A Conversation With Rebecca McClanahan by KR fiction editor Nancy Zafris
Nancy Zafris: You’re one of the few writers who can write exceptionally well in all genres: poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction (which I know you prefer to call literary nonfiction). Do you think you write equally well in each genre? Maybe that’s too direct a question . . .
Rebecca McClanahan: It’s not too direct a question, not at all. It’s just one that I am incapable of answering. Long ago I stopped focusing on how well I’m writing or, more specifically, how my writing would be perceived by others—readers, editors, critics. First off, I tend to agree with Marvin Bell’s notion that a writer should try to “write badly”; he illuminates this concept in “Three Propositions: Hooey, Dewey, and Loony,” one of my favorite essays about writing. Second, it takes all my energies to focus on the task at hand—the writing itself and all it requires. If I also had to stop and think, “Am I a better poet than a fiction writer? A better essayist than a poet?” I’d never get anything done.
NZ: How about a favorite genre?
RM: I don’t have a genre that is my all-time favorite; my favorite varies depending on what I’m most drawn to write at any particular time. Usually ideas work themselves into essays, language play signals the beginning of poems, and character—or plot-driven scenarios end up as fiction. But not always. The writing process remains mysterious to me.
NZ: Most writers, I think (or maybe I’m just generalizing based on myself), seem to like best the piece they’re currently working on. Does that work with you, genre-wise?
RM: Probably not. It seems that whatever genre I’m working in is definitely not my favorite at the moment I am writing. Mostly, writing is hard work even when it engenders joy. So, for instance, after spending three months revising a long, braided essay, I’m thinking, wow, the haiku form looks mighty good to me right now. Or when I’m mired in a formal poetic structure, I start longing for a wild and crazy dramatic monologue spoken by some made-up character. It’s the “grass is greener” syndrome, I guess.
NZ: I can only speak for fiction writers, but I suppose we do a little of the same thing: a short story looks good in the midst of a novel; a short short looks even better. Conversely, the blank page that confronts you after each short story makes the novel look more inviting. With you, however, it’s even more extreme—you have such a wide variety to choose from. And switching genres definitely seems to revitalize you. On the other hand, you’re good at all the genres, more than good. What about switching genres for the apprentice writer?
RM: Your question interests me a great deal, partly because I feel that even though we encourage students—well, at least I encourage my students—to cross genres, such crossing may not always be the best move in the eyes of some literary communities. For the most part, we’re a very specialized bunch. The label “man of letters” or “woman of letters” hardly exists anymore, at least not in M.F.A. circles or in most undergraduate programs or writing conferences, for that matter. My personal experience has been that if you write and publish in more than one genre, especially equally, you might not be fully trusted in any particular camp. If you are a poet who writes essays—aside from academic or critical essays about poetry—certain poets might consider you suspect. Ditto, an essayist who writes poems. Crossing genres, or, worse, never having declared your country of origin in the first place, is seen as suspect by some readers, critics, and fellow writers.
NZ: So the essay isn’t like Canada anymore—we need a passport. I hear what you’re saying about our preoccupation with specializing. Are there consequences to being a generalist?
RM: Well, on a practical basis, if you teach in a writing program, your chairperson or director may not know where to place you, how to describe you, or how to count (or discount) your publications toward promotion or tenure. You may even have trouble deciding which blank to check on applications for grants, fellowships, and membership into writers’ organizations. But most disconcerting, you may find that you are compared not only to other writers, but—horror of horrors—to yourself. If you write in only one genre, you may be compared to other writers in that genre or even to your earlier writer-selves, but at least your poems will not be competing with your essays, or vice versa. You won’t have to hear, as multi-genre writers often hear (or overhear), “Sure, she’s a great critic. But I prefer her novels.” Or “His poems are wonderful. He should stick to them and quit writing those essays.” Or, “She finally found her genre. All those poems were just warm-ups for the novel.”
NZ: Oh yes, the dreaded “warm-up.” Short story writers get that all the time if they write a novel.
RM: Still, I guess these are good problems to have, if you have to have problems. I love writing in multiple genres. It’s like cross-training. That’s the way I think of it: a way not only to eliminate boredom with the normal routine but also to increase performance in our predominant sport (well, assuming we have a predominant sport) by training in other sports. Genre-crossing exercises our writing muscles in different ways.
NZ: Let’s choose a specific genre for a moment: poetry. Tell me a little bit about the book that is just coming out.
RM: Deep Light: New and Selected Poems 1987-2007 is, as the title suggests, a book of poems drawn not only from previously published books (I’ve published four other books of poetry) but also from my more recent body of work.
NZ: How did you select the poems? Did you write the new poems in response to the older ones you chose for the collection?
RM: I don’t consider it a collection in the way you usually think of that word: a gathering of like objects. I worked hard to shape it as a book, not a collection. But, to answer your question, I didn’t write new poems in response to the older ones; the new ones came through as mysteriously as poems always come through. Something in the air, maybe. Or something in my air, in my “constellation of images,” to borrow a phrase from Stanley Kunitz. At any rate, all of the poems—there are 87 in all—were chosen not only because I still claim them as my own but also because they are all, in one way or another, part of the constellation of light/dark images, creating what I think of as an alternating dance of light and shadow. Or so I imagine the structure. The poems are not organized chronologically or according to the book in which they appeared but rather in how each poem talks to the other poems, especially the poems that “touch” it, that are in direct contact. My goal was to create a book that could be read almost as one continuous poem, the end line of one poem leading into the first line of the next, and so on.
NZ: What a great concept, the first line of the first poem leading to the last line of the last poem.
RM: Well, that’s assuming that a reader reads the book all the way through. But, yes, that was the concept. And of course I failed to achieve this feeling of a single utterance, for the shaping of a book is always in some ways a failed endeavor–there are always those wild sections that just won’t cooperate. And, as it turns out, these are some of my favorite sections of the book. Go figure.
NZ: You know, Rebecca, that first-line-to-the-last-line concept sounds suspiciously like a narrative arc. Am I imagining the influence of creative nonfiction and fiction here? How do you think these two genres have influenced your poetry? Is your poetry more narrative, for example?
RM: I’m never sure how to chart influences, except in hindsight. But I definitely feel that my prose has influenced my poetry and vice versa, though perhaps not in the ways you might imagine. From the beginning, I was—by interest and nature, perhaps—a narrative poet. My poems told stories. Almost always. But I find that as time goes on, the more I write essays and stories, the less I tend to tell stories in my poems. More and more, my poems are doing almost everything except tell stories.
NZ: That makes sense to me.
RM: Maybe it’s that cross-training concept working again, I don’t know. I do know that the writing of fiction—the shaping of character—or plot-driven stories, stories with a recognizable arc—has greatly affected the storytelling quality of many of my essays.
NZ: This also makes perfect sense. Right away, I’m thinking of several of your essays that I’ve read.
RM: Guilty as charged. I remember at one point—maybe five years into the writing of it—I was still searching for the right structure for the long, segmented essay “The Riddle Song: A Twelve-Part Lullaby” (which appeared in The Kenyon Review and later became the central essay in The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings). I was desperate, and partly as a way to revise in the most violent way I could (sometimes violence is necessary in the revision stage) I rewrote the essay as a novel. Not a novella, mind you. A full-length novel. Crazy thing to do with one’s time, right?
NZ: A little crazy, yeah. Is that what you mean by your statement, “sometimes violence is necessary in the revision stage”?
RM: Yes. Violence is often required. I remember when I was revising what would become my second book of poems, Mrs. Houdini, Bill Matthews, a friend and a stunning poet and critic, read the manuscript and when he was finished he said lots of nice things—well, he was a nice guy—but then later when we met, he looked up at me and said, “Stop going in with tweezers. Blow the mother up!” Well, he didn’t exactly say ‘mother,’ but I think you get the point. And he was right. We needed to bring in the big artillery. In the end, it helped so much. And in writing the novel version of “The Riddle Song”—a very flawed novel, I might add—I learned how to manage the narrative timeline, how to keep characters present even when they weren’t onstage, and how to shape the emotional arc of the essay. Then I could return to the essay draft and re-see it. Revision by crossing-the-genre is one of the most helpful things I discovered along the way.
NZ: You teach the creative nonfiction class in the Kenyon Review Summer Writers Workshop. A lot of your participants probably arrive either with a memoir or a memoir in mind. Why is that not as simple as it sounds? How do you help them with either expanding or structuring their work, or finding their voice or theme?
RM: Memoir (be it essay-length or book-length) is the most difficult genre I’ve ever worked in—
NZ: How so? Sorry to interrupt; I’m just surprised by your answer.
RM: Probably because it requires the most destruction, particularly in the early stages of the draft. One has to destroy—or at least deconstruct—what happened before one can make a text out of that happening. Steven Harvey says it better in his essay “The Art of Self”: “Only the text, shed of ourselves and hammered into shape, can redeem us. The enemy of the text, then, is what happened….What happened may matter to us, but it is lost on us if we do not transform it into art.”
NZ: But this transformative act, isn’t that the sticking point for memoirists, especially memoirists of late?
RM: I’m not talking about transforming the facts by making things up. Life is too strange and mysterious as it is; a memoirist doesn’t have to make things up, but rather make things from. If you’re going to write memoir—which is not the same as ME-moir, by the way—you have to find a way to see the “pattern in the carpet,” to borrow Henry James’s idea. This means shaping the “what happened” into something larger than the happening itself. And that transforming part is where memoirists, especially beginning memoirists, run into problems. Lately I’ve been thinking of a structure that might be helpful to beginning memoirists, or to any of us attempting to make a shapely text, a meaningful text, out of what life hands us in the form of raw material. At this point, I’ve got it down to a four-part structure: memory, dismember, remember, memoir. So, to get from memory to memoir, you have to go through dismembering and remembering.
NZ: For example?
RM: Let’s say you have a memory—of a place, a time, a character, an event—that you want to shape into a memoir. Once you have that memory, the first thing you need to do is to dismember it. Any way you can.
NZ: How do you do that? Are you speaking psychologically or literarily?
RM: Both. Psychologically, you have to acquire a certain distance on your subject. If you are a character in your memoir—and sometimes you aren’t, you are the “eye” rather than the central “I”—but if you are a character, you have to write yourself as that character, not just as the author talking from the “now” of your life. Literarily, you have to do whatever it takes to frame your experience in another way—to view it from a different angle, for instance, or with a different time frame, or in a different voice or rhythm, or by smacking it up against something that seems totally opposed to it. For instance, when I wrote “We Shall Be Changed” (which appeared in The Kenyon Review), I collided three happenings—my real-life rescue of a squirrel, Salgado’s photographs of migration and displacement, and the Trade Center attacks, though I never mentioned the attacks directly.
NZ: That was a wonderful essay, by the by. And yes, I see where you’re heading. Then what?
RM: After you’ve dismembered the experience, you live with the dismembered draft for a while until you see how it could be remembered. That’s “re-membered,” as in “put the broken pieces back, the broken members.” Once you are able to do that, you will have made something new out of your experience. Then, maybe, you have the beginnings of the memoir.
NZ: I thought of you this morning, Rebecca, as I read the newspaper. Our local columnist had this heading: “Bacon as a bookmark? Librarians tell all.” The article listed all the weird items librarians have found in books. I thought of your essay on book marginalia and bookmarks. It’s always been one of my favorites. (Readers can check out “Book Marks” in Best American Essays 2001 or in The Best American Essays College Edition. First published in Southern Review).
RM: Thank you, Nancy. Make sure to cut out that article for me!
NZ: In addition to bacon as a bookmark, what kinds of contemporary cultural signposts do you pay attention to? Tattoos, for example? I could see you doing a whole study of them.
RM: I’m always noticing the small things around me—I hadn’t thought of these things as cultural signposts. It’s a form of collecting, I suppose, of gathering up the little pieces and then wondering how they all might fit together in a meaningful context. “Book Marks” includes references to a collection of actual bookmarks that my friend Carolyn, a librarian, had retrieved from library books. I also published an essay called “Children Writing Grief” that uses the texts of children’s poems as a way of looking at their grief processes. And lately I’ve been taking notes about the inscriptions on the park bench plaques in Central Park. There are thousands of them, so there’s no way I’ll get to all of them. But several of them, if taken together, might tell a story or suggest an underlying idea about how we memorialize spaces. I hadn’t thought about tattoos. Gee, thanks a lot, Nancy. One more thing for me to lie awake nights thinking about. Why don’t you write the tattoo essay so that I don’t have to?
NZ: Sure, why don’t I write an essay about tattoos—should it be a braided or accordion essay? I’m going to have to take your course to find out the secrets behind these words. Here’s a pretty general signpost: music. Do you like music? Do you write to music?
RM: I love music. Music and dancing. I’d rather sing or dance than do almost anything else. Music was my first college major, my first love, and some form of music has always been part of my life. But I never write to music, never. It takes all my concentration to hear the music of the poem or the essay or the story. If I were listening to another rhythm or instrument or voice, the static would be too much for me. Music has never been a form of background noise for me: it takes all my attention, if it’s good music. If it’s not good, I turn it off.
NZ: I suppose that explains why I can write to music. I know nothing about it; I have a very unsophisticated response to it. But don’t get me wrong, I love music. It makes me happy. Speaking of being happy, let me switch gears a little.
I attended your panel at AWP that was titled: “Joy: The Last Taboo in Creative Nonfiction?” One of the points the panel made was that editors seem to prefer very heavy pieces about damaged lives. You said something quite provocative: that whenever someone in a creative writing class writes a confessional piece about a horrible experience, that writer is commended for being “brave.” You said you’d never heard anyone write about love or joy and be commended for “bravery.” Could you explain this a bit?
RM: Yes, this is something that I’ve always noticed in writing workshops, this tendency to applaud the “courage” it takes for a writer to expose the darkest parts of his life or the life of someone he knows. Now I can think of instances in which it does require courage to tell the truth, however dark that truth might be. But, for the most part, I don’t necessarily feel it takes courage to expose the darkness. Not emotional courage, and definitely not intellectual courage. After all, darkness is all around us. It’s not hard to find. Finding the crack of light in the darkness is harder, I think. Both parts must be present—the dark and the light—if one is trying to tell the truth about one’s existence. I’ve had readers tell me how “brave” I am for having written about difficulties in my life: separation and divorce, extramarital affairs, mental illness, my father’s experience as a fighter pilot, my own cancer diagnosis and surgery. In truth, the hardest things I’ve ever said, on the page or face-to-face, are “I love you” and “I’m grateful.” Without wit or sarcasm. Just say these truths, straight-out. For the writer, I think, darkness is almost never as hard to express as light. But you’re right that many publishers and editors are only interested in the darkest subject matter. If that’s the case, maybe it actually takes more courage—professional courage, anyway—to write from an attitude of joy or light.
NZ: I have to say before we end that I’ve heard you give readings several times, and there is no one I’d rather listen to. A year isn’t a proper literary year for me without the cathartic listening experience your readings deliver. Your prose is as beautiful as the soul behind it, and even in your responses to these prosaic interview questions you transform professional insights into moments of lovely vision. So thank you, Rebecca, for these answers.
RM: Thank you.