April Murphy: I recently read the craft book Tell It Slant, which you wrote with Brenda Miller. The book is a warm welcome for an inexperienced writer – and a handy guide for demystifying particulars of nonfiction for experienced writers. Because it reached these different audiences so well, I was wondering if you had any trouble with Tell It Slant, or with your other work, of deciding who your “ideal audience” is?
Suzanna Paola: First of all, thank you for your warm words about Tell It Slant, which is currently out in its second edition. Brenda and I had a lot of fun, and achieved a lot of insights, putting the book together, first in the initial edition, which we undertook when we barely knew each other, and in the second, when we had become—partly through the writing process—very close friends. In many ways the book has mapped our friendship, so it’s very special to me.
I think the question of audience is a tricky one, one that each particular work evolves to answer in its own way. I should mention here that I write a great deal of my prose under the name Susanne Antonetta—it is a family name, of a forgotten great-grandmother in my family; I love trying to bring this lost woman back to life by using her name. When I wrote Tell It Slant—with Brenda—I was writing, however consciously at the time, for my students. I pulled out the questions they had asked me, the discussions that helped them make some kind of sense of their struggles with the literature of reality, the prompts I had used that brought out their best selves as writers, helped them evade those awful internal censors and write strong, breathing, authentic stories. Many times I would sit down with pages of class notes—I am a fanatical class preparer—and my notes to myself on what I wished I said, and write that book.
My other books are more complicated. I think I partly wrote Body Toxic: An Environmental Memoir, a book that engages very directly with environmental contamination in several counties in New Jersey, for the people in those communities, though I did not think I would reach them, and that audience was kind of a hazy ideal; I also wrote for the lost women like the woman Antonetta whose name I tried to infuse with life; and for, perhaps more than anything, my son. It was a story of place and family, of a toxicity he has not had to live, yet one that has directed the course of his life. To be honest, when I first worked on that book, I thought no one but myself would ever read it. I was a poet. I came across stories that would not fit into poems anymore—stories of chemicals dumped into the ground, of distorted bodies—but the idea of a memoir told through the environment felt so different then that I worked on Body Toxic and threw the writing I printed out into a drawer, thinking it would stay there. So I wrote for particular people but I also wrote for that drawer. I wrote more bravely than I would have otherwise, maybe, in my confidence that no one would ever read the book!
I believe as writers grow and evolve their sense of audience collapses, growing smaller and smaller. This may sound odd but I think it’s true. At first you imagine everyone you know reading your books. Your community, everyone you run across in the elevators at the AWP conference! That changes. When I studied with poet Charles Wright, he said he had one ideal reader—a nun he had met at one of his readings—and he wrote for her, and increasingly, for himself. I think I write to make sense of what I have lived and to know what I think; if I don’t write it, my life will be only reactive, unexamined. In that sense I suppose I write for myself. Increasingly I find myself writing for my son. There is so much about our lives we cannot tell our children; I feel as if I am leaving him a way of understanding his life, a series of answers to questions he may never otherwise know he needs to ask.
AJM: That’s such great advice – that you should let your audience get smaller. I often find myself paralyzed by trying to speak to everybody. Sometimes I think the hardest part about creative nonfiction is being unafraid. You speak about this in Tell It Slant, where you say ” The narrating ‘I,’ the persona you create, is the one who has the wherewithal to rescue experience from chaos and turn it into art” (77). Do you have any other tips for helping the ‘I’ in your writing be more authoritative than your real life self – or overcoming authorial shyness?
SP: Yes, overcoming that shyness can be very hard in nonfiction! I find, having very beginning students at times, along with many writer friends who have been writing a long time and whose drafts I read, that it’s the beginning students who tend to say, even during an in-class writing, “But what would my [mother, kid, spouse, etc.] think of this? How could I publish it?” And then they get stymied, just doing that impromptu freewrite. The truth is, we write what needs to be written, what announces itself and pounds on the door and won’t go away or take no for an answer. Beyond attending to that urgency, when the writing is done, we have some choices to make. We can publish now, wait to publish, even choose not to publish or publish in a contained, local way.
First you do the writing you need to do—that pounding on the door is going to give you a terrible headache if you don’t. Tell yourself the other decisions about exposure will come down the road, and you have a variety of strategies for dealing with those questions. I tell writers this when I teach, and I find they often discover, when they have a good working draft, that they’re not so worried about what so-and-so will think. The story has more compassion and nuance to it than they expected it would.
Nonfiction writers pretty much have to, at some point, decide where their own particular lines will be drawn. I’m very protective of my husband and son, for instance. That’s my decision. But I feel strongly we have only one life we’re given, and we are entitled as writers to make sense of it and have access to it. Yes, it has other people in it, and we need to approach them with an attitude of humility and compassion. As long as we do that, we will tend to perform as ethical writers. Note that ethics does not mean covering up for others, or deciding you accept family guidelines—all families have them—for not “telling.” These participations in cover-ups are things no one has a right to expect you to do.
AJM: Another one of the moments in Tell It Slant that I found most helpful was when you explained:
“Both photography and creative nonfiction operate under the ‘sign of the real’ (a phrase coined by literary theorist Hayden White); both operate as though the medium itself were transparent … A good photograph will mirror the inner vision of the photographer, just as the good essay will reflect the unique sensibility of the writer, whether or not that writer focuses on material interior to the self” (76).
The analogy of a nonfiction writer as photographer is also used by Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. To paraphrase, Dillard says that one can learn to see in a way that they become a camera, letting the moment leave impressions on them instead of film. I’m curious about what connections you think a nonfiction narrator has with visual artists, if any?
SP: I think we and the photographers and visual artists are all after the same thing. Words are ultimately a descriptive but also a plastic medium; we apprehend them through their appearance on the page, through their rhythms and their hardnesses and softnesses and what they make our palates do. Writing is both a visual medium, a communicative one, and a performance. The best writing leads us through the experience of the moment, brands us with it, as if it gives us a memory—clear and concrete—that never existed before but takes its place among the mental imagery of our most true experiences. Its sounds should cause scenes to appear. I often cite memory research; if you try to implant a memory with a vague description it won’t work, but if you give enough concrete detail–do you remember being the poor governess at the house with the thorn trees and the cries of despair from the top floor—you achieve a blurring between real memory and the relived literary experience, Jane Eyre, as real as the day you fell off your bicycle in front of your best friend in the second grade.
AJM: The university you teach at, Western Washington University, publishes Bellingham Reviewand sponsors the Annie Dillard prize for nonfiction. These things are kind of a big deal in the CNF world, what journals do you recommend creative nonfiction writers read or publish in?
SP: I have my favorites among magazines and journals, but I think what’s most important is to read widely and read a lot, and support literary publishing. We always have subscriptions we rotate among different publications in my household, to help everybody stay afloat. There are very different things happening with creative nonfiction between say, Image and Orion and Seneca Review, all of which are journals I love. So I say, read, and also support.
AJM: I have a question – though I’m not quite sure how to ask it – but I’m curious to hear your point of view on anyway. There seem to be a lot of CNF writers who are (or were) poets. You, Thomas Lynch, Annie Dillard – even Wistlawa Szymborska published a book of micro-essays – and I have a gut feeling that there’s got to be something to that. I don’t know what it is, though. So I don’t really know how to ask about it. Is it imagery? Something similar in perspective? I don’t write poetry, so I can’t speak from personal experience, but I’m very curious.
SP: It is true there are quite a few nonfiction writers who began life as poets, but it’s equally true that there are a great number who began life as fiction writers: David Shields, Tobias Wolff, Kathryn Harrison, to name just a few. It seems that for many writers of nonfiction, another genre comes first. Of course, creative nonfiction, though it’s been done forever in many forms, is experiencing a new explosion of interest along with a spasm of formal experimentation, and many of us coming to it in the past decade–or even two–simply did not have it as an option in our literary education. We neither studied the essay, nor read it, much, and may not have thought of it as a genre until discovering it later on.
That’s one piece of the answer, the simpler piece. A more complex response I think has to do with a person’s evolution as a writer. If you think about the movements of a human life, it makes sense we would enter the artistic arena relying more heavily on the tool of imagination for the scenes, dialogues, characters we want to inhabit. Our life experience is limited, and it’s still raw. I don’t know that, to use one example, many of us understand what is unique, tragic, comic, joyful, etc. in our own lives until we start nudging middle age. After a while–whether we’re writers or not–we begin the job of mentally processing our own experiences, whether it’s our travels, our childhoods, our parenting, whatever. We realize gradually who we are and who we’ve been in relation to the world. No one’s born knowing that; I’ve had students who failed to see anything interesting in having grown up on a commune, related to one of the Watergate burglars, or, rather breathtakingly, living inside the Statue of Liberty with a park ranger parent. This isn’t to suggest all nonfiction is memoir, simply that the personal lens of nonfiction has to involve a sophisticated understanding of who’s doing the looking. This realization, how I am history writ small, a microcosm of larger forces, and I am culturally shaped, is perhaps an older person’s insight. Not that some of us don’t write great nonfiction out of the starting gate, but I think it’s understandable that it might take more time.
AJM: Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that’s on your mind?
SP: I did a great deal of editing in this past year. I edited a special folio for Drunken Boat, read for the Pushcart prizes, and coedited a special issue of Brevity, along with Barrie Jean Borich and Joy Castro. I am pretty hands-on with material I publish; I like to edit, thinking of it as coaching a piece to that final level of excellence. It’s a lot of work! But I am committed to doing editing work, and to working with VIDA, the grassroots, feminist organization of women in the literary arts. I believe we as artists have an obligation to the larger literary world. I always encourage writers working with me to define themselves in a way that is broader than just “writer”; we are all people of letters, members of the literary community.
Think about ways you can expand the literary world: beyond hoping to be published, what opportunities can you create for other writers? Help found a journal, start a reading series? It is essential that all of us writers think of ourselves as people who also create spaces for others to participate in the world of letters. Otherwise, in a pinched economy with limited room for literature, this little boat is going to run out of room.