U.S. and Them surfaced from decades of mulch, memories I cultivated and bounced around over nine years of post-secondary education, a few childhood recollections taking shape as poems, and others as works of fiction, until finally the stories came together as a book-length memoir.
I don’t recall any joy in gathering letters to form words. I can’t remember when I had the slightest hint that writing was an outlet for feelings such as loneliness or hunger. But I can't forget viewing the horizontal lines of my yellow writing tablet with a stomachache and the idea that committing pen to paper was serious business. I knew writing was more than immediate gratification, more than saying I am…This is…She said...etc. I recall gravity, power—the knowledge that pen to paper meant leaving something behind—the knowledge that what is written can be shared, revisited, and perhaps most importantly, judged. I remember thinking—you can't hide behind the 5th Amendment when you write. Delusional and a bit paranoid? Yes, but all prophets are. And all kids are prophets. I wrote believing in God and Big Brother and that the big encyclopedia in the sky would eventually suck up every word I put down, and I damn well had better get it right. I tore paper, flushed paper, burned paper and ate paper. I didn't write about these episodes, but such was the level of scrutiny I felt as a kid. We look into our parents' eyes to see who we are. They give us our cue.
So, not only was my world on the brink of apocalypse in the 1960s, I was always on the brink of writing a book about it.
Do you write every day to a schedule, or do you write in bursts and sprees?
Ideally, I'm doing both, right? The bursts and the sprees—even when stingy. I’m an advocate of scheduling a time to write dutifully, and then stealing away from something else I planned on doing. I have to trick myself. Of course it is top-dollar when I absolutely need to go back to a place in my writing, and even better when I'm so distracted, I know darn well that I haven't really left! I love scheduling time in the morning, BC—Before Creation. I can wake myself up to write in the twilight hours but I'm not much good if I stay up late to write. That being said, the times or situations I avoid are the very same writing scenarios that I will enlist when I’m stuck. Writing is mischievous work.
Give us an idea of your writing method. First draft by hand or by computer? Do you outline or improvise?
I have no hierarchy of genre or method. I have felt overwhelmed by large projects. I still do. I outline just as something to hang on to, and then I improvise, as you say, which is really the process of writing the main draft. Every method, task, strategy I employ is simply a way to trick myself out of the insecurity I seem to be facing at the time. I like to clear my head with a free write. I aim to find a word, line or image that will provide at least the kernel of an idea. That’s all. Everything is mulch and nothing is wasted. I trust the process. When I start this way, I always come out with a streak of solid writing. My best ideas come as soon as I slide into a hot bath. Paper is lower stakes in my mind, so I often start nonchalantly on the back of an envelope, a bill, laundry list, tax form (I try to avoid the cliché of writing on a napkin). I laugh when I think about the days of matchbook covers, the phone numbers and secret messages hidden inside. I have started projects with whatever nearby object I can write on—but not to be cute.
Sometimes, if I’m struggling with a character I write a character sketch poem, however un-poetic it may be, it can get me to some of the facts. For example, “Soul Train” is a chapter that moves in a stream of consciousness, but it began as a rhyming poem. I don’t generally like poetry that rhymes, but I was goofing around and I learned something about myself, and I recalled a wonderful revelation I had while watching and grooving to Soul Train.
I draft on paper—journal, legal pads—anything with lines. Once I snag an idea or work up a tirade, I like to go to my Mac because I can type faster than I can write. I also find that typing is easier on my hands.
What are your four or five (or ten) favorite books?
In terms of inspirations for U.S. and Them, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are Not the Only Fruit is my favorite work of autobiographical fiction. I was arrested by the book, its wisdom and humor, its tone and the basic subject matter (childhood, and evangelical Christians). Frankly, I was angry when I first read it. It seemed she had written MY book (for the most part). First, I had to forgive myself for not writing my story sooner, and then as I matured a bit, I had to live with the reality that I am no Jeanette Winterson. I thought quite a bit about publishing my work as fiction since it allows a certain freedom and indeed, I think Winterson’s personal story is more magnificently rendered in her novel than in her actual memoir. I can’t do without David Sedaris’ quirky, piercingly funny family stories. I blew out the candles on more than one birthday cake with the wish that Sedaris would say my name for any reason. I appreciate his genius, love his tone and the timing of his punch lines, especially in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and Me Talk Pretty One Day. Flannery O’Connor: after reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find” I read her Complete Stories. She is the super of heroes. She changed me. Writing a Book that Makes a Difference, Philip Gerard’s guide for tackling creative nonfiction is a book I read before I applied to UNC Wilmington’s MFA in Writing. From this no-nonsense book on craft I came away with the courage to apply to their program. Before I ever met him, Gerard’s book had me convinced that I could write, and I could make a difference in the world. I still teach it, and while I must have 20 others, it remains my go-to text for creative nonfiction. James Baldwin is to me, the premier essayist of the 20th Century. The first time I saw him was on TV, on the Dick Cavett’s Show. Mainly I remember Baldwin’s eloquent words and tone of indignation—and I can still picture my parents’ shock over Baldwin’s commentary on race relations. I read The Price of the Ticket—his collective works. Couldn’t put the book down even after I’d finished it. My mother asked me what could I ever have in common with a gay black man. “His humanity,” I said! I never returned the book to the library (but I did pay to have it replaced). Baldwin’s understanding of human nature, his complicated relationship with his father, his preacher cadence, all this made him so important to me. Baldwin’s book is largely the reason I pursued my high school equivalency diploma at age thirty-five.
If you could be any character in a work of literature, who would you be?
Right now I feel like a character living in Orwell’s 1984. I wish I find myself seated in a big open library, sitting with my fellow Americans, listening as Barak Obama reads excerpts from The Audacity of Hope.
We're interested in your next creative endeavor—would you like to share some information about it?
The project is called “Stories I’d never Tell”. Right now it is multi-genre. It includes events that don’t appear in U.S. and Them, and it features reflections about the meaning and limitations of truth and memory given the fact that my family has begun to respond to my memoir, and given the fact that a year ago, my son was diagnosed with brain cancer, and six months after that, I was told that my father has Alzheimer’s. The experiences with my family cut very deep, and keep changing me and what I thought I knew about how mind, memory and imagination work. I don’t think I’ll ever stop exploring this question.