You have a PhD in English lit and theory. Theoretically, how do you relate your reading to your writing?
Like most writers, part of my reading regimen is work. I do most of my reading online (blogs, ‘zines, etc.). When I find something that bears further understanding, I’ll go grab a book about it and put it on the never-ending pile. In regards to fiction, though, part of the work is staying current. What are other authors writing about? Which topics are “hot” or current, artistically speaking? And, of course, I watch for tricks that I can steal, adapt, and re-use. Writing is really a shameless craft.
But, more to your question, I remember in graduate school that the professor who taught my postmodern lit class, Jacqueline Foertsch, shared an anecdote about her own training. She said that her advisor told her that the contemporary generation of writers (those writing from, say, the late ’70s through the ’90s) were the first who knew the theory about their own writing before they even began. I think that’s still applicable today. Even though I’ve read a Ph.D.’s-worth of literary and critical theory, I don’t engage these perspectives every time I read. I think, rather, that all the training developed a particular reading strategy that I’m not even aware of anymore — not consciously. Having read books for so long in the pursuit of theses, reading them now for no reason other than to read them means that my opinions, reactions, and critiques are professionally knee-jerk. Now, rather than stopping to consider the social, political, or philosophical implications of a particular turn of phrase, or of a particular conceit, I simply note how the observation-in-question affects my negotiation with the text–the negotiation for meaning. Is it effective, in a closed-system, New Critical sort-of-way? If so, what are the cultural studies sorts of ramifications for the text’s contemporary position? If not, then it’s just a weak part of the text, and I move on.
This relates to my own writing in the sense that I’m trying to create a closed system of meaning that resonates culturally. Certainly, this is a result of the training, but I don’t do it consciously. I’m more aware, simply, of the resonance I want from a particular motif (positive, negative, threatening, empowering, etc.) and what it will take, mechanically, to effect that.
In another interview (with Julie Rose), you mention that for all your academic cred, you’re “primarily … a writer.” What led you to pursue graduate degrees in lit rather than in creative writing?
In the context of Julie’s interview, I think I was saying that I’m primarily a writer despite the other types of work I do: web and print design, copy- and line-editing, and teaching. A great deal, at the time, of the editing and designing was a result of my involvement with Farrago’s Wainscot (http://www.farragoswainscot.com), the online journal of weird or experimental fiction that I co-founded with Aaron Leis and Michael Constantine McConnell. These days, Farrago’s Wainscot has finished its run, and my editing and design work come from other sources (I edit copy for Mark Teppo as a part of his involvement with Subutai Corporation (http://subutai.mn/) and Foreworld, Inc., who are responsible for The Mongoliad (http://mongoliad.com/). My design work is pretty restricted to jobs that come with personal references.
So, despite all of that, I was, and am, primarily a writer. I spend far less time writing than I do designing and editing, but that’s because the writing commands a much purer form of attention. I tend to do the year’s work in writing during about three months out of the year, and then I spend the next nine thinking about how I’ll execute next year’s projects.
But as far as pursuing degrees in literature and theory rather than creative writing — the decision was part luck, part random decision, and part calculated scheme. When I finished my B.A., I was accepted into a creative writing program at a rather large public university in another state. I was all set to go, but in the last few weeks before I did, I suddenly realized that I simply didn’t want to study creative writing. I needed to know more about the poetics of literary expression (my Ph.D. concentration is in poetics); I needed to be more familiar with the Western literary tradition that informs almost any work of contemporary fiction. Learning to develop my voice, and how to manage the execution of the craft, at the hands of an expert simply ceased to appeal to me. I was stubborn enough to think I could develop in those ways on my own, and I suppose time will have to tell if I was right.
For a short time, my director, Haj Ross, ran the Ph.D. in poetics program at my alma mater. The degree combined theoretical linguistics (his specialty), literary theory, and literary surveys. Sadly, the program has since been dissolved, and there are only three or four of us who made it out, but those years under Haj’s tutelage–analyzing poetry, parsing language, and modeling syntax — were wildly contributive to my narrative voice. In a way, it’s just a different route to the same knowledge, only I spent less time in workshops.
Also in that other interview, you talk about how music plays into your writing process. What other influences or inspirations do you work from? What makes you suddenly jump from the couch and start scribbling ideas for the next scene or the next story?
It’s funny how things change. I no longer write to music. I’ll do design- or code-work while listening to music, but something about the writing process has taken on a more Hermetic vibe. I’ve had some success, here lately, with writing in the afternoon at the pub down the street from my apartment. In the middle of the afternoon, it’s quiet, air-conditioned, and empty — a perfect environment.
Really, though, I don’t draw from many influences. I’m not one of those people who “enjoys” writing, so there aren’t any motivators that I look to other than the work itself. I don’t start my day excited that I get to write. I don’t suffer some compulsion that makes me write every day — I feel now that having done this sort of thing for years, my voice and rate-of-work are fairly stable. I can sit down after six months and banging out a few thousands words is no problem. Writing, actual scribbling or typing or whathaveyou, strikes me as a process that shouldn’t be “fun.” It should be isolating, painful, and difficult. “Ars Poetica?” by Czeslaw Milosz (http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/ars-poetica/) sums it up for me, even if he is talking about a poem: “… poems should be written rarely and reluctantly, / under unbearable duress and only with the hope / that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.”
One of my favorites from Milosz!
It’s weird, too, how writing can sometimes feel like work. I say it’s weird, anyway — I’m still one of those guys who gets giddy over the writing, and when the work is going well I practically bound out of bed each morning to run for the computer. But I totally get what you (and Milosz) are saying: if the work is good, it shouldn’t always be easy. There’s too much “easy” fiction in the world today as it is, I think. But that might just be the literary snob in me. Still, for me, when the writing gets hard, I enjoy it even more, on some level, because I feel it’s getting better: there’s such a thing as a “runner’s high” in writing, I think, where it gets really, really hard but then feels fantastic because it’s so hard.
It’s funny you should say that — my original response had an extra paragraph that talked about how there’s too much “easy” writing out there, and how a few more “suffering” writers might be just what we need. Great minds, eh?
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