The Fiddleback: I was lucky enough to have been able to take your nonfiction writing workshop at Sarah Lawrence College. One of many suggestions that’s stayed with me is to imagine yourself (on a chair?) in the middle of a memory/scene and write from that perspective. Would you expand on this idea a bit?
Jo Ann Beard: I decided to write my answers in American Typewriter font. Brings to mind the clacking sound, very satisfying, of eleventh grade typing class, in which quick brown foxes were constantly jumping over lazy dogs. If I put myself back there in the third row, here’s what I see: Mrs. Something with a large flat bosom in dark blue silk, lavender crimped hair, manual typewriters sitting on gray foam pads, erasers in the shape of wheels with a little whisk broom attached to get rid of the crumbs, which we would sweep into the carriage area because they were the school’s typewriters and we would actually prefer them to be broken. I can easily call up the person on my left—Paula Kandisky, who had a miscarriage under the parallel bars in gym class one day—and the person on my right—a red-haired girl named Cindy who had a twin brother who also took typing—the acidic fluorescents, the typing stands, each with a dog-eared stack of mimeographed sheets clipped to the top edge. She used to show us films of bad secretaries chewing gum and adjusting their girdles and good secretaries in Peter Pan collars and clear nail polish. The bosses were always dismayed by the girdle snappers and relieved and impressed by the low-heeled locket-wearers—exactly the opposite of real life, welcome to high school. The next period after was shorthand, which didn’t pan out for me: when I got my first job the boss asked me to take dictation exactly once. I spent the entire time asking him to wait while I labored along, and then afterward I couldn’t translate it and had to ask him to repeat it all again, very slowly, so I could write it in longhand. Turned out the quick brown fox wasn’t all that quick, and the lazy dog was the boss. Write your own letter.
The Fiddleback: A recent article by Chad Harbach in the journal n+1 attempts to pit two literary cultures against one another, that of the NYC writer and the MFA writer, while freely admitting to the overlap amongst the two. Harbach struggles with the critics that continue to insist that the MFA churns out one hothouse academia orchid after another—a competent but sterile practitioner. “Get out of the schools and live!” his critics demand. But Harbach argues that “Two years spent in an MFA program…constitute a tiny and often ineffectual part of the American writer’s lifelong engagement with the university. [Critics forget] how much free living an adult can do while attending two classes per week.” Do you agree with Harbach? Do you ever worry about the writing produced in MFA programs? Does it ever feel like one merely capable facsimile after another? How important is the MFA to a writer’s development?
JB: Well, I’ve been at the teaching game for a long time. I’ve seen a lot of students go through the MFA digestive tract and come out the other end. Some are great writers and some are competent and some aren’t really any good at all. I’m afraid I do believe in this whole concept of higher education, because I’ve seen miraculous things happen when people educate and immerse themselves in literature, and in the constant practice of writing. What I get worried about with graduate programs is that people—in the nonfiction category—sometimes decide to go back to school not because they are gifted writers or lovers of literature, but because they have a story that they want to tell. This, to me, is tedious. Show me a person who has no story to tell but expresses herself on the page in an interesting and intelligent way, and I’ll show you a possible writer. I don’t think I actually answered your question.
The Fiddleback: You’ve written some of the most exquisite sentences I’ve ever chanced to read, sentences that slip in and out of my head and thwack around when I’m mostly unoccupied. Sentences like “It’s nineteen seventy-something, summer, nighttime, black country road running through rural Illinois, the sky is immense.” A sentence like this one relies on the alliteration of something and summer and the hardness of the k sounds (black, country) unspooling into the softer r sounds (road, running) and then softer still in rural and Illinois. And then we are hit with this short declarative phrase, “the sky is immense,” which brings us right back to the m’s of the first half of the sentence as well as the hard k sound reminiscent of black and country. There is something uncanny, too, about such a black and immense sky. The result is startling and circular, as if to warn the reader not to get too comfortable because you might just get slapped. How much of that sentence-level work is conscious? How do you go about constructing a sentence like that? I imagine that some of it is gut and instinct, but I wonder if you have become more aware of the sentence-level effects (and better able to manipulate them) as you continue to write, or if it is a strange and serendipitous process?
JB: I do work hard on the sentence; that is the best part of writing, listening and imagining and then crafting it. But that said, there’s something that happens on a subconscious or unconscious level that is not craft, but art. That’s the part you have to wait for.
[Dialogue] should illuminate something that couldn’t be illuminated in any other way. People don’t explain things to each other in real-world conversation—they just talk and expect each other to understand context. For better or worse, that’s what conversation in writing has to be like too.
The Fiddleback: Your essays are mostly in present tense. Obviously, present tense lends a sense of immediacy to events that are not actually taking place in present time. Why else do you tend to write in the present tense? What are some of the other benefits? What do you lose with present tense (a certain measure of reflection comes to mind) and how do you compensate for those losses?
JB: I don’t write in present tense on purpose, necessarily. I am not conscious of those kinds of things while I’m writing. I try to go deep inside and imagine it; the voice and the other qualities and details emerge from that.
The Fiddleback: You also write the most surprising and funny dialogue. One of my favorite lines comes from the essay “Cousins” in The Boys of My Youth. The two teenaged cousins, Jo Ann and Wendell, are at an Eric Clapton concert and high on a “mild hallucigenic.” You write:
“We are boiling hot but we don’t know it, my hair is stuck to my back and Wendell’s is standing straight up in a beautiful manner.”
“Your hair is standing straight up in a beautiful manner,” I tell her. She nods peacefully.”
For some reason, that small bit of dialogue always makes me laugh and want to cry at the same time. One of the problems, and benefits, of nonfiction writing is the unreliability of memory, especially when it comes to recalling who said what and how. Perforce, the writer of creative nonfiction must invent much of the dialogue, or at least re-imagine it. Without feeling responsible for answering the question of “literal truth” vs. “aesthetic truth” in creative nonfiction, would you be willing to share any thoughts on dialogue with young writers working in the genre?
JB: Dialogue, like any other part of writing, has to be fresh and unique, surprising. It shouldn’t be carrying narrative water and it shouldn’t be telling us anything we already know. It shouldn’t be there just because someone said it. It should further the story and it should illuminate something that couldn’t be illuminated in any other way. People don’t explain things to each other in real-world conversation—they just talk and expect each other to understand context. For better or worse, that’s what conversation in writing has to be like too. Take a look at The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury, and see some of the best dialogue ever written.
The Fiddleback: The writing workshop has long been the standard format for classes in creative writing, both at the undergraduate and graduate level. As someone who has been a part of writing workshops for some time, both as a student and an instructor, do you think it’s the best method for cultivating a writer’s talent? Have you ever thought about alternatives?
JB: I don’t actually think the round-table workshop model is helpful to the person whose work is being discussed, but I think it’s immensely helpful to the people who are doing the discussing. Only, of course, if the participants are doing the work: reading, analyzing, figuring out what is happening in the piece, for better and for worse, and then writing (not speaking but writing) an insightful critical review that is also geared toward inspiring the writer to go back in and work some more. Going through that process—of thinking and expressing those thoughts on paper—a dozen times over the course of a semester will further anyone’s education and abilities.
The Fiddleback: Is there anything about writing and/or being a writer that you wish you’d learned earlier?
JB: Maybe something about hurrying the process. I’ve tried and tried to learn that, but it just doesn’t take. I have all these projects I want to do and yet it’s hard for me to apply myself. A lot of times now I get an idea for an essay and instead of sitting down, I just write it in my head, over the course of the long car rides to and from school. It still feels very absorbing and satisfying, but of course at the end there’s nothing but air.
The Fiddleback: Your new novel, In Zanesville, has been described as a young-adult crossover. What does that mean exactly? Did you set out to write a young adult novel? How do you anticipate the adult reading experience to differ from the experience of younger readers?
JB: I set out to write a novel for teenaged people. Of course, teenaged people basically read what we read, so it all got blurred together on the publishing level. But I do hope young people find it, because it was written about them, and for them.
The Fiddleback: We watched a couple films in your nonfiction writing workshop and, subsequently, I now show some of these same films to my writing students. The Alice Neel documentary, for one. What are some other films that have inspired you? How can the writer approach films as models for writing? Or how do you think of films (documentaries or otherwise) as instructive to the writing process?
JB: I love that Alice Neel documentary because of what it says about being an artist. She makes no apologies and draws no boundaries for herself. There are other films like that as well—Comedian is about Jerry Seinfeld’s painstaking process of revision, Freak, is John Leguizamo’s memoir about growing up and becoming an artist, The Promise is about Bruce Springsteen’s absolute adherence to his own artistic vision. Some others I love for their examination of lives and families, like Best Boy, 51 Birch Street, My Architect, Tarnation, and of war and extreme circumstances, like Restrepo and The War Tapes. What I think is useful to look at in documentaries is structure—in writing, people sometimes have a hard time shaking themselves loose from chronology. We rarely watch a documentary that unfolds chronologically. Everybody seems to understand that that wouldn’t be very interesting to watch. The documentary filmmaker crafts the story, cutting and editing, very carefully. Writers can learn from that.
Jo Ann Beard