Interview with David Gessner

Writer David Gessner answers some questions about his recent essay

What pleases you most about the way your essay turned out? Are there any ways in which it fell short of your original goals?

The thing I’m most proud of in the essay is the way it mimics my father’s own no-nonsense style. It was one of the last essays I wrote for my manuscript, “A Wild, Rank Place.” Some of the earlier essays were quite literary, and the language was also. But by the time I wrote “June Journal” I was focusing more intently on my father and his illness, and the journal form—short, choppy, direct—mirrors his own blunt, businessman style.

How did your essay develop, both in your initial thinking about it and in the revision process? What happened in writing that you didn’t expect would happen?

I had been writing essays that tried to juggle several themes, cutting from theme to theme with sharp transitions–non-transitions, really–between sections. The idea for this essay was to juggle the decline of my father with nature descriptions of early summer on Cape Cod. But this time the transitions were even more choppy–and came fast and furious–and before long the journal form asserted itself.

If you write in other genres (poetry, fiction, playwriting, literary criticism, etc.) how does your experience writing in creative nonfiction depend upon or depart from your other kinds of writing?

Having written big, clunky novels throughout my 20s, it was with great relief that I turned to nonfiction. I read somewhere that Kurt Vonnegut felt immensely free when he was released from fact, and that inspiration poured down when he imagined. For me the opposite is true. Anchored by what actually happened, the techniques of fiction–scene, dialogue–flow more naturally.

Give some of your reflections about creative nonfiction as an emerging genre in American literature. Where do you see it going in the next several years, or even farther down the line?

I don’t know if I agree with the word “emerging” in this question. Re-emerging maybe. It seems that creative nonfiction is one of our strongest American traditions. Emerson’s pun of the “I” and the “eye” is the central one for me. The imaginative first person writing and persona-creating of Thoreau continued down through personalities as diverse and thorny as Henry Miller and Ed Abbey. I’m not good at predicting trends, but I know that writing nonfiction will be a vital part of my creative life from here on in. Part of the reason for writing creative nonfiction was simply asking myself two questions: What do I read, and which writers do I admire most? And then realizing that what they wrote was nonfiction.

What are the specific literary techniques you attempt to use as a creative nonfiction writer? For example, do you attempt to write in scenes? Do you employ dialogue? Specificity of detail? How and why?

Quick cuts. Scenes. Dialogue. As an aspiring novelist who has written three unpublished novels I can’t help but use the techniques I’ve been trying to master over the past decade. If anything, these techniques seem–to me–more natural when writing nonfiction.

What advice might you offer to young people interested in writing?

Don’t do it unless you have to. If you have to, understand that what you are doing is very, very difficult, requires an insane amount of work, and is unlikely to garner much in the way of rewards. The pleasures are the pleasures of doing something very difficult.