University of Oklahoma Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8061-3971-5.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 09/01/2008
Teresa Miller's memoir, Means of Transit, is a writer's journey, a memoir that takes us deep into the place where stories begin, and outward, to those places where stories intersect with other stories and with the stories of the larger world.
Teresa Miller grew up wanting to leave her home town, Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Her childhood was bitterly unhappy, for many good reasons: the death of her mother, abuse at the hands of a step-mother, a neglectful father. Her salvation in those days was the auto trips she took with her grandmother, who kept a stash of roadmaps in the car glove box and "storied" every stop in ways that cemented their "road kinship."
But it was books that became Miller's means of transit out of Oklahoma, and books (and authors) that helped her re-story her life. She had grown up dreaming of being an actress, so she applied to the American Academy for Dramatic Arts in New York. After high school graduation, she escaped to the big city. But when she couldn't shake her Oklahoma accent, the Academy politely ushered her out, stage right, and she went back home to work on a novel, Remnants of Glory, which contained many "telling overlaps" between Miller's fiction and her real life. The book came out some ten years later, in 1981—and after that, a long, long drought, during which Miller worked as a writing teacher in local colleges.
The lengthy hiatus in her writing career was partly due to the family dramas that set the stage for a long depression. Her grandparents' deaths, her father's death, her brother's drug addiction and conviction for drug peddling were at the center of Miller's life. "Small-town driving," she remarks, "can be that tricky when you're trying to elude your personal history at every corner." And then there was an extended episode of truly terrifying stalking, during which Miller saw too many parallels between her own dysfunctional family and that of the stalker. The ordeal ended only when the stalker murdered his mother. "The challenge for me," Miller writes, was "to keep this single crime from overreaching itself in my psyche"—a very tall order for someone for whom depression feels like a home town. But eventually, she moved through and beyond it all to write another novel, Family Correspondence (2000), "my literal 'letter of transit,'" she says, "a way for me to venture out again as a writer and live beyond the boundaries I'd set for myself."
But Miller was able to find means of transit other than writing. Her work at Rogers State College led to a job as host-producer of a television program called "Writing Out Loud," which featured half-hour taped interviews with established writers and artists. The program led to the opportunity to start her own literary center, the Oklahoma Center for Poets and Writers, which sponsored an annual Celebration of Books in Tulsa. Within a few years she was working with such noted authors as Jim Lehrer, Amy Tan, Maya Angelou, Arlo Guthrie, Roger Rosenblatt, Isabel Allende. These "celebrity constellations" helped her survive her family traumas and "relocate" herself. They helped to give her a "comforting notion of kinship—a lineage of admiration that became its own conspiracy against loneliness and grief." They helped her to see that we all share the same story.
Means of transit—the ability to move beyond the limits and constraints of time, place, and personal history—is a powerful metaphor for Miller. In the book, it is often balanced against another, equally powerful metaphor, summed up nicely in an anecdote about getting lost:
When I was driving Isabel Allende, she told such riveting tales about the coup in Chile that Tulsa suddenly seemed foreign to me, and I took an unexpected turn. I'll never know for sure if we were actually going north or south. It's enough to say that I was headed the wrong way—down a one-way street.
Getting lost, losing direction, getting sidetracked on back roads, running red lights, missing a turn at an intersection, careless driving, accidents—these are all parts of the journey, Miller knows. Our task is to follow where the heart leads and to set up "roadside markers" that help us find our way and commemorate our journeys.
Means of Transit is a story for all of us who have wanted to leave home but found ourselves pulled back again and again, until we discover that the journey is home, and that's where we're meant to be. It's also a story for those of us who have lost our way, wandered in the wilderness, abandoned early dreams for later ones, and followed new directions that have taken us from the beaten track. Miller's graceful and compassionate memoir invites us into a life lived interestingly, deeply, and richly in place.
At 28, Teresa Miller's first novel, Remnants of Glory, was published by a major New York publisher, to critical acclaim. But Miller, waging a private battle with depression, developed an eighteen-year writer's block. She put her energies into the public television program, "Writing Out Loud". Now entering its tenth season on Oklahoma's PBS affiliate, the show has featured Miller's interviews with many of the country's leading writers and performers. Based at Oklahoma State University in Tulsa, where she also teachers a popular writing class, Miller has recently rediscovered her own voice. Visit the author's website.
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