Every once in a while, an interview will hit me at exactly the right moment, lighting a bright path. This one -- with writer Michael Gills -- is one of those fiery ones. Fellow creatives, take note. The question on why he teaches is really a mini-seminar on process and craft. Take heed. Dig in.
It's still the New Year. Make a resolution.
1. I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration--the idea than an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas--but I don't deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?
When I was forty and my mother had just died and I was lost and crazy in the way that you can only be then, I commenced to attend Lakota ceremony which included Sweat Lodge, Vision Quest, and Sun Dance, this last one of which entails participants to pilgrimage somewhere such as Zuni Land in New Mexico in the heat of summer, where the lone open pit fire in the state is kept burning by bearded men who believe spirits are with them right there that second, and a whole host of dancers rise before light on Summer Solstice and march into the east gate of the dance ground, skewer stobs through their chest, these hooked to halters and roped to a hundred foot cottonwood from whence they proceed to hurl themselves away from and thus offer their own flesh and blood to the sun and the tree of life itself. That first day I participated, 18 July 2005–two days from a full moon with wolves howling–that first singular moment when very real flesh was ripped from a body and the Tunkasila song burst forth, joyful voices over the big thudding drums, I was dumbstruck, sore afraid, and wholly inspired.
2. Pep talk for the downhearted writer.
George Singleton has written a book called PEP TALKS, WARNINGS & SCREEDS: Indispensable Wisdom and Cautionary Advice For Writers–go buy it. This other fellow named William Blake wrote a book called PROVERBS OF HELL, wherein you’ll find “If a fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise” and “Dip him in the river who loves water.” Track Blake down in quick time. Remember what Papa H. said about bulletproof bullshit detectors and see Kurt V’s big nasty on the semicolon. Most important, remember that your shit is important as your gold–both come from the same place, and one cannot be without the other.
3. Research. We all have to do it. Sometimes it's delicious, sometimes brutal. Tell us a tale from the research trenches.
WHITE INDIANS is a research piece wherein the narrator drove a thousand miles to the place where he was asked to symbolically die, give his literal flesh and blood freely, and depart from what he’s heretofore known as reality forever and ever, Amen. A “Visionary Memoir”--it’s not fiction. And I’m the narrator. In New Mexico. A 109 degrees. Piercings. Ceremony. No food or water for four days. Yea, starved, hysterical, naked, how the hell’s that for the research trenches?
4. Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?
When in routine, I rise at 4:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, write two or three hours, and turn my machine off just as the sun rises. At that point, my writing day’s done, and the rest of my life happens. Usually, I have to figure out what to do with the rest of the day--teach, take a hike, garden til happy hour, make curry. In bed at 8:30, I do it all again the next day. Books happen.
5. If you teach the craft of writing, why do you do it--other than cash?
I was once asked to compose a brief piece on the why I teach writing for the U of U Honors Summer Newsletter, a task that halted me most of one sunny morning of May. Here's what came of it.
Part of the difficulty, for me, is that writing is not a thing–ie., a noun. Writing is an act–a verb. This act is practiced until it becomes craft, and then a discipline, and in turn a way of being, a way of life. One might as well ask, “What is the importance of breath? Why breathe?”
I teach writing as a way of being, as opposed to a produced thing.
Student writers look at me askance that first day when I ask them to rise at 4:30 a.m. tomorrow and each day thereafter, that holy dream-time when the inner-censor is turned off and one might risk making a fool of oneself, as writers must learn to do.
They fidget up front when I insist that they walk straight-away from their happy safe zones, or when I ask them to count the words in the sentences in any piece of writing they’ve ever done and notice they’re the same because that’s a happy, safe place and same, same, same gets old, old, old fast, fast, fast.
They freak when I ask them to disengage spell check and grammar check and any other checks they’ve got on their machine, when I suggest turning off the machine and writing longhand, when I tell them that my best mentor, Fred Chappell, rises every morning at 4:30 to write and that I know this because I sat outside his house in Greensboro, North Carolina for successive mornings and I’ll be damned if his office lights didn’t come on at that exact time every day. Literary critics say he’s the most prolific novelist, poet, essayist on earth and he’s rock star famous in France but all he does is get up to write when everybody else is asleep. My students give me the look–our professor sits outside people’s houses before daylight?
Student writers are taken aback when I ask them to buy a dictionary, the bigger the better, to mark it up like a preacher’s Bible, to look up every word they ever come across that they don’t know—and become aware of all the other words they don’t know that surround the word they didn’t know.
My students eye me with suspicion when I ask them to find out the location in the library stacks of a book on their topic, to go there and disregard the book they were looking for, perusing the five hundred other books in the vicinity, some of which are infinitesimally better than what they thought they were looking for.
Most draw the line when I ask them to turn off their internet, especially when composing. I’ve seen them get the shakes, chortle, start taking short breaths and all of the other traits associated with withdrawal.
All but the hardiest of my student writers suffer shock when I preach that writing is an avenue of inquiry. I am not interested in what they know, but in figuring out what they don’t know, the hidden things they do know, and eventually, write themselves towards. Writers aren’t knowers–they’re folks who ask good questions. Sometimes, I say, you have to write one whole hell of a lot to find out what you have to say.
I tell the story of Paul Crenshaw, one of the rarest student writers who actually did and continues to do everything I’ve asked of him as a writer. Get up at 4:30, I said. Paul gets up at 4:30. Turn off your internet. Paul turned off. Write four hundred pages and throw it away as practice. Paul threw out four hundred pages. Anything I asked, Paul was on it. Then I show them the Norton Anthology of Literature where Paul’s writing is prominent. I show them The New Bedford Anthology, multiple Best American Anthologies, Paul, Paul, Paul. I sometimes mention my books. I tell them that any problem they ever have as a writer, I’ve already had this morning, and yesterday, and the day before. We sit in a circle. I am only one of the circle.
All this does not, at first, sit well with most student writers. After that first class, I can see it in their eyes–that holy not knowing. This is why I teach writing, why I’ve stayed in the classroom these twenty-four years. Because the first day passes, the first week, and there is always–always–that fine moment when fire flies and the student writer makes the leap of faith onto the tightrope, no net below, risking all. Such moments are transformative and the payoffs are profound, because the writer now possesses a vehicle that ushers them full-throttle toward revelation and innovation and truths that the world so needs now at this most perilous moment for our species. And that is important.
6. Faith. Do you consider yourself religious. If so, how does that manifest in your work and/or your process?
My uncle once talked me into pissing on an electric fence--what a surprise that was. "Go ahead," he dared, "you don't have a hair." Fenceposts stringed with silver wires stretched across two pastures to the barn where a big electric box had a lightning bolt zig-zagged across its face. Uncle grabbed the middle strand, squeezed. Through a lip-trembling smile he said, "What you afraid of, boy?” Thirty years later, the question remains. There was a still moment in the back pasture, pieces of light flickering through the hickories, when I hooked up to it. All this hite Indian ceremony stuff, at least for me, it's like that, pissing on an electric fence. Whoa, I remember thinking, that's something.
Michael Gills is author of Why I Lie: Stories (University of Nevada Press, 2002), Go Love: A Novel (Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2011), The Death of Bonnie and Clyde and Other Stories (Texas Review Press, 2012) and White Indians (Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2013). He is Associate Professor/Lecturer at the University of Utah. Gills’ collected papers are archived at Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He grows tomatoes in the Wasatch foothills with his wife, daughter, rabbits, chickens and dog, and is currently teaching what appears to be the first year-long novel workshop for undergraduates.