So you have this great essay titled “I Was There” in the new anthology Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction—and in the interview that follows that essay, you talk a little about your preference that both the action and the thinking of the essay begin in medias res—already in motion. One of the things I love most about essays, and which I emphasize repeatedly to my students, is the opportunity essays offer to pursue thinking that is not yet complete, and that might not ever be—and the means by which they position such content for our attention. The problem with that old rule about “writing what you know” is that it seems to prescribe that we write that which we have already discovered, already decided, already concluded, and already departed—unless we recognize our sites of inquiry and exploration and expand our definitions of ‘knowing’ to include the process side of consciousness. I’d be curious to hear you talk about how worked out the hearts of your essays are when you first approach them, and how much of the knowing comes for you through writing itself (or through entering ‘essay space’).
As a reader and a writer, I like to be surprised. And as a writer, the essays of mine that usually fail are the ones where “the heart” is already figured out too much before I start. It’s kind of like that trick of solving a maze in a puzzle book by starting at the end instead of the beginning—which works because there are fewer possibilities for wrong turns and the right path is just pretty obvious. Essays aren’t about what’s obvious. Essays are the experience of looking for clarity in from a place of doubt. (Which doesn’t mean that clarity must be found, only that it’s sought for, doggedly. Sometimes the surprise comes in discovering that the direction you thought you were headed was wrong all along, and what you’re investigating is why that first path seemed right.) You have to allow yourself to get lost, to stumble around until you find some surprising revelation; the revision process is for making it look to your reader as though you knew where you were going all along.
So in writing “I Was There,” I knew of course that part of what I was searching for was the truth about Janis Joplin’s address, but that was only incidental to what was really looking for: why that particular truth mattered so much to me. Why my “history” with Janis mattered to that truth. Why I couldn’t be satisfied with not knowing which house was actually hers. And why, when I did finally know the difference, was the truth ultimately so disappointing? I couldn’t have arrived at those more interesting and complicated concepts without writing myself through the essay.
Writing about one’s lived life requires both constructing and documenting, but the popular conversation is pretty hostile still to the idea that memory itself is also a mixture of the two. Regardless of how we resolve our investments in any particular argument about memory and truth, the story is one of our most important human traditions. Why do you think stories are as important to people as they are? What stories have been the most important to you personally?
I like knowing that I’m not alone. That’s why stories are important to me. And recognizing myself in someone else’s life does that – offers me connection, invites me to care deeply about someone I’ll probably never meet. The stories that have been most important for me are the ones that help me understand my own experiences better because I’m living through someone else’s understanding of theirs. The experiences don’t even have to resemble one another, and it’s often better that they don’t.
More specifically, I love stories about adolescence, and our teenage years. Something about that time for me is still so present in memory with more force than most of the years since, so reading fiction or nonfiction about young people is always a pleasure. But my favorite reading is re-reading. Going back to something that impressed itself upon me before, and relishing in it again and again. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Mrs. Dalloway. Geek Love. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I read To Kill a Mockingbird every 10 years.
One of the things I appreciate most deeply about If You Knew Then What I Know Now is the way that those essays figure an individual ‘self’ via a tracing of the self’s relationships—the conflicts awakened in and of them, the rules governing them from both inside and out, the surface area they offer to the self’s (internal) sensitivities and wants and needs. The bounds of the family story are being blown open by most of the writers I love most (often especially markedly in the world of queer lit)—I personally hope that’s the mark of a larger shift in our culture to a recognition of our prismatic relationships to one another. We (always) need new forms to reflect our (evolving) collective consciousness. Part of what I imagine the job of the (fiction or non-) writer to be involves inventing forms that allow more of us to realize and assert the integrity of our stories, and the equality of those stories and their forms with those we cut our teeth on. All that to ask: at what point did you come to recognize your relational life as the lens through which you wanted to write? (And if you wouldn’t define that lens that way, how would you define it?) How did you get to that point? Were you ever concerned at earlier points about the relevance of ‘personal’ material to a readership?
I don’t know if there was a moment when I was consciously aware of looking through a relational lens. I knew, of course, that I was writing a great deal about my family and intimate friends, but I wasn’t necessarily setting out to write “a family story.” Family members, boyfriends and friends just happened to be the characters in the stories I was interested in telling. The lens that focused the book for me (and whether the reader sees it this way is another story) was an encompassing sympathy for all characters. To try to understand the actions of everyone, not just my own. Why would the bully need to pick on the effeminate misfit in the first place, and why, 10 years later would he need to apologize? In any story of personal experience it’s really important to not automatically hand all of the sympathy to yourself – to make yourself into hero, or worse, victim. We’re all simultaneously the heroes, victims and even villains of our stories, as are all the other people in our lives. A good personal essay lets the reader sympathize with someone else besides the narrator, even if it’s only for a moment.
The title essay of If You Knew Then What I Know Now is written in the second person. I’m fascinated with direct address, both as a framework for literature and as an intimacy (Second Person is the working title of the body of linked essays I’m working on). How would you describe the pull of the second person for you? What’s it about?
The second person is very effective and there are certain things it can do that simply can’t be accomplished in such a performative way by the other points of view, but I’ve found that many readers don’t have much tolerance for it. They find it bossy or isolating or exclusionary. For that reason, the writer has to really justify the choice of second person in the essay. In the essay “If You Knew Then What I Know Now,” I needed to find a way to write about the vast disparity between my older and younger selves, and around that time, I’d read a short story by Julie Orringer that featured a similar second-person narrator. My essay is about how the incident in sixth grade is made worth it years later at the high school reunion, but never until then. It’s about the gift of pain, and what we do with such a gift. It’s hard for me to think that writing about that idea in first-person could ever be as convincing as experiencing that idea in second-person.
For what it’s worth, there’s another second-person essay in my collection, but it uses the voice in a different way because the listener is different. In “Things I Will Want To Tell You On Our First Date But Won’t,” the speaker addresses a hypothetical listener, an imaginary new date, and the essay represents what the speaker wants and needs to say but can’t (or refuses to) for varying reasons. Second person can be more versatile than many people give it credit for – and what’s variable is who is speaking and to whom.
To see what Ryan’s work in the collective “we” voice looks like, check out his essay in the “Place” issue of Defunct Magazine.
To read up on his other recent work, visit his website at www.ryanvanmeter.net.