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Quick Q&A with “…Inappropriate” author Daniel Nester

dnester

Daniel Nester

I met Daniel Nester last February at an AWP panel we shared on the subject of Web 2.0 for the literary crowd. He’s not only a master of literary Internet integration but a funny guy and great writer. To launch this new monthly feature, Quick Q&A, I open with the author of the very recently launched nonfiction book, How to Be Inappropriate. 

 

[Note to fans, inappropriati, and would-be nuisances: When you buy a copy of HTBI and send this PDF coupon, along with the book, to Daniel Nester’s home, he will not only sign your book and return it to you, but include an official How to Be Inappropriate whoopee cushion in the bargain. That’s right: inflate one of these puppies and let the faux farts fly! While supplies last.  Address: Daniel Nester/HTBI, 170 Adams Street, Delmar, NY 12054]  

QUICK Q&A with Daniel Nester

Writer’s Rainbow:  You reference a good deal of pop culture in your essays. Advice previously given to writers has typically discouraged the mentioning the artifacts of popular culture in their works. Does this “rule” no longer apply? What would you say to writers who want to explore pop culture themes in their own work?

Daniel Nester: Who gives this crappy advice? I have climbed this mountain already. Back in graduate poetry school, my workshop members—not by teachers, mind you, but a good-sized cohort of students—considered allusions or mentions of popular culture as somehow beneath the endeavor of writing a poem. What a lot of us did back then—this is 15 years ago—was to write cross-genre-type pieces that would get us off the poetry hook, what I call the bugaboo of addressing the ages.  I remember one night that I was workshopping a piece that mentions—just mentions—the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album.  And there were people who said the mention “took them out” of the poem, that a poem is meant to be forever, but the Beach Boys is somehow fleeting. Set aside that Pet Sounds is one of the landmark works of art of the 20th Century; this was the mindset.
 
Then the late Williams Matthews, filling in for Galway Kinnell that evening, took a stab at the issue. “What did posterity do for us lately?” It just filled me with joy.  Ever since that night, I didn’t worry about whether a piece of writing was going to be immortal because it mentions power ballads.  So that’s my advice is: Go ahead and talk about your world, continue your “search for local objects” as William Carlos Williams calls it.  And don’t worry about whether your work is above or beneath or highbrow or lowbrow.  That’s for other, far more fastidious and precise people to decide.
 
WR: Of course, there are other rules, about “polite living,” that you also—perhaps wantonly?—violate as the author of How to Be Inappropriate (such as, “Do not discuss body parts in mixed company”). It would be easy for the casual reader to assume that all you really want to do with this book is shock them, with otherwise socially unacceptable content, through the use of humor. Could you explain some of the other impulses that led you to write this book? 

DN: It’s not a primary intention to shock, although I can see that happening and that’s fine. It gets people’s attention.  What I wanted to do with this book, at least in part, is to write honestly about moments that I always talk about: embarrassing moments, human moments, too-much-information moments.  It’s those moments when I feel the most alive, frankly.  They’re pastoral in the sense that everyone has moments when they feel prone or naked or ambiguous.  The essay I wrote on mooning, I think, is a good example of this.  Butts are funny, sure, and showing one’s butt to another person is a ritualized practice that spans millennia. There’s more than meets the eye when we talk about naked assplay. It’s a subject that should be interrogated as seriously as movements of symphonies.
 
WR: You’re an assistant professor of English specializing in creative nonfiction at The College of St. Rose in Albany, NY. Do you teach specific themes in your classes that advocate the kind of risk-taking that regularly inhabits your own writing?
 
DN: Yes and no. Of course, I don’t think it’s necessarily taking risks to write about what most embarrasses you, or makes you feel the most tender, or feels the most wrong or heretical. It’s an avenue that needs to be explored, however, and at least presented as an option. Whether one writes about, say, a sexual proclivity in detailed language is not everyone’s cup of tea, for sure; the challenge, it seems to me, is if a writer wants to write about it one some level without going all brass tacks.  That’s usually the case, actually.
 
And that’s why I use the term T.S. Eliot made famous: objective correlative.  If you have a crush on that dude in the other class, or if you have problems with your girlfriend, and you don’t want to write about it, fine.  But if you do, then you have other options than simply describing the situation.  You can describe the scene, the sky, the weight of your stomach.
 
I’ll tell you a story.  One day we were workshopping a student’s memoir piece.  It was a conversation between she and her boyfriend about moving in together to another town, far from college, to be near his work.  This student had a great ear for dialogue; there was back-and-forth, there was some narration, but it was mostly dialogue.  And we all knew it needed something more.
 
So I asked the student, “Where was this discussion happening?” And she paused to think, and then her cheeks turned read, so I knew something was up.  “It happened in the shower,” she said. And I just so appreciated that moment: they were literally and metaphorically naked while this Big Talk was going down! Her revisions were just awesome.  She’s holding her pink razor while she presented her reservations about moving, there’s water, they hand each other towels.  Tiny moments, intimate moments. 
 
WR: Writers are often fearful that someone will find old drafts of their work and discover they’re not as stellar as, say, their breakout novel suggests. However, at your
website, you happily display all the projects you’d once attempted but never brought to a successful conclusion. Why did you do this, and what can other writers learn from it?
 
DN: I do it because some failures have a certain charm, and sometimes the first idea is the best, or at least the first impulse, or the one people react most to.  I wrote my first book, God Save My Queen, as notes to each song by my favorite rock band, Queen, as I listened to them in chronological order.  I thought I was doing research for some straightforward memoir project, but I found the notes themselves were really the project.  I revised them after that, sure.  But it took me years and years to respect the initial impulses of my writing and then help shepherd it to the final stages. 
 
WR: You not only write creative nonfiction, but poetry and journalism. What would you tell writers who are interested in writing outside their chosen forms?
 
DN: Do it!  Creative nonfiction and journalism have been very, very good to me, as far as publication and teaching opportunities go.  Poetry is my first love, sure; I feel like I am more of a fan now than practitioner.  But I would have never gotten to the kind of writing I do now without writing poetry first. I wish I could say that it’s improved my poems, but I haven’t written one in awhile.  But I am thinking about it. I really am.
 

MORE INFO:
Daniel Nester |
http://www.danielnester.com
Coming this fall: How to Be Inappropriate
http://www.howtobeinappropriate.com
Twitter: @DanielNester
Teaching blog:
http://nestersteaching1.blogspot.com/ 

 

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Interview with author Jennifer Culkin


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I am more fascinated than ever with creative nonfiction. Whether it’s memoir, a collection of personal essays, or creative journalism, the narratives of people’s lives inspire and inform me in ways that straightforward biography simply doesn’t.

Recently I read an amazing collection of personal essays by local author, Jennifer Culkin. Her book, A Final Arc of Sky, recounts her experiences as a critical care nurse and life-flight medic within the framework of her life as a working mother with multiple sclerosis. I found the depth of her narrative astounding and truly appreciated the intimacy of her essays because they illuminated a lifestyle I’ll never be privy to myself.

Today I offer an interview I recently conducted with Jennifer; we chatted quite a bit about the writing life in general, and what follows are insights into her world that readers of the Writer’s Rainbow blog are sure to glean something from.

———

An Interview with author Jennifer Culkin, author of the memoir, A Final Arc of Sky

Writer’s Rainbow: What is the greatest pleasure you take from writing?

Jennifer Culkin: It feels like a form of wrestling to me—muscular, up-close engagement with feelings, ideas and language.  When I sit down, I usually have something sitting in my gut that has arrested my attention in some way, but I don’t know exactly what there is to say about it.  I write in part to discover—with as much precision and specificity as I can—what there is to say about it.  Tremendously satisfying.  It hits any number of sweet spots.

WR: Do you have a particular weakness in your skill set or process that continues to hound you as a writer?

JC: Oh, there are a lot of things.  The worst is that when a deadline is coming up I’m a horrible procrastinator, and ultimately that’s as painful as ripping out fingernails.  But I don’t know how to change that about myself.  I’ve tried all sorts of schedules and mind-games but the writer in me seems to be a balky teenager who wants to sleep late.  Sigh. And I’m a slow writer.  That’ll never change. 

I’d also like to write a novel, but I’m not a great plotter.  I do think I have potential to improve in that area—it could be fun to make the effort to improve in that area.  And I’m sick of my own tics as a writer.  If I’m boring myself, I’m boring the reader.

WR: You’re a busy working mom. Are you an everyday writer, or do you just write when you can fit it into your schedule?

JC: When I work at the hospital, my day starts at 4:30 AM and I don’t get home until about 9:15 PM; work is a fast trot/total immersion for twelve hours and there generally isn’t a minute available on those days, unless I were to try to jam something into a notebook at lunch. 

Usually I do a desultory crossword puzzle at lunch and luxuriate in the sensation of sitting down.  But those long days enable me to work 2-3 days per week instead of 4-5.  I do write something every day I don’t work—whatever I feel like writing unless I’m under a deadline.  When no deadline is looming, I amuse myself.

WR: What’s your favorite writing “situation”—where and when do you like to work best, and with what tools?

JC: I’m a computer girl.  I love the glowing blue-blank page, the tactile click of the keys, and my process is completely dependent on the ability to edit as I go.  I don’t know what will happen if the end of the world comes and the lights go out permanently.  Or if MS worsens to the point I can’t type.  I dread that day.  But I suppose I’d adapt, like people do.  

I have an office-loft that overlooks the living room in my home, and because of the office chair and adjustable computer screen it’s physically the most comfortable place to write for hours—my neck and shoulders thank me.  But the informality of the laptop in other locales also has its little siren call.  Once I’m engaged with what I’m writing—once I’ve achieved escape velocity—I can do it anywhere with any amount of background noise.  Right now I’m sort of half watching the Tour de France.  Boys on bikes!

WR: Describe any writing rituals you might have.

JC: I always feel like writing first thing in the morning, so most days I do, right after I make the killer cup of coffee.  When I’m working on something serious, I put on these old black corduroy pants that have an elastic waistband and I sit down in my loft.  If I’m stuck or feeling particularly procrastinatory, I either journal about it so I can bitch to myself or I deal myself out three Tarot cards and divine my future.

WR: Do you ever play music while you write?

JC: I did it once—listened to Green Day’s American Idiot on my MP3 player while I worked on the “Night Vision” chapter of the book.  It was fun—almost addictive fun—but the voice in the chapter took on punk overtones.

WR: You’re an avid cyclist. Do you ever lose yourself in thoughts about writing while trekking around on your bike?

JC: I love riding because I can think about everything in the universe while my legs are busy.  The feel-good neurotransmitters start to flow and take the edge off everyday anxiety. 

I’ve also noticed that my physical abilities transiently improve when I engage in vigorous exercise.  The physical and biochemical changes that occur during exercise must make nerve impulse transmission more efficient across those damaged areas in my brain and spinal cord.  

It’s also my chance to listen to music as much as I want.  Mudhoney, anyone?  The straight life baby/has taken its toll/confined your mind and/stolen your souuullll…yup, it’ll get you up a hill.

WR: Your book, A Final Arc of Sky, is a memoir about your life as a critical care and life-flight nurse. However, you also interweave in the narrative your discovery of what would be the eventual diagnosis of MS.

I’m interested in the intersection where nursing, writing and multiple sclerosis meet: how does encountering each of these facets of your life inform the others in this trinity? Does nursing inform writing, does writing inform self-care for the MS, does the MS inform you as a nurse?

JC: Hmm, a complicated question.

Physically, for me at this stage, MS is like carrying around a 20-pound backpack all the time.  I’m not so severely impacted that I can’t do things I want to do, but my energy is extremely finite.  It goes, it goes!  It always goes before I’m ready for it to go.  My energy is like the caboose of the train I ran to catch, disappearing into the distance.  And once it goes my neurologic symptoms—dizziness, balance issues, tremor/fine-motor impairment, spasticity, deficits in memory and information processing—get worse, sometimes a lot worse.  Too tired for too long and I’m setting myself up for a flare—that happens about twice a year at present.  

So I have to husband my energy.  I can push myself—I’m the sort who will push herself—but sometimes that backfires.  It’s not always the right answer.  Critical-care nursing in my current setting is demanding physically, intellectually and emotionally, so I know two days a week I’m going to have to go all out for 12 hours, 17 if you count the commute. 

On one hand, I think it improves my endurance in the big picture, like cycling does.  My natural inclination as a person is to put out a huge, focused effort followed by sloth.  This is why 12-hour shifts in an intense specialty appeals to me.  In college and grad school, I was the type who wrote 30-page papers the day before they were due.  But now that sort of effort is often too much for me. 

I manage by working part-time.  I manage by having low domestic standards and expectations of myself.  We’re talking cracked paint and weeds.  I manage by living in the now.  I don’t know what my abilities will be later in the day, next week or next year.  I judge minute to minute what I can do and screw the rest, frankly.  When I truly CAN’T throw my leg over my bike or start an IV anymore, when it’s an absolute, then I will at least know I did it when I could.

Artistically, nursing uses a whole different area of my brain as opposed to writing.  It’s immediate, scientific-analytical, highly social, and cracks along at record speed.  Writing is both a physical and an emotional release from that.  It’s sedentary, solitary, ruminative and painstaking—I can give myself all the time in the world to sort it out and get it right. 

The way they balance each other is almost exquisite.  When I write I’m sitting down, physically resting, and I get a chance to think about what I’ve done.  A chance to think about all the little things that I noticed while I was taking care of patients, and while I was living life, but had no time to dwell on.  And writing is a safe place to explore my feelings about MS. 

My circle of family and friends is supportive, very supportive, but they have their own problems and in my estimation they shouldn’t have to worry about mine any more than I can help.  I don’t want to whine to them.  So I can have my unadulterated say about MS in a journal and it bothers nobody.

WR: You like to journal and it was your journaling that helped bring this book into existence. What piece of advice would you give to the would-be author who is considering a practice of journaling?

JC: You only have to please yourself when you’re journaling.  That’s the beauty of it.  Whatever your practice is, it should feel good—organic–to you. 

 If you have to force yourself to journal, then it might not be the right thing for you, or so says my sulky inner teenager.  Your journal should be a place of release and rest.  I have a lot of writer friends, and everyone’s idea of journaling seems to be different, which is great.  Some people only journal by hand, some people draw in their journals, some people collect tactile bits of life and stick them in their journals.  Some jot down cryptic phrases and ideas for development later.

My own journal is a place of focused play.  Extensive focused play, all in Word documents with weird little titles that clue me in to what I wrote about.  I zero in on something that intrigues me, bothers me, sticks with me in some way, and I tend to explore and develop the theme. 

I love tinkering with the craft of writing, with the language, punctuation and construction—it feels satisfying to do that, and in fact, that is how I become engaged each day in whatever I’m writing, I start by tinkering with what I’ve already written.  So my journal tends to be dense, to read like a piece I might publish, but I can be no-holds-barred honest and the pressure is completely off. 

I don’t journal with the idea that I’ll use any of it, but then I’ll find myself working on something and I’ll realize oh, I’ve already written about that.  I tell a story to myself in my journal, and sometimes I can then tell others the same story, or modify some of it for use.  

Writing is art, and art is not linear.  A journal isn’t linear, either.  So if your natural tendencies as a writer are anything like mine, this style of journaling might be useful to you.  It is time-consuming, though, without any certainty of payoff in the real world.

And a word about e-mails: I have some lovely, talented writer friends who are generous with their ears and their time, and I sometimes exchange pretty extensive e-mails with them.  This is one way I procrastinate, true, but sometimes there is good stuff in these e-mails and I can use it later.  Maybe you’re like me, and you can, too.

And one more thing. I talk myself through stuck places with journaling.  When I write, I have three documents open: the piece I’m working on, a document called “Outtakes” for phrases and paragraphs that need to come out in the short-term but that sometimes find a place later on, and a document called “Notes”.  “Notes” is for talking to myself and figuring out why I’m stuck.  Sometimes I’ll get on a jag in “Notes” and realize I’m not stuck anymore; I can cut and paste a whole section back into the piece and keep going.

WR: You won the Rona Jaffe prize last August for your memoir. Describe that experience.

JC: I was at work, having a busy day in the Emergency Department Observation Unit.  I checked my voicemail at lunch on June 30th last year and there was a message from Beth McCabe of the Rona Jaffe Foundation asking me to return her call.  It was 3pm here, and they’re on the East Coast, so it was too late to call her back, but I figured then I had won.  They never call if you lose; they send a thin letter. 

That was a moment of pure elation.  And over the next several months the Rona Jaffe Foundation was so good to the six of us who won.  They did their utmost to publicize and showcase us and our work, and I’m still using the $25,000 to supplement my income so I can work part-time instead of full-time.  The money is doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing.

WR: What are you working on now?

JC: At this point, I’m a little fatigued, and I’m trying to figure out what might cohere into a second book.  I write most days as I always have, but I’m in a phase where nothing is linear and nothing seems to be adding up. There’s good compost, but no garden yet!

Field’s End Writers’ Conference: registration ends soon!

Looking for a small, one-day writers’ conference in the Puget Sound area that’s intimate, practical, and more like a retreat than a carnival?

Field’s End hosts its 4th annual writers’ conference on Saturday April 18th this year at the scenic Kiana Lodge in Poulsbo, WA.

Opening this event for 2009 is Olympia author Jim Lynch, the well-known journalist and author of The Highest Tide. He’s coming out with a new novel, Border Songs, in June, and after his wonderful success with THT, I can’t wait to read his new book. An enthusiastic mentor with lots of first-hand experience to share, he’ll discuss “How to keep the roulette of publishing in perspective.”

The keynoter this year is the smart, quirky and vivacious Mignon Fogarty, also known as the Grammar Girl, who podcasts about English language usage to millions of faithful fans. Can you believe a grammar podcast counts among the top five most popular on iTunes? If you’ve ever heard Mignon, you’ll know why. She’ll be presenting the topic: “The care and feeding of a good grammarian.”

This year, there are many new features at the conference, including At Conference End: A Reading (features Jim Lynch, Mignon Fogarty and Michael Dylan Welch), a moderated participants’ open mic, a collage workshop, a freewrite session, more programming in poetry and children’s writing, and a professional development panel featuring local independent bookseller Paul Hanson and small press publisher Lana Ayers. Of special note this year: for all the added programming, registration rates remain the same as 2008.

Other presenters include: Kathleen Alcala, Elizabeth Austen, Royce Buckingham, Carol Cassella, Jonathan Evison, Waverly Fitgerald, Mary Guterson, Grace Jackson, Priscilla Long, and George Shannon.

Interested in attending? Don’t wait! Registration is due by April 8th. For more information, visit the conference main page.

Field’s End image, “Bloedel Field,” courtesy Ray Styles.

Field’s End Roundtable Tuesday: Judith Tingley

Judith Tingley addresses the question, “How Do You Query Nonfiction?” at the next Field’s End Writers’ Roundtable, 7:00 – 8:30 pm, Tuesday Feb 17 at the Bainbridge Public Library, 1270 Madison Ave, Bainbridge Island, WA. Free; donations welcomed.

Directions: From the Ferry Dock in Winslow, Bainbridge Island, take WA-305 north; turn left at High School Rd NE. Take High School Rd to the corner of Madison. The library is on the southwest corner of High School and Madison. Two parking lots to the library can be found on the north and south sides of the library building.

BIO: Judith Tingley is the author of four books on the topics of gender, workplace communication, and influence in business. Titles include Say What You Mean/Get What You Want and The Power of Indirect Influence. After a seven-year hiatus from writing, Tingley has retired from her work in psychology to focus on writing, with the help of other authors and Field’s End programs. She will discuss methods to get motivated to send out those query letters.