By Isaac Butler
Michael Barakiva. Where do I start? He had just graduated from vassar when I got there, and had already ascended to the realm of legend. He then gave me one of my first jobs in New York, interning for him as he and Tommy Kriegsmann produced a festival of new plays for Soho Rep that happened to feature future heavyweights Steve "The Civilians" Cosson and Jesse "Red Bull" Berger in its slate of directors. (It's also where I met the infamous G.) He's super talented and a total sweetheart and I'm lucky to call him friend.
Michael has a wonderful new YA book called One Man Guy coming out in May, and has tagged me to participate in something called The Blog Hop, where writers discuss their work and process and tag other writers they know to participate. He was kind enough to tag me. My answers are below, but his can be found over here.
(1) What Am I Working On?
I have three different ongoing writing projects that I'm juggling at any one time. The first one-- the one that currently pays the bills-- is serving as the Senior Editor for Perception.org, an anti-discrimination consortium of researchers, academics and advocates focused on applying the latest insights from the mind and social sciences to the field of racial equality. We're going to be rolling out a lot of content over the next year, much of which I will have my hand in, so watch this (and other) spaces for that. This involves a lot of writing, creativity and thinking, but isn't really "creative writing" per se. It uses those same skills towards a more instrumental purpose. It's very rewarding, and I get to work with and for close friends and I learn an enormous amount constantly about not only how our minds work, but about rhetoric and how to navigate the rather complex job of telling someone something they might not want to hear in a way that they can hear it.
Project numero dos is a live multimedia project that I am co-creating on the theme of conspiracies (true and false) and conspiracy theories. So far this project is in the research and conceptualization phase (which is why I can't get into a lot of specifics) but working on it is like opening up a secret history, not only of our nation, but of our psyches. As someone obsessed with narrative, subjective truth and sense-making, conspiracies make for a fascinating project, as the more gonzo ones are merely a perversion of our desire to make the world around us coherent and approachable. I also know way more about the melting temperature of steel and the architecture of Dealey plaza than I ever wanted to.
The third project, and the nearest and dearest to my heart, is my first book, The Thousand Natural Shocks: A Father, A Family, a Crisis of Faith. That book tells two intertwined true stories. The first is about my father, a very devout Christian Scientist, who has his faith tested when he confronts a dangerous health criss that he cannot heal through prayer (Christian Scientists don't go to doctors). That story brings together my rather diverse and eccentric family, all of whom have chosen very different paths, from my secular Jewish Mother, to my orthodox Jewish gay younger brother, to my two adopted, African American older siblings, one of whom is a nondenominational Christian and the other of whom is the most fervent and outspoken atheist I've ever met in my life. The second plotline chronicles my own faith crisis (and subsequent loss of faith) in high school when a friend of mine died of AIDS. I've been working on this book for three years now, and hopefully zeroing in on the final round of rewrites of the last fifty or so pages so we can start getting it out the door and into the hands of editors.
(2) How Does My Work Differ From Others of Its Genre
I am only going to answer this about The Thousand Natural Shocks, because it's something i've thought a great deal about in composing the book. For me, it has all to do with the uses of point of view and position of subjectivity within memoir, a word I'm still very tetchy about using to describe my own work in part because while I'm the mainnarrator, I'm not the protagonist, for about two thirds of it. I think it's interesting when creating something that fits into a certain genre or form to figure out what your problems are with that genre or form and try to solve them with the work. When it comes to memoir, my main problem with the dominance and primacy of the writer's POV, and the way that memoirs frequently mistake the writer's subjective experience for objective experience.
The term "unreliable narrator" is actually kind of redundant, because all narrators are unreliable. As a form, the novel seems to have realized this so deeply that it is basically inescapable. When we read novels-- particularly novels in the first person-- there's a certain delicious invitation embedded to read around and beyond what the narrator is giving you. This is true regardless of whether the author is doing this self-consciously or not, but I'm always particularly thrilled when reading novels that actively invite this kind of reading around (or reading against). Nabakov in Pnin and Lolita obviously does this, as does Iris Murdoch in The Sea, The Sea and The Black Prince (two of my favorite novels) but all sorts of more pop works do this too. Katniss accurately understands almost nothing in The Hunger Games, and of course multi-POV works like A Song of Ice and Fire use tensions in point of view to great dramatic effect.
Memoirs, in general, do not do this. Often, they are basically unwilling to entertain viewpoints that aren't their own. There's some exceptions and devices that have been developed over the years, like what I call "The Mary Karr's Sister" where there's a sounding board character who disagrees with your recollections from time to time. But in general, there's a kind of tyranny of the narrator imposed, because the narrator and the author are to some extent the same person and it's because nearly impossible to get enough distance to allow readers to interpret things on their own or even come to differing conclusions about meaning.Also, Christian Science is a religion that believes fervently that our subjective experience (and beliefs) has the power to shape our reality. And while I don't believe that to be true when it comes to curing illness, I do believe that's true when it comes to memory. Our memories feel real to us and shape us, but they are of course deeply subjective and shaped by us at the same time.
Once I realized I was writing a memoir, I decided to attack the POV/objectivity problem straight on. So I read and watched a lot of different projects that play with point of view in fascinating ways. My go-to texts became Erroll Morris's The Thin Blue Line, Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, Joe Sacco's Footnotes in Gaza, Tim O'Brien's In The Lake of the Woods and Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer, along side some polyphonic narratives like Studds Turkel's work. Since i was also worried about narrative tension and learning how to sustain it, I read a lot of thrillers, two of which (George Pelecanos's The Big Blowdown and Kenneth Fearing's The Big Clock) did great things with both POV and suspense.
In reading-- and re-reading, and re-reading-- these books, I tried to discern what POV tools they were using and how they were using them and then consider how I could (lovingly) rip these off for my own work. When it came to writing-- and re-writing and writing-- The Thousand Natural Shocks I tried to use as many different POV techniques as possible while still maintaining myself as the primary narrator. Some sections of it are in in close third person from other people's POV (nearly the entire first 80 pages are like this). Some sections of it are edited interview transcripts. Some are more journalistic. Some are imagined, but flagged as such so that the reader knows when they're being told the truth and when some imagination is necessary to tell the story. So a lot of the book is spent disrupting my own authority, so that when my own point of view is primary, you the reader are invited to have your own experience of my experience. I think a positive side-effect of this is that it also gets us away from victimology. And while I've had my struggles, it's hard for me to claim as a well to do hetero white guy that I'm much of a victim of anything.
(3) Why Do I Write What I Do?
In the case of The Thousand Natural Shocks, it's because every time I sat down to write, this book kept coming out. I'd try to write an essay about something else and then suddenly I was writing about my father being ill, or the contemporary family through the lens of transracial adoption or whatever. So finally I had to say to my unconscious, "you win, bucko" and do what it told me to do. The subjects that interest me-- at least for now-- tend to be ones in which there are competing truths, unanswerable questions and unresolvable tensions. I wrote a big thing about August Wilson recently, and he fascinates me in part because both his life and his art are not easily made coherent and explainable. There's an impossibility there. Conspiracy Theories are another example of this. They're not disprovable (because you can't prove a negative) and they create their own truths and realities, and they have a fascinating relationship to our "consensus reality."
(4) How does my writing process work?
Everyone has to find the habits that work for them. For me, that's writing 4-6 days a week from roughly 9AM until noon, generally getting out somewhere around 1000-1200 words. That's not to say I'm always able to actually do this habit and get into that zone. Amongst other things, Perception.org work tends to need me in the morning. So my habits have had to adjust and I've had to be more spontaneous. Oh! I have like two hours here! I've got to try to get work done on the conspiracy theory show or the book!
I have to trick myself, because my inherent inertia and laziness (and terror) will take over after awhile. This is the thing that's important: you have to write it before you can make it good. But that can be terrifying and frustrating. We all, even those amongst us like myself who actually like revising, want to make first drafts that are perfect, and because we have high standards for ourselves and others, we can feel ourselves fucking it up while we're drafting. So you have to find ways to just blaze ahead. You also have to find and create the write environemnt. It's very hard for me to get work done in my apartment where the Playstation 3 is never more than about 100 feet away and my dog always looks adorable, so I write from coffee shops. This has necessitated my finding the right music for projects and listening to that music on a loop ( a trick I learned from Clay McLeod Chapman). For 1k Shocks, that was Darcy James Argue's Secret Society's Infernal Machines and two Philip Glass albums, Solo Piano and Monsters of Grace.
I find that even though I'm a pretty left brained guy, there is a mystical part of the writing process. Writing the thing creates the inspiration for the next steps needed in writing the thing, but that inspiration often feels like it comes from outside me. So much of my process is trying to create the environment for that inspiration to strike and when it doesn't (which is often) staying dedicated to getting the words out, so that perhaps it can strike on revision.
Writer Who Tagged Me: Michael Barakiva
Post that tagged me: http://michaelbarakiva.blogspot.com/2014/04/blog-hop.html
"One Man Guy" on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18465591-one-man-guy?from_search=true
"One Man Guy" official site: http://us.macmillan.com/onemanguy/MichaelBarakiva
Writers I am tagging:
(1) Jaime Green. Jaime Green is a badass nonfiction writer and educator (and the best (wo)man at my wedding) currently finishing up her MFA at Columbia in Creative Nonfiction. Her work combines a sly sense of humor with a graceful lyricism and applies both to fascinating subjects like food, science and Colonial Williamsburg. She also hosts the awesome literary podcast The Catapult, and was so kind as to ask me to be in its inaugural episode.
(2) Sally Franson. Sally Franson, last scene around these parts writing about Dylan Farrow (and, previously, Girls) was in my MFA class at the University of Minnesota and is, as we are fond of saying of each other, "my writing twin." We took many of the same classes, focused on some of the same subjects and themes and generally hated and loved the same books. Unlike me, Sally is not only a gifted essayist but a keen fiction writer and a lovely poet.
(3) Sam Thielman. Sam has written for Parabasis a couple of times, and primarily works as a reporter for Adweek and a critic for a variety of venues, including most regularly Newsday. He is a fierce and passionate advocate for the arts and for criticism. Like Jaime, Sam is originally an internet friend, someone I met in our superconnected post-post-post-whatever world because we mutually admired each other's work and got to talking over gchat one day. Should i ever write a second memoir, it'll probably be called People I Befriended on Gchat, and Sam will have like 7 chapters devoted to him.