Zane Grey on a Carousel
with author Diane Hume George
Q…What pleases you about the way your essay turned out? Are there ways in which it fell short of your original goals?
Hume George…Like most writers, I feel the distance between what I intended to accomplish and what actually made it onto the page, so I’m happily surprised when I can please myself at all. In this case, I’m glad about the tone of my narrative voice—I was able to handle sobering events with a light enough touch to create some breathing room, a way for me—and for readers—to smile about the sillier aspects of my own behavior when I was young. This could have been an unrelentingly sad story, because it does involve tragic individual and cultural consequences for other people. I think I managed to confine the comic and parodic tone only to myself—and by extension to other Anglo people who conduct misguided romances with Native American culture—while retaining respect for the people who endure the consequences of what Edward Said called “orientalism” (the tendency to exoticize non-Anglo cultures). I could have written (and I have, in other contexts) a critical or theoretical work about this subject, but at this point in my life, that kind of writing feels bloodless to me. I’m glad to portray a large cultural pattern in the ways that only a personal essay can do—to tell a human story that puts flesh on the bones of an idea.
Q…Are there ways in which the essay fell short of your original goals?
Hume George…How did I fail here; let me count the ways. Yes and yes, always yes. My original goal was to say it all, to get some entire, vast, ennobling truth onto the page. Nonfiction writers are forever trying to write the personal version of what philosopher Ken Wilber calls “a short history of everything.” A lot of us harbor the secret conviction that we are in possession of some enormous Platonic truth, or we’re able to see the shape of some ultimate Form, and if only we could somehow get what we know compressed into words imprinted on some white space, we could—what? Save the world or something? Probably. We’re idiotically egotistical to think any such thing, of course.
I have spent a few decades getting a lot more humble about what I can do with words. My entire writing life is one of happily diminishing expectations. I think I finally get it—I am not privy to any vast truths. I’m not in possession of any transcendent wisdom. But I do have some good stories to tell, and some experiences worth recording, and I have been witness to some events that deserve to be known. When I’m quiet and observant and lucky, I can see enough to write something small and worthwhile.
Q…How did your essay develop, both in your initial thinking about it and in the revision process? What happened in the writing that you didn’t expect would happen?
Hume George…I’ve got enough perspective on my writing life to notice long-term patterns that might be useful for other writers. With “Zane Grey,” it went the way it often goes. I get an itch of an idea, or I memorize a moment of conversation, or I record in my mind a gesture, or I keep re-living an event. I don’t at first know why, or quite what it’s about, but I’ve learned that when something sticks like that, I’ll write about it eventually. Eventually can mean years. The seed of it grows, largely unconsciously at first, sending out roots every which way in the primal muck of my mind, and finally it surfaces. For months, even years, there seems to be nothing, no one would know I’ve been thinking about a particular essay—sometimes I myself don’t even consciously realize it—and then one day, there it comes. That’s when I first sit down to begin writing. In my twenties and thirties, it wasnÕt long from the first draft to the tenth and final one. I didn’t seem to have a choice; it was happily compulsive that I’d have to keep at it until it felt done. I was somehow in a hurry. There was always a sense of urgency in my writing life.
In my forties and fifties, that’s changed. It still sometimes takes a few years from idea or event to words-on-the-page, and it can take another few years from first draft to final. If it’s a big piece, in length or breadth or depth, I might write four or five drafts in a month, and then I put it away. I come back to it in another month, or sometimes another year, and it goes through more drafts. Sometimes that happens in two or three waves before I finally think it’s done.
Is this procrastination? Sure, sometimes, but not necessarily. What you’re trying to write about can be complex and thorny enough to deserve the perspective that only time affords you. If I had completed “Zane Grey” when I first thought of it, it would be thinner and less textured. At first I only knew I wanted to write about one aspect of romanticizing Native culture. Later I knew that television representations could be the vehicle for that. I started to write long, long before the movie of “The Staircase” was made. Suddenly there was a wonderful synchronicity afoot for me: a made-for-TV movie put into images the events I’d been writing about for two years, which I’d first lived through twenty-five years before that. I kept revising. People in the narrative appeared in new ways over a several-year period. I hope I rescued my essay from oversimplifications and facile conclusions, draft by draft, always grateful that I’d slowed down enough to catch myself. Only as I was preparing the final edited version for Creative Nonfiction did the truly unexpected occur; Ron Howard’s new film, “The Missing,” was released as we were going to press, making one of my main points for me as purely as if I’d hired Opie to do it. Thank you, Hollywood.
It’s often good to take your time with an important essay. During the years that elapsed while this one was in process, I wasn’t sitting there at the computer all numbed and blocked and breaking out in rashes. I published a number of lesser pieces that didn’t need lengthy perspective. Once a major statement or story of yours is in print, its form for your reading public is permanent, even though your thinking may evolve far past the point at which the verbal representation is forever fixed. So you want to make sure it’s something that you will always be able to live with, that you’ll look back at in another five or ten or twenty years and be able to say, yes, I’m glad I wrote this.
Q…How does your experience writing creative nonfiction depend upon or depart from your work in other genres (poetry, fiction, playwriting, literary criticism, etc.)?
Hume George…We are all writers in multiple genres. One of our earliest genres is creative nonfiction—the writing assignments in elementary school are often personal essays. Professionally I was first a literary critic, then a poet, then an essayist. Creative nonfiction was the mother-genre of those grade-school essays and personal letters and journals, those first representations of the narrative “I,” but it got schooled right out of me in higher education, and I had to coax it back. I forgot how to write in a voice anywhere near to an authentic, or even as aesthetic, version of “I.” Even if that voice was the last of the writing personas to emerge in my adult years, it now feels the most natural to me, though sometimes still hardest and most elusive. I can speak like a literary critic in my sleep; speaking like a representation of a real person still requires a hacksaw.
Whether I’m going to write a poem or prose is always a mystery to me. I don’t know until I sit down and get that first line out. If it goes all the way across the page, I realize it’s going to be an essay. If I am making line breaks, apparently I’m in the midst of a poem. I don’t mind this mystery.
Q…Speculate about creative nonfiction as an emerging genre in American literature. Where do you see it going?
Hume George: It’s difficult to see larger historical patterns when you’re living in the midst of big changes and new developments in any field. I teach in Goucher College’s M.F.A. program in creative nonfiction, and attend the Mid-Atlantic Creative Nonfiction Conference every year, so I’m continuously re-energized by the ongoing national conversation (and controversy) about the limits and definitions of the genre.
I see creative nonfiction expanding along a large continuum. The genre is historically distinguished, but also constantly redefining itself, shape-shifting like crazy, and I like that. The genre has expanded to include, on one end of the continuum, immersion journalism and narrative or literary journalism, and at the other end is personal essay and memoir—and I also include letters and journals, in the personal sub-genre, and biography in the more research-oriented sub-genres. I’d also include literary criticism and culture-crit. in creative nonfiction, despite the barriers that seem to have been erected between critical and creative writing—and despite my difficulties with my own literary-critical persona. (Those difficulties are largely self-created anyway.)
There’s a kind of strawman argument set up between “journalism” on one hand and “memoir” on the other. Half of what we call journalism really isn’t in that genre by any definition that most working journalists would accept, and I’d like to retain some respect for journalists’ own definitions of their genre. But I’d also like more journalists to see that literary writing which uses some journalistic techniques can name its own values. Similarly, much of what gets casually labeled memoir is simply personal essay. And the connections and intersections among all of these kinds of writing are multiple. Sometimes I find myself wanting to settle for this: there’s good writing and there’s bad writing, about anything, in any style, in any genre.
The distinction I find most harmful in current debates is that between subjective and objective—the illusion that somehow, journalistic approaches are “objective” and personal writing is “subjective.” There’s no such thing as real objectivity; there are only multiple and variously informed kinds of subjectivity. I believe that to think otherwise is fairly dangerous. It gets you assuming that to render facts is to approach something that can be confused with truth, and I don’t think anything could be much farther from “truth” than genuflection toward factuality. Facts are important, even crucial. So are other forms of authority. Differently informed subjectivities, which can contradict each other, can all be “true.”
One of the hallmarks of the finest creative nonfiction, whether in personal or journalistic writing, is to bring a clearly individual voice and an identifiable perspective to the writing, whatever it’s “about.” For me, creative nonfiction has to possess some sort of integrity, but I hesitate to prescribe what integrity should consist of, or should mean—it’s certainly not confined to an illusory idea of ultimate truth. I don’t think there is any such thing, despite our inevitable longing for it.
Q…What advice do you offer new writers?
Hume George…Lately, I’m into do and don’t lists about writing and work life.
- Find work that enables your writing habit. If you have to work to feed yourself and others, you want a job with clear boundaries.
- Consider hourly wage work. Salaried positions in any field permit an employer to own your time in unspecified ways.
- Take a job that will deeply involve you in institutional politics of any kind. Bureaucratic work eventually crushes the soul.
- And for writers thinking of teaching, don’t take jobs with heavy course loads, ever. Teaching four courses of writing per semester will kill your own writing.