DF: In your craft essay “One Story, Two Narrators” included in the anthology SolLit Selects, you talk about how many personal essays and memoirs fall short, because they fail to create an internal narrative to accompany the surface-level events. Why do you think that so many aspiring nonfiction writers struggle with this? Also, you give some examples of the various things that your students deny themselves in their writing, for example you mention self-interrogation, or “asking the hard questions about yourself, the ones you don’t always want to know the answers to.” This is a tough one for writers to do because it involves reevaluating their core selves; as a teacher, how do you get your students to have the confidence to really pick themselves apart? How do you know whether or not they can or should dig deeper?
MJS: These are separate, yet, I believe, closely related issues. And both, I think, are tied to matters of imagination and craft. I say that because when I write anything (in my case, personal essays and memoirs), I never think of myself as the literal “I.” I’m “the writer at the desk,” the author who is trying, first, to figure out what it is that I’m writing about; then, how to best craft the work’s shape. As “the writer at the desk,” my biggest challenge is to create a fully realized, three-dimensional narrator to tell a particular story. And that’s an act of imagination. Once I’ve found that “persona”—I say “persona” as opposed to the literal “I”—the persona becomes the main character in his own story. That said, I believe that a personal essay or memoir (or any other literary work, for that matter), grows out of a not-knowing. Personally, I’m not compelled to write about what things I already know or understand. Rather, I’m interested in exploring what others (mostly fiction writers) refer to as “discovering what I didn’t know I knew;” or, “what I didn’t know I needed to know.”
The only way, I’ve found, that a first person narrator (once again, as opposed to the literal author) can puzzle something out is by digging deeper into the problem. My first editor called it “writing vertically.” And that’s a different undertaking from literally picking one self apart.
In autobiographical writing, the narrator’s thinking and feeling selves need to be transparent enough to allow the reader to enter that narrator’s thoughts and imagination. In my opinion then, the most human, three-dimensional narrators in a good memoir or novel are those that allow us access to the story of their thinking, what I call the “inner story.” And for the most part, that inner story is about a narrator’s struggles to come to terms with something difficult or confusing. And that’s very different from giving us a blow-by-blow account of a situation, incident, or event that that the “I” has experienced or witnessed.
In order for us to identify and/or understand the narrator’s inner struggle, we need to see how he or she wrestles with the problem. In any given instance, how, when, and why does that narrator speculate, reflect, imagine, project, and question? How, in other words, does that narrator utilize the basic human qualities and resources that all of us must call on whenever we’re trying to make sense out of something that perplexes and/or troubles us?
Short question, long, roundabout answer, right?
DF: Your blog has tons of informative craft essays geared for nonfiction. Can you talk a little about this project? What inspired you to create it?
MJS: Years ago, when I stopped teaching full time and when I stepped down as the editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, I decided not only to spend more time on my writing and other things, but I also had it in mind that I’d like to start up a craft blog. Partly as a way of teaching, partly to remind myself (and others) of the importance of craft, and partly to stay current and keep my voice in the continually evolving conversation on/about the genre. At an early point, I decided to invite other writers to contribute their wisdom and ideas—peers/people whose work I respect and have learned from; and former students who have gone on to become fine teachers and writers.
Having done the blog for some three-plus years, I have enough material to maybe put a source book together—one section composed of my own essays on/about matters of craft; one section of selected pieces from others who have written for the blog; one section of interviews by some of the more well-regarded writers/teachers/commentators on the form; and possibly a section directed specifically at composition teachers.
DF: You’ve spent years teaching students how to become better nonfiction writers, but have you ever learned anything significant or unexpected from a student?
MJS: Absolutely. A good number of former students have become first-rate writers and teachers. As a writer and teacher myself, I learn something from each of their books, talks, or teaching essays about the craft of writing and teaching. And that’s a very gratifying feeling. I’m owning up here to having stolen literally dozens of good ideas, approaches, tactic, strategies, etc. from my former students. That is, after all, what writers do. Right?
DF: You also generously funded the prize for SolLit’s nonfiction essay contest. What made you decide to do this?
MJS: My most valued mentors have always encouraged me to give something back. And now that I’m a mentor myself, the Solstice fellowship and the two essay contests I sponsor, Fourth Genre and SolLit, are small donations. And they’re the result of that advice. I’ve also occasionally received a few literary prizes that have helped keep my spirits and confidence up in the face of all the disappointments that are a given part of everyone’s writing life.