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Professor’s book advances genre

November 11, 2012


Editor’s Note: Views expressed in guest columns and letters to the editor reflect the views of the author, not the views of The State News.

For MSU English professor Marcia Aldrich, writing is like thinking. “Because I’m a writer, what I do, if there’s time and opportunity, is write,” Aldrich said.

“When things happen of an important nature — something that’s disturbing, or something that I need to think about — I tend to do it through writing.”

Her latest book arose out of just such an event.

“Companion to an Untold Story” has, at its core, the suicide of Aldrich’s close friend, a man who took his life following deliberate preparation that included giving away all of his possessions, including some to Aldrich herself.

A professor of creative writing and author of nonfiction works including the memoir “Girl Rearing,” Aldrich knew she had to write about her friend’s suicide in order to help her move past it.

As for exactly how to do this — from what angle she could approach such a tragedy — finding a structure for her work proved frustrating.

In today’s era of Oprah, the nonfiction genre has become increasingly confessional and straightforward.

Writers publish books on their experiences with grief, eating disorders, identity crises or family troubles and then go on the talk show circuit to promote their stories, not as works of art or literature, but as issue-focused, hot-topic tales.

While this certainly has promoted a greater cultural openness, it has had an impact on the literary value of a memoir.

Writers such as Aldrich risk having their works pigeonholed into slim labels such as “suicide narrative,” when, in reality, “Companion to an Untold Story” strives for a more nuanced form of expression.

But it didn’t start off that way.

“What I first wrote was more complete,” Aldrich said.

She was attempting to wear several hats at once, acting as both an investigative journalist and a biographer.

She tracked down her friend’s medical records, police reports, autopsy and coroner’s reports and various personal documents.

She ended up with piles of books on suicide, but not a real, true story.

It was only when she thought about her own strengths, her own role in the story, that she arrived at a moment of clarity.

“I’m a personal essayist; I’m a memoirist; I’m someone with a poetic background,” she said. “I’ve got to find the structure that suits my talents and also fits the material better.”

That structure, from which the book takes its title, was that of the companion.

A companion essentially is like a literary guidebook — it’s the book that helps you navigate the actual text you’re reading, that gives you a way in for understanding the story.

There are companions to Shakespeare’s plays and the great American novels. “Companion to an Untold Story” is just that: a companion to a story that cut itself off midway through the telling.

“As far as I know, no one has ever taken the idea of a companion and put it to this use,” Aldrich notes. “To take that idea of a companion to something that doesn’t have a published status, but is a life, with various documents — that’s what I needed to come up with.”

The artistic achievement is noteworthy. In taking the care to create something structurally innovative as well as acutely personal, Aldrich has made a significant contribution to the genre of memoir as well as to the smaller category of suicide narratives.

It would have been easy, perhaps, to simply put forward her story in the straightforward delivery we have been accustomed to hearing from Oprah’s couch, but the work would not have been the same.

Aldrich does not take center stage in this story. Her involvement in the narrative works in the manner of the companion itself: a way in, a sidebar to the main event.

This creatively expresses the reality of such tragedies, in which those left behind can speculate, but never confirm — can observe, but never entirely understand.

For this reason, Aldrich has not made many promotional travels to advertise the book.

“It is difficult, emotionally,” she said. “It isn’t as if you write this and it’s over. It’s over in the sense that I’ve done it, and I’m ready to move on. I’ve met my goals. But emotionally, it’s not over.”

Fortunately, for Aldrich and others like her who push the genre forward, their writing stands alone as a literary and artistic work. It speaks for itself. It tells its own story.

Craig Pearson is a guest columnist at The State News and a biochemistry junior. Reach him at


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