Friday, April 27, 2018

“Follow the Brush”: Vulnerability, Lyricism, and the Art of Creative Nonfiction

An Interview with Susan Tekulve, author of Second Shift, Essays of Susan Tekulve

By John Newlin

In her collection of intimate essays entitled Second Shift, Susan Tekulve has crafted a brilliant series of highly autobiographical pieces.  What makes them so powerful is that she speaks to the universal qualities of beauty, pain, fear, and does so in a way that makes us see that she is a person/writer/poet who is attentive to her surroundings and deeply reflective of what she experiences.

JN: Writing anything at all autobiographical involves taking some risks.  One particularly compelling quality of Second Shift is how deeply personal it is.  Your discussion of your husband Rick’s blindness in one eye and your resulting fear in “The Plain of Sorrento” is one example.  Another is your willingness to expose your own vulnerabilities in “Just For Fun” and several other essays.  Was it a struggle to permit yourself to write about those aspects of yourself? 

ST: That’s the million-dollar question, John.   All writers, but especially nonfiction writers, have to consider the risks of exposing their vulnerabilities.  For me, it’s a matter of intention.  In the beginning stages, I think of all my writing as private because I only feel focused when I write as if nobody is ever going to read what I’ve written. This is how I trick my mind out of worrying about what other people think. This kind of worrying kills any piece of writing before I type the first words. When I begin thinking about an essay or a story as public, and therefore a piece I might publish, I always consider my intentions.  If the writing in the essay serves simply as therapy, retribution, or purgation, then I’m wary of my intentions, and I usually keep that piece private for a while longer.  If the writing in the essay turns out questions I think others will relate to, and invites the reader into a dialogue, then I’m more likely to consider turning that essay into a public piece that I’d consider publishing.

JN:…and that leads to the question of truth versus imagination in the writing of autobiographical material, doesn’t it?

ST: As I tell my nonfiction students, you have to tell the whole truth, and sometimes that means giving details about yourself, or others, that are private.  Revealing these kinds of truths can make you feel extremely vulnerable. However, if your intentions are to honor and honestly explore yourself, or another human being, then even the unflattering truths can make your subject more complicated. Keep in mind, too, that all personal “truths” are really an individual’s perceptions.  These perceptions must be as true as possible, certainly not libelous, and they must be shaped well into an essay, using language that engages.  In other words, the way we write an essay, the skillful shaping of vulnerable truths will honor the subject, and help the writer to avoid a simplified spilling of emotions on the page.  Finally, the narrative “I” of the personal essay must be just as multi-faceted as a well-drawn fictional character.  As with fiction, who really wants to read about perfect people?  Once, while I was reading Paradise Lost, I began to wonder why Milton made the characters of Adam and Eve so flat and simple.  While I read the parts about Adam and Eve in paradise, before the fall, I nearly fell into a stupor. Satan, on the other hand, is a much more conflicted and complicated character.  He has the gift of the gab, as they say, and he articulates his vulnerabilities—his sorrows, fears, and loss--much more engagingly.  But he is Satan!  If I followed the conventional wisdom, I wasn’t supposed to empathize with Satan. So I asked my husband, who is a poet, why I preferred Satan’s character over the characters of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost.   He said, “We like Satan because he most resembles us.” 

What he meant, of course, is that we are all frail and vulnerable from time to time. As Phillip Lopate writes in The Art of the Personal Essay, some vulnerability is essential to the personal essay because it would be insincere to never admit that you are vulnerable.  As Lopate explains, “Unproblematically self-assured, self-contained, self-satisfied types will not make good essayists.”  The skilled reader will turn away from that narrator.  So the struggle, always, with writing personal essays is how to be self-aware, without being self-absorbed, callow, insensitive or hurtful to others. 

JN: So true.  You accomplish making that connection with the reader by revealing yours (and husband Rick’s) vulnerabilities in this collection, something that definitely drew my interest.  How does one weigh the pros and cons of self-exposure?

ST:  It’s interesting that you asked whether I had to struggle with giving myself permission to speak in the essay “Just For Fun.”  Of all the essays in the collection, I struggled the most over how much of my own fear and discomfort I should reveal.  The strange “gun incident” that launches that essay shook me to my core, and the events that followed filled me with a tremendous sense of outrage. I started the essay the day after the incident, and I wrote it straight through.  In the first draft there were parts where the narrative “I” sounds a bit angry.  I kept this piece private for a long time, paralyzed by worries about writing from this vulnerable stance.   Did the narrative voice of this essay sound shrill, messy, unhinged?  Surely there were far more violent crimes being committed all around me, so what part of my story, which seemed mild compared to the gun assault stories of others, seemed worthy of a public discourse?  Did I sound like victim?  Above all, I didn’t want to write from the stance of complete victimhood. Being a passive victim narrator would be even worse than being an angry narrator.

Anger is the most extreme form of vulnerability for me because it is the absence of control. It can ruin your health if you hold onto it, and if you write purely from an angry stance it can ruin your writing because it’s extremely difficult to maintain control from this perspective. Readers don’t want to be bludgeoned by an uncontrollable stream of another person’s pain and anger—especially female anger.  Unfortunately, we are socially coded to believe that a woman’s anger and outrage undermines her ability to be heard.  We are brought up to feel, perhaps subconsciously, that female anger is usually irrational, overblown.  Female anger sometimes evokes more anger, not understanding, and certainly not respect.   I recently read an interesting article by Leslie Jamison in The New York Times about female anger and sadness. Jamison posits that female sadness and rage are two parts of the same emotion, and that women are still much more likely to reframe themselves as sad, rather than angry, because our society still views angry women as harpies and Medusas. Angry women are considered messy and unhinged, and it’s still widely assumed that their pain is more likely to spin out of control, and hurt those around them.  Sad women, on the other hand, summon sympathy.  They are typically perceived as self-controlled, elegant, and even desirable—as long as they don’t get carried away and become eternal victims.  In short, the melancholy, meditative female narrator of an essay is much easier for people to relate to, and read. 

About three years passed before I could look at the “Just For Fun” essay more objectively.  By this time, the gun control debate had become even more volatile, but it had become more socially acceptable for women to voice their anger. In 2017, when anger became the dominant emotion across the country, the normative bonds that kept women from expressing their full-on ire seemed to fall away. Suddenly, angry women and female characters were being celebrated, rather than ridiculed as hysterics and paranoids.   It began to seem that my “Just For Fun” essay might actually open a dialogue, rather than shut the conversation down.   I still believe that men and women should be responsible for their own anger. I still believe we must be careful with people, always, in life as well as in our writing. But writing that essay taught me a whole lot about writing from an emotional stance that I used to avoid entirely. 

JN:  Particularly impressive to me is the way you juxtapose at least two seemingly different elements in most of your essays.  For example, in “Hell Broth and Poisoned Entrails” you combine the discussion of traditional fare with the Bubonic plague!  

Well, the juxtaposition in that essay came naturally.  I really did go to the whisky shops on the Royal Mile the first day my husband, son, and I were in Edinburgh.  My husband bought me a bottle of lovely, but deadly, lowland whisky as a gift, and I made the mistake of sipping that whisky out of an elegant teacup while eating a picnic we made out of the hardy local Scottish food—mostly organ meats.  Around this time, I’d been reading through all the books on our landlady’s bookshelf.  Usually, it’s good to raid the bookshelves of rental homes or apartments because they often hold books that contain information that you wouldn’t find in a standard travel guide of a city.  Our Scottish landlady was exceptionally literary.  I discovered The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie on her shelves, and to this day I am a huge fan of Muriel Spark because I discovered her in Edinburgh, where she was born, and where she set this wonderfully eerie novel.  Perhaps I should have read this novel first, but I read the book about the Bubonic plague instead. When I woke in the middle of the night, still in a dream state that comes from drinking sweet lowland whisky while jet lagged, that’s when I diagnosed myself with the Bubonic plague. 

The juxtaposition of those two elements—Scottish cooking and the Bubonic plague-- came later, after the editors at Serving House Books—Walter Cummins and Thomas E. Kennedy--sent out a simple yet brilliant prompt to all the writers who published with their press: Write about the worst meal you ever experienced.  Don’t write about your day-to-day fare; write about a food you ate under nightmare circumstances.   This prompt was brilliant because when you write about food you are never simply writing about what’s on your plate.  Food, or the lack of food, holds some of our most intense memories, so writing about your best, or worst, food experiences allows you to delve into memories both ecstatic and nightmarish. The prompt also contained the key word “experience,” which demanded that I shape the food metaphor into a whole narrative--a story, a poem, or an essay.

JN:  This is all excellent advice for the MFA student learning the craft of writing the personal essay.  Please tell us more!

ST:  In general, we use juxtaposition to create metaphor, or to view a subject from a different perspective. Food writing is one of the easiest ways to create metaphor through juxtaposition. Writing about a specific food experience, enables you to explore a whole range of experiences in a more oblique way that can heighten a reader’s emotional response.  MFK Fisher famously wrote, “There is food in the bowl, and more often than not, because of what honesty I have, there is nourishment in the heart, to feed the wilder, more insistent hungers.  We must eat.  If, in the face of that dread fact, we can find other nourishment, and tolerance and compassion for it, we’ll be no less full of human dignity.”  When Tom and Walter sent the food prompt to me, I was in the middle of writing a long novel that was set in a time and place that was wild, so the hungers of my characters were wild, and insistent.  I was beginning to realize how emotionally draining it can be to live in the heads of such characters.  I realized that sometimes it’s just a good idea to take a step back, and stop taking myself so seriously. While I used the food prompt to write an essay whose goal is to entertain, the lesson it taught me about the use of juxtaposition has been lasting.

JN: Details, details, details.  Can you relate to us something of your process of gathering specific elements?  Is there any specific goal you have in mind before you begin cataloguing the details---what are you looking to do with these pieces?

ST:  A friend of mine once said--and I believe he was quoting Henry Miller—that a writer collects details the way a man in a blue serge suit collects lint. If you don’t pick up details naturally, then there are plenty of fun ways to train yourself to collect details more deliberately.  For instance, when I know I’m going to write about a place, or the people who inhabit it, I carry a pocket-sized notebook, and an old Powershot camera.  First, I write down all the sensory details as I experience them.  I try to experience the subject viscerally first, jotting down all the sights, the textures, the smells, the sounds, and, sometimes, the tastes. Even if I don’t feel a detail is important at the time, I write it down anyway because often the less obvious details are the ones that end up being most important.  Then, I take out my camera, and compose several pictures of what I think I’m seeing, hearing, feeling.  My old Powershot camera has a great device on it called “creative shot.”  After I’ve composed the shots of what I think I’ve seen and experienced, I flip the camera into “creative shot” mode, and the camera automatically composes five additional photos.  Each additional photo crops the subject from a different angle.  The camera automatically uses different filters, colors, and light.  I don’t really share any of these creative shots with anyone.  I just use them to force myself to look beyond my own initial perceptions, and to collect details in ways I haven’t seen them before.

You can try this exercise with a regular phone camera too. Go to a place and write down all the details you experience.  Compose some pictures of what you think you are seeing, and experiencing.  Then, return to your writing space and look at those pictures again. Write about something that appears on the periphery of the pictures.  What’s going on behind your subject, or off to the side?  The less-obvious details that come to you as a surprise, the ones that recur in your imagination for reasons you don’t quite understand, are often wellsprings for personal essays and fiction. Virginia Woolf wrote about this most eloquently in her memoir, Moments of Being.  She writes that we spend a good part of every day not living consciously.  We eat, sleep, and work without paying much attention to what’s going on around us.  Then there are times, which she calls “Moments of Being,” when we are shocked out of our everyday complacency. She poses that the “job” of every writer is to learn how to identify metaphor in these heightened moments of experience.  Once identified, these moments are followed by the desire to explore the subject by writing about it, and then examining the experience. She believed that every writer has two selves.  The past self has sensory experiences, often without complete understanding.  The present self continually searches the past, interpreting, evaluating, and shaping the past into essays or stories.  This is the central impulse behind storytelling, both in fiction and nonfiction.

JN:  Wow, such really helpful tips!  And they apply equally well to all genres.  I know you write and teach poetry, as well as non-fiction and fiction, and it’s evident in the often lyrical quality of these essays.  Please share with us how your background as a poet informs your essays. 

ST:  Poetry was the first literary form I studied when I was an undergraduate, so whenever I return to this form I feel a sense of familiarity, and safety.  Often, when I’m trying to explore a new topic for an essay that feels large and unwieldy, I’ll write it out as a poem first.  The use of lyric strategies—the turning of the line, the concentration on word selection, the juxtaposition of images—de-emphasizes the sequential and linear, and allows me to get to the emotional center of my material sooner.  Once I find the emotional core of what I’m exploring, I can de-lineate the original draft or expand upon it in a more linear way.  Or, sometimes, the lyric structure remains.  I just develop the poem into a long-form essay. 

Also, in general, I’ve come to think that the essay form has much more in common with poetry than it does with fiction.  I believe this to be the case because the roots of the essay are lyric.  For instance, the Japanese writer and Buddhist monk, Kenko, who was writing in the 13th century, used a random mode of composition known as zuihitsu, which translates as “follow the brush.”  He, and his counterparts, were downright suspicious of narrative forms because they believed that formlessness was more sincere.  Once something was put into a linear, narrative form it was no longer the truth.  So Kenko’s essays skip from subject to subject, without any obvious links.  Today’s lyric essay, which is basically an extended lyric poem, relies upon those same lyric brushstrokes, the same density of language, the same use of compression as a poem requires.

Anyway, the concept of the personal essay as purely a linear narrative form is relatively recent. The roots of essay writing are much more expansive and flexible, which could be why I’m drawn to writing them in the same way that I’m drawn to writing poetry.    

JN:  That makes terrific sense!  Susan, I’m fascinated to know a little bit about your next writing projects.  

ST:  I’m in the middle of an ongoing travel and food-writing project that involves researching and recording intangible heritage sites that can be found in the small towns of Southern Italy. Unlike tangible heritage sites, like monuments or museums, the intangibles are customs that are handed down through generations. There is a whole biosphere on the Cilento Coast that is protected by UNESCO for its intangibles, which include the anchovy fishing techniques that were brought over by the Greeks 3,000 years ago, the shoulder-borne saint processions, and even the traditional ways of making of some foods that are a part of the Mediterranean diet.  These customs rely upon communal memory, and the transmission of information from one generation to the next.  As the members of the older generation who remember these customs die out, and their children and grandchildren scatter north to find employment in bigger cities, whole communities risk forgetting these traditions.  Our memories, personal and communal, form our identities, so if we lose them we forget who we are.   It’s this idea of memory, personal and communal, that I hope to explore in a more concrete way through the food and travel experiences.

JN:  Susan, thank you so much.  One doesn’t have to sit in one of your craft classes to see how brilliant an instructor you must be.

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Order Second Shift, Essays of Susan Tekulve via Amazon.

John Newlin earned his MFA at Converse College (SC).  His reviews and essays have appeared in Night Owl, Independent School, and South 85, where he is Review Editor.  He also writes reviews for the New York Journal of Books.

Susan Tekulve is the author of In the Garden of Stone, winner of the 2012 South Carolina First Novel Prize and a 2014 Gold IPPY Award. She’s also published two short story collections: Savage Pilgrims and My Mother’s War Stories. Her stories and essays have appeared in Shenandoah,The Georgia ReviewNew LettersBest New Writing 2007The Indiana ReviewDenver QuarterlyPuerto del SolPrairie SchoonerNorth Dakota QuarterlyConnecticut ReviewBeloit Fiction JournalCrab Orchard Review, The Literary ReviewWeb Del SolBlack Warrior Review, and The Kansas City Star. She has been awarded a Sewanee Writers’ Conference Scholarship and a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Scholarship. An Associate Professor of English, she teaches in the BFA and MFA in creative writing programs at Converse College.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.