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Interview with Clinton Crockett Peters

by Tyler Parsons and Candice Boren

Inscape: In one of your essays, you talk about your time in Europe and how you tended to make detailed plans earlier in your life. I know the essay genre doesn’t really go with plans necessarily. So how did you balance that: your need to make plans with writing in a genre that avoids making specific plans?

Clinton Crockett Peters: One of the key things about writing, for me, is spontaneity. I have to have a natural curiosity about my material. I really need the freedom to diverge and do something unexpected. It is a weird thing that you kind of have to schedule or make space for this creative chaos.

 At some point I started including the publication process as part of my creative process and that was a weird melding of impulses because for me to create is more chaotic and almost instinctive whereas to publish is mathematical. Here’s this place, we accept this number of submissions. I feel like pushing for publication balanced me out a bit.

 In life, spontaneity is a little harder. Especially if you want to be in a position where you can be doing the things you love and be financially sustained. I don’t know if you guys are worried about the job market or if you need to worry about that yet. If you want to do what I do, which is teach college, you have to really love learning and writing. And you have to really, really have the credentials. By credentials I mean publications and experience, and even then it’s just luck. 

I tried working sales for about seven months, and I couldn’t do it. I would bring books to work and they’re like, what are you doing here? Reading on my break was weird. They were frightened. I don’t know what that was about. Dude, I’m clocked out. It’s my free time. Why can’t I read a novel, like what? But now you’ve freaked them out, and they just don’t like it. Weird. I couldn’t succeed as a writer in that environment. Some people do. Some people work all kinds of jobs and write on the side. Whatever works, but for me I knew that that wasn’t going to be a healthy way to do all the things I wanted to do.

School is actually a really great place to write. You’re in this space where yeah, there are assignments and due dates and deadlines, but there are also a bunch of people who are reaffirming the importance of what you’re doing. So that can actually really help create that space to do that. For me, getting an MFA was super pivotal, and then I got a PhD in creative writing which is an extra commitment and not everyone wants to take those extra years.

If you do it right, though, you can get funding and get paid to teach and take creative classes. It’s not much money, but at least it’s a job. Some kind of structure, but still enough freedom and space and people giving you ideas and reaffirming what it is you’ve been doing which I find very validating.

Inscape: Do you ever intentionally plan experiences you want to have?

CCP: Oh yeah. I do some—like you mean do I plan out an experience in order to write about it?

Inscape: Yeah. Like, I’m going to China and that’s going to be so cool so I’m going to do this and this and this.

CCP: You should keep a journal every day. You might not use any of the things you wrote. Like when I was in Japan, I kept a journal irregularly. I look back and most of it was pretty bad—I didn’t really use most of it—but I’m still glad I did it. The details stay.

Yeah, so I don’t plan events as intentionally as I think I used to. But every now and then I do. Like I went down to Tallahassee to look at some Florida panthers, and I was doing it so I could write about it. At Berry College, where I teach right now, there are bald eagles that nest on campus, and the school set up a bald eagle camp that got really popular. Now bald eagle enthusiasts hang out by the eagles and spy on them, so they have like their own little cult culture. They’re batty, but  I’m into it also. So I said, I’m going to go hang out with them with the intention of writing about it. I always try to look for where there is tension and where there is energy. I don’t go to parks thinking I’m going to write about this because I don’t feel like there’s tension or energy. But these eagle people are batty and combative, and they have a weird relationship with the school itself. There are some politics involved, which is great. If you have environmentalists and then freedom-loving, good ole boys, treasuring the eagle as the US symbol come together, then what’s that like? I just want to see. I want to see the sparks fly a little bit. It’s kind of like watching a boxing match. There’s going to be tension there. They represent different sides of the equation, so I can maybe get some cool meaning or metaphor there.

I feel like I’m not as good about doing random stuff as I used to be. I’m a dad now. I have a full-time job, and my wife doesn’t let me travel—I’m kidding, but it just doesn’t happen as much as it used to. When I was doing my master’s though, I kind of was too hardcore. I flew to Asheville, North Carolina to see the Biltmore Estate, and I didn’t end up writing about it because there just wasn’t enough tension. Oh it’s a big rich house. Then what? What do I do next? So that was a waste of a thousand dollars right there. I kind of got burned a little bit on that, so now I try to reign myself in. 

But I guess if you do have the chance to do something weird, do it. Yeah, do it. Do weird things. 

Inscape: You mentioned earlier that it’s tough to sustain yourself as a writer financially. In creative writing you want to do things that speak to you, but if you’re trying to get published, you might want to look more at what would sell. So how do you balance writing what most interests you with writing what will help you succeed?

CCP: That’s a great question. Again, every person is different, and I’ve gotten all kinds of advice. Some people will say don’t worry about trends. Don’t worry about marketability because when you do, you won’t write as well and trends change—which is very true. To write for a trend might not matter in a few years. Other people will say to at least be aware of the market. I try to be a little bit aware of the market because I feel like I have all this creative energy and maybe I just need a little bit of direction. Not a massive directional push but a little one.

 I will say this: I didn’t start publishing hardcore until I started reading the publications I wanted to get into hardcore. That was actually a huge help. I also think working for one is a big deal because you see all the people who submit. I’m an editor at Pleiades. We see some good writing, but there’s also a lot of really not so good writing. Compared to some of this stuff, I know what I’m doing, so I don’t feel so bad now. Sometimes people are great writers, but they’ll just poop something out and send it off. I’ve done that. I look back at some of the essays I’ve submitted, and I’m like, Oh God, that’s awful. So reading journals has helped me because it’s a financial incentive and gives me a sense of the conversation that I’m taking part in. Another thing I am very aware of as an editor—and maybe you guys can agree with this—is how important openings are. I mean, if you’re not grabbing someone pretty quickly, the writing becomes onerous, so you really want to hit them hard initially. 

I know that might reduce the space in journals for writing that is a slow burn; I acknowledge that. But as an editor, I reject things pretty quickly now, within a couple sentences. I don’t even care. It’s like, I see where this is going, done. I don’t feel bad anymore because if it’s good enough and they’re committed to it, they’ll publish it somewhere else. Rejection isn’t going to hurt them very much.

 Inscape: In “Rejection as Sustenance” you write that you eventually became okay with rejection, and it actually fueled you. What’s that like? I’m still in the state where if I get rejected, my life has ended.

 CCP: It’s great because it just means I’m doing my job. Every time I get rejected, it’s like, Okay, good job, Dude. In that essay, I mentioned the rejection party some grad student friends had with me. That was actually pretty pivotal. When I was getting my PhD, we decided that we were going to count who would get the most rejections, and whoever got the most rejections got a free party, free food and everyone else had to cook. That was great. It was like you wanted to win. It really helped change my mind away from, Oh rejections are horrible, you know? I came in second by the way.  

Now when I get a rejection, I know that’s when it’s time to send another thing out. And that automatically makes me feel better. I’m like, Okay, another rejection. Boom, I’ll send something else out again. It’s gambling. I mean, to an extent. I’ve definitely sent stuff out before it was ready. One hundred percent, I’ve done that. When I get a batch of rejections, I’ll go back and look at the piece again and work on it, tinker with it.

I remember when rejection hurt—so I get that—but it’s just like send it to someone else and then again. I’d rather get a rejection than nothing. I think it is actually worse when a journal doesn’t respond to you. I’d rather get a hard no. Also as an editor, I realized how unpersonal rejections are now because I don’t even tend to look at authors when I read through the slush pile, right? So that has really helped me understand that they’re not going to remember me.

 I don’t know about you, but I also think fiction is harder to place than nonfiction. Or maybe it’s because I’m better at nonfiction.

 Inscape: But you do write fiction. What inspires you to write a short story as opposed to an essay?

 CCP: In my own trajectory, I think fiction is my first love. I read a lot of fiction as a kid, and when I was in junior high, I fell in love with Stephen King. I think I read 51 of his books. I counted one day. But he’s got like 5000 books, right? So that was a small number. I really liked his raw power of imagination. I loved how he captured me with his scene setting and characters. There’s a power in that. Then there’s John Gardner. He creates a dream for the reader, and I love that. I love how fiction creates that dream, you know? But even though you’re inside a dream, fiction also comments on where you’re at now. But it’s removed, so it feels like a safer place and you can touch it. 

The problem with fiction is that too much is possible. Everything is possible. It’s like, Well why don’t birds start talking? and Why isn’t there a Roman army coming? Everything is open which made writing fiction hard for me. Whereas with nonfiction, I can reduce it to specific parameters. I can use building blocks straight from the world in order to assemble a collage. So the world gives me the clay. In fiction, you have to make the clay first, right? So it felt easier to me. I still write fiction though. The fiction I’m really a fan of is the what ifs. Like you have a normal situation, but what if this happened?

 Inscape: I was wondering because you mentioned the Florida panthers and Godzilla movies, do you feel like you are drawn to predators and other dangerous beings? 

 CCP: For sure. I have a high interest in monsters, mostly because we, as humans, like monsters. It makes no sense. Why do we make monster movies? Why do we make stories about things that want to destroy us? Also, look at all of our mascots. I wrote this other essay called “Becoming Mascot.” It’s about college mascots and how so many of them are predators. What’s up with that? Why do we choose mascots from things that could harm us? Well, at UC Santa Cruz, their mascot is the banana slug, but that’s the exception to the rule.

 Why do we like both real and imaginary monsters? David Quammen explains in his book, which I quote in the Godzilla essay, that it actually feels weird for us to not have things around that might eat us. That was once normal in human history, and now it’s not. So we feel weird without the feeling of danger. I think that’s an awesome theory. Who knows?

 Inscape: We create that opposition. 

CCP: Exactly. Creating the opposition. Because most of us don’t have predators around us that can kill us. I don’t want to say all humans; some people still live like that. 

 You have got to read Quammen’s book Monster of God, if you like nature stuff. He has profiles of predators and people who live around them. It’s funny though because, for people who actually live around wild creatures, it’s just an everyday thing. There are people who walk among lions like it’s normal. Or today a leopard got in their house, and it’s nonchalant. And that actually made me realize, we’re surrounded by metallic predators, right now. These things could eat us alive, every single one of them. I walked down the street today, and one second of bad behavior and I could have been done. Like, doneskies, you know? It’s just so funny.

Inscape: Do you feel like there are any similarities between the writing process and raising a child?

CCP: Oh, good question, yeah. Patience is key, and I’m not a very patient person. I wish I was. My wife is a lot more patient than I am. Patience and a little flexibility. It’s like the writing process, I try not to beat myself over the head if I get stuck on something or if I want to change projects, as long as I keep the momentum going. I feel like with raising my daughter I just try to be flexible. Like this thing that always worked is no longer working: Oh, we just bought these giant Legos and now she doesn’t like them. Okay fine. Let’s go for a hike. Oh she doesn’t like to hike. Let’s go . . . You know what I mean?

 I ask myself, Why? This was your favorite thing. She’ll beg me to bake banana bread. Then I do, and she doesn’t eat it. So it’s like drafting. Not everything’s going to be—well—nothing’s going to be right the first time. Everything takes multiple drafts.

Inscape: How does your wife feel about your writing? 

CCP: Oh man, she’s been great. That’s actually been key because some partners, spouses, they don’t support your work, and that’s like a death sentence. 

My wife does not write. She grew up in a very blue-collar family, and it wasn’t a thing for them to write. She didn’t even remember reading much as a child. It just wasn’t a thing. Having said all that, she’s very supportive. Very cool. But I can easily see her not being that way. It’s not like my writing has been making a lot of money until now. I spent three years in a Master’s program and five years in a PhD, and she was with me through all of that while her friends had spouses who were working jobs and making money. She’s been very cool. Very, very cool. She does like my writing, but I don’t expect her to read it. She doesn’t read all my writing, and that doesn’t hurt me.

Inscape: It’s so crucial to have support, and it’s all right that she doesn’t read everything.  My dad’s a surgeon, and we don’t watch his surgeries.

 CCP: Right, exactly. In fact, that’s probably more normal, right? I don’t know what my wife does when she goes to work. We share things, but work is a separate deal. My dad’s family was not cool with him doing anything besides making money, so he wasn’t able to become a writer until he was about fifty, when he became a sports writer. I’m just glad that my family was supportive. I got very lucky. Their only rule was get good grades in high school and in college.

 Inscape: In my creative writing class, we’ve been reading and writing about difficult experiences. I know you have an essay where you talk about your dad. What did you do to get to a level where you could write about these painful experiences?

CCP: Time helps obviously. It was easier to write about my dad after he was dead than before. Actually, I did write an essay about him, and I set it on the counter—not for him to see, but because I was taking it to workshop. He picked it up and read it. That was awful. He was crushed. I was a little brutal in that essay because it was an early practice. I think that actually kind of traumatized me from writing about him until after he died.

So again, time. Distance. I think any kind of distance is good. I don’t know if you like Hemingway. He said he couldn’t write about Michigan in Michigan. He needed Paris. Then he couldn’t write about Paris until he was in . . . you know what I mean? I feel like there’s something in that. The real kicker for me was that the “I” that’s on the page is a character. The material is nonfiction, but I think of the material as if it were fiction. Turn the “I”—the narrator—into a persona because you’ll never get your entire personality or anyone’s on the page. All you can do is create sentences and words and stories and essays that just move people. That’s all you can do. You get an approximation. My emotions are so complex that I don’t even understand them all. I can put enough down that the reader feels satisfied, you know what I mean? And when I realized that, it was liberating—that I don’t have to put all of me down.

So there’s this guy who read all of Montaigne’s essays, like I watched all of Godzilla’s movies, and he wrote about it. That was his thing, his persona. They call it the invented “I.” Different “I’s” get written for different subjects. That helped a lot.

The other thing is my family doesn’t really read my writing, so I’m safe. I still don’t ever want to write anything that’s a rant or a hit piece. I try to be fair, but if they can’t see that, then maybe that’s on them. You’re never going to encapsulate a person entirely on the page. Also, I just don’t tell them I wrote about them. 

I will say that not everyone agrees with me and instead chooses not to write about people that are close to them. I feel that’s fair if you are worried about it, and a lot of my students are worried about it. One thing I will say—and this I definitely believe in—is don’t worry about it at first. At first, get it down. Get a draft. Work it out. Show it to some writer friends. Then when you’re ready to publish, then sit back and ask, What am I actually afraid of? What’s going to hurt somebody? Maybe that’s the question to answer. What is the harm I will cause? If there is any, is that worth the art that I’m creating, or will that truth actually help someone?  

Inscape: You just said that if someone’s afraid of hurting others, then they shouldn’t write about people who are close to them. How do you balance that with the idea that you need to write?

CCP: Well there are different types of fear. You should be afraid of playing in traffic, right? I think you can be afraid of hurting people. I think that’s fine. But if the fear is more that you’re afraid of what you want to say or that you’re afraid of what you might find out or afraid that you won’t be able to handle the truth, then those fears might be worth mining. Your fear might be a personal hang up rather than something that is fearful to the rest of the world. So I guess it depends on the fear.

When you’re afraid of something, it’s worth thinking about because, again, there’s energy and tension. Ask yourself what’s the fear about? What’s causing it? I also look at other things like disgust. Why am I disgusted? What’s triggering that? That might be worth investigating. What other emotions can we recall? Like do you have anger? Can you investigate that? Will investigating these emotions say something about me and in turn hopefully the reader?

Inscape: Thank you so much; this was awesome.

CCP: Thanks guys.