Monday, October 5, 2015
On Form Fashioning Content: Patrick Madden in conversation with Jill Talbot
For this past AWP conference (Minneapolis, April 2015), I was to present on a panel about “‘Fashioning a Text’: Discovering Form and Shape in Literary Nonfiction” with Michael Steinberg, Elyssa East, Michael Downs, and Robert Root. The general idea was that, even though we write from factual experience, we often find our form in the process of writing, sometimes despite our initial plans. This describes my most common method of writing, in which I begin with a question and write to discover both wisdom and form. But I decided to engage my contrarian instinct instead of writing the paper I expected, and I thought about how some writers (myself included) sometimes begin with a form, then fit their subject matter to it. Never one to speak only about my own experiences, I decided to interview several writers who had borrowed and modified other forms to make their essays. Among the writers I emailed were Joey Franklin, Dinty Moore, Ander Monson, Caitlin Horrocks, Desirae Matherly, Michael Martone, Eula Biss, and Jill Talbot, who wrote a powerful essay in the form of a college syllabus. Because of the compressed format of an AWP talk, I could only use a fraction of anybody’s insightful responses, so I’m glad that Essay Daily can present Jill’s replies in full.
— Patrick Madden
Patrick Madden: Which came first, the story or the form? I mean, did you want to write a "college syllabus" essay and then found the material for it? Or did you have your basic idea and then hit on the right form to contain it? How did it all come about?
Jill Talbot: I was teaching a course on the New American West, and we were in the middle of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I wrote my dissertation on Kerouac’s road narrative influence, but I hadn’t re-read the novel since I was in my twenties, when I was raging against accountability and responsibility and lusting after any man who did the same. You know the scene in Catcher in the Rye, when Holden Caulfield talks about the museum?: “The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody'd move. You could go there a hundred thousand times . . . . The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you'd be so much older or anything. It wouldn't be that, exactly. You'd just be different, that's all.” That semester, my daughter had just turned nine and was beginning to ask questions about her father, Kenny, the man who ran off for different roads and different women when she was an infant, and for the first time, I read that novel not in admiration of the crazed search for “It,” but as one of the women that men like Sal and Dean leave behind. It changed the way I taught the novel—not as a non-conformist, manic, road-as-life manifesto, but as a glimpse into the doorways where women waited for men to come back, already knowing they wouldn’t.
So I began to wonder how much Kenny had influenced and altered what I read and how and why—but more importantly, why I taught certain texts over others. I started looking through previous semesters, and it was clear how I had been teaching nothing beyond my own heart and its rupture. One syllabus in particular, an American Literature II one, in which I used an anthology but made very specific selections—each one echoing a moment I shared with Kenny (he loved Raymond Carver poems) or an experience I had because of his leaving.
I copy and pasted that semester’s reading schedule into a new document and started filling in the gaps that were on the page (but not in my mind). I annotated each text—put my own story, I suppose, beneath each author and title. It began as a test (Is he really in every one of these? Can I pull this thread through every last one? Answer: Yes.) That came first and then I thought how my persona was a professor, so she better teach, which is why most selections have both the professional and the personal, but ultimately, the persona (self) deconstructs, and she can’t bring herself to discuss certain texts or lines out loud. In fact, this explains the crossed out On the Road Part I on the syllabus and the exchange for Sherman Alexie because that semester in my New American West class, we followed Kerouac with Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (you’ll notice the conflation of that semester with previous ones—which happens to any of us who teach—we teach in a chamber of echoes—those students and questions and conversations that came before). I’d stand in class teaching Alexie, and I couldn’t bear to read those questions I had underlined out loud when I held my book, but I wanted to know the answers. And as the essay is an interrogatory form, Alexie’s questions were at “The Professor of Longing”'s core: "How do you talk to the real person whose ghost has haunted you? How do you tell the difference between the two?”
Back in my office, working on the syllabus draft, I recognized that I had been bringing Kenny’s ghost into every class. I was “teaching” it—though there’s no way for my students to know that. I wanted the syllabus essay to speak to that universality—the common experience of teaching works we love—we’re embedded in them somehow, and they’re in us, so we’re invariably teaching palimpsests (which is how I think of the syllabus essay—the text of my history with Kenny beneath the texts of the syllabus). It’s impossible to escape your loss and your longings when you teach them, semester after semester. The essay allowed me to put my grief and longing and lostness—what had always been beneath the surface of the syllabus—in it.
PM: What difficulties did you find (in writing, revising, or in publishing) because you chose a non-standard or borrowed form? Did you ever feel constrained by the form you chose? And/or did the form free you or inspire you to write something different from your other (standard-form) work?
JT: Experimental forms confine and expand concurrently—so while I had parameters and the required elements of the syllabus form, I was also forced to interrogate familiar material in a new way.
PM: Have you ever failed at writing an experimental form? Revised your experimental-formed work back into a standard form?
JT: I think all writers begin with some form of scaffolding they eventually lose after understanding it helped the essay find its way, and I’m no different. I see it in workshop all the time—that what helps build the essay ends up falling away.
When I set out to do a borrowed form or hermit crab essay, I begin thinking how the form and the content are in conversation or competition. For example, the enumerated essay, which I’m seeing more and more of, is most successful and interesting when the content relates a concept or a memory that defies order. Justin Daugherty’s “A History of Loneliness in 23 Acts (of Love)” (The Normal School) offers no answers, only questions, a search—the logic of enumeration works against the lack of logic in the persona’s interrogations. I love when that happens.
But back to standard versus experimental form: I have an essay in the form of wine list, for example, an essay about a time when I chose wine over Kenny and how that affected our relationship. The list allowed me to emphasize that wine was the center of everything, so it’s the main feature on the page—everything else (us) is in small print, so to speak. I also use the absences (some wines on the list are not followed by text) to speak to the distance between us, what we were keeping to ourselves. [That essay is in Issue 10 (Spring 2014) of PANK and in The Way We Weren’t, by the way.] In the same way, the syllabus essay has those two texts in conversation and in juxtaposition—the assigned texts and the personal ones, the public persona and the private self.
I don’t think you can only write experimental form or standard form—some essays don’t need to play—sometimes you need to let the story stand. But for some essayists, like me, there comes a time when I need to take off the training wheels and fly down the hill, leaving all the streets I’ve known behind. And as a reader of the experimental essay, it’s like playing Follow the Leader, racing down the hill after that bold essayist knowing I’m being shown a path no one has ever ridden, and I shout into the wind: “Very cool.”
Patrick Madden is the author of Sublime Physick and Quotidiana, co-editor of After Montaigne, and co-translator of the Selected Poems of Eduardo Milán. He teaches at Brigham Young University and curates www.quotidiana.org.
Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir and Loaded: Women and Addiction. She co-edited The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together and edited Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. Her essays have appeared in such journals as Brevity, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, The Normal School, Passages North, The Paris Review Daily, The Pinch, Seneca Review, and listed in the Notable Essays section of Best American Essays 2014. She is also the nonfiction editor for BOAAT Press.