Category Archives: Author Interview

Joe Bonomo on sex, spirit & implication

A review and interview about his new collection of essays.

This Must Be Where My Obsession with Infinity Began by Joe Bonomo. Orphan Press, 248 pp.

There is no such thing as was—only is. If was existed, there would be no grief or sorrow.—William Faulkner

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Memoir is made of memories, by definition; some theorists assert memoir must be about memory. Yet it’s notable how much Joe Bonomo explores memory and takes it as his subject. His new collection of essays, This Must Be Where My Obsession with Infinity Began, summons and examines a wide range of memories, expressed in often lyrical sentences. He’s had an ordinary suburban boyhood and adult life, but he makes this material interesting because—as he tells stories, and muses interestingly on their meaning—we find ourselves catching our own cast-off thoughts and doubts, thinking about our own stories.

Here’s this reflective person in the present trying to make sense of his life: what every adult does, one supposes, and it’s satisfying being privy to another’s subjective reality and party to his grappling with memory and meaning. His blog, No Such Thing as Was, its title taken from Faulkner’s remark about the past’s persistence, testifies to his steady inquiry into the memories that live inside him.

Some of his essays are strongly narrative, with personal experience dramatized in scenes; others are models of the classical ruminative approach (as run through a poet’s sensibility) and some are short prose poems. Since he’s got all the chops and deploys them artfully, slapping a label on his creative nonfiction is difficult and would be misleading.

Here’s an example from “Caught,” which moves from his adult self’s sexualized encounter with two strangers—two college girls acting up—to depict his adolescent self’s furtive research into sex at his neighborhood newsstand:

One weekend afternoon I discovered that the manager of the newsstand had stocked a ground-level magazine rack with digest pornography, magazines like Penthouse Forum and Family Letters. My heart racing, I cased the store like a petty thief, strolling self-consciously up and down the aisles feigning interest in Creem magazine, soon recognizing that if I stood directly behind the rack, reached in surreptitiously through to the front, and discreetly pulled Penthouse Forum through the rack back toward me, I could prop it up harmlessly between Reader’s Digest and the Farmer’s Almanac.  . . .

And so I remember vividly the instant the manager’s thick hand crashed through the magazine rack and clutched at the magazine I was holding. Startled, I looked up and saw his eyes peering at me through the magazines. The store spun away from me in a swirl of fear, and in a lightheaded haze I felt my feet lift from the ground. Memory seduces us with claims to legitimacy and to truth, though I remember graphically the long moment it took for the manager to sweep around the side of that rack and to lean down into my face, his eyes ferocious behind thick rim glasses.

Sexuality runs as one theme through this collection, which made me realize how seldom creative nonfiction even mentions the topic of sex in passing, whereas fiction fairly reeks of it. Not that it’s a big deal here, just another thread, as in life, but arresting in its candor. Equally unusual is the spiritual theme in some of Bonomo’s essays, and perhaps a riskier one than sex. In fact I first learned of his work several years ago when he read his essay “Occasional Prayer,” collected here, in Ohio University’s chapel where it’s partly set. The essay opens with an adult ritual, Bonomo and his wife praying as they set out on a trip, and depicts how and why Bonomo returned to prayer in college. One thing I like about his essays on faith is their roots in a frankly utilitarian view of religion, which after all is most usefully about practical matters—not abstractions like whether an external God exists but how we might live more humanely.

From “Occasional Prayer”:

My occasional prayer finds me less reaching a higher state than desperately shedding ego. Perhaps this explains my impulse to write autobiographically. Does self-addition wiggle from its straightjacket by turning outward to others in an attempt to make larger humane sense? And I wonder, can I pray for that. Prayer does not change God, writes Kierkegaard, but changes him who prays. . . .

Amy and I are back from our drive later, and I’ll repeat to myself what she’d said in the car when I asked her why her prayers are longer than mine. More people to say hello to. More people to stretch toward on the thin prop of prayer. More to caress in absentia, to tap lovingly on a shoulder knowing that touch is a foreign language, not spoken here. There. And I’ll wonder, who do I have to say hello to? Who do I have to surprise, moist-eyed, my mouth moving oddly, slowly, the other tilting his head tenderly to make out the words. Alone to myself in my room, my words perish on the mirror.

In an interview with the campus newspaper where he teaches, Northern Illinois University, Bonomo said his essays are about “the edges of my suburban youth, exploring issues of spirituality, sex, violence, and myth, and a grappling with language [. . . an] attempt to articulate the past and our shifting responses to it.”

Bonomo Photo

Joe Bonomo

This Must Be Where My Obsession with Infinity Began won the Orphan Press Book Contest. Bonomo’s other books include AC/DC’s Highway to HellJerry Lee Lewis: Lost and FoundInstallations (National Poetry Series), Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band, and Conversations With Greil Marcus (edited). He’s the Music Columnist at The Normal School.

He answered some questions:

Your new book is organized into four themed parts, and within the sections medium-length essays alternate with short lyrical meditations or tone poems. How did this structure develop, and once you had it how did it influence individual essays’ content or placement within a section?

The overall structure materialized near the end of the process. At some point I realized that I was going to have these longer essays and these shorter, micro-essays or prose poems together, that they were going to have to work it out. Once I took a step back and recognized the book’s essential themes, I saw clusters of essays that worked well together, and they began to fall into these four sections. The biggest challenge was arranging the pieces in such a way that would, one, imply my subjects and interests rather than name them directly, and two, allow the longer and shorter essays to work together without feeling as if they were gathered together artificially. I had to trust my instinct that in the experiences I was exploring there was a need for sustained attention in the form of longer essays, as well as a need for a brief, momentary recollections or narratives in the form of smaller pieces. Our experiences, and our memories of them, are so varied in shape and texture and temperature, and call for different forms, I think.

Why did you want to imply rather than name your subjects and interests?

Well, I think that comes from Walter Pater who said “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” To my mind, music is an abstraction, and abstraction evokes rather than states, a place where I like my essays, which are generally lyric- rather than narrative-based, to go, and the place where they usually originate. I try in my essays to circumvent designating my subjects; I’d rather the language and the selection of details and the story-telling, if there’s any, to do that.

Phillip Lopate has said that an essay can tell as well as show, and that’s of course true, but I like essays too that evoke rather than declare, though there are plenty of declarative sentences in my essays. That’s one reason why I like segmented essays so much: the white spaces act as a kind of transparent connective tissue. It’s more exciting to be held aloft by wires that you can’t see. And that same strategy went in to arranging the book and the essays within the sections.

I sense a strong link with poetry in your essays, or perhaps it’s that you seem to have a background in poetry as well as in creative nonfiction. Is this impression accurate and, if so, what did studying poetry bring to your prose? What poets were strong influences and why?

Yeah, in graduate school at Ohio University I wrote poems, in fact wrote a poetic thesis and dissertation. Sometime in the mid-1990s I began to grow dissatisfied with writing poems and turned to writing prose. It wasn’t overnight nor was it something I was really conscious of at the time, except that I felt that I wanted to write sentences and not concern myself so much with line breaks. That’s a very simple decision that had a monumental impact on me as a writer. I’d been reading essays but really had to catch up—I still am. I think that because of my love of poetry I gravitated toward writing essays that were lyric in impulse, or in origin. Like most of us I’ve always remembered, and observed the world, in snatches, shards, and brief scenes, narratively-speaking. So my early essays, some of which are in the book, are quite short—not as short as the micro-essays or prose poems; those originated in deliberate attempts at brevity—and in retrospect definitely stem from the lyric moments I’d been working with in my poems. But my poems had begun to feel to me squeezed out, too dry or spindly, and I wanted to push my sentences a bit, to “tell” and chase ideas or analyze more while still allowing imagery and abstraction and music into the writing.

There were poets I loved to read—Stevens, Kinnell, Plath, Lowell and later, Russell Edson, Dennis Schmitz, Mark Irwin, and other contemporaries—but I don’t know that they’ve been direct influences, more like compass pulls toward lyric abstraction as I’m writing sentences and paragraphs.

Your work seems conversant with the entire tradition of the essay, from classical essays—Montaigne’s work comes to mind—to today’s lyric form. What do the essay’s roots have to teach us? Which essayists, whether ancient or modern, have most influenced you?

The roots of the essay have everything to tell us. On some level each essay begins with What do I know? The great turn that an essay can make, has to make in my opinion, is to move from that essential question to Why do I know? That is, why does this linger, why do I now feel compelled to explore it? What don’t I know? Every essayist is fond of highlighting the word essay’s etymological roots in “the attempt, the weighing out,” and that’s always important to remember, for young essayists especially, who need to be urged to go beyond story, to really believe that an essay should start not with What but with Why, an attempt to make sense of something that’s either dimly understood or so well-understood that it might benefit from a skeptical reassessment. My favorite quote about the essay is Huxley’s: “the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything.” An essay can do anything in the world as long as the essayist is writing candidly and honestly.

Montaigne, William Hazlitt, and Virginia Woolf have had some influence on me, I think, as have contemporaries Patricia Hampl, Annie Dillard, Phillip Lopate, Albert Goldbarth, Robert Vivian. As a single influential book, Alfred Kazin’s A Walker In The City is up there, both for its subject and its style. But lots of writers from different places—fiction writers like Andre Dubus, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Larry Brown, rock & roll writers and cultural critics like Lester Bangs, Peter Guralnick, and Greil Marcus, the New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane, the baseball writer Roger Angell, even Phyllis Richman, the restaurant reviewer at the Washington Post who I read every Sunday when I was growing up!—all these people have also influenced my writing and my approach toward nonfiction, some directly, some indirectly. A model is always good to have for a writer, to see where one overlaps with that model as well as where, and how, one doesn’t.

The self and its experiences are what the essayist has to work with, yet in practice both components face the presumed “so what” test and are tricky to pull off. You quote V.S. Naipaul on this: “No one cares for your tragedy until you can sing about it.” Could you discuss this in terms of your own subjects and your use of persona?

This is the great paradox of personal writing. Why should the reader care? Because the writer cares? That’s not enough. What I love about Naipaul’s quote is his necessity on song, the crafting. The image I always use, that I’ve discussed before, is of a silhouette: by the end of an essay or a book of autobiographical nonfiction the writer should morph into a silhouette, a persona-outline into which the reader steps, and into which the reader fits, perhaps surprisingly. Montaigne said that we have inside ourselves the entire human condition, and I think the smartest essayist both embraces this and is deeply skeptical of it. The work comes less in being attentive to potential subject matter than in shaping that subject in such a way that might resonate with a reader. And the reader works, too. Some essays —I’m thinking right now of work by Nabakov and John D’Agata and Lia Purpura, Richard Rodriguez or David Foster Wallace, or Walter Benjamin—need time and patience on the part of the reader, to let digressions and footnotes and expansion do their work at coherence.

But the art, and hopefully the resonance for the reader, comes in the shaping. The tops of my students’ heads lift off when they get it, finally, that an essay can come from anywhere—it doesn’t have to originate in sexy or dramatic or otherwise trendy subject matter. Their spirits flag a bit when they realize the work involved. They learn, and I’ve learned: “This does not matter simply because it happened to me, or even simply because the experience might be unique.” Paraphrasing Vivian Gornick, the value is in the telling, the exploring, the doubt and uncertainty, the chase toward something tangible—not in the events. My childhood and adolescence were statistically normal, I’m happy to report. The subjects I explore in my book—suburbia, cities, Catholicism, faith, sex, landscape—are hardly novel or sexy or fraught with drama or abuse or adversity through which I’ve been transformed. What an essay says is: Being alive is startling, an astounding subject; that’s everything, let’s go there.

Your thematic mix is interesting in itself, and your exploration of sex and faith, in particular, is unusual. Despite those being such fraught subjects, your stance seems much the same as for your other topics—here’s something that happened and that interests me—and I wonder if you’d discuss your approach? Also, because many of these thirty-eight essays first appeared in journals, I wonder how readers, including editors, have reacted?

The experience of growing up Catholic was a kind of fun-house mirror held up to sexuality. On the one hand, Catholicism is a very sensuous faith in that among its foci is the body: Christ’s body, both divine and human, sacred and wounded, the priest’s body, devout but flawed, my body, all hopped-up and going nuts in puberty. But the church also taught me about self-abuse, about the dangers of indulging, about the sins of the body. So around age 13 or 14 as I was mentally undressing the girls around me during mass or thinking about the underwear ads in the Washington Post Magazine, while struggling to pay attention to the sermon and the sacraments, there was an age-old conflict going on. Urge versus abnegation, urge versus sin, urge versus propriety, the afterlife. It was a heady mix, to say the least. And, as you said, I approach writing about it as I would anything else intense that I experienced: this must be made to matter. But the mingling of sex and faith was—is—such an overwhelmingly present subject for me, that I trusted to its value.

Readers and editors have been fine with these subjects. I don’t think that I’m particularly explicit, and I try and write respectfully, even if what I’m essaying at times are moments of rather brutal objectifying on my part. But living is complicated.

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Filed under Author Interview, essay-classical, essay-lyric, essay-personal, implication, memoir, religion & spirituality, REVIEW

Q&A with memoirist Liz Stephens

The Days are Gods author on braids, voice & earning your story.

Liz Stephens: “Voice is the through-line.”

Stephens: “Voice is the through-line.”

After reviewing The Days are Gods, I asked its author, Liz Stephens, for an interview, and she has kindly obliged. Stephens, Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Glendale College, California, earned a PhD in creative nonfiction at Ohio University, where she served as managing editor of Brevity.

You’re very reflective about your ongoing experience as the story moves forward—and it does move forward, The Days are Gods combining the strengths of sharing someone’s subjective, highly reflective point of view with that of scenic narrative, of experiencing her life events. What were your processes and models in working out this persona, voice, point of view, stance—however you think of it: and how do you?—which is distinctive and seems somewhat unusual to me in the way that it is combined so strongly with forward-moving events?

This was the most deliberate construction in the book: to gently balance the growth of becoming more internally knowledgeable about both a place and myself, and to use external events to do so. I essentially wrote the text and then dug my hands into it and picked up those three threads—knowledge of self, knowledge and lessons of place, external events—and started slowly braiding, backwards and forwards, over and over, until the plait worked out at the end. The sections had been much simpler to write individually and initially, but in the end I did have to order them, which was by and large how the final arc was made. Though I also did tweak some sentences very lightly to emphasize momentum through time or self-knowledge—literally highlighting season, or taking out a small reference in the past tense. I also had to find and then use deliberately any personal blind-spots I’d had, which sometimes I needed to write back in, of course.

The arc retains some lightness due to the nature of actually living the process as I wrote; I think in this case, taking a long time to write the book worked heavily to its advantage. I was more aware of myself, and more in tune with my surroundings, by the end of the writing process, so I resisted changing earlier bits to make myself look smarter. I just left in my initial excitements and lack of knowledge. But, yes, choices like deeper internal musings, more High West lingo, and less glibness in my conclusions by the middle to end were very deliberate.

Furthermore, I had tools by the end of the writing I hadn’t had access to at the beginning. When I began this book, I was an early nonfiction writer and high on discovery. By the end, I was finishing years of study of nonfiction form, hours of writing workshops with invested peers and mentors in the same field. So when my point of view as the narrator changes, it is through an integral change of the persona itself. Voice is the through-line that doesn’t change. “She’s” still there, talking to you, amazed.

Models? Uh, now that I think about it, no. I don’t think I’m alone in achieving this, but I didn’t model this after a particular successful narrative in my reading list. I just knew I needed momentum for the book to be one that a broader audience than essay-lovers would like, but knew I did not at all want to give up my musing, because that would have turned the text into a field trip through the West. I did have one very established awarded writer (not anyone affiliated with my program, but a very fine writer in their own right) tell me to stop taking about my feelings so much, but that seemed more like that person and less like me. I do know this will be the model of the balance of my next book. It’s most like me.

You carefully worked a thread through the book about an older local couple you admire and how they accept and befriend you. When you and your husband make a decision, late in the book, that disqualifies you as locals, they take back a horse they’ve given you—essentially they steal it—and the reader, at least this one, feels upset and angry. I experienced this as the book’s climax. Then, a little later, you return to their act and reflect on it from their perspective, moving the reader toward understanding and empathy for them. It’s remarkable, and I wonder how you envisioned this culminating event, as the way I experienced it or in some other way?

I in no way envisioned them as offering closure, advancement, or analogy to the book. Funny, isn’t it? A lot of the threads in the book now look that way in retrospect, I think because I was writing (the first time through! This should be emphasized, for my students!) so purely from my deep place of processing the experience, but in this parallel immersion of new (to me) discovery in craft; I literally could not see it coming. I wrote not knowing the end any more than you did. I can only hope for that state of grace to light on me again, where all of the serendipitous moments happen again and you look back after the writing and it’s like looking through a really obvious tunnel or down a cattle path in the weeds. It’s like speaking in tongues. Just prepare yourself, sit on your butt to be available, and then get out of your own way—sometimes, in case you want to repeat yourself. My mother-in-law sees sweet Yellow the cat as a metaphor for my very soul in the West; and you know what? She’s right too. You all are.

So in the end, I do see that couple as a literary barometer for our family’s position in the community. They were the benchmark for how we fit. Until it slowly dawned on us we may have been looking at the wrong standard-bearer. . . in the end it was clear that they themselves were not as seamlessly and holistically embedded in their own community anymore, and that was a very moving mark of the changing of the very nature of the West. People who lived not more than one house from him could say with a straight face, “Now he’s country,” and you know, they didn’t always mean it as a compliment. So when we lost their faith, we still came out smelling like roses to the town, flashy and exotic, moving at will . . . but to everyone’s detriment, I think. What he’s got, I think we should want, if we don’t.

Also, I wrote the end of the book fresh. I’d barely had time to process my loss myself. There’s a whole saga about selling our sweet home that was so raw I couldn’t even include it. Even though it was the dead-nuts perfect metaphor for our experience there. Ugh. Would not compute.

Stephens-Days are Gods

Braids: “knowledge of self, lessons of place, external events”

Annie Dillard once said that every book has its own impossibility that the writer soon experiences, realizing her task isn’t as simple as she’d pictured. That, in fact, the book may be impossible. What was the impossible problem you faced in writing The Days are Gods?

 Annie is always right. When in doubt . . . anyway, I moved before the book was done. I feared I was screwed, book-wise. But I longed for it. I sat staring out at my new back field full of frogs and poison ivy and trees so unlike my last view, and just pined. My mother looked out the front window of my Ohio house at the forest and, sure enough, said, “What a view,” and I burst out crying.

And then I called it back, the feeling of all of every bit of it. I wrote as a testament to that loss and those lessons. So every bit of what I learned in my PhD program got cycled through that particular wringer. I really believe in telling a fairly literal truth in nonfiction, so I wasn’t interested in dreaming up the rest whole-cloth for a better story. I had to be very conscious and deliberate about what I had learned and when. I doled out my experiences there very deliberately jewel-like into their settings. That created more than anything perhaps the story drive you were talking about. If your response is any indication, that became a central feature to the book, but it seemed while I did it to be not possible. But I was afforded the opportunity to not hurry the processing of an experience, to think deeply and well about a particular finite set of events, and love on them at length.

Additionally, the fact that I’d moved seemed to be a dead give-away that I hadn’t stayed. So did that invalidate my search there? That became a central issue. And I knew, just examining my own—well, grief wasn’t too strong a word then—it was so patently manifest and undeniable I got mad and thought, hell with it. If readers don’t think I deserve to feel this, they can lump it and just feel gyped at the end. But I’m going to be dead honest all the way through, and earn it, and explain it, and we’ll see how they feel about me then. I’m still finding out.

Liz Stephens’s The Days are Gods website is worth visiting, especially for its resources page, with ideas, links, and recommended books. And Joe Bonomo hosts Liz’s self-interview at his blog No Such Thing as Was.

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Filed under Author Interview, braids, threads, memoir, Persona, Voice, POV

Tale of a gravedigger’s daughter

Graves to Horizon x

It takes a village to raise a child, and my village was the graveyard.

—from Rachael Hanel’s memoir

 We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter by Rachael Hanel. University of Minnesota Press, 177 pp.

hanel-cover-small-copyRachael Hanel grew up in a sleepy Minnesota town where old people “have more faith that cars will stop for them than they have in Jesus Christ.” But where her gravedigger father could joke, with a darker edge than any TV Mayberry admits, about a jaywalking elderly woman, “Business has been a little slow. Should I gun it?” Even sincere, hard-working folk—especially them?—can be naughty. Maybe need to be. Especially when they’re gravediggers and cemetery-tenders, their noses rubbed constantly in the taboo, the unspeakable, the humdrum matter of death. Her father, in wry response to his mundane-macabre role, dubbed himself Digger O’Dell, and took for his business motto the cheeky pun that gives Hanel’s memoir its title.

“Death infiltrated our lives,” Hanel writes, casually mentioning how a man’s ashes, shipped from California in a white box wrapped in clear packing tape, once sat on their clothes dryer for a week or two, “bouncing and vibrating every time Mom did a load of laundry.”

Surrounded by death, playing and working in cemeteries, Hanel was more aware than most of mortality as she grew up but was untouched personally by its sibling, grief, until her vibrant father was struck down. His abrupt, agonizing death from cancer came when she was fifteen. The thirteen linked memoir essays in We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down circle this loss and culminate in its depiction.

The tone of Hanel’s writing is exquisitely pitch-perfect. She achieves a plainspoken charm and a depth in the spare elegance of her expression, inseparable from her appealingly forthright Midwestern persona. Due credit must be given to her mother, who told young Rachael stories of loss, harrowing and gruesome tales of how those bodies came to her father for burial, and kindled in her daughter the storytelling impulse. Here’s Hanel on her bookish childhood and the dark turn her reading took:

Other people my age also went to wakes—we were all part of this small town. But no one went as much as I. No one spent their summer days in cemeteries, though occasionally my friend, Amy, came with me, and we rode our three-speed bikes up and down cemetery roads. I didn’t feel the need to talk about my immersion in death. I didn’t feel a heavy pressing on my chest that had to get out. People here didn’t show much emotion; we didn’t pour out our love and sadness. These were people of periods, not exclamation points. If I couldn’t connect with people in person, I could connect with them on the page.

I knew death but Bridge to Terabithia showed me grief, the part of the story others left out. I learned what could happen to the people left behind. At wakes I caught only glimpses of grief, those initial moments of shock that render family as zombies. Immediate grief forms a quiet, hard surface that makes it impossible to peer inside. Quiet tears slipped down cheeks, of course, and there were gentle hugs, but the calm surface of a sea hides volatile riptides flowing beneath.

The murders of 1986 made the gap between Bridge to Terabithia and Helter Skelter very small indeed. The summer, with its violent deaths, demanded a book on the scale of Helter Skelter.

In our house, it was perfectly appropriate for an eleven-year-old to read Helter Skelter. I had no need to hide it, no need to read it furtively by flashlight like it was some type of pornography. I read it out in the open, in a chair in the living room while everyone else watched TV. Mom valued a good story; she wasn’t going to stop me. Tales of grisly murder, violence, and disaster had knitted me in the womb.

A former newspaper reporter, Hanel lives in Mankato, Minnesota, and works for Kaplan University as an administrator. She’s an adjunct journalism instructor for Minnesota State University-Mankato, and is the author of many nonfiction narratives for children. She answered some questions for Narrative:

You’ve said that your memoir took you thirteen years to complete. Why so long?

I used to feel badly about this, but then I took a step back to examine why the writing process was so slow. I was always doing other things while writing. I’m somewhat of a workaholic and blessed/cursed with a strong work ethic. A 40-hour week to me is like a vacation, because I’ve usually always had side jobs on top of full-time work. When you’re working for a paycheck, that needs to take priority over creative writing, at least in my world.

Here’s an inventory of things I’ve done in the past 13 years besides writing: completing an M.A. degree in history; running four marathons; completing about 10 triathlons; maintaining a happy marriage; maintaining lifelong friendships. There were times when I wanted to work on my book but other things took precedence. After working all week and not connecting with my husband, it felt unfair to him to say, “Honey, I know I haven’t talked much to you for a couple of days, but I’d like to work on my book now.” Or it felt wrong to say no to a nephew’s birthday party or no to a friend I hadn’t seen for a while. So the 13 years represents how writing fit into my “real life.”

I’m struck by the fact that you were an experienced nonfiction writer, as a journalist and narrative nonfiction author, yet it appears that to produce your memoir you had to create your own MFA program by attending workshops and classes for years. Could you explain your education process in creative nonfiction? What was the challenge of personal nonfiction since you apparently had the factual down cold?

Rachael Hanel; photo by Steve Pottenger

Rachael Hanel; photo by Steve Pottenger

Not doing an MFA wasn’t a conscious choice. This may sound strange, but when I decided to go to grad school, I was so steeped in the journalism world that I didn’t even really know what an MFA was. I had a vague notion of creative nonfiction, mostly in terms of literary journalism, but I thought that was something for others to pursue, not me (because I was a “serious” journalist). I got a graduate degree in history, mostly because I love history very much and I thought it would be a good complement to journalism. By the time I was finishing my M.A., I realized I should have pursued an MFA instead, but it was too late. So I looked for writing classes elsewhere, namely at The Loft in Minneapolis. I took several creative nonfiction classes there and also was part of the 2007-08 Loft Mentorship Series. In the mentorship, four of us nonfiction writers worked closely with noted nonfiction writer and teacher Barrie Jean Borich. In addition, I read a lot of narrative nonfiction and memoir, closely examining structure, narrative arc, and writing style.

Writing memoir was hard! I went into the process thinking it would be easy, since I already knew how to write and had journalism experience. I had no idea what memoir really entailed. This is where an MFA would have been beneficial. For me, it was more of a trial-by-error process with some feedback along the way from trusted readers and writers who pointed me in the right direction. This is also probably part of the reason why the writing of the memoir took so long. I was about five years into the writing of my memoir before I really figured out how to ditch the journalistic voice.

Each of your linked essays has a structure, but so does the overall work, which moves toward the depiction of your father’s death and the devastating effect of his loss on your family. How did you envision the overarching structure of We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down?

Structure was something I played around with quite a bit. For a long time the manuscript consisted of separate essays, many of which were written as stand-alone pieces that I had submitted to journals and contests. When I was figuring out how to put them all together, I came across information about the three-act structure. I bought a couple of writing books that were more screenplay-oriented. When I read them, that was really a breakthrough moment. My story doesn’t fit neatly into the three-act formula, but I did use it as a loose organizational structure.

I’m interested in your persona in the book as the storyteller who clearly exists beyond the action, in the writer’s “now,” yet who allows the character of you “then” her moments. Was this a natural impulse or did you have to work out where you stood as the narrator?

I hear a lot about this in writing books, writing classes, etc. But to be honest, I didn’t know a lot about narrator perspective as I was writing the book. I guess I wrote in a way that felt natural to me. In the process of revising and getting feedback, readers helped me refine the perspective. But it was not anything I planned out before I wrote—“OK, what perspective do I use here? The now-perspective? The then-perspective?” That would have made me feel that I was overthinking things and the result may have been stilted.

Your book’s tone, or maybe some would call it voice, is impressive, deftly balanced in terms of diction, mood, and the content of what’s being expressed; it feels both controlled, in terms of conscious intent, and pleasantly colloquial or natural, seemingly offhand. How did you work this out?

The “voice” question! 🙂 When I was in writing classes, discussion about voice drove me crazy, mostly because I had no idea what the teacher was talking about. Voice was always a nebulous, confusing, abstract topic. I didn’t know what my voice was or how to achieve a voice. After a while, I gave up trying to define it. When discussion would come back to voice or when I would read about voice in a writing book, I tuned out because I would get frustrated. I stopped thinking about it and just wrote.

My answer here relates to the one above. I wrote in a manner that felt natural to me. When I reread something that I had written, if it sounded strange or clunky or inappropriate to the topic, then I revised. I could flag some of that, and my friends who had read my drafts flagged some of it, too.

Both of these questions together make me realize that maybe there’s something to be said for not knowing too much about craft, at least in the beginning stages of writing. If I had taken a lot of writing classes and really studied things like narrator’s perspective and voice, I probably would have become mired down in those details just because that’s my personality. I’m sure studying craft deeply helps a lot of writers, but I think it probably would have just made me more anxious during the writing process.

We all have favorite memoirs, but do you have favorites that taught you moves you needed for your own memoir essays?

 You and I have talked about this one before, Richard—Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home was a major influence upon my writing. I bought it when in came out in 2006, mostly because I was interested in the fact that she spent part of her childhood in a funeral home. I was blown away upon my initial reading and read it probably eight more times over the years. My copy is marked up and I spent weeks poring over it and writing down a map of its narrative flow. I haven’t come across a more perfect example of memoir both structurally and also in terms of inner/outer story. She also is simply a brilliant, smart writer, but her intelligence doesn’t come across as fake.

A couple of Midwestern-based memoirs also were influential. My dear friend Nicole Helget—also based in Mankato—wrote a beautiful, lyrical memoir, The Summer of Ordinary Ways, in 2006. Her story takes place in a town not far from where I grew up, so her memories of growing up in a rural area where a certain darkness permeated lives was very familiar. In terms of pure literary style, very few people do it better than Nicole.

I also enjoy Debra Marquart’s A Horizontal World, a story about growing up as a farmer’s daughter in North Dakota. As I was writing my memoir, I was curious as to how people wrote about rural places in a way that can be engaging to all readers. I have always been concerned that my story may be too “regional,” and I wanted to see what it was that made a writer break out of those confines and how he/she was able to tap into a larger story, even though the root of the story was Midwestern.

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Filed under Author Interview, essay-narrative, journalism, memoir, MFA, REVIEW, structure, teaching, education

Around the web

Richard Russo on his new memoir, Elsewhere.

For some reason, I put in a standing order a long time ago for Richard Russo’s Elsewhere: A Memoir, and now here it sits on my coffee table, a book, it turns out, about his close but conflicted relationship with his mother. Maybe I was eager because I enjoyed Empire Falls, or maybe I was curious at the time about what an acclaimed novelist would do in his first work of nonfiction.

Anyway, it was ages ago that I committed to this book, and I’ve read so many memoirs since, increasingly ones checked out from the library. I’ve realized they’re like novels—you can’t keep up, can’t read them all; I only bought Cheryl Strayed’s Wild after reading a library copy—but here on my table, for some reason, is this one, a handsome book.

In conjunction’s with his memoir’s release Russo has given an interview to The New York Times in which he says several interesting things, including this on the role in memoir of selection and dramatization in scene:

I think the best memoirs read like novels, which means, among other things, that the writer must decide what fits the narrative arc and what doesn’t. The fact that something actually happened doesn’t mean it should be included. A memoirist isn’t free to invent, but the shape of the story is up to him. He decides—as in a novel—how and where the story begins (near the end, in this case). He also chooses, just as a novelist does, when to summarize and when time should slow down for a dramatic scene.


Memoirist Elizabeth Gilbert on being a lifelong writer

My work is incredibly important to me personally. It brings me joy and it brings me life and it brings me meaning. It doesn’t necessarily have to be important to the people who read it. It would be nice if it did bring them life and meaning, but it doesn’t have to. It’s not their fault that I wanted to be a writer. —Elizabeth Gilbert, in her Rumpus interview

Speaking of conflicted feelings, I had them about Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love—like a subset of other readers, for me its veiled calculation curdled some of the book’s pleasures—but admired her writing ability. I found inspiring her recent wide-ranging interview with Rachel Khong for The Rumpus.

She discusses her new historical hovel, her writerly girlhood, and her years, while learning to write fiction, of bartending and waitressing and her wasting time in “fucked-up emotional psychosexual dramas,” so that it’d take her almost a year to write one short story. A big breakthrough came with her GQ article, about a bar she worked at and where she’d set a short story, which led to the movie Coyote Ugly.

Gilbert (or Cousin Liz, as I call her—no relation) is really good on keeping going as a writer, and she answers her critics of Eat, Pray, Love and those of its follow-up, Committed. An excerpt:

It does get to me sometimes. Of course it does. Because writing is everything to me. Publishing wasn’t everything. Writing was everything. And I accidentally made this bestseller. It wasn’t my intention. And to be honest, it felt like a big risk for what I had of a career. Because prior to that point, if I was known at all, I was known as the tough-writing woman who was the only girl in the room. I quit my really good job at GQ to go traveling that year, and they couldn’t promise me that I could have that job back. I’d earned a certain amount of credibility that I knew I was endangering by speaking with such emotional candor. All the guys that I hung out with at GQ I was thinking about as I was writing Eat, Pray, Love. . . . It was a really emotionally honest attempt, and it was a really literarily honest attempt, too, as a book, and for every person who’s snarky about it, there are several thousand whose lives were altered by it, in ways that were very real, and when I meet those women and they tell me their stories and they tell me what that book did for them, or did to them, those stories are profoundly real, and they’re far more real than a gripe-y blogger. Of course the gripe-y blogger has a real life, as well. But I’ve met those women and I’ve spoken to them and I’ve seen this great opening this book gave them to start to consider questions in their own lives about what they deserve, and what they want, and what they want to seek. That’s a solace. . . .

It’s almost like Committed was the sacrificial book. I’m very fond of it and it’s very dear to me for that reason, because it went out into that aftermath and allowed itself to absorb all the disappointment and all the attacks from people who’d had years of frustration about how much they hated Eat, Pray, Love build up, and they needed to get it out on their blogs—it just took all of those slings and arrows. But then it was distracting everybody, and I got to go off and write a novel about 19th century botanical exploration! And so Committedpermitted me to write this book. I feel like that’s why you have to keep working, because you never know what your one project will open up for you, for your next one. You owe it to the project that wants to be born next to get this one finished, so that you can do the next one. You just have to keep the assembly line going. I know I make it sound like it’s always been a ball, but it hasn’t always been a pleasure. Sometimes it’s been painful. But it’s mostly been a pleasure.

 

The definitive account of the fall of Jonah Lehrer

. . . Jonah Lehrer is known as a fabricator, a plagiarist, a reckless recycler. He’s cut-and-pasted not just his own stories but at least one from another journalist; he’s invented or conflated quotes; and he’s reproduced big errors even after sources pointed them out.—Boris Kachka, New York magazine

Kachka’s rather amazing New York article,Proust Wasn’t a Neuroscientist. Neither was Jonah Lehrer” is about how Lehrer, whose unraveling began when some obsessives noticed he’d made up some quotes by Bob Dylan for his book on creativity, Imagine, represents the end stage of a new evolutionary beast:

In the world of magazines, of course, none of us is immune to slickness or oversimplification—New York included. But two things make Lehrer’s glibness especially problematic, and especially representative. First, conferences and corporate speaking gigs have helped replace the ­journalist-as-translator with the journalist-as-sage; in a magazine profile, the scientist stands out, but in a TED talk, the speaker does. And second, the scientific fields that are the most exciting to today’s writers—neuroscience, evolutionary biology, behavioral economics—are fashionable despite, or perhaps because of, their newness, which makes breakthrough findings both thrilling and unreliable. In these fields, in which shiny new insights so rarely pan out, every popularizer must be, almost by definition, a huckster. When science doesn’t give us the answers we want, we find someone who will.

The contrast between Elizabeth Gilbert’s slogging apprenticeship as a writer and Lehrer’s as a science journalist is striking. He’d studied to be a scientist, apparently, or at least majored in neuroscience at Columbia, and then won a Rhodes Scholarship and wrote a book. At some point, he saw he could translate science to a big audience. Just as Malcolm Gladwell raids social science, he could plunder the harder stuff.

But as Kachka points out, no one, not even a genius, let alone the merely brilliant, could do everything Lehrer was trying to do as a leading practitioner of  “this new guard of nonspecialist Insight peddlers.”

 

The almost-definitive account of David Foster Wallace & his demons

David Foster Wallace’s suicide was the greatest literary tragedy since John Berryman flung himself from a Minneapolis bridge in 1972. The pain of mental illness and drug addiction constituted a frightful part of who he was. Out of that pain and his efforts to purify and to heal himself he wrote one of the most remarkable novels of our time. To say it reaches the heights of Joyce or Dostoevsky is going too far, but it will stand, and it has something crucial to teach generations of readers about how to live, even with terrible pain they might think they cannot endure.—Algis Valiunas, “King of Pain”

I say almost because it will never end. Obviously.

But Algis Valiunas’s “King of Pain,” for the website of the Claremont Institute, while another baby-whale retrospective on the late writer, is impressive and interesting; it addresses what kind of person he was, his long but productive apprenticeship, his moral vision, his mature writing and especially Infinite Jest, and the depression that killed him.

For anyone with any interest in Wallace as a fiction writer, essayist, and journalist, it’s well worth reading.

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Filed under Author Interview, fiction, honesty, journalism, memoir, NOTED, scene

Q&A: Aldrich on order & randomness

Marcia Aldrich reflects on her Companion to An Untold Story.

On her book trailer, Aldrich reads from “what was mine to tell.” After my recent review of her memoir, she gave the e-mail interview below to Narrative:

How did you decide upon the “companion” form for your memoir?

A prior version of the book was organized chronologically and told a fuller, more conventional story about Joel. There was, for example, a much longer discussion of his relationship with his brother. At one point I thought I was writing a literary biography of a suicide under the mistaken assumption that if I put together a biography it would provide me with answers as to why he killed himself and what my role in his story was. But each account led me farther away from my subject. This earlier form implied that I had confidently grasped Joel’s life and death, whereas I was haunted by questions. What I discovered at nearly every turn was an inexplicable gap between the gifted man I knew and the man who suffered so many disappointments. Why do some people with modest gifts succeed, while others blessed with ability struggle to survive? Why can you help one person, while another person turns away your help? There are mysteries in this life, and I needed to find a form that allowed me to reveal them in this man, a truer picture of the aftermath of his death, the little pieces that I tried to assemble. What was my experience, my role? I needed to find a way to puzzle through my own unruly and mixed feelings.

There is the story of Joel’s actions and there is the companion story of my actions in response to what his suicide set into motion.  These are not neat strands running in parallel formation, but narratives that cross, tangle, knot, and break.

This fragmentation and entanglement is reflected in the book’s form. It is modeled on an adult’s reference tool and guide to something already known called a “companion” (one of the books my friend gave us, for example, is the Oxford Companion to English Literature). The alphabetical approach imposes a kind of order, but an order that contains randomness within it, an order that undoes order. One thing I have learned is that suicide imposes a narrative on a life. The alphabetical form goes some way in counteracting that narrative inevitability. It is the reader’s task to assemble a story by means of the elements provided in my companion to it. I have also chosen the “companion” form to imply that the story it accompanies has weight, and the subject merits the treatment I give it, as much as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman insists that his subject’s death is worth presentation as a tragedy.

You resist filling in all the blanks, letting some facts emerge but making no attempt at a complete narrative or exhaustive portrait. Was this decision hard to keep to, or natural for you?

What was hard was composing the early versions of the book in which I attempted an exhaustive account of Joel’s life, writing against the grain of what was essentially characterized by gaps, holes, incompleteness. My initial approach was at odds with the shape of Joel’s life. Once I found the right structure and realized what was mine to tell, everything got much easier.

How did you decide what got what treatment, a sentence instead of a page?

In some cases an aphorism came to me that struck a strong spark and seemed complete. Sometimes I worked against what I thought would be the reader’s expectation of a long discussion. Although in my remarks here I’ve emphasized the incompleteness of the story, the reader does need some background to make sense of things, and in some cases the material needed a longer, narrative form—for example, Joel’s history as a student. The fact that I had done the labor of producing a more complete book allowed me the freedom to carve a more nuanced and surprising book out of the material.

I also wanted uncertainty, a variety of tones and lengths, to keep the reader’s ears pricked.

Did you wonder as you worked what Joel would make of your efforts to depict his life, his death, and your relationship?

Over a period of months Joel gave away or disposed of everything he owned. His apartment was empty when he died. I interpret his behavior to mean that he didn’t want to leave any record of himself behind. On that point I am defying his last wishes. I refuse to erase Joel from the records of the living, from love’s ledger, as I put in the Companion. We may not be able to save people from disaster, but we can remember and honor them—that is the intention behind my writing.

I hope he would not say, were he to look over the book, that I’ve badly misrepresented him.

What did you learn in the writing process?

That writing isn’t emotionally cathartic! At least, I’m not a great success story for the therapeutic model. I can still go to pieces talking about Joel’s death. Recording the voice-over for the book trailer was pure misery. I was stepping back into the tangled mess of my emotions once again. I’ve learned that you don’t get to the end of any powerful experience and are done with it. Part of the reason I employed a system of cross reference in the book—a forward sweep that is simultaneously looping backwards, is to suggest there’s always another ripple in this dying business, in this business of feeling.  Thus, even the final entry returns the reader back to the beginning through its cross references.

I have, nonetheless, over the years achieved a measure of acceptance, even admiration, of what Joel did.

What works inspired you?

Marcia Aldrich’s “holy book”

In writing I found myself returning to my modernist training. I thought about the great quoting poems of modernism: T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Ezra Pound’s Cantos, Hart Crane’s The Bridge, and Marianne Moore. Samuel Beckett is never far from my mind. I read Krapp’s Last Tape every year.

Closer to my time and within the field of memoir I have learned from Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude and D. J. Waldie’s Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir—a holy book to me.

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Filed under Author Interview, memoir, modernism/postmodernism, structure

Ray Bradbury on Shakespeare

How long he stood he did not know, but there was a foolish and yet delicious sense of knowing himself as an animal come from the forest, drawn by the fire. He was a thing of brush and liquid eye, of fur and muzzle and hoof, he was a thing of horn and blood that would smell like autumn if you bled it out on the ground. He stood a long long time, listening to the warm crackle of the flames.

—Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury’s work transcended genre, as shown in the above lyrical passage from his classic tale of a dystopian future in which books are banned and burned. He was a great poet in all senses of the word because he was a genius, because he was original. And he was original because what underlay his science fiction—its origin—was the best literature. As a boy he was transfixed by The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. But he especially credited Shakespeare and the Bible for providing the metaphorical underpinnings of his visionary prose.

At least that’s what he told Terry Gross in a 1988 interview. Gross asked him how he got to write the screenplay for John Huston’s version of Moby-Dick, which he hadn’t read at the time:

Ray Bradbury’s photo by Steve Castillo/AP

By staying true to my own sense of the poetic. Again, here’s the influence of Shakespeare on my life, the influence of the Bible, which I was raised on. And by staying true to my own sense of poetry and my love of metaphor, which you learn from the Old Testament and the New Testament and you learn from Shakespeare. To speak in tongues, which are so vivid that people will remember the metaphor. And also by staying in love with dinosaurs. I fell in love with dinosaurs when I was five. I was walking along the shore with my wife one night down in Venice, California, this was 1949, and we found the ruins of the old Venice pier, all the bones and the skeleton, the tracks and the ties of the roller coaster, lying there in the sea. And I turned to my wife and I said, “I wonder what that dinosaur is doing lying here on the shore.” She was very careful not to answer. And three nights later I heard something in the middle of the night, I sat up in bed, looked at all the fog out beyond the window, and way out in Santa Monica Bay I heard the braying, the calling, the oconing of the foghorn. Over and over and over again. I said, “Yes that’s it.” The dinosaur heard the foghorn blowing, thought it was another dinosaur calling from a billion years of slumber and swam for an encounter, discovered it was only a damned lighthouse and a damned foghorn, tore the whole thing down and died of a broken heart on the beach. I got out of bed the next day and wrote “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” sent it to the Saturday Evening Post. It was published.

John Huston read that one story, and that changed my life forever, because he thought he smelled the ghost of Melville in that story. What he smelled in it was the ghost of Shakespeare and the ghost of the Bible, huh? And so he called me on the phone and offered me the job and a year later when I was working on the screenplay one night I said, “John, how did I get this job? You know, everyone thought you were crazy.” He said, “Well, I read that story about the dinosaur.” And I said, “Well, I was very honest with you. I told you when I met you, I had never read Melville.” But once I got into Melville, I discovered he had been inspired by the same people who inspired me. So we were twins. He had been called upon by Shakespeare to cough up the white whale.

Bradbury, who never learned to drive a car, wrote about 1,000 words a day on an electric typewriter. He hated negative people, negativity—for all his warnings and dark imaginings, he believed in our species, in its potential and in its latent greatness.

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Filed under Author Interview, fiction, metaphor, NOTED, symbolism, working method

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

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

Review/Q&A: Alethea Black on ‘Lovely,’ faith & fiction, essays & cutting to bone

Clouds over Melbourne Beach, Florida

I can only speak for myself, but there’s something about writing at night that feels . . . sneaky. There’s an outlaw quality to it, combined, oddly enough, with a sense of being safe. It has an anaerobic, subterranean feel; it’s as if I’m working beneath the soil, toiling in secret, trying to cultivate something hidden and occult.—Alethea Black, “Essay to be Read at 3 a.m

 I Knew You’d Be Lovely by Alethea Black. Broadway Books, 238 pp.

I read Alethea Black’s short story collection I Knew You’d Be Lovely last January, at my sister’s beach condo in Florida, and again recently here in Ohio, parceling out a story a day to savor. These are funny, sexy, wise stories; some are sad, yet somehow they’re always hopeful.

Maybe my favorite story, perhaps partly because I read it first, on line at Narrative magazine, and imprinted on its tough beauty, is “The Only Way Out is Through.”  The story is about a man trying to help his angry, disturbed son by taking him on a camping trip. The boy is suicidal, too, it turns out, and their trip is one long crisis. The narrative features an unusual flash-forward, deftly handled, that’s as thrilling as it is surprising.

The story’s title comes from a poem by Robert Frost, “A Servant to Servants,” in North of Boston. The poem is narrated by a weary, depressed rural wife—terrified by the specter of madness in her family—who’s tending to upscale vacationers, lodged in cabins her husband built, and also feeding and cleaning after his coarse four-man road crew who board in their house.

Here’s the passage from Frost’s poem:

By good rights I ought not to have so much

Put on me, but there seems no other way.

Len says one steady pull more ought to do it.

He says the best way out is always through.

And I agree to that, or in so far

As that I can see no way out but through—

Leastways for me and then they’ll be convinced.

A neat feature of I Knew You’d Be Lovely is that Black included Author’s Notes in the back on twelve of the thirteen stories, and says about “The Only Way Out is Through” that she had to put her head down and cry a couple times while writing it.

The story not so illuminated by commentary is “Someday is Today,” and it’s explained by the collection’s dedication, in memory of Black’s brother in law and to her widowed sister and their four daughters. Black might have written the story as an essay (see her essay about being a night-owl on the Narrative site), but her bent seems to turn to fiction, and this lyrical story, unbound by strict allegiance to whatever the literal facts, sustains a remarkable depth of feeling.

In “Someday is Today” an unnamed woman arrives to help in the wake of the death of her unnamed sister’s husband, and she struggles to comfort her sister and to care for the couple’s three young girls. Sorrow, the visiting woman-narrator says, has made the widow “a little girl again,” the girl she knew when they were growing up. But there’s new tension between them, partly because the single woman doesn’t know how to care for children and partly because she can’t share the depth of her sister’s grief. And also because she’s religious and her sister isn’t.

The sister’s overwhelming loss, her husband killed suddenly in his prime by a staph infection, comes during the couple’s massive house deconstruction:

     My sister has found some comfort in the widow boards on the Internet. One of them has a list of Ten Helpful Hints for Getting Through This Most Difficult Time in Your Life. Hint Number 7: Learn to Expect the Unexpected. “Expect to cry at odd times: At the sight of a couple holding hands, at the sound of the doorbell ringing.” The bit about the doorbell got to me. As if, somewhere in your psyche, some part of you thinks he’s come home—and then remembers. My sister doesn’t wait for the doorbell. After the girls are asleep, she walks the stone path to the empty house, lies down on the floor of what used to be her master bedroom, and wails. I hear her. I don’t join her; I don’t know how to join her. When the doctor delivered the final news, I put my hand against her back. “Don’t touch me,” she said quietly.

As the children’s mother keens, their wacky aunt teaches them words far beyond their abilities—orientation and omniscient; she buys them whatever they want at House of Pancakes, bounces with them on a trampoline, and endlessly re-watches with them The Sound of Music. Auntie tells them an age-inappropriate but very funny joke.

Despite her rapport and love for the girls, this sensitive woman balks when asked to agree to take them if her sister dies young like her husband. And though she’s allowed to talk to the children about God, when she reveals that she anointed her dying brother in law with blessed oil and said to him words by Annie Dillard (from Holy the Firm)—“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us . . . There never has been”—her sister is furious.

I realize I’ve picked the collection’s two heaviest stories to highlight. But the scenes here between the well-meaning aunt and her young nieces are tender and funny (which only makes the situation more heartbreaking), and the story is so perfect and suffused with such profound emotion that it is life-affirming and inspiring.

Alethea Black

Alethea Black, hard at work—maybe not: the sun is shining.

I Knew You’d Be Lovely, only nine months old, is already in its fourth edition. Black worked on the collection for many years, having committed only after college to writing, and the stories reflect this time investment in evidence of what Dillard once called the “richness of the years.” Yet they don’t feel overworked—quite the opposite. There are moments and snatches of conversation that are so real and apt that you just know Black pounced on them in real time.

Which isn’t to say they aren’t deeply imagined. Even when the outcome of a story is improbable, as when a beautiful young doctor leaves a party with a man she’s just met, possibly bound for bed, it is believable in part because you want to believe. Another of those stories is “Good in a Crisis,” about a young high school English teacher, who, questioning her calling, tracks down the cool high school teacher she’d had a crush on. “He sometimes had a little BO, she remembered, which Ginny’s adolescent self had found oddly sexy. Mainly, though, he had the peculiar beauty of a person in love with what he does.”

I say improbable, but it’s not that—unlikely?—no, not that either: some events are just unusual, while falling within the range of human possibility. As in the collection’s title story, in which a lovely woman wangles a ménage a trois for her boyfriend, as his birthday present, with herself and the lovely woman he may already be having an emotional affair with.

These stories are all really about love, I guess, and anyone who has been there knows that love is transcendent: earthbound rules don’t fully apply. Many of Black’s characters are young, college-age to about ten years out, and they’re lucky people, the type who were enrolled in gifted and talented classes in grade school, who were slotted into AP classes in high school, and then shuttled off to the Ivy League. Take the top three percent of that group, for wit and overall brilliance, and you have the general demographic.

I don’t mean this as a criticism—quite the opposite. There are so many tales of mere sorrow, ordinary angst, and the seedy underbelly.  I Knew You’d Be Lovely offers wit, humor, and artistry that cast a hopeful morning light on life’s turning points and its tragedies.

Alethea Black answered some questions for Narrative:

I’ve read that you decided you wanted to be a writer two years after you graduated from Harvard College. What was your major? Do you wish you’d majored in something different now that you are a writer?

I was a literature major, but I opted out of writing a thesis in the end, and received my degree in General Studies. I was not at all on my game in college, and spent a lot of time sleeping. I thought the desire to write was completely dormant in those days, but one of my suitemates recently said that I told her I wanted to be a writer, so I guess it was there even then. I don’t wish I’d chosen a different major; I don’t think I could be anything other than a writer.

I Knew You’d Be Lovely took you a decade and a half from start to publication. What was the most important thing you learned about writing during that time?

It’s true, this book was a 15-year pregnancy. I think the most important thing I’ve learned is the power of economy—never say with twenty words what you can say with two. When I look at early drafts of my work, the thing I notice most is how unnecessary some sentences are.

To ask a dumb question: why does writing a book commonly take so long? Or, more precisely, why do some of your stories take so long—what happens in that time, those years, that makes them at last complete?

No such thing as a dumb question! I think writing often takes a long time because you’re learning how to do it as you go. (And of course you’re living your life and working your day job as you go, too.) As to how you know when a story is complete, that’s one of the great unanswerables. When I give readings from LOVELY, I still find words to cut. But I do think it’s fully itself. When the sculptor Alexander Calder was asked, “When do you know a sculpture of yours is finished?” he said, “When it’s time for dinner.”

You’ve published poetry and essays but fiction has been your focus. Do you think the habits of art that fiction cultivates are different than for nonfiction? For instance, your story “Someday is Today,” based on your brother in law’s death, could have been a lovely, resonant essay instead of a lovely, resonant story.

I’ve come to think that fiction and nonfiction are more alike than I ever used to realize. When I wrote “Essay to be read at 3 a.m.” for Narrative magazine, I kept being surprised by how much fun it was. I had no idea that nonfiction could be every bit as inventive and lyrical and mysterious as fiction. You’re bound by facts, but you’re still free; in fact sometimes it’s the limitations that liberate you.

What are you reading these days and how does your reading affect your writing?

I’m a very slow reader and I’m always reading about ten different things at once. I love the New Yorker cartoon where the man is pointing at his bookshelves and saying: “On the left are the ones I haven’t finished, and on the right are the ones I haven’t started.” On my nightstand right now are A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson; The Human Line by Ellen Bass; Corpus Christi by Bret Anthony Johnston; The Stormchasers by Jenna Blum; Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov; and a guidebook called Just Enough Italian. I sometimes give myself a moratorium on buying any new books until I finish the ones I own, but I never stick to it.

You mention your religious faith on your website. Do people react differently to you or to your stories if they know you are religious? Faith in any kind of God isn’t very popular these days.

Faith isn’t fashionable, no. But what a small thing life would be if my goal were to fit in. I don’t know if my religious beliefs (I’m a progressive Catholic) influence the way people respond to my stories, but they do seem interested in that side of things when I give readings. I’m always happy to answer their questions because it’s as strange to me as it is to anyone; if you’d told me fifteen years ago that I’d now be someone who talks openly about Jesus, I would have fallen off my chair laughing. Before my book came out, a friend advised me to take the “God” tab off my website because it would hurt my career. But I have to say, whenever I’m on an airplane in turbulence and I feel like the end is near, I’m always glad I spoke openly about what I believe. Faith has brought me so much joy; it would feel selfish to keep quiet about it.

You’ve said you put your “own MFA” equivalent program together. Could you elaborate on what you did and what you learned?

My home-school MFA? I read a lot of books about writing, such as Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer; Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird; Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write; Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way; and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. I learned so much from Natalie Goldberg that I thank her in my Acknowledgments.

Through many hours of revising, I learned that if there’s a section of your story that depresses you to look at, you should cut it. If there’s a word that feels fancy or a character’s action that feels forced, cut. If there’s a paragraph where you can feel how hard you’re trying, cut. Cut anything that feels writerly or show-offy or self-conscious. Cut anything that doesn’t keep the ball moving. That really great metaphor that does nothing to advance your story? Cut.

If you have doubts about something, more often than not it should go. If it was really meant to be there, it will suggest itself anew when you look at your story with fresh eyes, perhaps after you’ve let it rest for a month. I always assume that my reader is smarter, wittier, and a better dresser than I am, and I don’t want to bore him. My cardinal rule is to keep things interesting or call it a day.

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Filed under Author Interview, Dillard—Saint Annie, fiction, MFA, poetry, religion & spirituality, REVIEW, revision, teaching, education