Ruth Joffre is currently an MFA candidate at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She has taken third in the Glimmer Train Fiction Open and has published shorter work at Drunken Boat, Clapboard House, Moon Milk Review, and Abjective. Her story “Go West, and Grow Up” appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Tell us a little about your KR piece. How was it written? What was the hardest part about writing it?
Okay. Here is where I have to admit that my KR piece, which has been published as a short story, has become the second chapter of a novel, The Soft Stuff Last, which I began writing in my junior year at Cornell. Of course, I did not realize it was a novel at the time. I was taking an advanced writing course with my dear friend (and biggest fan!) Alice Fulton, and the first piece I turned in was this little semi-autobiographical story about my dog dying. It was one of the first pieces up for workshop, very early in the semester, and Alice very kindly said of it, “This could be a novel.” Imagine: I was then only nineteen (and am now only twenty-two, to put this in context). Nineteen and I had written this sad thing I had no idea what to do with, then here comes Alice, a renowned poet with a story in that year’s Best American, saying make it a novel. I am willing to bet that this happens to a lot of young writers and that there are plenty of others who responded the same way I did: but how do I write a novel? I wanted to ask, what does that even mean? So I did not touch it for another eight or nine months.
When I did finally pick up the story again, it was summer, right before my senior year, and I was trying to avoid the big, looming decisions I would have to make about my future, which meant at that time applying to MFA programs. My writing was really suffering. I had been doing terrible work. But in the back of my mind, I was holding onto that bit of encouragement from Alice: “This could be a novel.” So I decided to give it a try. I balked at the word novel and decided to call what I was doing linked stories, instead; that was less frightening. When I sat down to start writing the next story, I thought, where is this character going to go? I knew I did not want her to go the way I did, because I was not interested in writing about my life. I knew also that at the end of the story I workshopped in Alice’s class, I had the narrator’s family losing the house and ending up on the streets. So I started from there. The first line was easy: “We had been living in the car for the better part of a year when my mother left my father.” It set up the time gap between the first and second stories. It set up the characters, their relationships, the situation they were in and the fact that it was dire. From there, I progressed logically: what do you do when you’re living out of a car and have no money for food or gas? Try to keep things going from bad to worse. Obviously, my characters are not exactly successful.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
This is a particularly intense question for me, seeing as how five years ago I was a freshman in undergrad and the only thing I knew about writing was that I did it all the time. I had no sense of a process beyond production and had no way of qualitatively assessing either the process or the work I produced. My revision process, certainly, was a joke. So everything I have learned, I learned in the last five years. And there is a lot of it. Lately, I have taken to describing the writing process as a kind of meditative practice: I have to breathe a certain way to get the words right, and I have to get the words right to control my breathing, and thus the cycle perpetuates itself. I spend most of my time so focused on the sentence or sentiment at hand that it feels like I’m wearing blinders through the entire story. It works for me, keeps the writing on an intuitive level. It also feeds directly into my preoccupation with syntax and with manipulating syntax in order to evoke a certain response in the reader. The reader can be forced, simply by the introduction of punctuation, to take an extra breath or two, to slow down– or speed up. It matters how you experience a sentence. A clause can be soothing. A comma can be violent. A friend of mine once said of my writing (of an earlier draft of the KR piece, actually), “Damn, girl, you’re like Annie Oakley with those commas.” This remains my favorite description of my work to date. Nowadays, I see myself as less of a sharpshooter and more like the lover who might smother you while you sleep. But so it goes.
Apart from this one–can you share with us the literary magazines you most look forward to reading, and why?
Tin House is always at the top of my list, for I think obvious reasons. Recently, I have been most impressed by work (of both fiction and poetry) in Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast, and A Public Space. But now that the new fall issues are starting to roll out, I am excited for anything and everything.
Philip Larkin has a great short essay on writing called “The Pleasure Principle.” In it, he sketches three stages of writing a poem. The steps begin like this: “the first (stage) is when a (hu)man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it.” Are his stages germane to your writing process, and what you try to make when you write?
Trust a poet to phrase it precisely the way I would if I could. Though I cannot say I agree with the rest of Larkin’s essay, particularly since I am not familiar with the exact occasion of its writing, I do like his steps. Earlier, I was writing about how most of my writing process involves trying to manipulate the reader into feeling what I want them to feel exactly when I want them to feel it. This melds something of Larkin’s first two stages: I am responding in a certain way to this thing, and I want to recreate that response in my reader through the use of syntax. His third stage, as I see it, has more to do with hope than anything. We hope that we have succeeded in making a person feel a certain thing– or anything– as they read. And of course we hope they will pick up our work in the first place. These are big dreams, and one can never be too sure they will be realized. The task of writing is to keep on anyway.
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?
I believe that literature is a mindset. In order to fully realize a character or a story (or even a poem), one must set aside one’s own judgments, experiences, and preconceived notions of the world in order to completely inhabit the world of that work. This is true both of writers, who daily undergo the enormous chore of getting around their own egos if they are to get any work done, and of readers.
Tell us about a teacher (“teacher” construed broadly!) who has been important to your writing.
I think of myself as having two mentors. One I have already mentioned: Alice Fulton. The other is Stephanie Vaughn. I met Stephanie at Cornell. The first time I saw her, she was giving the welcome at a reading by Alison Bechdel– just the welcome; someone else gave the introduction. She was at the podium for at most a minute, but that was enough for me to be sure of her. I went gunning for her creative writing class the next fall, my sophomore year, and I got her. At the time, I did not realize how serendipitous it was. You see, Stephanie once wrote a story, “Dog Heaven,” about a dog named Duke and the way he died, and this story has been so important to me and my life as a writer because I had a dog named Duke, too, and that was the story I put up in Alice’s class: the story of how he died. So that piece, and this one in KR, would not exist if I had not read Stephanie’s story and been inspired to write my own version. I would not have written the novel I did without her, and I would not be the writer I am today if I had not been so lucky– so damn lucky– as to have Alice Fulton and Stephanie Vaughn in my corner when I was just starting out. I think my entire life would have been different if we had not met.