Monday, April 11, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for Michelle Herman

A 1/2 Dozen for novelist,
and short story writer
who speaks eloquently and passionately
a non-romantic romance
how not-being-taught-to-write
while supposedly-being-taught-to-write
made her the teacher she is today.
Here goes:

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

I love writing. I love it every bit as much now as I did when I began, when I was in the second grade. It’s still the one activity other than the ones that keep me alive (you know, like eating. Or sleeping after I’ve been awake for seventeen or eighteen hours) that seems essential to my well-being. If I don’t write anything for a few days I start to feel a little sick; if I don’t write anything for months I overdramatically (melodramatically?) feel as if I’m dying. There are days I dread it—when I’m working on something that’s going particularly badly—and there are certainly days when it’s painful to do. But I never hate it, even then. I do sometimes feel I am unnaturally attached to it, that it’s a kind of pathology. But even if that’s true, I don’t care. It’s the love of my life.

What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)

I can only tell you what has worked for me, and what has worked for me may have a lot more to do with my temperament than with my being a writer (not that I do a very good job of separating the two). After many years of falling in love with precisely the wrong men, and using up the time and energy that I might have spent writing any number of books that will forever go unwritten, I met my husband. I was thirty-seven, and had by then been living alone for seventeen years (having had the good sense not to move in with any of those unsuitable boyfriends). I knew almost at once that this was a man I could live with, and with whom I could have a child, which by then was a matter of some urgency to me. My husband is as absorbed with his own work as I am with mine (he is painter), and he too had never been married. He worked all the time, and he needed to be left alone; he had no interest in keeping to a schedule (for example, Saturday nights are for going out, Sundays are for lying around reading the paper and eating bagels; dinner is at seven PM each evening). He thought it was perfectly natural for me to lock myself up in my study for eight or ten hours at a stretch, and he didn’t try to talk to me before I had my morning coffee. These were for me dealbreakers. If this doesn’t sound like a love story, so be it—but we’ve been living together for nineteen years, mostly in harmony. Our personalities are very different (so different we might as well be of different species): he is quiet, reclusive, pessimistic, a still-water-run-deep sort of guy, cool-headed in an emergency. And Southern Baptist. His family has been in Georgia (small town middle Georgia) for generations. I am talkative (and loud), friendly, outgoing, optimistic, hyper-dramatic, and I have the energy, it has been said, of ten men. I am a New York Jew, the granddaughter of Polish and Russian Jews. Are there times when this mismatch seems impossible, when it seems as if we’ve made a terrible mistake? Yes, of course. But for the most part it seems ingenious. I am loathe to offer (or to accept, ever) advice, but if one were to follow my example (and I am not suggesting that anyone should) that example would be: find someone who will leave you alone to do your work, who will never resent your work, who will take it as a matter of course that writing will take up most of your time, energy, thought, devotion. See below for a caveat.

Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?

No. I don’t even know what “balance” is. But my husband and I have a daughter, and since the day she was born—almost eighteen years ago now—raising her has been the most important aspect of my life. That I have remained devoted to writing, and that I take teaching as seriously as I do (see below this), means that I am always being pulled in numerous directions. I would say that while I haven’t learned (and I never expect to learn) how to strike a “balance” (whatever the hell that means), I have learned not to mind that constant tug or the seesawing from one thing to another. I hesitate to say this, because it will sound so...I don’t know, Oprah-esque? But I enjoy my life. I love being my daughter’s mother, I appreciate being my husband’s wife, I take tremendous pleasure and satisfaction in my writing, I am grateful to and delighted by the opportunity to teach my students, whom I find endlessly fascinating, and I also sing, semi-seriously. When my daughter goes off to college in the fall I expect to devote more of my time to singing, and to finish the novel I’m working on perhaps more quickly than I otherwise would. I expect things to shift, in other words, but I still don’t think I will have anything like balance. (In fact, I expect to be completely destablized, because I am going to miss my daughter’s daily presence so terribly much.)

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer? If you teach the craft of writing, why do you do it -- other than cash?

I actually think it’s an awfully hard way to earn a living—that is, there are easier ways to earn this much cash (or anyway there would be easier ways for me, because I take the job way more seriously than absolutely necessary). And this is going to sound awful--I can tell even before I start to say it; I'm going to sound like an evangelical missionary—but I nevertheless think it’s important to say. I teach writing because I believe that everyone has something to say that no one else can say, and that, for the undergraduates I teach, I can be the person who helps them figure out what that is, and thereby changes their lives (even if they never write anything again): I can help them figure out what they understand that no one else understands, even help them figure out who they are, what the meaning of their experiences amounts to, what they can offer the world. This happens with the graduate students I teach, too—I hasten to say—but many of them already know, and for them I am doing something else (which, I should add, I can do with my most gifted undergraduates, too): I’m helping them figure out the way they have to say what it is they have to say—a way that is distinct from anyone else’s. I do consider this a mission, as well as my avocation. It brings me joy, and it makes me feel useful in the world in a way that nothing else outside of raising my daughter ever has. And I believe (this will get me in trouble, but I don’t care a whit about that) that anyone who doesn’t consider teaching a mission and an avocation—any writer who is doing it strictly for the cash (and finds it a particularly easy, painless way to earn the cash necessary for living one’s life, and devoting most of one’s time to writing)--has no business doing it. It incenses me to see people doing this job as minimally as possible; it strikes me as a crime.

Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who was impactful on your writing life?

No. And I think this is partly—if not largely—why I feel as I do about teaching. As an undergraduate (at Brooklyn College) I avoided creative writing classes, by instinct (I double-majored in English and chemistry, and I concentrated on early twentieth century British and American literature (in English, anyway; in chemistry, I concentrated mainly on trying not to fail). As a graduate student, ten years later, at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I had no teachers who taught—which is not to say that I learned nothing from them. I learned interesting things from some of them (and here is a side note: years after I took a workshop with Rust Hills, who was at the time the Fiction Editor at Esquire, I wrote him a note thanking him for a bracing experience that ended up moving my writing forward, and mentioning that I found myself quoting him to my own students—specifically, quoting something he had said off the cuff, while drunk, during a private conversation about a story of mine. He wrote back to thank me for my letter and to say that he thought for a moment about including it in a collection of letters thanking him for his good teaching, and then realized that it was the only one he’d ever gotten) but none of them thought of themselves as teachers in the way they thought of themselves as writers, and they all made it clear that they would put in a minimum of effort, that this was the deal, period: they would read two stories we had written, they would talk with the class about it for an hour apiece, they might continue that conversation for a few minutes during office hours, but they would not think very hard about it, and they were not to be bothered otherwise: it was not their job to be bothered otherwise. No one ever read my thesis. Certainly no one ever spent a minute thinking about what it was I had to say and how I was saying it. Each story was considered in and of itself, examined for whether it could be fixed or not, and then forgotten.

This sounds harsh, and I’m not sure I’ve ever said it so baldly before. But later it shaped how I would approach my own teaching (and indeed how I—along with three colleagues at Ohio State: Kathy Fagan, Lee K. Abbott, and the late David Citino—would think about what our own MFA program would look like, and what its purpose would be). In the end, I don’t think this lack of teachers or mentors did me any harm: I taught myself what I needed to learn, and I figured out on my own, by banging around and banging my head against the wall, what needed to be figured out. I don’t think this was such a bad thing for me. But it was a lot like being raised by parents who live by the principal of benign neglect—versus parents who actually parent. I figure I can save my students a lot of time and a considerable amount of heartbreak, and let them spend more time and energy on writing the books they need to write. I didn’t get started at that until quite late, because I had no idea what I was doing for so long.

The people who did have an enormous impact on my writing life were not my “teachers.” That is—they were my teachers who never stood in front of a classroom or sat across from me in an office. They were my writing friends—many of them my fellow students at Iowa, others people I knew before or after. There have been so many of them, I hesitate to try to list them all for fear I’ll miss someone. But the principal ones are my friends Michael Vance Clayton, Lore Segal, Scott Raab, and Marly Swick. Conversations with them about writing, and responses they’ve offered to my writing, have helped me become the writer I am. For better or for worse.

What project of yours was the easiest writing of your life? And, flip-side, which one was the most like wrestling bears? (And could you tell before you started or did they turn on you, for better or worse?)

The easiest? My short novel Dog, which felt like it wrote itself, and which I wrote faster than I have ever written anything else, including short stories and essays. The most like wrestling bears? Everything else.

This is flippant (sorry; the line about “wrestling bears” startled me because I meditated on it a bit in my most recent writing, a long essay called “Dream Life”). And of course not everything has been precisely as hard as everything else. Overall, nonfiction comes way easier to me than fiction—so much easier it makes me suspicious—but then there is that anomaly of Dog (which is a novella, not a novel, short or otherwise, but which my publisher was wise enough to call a “short novel” because no one buys a “novella”). Practically the whole of Dog came to me while I was out walking my then-newly-adopted dog, and this has never happened before (or again). I just had to go home and write it down. Normally, I write fiction very slowly and painstakingly, while my personal essays emerge much more fluently and steadily. But I wouldn’t call the nonfiction “easy” (and every essay gets rewritten hundreds of times), only easier. When I sit down to write anything, I always expect it to be hard. I find writing, in general, very hard. It’s the central paradox of my life—that the thing that comes easiest to me (words on paper), and that gives me more pleasure than anything else in my life, should be so difficult.

Click HERE to watch a televised interview with Michelle

Michelle Herman is a novelist and essayist who teaches at Ohio State. Her most recent book is the Kindle Single novella-length essay Dream Life.