Thanks to Joshunda Saunders for inviting me to participate in this blog tour! Joshunda is one of the most insightful and prolific writers I’ve had the good fortune to meet, read, and commiserate with in the past two years. You can check out her terrific blog, including her own reflections on process, right here.
1. What are you working on?
Two and a half years ago, I started working on an an essay collection about public performances of violence in America. As I began, I thought that the section about the 1966 clock tower shooting at UT Austin would be the first chapter, alongside nine other chapters including San Diego, Waco, and Tucson. What I’ve discovered is that the UT Austin research and writing has demanded a space of its own. I’m almost finished with a stand-alone triptych about that event. It’s 12o pages or so: two lyric essays at beginning and end, with a centerpiece of narrative reportage/investigative journalism. I haven’t abandoned the larger project, but it was important to recognize and respect the full weight of the box inside the box.
2. How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?
I guess that I’m weary and wary of much of the nonfiction that I read. I don’t mean I’m concerned about bias or subjectivity (which I understand and also expect); but overall I find it disappointing how some genre notions that might be necessary for marketing purposes can narrow our aspirations as writers. I’m fascinated about the pre-genre possibilities of the essay form: how it can document and reflect, but also explore, evoke, and imagine. I’m starting to use the phrase “creative nonfiction” much less often these days. I guess I fundamentally reject the notion that nonfiction is somehow “naturally” uncreative or unmusical. Amazing essays cast a spell. And that spell can emerge from hours and hours of reading and study, all intersecting with the quirks and obsessions and truths of the author’s lived experience. When I read Richard Rodriguez’s essays–or John Edgar Wideman’s, or Jamacia Kincaid’s, or James Baldwin’s–I don’t think about whether they have enough quotes and statistics. I am fascinated, and unsettled, and stimulated to follow their minds at work. Likewise, I don’t envision my ideal readers finishing my book and saying, “Well, NOW I’m informed!” I hope instead that they don’t quite know what they know.
3. Why do you write what you do?
My first book, Teacher at Point Blank, explored the question: What don’t we talk about when we talk about violence in school? I was really interested in the impulse I observed (both as a student and a longtime teacher) to protect a kind of image of the “good” suburban school that reinforced a kind of Stepford pathology, often making horrifying events not only possible but probable.
My new work is really examining a related question: What don’t we talk about when we talk about mass violence in America? Last year, I published an essay in Salon about how many (though certainly not all) mass shooters begin by killing women. My point was that if these men had simply stopped with violence against women, we’d fold their stories into our collective denial about domestic violence and abuse. As with the violence in Santa Barbara just weeks ago–or the health club shooting outside Pittsburgh in 2009, or the Montréal shooting in 1989–sometimes there’s no subtlety about it. The horror here is social, not exclusively personal. My work is really struggling with that.
4. How does your writing process work?
I feel most of the time like I am foraging. I read and re-read: books already written on subjects I’m writing about, legal documents, primary sources from archives, magazines and newspapers for both facts as well as atmosphere. I interview people on the phone and through email. I double-back and retry search terms and re-read both source material and my own drafts almost to the point of memorization. I’ve started keeping file folders and binders in specific canvas bags along my office floor, which enables me to create a kind of geography in my creative workspace. It helps me feel grounded especially when material is upsetting and the scale is large. Visiting real places is also hugely important to me–a satellite photograph or a transcript is cool, but it can’t replace how a live experience in a real place changes my understanding.
I go through binges and cycles of generative writing, and I’m even learning to embrace time when I can’t concentrate directly on my work (because I’m teaching basic writing or helping keep RCC’s literary magazine on its feet). I find that I discover and actually “see” what I’m doing better after several weeks of semi-attentive percolation. I come back fresh–and also even hungrier.
For your next week of the tour, I’m tagging these two great people: