July 2012

Ryan van Meter

features

An Interview with Jill Talbot

Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction, edited by Jill Talbot, includes essays by Bernard Cooper, Ander Monson, Lena Dunham, Brenda Miller, and me. The title explains the project -- writers writing essays about writing. I was a very tentative contributor. While I was honored by Jill's original invitation to submit an essay, I was also skeptical; I tend to find writing about writing precious, or worse. But because I really like assignments and deadlines, I accepted her invitation. Of course, in writing this introduction so self-consciously -- writing about writing an introduction to an anthology of writing about writing -- I am certainly being precious.

Following each essay in the anthology, Jill appended an interview with its author. Here, we reverse this formula for the interview of her about the anthology, her intentions for it, her process of putting it together, and the questions it asks. Fair warning: about halfway through this interview, I'll start asking her about interviewing the writers about writing about writing, but I do it without acknowledging in the interview that I'm doing so. Preciousness averted, I hope. 

How did this project come about? Were there forces, ideas, or trends in current culture that inspired it -- or to which you felt sensitive?

I can point to three influences: The first was The New Yorker's Summer 2010 "20 Under 40" Issue, which began with Joshua Ferris's "The Pilot": a young writer frets over the writing of a television pilot. Next, Rivka Galchen's "The Entire Northern Side Was Covered in Fire": a novelist's husband leaves her and blogs about it. Gary Shteyngart's "Lenny Hearts Eunice" is told in diary entries. The following issue (they included five stories in each issue over four issues) featured Nicole Krauss's "The Young Painters," in which a woman struggles with the repercussions of writing someone else's story. While reading it, I said out loud, "What is going on here?" It was Krauss's story that captivated me the most and the one I alluded to in my query to potential contributors.  

The second was The Best American Essays 2009, edited by Mary Oliver. Patricia Hampl's "The Dark Art of Description," Chris Arthur's "(En)Trance," and Brian Doyle's "The Greatest Nature Essay Ever" are the most meta in the anthology; however, eleven of the thirteen essays are, in some way, about writing.

The third influence involved two cultural shifts: social media and MSNBC. I considered how my students lived in meta-mode, that they updated Facebook statuses or tweeted consistently: "Standing in line waiting for my Chick-fil-A SUCKS." "Watching re-runs of Buffy instead of going to Chem Lab." "Just passed some girl wearing shorts?????? It's freezing!!!!!" I attributed such self-conscious, self-referential impulses to the overwhelming number of essays they submitted for workshop that included some aspect of metawriting. For them, it wasn't necessarily an artistic choice or essayistic trope, but an extension of the way they communicate, the way they think.

The other cultural shift I noted was in my nightly viewings of Hardball with Chris Matthews and Countdown with Keith Olbermann, then back to back on MSNBC. At the close of their respective shows, they'd end on a personal note or share an event in their lives, and if anyone recalls, Olbermann inserted his own father's illness and hospitalization as anecdotes in his "special comments" about the healthcare debate. No longer were these news anchors objective, distant journalists, they were news personalities, sharing their private stories with the public. I'd like to add that currently, Rachel Maddow does the personal and political merging brilliantly, and she also nightly references the preparation involved in the show itself; she's often very meta. I queried her, too; she never responded. (Ms. Maddow, Metawritings 2?)

So, the blurring of the private and the public seemed to reflect what was happening in social media -- how we can now all be on the same page, that there are no lines between "them" and "us." It's a space we all share. For example, I can tweet George Stephanopolous and Molly Ringwald; I can find a link to Lee Martin's MFA blog, and I can see the photograph of Kyra Sedgwick's new tub that Kevin Bacon bought her as a birthday gift. If we're all so clearly putting ourselves on the page (the screen) for each other, wouldn't it follow that writers would make such meta-moves in their work? Metawriting is not new, of course, but living within the orbit of these contemporary forces, I wanted to see what metawriting looks like now.             

And once you had the idea for the project solidified, how did you go about choosing writers to solicit?

I began with writers who were already metawriting. I also contacted writers I admire in hopes of a chance to work with them. (You fell into this category, Ryan.) Important, I thought, I queried some nonfiction heavy hitters (Robin Hemley, for example) because I wanted the anthology to have the heft of established nonfictionites. Yet I also wanted new voices, so I went to journal websites and looked for recurring names and also to creative writing program pages. I read the biography of each faculty member in search of writers who were invested in the fiction and nonfiction overlap. That's how I found Cathy Day. I also queried writers in hopes of creating a diverse contributor list in terms of culture, sexuality, and region. This strategy didn't work out as well, I'm afraid, in terms of culture. As you might have noticed, it's an all-white writer anthology, but that doesn't reflect the number of writers of color I queried. Some politely declined, like Edwidge Danticat, and some never responded. I would have loved to have Sherman Alexie on the contributor list. He does metawriting in very provocative ways.

As for the pieces themselves, the query letter asked for unpublished work, but I made some exceptions -- for various reasons -- even though most were new, which was my goal. There's so much anthology overlap out there. During the process, some writers and their pieces were cut, others were traded for new ones. Some pieces that had been submitted for the anthology were published before we even arrived at the copyediting phase, so they weren't originally reprints. 

Then after you queried your potential writers, what kinds of metawriting were you expecting? Which essay or essays satisfied the approach you were sure you'd get? Was there any approach to metawriting you were sure you'd get and didn't?

I envisioned a continuum of metawritings, a range. I hoped to create a spectrum, something like the movement from Cheryl Strayed's "The Love of my Life" -- in which she includes only a line or two about fiction versus nonfiction in an essay about grief -- to more egregious acts, such as Jonathan Lethem's "The Ecstasy of Influence." I imagined the initial works would barely wink, meta-wise, then each piece would evolve, increase, ultimately enter a "Fun House." But.

I received Day's piece first, a piece with a character who is a writer, and the next one I read was Sarah Blackman's, a beautiful essay about the self as art. Next, I read Brenda Miller's "The Dog at the End of the World," which is, among other things, about the details of memory, the details of writing. When Brian Oliu sent his lyric essay about video games, I threw my spectrum idea out. What I began to see was that there are no rules in metawriting; the choices are infinite.

So would you say it was Oliu's essay that most surprised your notion of meta? 

To be honest, every piece surprised me, in a good way, but the one I felt encapsulated the anthology was Pam Houston's "Corn Maze." She nailed it. About two questions into her interview, we agreed that her answers were "diluting" (her word) her essay, so I suggested making it the prologue.

As a reader of the anthology, I found myself looking forward to the writer interviews that follow each metawriting. I found the one with "Anonymous" particularly interesting. This essay is printed without an author's name, and in it, the author plays with our ideas of persona while writing about a rape. In fact, the "I" in the essay does a kind of burlesque with his or her identity, even shape-shifting between possible rapist and possible victim. The interview that follows is so fascinating because "Anonymous" continues to play this part, and challenges your very questions, asking you if it really matters who a storyteller is when the story is powerful? Reading that interview, I wondered if you ever balked at the idea of printing an essay about such a grave topic that involves so much -- for lack of a better word -- play? (Even though I absolutely think "Anonymous" handles the subject matter with sophistication and responsibility.) More generally, is an utter lack of "rules" the whole point of meta?

This essay was certainly the one that took up the most space in my email inbox. It's a persona piece that features metawriting, and I like the layers -- that it's told from the perspective of the rapist, then perhaps the victim. In the interview, "Anonymous" reveals that the rape happened to a "friend's sister." This reminds me of the story layering that takes place in Nicole Krauss's "The Young Painters." The painting is the story, the dancer tells the story behind the painting, and the writer revises the story, which makes us, as writers, contemplate accountability. Who owns a story? If we tell it, does it become ours? How loyal should we be to the "facts of the matter"? In Krauss's story, the event is morbid, a mother gives her two children sleeping pills, drives them out to the forest, douses the car in gasoline, and the three burn to death. I believe that both Krauss and "Anonymous" specifically chose a "grave topic" to emphasize this conundrum -- does it matter?

Even though "Anonymous" challenges the questions, the identity of the writer is revealed in the interview. With this approach, Iowa was concerned that readers might feel tricked, asked why "Anonymous" couldn't remain so, but the writer was firm that the piece itself be attributed to "Anonymous," and I believe knowing who it is provides a whole new layer of persona to the piece. I also like that the piece defies genre -- creates a hybrid of fact and fiction.

As for rules, I always tell my students there are no absolutes in writing. "Anonymous" would disagree, I suspect, but in terms of metawriting, I would say the rules are: use the device for a purpose, not just as an experiment; the meta-move you make should inform readers about some aspect of writing or the genre itself; finally, it should, as Kristen Iversen quotes Ezra Pound at the close of the anthology, make [creative nonfiction] new.

Were the interviews included with the meta impulse in mind? (Writers talking about writing about writing...) Or for some other reason?

When novelist Charles Blackstone and I edited The Art of Friction: Where (Non) Fictions Come Together, we asked writers to submit, along with their story or essay, a brief commentary on the genre blurring between (non)fiction. In Metawritings, I wanted to continue the discussion of that anthology but also go beyond it. You might recall that the original title of the project was The Art of Friction II: (Meta)Writings in (Non)Fiction. But University of Texas passed on it, and Charles was immersed in the writing of his novel, so I felt freer to hit the refresh button on the project, so to speak. Charles suggested I interview the contributors. With commentaries, there can be repetition, a lack of breadth. The interview angle appealed to me because I could steer the discussion in various directions, cover territory beyond metawriting. I wanted to provide a comprehensive discussion of the genre: the essay, persona, voice, structure, writing the "I," the fiction versus nonfiction debate, and the concept of truth. So as it turns out, metawriting was the device I used to get us there. 

While conducting interviews, or even editing the anthology at large, did you ever find that there was such a thing as too much meta? What, if any, are the limits of this impulse?

In the introduction, I quote three contributors who warn against the dangers of metawriting, noting that it can be "self-congratulatory or pretentious or condescending" (you), "[It] can pretty quickly dissolve into a recursive spiral of self-consciousness and neurosis" (Ander Monson), and "it can be too intellectual or too busy with its own pyrotechnics, or -- worst case scenario -- trivial and dull" (Kristen Iversen). I felt it was important to have those caveats in the anthology. Also, each contributor performs metawriting in interesting and unique ways in order to set forth an important component of either fiction or nonfiction, or the writing of it. One thing I didn't expect to come out of it was the discussions of the teaching of writing. When Brenda Miller received her copy, she emailed me to say that the anthology was also "metateaching," and I agree -- there is a lot of valuable instruction here, writers talking about the ways they teach the genre. So again, each piece in the anthology is a work of metawriting, but the anthology is much, much more.

Many of the essays and interviews fall into the category of this general self-consciousness of meta that we've discussed (writing about writing), but several of them engage with the idea of truth (or is it "truth?") in nonfiction writing specifically. The anthology is actually well-timed, following the publication of John D'Agata and Jim Fingal's project about facts and "truth" in essays, The Lifespan of a Fact, and the nearly-concurrent admission of writer Mike Daisey that his work about Apple in China for This American Life on NPR included a lot of embellishment. These so-called "scandals" seem to happen more and more often, and when they do, the conversations about them seem to grow more and more vitriolic. Do you think we're more sensitive about "truth" in nonfiction writing nowadays because we're living such meta lives?

Allow me to step back and let some of the contributors answer this one:

"When was it decided (when was that again, and by whom?) that we were all supposed to choose between fiction and nonfiction, what was not taken into account was that for some of us truth can never be an absolute, that there can (at best) be only less true and more true and sometimes those two collapse inside each other like a Turducken." -- Pam Houston

"I don't worry about the 'real' so much as my perception of the real, and it's in the working out of the discrepancies between the two realms that a different kind of truth emerges." -- David Lazar

"The relationship to truth, especially in memoir, is a little, well, bendy." -- Lena Dunham

"When I abandon the attempt to relive the experience, abandon the pressure of the authenticity of the moment and instead allow myself to conflate what I remember about the time, what I might have thought about the time, with what I think now into an interwoven whole, the results feel more true to me than the literal truth." -- Sarah Blackman

"We've placed so much emphasis on distinctions between truth and untruth, and along the way questioned not only the truthfulness of the story but the authenticity and intention of the author herself. Is the story real? Is the author real? That is, is the author truly believable, of good intention, with impeccable credentials? Metanarrative in creative nonfiction turns this kind of questioning on its head." -- Kristen Iversen