Interviews with Writers in this Book
Sondra Perl, "Interview with Maureen Stanton"
Robert Root, "Interview with Scott Russell Sanders" (excerpts)
Links to additional interviews on the Web
Scott Russell Sanders
Sondra Perl, "Interview with Maureen Stanton"
Sondra: Why do you write CNF?
I read and write creative nonfiction for a connection with my fellow humans, to help me understand what it is to be a person, a woman, an American, to be alive at this time, and to discover what others' lives are like. I view writing true stories as similar to the way my mother and father used to talk with the neighbors when I was a child, over the clothesline, in the street, while doing yard work. This story telling, or gossip (not in the pejorative sense), this sharing of thoughts and experiences and vulnerabilities and losses helped to build community, helped people develop trust in, and tolerance for, each other. In creative nonfiction, we both seek and extend empathy toward each other, which heightens and amplifies our connection and our spirits.
My impulse to read and write creative nonfiction is also documentarian, a witnessing impulse. I want to offer my perspective on what seems to be still real and true about our culture, or as close as we can get to lived reality. I want there to be a plain truth, a reality opposed to the mediated reality of the entertainment industry, and even journalism, which is less and less trustworthy. I trust an individual telling me his or her experience more than I trust a journalistic account of it, or a fictionalized account of it, even though memory is fallible and subjectivity alters a "true" story. Creative nonfiction can deliver history and ethnography and cultural criticism through artful storytelling, which has a more lasting and profound affect on me when I read it.
Sondra: Do you have set routines as a writer? Time of day? Special places?
I have an ideal for how I should write (same time of day, before checking email or errands, certain number of hours per week, etc.). I hold this ideal as the way I want to live my life as a writer, but I am infrequently able to follow this due most recently to working as a free-lance writer, which is interruptive. But I am hoping to attain the ideal at some point in the future. I write in my office at home, but have found that I can be quite productive at writing residencies.
Sondra: What do you do when you feel stuck with a piece?
I leave it for a while and work on something else. Often, a few weeks away from the essay, or even a few days, allows for a fresh look at it, and enables me to resolve some issues. Sometimes, writing "outside" the piece can help. For example, creating short meditations on subjects or characters as separate documents, as free-write pieces that don't have to fit or serve any purpose. This can liberate the thinking on the piece, and sometimes that material can be imported back into the essay. Sometimes, researching the subject can open up avenues for writing, learning something more about a topic or event, finding a fact or bit of trivia that might not be used, but might launch me in a different direction with the essay.
Sondra: Do you keep a notebook or journal?
I keep a journal, but it has rarely figured into my essay writing. That journal is mostly for kvetching. But I keep many small pads of paper everywhere (night stand, car, coat pockets, etc.) for jotting down ideas and thoughts and sometimes whole clear sentences or memories. These scraps of paper go into file folders. There is an uber-folder called "Essay Ideas," but when there are more than two or three scraps of paper on a particular subject, that subject earns its own file folder.
Sondra: Where does your inspiration to write come from?
From my own life (past and present), from observing other people and their actions and behaviors (individuals I know, strangers, and the culture at large), and from reading excellent writing, which always inspires me to jot down ideas.
Sondra: Do you have an ideal reader, and if so, what would he or she be like?
I never imagine the readers of my work. I hope there are some. If so, I'd like to meet more of them.
Sondra: What is the most important thing you would want to tell students about creative nonfiction?
Take the time to revise and work on the piece. I've seen so many promising essays and memoirs, but I know the student will not go back and do the work necessary to make it a publishable or great piece. Also, approach true material with a generous spirit and intent, or at least with some distance and perspective, as opposed to writing to vilify, expose, exploit, exact revenge, shock, or vent. This doesn't mean writers can't tell the truth.
Sondra: I know you also do some writing for people in the business world. How does this writing differ from your creative nonfiction?
The business writing I do is rote, formulaic, dull, which is fine because it doesn't take creative energy. I try to write clearly and cogently in that limited business style, but sometimes I sneak in a word I know someone will have to look up.
Sondra: What is the role of research in your work? Has doing research on a topic shaped the way you write a particular piece?
I use research in most of my creative nonfiction writing, though the research doesn't always show up in the piece. Research helps me understand the subject and can sometimes lead the essay in a new direction. Research, when blended well into a personal essay or memoir, can help to make the personal more universal, can set an individual's story in a larger context. Research sometimes validates my instincts or observations, but I like when it doesn't do that because then I have to think differently about the subject.
Sondra: What is the greatest satisfaction you get from writing?
There's great joy in the learning that comes with writing, learning about myself or more about the world, and there is great joy in attempting to create art. I find it satisfying if readers are emotionally moved by what I write, either laughing or feeling sad or somehow altered, even if just for a moment.
Sondra: Who are some of the writers in the world of creative nonfiction who influenced you?
Annie Dillard was an early influence for her sheer richness of language and her sensibility. David Foster Wallace has been an influence because of his innovations in literary journalism and personal essay. I admire Vivian Gornick. I admire James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy, Virginia Woolf. There are so many wonderful essayists historically and today. A lot of my early pieces are influenced by the fiction I read in college, by, for example, Raymond Carver and Toni Morrison.
Sondra: How many projects do you typically work on in the same period?
I typically have several projects going at once. I have a short attention span and am easily bored, so I jump around from project to project. This also helps if I am stuck. I can leave a piece and work on something else for a while and still feel productive. Currently I am working on four new essays, a memoir, a literary journalism piece, and on the back burner I'm collecting pieces for an anthology. Also, I'm collecting scraps for new ideas that are not in the writing stage. This means that it takes a long time for me to finish something.
Sondra: How much are you thinking about the writing you're going to do as you go through your normal life? To what extent are you subconsciously alert to potential subjects?
When I'm involved in a freelance project, I mostly focus on turning that around quickly, and so that occupies my mind. But around that, ideas for essays emerge all the time, when doing laundry, driving, listening to the radio, walking, swimming, grocery shopping, trying to sleep at night, reading, socializing, gardening. For me, watching television and movies are the activities most antithetical to generating ideas, but at times I need to stop the ruminating and the analyzing. I think I've always been a curious observer, a people watcher, and introspective, which is a good fit for an essay writer.
Sondra: What's the normal gestation period for something you write? How long between the time when you first notice the subject or record an interest in writing about it to the time you send it out to the world?
There doesn't seem to be a normal period of time; it varies widely. An essay I wrote about doing laundry began as notes in laundromats fifteen years before I started writing it, and then it was four years between the first draft and its publication. This is longer than ususal, but I'd say that a piece incubates for at least a year, and probably a couple. I'm a slow writer.
Sondra: How many readers see your work before it's published?
Typically five or six, sometimes as many as seven or eight. I am in a writing group with six people, and I have a couple of other writer friends whose criticism is invaluable.
Sondra: How many drafts of an essay do you usually write?
At least ten. Most of my essays go through many, many drafts, and the book-length memoir I wrote went through a dozen revisions. That doesn't mean that bits of raw writing don't find their way into essays, but the whole piece is typically revised and arranged and rearranged many times.
Let's talk about your short piece "Water" that's included in the anthology. It takes place at the YMCA. What was the impetus for writing that piece? How did the essay evolve?
The piece came about because I was swimming so frequently at the YMCA, at least four times a week. My boyfriend had recently died, and I took a new job and moved to a new town, so didn't know anyone for a while. I spent a lot of time at the Y and found it to be such an interesting public space, with a kind of forced intimacy among strangers. I jotted notes about experiences there, and after about a year, wrote the essay. I revised it a little, but not much. This is unusual, as I typically revise quite a lot, but this piece is one of those rare ones that emerged somewhat fully formed, probably because it had existed in my head for a long time.
You wrote two different endings for that piece. Would you be willing to include the longer one here and explain why you omitted it in your later version?
Yes, I'd be willing to share that ending, since the piece has been published with both endings. I chopped that paragraph off a few years after writing the essay, when I thought it was too much of a summary. I still go back and forth between which version I prefer.
First ending to "Water":
"And I swim. I remember my life and it seems to me, underwater, what has happened was purposeful. I go back to my childhood and I remember my birth, hypnotized. I am a fish, swimming from my little stream out into the big ocean, and sometimes, I am scared."
Did you learn anything about yourself by writing this piece?
Yes, I did. I often think of myself as a misanthrope, but "Water" shows me that mostly I feel affection and empathy for my fellow humans.
Robert Root, "Interview with Scott Russell Sanders" (excerpts)
Root: How much are you thinking about the writing you're going to do as you go through your normal life? I mean, to what extent are you subconsciously alert to potential subjects?
I suppose I'm writing all the time, or at least I keep finding material and ideas and images everywhere I turn. The process isn't deliberate. I don't go to the farmer's market, say, or to the lumber yard, looking for just the right patch of conversation or the right slant of light, but over and over again I find what I need. I read with pencil in hand, marking passages that teach me something new, underlining phrases or sentences that seem well made, but I rarely go to books for specific information. Since I'm an essayist of ordinary life-rather than a travel writer, a memoirist, a journalist, or a scholar-I'm apt to brood on just about anything I encounter. I jot things down in a pocket notebook, and occasionally I write more elaborate accounts in a journal, especially when I'm traveling. But when I'm in the flow of composing, when a piece of writing is moving well, I quit making notes and invest all my energy in the work itself.
Root: How many drafts of an essay do you usually write?
That's difficult to calculate, but by any calculation the answer is, too many. I write very, very slowly. Because I taught myself to write in isolation, almost entirely by reading, I formed the habit of composing sentence-by-sentence. When I begin a piece, I recast the opening sentence in my head dozens of times before I find a form that satisfies me, and then I type it down. Then I recast the second sentence in my head dozens of times before I set that down. And so I inch my way ahead. Whenever some later sentence raises questions about anything that has gone before, I go back and revise those earlier passages. And every time I return to the keyboard-after a night's sleep, a walk around the park, or even a cup of coffee-I start over at the beginning, polishing my way forward, line by line. This means that, by the time I finish an essay, the opening paragraph has been revised maybe a hundred times, and the closing paragraph has been revised four or five times. It's a foolish way to write, but it's the only way I've found that suits me.
Root: Have you ever pursued something and simply couldn't make it work, couldn't make it develop into anything?
Oh, sure, especially in the early years, before I discovered my deepest concerns and before I learned to recognize myself on the page. Nowadays I can usually figure out during the note-making stage if I'm drilling a dry well. If the notes don't begin to take on life, if they just pile up like so many bricks,
then I know to leave them alone. Because of my laborious way of composing, and because of my struggle in recent years to find any gathered time for writing, I can't afford to start essays that I'm not going to finish. When the well is wet, when the material is rich, I feel a combination of excitement and bewilderment, and that's when I know to go ahead
Root: You remarked in "The Singular First Person" about "being bemused and vexed" to read a critical treatment of one of your essays as if it were a work of fiction. As you point out, in spite of using "dialogue, scenes, settings, character descriptions, the whole fictional bag of tricks," it was clearly an essay, not a short story.You write, "I was writing about the actual, not the invented. I shaped the matter, but I did not make it up."
The line between fiction and nonfiction may be fuzzy when seen from the outside, by the reader, but from the inside, from the writer's perspective, it seems to me quite clear. When I write what we're calling creative nonfiction, I feel bound by an implicit contract with the reader: I don't invent episodes, don't introduce characters who were not actually present, don't deliberately change circumstances. Of course I may change circumstances without knowing I've done so, because memory and perception are tricksters. We all realize that no two people, confronted by the same event, will see exactly the same thing; we realize that memory shapes and edits our past. So when I sit down to write about actual events and places and people, I don't imagine that I can give a flawless transcript, but I do feel an obligation to be faithful to what I've witnessed and what I recall. In writing nonfiction, I feel an obligation to a reality outside the text; in writing fiction, I feel no such obligation.
Root: There are so many influences in what anyone reads and so many voices you may ultimately have. How do you tune your ear for your voice?
For better or worse, I spend more hours a day writing my own prose than reading anybody else's. I think you grow into your voice on the page, just as you grow into your body. A singer performs with his or her body; the body is an instrument, and each body, if developed to its full power and subtlety, produces a unique sound. When I'm composing, and sorting through those dozens of sentences in my head for every one that I put down on paper, I still hear plenty of false notes, but I discard them. I'm listening for what sounds right, what sounds true, what carries conviction. That's not to say I never hit a false note, never lapse into imitation, but I think I do so less often nowadays because I test everything against my stubborn sense of who I actually am.
Links to additional interviews on the Web
"Material Witness" by Allison Block. Part interview, part review of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (from which the essay "Let it Snow" in Part II of Writing True is taken), in this piece Sedaris discusses the inspiration for his creative nonfiction essays-his family.
Scott Russell Sanders
"Interview with Scott Russell Sanders" by Jen Hirt. In this interview with a University of Idaho M.F.A. student, Sanders discusses the successes and setbacks of his writing life, experimental nonfiction writing, and the role of nonfiction writers in society.
"Selective Memory" by Karen Rosica. In this brief interview, Wienecke describes how the revision process led to a change of style in her essay Snakebit (in Part II of Writing True).
Interview from Scene Missing Magazine. An entertaining question and answer series with the poet in which he addresses questions such as "If the world is a place of portals and doors, where do the important doors go?" and "When was the last circumstance in which luck was on your side?"
Interview from the journal Creative Nonfiction. Alice Steinbach discusses her essay "The Miss Dennis School of Writing" (see Part II of Writing True) in this interview for Creative Nonfiction.
Interview with Dagoberto Gilb by Robert Birnbaum. In this interview, Gilb analyzes what it means to be a writer.
Interview with Colson Whitehead by Anderson Tepper. Whitehead discusses subject and voice in his collection of essays on New York (from which "The Port Authority" in Part II of Writing True was taken) in this brief interview from The Village Voice.
Fadiman discusses researching and writing her book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. "Do Doctors Eat Brains?" from Part II of Writing True is one of the sections in Fadiman's larger work about the conflict between the Hmong (an Asian culture with Chinese and Laotian roots) and western medicine.
http://www.ksu.edu/english/touchstone/Interviews/2001 Interview Patricia Hampl.pdf
We Were Such a Generation"-Memoir, Truthfulness, and History: An Interview with Patricia Hampl" by Shelle Barton, Sheyene Foster Heller, and Jennifer Henderson. In this interview, Hampl discusses the intersection of poetry and creative nonfiction and memoir writing in America.
"Loving Obligations" by Alden Mudge. A great companion piece to Miller's lecture in Part II of Writing True, this interview expands upon Miller's relationships with her father and mother.
Interview with Alexandra Fuller by Andrew Duncan. The author discusses her memoir Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight. An excerpt from the book can be found in Part II of Writing True.