“If I had tried to line together four or five of these [short chapters], it might feel cumulatively too dense or heavy.”
“That’s such a nice thing about writing, isn’t it? It’s exciting for me because I don’t know where the piece is going to go and beyond that I don’t know who it’s going to connect with if it will at all. Sometimes it doesn’t. But when it does, it’s sort of amazing.”
“I don’t really have a plan. I follow the leads of memory and curiosity and go with it.”
“They haven’t tried to kill me, but they haven’t thrown me a party either.”
“The thing that makes an essay work and seem like a miracle is the thing that makes it seem so painful as well.”
Sonja Livingston stopped by The Creative Nonfiction Podcast to talk about her award-winning memoir “Ghostbread.” She was also gracious enough to read from three short chapters. It’s about family and growing up in poverty.
“[My family] hasn’t tried to kill me, but they haven’t thrown me a party either,” Sonja says.
This episode is layered and a bit experimental. I hope it adds a little extra somethin’-somethin’ to the usual interview. If you dig it, let me know on Twitter @BrendanOMeara and I’ll invite others to try something similar.
“I don’t spend a lot of time lingering over breakfast,” he says on The Creative Nonfiction Podcast. [Subscribe on the Apple Podcast app or Google Play Music! And leave a review in iTunes. One generous soul has left a 5-star review! Join him/her!]
Check this: When dealing with early drafts (and Dinty writes as many as 40), he says, “I don’t think, ‘Oh, God, I hate myself. I’m a horrible person.’ I think, ‘You know what? I can actually fix this.'”
Great advice for patience and kindness to you and your work.
Please leave a review on iTunes, subscribe to the podcast, and share with a friend.
Beyond that, all I ask is that you share this episode with people you think will get something out of it and that you quickly rate the podcast. It’ll help me reach more people and get these gifted writers in front of more readers.
Thanks for listening!
Here is our SpareMin conversation with a transcription below. This transcription is NOT from The Creative Nonfiction Podcast.
BO: Thanks for coming on my humble little Book Show, a micropodcast with SpareMin, it’s great that we can have this little conversation about books and writing. Thanks for that.
MC: Pleasure to be here.
BO: Since you the memoir and you write a bunch of essays, you’re also deeply into fiction, I wonder what type of writer do you identify most with? Do you see yourself more as a fiction writer or nonfiction?
MC: It’s really interesting. I think that…I was trained as a fiction writer and meaning I have an MFA in fiction and I grew up reading more fiction than I did essay or nonfiction. I continue to write fiction. At the same time, I actually wouldn’t separate the two genres so much. With the nonfiction it’s not so dissimilar with the craft of fiction.
For one is not really training for the other. I think of myself as a writer I guess is what I would say. I think if you look at the balance of my publications you would find that I’m more prolific and successful creative nonfiction writer than I am a fiction writer. But I think that’s about outcomes when I release things into the world. I don’t find the process to be so different.
BO: Which one, given that you have a foot in both pools, which one do you find most difficult to get your head around? Which one do you struggle with on a craft level if one is more challenging than another?
MC: Honestly I find both to be difficult in dissimilar ways, I appreciate the limitations of what has happened within nonfiction which means that there are so many less choices that you have to make, right? You’re working from a very concrete set of, let’s see, of facts and experiences and things that are out there in the world and where one might have to do research and find information in the creative form, I find that when I approach something naturally and intuitively with those limitations and with the considerable gift of memory what has honed what has happened to its sensory essence for me. I’m usually able if I’m writing personal essay or creative nonfiction to feel my way towards the things relatively naturally. The difficult part is giving up what is actually at stake there in the material that I didn’t want to admit or realize. And having to reckon or grapple with it.
In fiction I tend to find the difficulties I have in fiction are in allowing what is there to emerge organically because I usually have to have something personally at stake in the material that impels me to go into it. And then in allowing the events that are there to get at something that is true which did not not necessarily happen, right? In other words that I need to make the meaning that’s there and feel my way toward it when it’s relatively invented. So, you know, I think that’s an interesting difference it tends to be. But I guess what I have difficulty with is the invention to get to the meaning within fiction and the inhabiting of the pain/loss or perhaps meaning on a personal level when it’s nonfiction.
BO: How do you work through that in your fiction where you’re trying to reach that truth that is somehow grounded in personal experience, but you’re also using imagination as well. Do you sit there and muscle through it at your desk or do you write from a roughly sketched outline? How do you approach that?
MC: I tend to find these things mostly wholesale. More by an image or by something I can see happening or by voice. Most of my fiction is relatively voice driven. That imaginative act tends to be more of an intuitive one. I’m into something and I write it. I have the most difficulty when I actually have to go into other thigns that are not necessarily …. and so I struggle the most when I’m trying to figure out what’s happening or impose my ideas on it. so muscling through is usually the worst thing. I usually end up abandoning the thing I try to muscle through.
BO: When I was talking with the memoirist and novelist Tom McAllister, he was talking about that in terms of writing his fiction. He has to find the voice of whatever story he’s writing first and when he find that it’s downhill from there. He came to the voice relatively early in that writing process [of The Young Widower’s Handbook], it was so easy once he found that voice. Is that where you spend a lot of your time finding the point of view and the sort of tone and voice of the story and from there it’s like running downhill?
MC: It really is, I write almost exclusively in first person so, typically for me what I have to do is find out who is speaking and how. Then the voice itself writes the story. I think that’s not typical. I spend a lot of time studying third-person craft. I love Flannery O’Connor, all of these writers that use the Munro, they use the great power of omniscience and moving in and out of point of view. I’m simply not that kind of writer for whatever reason first-person voice is what drives my fiction.
BO: What are some influential first-person books that you re-read as a North Star as you create your own work?
MC: I think I have to say that I do love Gatsby, I was going to say I love Fitzgerald, but I think his short stories are kind of trash. I find that in that particular book he pushes the narrative limits and does with first-person what we tend to think of the function of third person. That high retrospective mode that he engages in which is really closer to the devices that we say in essay where the past is weighted by the years that came between and we tend to look at that squarely. I really admire the use of that voice. We think of first person as being the character is the scratch on the lens so what you see gets you around the narrator to what the narrator doesn’t necessarily want to admit. Fitzgerald’s product is different in a similar way so perhaps seeing around the narrator more, I really admire some of Murakami’s really short sections that are in the first person. And I am a tremendous fan of Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go.” which does these things in the first person where you have this high retrospective mode and then we’re seeing the world, what’s there is being weighted by sensibility that takes into account what’s happened.
Similarly, there’s a book of stories by Willa Cather, it’s a compilation of short stories she wrote in a lifetime spent most writing novels, but she again has a similar mode where her first-person narrators are to some extent looking back and that they themselves may be unable to understand or were complicit in and time sort of clarifies what they’re getting at.
BO: Now when Teacher came out, and for people who are listening who may be wanting to write books or to publish and might not know what that’s like, what was the experience Teacher publishing and coming out and you holding your first book, hardcover in your hands for the first time, what was that experience like for you this being your first book?
MC: It was pretty magical. I got a galley in the mail. I got a galley in the mail and that was exciting, but is not a hardcover copy, right? When the book came out, fresh off the presses for the Mississippi Book Festival and I was flown out there to be on C-Span and do some stuff with the book and I hadn’t seen it yet. The fist copy of the book I saw as handed to me by one of the founders and directors of the Mississippi Book Festival and invited me over to his Antebellum house with his mother who had been a teacher who had read the book in one day when it came out the day before. The first book I held was one that had already been read for this man’s very, very kind educator mother. So I think it was perfect in a way.
It’s an indescribable feeling and you quickly realize that just because a book has become an object, it doesn’t really change anything, you still have to hustle the book. You still have to go about your day. Most people are not all interested in the fact that your narrative art is an object in the world.
But that first moment. I let myself enjoy it. The cover and weight of the book and the pages. This is a beautiful thing and I should take a moment to enjoy it and mark it up with my terrible handwriting.
“When it gets too easy, I need to challenge myself and make it harder again.” —Jen Miller
What’s this? Three weeks in a row? It’s happening, folks, and thanks for hanging in while I get my feet back under me after the big, cross-country move.
What better way to follow up that sentence than by talking about Jen Miller (@ByJenAMiller), a runner who wrote the engaging, funny, and raw memoir Running: A Love Story(Seal Press, 2016). It’s about running, love, and control and we talk about that and much more.
We also chat about freelancing and some of the more granular details of the business that I think will benefit any freelancer, novice or expert.
Paul talked a lot about his own process and how that has changed over the years. He also talked about some of the best advice he can give an aspiring writer: cultivating fandom.
Why don’t you just listen to him?
Go ahead and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. If you think you know someone who would benefit from this interview, share it with them. Also, subscribe to my monthly newsletter. You can preview it here to see what it’s about. Dig it? Then put in your info along the right sidebar.
“I never imagined that I would write this book. I never imagined actually that I could write any book. The idea of book-length work terrified me.” —Sarah Einstein (@SarahEM2 on Twitter)
“I believe you have to give memory time to mellow and age and become a narrative.” —Sarah Einstein
Here I’ve got Sarah Einstein, author of Mot: A Memoir, a book that explores the friendship between Sarah and a homeless, mentally ill man named Mot (Tom backwards). He’s a brilliant, fascinating, resourceful man and an unlikely source of stability for Sarah during this period of her life.
In any case here’s the streaming player and notes from the show:
Shepherd, A Memoir, by Richard Gilbert, Michigan State University Press, 318 pages, $24.95
Part of what made reading Shepherd so enjoyable was knowing some of the story behind the story. Day 1 of a book’s conception is never—repeat, never—what the book will look like when it births. At that point you cut the cord and watch the book gasp for air. Give it a whack on the bum. Continue reading “Shepherd: Lambing, Farming, Fatherhood”