Nick White’s work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Third Coast, Permafrost, and elsewhere. Recently, he earned an MFA in creative writing from the Ohio State University. He is currently at work on a novel. His story “The Exaggerations” can be found in the Summer 2013 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Can you identify the seed of inspiration of your story, “The Exaggerations”? What was the hardest part about writing it?
I thought about the premise of this piece for a long time—almost a year—before I actually started writing it. Usually I go to the page as soon as I have an idea for a story and sort of work through it, line by line, until I have a workable rough draft. But with this story, it ruminated for some time in the back of brain, and I had most of it worked out (except for the ending) before I ever typed the first word. This has never happened to me before—and, so far, it has yet to happen again.
Perhaps the toughest part about writing this story was the ending. It came to me as I was in the middle of writing the piece—around the moment in the story when Forney learns Aunt Mavis was the basis for the exaggeration about the girl with the pig. And then when I reached to the last movement of “The Exaggerations,” the part with his mother’s singing at the funeral, I wanted—like the narrator—to end it there, but I pushed through and wrote that last little paragraph. And it killed me to do so. I was shocked, in fact, by how much it hurt. I realized that, somewhere in the process of writing this story, I had fallen in love with these characters. I’ve often heard of writers who say that such a thing happens to them (and mostly I’ve always thought they were full of shit), but here, with this piece, I finally understood what they were talking about—that sensation of stumbling upon some products of your imagination and tricking yourself into believing the characters are real and wanting, desperately, the best for them and knowing you have to deny them that. I don’t know what this all means exactly. It could mean that I had finally written what John Dufresne calls “the lie that tells a truth.” Or it could just mean I’m a big sap. I’d like to think probably both are true.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
Crafting a story requires more from writers than time; rather, it demands from us everything we have to give and can push us—if we are lucky—to the absolute limits of our intellectual and emotional capabilities.
That is perhaps a little too highfalutin, though. Let me say it another way.
You don’t necessarily get better with experience, but if you keep at it, you do obtain a deeper understanding of yourself and how you order your existence in the world. That, in itself, is worth the price of admission.
Apart from this one–can you share with us the literary magazines you most look forward to reading, and why?
I enjoy the heck out of One Story. Last week, in fact, I read Susan Perabo’s “Indulgence,” which I was happy to learn will soon be performed for the Selected Shorts podcast. This story left me so heartsick when I finished it (again, I’m a sap), and I thought about it long after I put the little saddle-stapled booklet down and moved on to something else. No spoilers, but her conceit in that story is similar to mine in “The Exaggerations,” though I do think hers is done better. Also, I love Virginia Quarterly Review, especially the glossy covers—Roxanne Gay had an essay in there a couple of issues ago called “Bad Feminist” that I immediately insisted all my friends read. (Incidentally, if you’ve never read anything by her, do so. I think she’s one of smartest and funniest writers writing today.) Tin House is also a mainstay on my shelf (in particular, there’s a beautiful piece on amusement park food in the summer issue by Katie Arnold-Ratliff—read it!).
I read journals because it’s like having a backstage pass to the literary world. I can read stories and essays and poems by writers before the works are bound and edited and reviewed. Also, it’s good for me. Keeps me in the know of what’s happening. I’m nosy by nature, and I like to see what other writers are doing.
When we publish, whether in print or online, we hope we’re making a sustained art–something that endures and continues to be significant. What role will sustained art have in a future that’s sure to be full of iPads/Pods/Phones and Kindles, hyper-fast computers, and a reality where we can always be online, all of the time?
I’m not sure anything I write will be “sustainable” or is even considered in most circles “art.” But for my betters, I think there will always be a place for them and their writing in culture, though the format and style may change. I think people have three basic needs in life: a need to eat, to have sex, and to have someone tell them a good story. We crave stories just as much as we do the other two. That won’t go away anytime soon because we are animals easily bored and frightened—and good stories (and poems and essays) can assuage this. Sure the technology will change concerning how readers acquire “texts,” but the human heart (or insert here whatever you consider to be the core of your humanness: soul, psyche, intellect, Oprah) cannot be rebooted.
Of all the things you could be doing, why do you write?
Because I’ve lived too long in the hinterlands of my imagination to be much good at anything else. Also: it’s fun.
In the 1950′s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?
When I was a senior in high school, I went to a writing camp one weekend (yes, I didn’t get many dates . . . ) and Cynthia Shearer (author of The Wonder Book of the Air and The Celestial Jukebox) taught one of the workshops I went to. There, she told us to write what frightens us. That our writing should push us into uncomfortable terrains where there are no easy answers, where right and wrong become clouded. And the older I get, the more I’ve come to understand that the best of our literature often exists in this space.
Tell us about a teacher (“teacher” construed broadly!) who has been important to your writing.
I always knew I wanted to write. Problem was, I sucked (and continued to suck for a long time, and will probably persist in my sucking intermittently for as long as I write)—all this to say, I have no delusions of grandeur. There was no mystical muse in my life, whispering in my ear. I had no wunderkind-like talent, either. If something I write is any good, then I have my writing teachers to thank for that. People like my seventh grade English teacher, Mrs. Cullen, who taught me how to use “who” and “whom” correctly—see? I just did it!—and insisted I read Jane Austen. Also, there’s Mrs. Mooney—she encouraged me to write an essay that compared Reba McEntire’s “Fancy” to Thomas Hardy’s “The Ruined Maid,” aptly called “Parallel Prostitutes.” There was also the poet Richard Lyons who kicked my ass (figuratively, though I’d wager he could literally too) in my first ever creative writing workshop, and the writers Catherine Pierce and Michael Kardos, who saved my life by being there when I needed them the most. And the holy quartet at Ohio State’s MFA program: Michelle Herman (goddess divine), Lee Martin (man with a plan), Erin McGraw (“Mistress of Structure”), and Lee K. Abbott (a bona fide freemason of the short story). I was damn lucky to meet them when I did. Lastly, Nancy Zafris, who took a chance on me and read a story of mine. Of course I could go on and on (I’ve left out so many!), but I think you get the picture. Someone like me (a professional nerd, through and through) never really quits being a student, especially when you’ve been one for as long as I have, and in many ways, my teachers’ psychic fingerprints are on everything I write.