The 2014 Vandermey Nonfiction Prize has just opened – join Jessica & share your creative nonfiction with us!
RM: Congratulations on winning the 2012 VanderMey Nonfiction Prize! In “Father of Disorder” you write about the deeply personal: family, rage, the grip of the past on the present. Nonfiction presents a unique challenge as the recognizable past is translated onto the page. How do you approach such intimate topics and the people involved in them?
JW: I don’t know that I approached these topics as much as they snuck in sideways during the writing process and gradually became the heart of the essay.
“Father of Disorder” started out with an image that I couldn’t get out of my head—my father racing around the yard in the early moments of a thunderstorm, battening down hatches and pulling blue tarps over the riding lawn mower and other vulnerable machinery. It didn’t seem like the makings of anything particularly interesting, but it had some weird emotional freight for me, so I wrote it out and then started riffing off it and writing whatever came to mind. In the end that image never made it into the final piece, but for some reason I needed to start there.
There are a lot of solid arguments for stopping short and closing the door on overly personal material. I see my students do this all the time—especially adults. Often I’ll read an essay that thinks it’s one thing, say an account of a vacation gone bad. The writer will go along narrating the various trials and tribulations of the trip—a missed flight, multiple rainy days, a lost passport. Gradually it becomes clear that the essay isn’t really about the vacation at all, but is actually about something much more personal, perhaps a marriage in decline, and that’s where the energy and power of the piece lies. When this comes up in workshop, the writer will typically nod in agreement and admit that they felt this too, but then they’ll give any number of reasons why they can’t write that essay. It’s always the same reason: it’s too close to the nerve, either for themselves or for someone else in their life.
RM: It seems like the reasons to avoid writing *that* essay are corollaries to the idea of entropy, “flowing from where it is crowded to spaces where it has the freedom to move.” Intense emotion crowded by memory and event tends to play out in writing that holds the prosaic in focus, perhaps as a way of building a space for that intensity to disperse. What is involved in building a workspace where ideas (deeply personal or otherwise) can stretch their legs and grow?
JW: I really like that phrase, “building a workspace.” I wrote this essay in a crowded Borders café in downtown Houston (which is sadly now closed), but when I think about my ideal metaphorical workspace, it would be the second-floor bedroom of some abandoned farmhouse that miraculously had a huge writing desk and a sunny window.
I’d pick an abandoned farmhouse because I’d have a feeling of intense privacy, which is important because you can never write about tough, personal stuff with your friends and family looking over your shoulder. I would also feel utterly unhurried there—I’d have the time to follow random connections that don’t make sense on the surface and take time to develop. (The best description I’ve ever heard of the writing process is from William Maxwell, who wrote, “If you turn the imagination loose like a hunting dog, it will often return with a bird in its mouth.”)
And it would be a farmhouse because that’s the physical space of my childhood, and when I was stuck writing I’d be able to stare at the crown molding and listen to the wind blow outside and that would probably remind me of some long-ago detail about another more personal farmhouse that I had forgotten about until then. And that in turn would unwind some tangled memory that would end up stretching itself out over the course of the essay.
RM: It sounds like it’s not just the ideas that grow and develop in that space, it’s the writer’s perceptions of them as well. And of course, over the years, people change too. In the last paragraph, you mention that “We’ll never be that particular family again…” It reminded me of a recent This American Life program called “Go Ask Your Father.” The host, Ira Glass, said “As adults, we have this funny choice. Are we going to sit down with our parents and talk about the stuff that hurt us, didn’t make sense to us when we were kids? And it’s hard to know if it’s worth it sometimes.” Do you feel it’s important to discuss the people you were with the people you are, in your work or otherwise?”
This is a tough question. I want to say yes, because I feel like it’s always best to face uncomfortable truths and have hard conversations. But I also feel like intention matters a great deal. If you go into any conversation like that wanting an apology or wanting to show your parents that they caused you pain as a kid, then you’re probably going to be disappointed. It’s not to say that you don’t have the right to ask for that, it’s just that years have passed and the power dynamic has shifted dramatically. You’re not that vulnerable kid anymore, and your parents aren’t these elemental forces that make up 90% of your universe.
I still think conversations about the past are important. The most rewarding conversations I’ve had with my parents have helped me understand what they were thinking about and worrying about and wishing for back when I didn’t realize they were actually people. I guess I’d recommend the same approach to talking about the past as I do for writing about it—don’t be afraid to engage with difficult material, but avoid going in with an agenda. Ask questions you don’t know the answer to and leave yourself some room to be surprised by where those questions take you.
Click here to read Jessica’s winning essay, “Father of Disorder.”
And, you can read other interviews from our Works with Soul series here.