First, I’d just like to say going 3rd person in the title of this post felt damn good. I caught a little mermaids singing, the rush of the sock-slide tile veranda. I see why athletes go third person now. You detach and enlarge the Self simultaneously. It’s like nachos, or publishing a book, or mile 31 of an ultra-marathon. It’s a moment stretched, or something.
I just finished Dan Savage’s Skipping Towards Gomorrah: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Pursuit of Happiness in America. Here is my review:
It makes an OK drink coaster. The end.
Titular Journal asked if I would write a Ulysses type of thing, or something. So I joined Blake Butler and Paul Kavanagh and Mark Baumer and Drew Kalbach (so far). I tried to make Blake into a pusher, but it didn’t work. Blake’s too nice to carry a switchblade.
Shelf Life Magazine asked if I had any writing tips or something. Under articles. I said sure.
Now I will discuss Author Interviews.
I read a lot of them. My students read a lot of them. In fact I have an assignment where they must find two author interviews (one living, one dead) and do various things, answer various questions, eat Ritz crackers, whatever. So I see the value of these interviews, and downfalls. As a professional, the author naturally recognizes the interview as yet another genre to work. So you see patterns. And sometimes disinterest. Other times you really get solid insights, imaginative buzz, practical workings, etc.–always good for a student writer. And…
Things I have noticed:
1.) One sub-genre of the Author Interview is the Non Sequitur answer, or the attempt to be “clever.” This can really only work (if it does at all) if the interview is done over the phone, or live. Being clever over email is never clever, since the response if so premeditated. Either way, there are only about three truly witty people on the planet, so what are the chances of the author being one?
2.) You rarely see combative author interviews. The writers are annoyingly nice. I’d like to see a little Billy Bob being a jerk-nard or maybe the time Gene Simmons told Terry Gross of Fresh Air, “If you want to welcome me with open arms, I’m afraid you’re also going to have to welcome me with open legs.” OK…classy guy, that Gene.
3.) The author interview is a genre, and like the athlete interview, the interviewee often gives cliched, canned answers.
In athletics it’s: Impact player, wake-up call, didn’t bring my A game. You have to take them one at a time, don’t you now?
In writing it’s:
I never write for a certain audience. People didn’t like my stuff in workshop; they thought it was weird. The short collection has to have a cohesion. Rejection is like a Nietzsche quote. My agent…
And then the one I despise/butterfly torn-wing/salt: The ol’ “do anything else if you can” line.
Recently, in a Juked interview of Courtney Eldridge, the author says the best advice she ever received about writing is: If you can do anything else but writing, do that. (I am paraphrasing. I don’t have the copy here, and I am not going into my office on a Saturday. I have yard work and the Kentucky Derby to bet and watch later. It doesn’t really matter. I have heard this line in many, many interviews.)
I want to make clear I respect and enjoy Eldridge’s writing (and her cool site. A five year old reviews her novel) and I think the new print Juked # 6 is rad, so I’ll just hate on the play here, not the player. I’m sure Eldridge is saying what works for her. But I am addressing the larger notion here.
A variation on this idea–again, quoted again and again in interviews–is the “I couldn’t do anything else, so I wrote.” This one rings a bit truer, but still makes me cringe. Let me give my opinion, as clearly as I can:
I think the idea of only writing if you can’t possibly do anything else is a crock of shit. Or: If you can’t NOT write being the only reason to undertake the art. Like writing must be martyrdom, some slog through the soul. It can be, I suppose, and is for some great authors, but writing does not have to be an all-consuming passion in a human’s life. If it is, fine, but why limit the act of writing in that way? Why can’t writing be intellectual play? Yes, play. A challenging activity (thus the key to its pleasure–like golf, chess, crosswords, marathons, etc.–the difficulty of actually increasing the allure). Why can’t writing be one of the many things humans do, to express, to release, to learn, to reflect, to share, to keep to oneself, to breath, to stretch, to think, to do, to feel, to play?
And seriously? If you can do something else well, don’t try writing? Huh? Is that the same with painting? Or music? What about running? If you can do anything else in life, don’t try running? Running fast is like writing very well. Running is lonely. Running is very, very hard. Running takes a lot of time, effort, “training,” with no real way to cheat on your homework. Rejection? The best marathoners in the world might win twice a year. Then their window is quickly done.
Yet people do run, don’t they?
And people write. And then people read their writing. I enjoy a lot of great writing from people who are doing something else.
Ever heard of that dude Anton Chekhov? He was a young writer who wrote young writer stories, light and funny, immature. Then in 1884 he earned a medical degree and began practicing as a doctor, committed to the “country people” (poor and under served) and to the profession. Chekhov was known for adamantly defending the role of the physician and for his empathy for his patients. He also kept writing (God knows why–by this time he could clearly do something else). But something changed. Now, COMBINED WITH his role as doctor, his writing grew, matured, revealed the vivid reality of the humanity he dealt with daily.
Chekhov writes, “Only a doctor can know what value my knowledge of science has been to me” and “It seems to me that as a doctor I have described the sicknesses of the soul correctly.”
Strange, all these doctors who write, and write well. How dare they! Shame to you William Carlos Williams, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, John Keats, etc. How can someone pull a paycheck in one thing and then go and do another? Seems the most human thing in the world to me.
BTW, the Nyorker just reviewed a doctor/writer here. Seems he is making pretty good art.
Poets and Writers (never got that title–poets are not writers?) has a recent article here about contemporary doctor/writers. Apparently, even today, you can do something else, and find time and interest to pick up a pen.
The list of writer/lawyers is long and obvious. I believe Bukowksi was a postman and a drunk (a profession to itself). Renowned painter Ernie Barnes was an offensive lineman for the San Diego Chargers. And, yes, he painted while playing. His teammates called him “Big Rembrandt.”
(Note how Ernie Barnes never paints a character with their eyes open. “We don’t see each other’s humanity” he explains.)
I could go on and on and on. The world teems with humans who do many things well, very well, and also find some time to write. Although I would never compare my own writing to those excellent writers above, I published my first story while working full time as a registered nurse. I now work teaching writing, and I tell people, “I am a teacher who writes, not a writer who teaches.” The other way is fine (A writer who…) but it isn’t the only way. To me, teaching is more fulfilling at the end of the day. But I am still allowed to write! I guess that was the point of this post. Writing can be many things. It can be all-consuming, or not.
I guess that’s what I wanted to say.
Now nachos are another story…
Take them seriously. Always.
My Kentucky Derby bet.
I am going to box four horses in the exacta:
#1 West Side Bernie
#14 Atomic Rain
# 15 Dunkirk
# 6 Friesan Fire