29 August 2014

World Blog Tour: Isaac Boone Davis


Isaac Boone Davis (pictured here with what appears to be some species of Elvis) is a damn fine writer who is also blogless. Therefore, I am lending some of my Internet real estate to him so that he can join the World Blog Tour.

And now, Mr. Davis.

What are you working on?

    As much as I'm working on anything (which is to say not much) I'm playing around with a few stories that have some interest in becoming a novel. They are centered around life in eastern Kentucky; life in the coalfields after there are no more coalfields. This is not out of any great passion of mine for the material. It's just that I live there, currently. And I am a ridiculously non-creative person. I've discovered that writing about eastern Kentucky is a little like writing about Vietnam. Everyone is extremely possessive of their own particular experience and whatever your experience was there it better align with the people that matter. Lest you run the risk of being the subject of very angry blog posts where you will be accused of not "understanding the richness of the land, the struggle of the people, or simple dignity of the local cholesterol." My brother Willie has a hilarious phrase about this: Holler than thou. The other thing about the writing life in eastern Kentucky is that everyone here likes getting offended. They do it a lot. They have a great affinity for the word 'stereotype.' You would think it would be a cash crop or something. 

     Boy, that Vietnam metaphor did not hold up. 

    How does your work differ from others of its genre?

    It's worse. 

   I don't exactly know that I have any kind of genre. I've been pitching a collection to a few agencies that revolved around "the darker side of the working class experience." Strangely, that hasn't garnered much interest. Anything I've ever written tends to be ninety five percent autobiographical or biographical. Again, I have remarkably little imagination. I'm a bit of a method actor that way I guess.

     Why do you write what you do?

   When people would ask me this question before, I would say 'because I wanted to give voice to the voiceless.' I was a truly wretched person. I was like Bono if his entire audience consisted of his mom and some dude at The Review Review. I really think some of the instinct to create (whether its through writing, or music or making vintage birdhouses) is hardwired. Eventually,if it's in you, you just simply need to do it. 

 I wanted to record things that I've seen and stories that I've heard about happening to people that otherwise may not get told.Stuff, that maybe didn't happen to people every day or maybe in some ways were completely regular events for people, but not easily relatable. For example I knew this girl who would go down to the Federal prison on 200th Street in Sea-Tac, Washington. And she would dance for her guy who was locked up there. And I knew a guy who was locked up in Monroe who had this insane story about the day he got out of prison. So I sorta rubbed the two of them together and wrote a story about it. I knew this kid who was risking his life after work every day to buy crystal meth for his dying mom. So I wrote a story about it. I knew some girls who were homeless and stealing for a living. So I wrote a story about it. I knew a guy who had been sexually assaulted and when he would drink he wouldn't stop talking about it. And would sometimes get into fist fights with people who didn't want to hear about it anymore. I wrote it down. This stuff just seemed worth recounting even if it was ugly and awkward and painful as shit. I don't play guitar anymore. I can't paint or draw or design antique furniture. My singing voice has caused miscarriages in livestock. If I was going to record any of these things it was going to have to be by writing them down. 

    Explain your writing process

    It ain't much. I work all day and I'm pretty tired when I get home. I try hard to schedule some time for it on my days off and maybe another day or two during the week. I do agree that the best stories are the one's that you have written in your mind before you commit to paper. Going into a story without a roadmap is terrifying to me. There are ocean's smaller than my inner critic. If I don't know what I'm about to write I'll get confused or just ditch it. I have to know what I'm wanting to talk about. 
   There's a funny part of Mark Richard's autobiography House of Prayer Number Two where he is interviewing Tom Waits and he thinks he's going get drunk with Tom and watch him write Cold Water or something. But, it turns out Tom Waits doesn't want to drink (at least not that night.) And when asked about watching him write a song, he says "No. That would be like watching someone bathe." Most stories I write take a while for me to write. I average six pages probably a month. It's a lot of hunt and peck and a ton of re-writing. I read aloud a bunch to catch mistakes. When I think something is close I have a few writer friends who I have learned to trust over the years. I didn't go to college and I've never been to a writing conference in my life, so the internet has been a huge help in finding a writing community. My sole piece of journo-fiction, The Cherry Picker, would never have happened without the careful editing of Chris Miller, who is an enormous talent and exacting editor.He was like a personal trainer. Always ready to pick me up when I didn't want to keep going. Recently, I've learned to show my work to my fellow editors at Smokelong. People like Tara Laskowski and Gay Degnani and Ashley Inguanta. Smokelong does not mess around so I've learned to keep my ego in a box when I show them something. It reminds me of what Stefan Grossman said about taking guitar lessons from Gary Davis: there are no shortcuts. 

   The best story I can think of about writing process is Louise Erdich talking about how she writes when driving through the North Dakota. Literally, when driving. She keeps a journal in the passenger seat. Something about the idea of literature as a possible act of vehicular homicide. I mean why do it at all if it doesn't run the risk of killing somebody?

    So here's the links to a couple of my stories. If you want to check them out. 

  Journalism. Probably the only thing I've done that will ever take that much out of me.

Crappy job story. I'm addicted to reading them because I've had so many. I figured I could write one. Parts of it are sorta funny.   http://www.thebaconreview.com/featureone.php?id=45

 First story I ever finished/published. About a kid in Kentucky in a crappy little town who has tasked himself with killing his dying mom.   http://www.writethis.com/z03.html

  Flash fiction. Girls that live the hard way. Sleeping in abandoned buildings, stealing to eat. Hating themselves.     

23 August 2014

Blog World Tour!


Lauren Westerfield
My pal Lauren Westerfield, newly-minted Assistant Essays editor at The Rumpus, has asked me to join something called the World Blog Tour wherein I describe my writing process in all its recalcitrant and perfunctory glory for the world to deconstruct, criticize, and roundly mock.

I said yes, yes, I will absolutely swing aboard that hobo train.

I met Lauren in 2013 at the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop. She was in Maggie Nelson's workshop at the time. In addition to being a fantastic essayist (please read her essay "Twenty-Seven"; it will put the term "sister burn" permanently in your emotional lexicon), she's a certified Hatha Yoga instructor and Whole Foods Nutrition Counselor. I'm surprised she was able to make her way through the alcoholic force-field (read: margarita breath) that surrounded me for that entire week. But I'm very glad she did.

Here goes:     

What are you working on?
I'm working on a collection of short creative nonfiction. It includes re-tooling some of my short fiction which was just thinly veiled nonfiction anyway. As I'm fond of saying, life writes a hell of a lot better than I do. Who am I to attempt to rewrite God's stand-up routine? Besides, so far my nonfiction is getting accepted and my fiction is (almost) all getting punted. That's a pretty good sign that creative nonfiction is the life for me.  

How does your work differ from others of its genre?
It's all autobiographical. It doesn't differ so much because of that as it does because one can't help using their own voice (as opposed to their writerly voice or character voice) when recalling factual events. That's what makes autobiography so interesting to me: all the distinct voices telling true stories from outside our personal experience that we can somehow still relate to and empathize with.  

Why do you write what you do?
People kept telling me that my stories were fascinating. So I started writing them down. Kind of like how this blog started. I was supposed to be writing a term paper or some such brain-chafing horror during my second tour of college. I thought I'd "organize my thoughts" by writing to my brother Greg. Turns out I wrote a lot more letters to Greg than I did pages of term paper. Benjamin Percy, who was my mentor when I was at Tin House in 2013 and read a number of my stories, very graciously dubbed me "the most interesting man in the world". It seems pretty egotistical of me to print that, but doing so reminds me that others find my stories helpful and engaging, even if I only find them somewhere between embarrassing and mortifying.

That's the other reason that I write these things down: because I feel that I have a duty to write about things like child abuse and mental illness from the first person so that I can give voice to those who do not possess the words themselves. So far, judging from the comments I get on my published stuff, it has worked.   

How does your writing process work?
It doesn't. Whatever I do to conceive and write a story is never the same twice. I suppose I could make a graph or a Venn diagram that exposed certain stresses and values that influenced the work (enter a value of "distraught" for x and a value of "drunk" for y and see what kind of parabola it creates).

The one commonality all pieces have is that they are written mostly in my head before I go to the page. If that means two full weeks of writing in my head and not touching a page once, then that's how it works. I met Micheal Arndt at the Hawaii Writers Conference back in 2009, and he wholly endorsed this sort of process. He wrote most of "Little Miss Sunshine" while lying on the floor in his office with a pillow over his face. As he puts it, characters are much easier to control when they're in your head. Once they get on the page, they can get away. 

I wrote "Slapstick" as part of a writing exercise at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. I was in Dinty W. Moore's workshop on creative nonfiction. It was written and revised there in about two and a half rounds, almost all of it while workshop was in session, so essentially in the company of others. 

"White Guys Are All The Same" was written under completely different circumstances. To wit: I sat at the dining room table with a bottle of Chopin vodka, got drunk, and cried through the whole thing -- first through third drafts. Even though I was fictionalizing real-life events, it was horrible to recall and I felt that I needed general anesthesia to get through it. 

When I wrote "My Life With The Bat Children"  I was doing something menial and repetitive -- vacuuming, I believe -- and trying to sort out and explain and enumerate the reasons and history of everything that caused the events of one very traumatic evening. Come to think of it, I write a lot of stuff when I'm doing something else: I wrote "The Refugees" (forthcoming in the Tin House blog) mostly while I was drying dishes.

More than anything, writing works like a songwriting process for me. I hear a "melody" or "voice" in my head. Then I let it brew for a while, run through some phrases mentally, maybe hum or speak some of the words of it aloud to myself before sitting down at the keyboard. (If any of you have heard me talking to myself in half-sentences, I'm actually writing, not seizing.)

I can't stare at a blank page. It completely kills creativity for me. I can't do the thousand-words-a-day quota thing. I can't do the butt-in-seat every day thing (I've written a lot while hiking). And nothing worth expanding on has ever come from any journaling I've ever done.

I just realized that I could've summed up my whole writing process in this one statement by Bruce Lee about the art of Jeet Kune Do: "No form as form; no way as way." Just by being "undisciplined", I am disciplined as a motherfucker, apparently.   

And now writer pals whose work I admire:

(From his website): Dinty W. Moore is author of numerous books, including The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life, Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, and the memoir Between Panic & Desire, winner of the Grub Street Nonfiction Book Prize. 
Having failed as a zookeeper, modern dancer, Greenwich Village waiter, filmmaker, and wire service journalist, he now writes essays and stories.  He has been published in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, Harpers, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, Gettysburg Review, Utne Reader, and Crazyhorse, among numerous other venues.
Dinty is also the editor of Brevity, the journal of concise literary nonfiction.

Kenzie Allen
Kenzie Allen is a poet and Zell Fellow at the University of Michigan, as well as the managing editor of Anthropoid. We met at the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop back in 2011, heard her read at the (now legendary) Sullivan Guerrilla Reading, and I've been bananas about her poetry ever since. If you're lucky enough to be her friend on Facebook, you may even get some of it delivered piping hot to your wall.  

Isaac Boone Davis may be a Turing machine for all I know as I have never seen him in real life (although we've chatted quite a bit online and he has been gracious enough to edit some of my stuff). He's a reader for SmokeLong, and doesn't have a blog, but I command you to read his excellent short fiction which can be found at Blackheart Magazine, Ampersand Review, and Hidden City Quarterly.