Monthly Archives: May 2012

Q&A: Dinty W. Moore on Buddhism, creativity, kindness & taming the ego

Listen to where the writing wants to take you. Understand that the writing itself will often provide far richer material than your logical, predictable mind. Even more “intellect-driven” writing—for instance, a dissertation—can benefit from the cognitive leaps that occur when you stand back from the manuscript a moment and listen to your intuition.—Dinty W. Moore

 The Mindful Writer by Dinty W. Moore. Wisdom Publications, 152 pp.

 A popular image of the writer is of someone with heavy baggage and a disturbed ego. This stereotype does not fit Dinty W. Moore, though it would slight him, and ignore the dark notes in his memoirs, to paint him as blessedly free of background noise, as naturally ebullient.

Having gotten to know him at Ohio University, where he is now head of creative writing, I can say that, while Dinty doesn’t levitate—to my knowledge—he can bring the balm of a light touch—technically known as a nonreactive ego—to an English department’s creative writing unit.

And that’s really something to see. Because anyone can write a book, but leading a bunch of writers? That’s herding cats.

The Mindful Writer, his latest book—short, sweet meditations on writing—explains, as much as anything can, the source of his powers: an effort at spiritual discipline, an approach to writing that emphasizes exploration and discovery, a love of revision.

The book is divided into four parts: The Writer’s Mind; The Writer’s Desk; The Writer’s Vision; The Writer’s Life. Within each are brief chapters, each headed by a quote that Dinty loves about writing and which he then writes a few pages reflecting upon. For instance, this classic bon mot by Thomas Mann: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” Writers, Dinty reflects, care about finding “the precise word, the clearest expression, and we understand that sometimes a thought needs to be revised tens or hundreds of times.”

The Mindful Writer proceeds on two tracks at once by also inquiring into the challenges of being human. This is from the Introduction:

     Life is full of discontent, the Buddha told us, and that discontent (sometimes translated as suffering) comes about due to our grasping at things, our craving and clinging—the desire to make permanent what will always be fleeting. There is, however, a way to make the inescapability of discontent less problematic in our lives. The Way, the Path, is through right action, right speech, right livelihood; through living a deliberate and intentional life.

     As a writer, I had learned the power of releasing my control of a story, of letting the words, the characters, the images, the mysterious underpinnings of a piece of prose take me in unexpected directions. The less I grasped at and choked my writing, the more it seemed to expand into areas that surprised and pleased not just me but the reader as well. Even my “noncreative” writing—business memos, application letters, proposals, and reports—were strengthened by this realization.

     From the other end, I had seen how my ego and desires would inevitably lead me toward writer’s block and self-loathing, how worrying about critical responses or negative reactions would eventually dry up whatever creative flow I had managed to bring forth.

Dinty makes all that he does look so effortless—get an idea, write a book, move on; edit Brevity, the online journal of concise nonfiction; teach and mentor and lead workshops around the world—that it’s salutary to hear of his struggles. He tells about the time he worked on a book for four years and then abandoned it because it posed a storytelling problem he couldn’t solve. He was confused and angry, but then realized that the project had been making him miserable and he should move on. He shelved it and soon published his favorite book (which he doesn’t name but which sounds like The Accidental Buddhist).

The Mindful Writer offers these core principles, based on Buddhism’s four major precepts, for lessening angst by admitting difficulties and letting them go:

The Four Noble Truths For Writers

 • The writing life is difficult, full of disappointment and dissatisfaction.

 • Much of the dissatisfaction comes from the ego, from our insistence on controlling both the process of writing and how the world reacts to what we have written.

 • There is a way to lessen the disappointment and dissatisfaction and to live a more fruitful writing life.

 • The way to accomplish this is to make both the practice of writing and the work itself less about ourselves. To thrive, we must be mindful of our motives and our attachment to desired outcomes.

Despite this list’s surface astringency, The Mindful Writer emphasizes the writer’s joy of creating and discovering at least as much as it does the writer’s struggle and pain. But admitting that a task is hard, like admitting one’s deeper pain, is, after all, one way to stop struggling against what is and to move forward. I’ll reread this little red book many times, I’m sure, for inspiration and solace.

Dinty answered some questions for Narrative:

You were Catholic, born and bred, according to The Accidental Buddhist. Yet Buddhism seems to have given you the spiritual tools you needed, as it has so many westerners. Why?

 For me, Catholicism was all about the negative—you are bad, you were born bad, you are not grateful enough for the death of Jesus, you will always be bad, you are being bad right now.  This has much to do with having gone through Catholic school in the 1960s and 1970s, however, and is not necessarily an accurate reflection of the Catholic experience. I speak to contemporary Catholics and hear stories of a church which seems entirely foreign to me, and one much more open to the beautiful teachings of Jesus, rather than just the stern warnings of the Pope. But for me, there was nothing spiritual in the Catholic faith of my childhood, and nothing to guide me in any positive way. I’m not arguing that Buddhism is a better spiritual path, just that it was open to me at the right time in my life, and thank goodness for it.

If someone wants to begin a Buddhist practice, or one based upon its proven methods, such as meditation and mindfulness, what’s a good way to learn enough to go about it? In your experience, would it be best seek out teachers, or can books be sufficient?

Books are a good start—the works of Thich Nhat Hanh are wonderful and accessible, as are the books and tapes of Pema Chodron. There is also a wonderful book called Mindfulness in Plain English, by Bhanta Gunaratana. These are good places to start, but eventually I recommend finding a group to sit with, folks to talk to, and, if possible, a teacher.

Beware of any teacher that begins by over-complicating the practice, however. There are thousands of years of Asian culture wrapped up in Buddhism—Japanese or Tibetan or Sri Lankan, depending in which school of Buddhism you encounter—but cultural trappings are not the heart of Buddhism. The teaching of the man we call the Buddha, and what others have discovered through that teaching over the centuries, is what matters. There is nothing wrong with the ritual of Zen or of Tibetan Buddhism, but don’t mistake it for the spiritual message.

How has your Buddhist practice helped you live with yourself and others in more harmony?

Dinty W. Moore, in black and white

The most powerful lesson for me is that I—not others—create my own anger and annoyance, and I—not outside forces—create most of my reality.  So if these phenomena are of my own creation, I have much more control over them than I previously thought.

If a co-worker is driving me up a wall, as the saying goes, it is my wall, I have assembled the wall, and I can take that wall down, brick by brick, if I choose to. Or to put it another way, I can’t expect to have any control over how my co-worker acts or what annoying remarks he repeats time and again in meetings, but what I can control is my own reaction. So instead of choosing to get all tied up in knots over certain things, that knot-tying being much of what makes me miserable and frustrated, I just shrug, literally or figuratively, and move on to the next thing. This seems so simple, but it is powerful once you internalize it, and see how easily it works to dissipate many—not all, but many—daily annoyances.

The second step—compassion—is trying to understand why the other person is acting in the way he or she acts.  This person does not wake up in the morning thinking, “Gee, I’m going to annoy Dinty today and make him miserable.” The reality is something very different.  Being open to hearing what the person is really asking, or what the person is really worried about, or why the person repeatedly misreads the situation, makes you open to finding a solution, and that solution may alleviate suffering for both of you, which is a good thing indeed.

I’ve been impressed by your creativity, meaning not just by your published books or their diversity but by the range of your essays—even in cutting-edge noncommercial forms like your Google Maps essay and your video essay on your genetic roots in Scotland—and by your photography. Once you even showed me a neat graphic essay about your father and grandfather. Can you speak to your efforts to be an artist in the larger sense, as someone who creates, as opposed to being someone who is a “writer” and who wants to “get published?”

 I tried to be a filmmaker once, and did make a handful of small, experimental movies, and then dabbled in acting and modern dance, even performed with a small experimental dance troupe for four years. I still want to be a painter. I’d love to be a stand-up comic.

Writing seems to be the one art form I have any real talent for, however, or maybe it is just the one that I put most of my discipline and effort into. I regularly daydream about making a life in one of the other art forms. I don’t know what that means, or if it even addresses your question.  But to me creativity is the asking of questions, and trying to find answers to those questions in some manner other than the purely cognitive or logical.  Sure, getting published feels darn good, especially because it means more and more eyeballs are looking at what you do, but there is actually more joy in the creative process—on the good day—then there is on the publishing end of the activity.

You’ve mentioned that you write for a few hours each morning. What role does reading play in your writing practice?

Not enough lately: a common complaint of those of us who teach regularly and rigorously.  I read a lot of student work, which I’m happy to do, privileged really, but my eyes aren’t getting any younger, and it is more and more difficult to keep up with all of the great writing that is out there, and the great writing that will be coming out next week. But I try. That’s all I can do.  I try to read writers who don’t write like me. I try to expand my taste, to create as wide a net as possible.

 My previous interview with Dinty Moore about his book on essay writing is here.

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Filed under Author Interview, discovery, religion & spirituality, REVIEW, revision, working method

Europe redux: a blog-free vacation

Distance and difference are the secret tonic of creativity. When we get home, home is still the same. But something in our mind has been changed, and that changes everything.—Jonah Lehrer*

After my next post, on Dinty W. Moore’s new book The Mindful Writer, this blog is apt to fall totally silent for a few weeks. On Tuesday I’m flying with my wife and daughter to London, where we’ll meet up with our son who has been living in Copenhagen as a Fulbright scholar, studying the Christian philosopher Soren Kirkegaard. He’s the Family Intellectual, bound next for a master’s in intellectual history at Cambridge. My daughter, who is finishing a doctorate in higher education, and my wife, who leads a university, are Women of Action. Since I am the labeler here, I get to say that I’m the Family Artist.

But I’m also a stay-at-home fellow. And we’ll traveling through England, Scotland, and Ireland. So I hope the quote above is true. I think it is, based on the week I spent a couple summers ago in Florence with my son. My creativity surged during and after that trip. The discomfort that I fear and avoid is, apparently, exactly what I need. All the same—and as incorrect and ungrateful as this is—I dislike the hardship of travel and wouldn’t do it if not for work or family. I feel I missed my prime traveling years, when I tied myself down farming. No regrets, but that period made me earthbound in more ways than one. I hate air travel and airports, to be specific. Last winter, when I went to Florida for a month, I drove myself down, a three-day journey in our twelve-year-old soccer-Mom van.

I know I’ll be so glad I went—know that, but only intellectually, at this point. Aside from spending time with my family what I’m looking forward to is reading the novels and memoirs I’ve packed and taking photographs, lots of them. I love the city scenes and landscapes of Europe, and this time I’m going to try to get more people shots. There’s a neat post on Gizmodo, “100 Tips From a Professional Photographer,” the precepts oddly resonant for writers, and No. 84 observes that “landscape photography can get dull after a while.”

So: people. Those compact Scotch and Irish faces. We’ll see, with my camera’s puny lens. But I’ll be looking, and trying to get in close. (Surely dogs count. I still grieve the photo I missed of a Florentine swaggering through a plaza with his inappropriately large harlequin mastiff.)

When we return in early June, Ohio is going to feel like July, especially after the British isles. Already the month of May here in central Ohio is like mid-June—something about the upper airstream: hot and dry the result.

Anyway, and best of all, summer is here. My season, one of languor and promise. Good for remembering and writing.

 *Taken from Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, noted here earlier. I’ve since read it and highly recommend it.

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Filed under blogging, film/photography, MY LIFE

Noted: James Brown on memoir

James Brown, a creative writing teacher at Cal State-San Bernardino, is author of the celebrated 2003 memoir The Los Angeles Diaries, which was named a “Best Book of the Year” by Publishers Weekly. Brown’s new memoir, This River, is the occasion for an interview with Duff Brenna that appears in the current Writer’s Chronicle. Brown discusses his street-punk background, the “heartbreak and dysfunction” in his family, and the unsafe, outsider feeling that’s never left him.

Some excerpts:

In memoir, you write your own emotional truth, not necessarily anyone else’s, and trying to “get the facts right” by consulting with others may not be a great idea. If three people witness the same event, you can bet you’ll get three different interpretations, and pretty soon you might begin to question your own version. Slowly maybe, or quickly, doubt will set in, and then, if you attempt to incorporate others’ visions into your story, it won’t be yours anymore. My advice to the struggling memoirist is trust your memory, your vision, and recall events to the best of your abilities, authenticating the moment through visceral details, and in so doing recreate scenes, places, and people to make others feel what you felt at the time the experience occurred. . . .

Technique-wise, since I started out as a fiction writer, I have employed similar elements that go into the making of a story in memoir. I use scene. I use dialogue. I use character. I use setting, situation, and conflict. In this regard, fiction and memoir are alike, or can be. The difference isn’t so much in style as it is in content, whether you’re telling the truth to the best of your abilities, or imagining it from the ground up. Of course, there’s often a blending of the two, but that’s another story.

 It was nearly a decade between the time I published my last novel, Lucky Town, and my memoir, The Los Angeles Diaries. For most of those years I was too high and strung out to write. Alcohol and drugs strip you of your confidence, your self-esteem, and clearly your ambition. It wasn’t until I started on the road to getting clean and sober that I was even able to write again. It was an ugly climb out of the hole I’d dug for myself, and when I surfaced, I felt that if I were ever to move on, if were ever to write again, that I had to face the real story, the one I’d been avoiding by creating much of it as fiction. I knew I had to confront my past head-on. I should also admit that I was prompted to write a memoir because it was the only thing I was capable of writing at that point in my life. . . .

Ironically, I never planned to publish The Los Angeles Diaries. I really didn’t care about that. Publishing meant absolutely nothing to me at the time. All that mattered was that I try to make sense of my past, the suicides of my sister and brother, my mother’s insanity and cruelty, the emotional and financial destruction she caused my father, and the pain my addiction caused to those I loved most. I’m often asked if writing The Los Angeles Diaries was cathartic, but in many ways it was the exact opposite. In facing my demons, in recreating the events and memories I would’ve much rather have forgotten, I had to relive them. . . .

Reliving the darker parts of my life forced the memories into sharper focus, and that’s anything but therapeutic. But what the process did do for me, and this is important, is help me put into perspective the larger picture, one where, if only for moments, I can see myself as if from a distance. There I find some clarity. I’m just one in a cast of many.

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Filed under honesty, memoir, NOTED

There’s something about memoir

. . . and what writers rarely admit about rejection & revision

I have a lot of friends who are fiction writers, and they all told me that writing a memoir is different—and hard.—Darin Strauss, in The Washington Post

Darin Strauss became a memoirist with Half a Life, reviewed here, after publishing three acclaimed novels. I came across his admission above just after a scholar/essayist/travel writer who was visiting our campus told me, when she heard I was writing a memoir, “Memoir seems really hard for some reason. I had two friends start them and give up. They went back to writing fiction.”

I don’t think memoirs are harder to write than fiction. They’re kin to novels, but escape a novelist’s first monumental task: picking a point of view. All the same, for fiction writers, a memoir would be a new learning curve—probably also steepest because of point of view. That seems a given in memoirs, who is telling the story, but it isn’t, at least in terms of the writer’s persona. Sure it’s you, but which one? Where does s/he stand in relation to the story? How does the writer now make sense of the action then? What else besides the foreground story is going on with the narrator? (These are all just ways of asking, Who is telling this story? That question seems all-important in memoir.)

No wonder, as I’ve struggled to get this right myself, I’ve written so much here about persona in nonfiction. No wonder there’s a craft panel on this every year at AWP. The narrator must let readers in, seduce them, confide in them, treat them as friends. But ask nothing from them except that they keep turning the page. He, in my case, must know more than the earlier version of him who’s staggering through the life depicted. I think we desire a wiser narrator because we evolved not only to receive meaning in stories, we evolved to expect a survivor with perspective to tell about the hunt or the battle.

Washington Post writer Ron Charles, who caught Strauss’s admission about memoir’s difficulty for his fiction-writing friends, also wrote down Strauss’s elaboration:

     He offered a simple rule to the MFA students in the room: “If you’re writing a memoir, don’t say, ‘I.’ Say ‘she.’ You’ll have a much clearer sense of the character. When you say ‘I,’ you’re defensive. When you say ‘she,’ you’re more objective. The problem with too many memoirs is that you can feel the author trying to forgive himself in every paragraph.”

 (This surely is wise advice for achieving narrative distance, though presumably the writer goes back and changes everything to first-person viewpoint—not an inviolable rule for memoir but close to it, for practical purposes).

So . . . there’s something specifically hard about memoir that has to do with the closeness of the writer to her material, which is an aspect of herself. But an age-old writing issue also applies: a writer can think his book or essay or story is working when it isn’t, not yet.

We all know the story about scorned writerly brilliance. We’ve always heard it about novels and now we hear it about memoirs: the writer pounds out her guts at the keyboard; she writes a masterpiece and the world rejects it. Over and over! She persists in sending it back out, though, and after sixty-seven brutal refusals an editor or agent finally gets it. Finally. What’s seldom mentioned in such a scenario is how s/he kept working on the book after each rejection. Making it better, making it different. The book or story that finally was accepted and published—after more revisions—wasn’t what s/he started pitching an eon ago. When s/he thought it was ready. But it wasn’t.

I think this is true for others because it’s been true for me—but I am a slow learner and stubbornly capable of not hearing good advice the first (or second) time. Wiser writers than I who lack experience in a new genre vet their narratives with writer friends or in workshops. Some pros, no doubt, can smell insufficiency in their own work. I suspect that most of them, however, also air such doubts with their tough writing posse. But writing is so strange, a black art, that the tendency of friends is to urge you on. Anyway, in the end, each writer labors alone.

Poet Mary Karr has said her remarkable bestselling memoir Lit, reviewed here, took seven long years to gel. This was despite her having written two previous celebrated memoirs, The Liar’s Club and Cherry. The reason, she said, was because she kept trying to get her account of her marriage and divorce to feel right. She threw away 500 pages in which her ex-husband was an angel and as many again in which she was the wretch. Finally she hit her balance.

Each type of book, and surely each book, has its own challenges. The learning curve is a big U, after all. Our performance goes way down before it rises when we tackle something big and new. And any book is big and new. It is, in fact, novel. The difficulty of getting a book right may be why being “an author” still means something.

Whether the writer is getting rejected and keeps rewriting, or has the insight to plug away in silence, like Karr, until the manuscript is truly ready, sticking with it is called “learning to love the process.” Karr, speaking for herself, was less sunny: “It was so horrible.”

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Filed under evolutionary psychology, fiction, memoir, MFA, Persona, Voice, POV, revision

Elizabeth Browne has wrung out the gems in the fascinating NYT story about Robert Caro and his working process.

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Filed under blogging, immersion, journalism, NOTED, working method

Dubus & Russo wonder: Why Memoir?

Just two (famous) novelists enjoyin’ their coffee & nonfiction

Andre Dubus III and Richard Russo discuss their memoirs at The Daily Beast:

“How strange to write a memoir to find out what happens.”—Richard Russo, author of the forthcoming Elsewhere: A Memoir

 “I felt I was stepping into deep mysteries when supposedly I knew the story but didn’t.”—Andre Dubus III, author of Townie: A Memoir

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Filed under Author Interview, fiction, memoir, NOTED

Review/Q&A: Lee Martin’s ‘Such a Life’

Stay in love with the journey.—Lee Martin

Such a Life by Lee Martin. University of Nebraska Press, 214 pp.

Lee Martin, an accomplished novelist, is also a master of life stories. His memoir From Our House focuses on his fraught relationship with his father, whose hands were mangled in a corn picker when Martin was a baby. Martin had been conceived accidentally to parents married late, his father thirty-eight and his mother forty-one, and his father had wanted to abort the pregnancy. Martin grew up in the wake of that impulse and of his father’s accident, suffering from the rage of a man with hooks instead of hands. As his father lashed him for misbehavior, a leather belt gripped in his pincers, Martin, a difficult boy, wailed in pain and terror, feeling abandoned by his meek mother.

The linked essays in Martin’s new collection Such a Life continue to explore his family, as well as his own adult life, at revealing yet ordinary moments. They show how people can love each other and constantly fail each other, how love can entwine with shame. This seems epitomized to me by how shy he and his father were with each other as they made up after beatings; each was ashamed of himself, the boy for being bad and provoking his father and the man for the rage he vented on the overly sensitive boy.

My favorite essay in Such a Life, “Never Thirteen,” is about Martin’s girlfriend and himself when they were thirteen and were about to be split up by his parents’ return from suburban Chicago to their farm in southern Illinois. Martin captures such sweetness in the kids’ relationship, which is set against the fears, suspicions, and flawed lives of the adults around them.

An excerpt:

     That afternoon in Yankee Woods we stop on the trail, and there in the grove of trees, there in the dark, cool shade, she asks me if I have ever kissed a girl, and I’m so thankful for this moment—even now I remember with immense gratitude how she reached out and touched me, lightly on my forearm as if to say, It’s all right, whoever you are, it’s okay—that I can do nothing but tell her the truth, that I’m practically without experience; outside of a chaste kiss from my mother, my lips are virgin lips.

     “It’s not hard,” she says, and she steps closer. She gives me a shy smile. Her hair is thick and blonde and cut short, a la Mary Martin in South Pacific, and, like Nellie, Beth is kind and spirited, the girl next door and everyone’s friend, eager to be swept away by love. I can still see her in her white Oxford shirt, her blue culottes, her white sandals, her books cradled in the crook of her left arm. She lifts her chin, tilts her head to the side, and waits for me to take my cue. . . . 

     I don’t want my mother’s life to be mine. I don’t want to be old, not at thirteen. I don’t want to be unkissed. 

    “What about my nose?” I say to Beth. “Where do I put my nose?”

     I’m serious. It’s been a big concern of mine since seeing an episode on The Patty Duke Show in which Patty and a boy kept bumping noses when they kissed. I’m afraid that Beth will laugh at me, but she doesn’t. She explains patiently that she will tip her head to her right, and I will tip mine to my right, and everything will be fine.

The stakes are high because he has needed Beth’s kiss “since the first time my father whipped me with his belt and my mother did nothing to stop him.” And, in this aching puppy love, for the first time he becomes aware of his parents’ own loving intimacy: “[A]ll along their lovemaking had been present in the gentle way my mother touched my father when she undressed him, when she held a drinking glass so he could take it in his hook, when she shampooed and combed his hair.” There are flashes too in “Never Thirteen” of Martin’s own adult self, looking back ruefully and tenderly on his innocence and Beth’s.

Lee Martin, fiction writer, essayist, memoirist

There are other remarkable stories here, and they expanded my notion of how an essay could be used to capture and to reflect upon life. Martin is brave in his persona as well as likable, unafraid to show his own faults and fears as he encounters in boyhood a vicious bully, ponders an annoying neighbor as an adult, awkwardly tries to deal with his and his wife’s aging parents, and admits his regrets about his wife’s decision not to have children. His essays, with their candor, pathos, and wry humor, linger in the mind.

Many of the essays in Such a Life appeared first in literary journals, and some are available online. “Twan’t Much,” a concise essay about a lesson Martin learned, as a college student, from a poor coworker in a tire factory, appears in Brevity; Sweet published “Take, Eat,” about Martin’s mingled nostalgia and repugnance, as a vegan, for the farm food he grew up eating and about the difficulty he has in finding a decent meal on return visits to southern Illinois; The Sun offers an excerpt of “The Classified Ad,” about his efforts to help a woman find her brother, with whom Martin had fought as a boy; and Gulf Coast published “All Those Fathers That Night,” an innovative segmented essay about how a man, the father of six, killed himself in an alley beside the town’s barber shop, another haunting incident from Martin’s boyhood. In that essay, which closes the collection, Martin imagines the town’s fathers trying to grasp the tragedy; he misses his own father and imagines them reunited with nothing withheld between them, each his best self, each for once leaving nothing later to regret.

Martin writes about “All Those Fathers That Night” and creative nonfiction issues in an essay for Brevity. A creative writing teacher in the MFA program of Ohio State University, Martin writes about writing and teaching at his blog, The Least You Need to Know.

He answered some questions for Narrative:

Did you produce these essays as byproducts of other work, such as your two previous memoirs, or did they arise on their own, from questions that dogged you?

Richard, these essays were never parts of longer works. They were always meant to be discreet, stand-alone pieces, and, yes, they came from my attempt to respond to my life, focusing on matters that wouldn’t leave me alone over the past sixteen years or so.

You seem to have embraced fiction and nonfiction equally. How do you decide whether to explore something as a life story as opposed to in fiction, as a short story or novel?

When it seems important to me to claim the material as my own, I turn to nonfiction. I guess that means there’s something in the exploration of the material that seems important to my own development as a person. The nonfiction form allows me to announce that I’m using this material to think about something important to me. Of course, I often use fiction for the same purpose, but there’s something about the material for my novels and stories that doesn’t have that same urgent call to me. For whatever reason, it’s okay with me if no one ever knows where I am in that work.

With other material, though, such as the essays about my father, it’s crucial to me that I have the power of speaking directly about my own experience. Doing so helps me think about the complications of my life in a way that changes my relationship to them. I wrote a number of stories in my first book, THE LEAST YOU NEED TO KNOW, that dealt with difficult relationships between fathers and sons. Even though I was obviously writing from the relationship I had with my own father, it was only after I wrote my first memoir, FROM OUR HOUSE, that I started to have any clarity about that relationship. Facing it directly was necessary for me to get beyond that experience.

I’m struck by the innovative structure and the everyday subjects of your essays, which epitomize to me the explosion of creativity and interest in creative nonfiction. How do you view this apparent surge in the genre?

One of the things that excites me about creative nonfiction is the elasticity of the form and how it can constantly reinvent itself. Even though I’m primarily interested in memoir and personal essay, I also write short, lyric pieces that appear in places like BREVITY, and I love sometimes immersing myself in voice and language and experiments with form just to see how all of that invites an expression of myself that I might not find in a more traditional essay form.

When you read memoir or personal essays, what are you looking for as a reader and as a writer?

As a reader, I’m looking for an emotional and intellectual connection to the material. As a writer, I’m hoping to be stunned, swept away, to the point that I say, “Damn, I wish I’d written this.” Then I take a hard look at how the writer was able to do what he or she did. In my teaching and my writing, I’m interested in how any artistic choice creates a specific effect. I’m interested in how those choices can be rethought if necessary. When I read other writers’ memoirs or personal essays, I’m looking for what I can learn, what I can borrow and put to use in my own work.

What lessons have you learned during the writing-reading-thinking process—whether in fiction or nonfiction—that have helped you the most?

When I started out as a fiction writer, I had to learn to trust my material, and I had to learn what my worldview was. The two things were linked for me. I grew up in a small town in southeastern Illinois, a farming community, and I spent too many years thinking, as young writers are apt to do, that no one was interested in reading about my world. Then I read the stories of Bobbie Ann Mason, who grew up not far from me in Mayfield, KY, and I saw that it was possible to write about the complicated lives of people who didn’t live in large cities. Richard Ford’s story collection, ROCK SPRINGS, was a big influence on me because, even though he was writing about the American West, I heard in his voice the voice I needed in order to access my material. When I applied that voice to my world, my view of how people interact began to come through. So I encourage students to write from the worlds that matter most to them and to listen to the sounds of those worlds.

You are known as a great teacher, and I’ve found the exercises for students on your blog very useful in the classroom. Are there some key points or lessons or ways of thinking that you try to give creative writing students by the time they graduate?

Thank you for that compliment, Richard. I suppose my answer to this question is partly contained in my answer to the one above—trust your material, write from the worlds that matter most to you, find the voice that best allows you to express your view of the way people bump up against one another—but I also try to impress on my students that writing is a life-long apprenticeship. Each piece we write demands we learn something new. We’re always in service to the craft, and we should stay focused on what brought us to writing in the first place—that love of the music language can make on the page.

I want my students to know that great disappointments and great victories await them, and that never changes no matter how long one’s career may be. Stay in love with the process, I tell them. Stay in love with the journey. Our obligation is to the piece we’re writing. The journey will take us to where we’re meant to be. Isak Dinesen said she wrote a little every day, without too much hope and without too much despair. That’s the approach I hope my students will embrace.

There’s another interview with Martin, by Dawn Haines, on the Brevity site.

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Filed under Author Interview, creative nonfiction, essay-narrative, memoir, MFA, REVIEW, teaching, education

How ‘Mad Men’ became a soap opera

What’s been interesting to me this season about AMC’s hit series Mad Men is how dead in a classically dramatic sense it seems, how spent its narrative arc. Yet it remains addictive for those who got hooked on its characters. So I watch, but I wonder about the show with morbid professional curiosity. How long and how far can a Pan American jetliner that’s lost its engines glide?

Maybe this is just me. Maybe Mad Men is doing something risky, not milking the franchise. But I affirm my sense at the end of season three: the story ended then, when the principal characters broke away from the Madison Avenue advertising agency where they toiled, loved, and fought, and formed their own firm. Any novel or regular movie with decent self-respect would have ended there, freeing our imaginations to ponder their fates. As it is, two seasons later, they now weather minor turbulence as they walk the earth like the rest of us. I dread the likelihood that the show’s writers will make lead character Don Draper unhappy again, despite his ridiculously adorable second wife and his material success. Meanwhile, viewers this season have mostly followed the supporting actors. They do supply narrative threads, but are peripheral characters, at least in terms of the initial core drama about Draper and his baggage.

The same issue faces AMC’s exciting sister series Breaking Bad. Last year, at the end of its fourth season, protagonist Walter White had finally vanquished his evil rival and won all the chips. What’s left, in next year’s final season, except to wrap up threads that don’t truly need wrapping? But Breaking Bad has at least has kept its focus on Walter, just as The Sopranos kept Tony Soprano dead center. Mad Men has drifted from Draper, maybe because it goofed and made him happy too soon.

Don Draper, with two of his vices at hand

And yet, as I say, I flail along with Mad Men, feeling my love cool and my eye grow more critical. This year the writers are emphasizing the sea-change the late 1960s wrought, as well as cultural reference points like the Speck murders. This infusion cannot staunch the leakage of the show’s drama, and fails, for me, to offset it by dishing up inescapably sentimental period allure. I grew up in the crazed, profound, damaging ‘60s and came of age in the ghastly 1970s. I was raised by a father from Draper’s martini-drinking, Camel-smoking, workaholic, womanizing milieu; my mother, like Draper’s desperate ex-wife Betty, knew a doctor the ladies could go to for “diet pills” so they could stay sexy and keep their husbands domesticated.

And so I look back when I look at the aging Mad Men, as some other boomers surely must, with curious affection and distaste. We know the period, like none since, and can inflict it upon ourselves and the credulous young: look how charmingly naïve they were, dosing themselves with nicotine and alcohol and having a promiscuous good (or bad-but-at-least-entertaining) time. We now know not only what the characters still don’t, but what we—and our parents—didn’t. We were all busy, so busy, trying to get through those years, just like everyone is now.

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Filed under film/photography, narrative, NOTED, sentimentality