Leslie Rubinkowski directs the MFA in Creative Nonfiction program at Goucher College. She has taught at the University of Pittsburgh and West Virginia University and has lectured at The Poynter Institute for Media Studies. The author of Impersonating Elvis, her essays have appeared in Harper's, River Teeth, and Chautauqua. She also works with writers through CNF's mentoring program.
At the 2015 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference, Leslie will teach a master class on pacing and structuring a book-length narrative or memoir. In anticipation of the conference, CNF’s Katie McGrath spoke with Leslie about working with writers, the importance of research, and knowing when to be a part of the story.
CNF: As a longtime teacher, CNF mentor, and now director of the MFA program at Goucher College, is there a piece of advice you find yourself giving your students a lot?
RUBINKOWSKI: The first — and sometimes only — question I ask writers looking for advice is: What is your story really about? Not its subject but its theme: the deeper idea that animates the narrative. Billy Wilder said, “If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.” And most likely the problem with the first act is that you began without knowing what you really mean.
CNF: What do you find appealing (or appalling) about writing in the first person? What advice do you have for writers for how to get readers to care about their stories? How does one make the personal universal?
RUBINKOWSKI: People who fret about first person could stand to get over themselves, on the page and probably in other ways, too. If used well, it can connect narrator and reader. But even a first-person story can’t just be about the writer. The reader is more likely to care about a writer’s presence if the writer’s not the only reason to care. That’s one way to make the personal universal: to write about more than just your own emotions and circumstance. And — see, here I go — to think through and articulate in as many aspects of the story as you possibly can your story’s themes and deeper ideas. Express those desires and emotions that any reader can feel, no matter how different your situation is from their own.
CNF: What about research? What role does research play in crafting a nonfiction narrative—even a personal one?
RUBINKOWSKI: Every nonfiction story needs research, memoir included. For one thing, it’s fun. For another thing, it can derail your story and then make it better. That part can be less fun. Learning, say, that your memory of an event is different than you remember can feel scary, even soul-shaking. But you can learn a lot about yourself comparing your memory of an event with the facts of it. And a story can only benefit from thinking hard about what that gap might mean.
CNF: Besides teaching, you’ve worked as a journalist, a feature writer, and a film critic. What was your first job in the writing world? What did you learn from it?
RUBINKOWSKI: I was a creative writing major in college, but I soon learned that you couldn’t pay your bills selling short stories. (Not my short stories, anyway.) So I got a job at the Herald-Standard in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, as a general-assignment reporter. I covered all of life’s important milestones — graduations, city council meetings, demolition derbies. After a couple of months I realized the things that happened in a week of work I couldn’t have created on my best day. I couldn’t get over it. Actually, I never got over it.
CNF: For your book, Impersonating Elvis, how did you find the one impersonator you chose to frame the story around? How did you approach him, and let him know you wanted to tell his story?
RUBINKOWSKI: I called dozens of Elvises before somebody told me about Dennis Stella. I called him one night and the first thing he said was that he’d be happy to talk to me but he didn’t think he was very interesting. I had a suspicion that if he didn’t think he was interesting it meant that he probably was too busy being interesting to think about whether or not he was interesting. I asked him if I could come and hang out with him and he invited me to a karaoke party at his house. It was Dennis and a whole bunch of other guys dressed like Elvis on his patio in Calumet City, Illinois, with a grill and a giant sound system. It was probably the best party I’ll ever attend.
Dennis told me he didn’t think he was all that interesting a lot over the next couple of years, usually when he was in a hotel room gluing on some sideburns or standing outside Graceland surrounded by people holding candles and singing “Love Me Tender.” And I would just nod and think about how this was really my life.
CNF: How did you decide how much (or how little) of yourself to include in that story? And how did the story change from what you’d thought it would be to what it ultimately ended up being?
RUBINKOWSKI: I’ve thought about this a lot. I wasn’t in the book very much because I was in a phase of my writing life where I felt weird appearing in a story. I didn’t know enough then to see that I was in the story whether I was a character in it or not. I didn’t get that good nonfiction rises and falls on the degree to which you calibrate your presence in the story. So if I were writing that book now I would likely unshadow myself a little more, but only if I felt sure that showing up would draw the reader deeper inside that world.
CNF: If you could go back to the start of your career, what advice would you give yourself?
RUBINKOWSKI: That writing is always a lucky thing to be able to do. Even when it sometimes feels like the opposite.
CNF: How do you handle rejection?
RUBINKOWSKI: Rejection in writing and every other aspect of life is easier to handle when you don’t take it personally. Someone asked Duke Ellington how he handled those who disrespected him — in far more serious ways than I could ever encounter — and he replied, “I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues.” I wish I’d understood that at the start of my career, too.