless at 4:00a.m.) whether literature ever does anything worthwhile, I am very curious to hear which books particularly affected you and how you feel they helped you.
Hoen: Well, despite my mom’s efforts, I wasn’t a huge reader as a kid. It just wasn’t valued by the culture I grew up in. I’ve often felt sad, even insecure about that fact, but mostly I try to use that deficiency as strength, transform it into a creative energy. The first book I truly read—as opposed to skimming for schoolwork—was Tropic of Capricorn, when I was fifteen or so. I’d heard a musician I admired reference it and when I found Miller’s prose my mind absolutely exploded. The experience was so transformative. That book still hardly seems like literature to me, more like a portal, or a state of raised consciousness. I’m from Dearborn, Michigan: Catholics and Muslims and commercial sports fans. I’d never encountered anything like Miller’s voice. Talk about a lust for experience, a guy who wanted to taste deeply of everything he could sink his teeth into.
After Miller, I tried Mailer, because he was quoted on the back cover of Capricorn, and that’s how it went. I slowly made my way through a self-prescribed list: Carver was a big deal. Denis Johnson—his voice just feels like home to me, no matter what he’s writing about. Robert Stone. Don DeLillo. Those were some of the writers who changed everything for me. Big, strange voices that helped evaporate the anti-intellectual, conquistadorial notions of masculinity I’d grown up around. Then came the women: Alice Munro, Joan Didion, Lydia Davis, all the usual geniuses. Books aided my realizations about what was possible on this earth; I’m not sure what more you could ask for.
Rail: Songs Only You Know recounts many decidedly difficult experiences and events: the deaths of your father and sister, your struggles with substance abuse and the culture and business of rock music. Can you talk about one or two of the things you found most difficult to write about, and how you managed to surmount those difficulties?
Hoen: My sister was by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to write about, and to me her story—though it’s not always in the foreground—is the force that shapes the book. She was hard to approach for many reasons. I love her so dearly, with such sorrow attached, that it was difficult, at first, to offer her up as a character.
The other reason she was hard to write about has to do with the fact that we were, in a sense, estranged during our late teens and early twenties, the era that constitutes the better part of Songs. She and I had an almost hypersensitive connection but were so lost and confused by our circumstances that we couldn’t find a way to take solace in each other. I was afraid of intimacy—with anyone—a defense mechanism I employed to the extreme. There’s that saying, “You hurt most the ones you love,” and my sister probably suffered the worst effects of my emotional paralysis, because she needed me and needed me to need her. We were too lost to ourselves to connect with each other.
After my sister died, I remained emotionally paralyzed, and so found it difficult, to write about her (especially since I wanted to avoid resorting to analysis). So, I often had to portray her by characterizing my own behavior toward her, which was—beneath my naive, punk rock antics—motivated by an intolerable fear of the very real pain she was experiencing.
Rail: I know that you are ambivalent about the punk rock culture that features so strikingly in Songs. Could you talk a little bit about how it was to write about your band and bandmates?
Hoen: Initially, I thought I might be able to get away with avoiding any mention of my band’s name. I’d wanted it to remain nameless. We made psychotic music, mostly earnest music, but not, by any means, essential music—and I wanted to convey that sense that we were expendable, beautifully ugly losers. I have absolutely no urge to regenerate interest in the music I made when I was twenty.
Were someone to look up old VHS footage of my band online, they might say: “Oh, it’s about as miserable and distorted as he described,” and their voyeurism would probably end there. No one’s going to be loading up an iPod with those albums. The story of the characters and our needs was what I wanted to translate into narrative—because a young person’s desire to be in a band is, at this point, practically an archetypal Western experience and I felt my story told a perverse, slanted version of that dream.
Like you said, I’m not a champion of punk rock culture. I have my touchstones, bands, and ideas that are very important to me, but I was always ambivalent about “the scene.” It bred a lot of unwarranted elitism, and seemed to suspend a lot of people in a state of perpetual adolescence. There’s so much hyperbole and melodrama and smoke-blowing in the music world, and that’s part of the fun, but I wanted to approach my experiences from a literary perspective—by that I mean a perspective that seeks a higher truth.
You could probably find a blog somewhere that calls my band “legendary” because someone saw us flay ourselves on stage at their local punk dungeon. But the real story is about a gang of disenchanted young people seeking purpose through very loud noise and primal expression. I guess I could say it like this: I’m not proud of the music I made, but I’m proud of the honesty with which it was made and of the experiences it provided. That’s the feeling with which I approached writing about my band and bandmates: a desire to convey the experience.
Rail: Memoirs are often, at least in part, attempts by their authors to reach some sort of understanding of their own lives, or perhaps to reach some sort of peace. But ideally, they also give readers certain insights, pleasures, emotional experiences. Could you talk a bit about what you hope your book might give readers? And could you also talk about the ways that you benefited from it?
Hoen: I didn’t think about readership too much during the early drafts, other than wondering if I had the chops to connect with smart readers. That’s when I met you, and I remember you saying, “Everybody is deeply fascinated by their own lives and believes their story is important, but that rarely justifies a book,” and I agreed with that.
But early on, I was mostly just asking myself: Is this any good? How can I go deeper? As I got closer to publication and realized that people might actually read the book, my thought was: Will anyone care? On an emotional, human level will they care about these people I love and loved, and about what happens to them? This weird transference occurred—with the reading public sitting in place of the psychoanalyst. I was projecting all these fears and desires onto “the reader,” most of which came down to some version of: “Please feel something. Give a shit.” Which, of course, wasn’t really about readers but about old feelings and past damages.
This phase happened after I was basically done with the book. Really, and this might sound selfish, I just want someone to take the trip with me over that ten-year journey, to walk beside me through those crazy days. It could be read as a bleak tale, but I really hope it will find people who feel the love and humor, the spirit of endurance. As for my personal benefits, someone asked me the other day if I’d do this all over again—write the book from scratch—and I said, “No way.” And then I realized I feel that way because I’ve already written it. I went through it and don’t have to write this book, as is, ever again. That’s the benefit, so far, and it’s a huge one.
Rail: What characteristics make for the best kind of memoir?
Hoen: I tend to approach memoir with caution. With all the commercial, celebrity “autobiography” out there, I think the casual reader’s opinion of memoir has degraded, condemned it to something along the lines of reality TV. Yet memoir is such a powerful, intriguing form when it’s done honorably and artfully. You read something like In Pharaoh’s Army or Stop-Time or Half-a-Life—that’s when you get into something that can’t be expressed in an online rant or on a blog or during an hour-long makeover show broadcast by Fox. For me, at its best, the written word gores deeper into the truth than any other medium.
Robert Stone said it better in his memoir Prime Green: “So much can be said about the intersections of life and language, the degree to which language can be made to serve the truth. By the truth I mean unresisted insight, which is what gets us by, which is what makes one person’s life and sufferings comprehensible to another.”
Rail: While memoirs are—as the genre’s name implies—primarily drawn from memory, they also involve invention, simplification, and restructuring. Could you talk about the tension between pure memory and these other more technical or literary aspects of the composition process?
Hoen: Starting out, I wanted the book to have an aesthetic that more closely resembled my aims with fiction. I thought: Just write it the way you would a novel (as if I knew what writing a novel was all about). But it soon became clear to me that the book was dictating its own aesthetic terms, demanding a language and perspective that would serve the essence of the story. I know some memoirists talk about the “emotional reality” and see no problem fabricating scenes and blending characters. There are also great writers, like Henry Miller or Frederick Exley, with whom you accept that much of what they’re describing is impressionistic—and the rest, god knows? But with Songs, embellishment wasn’t necessary because I had access to more dramatic material than I could manage. I wound up toning down a number of scenes, omitting some significant but ugly details, because I didn’t want excessive darkness to obscure what I felt was at the heart of the book. So, most of my invention occurred through erasure.
As far as my access to memory, in this case I benefitted from my own post-traumatic symptoms. Many of the scenes were already on a constant loop in my mind, played again and again, with a compulsion for clarification. Even with the substance abuse material, I had plenty of snatches to work with because I’d spent a lot of time examining my addictions through a recovery process.
The real work was trying to elucidate, through narrative, the elemental qualities of these memories. To investigate why they were so alive in my psyche and what aspects might be clouded by emotion. My “tension” between pure memory (if there is such a thing) and the composition process had mainly to do with trying to reconcile the fact that, on any given day, I might feel strong but drastically different things about any one of the people or experiences I was writing about. There are some complex characters and situations involved. Mixtures of love and rage, sorrow and joy. I wanted to convey as much of the total experience as I could. It’s not a neat, tidy philosophical package, but I tried to find a voice that would allow me to portray the person I’d been, while also allowing a more omniscient narrative consciousness to develop and expand. As that voice evolved, there was more room for me—the guy writing the book—to express whatever insights I might have gained in the intervening years.
Rail: Have you shown your book to any of the people who were a part of your story? If so, what sort of response have you gotten?
Hoen: My mom was the one I worried about, mostly because I had no desire for her to relive the trauma of those days. She’s a big reader, and actually wrote a couple YA books in the ‘80s that she never showed to anyone, but she hasn’t been able to read very much of the book. She has an idea of what’s inside, but we agree that it’s not necessarily healthy for her to be exposed to my misadventures in such acute detail. Songs is full of things that no self-respecting person would want their mother to read about them. She told me to do whatever I had to do, though. That’s how she is. She’s supportive, regardless.
As for friends and bandmates—it’s been interesting. I tried to make sure I was approaching everyone in the book—even the few characters I’d despised—from a place of love, or at least compassion. Some of my old cronies carry a sort of local-legend status around Detroit, anyhow. Guys like Warden or Repa always come up around the proverbial campfire; there are a hundred debacles attached to their names, and they know that. They’re not people who care so much what an old friend writes about them in a book. My hope is that, if they read it, they’ll perceive the tenderness I felt when characterizing them. But I don’t know that they will. Fact is, reading a whole book is a tall order for a lot of my old friends—but, like anything, the truest of the true friends come through when it matters.
My dear friend Will was very supportive; he and I had a cry about the whole thing. And we’re not sappy men. He told me it was honest work, and took issue with only one line of dialogue he felt made him appear insensitive—and that he cared so much really touched me. That phone call meant as much to me as anything else that happened around the book. He told me he loved my family—my sister and father—and, you know, that’s not something we’d ever talked about before.
I had to leave a lot of people out of the story, so there’s also the concern that someone could feel undermined by that. There are a lot of old friends whom I just haven’t heard from; or if I have, they haven’t mentioned the book, so who knows what that means. And I’m still concerned about my extended family, as I was never particularly close with most of them and in many cases haven’t spoken to them in years. While they know the vague outlines of what happened to my dad and sister, they have no idea what that looked like on a daily basis. My intention wasn’t to subject anyone to things they’d prefer not to know, but, hell, I had to do something with those memories—they were eating me alive. Also, it feels like I’m offering up this big confession: “Hey, remember your weird, withdrawn nephew you saw on Christmases…well, the fact of the matter is that I was living a secret life as an amateur maniac.”
Rail: Are you working on or thinking about a new book?
Hoen: I have a pile of short stories I’m hoarding, working through, always learning new things about the form. I’ve also started two projects that will require the length and scope of a novel, so I’m excited to take those rides as far as they’ll go. Working in fiction now feels like a reward, enjoying liberties I didn’t have while working on Songs. Instead of trying to animate materials from my past, I’m able to integrate more of my daily observations and curiosities into my work—to allow the present to have a deeper influence—and that’s such a gift. Right now is what matters, and it’s a relief to embrace that.