Drawing on their most recent memoirs, Works Cited and The Mountain and the Fathers, authors Brandon Schrand and Joe Wilkins recently interviewed one another through a series of emails to explore the possibilities and limitations of form and experimentation in memoir.
JW: In a sample of his journals published in a recent issue of New Letters, B. H. Fairchild outlines his reasons for giving his life to writing: “There’s the falling in love with language. There’s the falling in love with the world—that is, experience itself.” Though Fairchild is talking about poetry, when I first ran across it I immediately thought of my own impulse toward creative nonfiction. What drives you to write personal essays and memoirs? Has the impulse grown or changed, especially in the writing of your second memoir, Works Cited?
BS: I like what Fairchild says because it certainly seems true for me. I do tend to differentiate between memoir and the personal essay, however. They are cousins to be sure, but not twins, exactly. I’m not sure I can really back this up, but there does seem to be a kind of mass-market demand for memoirs to “behave” like novels; that is, they read with a kind of forward momentum and tend to be conventional in form and execution with rising action, conflict, and some semblance of, or reach toward, resolution. But the memoirs I’m interested in are more akin to the essay, than to the machinery of the novel. The essay, it is good to remember, finds its roots in philosophy, not literature. So there is an epistemological framework girding the essay and its pursuits. It’s always tending toward questions (not answers) for meaning. It wanders, ruminates, considers. It can riff, sprint, or saunter. And it can play with form. I’m thinking of memoirs that seem to be working like large essays, memoirs like Joan Wickersham’s Suicide Index or Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping, or Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. They tend to work outside of a conventional narrative apparatus as a way of arriving at new ways to access what it means to be human. These certainly were among the books that I found myself returning to time and again while working on Works Cited. And of course there is your memoir, which is written in fragments, which feels to me very essayistic in its approach. My impulse to write either essays or memoir is not a new impulse, but it does echo Montaigne’s dictum that there is a certain unity to human experience. I write in the hopes that readers can find some aspect of themselves staring back from the page, and when that happens, there exists a kind of true human communion.
What led you to approach The Mountain and the Fathers as a memoir in fragments? I recall that you published an essay in The Georgia Review some time ago which was titled, “Eight Fragments from My Grandfather’s Body.” Did your impulse begin there, or was it something that evolved out of the process of writing the book?
JW: The essay you mention, and all of my nonfiction writing, really, grew out of a postmodern forms course I took with Mary Clearman Blew and a couple of literature courses I took with Kim Barnes. As a poet trying my hand at prose, I was sort of stunned by the possibilities presented by the looped and splintered narratives we read in Mary’s class. At the time, a whole essay (let alone a book of essays or a memoir!) seemed impossible. But a fragment—a moment of meditation, a focused scene—that was something I thought I might be able to do. So I started there, and soon found that beyond being possible, fragments are powerful and true. Fragments allow both lyric intensity and narrative development, and fragments maintain fidelity to the incomplete, leaping form that memory so frustratingly takes. And then, of course, in Kim’s classes, reading Mary Gordon’s Shadow Man, James Galvin’s The Meadow, and Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, I found my subjects—the loss of the father, the connection to the land, the power of story, the mystery of memory—and was able to bring a form to bear on those matters.
When I started work on The Mountain and the Fathers, I began with many of the same concerns and in much the same mode. And the first draft was fragmented, but it was still more or less chronological and built around eight or nine bigger chapters. In revision, however, working with my editor at Counterpoint, I ended up fragmenting the manuscript even further. Rather than chapters, the final version is organized into five sections that allow an emotional narrative, rather than a chronological narrative, to build. It’s sort of amazing to me how the final diced-and-spliced draft feels truer and more whole. Which, of course, brings me back to those initial impulses Fairchild mentions: the deep and complicated love I feel for the world I was born into, and my desire to honor and better know that world through the writing of the book.
Speaking of essays that led to larger projects, I remember first reading (and loving) “Works Cited” in The Missouri Review a few years ago. I’d love to hear about the process of expanding and shaping and re-shaping “Works Cited” into Works Cited.
BS: The idea to write an essay in a works cited format occurred to me one afternoon as I was walking to campus where I was to teach an essay by David Foster Wallace titled “Host,” a lengthy piece on conservative talk radio that was presented in flow-chart form. It got me thinking of found-forms and pre-existing containers that might be useful structurally. Of course, I thought of Ander Monson’s essay, “Index for A and the Origins of Fires,” and from there it didn’t take long for me to alight upon the works cited format. It seemed like an interesting idea and I was eager to try it out, but I was also concerned about gimmickry. I think that is the central pitfall or risk of repurposing found-forms: that they can come off as a stunt. So as I approached the essay, I kept this fear at the front of my mind. I wanted the form to be germane to the subject matter in such a way that the reader must be simultaneously cognizant that she is reading a repurposed formal structure but compelled enough by the narrative that the structure sort of vanishes in the reading. It has to be both present and absent, I think, and that’s hard to pull off successfully. I can’t remember who said it, but I recall some advice that rightfully suggested that if you have finished reading something experimental and if by the end, you can’t imagine it written in any other way, then the piece was successful. That was what I was hoping for in the essay.
Oddly enough, it never occurred to me to write an entire book in that format until the fall of 2008 when I was giving a reading with Joshua Ferris in Sun Valley, Idaho. After I read the essay, I fielded a few questions and it was Josh, actually, who said, “Why not write a whole book like that?” So I really have him to thank for planting the notion in my head in the first place. At first blush, it seemed like it would be a relatively painless undertaking: I would pluck from my library those volumes that have had the most impact on my life, arrange them alpha-by-author, and write. But as with any book, the challenges became suddenly apparent. The form itself disallowed for any kind of chronological order (here is another risk of found-forms: limitations), so I had to ensure that there existed a strong narrative through-line that would pull the reader forward. I had maybe 150 pages hammered out when I took the manuscript to Yaddo. I was something like half-way through the book and had no idea what it was about. And here I was at this amazing place, surrounded by amazing people, and I couldn’t really articulate what it was I was working on. Coincidentally, Joan Wickersham had just departed Yaddo the day before my arrival and I happened to find a copy of her memoir lying about: The Suicide Index: Putting my Father’s Death in Order. I immediately sat down and read that book straight through. It gave me hope that such found-forms could work, and to great effect. Through those remaining weeks, the book and its “aboutness” finally revealed itself to me. Then it was something of a race to the finish.
Patricia Hampl, one of our great memoirists, once remarked that creative nonfiction should be called “creative nonpoetry.” In many ways the two genres have much in common. A premium placed on image, or as Alexander Smith called it, “the infinite suggestiveness of common things”; cadence, musicality, the use of associative language, etc. Because you are also an accomplished poet, do you see some kind of aesthetic resonance between literary nonfiction and poetry? And did you find yourself navigating the two genres while working on The Mountain and the Fathers?
JW: I’m of two minds on how to answer that first question. My first thought is to say, yes, essays and poems are very close literary kin. Unlike fiction, literary nonfiction cannot make use of the power of invention and so of necessity must make more and better use of those techniques you mention that we often think of as belonging most wholly to poets. Further, from Whitman to Lowell to Addonizio, American poets have sung of themselves, have claimed personal experience as a valid subject for lyric flight and meditation. And so, I think, this confessional poetic heritage has become something literary nonfiction writers can draw on for inspiration and sustenance. I know I have.
And yet, as I think about how to answer your second question, I find myself re-interrogating everything I’ve said above! Let me explain. The trouble is the very power of language. As a poet, working from line to line to line, I often find myself wholly under the spell of the sounds of certain syllables, of a particular syntax, of a building diction pattern. And the language, in a way, takes control; it becomes the driving, generative force of the piece. Now, in a poem, it’s kind of wonderful when this happens. And there are times, too, when writing nonfiction that language can lead you to more fully or more critically enter own experience. Yet, as a writer of literary nonfiction, you must beware. You cannot let language overwhelm your story. You must test the language against memory or research or photographs or whatever it is you’re drawing from. This is something I always try to do as I draft creative nonfiction.
There’s a third consideration here, too, I believe, and that’s that language is part of the landscape of memory. I have always loved stories, and I come from a storytelling people. My grandfather was a great teller of tales, and though I have very vivid memories of watching him shovel furnace coal or climb into his old blue Ford pickup, I also have striking memories of the stories he would tell after dinner, of the inflections and rhythms of his voice, of the nuances and odd moments he would highlight in a particular tale. I remember language. It is part of what I have to work with as a memoirist. So, as often as I felt like I was remembering as I drafted The Mountain and the Fathers, I felt, too, like I was re-speaking, re-inhabiting the language that shaped my youth.
I know that with the final editing and publication of The Mountain and the Fathers behind me, I’ve been very focused on (maybe even a little bit worried about!) what’s next for me as a writer. What about you? What are you turning to as your second memoir makes its way into the world?
BS: I think it’s always worrisome to look forward to what the next book might be, but I tend to have a few projects going at the same time. It makes me sane, I think. If one project stalls or isn’t going well, I don’t lock up and stop writing. Instead, I pull out another project and start tinkering with that one. Right now, my agent has my third memoir, “Between Father & Son,” which entails my pursuit of tracking down both my unknown dead father, and my unknown dead son. I also recently sent my editor an essay collection that I’d like to see out sometime soon. Given that I’m in kind of a holding pattern, I have turned to a few essays I have been nudging along. One of them might have the legs for a book-length project, but only time will tell.
I know you, too, have any number of projects going on all at once, and in different genres. What is commanding your attention the most these days?
JW: I’m always tinkering with poems. I have a new book out this fall from White Pine Press, Notes from the Journey Westward, which I’m excited for, and I’m beginning to collect poems for a third manuscript, an extended meditation on belief, fatherhood, faith, and chance. I’m also scribbling away on a novel, a postmodern whodunit set, mostly, in the homestead era of eastern Montana. What a thing, though, to write a novel. I don’t really have any idea what I’m doing!
I don’t have a nonfiction book project in the works, which is maybe the source of most of my worry—that I’ve somehow written it all. Though that’s my own silliness. There are always mysteries and more mysteries to plumb. And I am excited about the direction my nonfiction seems to be going. The last few essays I’ve published, and the few I’m working on now, are all quite different from the memory-driven work that led to The Mountain and the Fathers. I’m looking out as much as I’m looking in now, as the world seems to me a very different place with my son and daughter running through it. I guess I’ll just have to keep watching and thinking and wondering—and then bring it all back to the page.
I want to thank you for your time, Brandon. I’ve really enjoyed talking with you here, and I’m very excited to get a hold of Works Cited!
BS: Likewise, Joe. Thank you very much. This has been great fun.