WHAT WE WRITE
Marion is the author, most recently, of The Glen Rock Book of the Dead. Her other books of creative nonfiction include Telling, First Comes Love, The Lunch-Box Chronicles, Rules for the Unruly, and Above Us Only Sky. Winik’s essays have been published in The New York Times Magazine, O, and Salon; she has a column in Ladies Home Journal and teaches writing at the University of Baltimore.
Dylan is the author of the novel-in-stories Normal People Don’t Live Like This (Persea), published to high praise from Vanity Fair, the Los Angeles Times, and others. A former journalist, she has published short fiction in Tin House, Bomb, and Best American Nonrequired Reading and won prizes and fellowships for her work. She lives in Washington, DC.
WHAT WE DON’T WRITE
Dylan: Anything personal I might regret. This reminds me of a character in a Mary Otis short story who calls regret “the useless emotion,” but I won’t flirt with it.
Marion: I understand what you mean more than I would have in the past. While I used to find “telling all” a healing process, something has shifted for me. For example, I don’t plan to write in any detail about the recent breakup of my second marriage. This is partly because my ex-husband is also a writer and his concern with “control of the narrative” of our relationship has caused a lot of trouble. But it’s more than that, really.
I’ve come to experience the irremediable subjectivity of memoir as a limitation rather than a permission slip. If I wanted to explore a seductive, destructive, chthonic relationship like the one we had, it would be a better idea to create a fictional situation similar to the one I was in, and distribute my sympathies more evenly among the characters.
Dylan: That’s a compassionate point for a writer—the distributing of sympathies. You have to love every character. I, too, would heavily fictionalize any negative relationship. And even a nourishing relationship, because fiction needs conflict, and characters need flaws. So what’s taboo for me is Deep Memoir, the act of Telling, to borrow a book title from you.
I do want to break one taboo—I want to write about some distorted-body-image stuff. But that means writing about body parts, and sexuality. Oh, God, never mind. Maybe when my son is fifty. Maybe in my next life.
Marion: You are so shy!
Dylan: Yup. You mentioned, uh, blow jobs in one essay, Marion, and “wiggling” in another. I can’t even say what that’s a euphemism for in case my son Googles me and it comes up with my name. Apparently when you write, your kids aren’t looking over your shoulder, figuratively speaking. Or are they?
Marion: Well, most of the time they pay no attention, but my son Hayes has read First Comes Love, which is as T.M.I. as it gets. I can’t even stand to think about him reading some of the early scenes where I am desperately throwing myself around trying to seduce his gay father. Ah well. The poor children. They get through it somehow.
Dylan: T.M.I.? Somehow?
Marion: T.M. I. = too much information. Somehow = Therapy? Insouciance? Revenge memoir? Whiskey? You know, somehow.
Dylan: Can I use that?
Last summer I snapped the tip off my friend Anita’s new ninety-dollar chef’s knife by using it to try to pry open a tin of Japanese horseradish. A triangle of metal flew into the mysterious void where small shiny things sometimes go.
I stared at the huge gleaming knife in my hand and went into some kind of weird sociopathic state. I walked over to the sink, plunged the knife into the suds, pulled it out, and exclaimed, Oh God, look what happened to the knife. It must have broken somehow in the sink.—from Telling, by Marion Winik
Dylan: What gives you the chutzpah to put on paper what you do? Does the difference between a memoirist and novelist lie in material…in the need for privacy or a sense of shame…in the type of talent?
Marion: The need to connect with other people and to understand and validate my experiences has been a force in my writing since Day One—which is like, 1967 or so. In cases where I am telling something I am afraid to tell, I feel a thrill of revelation, I experience the fear as exciting. I am an inveterate risk-taker, exhibitionist and connection-builder—not just on paper.
“Type of talent” is an interesting issue. I think the type of talent people have may issue from the psychological roots of their writing. For the reasons I just explained, I am a born memoirist. On the other hand, I have always been drawn to types of writing that don’t come as easily. I love the imaginative leap of fiction, as well as the imaginative leap of a brilliant metaphor or other turn of phrase. But I don’t think I’m necessarily “wired” to create those things—it’s something I am trying to learn by extensive trial and error.
Do you think there are similar psychological forces that drive a “born” fiction writer? Because I think of the invention of characters and of a world as quite a different project, emotionally, from that of the memoirist.
Dylan: I’m not a born fiction writer. Every piece, while I’m writing, feels at many points doomed to fail. But I love how fiction feels reassuringly apart from me, like a canvas I’m working on; I love discovering what characters want to do. I mine my subconscious and imagination for material, but I relish not being constrained—or revealed—by life.
And is it so different to invent a fictional character than to construct a memoir’s “characters,” including the narrator? Even invent feels off; I learn my fictional people by revelation. We both make our people flawed, sympathetic and believable. Maybe the difference is that you, Marion, start out knowing your iceberg, the huge amount of submerged psychological material you won’t use but that anchors everything you write. When I start a piece of fiction, I can’t even see my iceberg. All I got is radar.
It could be true, but it could also be a lie, that a teenage boy can get an erection just by brushing against a woman’s arm on the bus. Mr. Martin in sex ed was very specific about the circumstances: boy, woman, arm, bus. As Rainey interprets this it is the Broadway bus, an old green 104 lumbering uptown at rush hour, and the woman is eighteen, no, she is twenty-one, and carrying a white shopping bag with violets on it, and wearing a lavender cardigan. The top three buttons are open, no, the top four, but it is her slender, sweatered arm as she squeezes toward the back of the bus that engenders the event.—from “Jazz,” from Normal People Don’t Live Like This, by Dylan Landis
Marion: None of the stories in Normal People Don’t Live Like This are love stories, really, at least in the traditional romantic sense. Yet love and attachment suffuse the book, particularly the passionate relationships of young women to their friends. The almost unbearable intensity of what girls feel about other girls is one of the central themes of the book. Do you agree?
Dylan: Huge theme. In “Jazz” there’s this line about Rainey: “She wants to set fires and she wants to control how they burn.” Well, Leah wants to be chosen by the firesetters; she wants them to walk her up to the flames. She’s intoxicated by their apparent sense of freedom. She doesn’t understand that they’re free with themselves—something she longs to be—because they’re self-destructive, that they don’t value themselves because no one values them. Rainey’s been abandoned and molested. Angeline’s been beaten and probably worse. Leah keeps reinventing the same romantically-charged friendship until she develops her own internal source of power.
Talk to me about unbearably intense love.
Marion: For me, all romantic love is unbearably intense. The stakes are so high, ridiculously high (back to psychological roots here) that in a way, nothing can ever be resolved on the chaotic and brutal sound stage of real life, only in the echo chamber of my writing world. I have never gotten over anything that happened to me, but I have at least gotten eight books out of it—and maybe that’s why it feels so strange that I don’t want to write about my love life anymore. (But I’ll never say never, either.) Instead, believe it or not, I’ve written a YA novel about teenage golfers and football players. But, now that I think of it, it’s a love story, too.
Since the day I could cut the shape of a heart from a piece of red construction paper, I fell in love, I fell in love, I fell and fell until I hit the bottom, the hard and rocky bottom of the pit of rejection. There I languished for an appropriate interval of mourning, then picked myself up, dusted myself off, and rushed headlong to the flame again. No matter how often my heart was broken, I never stopped; I was virtually addicted to the state of infatuation, that headlong tumble through nothing-else-exists euphoria. My capacity for pain was equaled only by my capacity for bliss.
By the time I was fifteen I had a really sweet boyfriend and a copy of The Sensuous Woman, and the sexual revolution was underway in my very own garage.—from Rules for the Unruly, by Marion Winik
RECIPES & PROMPTS
Dylan: You’re an amazing cook, so let me ask you if there’s anything approaching a recipe for a powerful personal essay.
Marion: I’d say “humor in heartbreak” is tried and true. If you can get tears and laughter out of one situation—whether it’s black humor, slapstick, rueful self-deprecation, absurdity and poignancy at once–you’ve got a personal essay on your hands. Do you have any similar thoughts on the short story?
Dylan: I’m still mystified, every time, by how a story happens, and each time I’m startled and grateful that an ending arrives. I call the process “disciplined receptivity.” It feels like channeling, whatever that might be—a state of being present, listening, waiting, writing very hard and revising for months. At some point the thing will send a taproot down into some deeper layer of meaning, which might be emotionally alarming, but you have to be ready to follow it. Other times there’s an upward, transcendent movement. Both are necessary, but I have no recipe.
Maybe my teacher Jim Krusoe’s belief: you need faith that the work will get done, and patience to do the work. And I am a fan of writing prompts; I wrote a novel around a prompt from the late Madeleine L’Engle’s workshop: Describe a character opening a box.
Are prompts ever useful in your own writing?
Marion: Yes, they are! In fact, the whole Glen Rock Book of the Dead was a response to a prompt that a novelist named Jane McCafferty gave in a workshop I was sitting in on in Pittsburgh. The prompt was to respond to Stephen Dunn’s poem Tenderness, finding some kind of parallel situation to that.
Naomi Nye gave one in a workshop I attended once where you go back to a situation where you couldn’t say what you wanted to say at the time, and you say it in the poem, or essay, or story. She explained that this was based on William Stafford’s favorite prompts: “Write what you said, and what you wish you’d said,” and “Write what you did, and what you wish you did.” My response to Naomi’s prompt, which eventually ran on All Things Considered, took a slightly slanted angle—it’s more about the whole feeling of being silenced—about being in a situation where no one can say what they want to say, in this case, a courtroom. (You can hear the essay here; click on “A Dead Cat, A Court Date, and Parenthood.”)
Dylan: The William Stafford prompts would be perfect for fictional characters; I may adapt them. “Write what she said, and what she wished she’d said.” You could get a wonderful litany out of that. There’s an exquisite passage in Away, the novel by Amy Bloom, that seems to respond to this:
“Zay gezunt hey,” Lillian says. Go with God, and she means, Go with my love. She means, Come with me. She means, Do not leave me. She means, I cannot do this without you. She means, Do not let me go.
I don’t know who came up with “Her mother never….” and “His father never…” but they are powerful triggers; one teacher I know changes them to “The mother never” so that he doesn’t get students weeping in class.
My short-short story “Breakage,” about a very young woman’s failing marriage and her yearning to reconnect with her mother, began with a prompt from Jim Krusoe: Write a rooftop scene. Avoid all rooftop cliches, like falling, pushing, the contemplation of jumping.
The roofer clicks a orange Life Saver between his teeth, rubs under his jaw. “Tonsils and uvula,” he says. “Gone.” He opens his mouth wide, loops a U in the air with his finger.
“Ouch,” says Pansy. She is holding a fragment of Spanish roofing tile. Lately tiles have been sliding off the roof easy as coins, exploding on the patio, scattering orange shards like bougainvillea blossoms.—from “Breakage,” from Normal People Don’t Live Like This, by Dylan Landis
DARK WATER, MAD WHISTLING, AND OTHER WAYS TO TALK ABOUT FORM
Dylan: Describe the process that lets you say so much in a page and a half: How full is your trash can? Do you see the shape of a personal essay before you start, or wade into dark water with your eyes closed and muck about until you find it?
Marion: I find very short forms the most fun to write. I have a sense of 300 words, of 500, of 800—those lengths are almost like poetic forms to me because I’m so aware of what you can do in them. The years of NPR pieces honed that. I like to be in control of the rhythm of the piece overall the way I am in control of the rhythm of individual sentences—I don’t think I can maintain that in a piece that’s longer than about 800, and the length of The Glen Rock Book of the Dead pieces—250 to 300—is perfect for it. It is so short, there is no dark water to wade into. It’s all right there. Really fast. Then I play with it, keep playing.
I love to revise much more than to write the first draft—that’s a good reason to work in short forms.
Dylan: Does the essay’s shape gestate inside you—its beginning, its expansion into greater meaning, and its end—before you start typing?
Marion: I think so—I sometimes feel that what looks like procrastination is actually more like waiting for the pressure cooker to build up the steam that starts its mad whistling. Time to cook.
Dylan: When I begin a piece of fiction, I know if it’s a story or a novel—the character somehow tells me how much room she needs. But length—never. So I envy you your inner sense of form and length. With the stories I never knew what would come next—nor with the five personal essays I’ve done. When Padgett Powell read the first fifty pages of my novel, Floorwork, at the Sewanee Writers Conference, he asked if I knew what was going to happen next. I said, “Not really, just that Leah gets raped.” He said, “Then you know too much.” He meant: Write in the dark. See what you find there. (And he was right; Leah doesn’t get raped.)
Now, with a historical novel based on fact, I’m writing into a loose, baggy outline that grows longer and richer as I adhere bits of muscle and flesh to it. It’s exciting as hell. But even knowing the key events, I still try to write in the dark.