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.