Phillip Lopate was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1943, and received a BA from Columbia in 1964, and a doctorate from the Union Graduate School in 1979. Some of his most recent publications are Portrait Inside My Head and To Show and to Tell: the Craft of Literary Nonfiction. After working with children for twelve years as a writer in the schools, he taught creative writing at multiple schools and now the director of the nonfiction graduate program at Columbia University, where he also teaches writing.
INSCAPE: In your chapter “To Show and To Tell” in The Art of the Personal Essay, you talk about making yourself into a character. You also suggest having distance from yourself and to be both self-amused and self-curious. How can a learning writer come to achieve those things?
PHILLIP LOPATE: Well, you can keep a diary for one thing. And every time you get into a situation where you’re making the same mistake over and over again, you can take a step back and ask, “What’s going on here?” You could listen very carefully to people who criticize your character. But I think that the main way you can do it is by reading a lot and seeing how other writers do it and how they achieve some sense of irony and perspective toward themselves. I mean, you can go into psychotherapy. There are lots of ways to do it, but it is a lifelong discipline, how to see yourself somewhat dispassionately and not too defensively.
I: The other notion that I’ve picked up from reading some of the interviews you’ve done, as well as some of the introductions to your collections, is the idea of being friends with yourself in your writing. Is that similar to the process of being able to make yourself into a character?
L: Well, they’re all related. I do think that sometimes people get caught in a spiral of self-disgust or self-dislike, and perhaps their standards of perfection are too high; they just don’t understand that we’re all flawed or broken creatures. Initially, it’s important not to be too boastful or too cocky, but you do want to be able to not be too hard on yourself. That is so important. For me, I try to write well, and then I reach a point where I say, “Well this is good enough.” I’m not going to lie on the couch and beat my head against it because I’ve used the same word twice in two pages. I think it’s important to accept a certain amount of imperfection, and that’s one way of being friends with yourself.
I: Yes. That sounds like being a good writer, in some ways, is kind of like being sane, or mentally healthy.
L: Yes, very much so. Before you can be a good writer, you have to be a bad writer. You have to be willing to fall on you face, and you have to be willing to try things that don’t work out, and eventually you discover that you have certain ways of expressing yourself that seem to be working out. Sometimes writers, especially learning writers, get impatient with the things they do well, and they want to just try something different, and that’s understandable, but I do think that it’s important to pay very close attention to when you actually are writing well and try to bring that forward into your new innovations.
I: How can you tell when things are going well in your writing?
L: Usually other people respond well to your writing, but you yourself know. For instance, if you’re rewriting a piece over and over again, and there’s a certain passage that makes you chuckle, or that amuses you, or that moves you, or that you simply feel good about, you can build on that.
I: And that kind of becomes part of your relationship with yourself.
L: Exactly. In writing workshops, sometimes people get into the, “Give it to me, sock it to me, I can take criticism,” but they also have to be willing to listen to praise, what they’re good at, because that’s very important to build on.
I: You mentioned that you can tell when things are going well by how other people are responding to your writing. In the introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, you talk about the relationship between the writer, or the self that’s in the piece of writing, and the reader. At one point, you describe it as a contract, so what is that relationship like when things are going well?
L: There’s a real give and take—there’s dynamism. It’s not just a question of getting the reader to like you. Sometimes you can get the reader to question you or dislike you, and the writing is just as good. What you really want to do is to keep the reader stimulated. And one of the ways you do that is by internalizing the reader, so that you’re not just writing, but there’s a reader inside of you who’s saying, “Yes, okay, get on with it,” or, “You made that point already.” So when you begin to internalize the reader, then you can tweak the reader sometimes, or show that you’re aware that the reader is out there, and that becomes another kind of friendship. I do think that the personal essay is a very conversational form, so there’s more explicit contact between the writer and reader.
I: Shifting gears a little bit, I wanted to talk about some of the things that you wrote about being with students. There are these moments of closeness that you describe with certain students, like with the photograph poem. What do these moments and relationships do for the student?
L: Well, these moments and relationships, as with any instance of love or caring, are enriching. I do think that a lot of teaching occurs between the lines, or as an undercurrent, and it’s a feeling undercurrent, and it’s a sense of protectiveness and being understood. The student feels understood. I know for me, when I was growing up, there would occasionally be encounters with strangers who didn’t talk down to me as a child, but seemed to take me seriously as an individual, and they contributed to a sense of wholeness. Whenever you encounter somebody who pays you that respect, who takes you seriously, it really helps to crystalize your own sense of self. To put it simply, love, concern, engagement, or interest are some of the ways that you teach. And that can happen in the classroom, or it can happen one-on-one, and it’s as important for the teacher as it is for the student to get that kind of emotional current going.
I: What does that relationship or those moments do for the teacher?
L: There’s a sweetness to those relationships. I think because there has been such an emphasis recently on child abuse and sexual abuse, there’s a reluctance to acknowledge that there is a kind of erotic current that occurs between teacher and student, and the important thing is that it shouldn’t be acted upon literally, but it’s still there. It’s a current of feeling, and it keeps the teacher alive. The teacher’s not just communicating subject matter. And this was sort of recognized by the ancient Greeks. The connection between pedagogy and love was a strong one.
I: I’ve been reading a little bit about what you write about teaching, and your love for it, and I wondered if that was part of it.
L: Yes, I do really love to teach, and it has to do with the relationship with the students. As I get older, it’s important to stay in touch with the young minds too.
I: I have one last question that will tie back into what we were talking about at the beginning. It seems like there might be some connection between the relationship between teacher and student and learning writers’ relationships with their selves. What do you think that connection might be?
L: I think that when you’re learning to write, you split yourself off into several different selves or identities, and I think one of the first pieces of consciousness that you get as a writer is realizing that you have a divided self, that there may be a sense of wholeness in terms of your core, but that you know the closer you get to it, you realize that you are divided, and you start to get those different parts of yourself to talk to each other. One of the ways to overcome rigidity or self-righteousness is to recognize that you yourself are split, and whenever you advocate a position, you must listen to the other side of you that’s saying, “Yes, but . . . ” or, “There’s another way of looking at this.” Part of it has to do with thinking against yourself. If you can think against yourself, you can not only overcome your own rigidity, but you can empathize more with other people.
I: So maybe the teacher’s relationship with the student might aid in increasing that awareness.
L: Yes. The teachers may say that they like all the students equally, but that’s not true at all. There are the students who immediately click with them, and then there are these students who exhibit all kind of resistances, and that becomes an interesting challenge, how to get past some of these resistances. The resistances that exist in the teaching experience, in the pedagogy experience, are not that dissimilar from the resistances that the writer encounters on the page. As soon as I am assigned to write something, I am sometimes aware of resistances: “I don’t want to write this. Is this something that’s coming from me, or is it coming from the outside? Do I really have a connection to this?” In order for me to get on with the job, I have to start to analyze these resistances.
I: Excellent. Your insights are enlightening, and I appreciate the interview.