by Thomas Jenson
Patrick Madden is the author of three essay collections, Disparates (2020), Sublime Physick (2016), and Quotidiana (2010), and co-editor of After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays (2015). He curates www.quotidiana.org, co-edits the journal Fourth Genre with Joey Franklin, and, with David Lazar, co-edits the 21st Century Essays series at the Ohio State University Press. He has taught English at BYU since 2004.
Inscape: In your essay “Happiness,” your collaborator, Amy Leach, writes, “to have lived in such proximity to nothing, yet to have written a something, even a mini-something…maybe that is what it means, other disappointments notwithstanding, to enter into joy.” What are the disappointments of writing, and how have you personally overcome them to enter into joy?
Patrick Madden: Disappointment in writing can come if one is aspirational (and probably everyone is to some degree). Most people do not achieve the type of success they hope for. I’m lucky to live in a time and place where universities support artists—not just linguistic artists but visual and musical artists. Not too many of them though. There’s a lot more supply of willing and capable professors than there is demand for them. So ultimately I’ve been very lucky. And my books find a good but not a very large audience. It might be nice if more people knew about the books.
It’s beneficial for writers to be somewhat melancholic, empathetic. When you’re attuned to the way the world works or fails to work, then even if everything in your personal life is smooth sailing, you’ll still feel something–not to the same acute extent as a person suffering–when you witness suffering from others. That is also a kind of disappointment, the large-scale disappointments that everybody experiences. It doesn’t have to be unique to writers—I don’t think any of those things really are. But they do come up as part of the writer’s life.
I find that writing itself is a joy. This is not just me. I think most writers feel this. It often feels like an essay exists outside of me and I’m discovering it. I know this isn’t quite true, but it can just feel that way sometimes. The art of creation, plus the sense of discovery, is exhilarating. I tend to write outside myself, so I don’t just transfer what I already know or what has happened to me. I do a lot of research, and I love that kind of learning, too. And there’s some joy in sharing writing. One benefit of not having a broad audience in my writing is that people who read it tend to like it or at least be courteous enough to say they like it. So I don’t get any real negative feedback. It’s all good reviews.
Inscape: Do you feel like there’s less pressure because you have a smaller readership?
PM: Probably. I have published my books with the University of Nebraska Press. They’re academic and nonprofit. As long as they don’t lose money, they are happy to publish the next book. So it’s fairly low stakes for me. They have published three books of mine now, and I love working with them. I have friends who have published with big New York houses. They don’t quite own their work the way I do. The publisher owns it and needs to make money from it, so there’s a lot more interference. And if the book didn’t sell, the publisher cut their losses and took the book out of print. I never felt that kind of pressure. There’s a tiny bit of pressure because I want the book to sell well enough so they’ll let me do the next book. But it’s worked out so far. It’s more of a carrot than a stick.
Inscape: In the preface of Disparates you write, “what follows herein is unavoidably disparate, whether by design or failure or authorial inability to meet the market’s demands.” How does the commercial success of your work influence it?
PM: Almost not at all. I get paid to teach, not to write. Any money I make from writing is used to take the family out to dinner. It’s so pitifully small that it cannot be a goal. But that’s freeing too. It means I can write about anything I want, not necessarily something timely or topical or newsworthy. I don’t think I find readers on the level of my topics. I find readers because of the writing itself. And most readers I suspect know me personally or know somebody who knows me. There’s a little bit of word-of-mouth. My graduate-school mentor, David Lazar, has written a number of esoteric essay collections. His latest book is about supporting actors in Hollywood’s Golden Age. So it’s a topical book. I mean it may not have a huge audience, but at least there is a subject audience for the book: people who are interested in that time and in that place. So he can find an audience that doesn’t know David Lazar, that doesn’t know literary nonfiction, that just knows that they’re interested in the Golden Age of Hollywood. My books so far have had no subject audience available to them. Even the title of this latest book suggests that it’s about a whole lot of stuff. There’s nobody out there looking for a book about a whole lot of stuff.
Inscape: I thought it was cool how you had a lot of different subjects. I noticed that there was a scientific lens sometimes. Is that something you intend with your writing?
PM: Yes. Over almost half a century I’ve developed my interests, and science has been a longtime pursuit of mine. I think my writing style comes from an alchemy of something inherent in me and the intersection of the right thing at the right time or influences from peers, parents, and teachers. All these things have added up to me. I think the book is a pretty organic emanation from the person I have become over several decades of life. I will say, though, that I began graduate school with a more narrative-driven style. Through training with this professor I mentioned, David Lazar, I was convinced to love the more researched and idea-driven essay. Which I really took to, but I wasn’t aware of that interest before I confronted it in graduate school.
Inscape: The book almost reads like raw thinking, as if I were sitting next to you while you are discovering these essays. If that was the process, what did editing look like later? Does editing your work go against the philosophy of it?
PM: Not really. On the one hand, I’m a slow, methodical writer. I really try to work the sentences and get them into an artful shape as I go. I know writers who are very quick and who have to revise more heavily later on.
But the result wants to appear effortless. I don’t know any writer who can really put the recorder to their mind and let it run. An essay is an artful representation of the mind thinking, but it’s not a transcript of the mind thinking. I don’t know about your thoughts, but mine are far too scattered. Montaigne, who invented the essay, basically says that he was so easily distracted that he began writing to tame his mind. He was naturally curious and divagating, and maybe had a bit of attention deficit. But when he wrote, he focused his attention. Not in a systemic way, but in a way that still allowed for the play of the mind but kept it on some train. Not a linear argument type of train—never that—but a kind of meandering argument in a rhetorical sense. Revision is always a kind of tightening and threading. The essay wants to get to something interesting, resonant, emotionally charged. But usually I’ll write toward that and then realize, “OK, I got here to a good place. Now I need to make the ending inevitable.” Long ago I thought of this, but I later discovered that Aristotle had thought of it, too. The idea is that endings should be both surprising and inevitable. Maybe the first response is, “Wow, that’s new and interesting. I hadn’t considered that.” The second is a recognition that, “I see how we’ve been getting here all along.” But the composition of the prose typically, in my case at least, isn’t enough to generate that feeling of inevitability. So I’ll run back and use metaphorical language that relates to the final image or something, so that when you get there, you say, “Oh, penguins! I remember he was talking about the Arctic before.” That’s not a real example, but it could be.
Inscape: You talked a little earlier about the melancholic attitude that writers should have. I feel like that tone came through with your essay “Repast” because the form is creative and playful even though it’s dealing with a heavy subject. How do you see those two things working together, the form and the content?
PM: Sometimes we categorize emotions in too opposed or simplistic ways. We think happy or sad, good or bad. We think of them as opposites. If you were to think of play or humor, you’d associate that with some kind of positive emotion or experience. That’s fine. I think it does often work that way. But I don’t think that’s a requirement. I’m interested in the ways form and content fit together in an inherent way. And maybe inherent just means in a way that we’re used to. But I’m also interested in creating new connections. As if that’s the whole game of the essay: to create new connections that have never been made before and will be interesting to readers. In this case, with that particular essay, the process is a little bit backwards. I had read an essay in the form of a crossword puzzle. It was a piece called “Solving My Way to Grandma” by Laurie Easter (she’s a friend of mine). I decided I wanted to write a crossword puzzle essay, so I found an online tool to make crossword puzzles. I didn’t really have a subject to write about. I started plugging things in. But I didn’t succeed. I couldn’t come up with anything that I thought worked well. But the same website could create a word search puzzle, too. That seemed easier because it’s filling in the gaps with garbled, nonsensical letters. And it hit me that I do have a subject for this in my mother’s funeral. So it was the failure of the crossword puzzle and the serendipity that the same programmers put together the crossword puzzle and the word search functions that got me to remember that my mom used to do these word search puzzles. In the master bedroom there were some of these leftover books that she had been doing, one of them a word search puzzle book. I started thinking about the metaphor of finding words and that scene at the repast where I had not prepared any sort of speech. The opportunity arose, it was kind of unexpected, and I just stumbled through it inadequately.
And then the connections started flowing quite easily. But easily because I steep myself in a lot of literature. One early association was the Borges story, “The Library of Babel,” and the situation he posits of an infinite library that contains every possible book, how in that library you would find the story of your whole life, even what you haven’t lived yet. There’s a lot of afterlife imagery in the story, and in other places Borges has compared the afterlife to library, so that seemed to work really well. I did not revise that essay much once I hit on the idea. It would’ve been tricky to revise anyway because these paragraphs had to be roughly the same length and I felt like the five paragraphs balanced nicely. They arched pretty well.
I also had fun hiding other words in the puzzles that don’t appear in the text. For example, one Easter egg is one of the phrases the librarian mentions that they found in a book: “oh time, thy pyramids.” That was a great discovery for them because most of the books were gibberish. And at the very end, my essay’s last sentence is also from Borges. It is the very last line of “The Library of Babel”: “My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope.”
Inscape: I think it’s a beautiful essay. And in my mind, it exemplifies the purpose of making unexpected connections. The book as a whole treats the essay—how to write it, what it can do, its historical champions. What is your philosophy of the essay? How is that understanding different from how you have seen it in the past, and what influences brought you to where you are now?
PM: It’s hard to be terse about it, but I’ll try: When you are younger, essays are punishments your teacher gives you that force you to prove that you did the homework. Your own perspective is not valued. All that’s valued is argument and proof. You are expected to have concluded before you begin and to use the writing as ballast to support an argument. You might involve expert opinion. This is antithetical in spirit to what essays are or have been or should be. What Montaigne intended is an attempt without reaching after conclusions. When I first started studying creative writing, I thought an essay was a short story that was true. I didn’t perceive the need for any kind of generic distinctions between short story and essay, other than this extratextual bit that in the essay the author certifies that this really happened whereas in the short story the author holds open space to invent some things. That’s also a pretty unsophisticated view. We’ve already talked about some of my basic hopes for the essay, which is that it’s an artistic record of a mind thinking about a subject of general interest, often intersecting with the writer’s personal life, but not always. Samuel Johnson defined the essay as “a loose sally of the mind.” I think that’s an appropriate definition. I don’t think it limits things, at least. The essay generally balks at limits or pushes against them or subverts them.
Inscape: You write, “All essays…should be gnomic…without persnickety certainties.” But don’t some of your essays conclude on some certainties? Not that they are didactic, but parts don’t feel gnomic, per se. Was your goal with Disparates to leave the reader to deal with ambiguity, but did you also want to clarify certain things, like what makes a good essay?
PM: Scott Russell Sanders, an essayist I admire, effectively said that while the essay might reach some clear understanding about its particular subject, it always recognizes the vast uncertainty that remains. I think that’s a pretty good way to think about what essays do. I’m fond of setting the reader up by saying, “This is what I’m trying to say here”–that type of direct engagement. I’ll use the phrase “which is to say” pretty frequently. It’s a tick of mine. Because I want the essay to represent what it’s like in another mind – I want the reader to understand what’s happening in my mind – I want to both show and tell. But the telling can’t be banal, directly correspondent, saying this equals that. That’s unsatisfying for me. Instead, I want it to hold up a subject and point out our default response and offer a varied perspective, see the thing’s contextuality. Our understanding is a negotiation between the thing, the mind perceiving the thing, and the myriad influences that have shaped the mind perceiving the thing. Generally that’s a bit uncomfortable. It’s much easier to fall in line with the cultural defaults and interpret from within that space without questioning. If you perpetuate the system you will probably succeed in the system. I say this not as some grand rebel. My life has largely been fitting myself into systems comfortably, so that the system will benefit me. Here and now it’s possible for a person like me with this kind of creative interest to be sheltered by academia, to earn a paycheck sufficient to pay the mortgage on a home, to feed some children, and so forth. That’s nice. But ultimately the dominant value systems don’t really value the type of work I do as much as other types of entertainment. They more tolerate it.
Inscape: Is that frustrating to you?
PM: Sometimes. But I don’t really need more than I have. I have more than most people in the world. Maybe the mind is naturally inclined to see the things one lacks more prevalently than the things one has. You can always find people with nicer cars, nicer homes, living more ostentatiously. It is somewhat frustrating that teachers are undervalued, but less personally frustrating than culturally frustrating. I wish our culture valued these things more, the things that don’t translate so directly into economic value.
Inscape: What influence do you feel like Spanish culture and language had on your writing?
PM: I’ve been to some literary events in Uruguay that were just packed. The crowds were not as big as a soccer game, but they acted like they were at a soccer game. Once I went to see Mario Benedetti, one of Uruguay’s greatest poets, in a concert with a folklorist named Danielle Viglietti. The line to get into the theater went around the whole block. They would play and recite poems to music. It was just wonderful. After every single poem or song the crowd erupted into exuberant cheers. When you go to a poetry reading here in the US, everybody remains politely silent between poems. Another time I went to see José Saramago, the Nobel Prize winner from Portugal, when he visited Montevideo. When I got there an hour early, again the line wrapped around the block. When I finally made it inside, the whole auditorium was jam packed. I had to stand in a crowd outside the doorway just trying to hear what was going on. Obviously they could have held the event in a place with bigger seating capacity, but the way people respected literature was inspiring to me. There are people in the US who feel that way about literature, but maybe we’re too dispersed. We have different cultural habits here. And we only elect lawyers to public positions, whereas in Latin America sometimes they’ll elect the poet. They’ll send poets as ambassadors.
As for language, even though Spanish and English are both Romance languages – at least later English is heavily influenced by the French – they are different enough. I have a good friend in Uruguay who says that if you have only one watch you’ll always know exactly what time it is, but if you have two watches you’ll never be quite sure. I think that’s great. Knowing a second language has had a tremendous effect on breaking my correspondent/convergent understanding of language (and things beyond language). You can get by in life with a pretty simplistic relationship where language is just a vehicle for information. Language can work that way; it certainly does. But it’s not just that. The fact that Spanish sees things differently, even slightly, is a tremendous benefit. As in the phrase “se me cayó”: it fell from me or on me. There’s a distancing, a lack of blame. Or “to be born”: in English we use this clunky phrase. In Spanish it’s “nacer.” It applies in an active way to that thing whereas our phrase is passive and convoluted. Or the phrase “dar a luz,” which is a widely accepted metaphorical verb that is applied for the complementary action, which we don’t have a good name for: “give birth to” is such a clunky phrase. If it weren’t so well-established I’d have to strike it out anytime I found it in a student draft because it’s just a backwards way of approaching things. So knowing Spanish—and I’ve kept it up, my wife is from Uruguay, we speak it in the home, we have lived in Uruguay a bunch—has really infiltrated my mind and allowed me to think in new ways. And it’s not just that I can think in the English way or the Spanish way. I don’t feel like I’m tied to language as an information container anymore.
Inscape: I feel like this fits how earlier you were talking about emotional dichotomies such as happy/sad, comedy/tragedy. It seems like you really understand how the two things in the dichotomy converge in your work.
PM: We often think that in a dichotomy you have to choose one or the other, one thing’s right one and the other is wrong. But I don’t feel that way at all. I mean unless the kids are misbehaving and you have to straighten them out. At least where I’m allowed the space to live and think and write freely, it’s quite invigorating not to have to resolve. It feels like John Keats’s “negative capability,” holding contradictory thoughts without irritated reaching after conclusions. I’d much rather exist in that place
Inscape: Something you said earlier about fitting yourself comfortably into established systems so that they benefit you struck me. Do you feel like your teaching or writing is a way to break out of those systems?
PM: I hope so. It has been for me and I hope to model and perpetuate that for students as well. Unconsciously I’ve certainly worked within the system of white privilege for instance, or the “American dream,” the immigrant who works hard to give his children a better life. That’s my family story. My ancestors are fairly recent arrivals to North America, within two or three generations, and they certainly bought into that model. Back to systems, one main system I’ve consciously worked in is academia. When I was younger I quite enjoyed school. I figured out the rules, the reward structure. And I worked to get good grades and learn a good bit. The system was so influential that here I am, still in school. I didn’t want to become a specialist who has to spend an entire career focused on some very narrow area of knowledge. I wanted, and want, to have the freedom to learn anything, drop it when I am no longer interested, and move onto the next thing. That’s what an essayist does. I’ve been lucky that this thing called “creative nonfiction” is burgeoning. At the turn of the last century, not too many programs offered an emphasis in creative nonfiction, but now many do. The timing was quite good for me.
That’s the primary system that I’ve consciously worked within. But just yesterday I was talking to students about their final paper and telling them not to subsume their personality to the thing they believe to be “proper academic style,” which is third-person, passive voice, attempting pseudoscientific distance, objectivity instead of subjectivity. I am trying to work within academia to subvert academia little bit.
Inscape: You probably have to conform to the system to some extent in order to change it. Right?
PM: Somewhat. But I’ll tell you even in my department most people are specialists in literary critics. If I go to a faculty presentation on an academic subject, I have no idea what they’re talking about. They speak a language I don’t speak. And not only do I not speak it, but I don’t want to speak it. I feel like speaking that language would be a kind of selling out. Have you been to some of these presentations? Some of them are just so jargon-y. They’re not speaking to anybody who hasn’t had their exact training.
Inscape: Some final questions. What advice do you have for students who want to become writers?
PM: All the writers I know have one thing in common: perseverance. I know writers who are very different stylistically, and some can publish in these venues here and some can publish only in those other venues over here. There’s a lot of room for stylistic variance. But most failed writers ultimately make that judgment (of failure) on themselves. They make it based upon feedback—they get a lot of rejections and they start to think “maybe I’m not cut out for this.” But the ultimate judgment is always your own. Here’s a fun example. The book How to Make a Slave and Other Essays by Jerald Walker just came out. I know Jerald. He’s a super good guy. It’s his third book, so he’s not a first-time author. But Jerald tells me that this book was rejected by something like twenty publishers, who all thought it wasn’t marketable. They wanted him to write a memoir. Even though essays are experiencing a surge in popularity now, the publishers he went to, at least, didn’t want essays. Meanwhile, I am one of the coeditors for the the 21st Century Essays series from Ohio State University Press. Jerald sent us the book, and we said “this is exactly what we like.” The book is now a finalist for the National Book Award, one of five books published in 2020 selected by the National Book Award committee. I can guarantee that there are publishers right now who are shaking their heads wondering how they missed it. So it’s not a case of becoming a writer and or not; it’s a case of believing in what you’ve written enough to keep shopping it around, keep sharing it, until you find a publisher that recognizes the value in it. And then a lot of luck, too. Because there are a lot of great books, and the National Book Award finalists are not the actual five best books published that year. They’re the five books published that the committee happened to discover that year and agreed upon. “Perseverance”: that would be my advice.
Inscape: How did things work out for you?
PM: Yeah, I was pretty lucky. My first book is effectively what I was working on for my dissertation before I got a Fulbright fellowship and wrote a different dissertation. So it’s made of essays I wrote during graduate school. I had published half of them or so in literary journals, bit by bit, small journals here and there. I sent the manuscript into a national book contest from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). That year the judge was Michael Martone, whose water bottle I sold in the first essay in my new book. And the screener was a guy named Ander Monson. He wrote one of the blurbs for my new book. So Ander Monson gets a hundred manuscripts and from them he has to select a small number, let’s say 10. Among them is mine, I assume because we share some esthetic affinities. I’m writing in a style that, basically, he recognizes as valuable. So he sends off his 10 selections to the final judge, Martone, who was Monson’s teacher. They share some affinities, too. And finally Martone selects my manuscript as runner-up. I didn’t win the contest but the book was runner-up. That meant I got a paragraph of praise from Michael Martone. With that in hand and having met a lot of other writers and editors, including Dinty Moore, who edits Brevity Magazine and has written a lot of books himself. He says, “Pat, you should send in your book to Nebraska. Tell them I sent you.” I send a proposal to Nebraska (who’d been publishing lots of great literary nonfiction for years, a lot of writers I admired and aspired to be like, not the big moneymaking writers but the serious literary writers who supplement their writing habit with teaching jobs) with the Michael Martone quote and that Dinty Moore recommendation. And it all worked out. It took some time, but they decided to publish the book. And the book did well enough that they were willing to take a chance on the next one. And that went well enough that they did the third book, Disparates. So it has been a gradual process of building momentum. And the timeline when I look back is not too bad. But it didn’t happen right away either. Quotidiana came out in 2010 and I graduated with my PhD in 2004. So that’s a few years.
Inscape: Did you actually sell Michael Martone’s water bottle on eBay?
PM: Oh yeah. For $20.50. I let people know that I was doing the auction so that they could submit questions and bid. And the winning bidder was a former BYU student. She thought it would be quirky to own that water. There are some exaggerations within that essay, but I think you can tell what kind of stuff I was making up.
Inscape: Well, of course, because you say in the essay that you bathed in the water, then you gargled it.
PM: Yeah, that didn’t really happen. But I don’t think that destroys the credibility, because any critical reader is going to understand that that didn’t really happen. I hope.
by Micah Cozzens and Elizabeth Ross
Inscape: So my first question is about the form. A lot of your poems, such as “Frequencies” and “To a Red Traffic Light,” are in free verse, but you have ten-syllable lines. Many poems in your book are like that. So, I guess I’m just wondering why that form? Because it seems to work for you.
Darlene Young: Yeah, form is a funny thing. When I draft a poem, it’s usually either in a big, messy paragraph or it’s in that shape, lines of about ten syllables-ish. Not so short that the line breaks distract me from what’s happening, but not so long that they carry over onto another line. I cut them off at that, just when I’m drafting, but then I come back and say, Okay, now I have to make the line break do something. There has to be a reason for it to be in the shape it’s in. Sometimes at that point I’ll structure it another way and find some other form for it. But sometimes I think, No, that’s feeling right, so I’ll leave it.
When I write in a specific form, though, like a sonnet or a villanelle, something that’s highly structured, I often start with an assignment to myself: I’m going to write a villanelle. Then I search for content. What kind of subject fits a villanelle well? Because if it’s going to be that structured, I can’t be married to the content because otherwise it’s going to feel forced, right? So, I have a messy paragraph or lines that are about ten syllables, and I’ll ask, Are these lines the right length to show what I want to show in terms of how I’m using language? If I’m using more dense language, I might adjust the lines so that they are in good tension or in good proportion to each other. If I’m using really accessible, or essayistic, not very dense, language, I might do something different with the line to get some kind of tension in there. I might vary it differently in some surprising way, or I might make it longer. Like I said, it’s usually something I address in revision unless I’ve set out purposefully to make the form super important to that particular poem.
Part of it depends on the origin of the poem. Many, many poets write because they love language and love playing with language. They’re going to draft differently and actually construct lines as they’re drafting. Kim Johnson does this; she’ll spend a whole week on one line. And you can tell when you read her work that it is crafted, the line is everything—really rewarding. My poetry usually starts with something other than language. It’s usually an experience I want to tell about, something that happened to me. I’m more interested in the meaning than most poets are, so I tend not to craft it quite as much in the beginning. I’m chiseling down from a big, messy, prose-y beginning, and then trying to bump up the language to make it more poetic. I think that if I were more into thinking about form from the beginning, my poems would look different.
Inscape: But they wouldn’t be as successful, probably.
DY: Maybe not. I am the kind of poet that likes accessibility. My favorite compliment—and I don’t know if you should quote me on this—is when someone says, “I don’t usually like poetry, but I like yours.” I love to speak to people that don’t read a lot of poetry—which might mean I’m not that intellectual, that I don’t write that high a level of poetry, but that’s okay with me. I care a lot about whether people can share the experience with me, and some poets don’t care as much about that. They’d rather have their cool language tricks, and there are rewards to that, too, but it’s just not what I’m interested in.
When you have a specific form in mind—let’s say you want every line to be in iambic pentameter, for example—you have to be willing to give up some of your meaning and content, because otherwise it feels like you’ve just wrestled and forced the language into place. You have to be willing to go somewhere else with the poem or maybe not say what you originally meant. If I decide I’m not willing to give up on meaning, I’ll put it in free verse so I can keep my meaning. But the more easily a poem that’s formal reads, the more work it took to get that way. That’s kind of hard for beginning students to understand. They think there are people who are good at rhyme and people who are not, and the poems that are good just came out that way. But no, to have the rhyme feel easy and natural takes much more work than to leave it feeling stilted with Yoda-speak and messed-up syntax in order to fit the rhyme. It’s lazy to resort to messing up the syntax in order to get a line.
Inscape: Is it weird to read your poetry in front of people? Is it different from reading prose?
DY: At first it was really hard. I’m not shy about speaking in public, or teaching, or giving talks in church, or reading someone else’s work. But the first few times I had to read my poetry, it was really hard. Part of it was because it was more personal, and part of it was because I’ve been to poetry readings where the reading feels so affected—which drives me crazy, you know? So, I’m always pushing against that, but if I mumble and rush through the poem, that isn’t giving respect to the words. Now I’ve done it enough that I’m getting more confident. It helps if you feel like your work is getting better. My first poems weren’t very good, so they were harder to share. But it is harder than just reading prose. You have to decide how you’re going to break the line
Inscape: A lot of your characters are women. When I’m reading poetry or prose, the religious women are caricatures—you know, either total hypocrites or total angels—and it’s nice to read something where they’re more complex. Your poem “Angels of Mercy” does that particularly well. I loved that poem just because it’s so funny and loved the line, “the worldliness of D-cup ambition.” Complex women are not only in that poem but throughout your collection. How did you do that?
DY: Well, first of all, I only write what interests me, and it’s not interesting to me to not tell the truth about my experience, about my culture. I love my culture, but we have a problem with how we talk about women. This “angel mother” thing that we get over the pulpit is really detrimental. Consequently, I’m always pushing against that. It’s typical for women to hate going to church on Mother’s Day because they hear all this stuff like, “We love what you do, and what you do is important,” because the men are trying to be complimentary, but it comes across as “We have angel mothers and you women are angels.” What we women say to ourselves is, I know I’m not, and I know that you know I’m not, so this is just making me feel worse. I think telling the truth about experience is much more inspirational than building those caricatures.
The best art is art that we recognize, where we say, Okay, that’s familiar to me. If we can tell the truth in really specific details, that’s more inspirational. Even telling the truth about the flaws. So in some of those poems in there I tell hard truths about what it’s like to be a mom. But also, I hope that readers can see I’m someone who loves being a mom, who gets joy out of it even though it’s hard. I think if I didn’t say that it was hard, it wouldn’t be as believable when I say it brings me joy. Poetry has to do two things: It has to make the familiar strange, but it also has to make the strange familiar. If we’re not finding something in common, you’re not able to enter the poem with me and have an experience. If somehow we can find common ground so that you recognize, “Okay, women are like that,” then I can put a funny metaphor in there that makes you think in new ways, and you’ll be with me on that experience. If I talk about our culture with honesty, but also with affection, then that’s resonant to people. I want people to celebrate our culture even with its quirks.
I think that’s how God feels about us too. He looks at us and sees our flaws, right? He has great affection for us, and I think He wants us to feel that way about ourselves. Which means we can’t ignore the quirky things we do—you know, looking down on so-and-so because she had a boob job but also wanting to try to serve her at the same time. About that poem, everybody asks, “Is it true?” They want to know whether I had the boob job or was in on the Relief Society discussion. My answer is, “Absolutely yes, and absolutely no.” That specific thing hasn’t happened to me, but I’ve been in many discussions in ward council and Relief Society presidency meetings about whether someone deserves to have meals, whether they’re truly needy, whether they even want help. We’ve all been in a place where we need help, but we don’t really want anyone to know we need help. We’ve all been in a place where we judge someone else or we feel judged. There are so many things about that that are true for me and that are true for a woman’s experience in the Church. One of my delights is to put things in my poems that are both true and funny, showing how we do think about each other, “Did she have a boob job? Should she have had a boob job? And should I bring her meals or not?”
Inscape: I just really like the female characters. I guess the short answer is that you’re a woman, so of course that’s what you’re going to write about.
DY: Yeah, and we just don’t have enough poetry about our experiences, do we? Especially as a Mormon woman, I think there’s not much out there, and if I can just be really true about it, hopefully other people can relate.
Inscape: I really admire that. Going back to the language that you talked about earlier, I do feel like so many of your poems have language that’s just really lush, like that Keats line says, “load every rift with ore.” Almost to the point where it’s excessive, but for me as a reader, it never crosses that line. Your poem about Joseph Smith says, “Not immaterial / his fumble and slop, his gimpy stuttering lope towards loft.” It’s such a thick line, you know, but I like it. You do a good job balancing the accessibility of the poem and what you’re talking about with your thick, dense, verta language.
DY: Well, thank you. You’ll notice that I don’t do it in all the poems. I was just talking with my friends here about “In the Locker Room at the Temple.” That’s a really popular one, and people pass it around. I heard that people are handing it out at temple training sessions because they love to think about the temple that way. That poem is so un-dense. There’s really not much going on in terms of sound, and sometimes I’m a little embarrassed by it, with so little going on in the lines. So language has to be different for different poems. Part of it depends on the generation of the poem. Like, I remember when I was writing that Joseph Smith poem, some of the work I did was riffing on sounds. That was part of constructing it from the beginning. With some poems you can tell I wanted sound to be a big part of it, you know, the more dense language. With other poems, I just wanted a really clean experience where it’s mostly focusing on meaning, and the language doesn’t get in the way. So, they’re not all dense that way, but it is nice when you put a lot of work into the language, jacking up the language, to have someone appreciate it. I really like that. Sometimes I’ll take a draft and it feels like there’s not much going on, and I’ll say, Okay, I can do better in this line. I can do something better, or I can change the line breaks to show off this language a little bit more. Or I’ll say, There’s no surprise or interesting thing going on in this line, and so how about I jack up the sounds a little bit? Or, I’m going to make a whole list of possible images and find the ones that are more sonic or that fit with the line better, that fit the rhythm or make an interesting rhythm. Sometimes I just feel like there’s little enough going on that I want to find a place for tension, and maybe that tension will be language that makes your heart thump, thump, thump, you know?
Inscape: So, do you feel like the content in your poems matches the sound?
DY: Yeah. Or I might specifically want meaning to cut against sound. I may start with the content and then want more tension to come from sounds and language. But I didn’t bother with language that much for “In the Locker Room at the Temple.” I don’t know if I should have, but that’s an example of me just not wanting to get in the way of capturing the feeling of the temple locker room. It’s very simplistic and maybe more pure—I don’t know—but less sonically rewarding.
A lot of my language work happens in revision. When I’m revising, there comes a point when in the making of a poem—I don’t know if you get to this point, too—where I start turning to the thesaurus. I’ve got a draft, and I say, Okay, I can do better than that. I start opening a thesaurus. I love that stage of a poem because it tells me that I’m well in, that I’ve found my angle, and I’m ready to struggle on the language level as opposed to the approach and framing level. At that point it feels like I’m doing a crossword puzzle because I’m just fitting things together. It feels like filling out a sudoku or something. I love that part—the play part. The hard work comes before—when I’m getting it down and finding the approach, but once I get to the word level, it’s a lot more fun.
Inscape: That’s kind of a fun way to think about it. It’s just really refreshing because I feel like a lot of poets talk about it like there’s a sense of intangibility. It’s kind of refreshing to hear you say, “No, it’s a very tangible experience.”
DY: Right. But I agree that there’s a stage in the production of the poem where you really have to be open to the subconscious, of unconscious jumps and surprising things that you weren’t expecting. Maybe that’s kind of what they were referring to. But unconscious jumps have to be followed by hard work, you know?—sitting down and analyzing each thing, asking Can I make it better? It’s building with Legos, and it’s work.
Inscape: This is sort of a religious question. Do you see being a poet as your responsibility?
DY: Well, so this is an interesting thing for me to think about. I don’t feel like I have any responsibility to myself or God or anybody to be a poet any more than I think anyone has a responsibility to use their—I don’t even want to say gifts because I don’t mean talent, I mean the thing that makes you you, your particular interests. I think God puts that little idea in you and your responsibility just as a child of God is to enjoy it and play with it and make use of it. I don’t think it’s a thing where He’s going to hold me responsible: [deep voice] “Did you use that gift I gave you?” Part of that is I don’t feel all that gifted. Maybe if I felt super-gifted, I’d feel some big responsibility to the world, but I don’t. I feel that once I know that I have this interest and this desire to do this thing, God expects me to use it in a way that brings me joy and not in a way that adds to the darkness in the world, you know? I don’t think He necessarily wants me to preach with it, but I think that by telling the truth I’m bringing more light into the world. I like that. I think that I have a responsibility to myself, if I’m going to do it, to be really honest in my work, to not sugarcoat or try to impress people just for the glory of the world—that I should be honest to what I love and what I’m interested in. I have a responsibility to myself to be the best I can at it, meaning that I put the work in. I feel it’s really irresponsible when a poet, for example, just dashes a poem off and then, there it is! Like, not be willing to say, I can make it better. I can use all of my training and my skill to make it the best it can be. I don’t feel like I’m called to produce this thing and put it out into the world like that.But I feel that, once I’ve decided to do it, my responsibility is to do it the best I can and do it in an honest way.
Creativity is a godly attribute. That’s what makes God God. He’s a creator. He just loves to see us be creative. That may be writing a poem or choosing the right flowers to put on your fireplace. It may be the way you break down the barriers with your roommate who’s lonely. There are so many ways to be creative, and I think God loves seeing us being creative. It’s not really a responsibility but a way we enjoy what He has given us.
Inscape: Yeah, I love the first poem of the collection, “Lord, Make Me an Instrument of Thy Peace.” I mean, as you’re talking about gifts, I love how in this one you say, “Make me a tool,” and then when you were talking about poetry, I thought, He has made you an instrument.
DY: And poetry can do that. It’s fortunate and unfortunate that this poem is the first one in the collection. Because I think—I didn’t realize this when I arranged it this way—that it kind of looks like I’m saying, Here’s my poetry collection. This is me being God’s instrument, and the rest of these poems are my special music that I’m going to play for you from God. Right? Like I’m a prophet or something, and I don’t like that. But when I wrote it I was trying to speak to—everybody has their thing, and my poems are not violin poems. They’re not trumpet poems. They’re more like kazoo poems. I don’t want that poem to be like, I’m all inspired and now you should listen to me, but more like I’m kind of quirky, and these may not be that great, but they’re what God gave me. This is the skill He gave me, so I’m going to still play.
Inscape: As a Mormon writer, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, just watching people in my life who are part of this faith, trying to write, I feel like it can be hard to find your niche. It’s either Deseret Book or Segullah or the highway. And I love Deseret Book. I love Irreantum. All great. I don’t want to project my experiences onto you, but was it hard to find your niche or was it pretty quick?
DY: It was really hard. I think if you want to take your writing seriously, to put work into it, you want to know there’s a potential audience. If there’s no way to reach that audience, it’s really hard to care enough to put work into it, right? I can write my thoughts about being in a Relief Society presidency in my journal, but if I’m going to make it into art, I need an audience. You’re right that there’s a real problem right now with finding that audience. It’s a catch-22 because artists are hesitant to put time into producing work about the Mormon experience if there’s no way they’re going to get it published, and publishers are hesitant to publish it because they aren’t sure that there’s a market and they’re not seeing a lot of quality work. You see how the two have to go together, and it has been a hard thing for me. In fact, I didn’t start writing seriously until I discovered potential audiences and places to publish. The time when I started actually saying, I’m going to take this seriously, produce something and revise it and work on it, was when I discovered there was a place I could publish it.
The very first place I published was in a little newsletter that Orson Scott Card produced, called Vigor. I got the newsletter, and I thought, Okay, here’s a place I could publish. So I wrote something, and it got published there. Then I discovered the Association for Mormon Letters. They had a listserv where people were just talking together, and it was a lot of people whose work I admired. Richard Dutcher was on there, and Marvin Payne, and James Goldberg—I don’t know if you know these people, but anyway—all talking together and having these conversations, and I thought, These are the people who would like any literary writing that I could do about my culture, so I want to write for them. I sent poems to Irreantum, which thank goodness was publishing then. Then I discovered Segullah and wrote for that journal. Exponent II. But those journals can’t accept a lot of work. We’ve got Sunstone and Dialogue, but certain very conservative members of the Church won’t read those. I feel like those members of the church are people I’d like to reach with my writing, but I wouldn’t reach them there. It’s super hard. There are a few publishers who are doing literary Mormon writing. Obviously I found a publisher (BCC Press), and I’m so grateful to them, but they are super, super small. All volunteer. They only publish print-on-demand because they don’t have enough money to run a whole bunch of books and then try to get them in bookstores. Bookstores are reluctant because they don’t think they’re going to sell, so my job is to hope people will share with their friends and ask the library to buy it, and pass it around. Part of the work that I do with the Association for Mormon Letters and my friends that I know in LDS publishing is just trying to get the word out that there’s an audience. People are thirsty for this stuff, and if we write it well, they’ll buy it. But it’s really a hard sell. I wish it were looking better.
Inscape: It seems like the agents are limited, and the publishers that’ll talk to agents who would be interested in this are limited.
DY: I’m not sure, but I don’t think there are any LDS publishers that use agents–at least not for LDS-specific work. They can’t afford to because the Mormon market is so small. If you take the people in the LDS audience who read poetry, it’s not a big group, and if you then take the people among them who would buy poetry, it’s even smaller. We’re frugal people, right? Most of us just get books from the library. It’s tough. Really tough. I’m in a position where my husband provides for me, so I can teach, and I can produce poetry, but it doesn’t matter to me that I don’t get a lot of people buying my book. I don’t care. I don’t mind if they just loan it to each other, but I would like it to be read because I want people to see that it can be done. It’s possible to write literary poems for Mormons. I want future writers who are interested in writing about their culture to say, “Hey, look. Someone else did it. I can do it, too.” I want publishers to say, “Oh, people like this! They’re spreading it around to each other.” So, for that reason I want my book to go around. Other than that, I don’t need it to be purchased. Other writers do, and that’s really hard for them. They say, “Why should I write for a market where I’m not going to get any money, and nobody buys these books?”
Inscape: Even though I’m obviously at the beginning of this process and I’ve got a lot to learn, that’s kind of where I’m at, because why would I write something–
DY: –that’s not going to get published.
DY: You do it out of love, and you teach on the side because in the real world hardly any writers make a living. You have to understand that. But most of the writers out in the world have a better chance of selling than Mormon writers.
Inscape: It’s true.
DY: Except for Mormon genre writers! Mormon romances sell really well. Mormon historical fiction. Mormon—well, it’s not really Mormon, but Mormon writers writing fantasy and science fiction, that kind of thing. Those things sell well. So there are exceptions, but who is going to buy Mormon poetry, really?
Inscape: Did you come to poetry or prose first? I guess you can’t really pick a favorite, but what do you like about the two genres?
DY: I’ve always written all three genres (poetry, essay, and fiction), but probably more poetry than the others. The thing I love about poetry is that you can have a really small frame for the piece. I’m more interested in just a little moment or just a glimpse. I have less attention and energy for the slow buildup of cause and effect over time that you need for a novel or even for a short story. I have written some, but it’s just not as interesting to me. I find myself feeling I have to get from here to here in a novel, and it’s just like yawn. I’d rather focus on this, and then talk about something else.
I’m very interested in essays. I’m also writing and publishing them regularly, and I like both essay and poetry because they kind of embrace surprise and the juxtaposition of interesting things. What Mormon grows up not writing essays, really, if you keep a journal, right? We have a little bit more practice with that, but I love the genre for its open-endedness and its exploration. So, those are the two that I do the most now. As a child, I wrote a lot of poetry, but it was like Dr. Seuss-y kind of stuff. Then I hit high school and started reading real poetry and thought, Oh, my gosh. Everything I write is trash compared to this stuff. So I quit. It’s funny because those two things are connected–the reason my stuff was trash was that I hadn’t been reading good stuff. The best way to get better is to read a lot more. When I decided later that I wanted to get serious about writing, I started reading a lot more, and that helped my poetry get better. Those things are connected.
Inscape: So what kind of reading did you get into?
DY: At first it was really hard. I told myself, I’ve got to read more poetry, and I need to read what’s being published now. Because you can go back and read your Tennyson and your Blake and you know, the old classics—and they’re good to learn some things from. But if that’s all you study, you’re going to write like them, and that kind of work is not being published anymore. So I got The Best American Poetry of whatever year that was. I read it, and it just scared the bejeebers out of me because most of it I couldn’t understand. I couldn’t tell what they were doing and couldn’t tell why their poems were better than other people’s poems. They didn’t speak to me, and now I know that it’s because the editors are trying to cover this huge variety of aesthetic variety in one book. So, I tell my students, “If that happens to you, don’t freak out. Pick the two or three that you really love and go read those poets’ collections.” Because, you know, there were a few I liked, but at the time I thought, Oh, I must be way out in left field because I don’t relate to any of this. But then, slowly over time, people would say, “Here, read Billy Collins,” you know, and other more accessible poets. Then it was just a matter of finding the people who spoke to me. I took one class in which the teacher required us to find and read a poetry collection, a different one every week, and write a review of it. That was great. Six of the twenty I found I liked, so then I went and read more Kay Ryan and Philip Schultz and whoever it was that spoke to me.
Inscape: Very wise. Thank you.
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.