Thursday, September 6, 2012

A Conversation with Jeremy T. Wilson: Part II

Welcome everyone to Part II of my conversation with 2012 Nelson Algren Award winning author Jeremy T. Wilson.  Word from the Wrigley Tower is that his winning story is going to be released in THIS Sunday's edition of Printers Row, the Chicago Tribune's literary supplement.  Can you believe it?  Can you wait?  You'll have to wait.  Until Sunday.  Make sure to get your digital and/or print subscription here so you don't miss out.

For those dedicated readers of Logomancers & Logodaedalists, you'll surely recall that we ended Part I of the conversation with Jeremy suggesting that our half-finished stories end up informing our later work.  If you need a refresher--or you somehow, against all odds, missed out on Part I--click here to see what  Katy Perry's been making such a fuss about on her social media sites for the past two months.

Sorry to keep you waiting, Katy.

Part II 

Logomancers:  Yes!  Love it.  All the writing we do is interrelated in more ways than we could ever possibly understand, so in the long view, even when we don't think we're going to write another draft of a given story, we somehow can't avoid it.  I guess my question was more concerned with the development of your process, and I was wondering if you've come to feel, like me, that a lot of the resistances you hit while writing aren't really problems with the story so much as emotional or psychological resistances inside you, and if through your writing practice you've gained more tolerance for those resistances and more skill at working with them so you can avoid either holding on too fiercely to some particular instance of form and content on the one hand or walking away from a line of inquiry in the face of some discomfort on the other?  I sometimes feel development along these lines is the key to getting more power into my work, and I want to say something like: finishing a project is less about imposing my will and more about allowing myself to be captured by a particular (though protean) combination of form and content until I feel release, and that is most likely to happen when the form and content provides a suitable challenge to my current level of emotional complexity.  In more plain terms, I guess I'm trying to suggest that I don't know what's going to engage me in the process, but when it does, it pushes me to grow, and along the way a few pieces manage to get finished.  Does that harmonize with your experience, or do you think about this stuff in some other way?

JTW: Now we're talking! I think about this stuff in a similar way, although I wouldn't be able to articulate it like you do. But this is entirely due to the fact that we've been writing together and talking about these types of issues for several years, and I've stolen most of my process from listening to you talk about yours. I totally agree: "I don't know what's going to engage me in the process." I think this is crucial, the not knowing, and this is a complete reversal from the way I first approached writing stories. I planned everything out, or at least thought of something I wanted to write about, then wrote. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Maybe that works for some people but not for me. (This also may be linked to my fear of writing a novel because I expect some planning has to be involved with that project.) And when I say "works for" I don't mean results in publishable stories. I mean results in a writing process that keeps me curious and alive and engaged emotionally and intellectually, which is the most I can hope for. What I don't feel nearly enough of is the "release" you're talking about, or even the "growth," but I'm not sure that necessarily results in unfinished or unsatisfying stories. From the minute I sit down to write I feel like I'm in a constant battle with those voices that try to analyze a story too quickly or tell me that it's going in the wrong direction, those workshop voices, old English teacher voices, Statler and Waldorf. When I feel best about a piece of writing, these voices usually shut up and I feel what you're talking about. But this is tough to hit and sometimes untrustworthy. I don't know that I'm really answering the question or even staying on topic. Are we talking about endings to stories or finishing stories? They're related, I think. Sometimes I feel a strong release (and this may not even be the best word here, but I'm using it because it's been established) early in the process, an early draft for instance. What then? Is that story "finished" because the necessary emotional weight has been lifted or I believe I've found a satisfying ending to my inquiry? For me, most often the answer to that question is "no." No matter how I've connected to it, the story is not conveying my experience. Being able to recognize this gap is progress. But it's impossible for me to sit down and rewrite that story and expect the same thing to happen, the same thing being a replica of that emotional resonance. So then what? How do we ever feel something is finished?  I don't know. Do you?

By the way, Richard Ford weighed in on our discussion recently in the NYT Book Review. He was asked: "Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?"  He answered: "Most book aren't very good, and there's no reason they should be. Whatever 'talent' may be, it isn't apportioned democratically. Happily, I don't remember the last not-very-good book I didn't finish. Although (which is why I don't review books) sometimes I return to a book I've left unfinished and discover--pleasurably--that it was I, not the book, that was unsatisfactory." Is it just me or is he getting more dickish the older he gets?

Logomancers: Ha. Ha.  I don't have enough data points on Richard Ford to know if he's changing in one way or another.  I remember hearing him on NPR a few years ago and he sounded crotchety and bitter.  Full points for your use of the word, "dickish," however.  That made me laugh.

I think you've teased out several of the loose threads in my formulation.  I think I was being too cavalier with my use of the words "released" and "finished."  I guess I intended that something is "finished" when I decide to seek publication with it, but the truth is I continue to fiddle with it until the galleys are in, and as I ready my collections of short stories for submission, I find that I've started working again on some of the stories that have already been published.  I guess the "release" I was talking about really comes in many bursts across many phases of the process.  There is the release you mentioned when you're working on a draft and the story takes a turn near the end that gives it that shape, that surprise, that sort of lift in your chest.  But you're right, odds are you shouldn't stop there.  It may be you need to throw that entire draft out and totally rewrite it because on page six you changed your protagonist from a WWII switchboard operator named Lancelot to a mystic, long-haul trucker named Benfungali.  You can rewrite the story with Benfungali in from the start, and you can make the same turn with the ending, but I agree: you're never going to get that lift or "release" from writing the same thing again without opening yourself up to additional impositions of novelty.  The "release" may still be there for someone reading it for the first time, but to you it will feel familiar unless you put it away for a good LONG while.  Maybe nothing ever gets finished.  Maybe when you're old and winding down you become exceedingly haunted by the things you feel you never got right in your stories and books.  Maybe this is why Richard Ford is getting dickish (assuming he is).

As for the growth, well, I guess I was suggesting that really working with the emotionally hot stuff that bubbles up in the process can make you more tolerant of the emotionally hot stuff in the rest of your life and that watching your mind in a regular disciplined way can help you keep from getting swallowed completely by your thoughts and feelings in your day-to-day life because so much crazy shit comes up when you really open up to it inside the writing process.  I'm not trying to say writing makes you a better person because I think that has got to be a stupid claim, but I think if you approach the work as a way to learn what's in your heart and accept it with decreasing amounts of judgment over time then you can become easier with yourself which will naturally cause you to be more peaceful and understanding with others.  For a long time now I've thought of my writing process as spiritual practice not wholly dissimilar from my meditation or yoga practices, so maybe this "growth" thing is a personal thing for me though I suspect a lot of writers look at it the same way.  We may be kidding ourselves, though. I dunno.  It's especially hard to assign any sort of causality in this case.  It's something I'd like to believe anyway.  What do you think? 

JTW: The more I think about this the more I feel like I don't know. On the one hand I want to say yes, of course, writing is a spiritual practice that helps me feel better about myself and my place in the world (a clumsy paraphrase, I know). I think about all the journal writing I've done, and the project I started after my dad died using the rituals of writing and baseball as a path to healing, and the initial approach I take with young students when I encourage them to write what's on their minds or what pisses them off, and all this makes me think that writing can definitely provide an avenue for personal growth. But then I think about writing stories and I'm not sure I would say the same thing. Forgive me if I'm being all MFA-y, but I want to make a distinction between the act of writing and the craft of writing (not that they're mutually exclusive all the time, but bear with me). What "bubbles" up in an initial draft may not be equal to the time it takes to work that psycho-emotional purge into something resembling a story. There's a point in the process where I allow myself to be conscious of the creation, to examine the connections created in the writing process, to shape the shit. This can't come too early, but whenever it happens it doesn't ever strike me as very spiritual. It's much more fun. Should I be ashamed?  By the way, I'm all in for your story on the mystic trucker Benfungali.

Logomancers: What we’re talking about puts me in mind of something I recently read in a Paris Review interview with Truman Capote.  He said:
I seem to remember reading that Dickens, as he wrote, choked with laughter over his own humor and dripped tears all over the page when one of his characters died. My own theory is that the writer should have considered his wit and dried his tears long, long before setting out to evoke similar reactions in a reader. In other words, I believe the greatest intensity in art in all its shapes is achieved with a deliberate, hard, and cool head.
I wonder if Capote maybe failed to realize the possibility that Dickens was both experiencing the emotions AND regarding them with a deliberate, hard, and cool head.  This may sound hopelessly paradoxical to a lot of people, but I don’t think it is.  In fact, it’s just the sort of capacity I’m suggesting writing might help a person develop, and I’m wondering if it can carry over to the rest of your life so that you can learn to both experience your thoughts and feel your emotions without getting mesmerized into believing you ARE them.  This is at least one of the functions of meditation and development along these lines is the very specific sense in which I was thinking of writing as a spiritual practice, which can be fun or painful or blissful or banal or just about anything else you can imagine.  In that way, what I’m talking about doesn’t exist along a continuum from the heat of a first draft to the cold crafting of a later revision but rather transcends and enfolds all parts of the process by helping us build a place to stand from which we can witness the products of our mind like images projected onto a screen while still enjoying the movie.

But perhaps this is getting a bit esoteric so you can comment on it if you want or we can move on to what I really want to ask which is: what do you hope to get out of your writing?  What are your goals?  How would your writing ideally develop along personal and professional lines?  I know this sounds like many questions, but I kind of feel like it’s only one.

JTW: That's what I was getting at when I said the two aren't mutually exclusive. I don't know that I'd characterize crafting as "cold" either, but I get it. I'm going back to baseball here, but the comparison works for most sports. So many elements go into a good baseball swing, but when you're in the batter's box, you can't think about every single one of them or else you're doomed. The way you stop thinking about them is through practice so that all the parts of your swing become automatic. However, every now and then you're going to be called upon to hit the ball to the right side (I'm speaking as a right handed hitter here) and in order to do that you will have to be conscious of the changes in your approach that help you reach your intended goal of driving the ball to the right side. This is the same with writing.

What I hope to get out of my writing is a career doing something I love doing.  I want to continue to write and continue to teach so that I don't have to sell peaches, even though selling peaches was one of the best jobs I've ever had. But maybe this isn't what you meant. Maybe you meant, what are my goals with the writing itself? Well, I hope to stop using the word "thing" so much. Beyond that, I'm not really sure. You?

Logomancers: My answer is similar.  The main thing for me is to be able to continue writing.  After that, there are these various parts of me that want different and sometimes contradictory things. There is the part of me that wants to be "established," the part that would like to be publicly recognized as a writer and feel I've got the credentials to back that up.  Then there's the part of me concerned about connection.  This is the part of me that wants to find readers in that place where we feel things strongly and unapologetically, where we become more curious about who we really are and what's going on in our hearts and minds. Then there is another part of me that wants to get so deep into the writing, the world drops away entirely and I forget about the mundane concerns of publishing and success and even other people like a literary monk.  I suppose this has to do with notions of truth and freedom.  I’m thinking of truth here as the experience of a sincere, ongoing, and single-minded pursuit rather than a destination, and freedom as the ability to give expression without feeling hobbled or boxed in by the fear of what people might say.

Fortunately as I go along I pay less and less attention to these idealized versions of what kind of writer I'd like to be—as if there were some objective standpoint from which I could define myself—and more willing to accept the ever-changing terrain as I move across it.  That is to say, I’ll take things the way they are because I don’t really believe the fundamentals are going to change.

This reminds me of a story Grace Paley tells in another Paris Review interview:
I said to Auden, Well, do you think I should keep writing? He laughed and then became very solemn. If you’re a writer, he said, you’ll keep writing no matter what. That’s not a question a writer should ask.
Do you ever feel tempted to ask that question?

JTW: Unfortunately, I ask myself that question all the time. But I do agree with Auden's answer, and I believe I'm finally in a place with my writing where I can honestly say that it's true—that I'll write no matter what. For a long time I wanted that to be the case. I wanted to be able to claim that I would write no matter what, because I'm a writer, dammit, I must write!, but it just wasn't true. I thought of myself as a writer but didn't write enough to be one (I think many people who have the desire to write end up here). Now I think I've started a practice that will sustain itself regardless the answer. So ultimately when this question pops up I try to ignore it. I might ask myself on a given night out when I know I've had too much to drink if I should have another drink because I'm having fun and I feel great and I want that feeling to continue because it's fleeting and now I have hold of it and don't want to let it go. The answer is no, I shouldn't have another drink, because one more isn't necessary to sustain the bliss and I'll feel like crap the next day and I'll probably piss my wife off or say something stupid or forget how I got home, but I have one more drink (maybe two) anyway. This strained metaphor is an attempt to articulate how I feel about the question. Should I keep writing? Economics, self-doubt, the publishing industry, countless lit mags, obligations, odds of success, Richard Ford, the cost of daycare, all indicate no. Am I going to write anyway? As sure as I'll have one more drink.


Thanks, Jeremy.  That was awesome.  Thanks to you, too, Dear Reader.  We wouldn't be where we are today without you.

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  1. I am the mystic trucker.
    They call me Benfungali.
    I drive a mystic truck
    filled with mystic folly.

    One day as I drove down
    that old 7-lane headin' east,
    God spoke through my CB
    and said "Beware the Beast."

    There astride the asphalt
    stood a 7-headed crone,
    every head with fiery hair,
    every face just like my own.

    I stomped upon the brakes.
    My feet touched only air.
    I reached for the gearshift,
    but the gearshift wasn't there.

    What happened next is hard to say;
    she was one sadistic fuck.
    All I know is next time around
    I aint drivin' the mystic truck.