J.E. Robinson’s creative nonfiction piece “A Voice Somewhat Familiar” appeared in Niche’s fourth issue, and can be read here. A three-time Pushcart Press nominee, he has had his essays appear widely and they have received the Illinois Arts Council Literary Award. He teaches history at the Saint Louis College of Pharmacy and lives in Southern Illinois.
Meanwhile, he agreed to chat with us here at Niche.
NICHE: Firstly, what got you started in literary nonfiction?
J. E. ROBINSON: Literary nonfiction workshops were among the few positive experiences I had as a novice writer attending conferences and participating in an MFA program. It’s sad to say, but, as a novice writer, I found most fiction workshops detrimental to my work and health. The attitude expressed in them seemed to have been “if I don’t understand it, I don’t like it, and, if I don’t like it, I will destroy it.” Only in a novel-writing workshop that I attended while doing my MFA, at University of Missouri-St. Louis, in which its members read what would become my novel Skip Macalester (2006), did I find colleagues and/or a leader who did not seek to destroy my fiction and me along with it.
In contrast, my literary nonfiction workshops seemed positive, even when I delved into difficult topics, or touched upon them in difficult ways. My first, at the former RopeWalk Writers’ Retreat in New Harmony, Indiana, was particularly wonderful. I cannot begin to describe how supportive and “broad-minded” (I really hate that word) the workshop leader Kim Barnes. was. Though she made clear she was not fond of the piece I workshopped, she was considerably more impressed with the beginnings of what would become “Notes from a Janitor’s Closet.” She encouraged me to complete it—to “tell (my) story,” as she said—and, luckily, when published in Karamu, it was a success, going on to win an award from the Illinois Arts Council.
The support I received from literary nonfiction workshops helped, but the encouragement from editors did the rest and gave me the bug. Take, for example, “Notes from a Janitor’s Closet.” Before Submishmash, magazines warned against simultaneous submission without notice. After all, what would happen if two magazines accepted the same piece? Most novice writers say “fat chance that’ll happen…give me just one!” Well, I sent “Notes from a Janitor’s Closet” out four times. The first submission was as a contest entry, and it ended up a semi-finalist. Each of the remaining three accepted the essay; Olga Abella, the editor of Karamu, subsequently accepted a poem and a short story as well. For the other two, Bayou and Under the Sun, I had to genuflect and apologize, and promise my next essay. Those two received my next essay, “Conrad, Stop Teasing Your Brother,” about the prospects of parenthood; both accepted, but Bayou raised its hand first, and rewarded me further with a Pushcart Prize nomination, my first. I promised the editor of Under the Sun everything, especially my next born son, and she received it, “Requiem,” exclusively and accepted it. We used to hear “never simultaneously submit, because the editors might not like that.” The editor of Under the Sun forgave me, and published several of my essays before it moved online.
I suppose having the impression that my work was wanted hooked me. All want to feel wanted.
NICHE: There have been many craft essays written about, what some people call, “Me-moirs,” that is, literary nonfiction that’s turned on itself. As a writer of literary nonfiction, how do you strike a balance between the personal and the “universal”—if we define universal as a topic that other readers can identify with?
J.E. ROBINSON: That’s an interesting question. As a historian, I have had to grapple with that. I find Roman Republican political institutions endlessly fascinating, yet, in lecture, the subject bores my students to tears. They like my Spartan militarism or Greek comedy as political commentary lectures far better. And, they needn’t be told that I find Thomism and the philosophical search for universals insipid.
The universal versus the personal is very, very difficult. We assume what interests us interests others. And it disappoints us to find that is rarely the case. Memoir is a wonderful case in point. Writers of memoir, particular writers of memoirs who really hadn’t done anything beyond breathe, think their experiences—their “navel-gazing,” if you will—interests people, but, often, they stand as sophomoric onanism; their “memoirs” read as exhibitionism. Eventually, they move on. Once they really have done something, they think of their previous work the same that Wallace Stevens did of his first poetry collection: “the things one does in one’s youth gives one the willies.”
Right now, memoir as an art form is where the novel was shortly after the publication of Robinson Crusoe. Having witnessed a startling success, publishers try to catch the success by replicating the product, but not the art. They produce knock-offs, and little more. When a real work of art comes, like Pamela, everyone notices. But, producing a work of art like what Richardson did with Pamela necessitates communing with the art, not with the balance sheet or with the cheque book.
To do literary nonfiction, to find the universal in the “personal,” the writer must locate the art and appreciate their art as art, not as a published product. With the exception of “Requiem,” I’ve never successfully completed something with a particular market in mind. I’ve tried my best to maintain disinterest and then to let my interest in the topic grow. Sometimes, that succeeds in rendering the piece “universal.”
NICHE: How do you choose to write something as literary nonfiction instead of fiction? How do you choose which details to leave in and which details to leave out? That is, if you leave some details out for interest sake, how do you then make sure that you are not fiddling with the overall truth of how particular event(s) occurred?
J.E. ROBINSON: Perhaps a way of addressing this topic is to be philosophical and ask “can anyone get at ‘the truth?’” As a historian, I am prone to think of “the Truth” as indiscernible, as far as it might exist in a way separate from an audience’s interpretation—only the Divine knows “the Truth.” What the rest of us know as “the truth” is actually something mutable, open to changing interpretation as additional readings and information present themselves. Inherently, cognizance about “the truth” changes over time. “The truth” changes as the receiver of “the truth” grows.
I apply the same standard to the writing of fiction as I do to the writing of literary nonfiction. I strive to record the mood, not the event. The mood is identifiable, universal. My details should convey to the reader the mood I felt during the event—these are events as I remember them, these events as they made me feel, and I recognize fully that someone else may have a different memory about the event. For example, in “A Voice Somewhat Familiar,” Sam and the Melissas probably remember those moments before their first examination very differently…they should, as they are three different people, and they probably remember it differently from each other…but that does not obviate the essay’s sense of “truth” because the essay conveyed the way I felt when Sam, an otherwise well-behaved, obedient young man, refused to take his seat even as I began administering the exam. By that time, he had known me six months. The recognizable “truth,” one many can remember, is the student boldly teasing, boldly tempting the teacher, testing him to see how far will he let this go, and the teacher flashing to a “no not this again” moment for the umpteenth time in his life, and asking “why me?” Elsewhere in the essay, others may disagree about the “truth” of my portrait as a young man (in seventh grade, one boy, from a much less affluent family, an intellectual rival that I had a bad crush on, and most likely romantically wanted, a feeling that seemed mutual, said that I had “a superiority complex, even though [I was] inferior”…hurt, I thought I was just being myself…was that his racism or was that his class consciousness and discomfort or was that his homophobia?…might he have been protecting himself intellectually? The “Truth” is somewhere between us…all can agree, though, that I spat in his face; hardly the proudest “truth” I bear…each of us seemed the spurned lover, in his own way), but my mood, my discomfort and embarrassment upon hearing my own voice, my desire to sound differently, and my thoughts of “what if” are all “truthful.” Perhaps they also are universal.
NICHE: You do a great job in managing the emotion in “A Voice Somewhat Familiar,” which is not easy. What advice would you give young writers who struggle to obtain emotional distance with their own work?
J.E. ROBINSON: Thank you very much for the compliment. I appreciate it tremendously.
That is a very good question, but really, truthfully, I don’t understand whether or how I obtain emotional distance…when I relate an experience, such as in response to the previous question, some mood renews itself within me. Perhaps working thirty years with young people helps. I am
not a parent, but, occasionally, our students turn to us faculty to process an experience. “First, do no harm” then, second?—feel your way! In writing personal essays and other creative and literary nonfiction, I ask myself “how can I get Sam and the Melissas to understand what I mean?” Though not a classroom, still I treat the page as if they would read it. Sam has yet to read it, but I wrote “A Voice Somewhat Familiar” as if, eventually, he would. That encourages emotional distance, I suppose. Perhaps that prevents this writer from doing enough harm.
NICHE: What advice would you give writers aspiring to write creative nonfiction especially those who are seeking to publish creative nonfiction in literary magazines?
J.E. ROBINSON: The advice given to fiction writers and to poets works for creative nonfiction writers as well: research your markets. That can be difficult, because fewer markets publish creative nonfiction than fiction or poetry and those that do may desire, say, travel pieces more than memoir or personal essay, and they may not make such affiliations noticeable. It does, however, pay to have read the journal or magazine. Now it is easier than ten years ago, because a sizeable number of markets publish online, even if they produce a physical issue. Reading the journal or magazine and understanding what it publishes and what the particular editors like (or don’t like) go a long way toward successful placement. And, if you can afford to, subscribe, at least for a year. Almost as much as poetry magazines, markets publishing creative nonfiction live and die with the subscription.
As you read the pieces, ask yourself, “do any of these speak to me?”—not only as a potential market for your work, but also as a template to help you find your art. As a graduating senior in 1983, I found A Boy’s Own Story in a local bookstore, and it changed my life! I had found something that came closer than anything to replicating my experience and I wanted to match it; twenty-four years later, a young man found my novel in the same bookstore, and said the same thing! An actor, he has tried his hand at writing. Who knows? Like Edmund White, I will never know unless someone tells me. But, in all art, we do as Picasso in the Louvre: we practice, practice, practice, until something clicks and we needn’t practice any longer.
More than anything else, the young writer, particularly the young writer of creative nonfiction, should persist. Keep trying! It takes time, and patience, to find voice, story, medium, and market. Even now, “no” and “hell no” seem the only sentences readers and editors know. Everyone experiences that. As it was once, it is now, and forever shall be. “Without end.” And, sometimes, just as you ask “do I really want to do this?,” someone, somewhere, sends a note that says “yes!” From the way a writer reacts, an acceptance could have been an early morning call from Scandinavia in October! Who remembers months and months and months of rejection? Who cares? Does Tantalus even remember that cotton mouth when his lips finally touch his drink?
NICHE: What writing projects are you working on now?
J.E. ROBINSON: Gival Press released The Day Rider and Other Stories: A Collection in late 2013, and I am still elated about it winning the award in gay literature at the most recent San Francisco Book Festival! My editor has stated he would be available to read something new in 2015, and I am trying to get something in some shape to send it to him. Maybe I can have another short story collection in time for Halley’s Comet. And, my friends in Nebraska have suggested that I publish a poetry collection; hopefully, the readers will be kind about their rejection.
Having had an active career writing literary nonfiction between 2002 and 2013, I sense that I am moving away from that; perhaps it is time to do a collection of personal essays. I have out feelers and queries. Who knows? Hope is hope.
In writing, I sometimes feel I should stop all this tinkering, settle down, and pick up a trade. But I enjoy this carousing too much!
Being an academic, I am thinking seriously about something biographical, such as on the poet and playwright Owen Dodson, who died just before I entered Howard University (I think about my students seeing a picture of him reading with Sterling Brown and Melvin Tolson at Jackson State and reading the caption and asking “was ‘Queen’ really his name?”—some among my professors would have remarked “very, very close!,” because, according to some sources, Dodson cross- dressed—whoever edited that Library of Congress photograph for New Letters, where it appeared, simply misread Dodson’s name), or maybe the ulta-conservative Harlem Renaissance figure George Schuyler, whose interpretations of twentieth century America really, really speak to me; I am almost to the point of summarizing twenty years’ research on slavery in the Midwest with a monograph. Those are much more scholarly things, designed to keep my chairman and dean happy.
Maybe I’ll turn to the personal essay once more.
Who knows? Hope is hope.
This interview originally appeared on Niche’s website on July 2nd, 2014.