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Interview – Rebecca McClanahan


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Rebecca McClanahan Interview

William H. Coles

Rebecca McClanahan lives in New York on the upper West side on Manhattan. She is a successful author in poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. She won the Glasgow Prize in nonfiction for The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings. Recently her book Deep Light: New and Selected Poems has received wide acclaim. Among numerous other publications, she has written two books on writing: Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively and Write Your Heart Out. She teaches frequently in workshops (Kenyon Review, Gettysburg Review, Hudson Valley Writers Center, to name only a few) and two MFA programs (Queens University, Charlotte, NC and MFA@Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, WA). She has been honored extensively with national prizes and awards.

WHC

Thank you very much for talking to www.storyinliteraryfiction.com. The website is designed to provide resources for writers of literary fiction so much of the conversation will be about fiction, memoir, and poetry, and how each fits into the writer’s craft.

To start, what do you see as the differences between memoir and fiction in terms of how the writer creates?

RM

For me, memoir is the more challenging of the two genres. I feel that fiction is circumscribed only by what the reader will believe, so my impulse while writing fiction is to entertain any number of possibilities as to what could happen to this character, any number of what-ifs. That is a very different approach from what I use in memoir and other forms of nonfiction. Memoir in particular requires a great deal of destruction on the part of the writer; that is, destruction of the text that is already there. When I’m writing a story, I don’t feel I have to destroy or dismantle anything . . . I’m building it from the ground up.

In memoir, however, so much depends on selection. Memoir is not a record of one’s life, not at all. Memoir is a selected and shaped text that attempts to find what I call the “weave” or the texture underneath the life, that thing that folds one’s life together. It might be an idea that has surfaced over and over, or an event you keep returning to. In writing memoir, what you’re trying to do is make meaning or shape out of the raw material of your life. You’re definitely not trying to recreate your life. That is impossible. My students get very upset when they feel they have failed to recreate their grandmother on the page; or they’ve not captured the essence of their hometown. Writing is not about capturing something; it is about making a text, and because writing is made of words it will never recreate or capture a human being, a place. All writing, I suppose, is a failure when you hold it up against the light of reality. Yet you can suggest the event, the passions, the obsessions of one’s life and try to find out what pattern of meaning they make. And hope that there will be something there that the reader will connect with.

WHC

How do you deal with the elements of truth?

RM

Truth and fact and accuracy?

WHC

Yes.

RM

I have to tell you, Bill, I am not real fond of that question. The reason I don’t like to talk about it is that questions of fact and truth have gotten a lot of press lately, while other important aspects of nonfiction have been overlooked. It’s why I don’t like the term “creative nonfiction.” I prefer the term “literary nonfiction” because when people hear “creative” attached to “nonfiction” they immediately go to the fact/truth/accuracy element and overlook the hundreds of ways in which nonfiction can be done in a creative way.

But to answer your question, there are a number of ways to strive for both accuracy and truth. A lot depends on what kind of text you’re making. When you’re looking back in time in memoir, you’re using memory as your main access. So of course there will be huge loops of experience that will be missing—that’s a given—and there may be loops of misunderstanding and inaccuracy. You weren’t wired when you were four, so, for instance, you will have to recreate a sense of the conversation you remember your grandparents having one night to the best of your ability. No one expects the conversation to be an accurate transcription. However, when an event is in the more recent past–like last week or your surgery two years ago, you can do some fact-checking. Actually, you can even fact check long-by memories by asking other people who were there at the time: what was their recall of the time? You can check the weather of the day. You can look at old photographs, and check to see if—oh, indeed, that wasn’t the way the car was at all; we didn’t even have a station wagon that year. Those sorts of things.

WHC

How about the timeline? When you look for patterns in memoir story, do you change the chronology?


RM

The only time I have knowingly done that was in the essay called “Aunt” in Riddle Song [Riddle Song and Other Rememberings, The University of Georgia Press. Well, I didn’t actually change the chronology; what I did was to collapse several similar events into one, to make it easier for the reader to imagine the moment. There is a pivotal scene in the essay in which I describe my great-aunt (she was seventy years my senior) massaging my aching legs. I was eleven at the time, and I had what we used to call “growing pains” in my calves. I remember very strongly that this physical act represented a moment of change in my relationship to her, my recognition that I did need her, that I did love her, that she wasn’t just an old woman that my mother had brought to live with us, to take up space in our already crowded life. So even though she had indeed massaged my calves several times, I chose not to recreate every single occurrence. Instead, I made it one event—for the reader’s sake.

WHC

How do you perceive voice? In all writing it seems that voice and tone are important. Do you find difficulties between genres in what you want to create for the reader?

RM

Voice and tone. Yes, so important. And sometimes so difficult to get right. One of the great joys for me is discovering the right key in which to sing the particular piece I’m working on. I think voice is extremely important. Judith Kitchen talks about this element a lot, the importance of the distinctive voice print or the sense of a guiding consciousness. It’s set in motion from the first sentence on. Or it isn’t. I was trained in music and I feel I have a pretty good ear for voice and rhythms, but sometimes I’m so far off from my material—I just don’t get the right match sometimes. So sometimes I just let go and let the voice lead the material, take the lead. I enjoy voice-propelled pieces, and I have written some, mostly the briefer essays.

WHC

Do you check voice by revision and hearing the sounds or are there craft elements that you use, as you are creating, to create the voice?

RM

I don’t know that I’m really conscious of it. I do know, when I’m rereading, if something doesn’t fit. For instance, in the middle of a piece like “Loving Bald Men,” if I were to come out with an overly serious statement or a pompous pronouncement, I would know that did not fit with the voice of the speaker. I like to try out various voices in my writing. And a lot of the voice print is found in the rhythm of the sentence. For example in “Signs and Wonders,” the New York piece, which is very voice oriented, the sentences are ratta da da da dup . . . dit dit dit dit . . . and it starts out with jackhammers opening the sidewalk—“you know the drill”—and the sentences are very fast and furious. On the other hand, the essay “Interstellar” uses sentences in a totally different way. “When you’re the sister of a sad and beautiful woman,” it begins, which is a whole different lay of the land, so unlike the New York piece. So you play out different voices depending on the personality of the piece: Is this a reverie? Is this a meditation? Is this an in-your-face-slap the way New York feels to me sometimes? You need to produce the emotional landscape of whatever you’re writing about, and you do that partly—no, not partly, always!—with the rhythm of your sentences, where you pause . . .

WHC

Word choice?

RM

Word choice, of course. Even the sounds of individual words. Do you want something that is soothing to the ear or do you need an ugly word, jagged prose? Everything is subservient to the task, you know, and you just have to bow before the work at hand and say “Okay, what do you want to be when you grow up?” And that is what I ask every piece I write.

WHC

Many writers, when they are writing prose, have difficulty grasping the concept of musicality. You’ve described many things that contribute to musicality, and there is the essence of hearing the music. Does a musical background help?

RM

I don’t think it hurts.

WHC

And does reading out loud help?

RM

Yes. Any exercise that helps you see and hear the work in a new way. I do lots of craft exercises . . . and I have my students do them, too. For instance, I totally believe in imitation as a way to practice the language, and I frequently have my students do things like grammatical rhymes and other forms of modeling. Listen to the sentence (1) at the opening of “The Fall of the House of Usher. Isn’t it beautiful? “During the whole of a dull dark and soundless day in the autumn of the year . . .” I memorized that whole passage, among many others. It’s one of my hobbies, memorizing poems and short prose passages.

WHC

A New York editor (Rob Spillman) has suggested that students of writing sit down and type out passages . . .

RM

I’ve done that . . .

WHC

. . . to see how other writers have created those rhythms.

RM

I did; one terribly bleak summer when nothing was working out, when my writing was totally flat, I decided to type out a chapter from War and Peace.

WHC

That took you four years.

RM

I’m a fast “typer” . . . (laughing) Actually, sometimes I copy the passages out by hand, just to get inside the syntax and see how different it is from author to author. It’s like doing finger exercises on the piano. When I was a child learning to play those exercises—I hated them, I just wanted to play Moon River or whatever corny thing I was learning then. But the fact is, the finger exercises helped. They came to my aid later on. Most writers don’t practice enough; they think everything they write has to be a performance, everything they write has to work. I gave up on that a long time ago. Mostly, I practice.

WHC

In one of your interviews you talked about story in poetry, and no story in poetry. I wondered what your conceptualization of story is. What is it you place in a poem to make it narrative? What are the elements of story, particularly for the nonfiction writer? Are those nonfiction elements different than fiction elements?

RM

It’s a huge question. I’m pretty traditional in the way I think of fiction and the way I teach it. I don’t know that I’m traditional in the way I practice it. But I think of story in traditional terms. A story is generally character driven; the character wants something; the story has . . .

WHC

A beginning, middle, and end . . .

RM

Yes . . . And somewhere along the way, forces intervene. He or she doesn’t get what he or she wants; then there is a scene in which things turn. So I think that way about fiction, but in fact many of my stories don’t seem to have that trajectory; nor does my nonfiction. But I want stories that show the ways in which we are alike, in all the important ways, no matter how different we all seem. I want stories that break my heart and heal it all at the same time. That’s what I look for as a reader. I also very much respect humor in writing because I think it is very difficult to achieve; I think we tend to forget how important humor is, even in serious fiction and serious nonfiction. I love the play of words; I love when characters say strange or funny things Well, I’m getting off the subject, I’m sorry. What makes a story? I do know that something has to change . . .

WHC

In the character?

RM

In the character, and even in a poem. There must be a turn . . . in other words, the reader must end up with the writer in a different place from where they began. It can be a movement through time, or a movement of meaning. The essay might be the most elegant, beautiful form of writing, maybe even more so than the poems. A truly well crafted essay is the self talking to itself. It’s an attempt to put a thought on trial, or an idea or an experience, to see it from as many ways as you possibly. It’s like a snake eating its own tail. A really wonderful essay never answers anything; it just opens up more questions. But so does the best fiction . . . the best poems.

WHC

Would you agree that everyone needs stories in the same way they need food and sleep? If that is true, is there something in that story that we, as authors, need to satisfy when telling a story, something that teaches a person to live more effectively? Do authors need to have goals for reader enlightenment when they’re telling those stories?


 

RM

You’re talking about a moral imperative (2).

 

 

WHC

Yeah. But maybe not that strong. More in the sense that everything should have meaning.

RM

Definitely. For instance, I’m not much of a language poetry fan. Sure, I enjoy playing with words and seeing where that leads but finally, I want to be moved to a different place as a reader and as a writer. If I begin in despair, I don’t want to end there. Yes I have written some very dark things; but I think literature is a way to shine a light through the darkness. I don’t say that in a reductive way. I don’t believe you can expect that light to happen, you can never force it to happen, but I think it happens naturally when you really get to the truth of human experience. That is why I love nonfiction: I love interviewing people, I love reading their letters. For four years now I’ve been reading other people’s letters and listening to their stories, and if you just listen, the light cracks through, it breaks through. The act of story-making itself is shouting to the darkness, it’s saying “I exist!” and “I want to leave something!” even if it is just for one person. It’s an act of faith that something continues, whatever that something is.

WHC

Narrator is a difficult concept for prose writers. How do you think about narrators? Does it vary in your different genres?

RM

Yes. Very much.

WHC

How do you perceive author involvement, narrator involvement, and character involvement in what goes on the page? How do those interact in your writing? How do you make them effective?

RM

I’ve thought about this a lot for a talk I did at AWP and I recall the image I used was of Russian nesting dolls. First you have the flesh and blood person sitting at her desk, that’s the writer.

 

WHC

That’s outside? The outer doll?

RM

Yes. That’s the over voice. Then locked inside, the next doll, or whatever you want to call the nest figure, would be the author of this particular text--not the flesh and blood person. (The flesh and blood person is larger than that, you could be a doctor, or father, a grieving wife, whatever.) Locked inside the author is the next figure, the narrator, and depending on the piece that you’re writing, there may be a whole lot of little narrators locked within the main one. For example, if you’re writing a long memoir piece in which you shift back in time to a child’s perception, the child’s voice might be more--what we call unreliable, or uninformed, than the main narrator. The narrator in memoir is extremely complex. I feel when I’m writing poetry or fiction a great deal more leeway in the kinds of narrators I employ. But in nonfiction, I feel more limited. The narrator is closer to myself, my deepest self.

WHC

There is a collapse of the inner and outer figures in the nest?

RM

Right. In nonfiction, the two figures are closer. Because you’re using words, of course, you’re still creating a narrator that isn’t totally you. Still, there are limits. For instance, I don’t think the unreliable narrator exists…

WHC

You mean in nonfiction?

RM

Yes.

WHC

But you do believe there is an unreliable narrator in fiction?

RM

Yes. Of course.

WHC

Because that’s a useful tool in fiction?

RM

Right. That’s why it bothers me a great deal when I open a literary journal and the Table of Contents doesn’t distinguish between nonfiction and fiction; it just says “Prose.” Because as a reader, I have a whole different expectation when I know the life is directly connected to the story. And I keep thinking, what if I open one of these journals one day, one of these journals that doesn’t distinguish between fiction and nonfiction, and the first sentence is “The night I murdered my four daughters, the moon outside …” I would think, “Wait a minute! I want to know that this is fiction.” It’s very important to me in nonfiction and essay to remain as close to the actual truth, the authentic happenings, as possible. I know, for instance, that to readers of my essay “Back” in Gettysburg Review it is important that I did not invent my cancer diagnosis and surgery. It’s an important responsibility for nonfiction writers, to know and to acknowledge that readers enter a text differently when they believe the facts of the life represented. Joe Mackall talks about this in the introduction to the very first issue of “River Teeth,” which is one of the finest magazines of nonfiction.

WHC

The impact on the reader is different?

RM

It is.

WHC

Is the entertainment value different between fiction and nonfiction?

RM

Oh, Lord.

WHC

Either the quality or the intensity of the entertainment for you?

RM

You know, I’ve never thought of literature as entertainment. Maybe it is. Well of course it is, but I’ve never thought about that. You mean am I more engaged if I know there is a life behind it?

WHC

It would seem so. From what you say.

RM

Not always. Actually, I’m really tired of memoir right now, and I have been for about five years. “Me-Mores” I call some of them. And there are so few that are done well. So, no, I don’t think it’s the life standing behind the writing that makes it engaging—it’s all in how it’s told.

WHC

Now, in fiction, the engagement of the reader is, at least, dependent on the choice of the narrator, don’t you believe?

RM

Oh, yes.

WHC

There’s a way to think of fiction as author creates, narrator tells, and character acts, and you can develop conflict, movement, irony and emotional involvement among these effectively. But it seems from our discussion that a reader tends to be more moved by nonfiction than fiction.

RM

No, I don’t think just because it’s nonfiction that makes it more moving or life affirming. I’m just saying we have different expectations when we read different genres. And what really bothers me when I feel that a memoirist is not being as authentic as possible. Then I begin to question the motives of the writer. It makes me sad when people feel they need to invent an important life and call it theirs. Rilke talks about this problem in Letters to a Young Poet. I’m paraphrasing here, but he tells this poet, “Don’t blame your life, blame your paucity of imagination, blame your own lack of attention.” I guess I love nonfiction because I love the smell of real oranges, real people, the special spot on the back of babies’ necks. An incredibly interesting world is in front of our noses, but most people do not value their own experience, don’t really feel that there are deep wells of meaning that can be found in their own lives. What’s important is the level of attention that you give to the smallest things.

WHC

Writers have descriptive skills to describe the concrete—you’ve written about description—but how do writers effectively write about abstractions? Those abstractions that are so important to us but so unformed that when a writer tries to deal with them, things get boring and the pages don’t get turned.

RM

I think it was Eudora Welty who said that you can’t create emotion with emotion, it must be embodied. No, it was Flannery O’Connor. But I think embodiment is the way to create emotion.

WHC

So we don’t talk about anger. We show anger.

RM

Well, of course. You could show it by a character’s action. Or you could hook it to an image or a metaphor to make someone feel what the anger is like. I’m not a believer in placing metaphor or simile; I think true metaphor arises naturally in the scene and in the experience of the emotion that comes to you. I’m not against using abstractions; they just have to be grounded. Unless of course you’re writing a text that wants only to engage what I call the S.A.T. brain. But if you really want to make the reader’s blood boil with you—or to break the reader’s heart—it has to be with a little gesture. An embodied emotion. It’s the small things that break our hearts.

WHC

In some ways, it is almost a prison for the writing. If you want to deal with abstractions like infinity, gravity, morality, divinity, you’ve got to be able to express those with concrete, not abstract writing. Do you agree?

RM

Right.

WHC

The simile and the metaphor seems to be an area where inexperienced and untalented writers tend to become clever and cute when dealing with abstractions and the quality of the metaphors seems to be lost more easily.

RM

Again! I believe that metaphor lives and breathes very naturally in every life, every culture. Our language is filed with metaphor.

WHC

We make decisions based on metaphor.

RM

Yes. Politicians use metaphor, usually poorly. Ministers and teachers all use it. A lot of metaphors are imbedded in verbs . . .

 

WHC

And adverbs.

RM

Yes. Right

WHC

You do a lot of teaching. You teach in an MFA program . . .

RM

Two of them.

WHC

. . . you teach in workshops. Based on your experience, are their ways for new writers to avoid the traditional submit-a-manuscript/critique-the-manuscript style of teaching? This, for many, results in nonexperts making suggestions on manuscripts that are often not helpful to the authors. Students often come away with manuscript adjustments but not really learning how to write. There must a way to teach without this obtuse and cumbersome way of teaching—and painful too. How can the educational experience be restructured to be more effective?

RM

Restructuring the educational education? Well, I can talk about what I think makes a good workshop—or ways that writers can learn to feed themselves and their writing. First of all, as you already know: read, read, read, read, read. We are what we read. I’m astounded at how many people take writing workshops yet never read. I’ll say, “What are the last three nonfiction books you’ve read?” “Well I don’t really like to be influenced,” they’ll say. But reading is freeing, liberating. It frees you to see all the multiple structures writers employ. In workshops that I lead, I’m not interested in fixing. Workshops can be dangerous, even when they are very positive, because what we are trying to do quite often is we’re trying to fix something. Even if everyone loves your work, what your readers are often trying to do in workshops is come to a consensus, or a committee agreement, for this story . . .

WHC

Whether it’s good or bad . . .

RM

That’s right. So, following that model, the best way to help is to boil something down to its least interesting, least troublesome component. But usually the trouble spots are the doors into the better story, the more interesting story. Workshops traditionally want to pare down and fix where the trouble spot is, remove the apparent problem . . .

WHC

Those fixes are often just symptoms, really. What one really needs is thinking and structural changes. Would that be fair?

RM

What you’re looking for in your respondents is description. You want people to describe to you what happened to them when they read your piece. Where did they get lost? What does the work remind them of? What is the next place it might go? Not—“You just misspelled buses,” or “This just didn’t do it for me.” How is that supposed to help the writer?

WHC

Are there how-to books that you recommend?

RM

Yes. I have several book lists on my website. There are PDF’s that people can download.

WHC

Let me ask you about a website. Why should you have a website? What are the goals? How do you do it? What are your expectations?

RM

Well, I didn’t have one for a long, long time. But I also didn’t have email for years. So I may be the wrong person to ask. But I do think that it can be a good communication tool—for my students and for others who might want to sample my work or the work of other writers. It just makes it easier for people to contact you. Recently, we’ve added audio to my site. There are many people out there in communities where I might never do a reading, so this is a way they can hear the voice of the author. Which is important in poetry, at least.

WHC

Do you recommend professional design for your websites?

RM

I don’t know.

WHC

Did you do your own?

RM

No. My husband’s a webmaster.

WHC

So you do recommend someone.

RM

I’m sleeping with my web designer (laughter). I’m lucky that way,

WHC

As a serious accomplished writer in so many genres, how has the influence of commercialism affected you? How do you maintain a quest for quality in a market that demands predictable, expected writing? How do you keep to writing art form, rather than what will sell?

RM

Which circle of hell do you want to talk about? I’ve been through all of them. If you go on my website you’ll see the article I posted about fear, rejection, and persistence in the writer’s life. It’s the page with the broken pencil! I’ve been writing seriously for over thirty years and every several years I want to pull the plug on it. I’ll be an interior designer; I’m going to work in a bakery; I’m going to go back to teaching children. And then something happens. There will be a little note from a lady out in Nebraska who read something I wrote and made fourteen copies for all her grandchildren. Breaking copyright laws, of course, but who cares? Little things like that keep you hanging on.

But, yes, the market is extremely difficult. And it isn’t just difficult for us as writers; it’s difficult for the agents, and for the editors, most of whom got into [their job] for their love of literary work.

WHC

For quality.

RM

Yes, for quality. Right now on my desk I have a stack of letters praising a particular manuscript and in the same breath saying sorry we can’t publish it. There is no market. It’s just the way it is. But I think good work does get out there, eventually. And when it does, we writers need to read it, to support it. We are part of the literary community. Of course you can’t subscribe to every magazine where you hope your work might appear, but you can do your best…

WHC

When I was traveling, I picked up a copy of Wuthering Heights to enjoy. I realized that if Emily Bronte were alive today she would have no chance of publishing this piece of quality writing.

RM

We should all aspire to be posthumous writers.

WHC

I’d like to thank you very much for agreeing to interview for www.storyinliteraryfiction.com. It’s been a great pleasure and I’ve learned a lot. Special thanks for teaching me about so many genres and about the process of writing.

RM

Thank you.





(1) First sentence of The Fall of the House of Usher, by Edgar Allan Poe.

 

“DURING THE WHOLE of a dull, dark, and soundless day in autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.”



(2) A moral imperative is a principle inside a person’s mind that compels them to act. [Wikipedia.]





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3 Responses to “Interview – Rebecca McClanahan”

  1. admin Says:

    Good question. I do not know the answer but suggest you contact Rebeca McClanahan at her website: http://www.mcclanmuse.com/
    Thanks for comment. WHC

  2. Ingrid Brandt Says:

    How do you explain the title" Interstellar"to tie in with your very interesting story?

  3. 0zioma ukwuoma Says:

    i applaud her grasp of writing's technical finesse.but as she noted, the reward can sometimes be discouraging, especially in Africa,where i live. What measures have people like her taken to salvage Africa's lean pursed, leanthroated,materially harrased but very talented writers?

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