Interview with Donald Morrill

An interview with Donald Morrill, writer of "I Give Up Smiling"

About the Author
Poets Writing Prose
Donald Morrill, author of “I Give Up Smiling”

Is the process by which you prepare to write poetry different from the one you use to write nonfiction?

Yes. I think they come from really dramatically different parts of the brain. I imagine differently. I think my sense of rhythm and language is different [when writing one or the other].

Poems are more sculpted on the page; there is some of that in prose, but there are certain formal pressures in poetry that you forego in writing prose.

Where do we see the “poet” in your creative nonfiction?

Many of the techniques I use in poetry, I use in prose. Rhythm is very important to me. Images are very important to me. I always try to write prose that has a rhythmical quality to it. I see a paragraph almost as a musical composition. I would like to see it come to a conclusion, to be complete and whole. I try to write paragraphs that have a kind of poetic resolution. Actually, an entire essay is like a musical composition. There should be a totality to it, almost a kind of poetical lift.

Nonfiction writers often see conveying information as the most important part of writing. There are lots of nonfiction books that deliver information that is valuable today, but whether or not a reader will want to pick it up in ten years depends, I think, on if that particular book has a poetic lift.

In your essay, “I Give Up Smiling,” you intertwined your experiences in China with those in your hometown of Des Moines. By doing so, you work to make the familiar foreign and even quite frightening–and the foreign at least understandable, if not exactly familiar.

I like writers who try to seek authentic things, things they know about, so they can get to things that they don’t know and that’s what I tried to do in “I Give Up Smiling.” This theme is picked up in the book’s title, which is, “The Stranger’s Neighborhood.”

Could you tell us a little more about the process of writing “I Give Up Smiling”?

I originally conceived the essay as part of a larger work that was going to be about China. It took me a long time to give myself permission to write about it. I realized that the book couldn’t be simply about China. There are plenty of books about China, many of them quite good. What would make this particular subject interesting, then, is the sensibility I have to lend it.

This particular essay comes early in the book, so a lot of local color has already been established. The longer I wrote the book, however, the more the issues of home took over. I wanted, then, to [start to] turn the focus to Des Moines. I decided to use excerpts from my journals to continue the theme of China [while exploring correlative issues from my boyhood home].

So the travel you depict could be said to be equally interior as exterior?

I’d rather call this essay, and the book that this is going to appear in, an example of “travel experience” writing, rather than just “travel writing.”

What do you see as different in terms of the responsibilities of the creative nonfiction writer as opposed to the responsibilities of the poet?

Part of the responsibility of writing autobiographical pieces is that you will see your experience as symbolic–symbolic for many other people. Your experience is important not because it happened to you, but because it has significance for other people. You can write about your life, but it can’t be because it’s about your life. Writing creative nonfiction is about a fascination with the self, but not necessarily with yourself.

You can see this involvement with others or with “the self of others” in your essay. I was most interested in the character of Wendell, for example, and what he represented in the text.

He was a malignant presence whose motives, at the time, were completely inscrutable. Now I can look at it as an adult–understand that he was most certainly abused, and came from a dysfunctional family, but at the time all I could think about was getting away from him.

So Wendell was a real person?

Oh, yes. In my work I change almost all names–you gotta respect the privacy of all people–but I try to keep it factually true in all ways. I’m interested in presenting what happens when x does this kind of thing to y–the real names are not significant to the greater truth.

Do you feel compelled to keep to the “greater truth” in poetry then?

No, because you are not professing [the work is one of] fact, although I think readers of poetry are still sometimes disappointed when they realize the narrative told in a poem is not true. For example, the poet Stephen Dunn wrote a poem called “The Substitute,” in his book, “Local Time,” in which the speaker’s daughter goes to school and pretends that she is English. Everyone in the class gets a charge about it, yet the next day, the substitute comes back, and the girl is forced to carry on with this identity. She has to give a report about her family’s life in England, the works. The poem is about being saddled with the creation of an identity. You’ve re-created yourself, but now you have to live with it. Dunn got the idea from an experience his own daughter had, but in reality, the regular teacher came back the next day. There wasn’t any penalty to what the little girl had done. Yet what he was interested in was not the actual experience. He realized he had a narrative frame which was symbolic, and changed the facts at will. His daughter was disappointed and tried to point out the discrepancy with the truth, but he just kind of shrugged and said, as poets will, “It’s a poem.” It’s imagination, and any transformation necessary to make it into art is justifiable. Life is not art. You die absurdly, things don’t make any sense. If you do have those moments of harmonic convergence and shapeliness and wholeness, the next day you wake up and it’s absurd again.

How does the creative nonfiction writer, then, create “art” out of a reality you argue is inherently “artless”? What kind of techniques do you use to render “shapeliness” and “wholeness” to experience?

It depends on the subject I’m doing. It’s the difference between a photograph and a painting. I play with time, for instance. I don’t believe in writing “this happened, then this happened, then this happened.” The book I’m working on right now is about young homeless people. I see the events as a chain of spotlights, and each of these spotlights will hover around a particular event. Chronological time is not what is important. What I’m doing is creating a book that is full of reporting of human experience, yet I see it not so much as reporting as it is creating a portrait.

So you manipulate time in your piece. Do you manipulate characters as well? Do you believe in making compilation characters, or in creating characters from scratch?

I don’t think I would make one up, but then, I could say this today and make a liar of myself tomorrow [laughs]. There is a possibility of using some compilation characters, though. If something important happens to a character, but then he is gone off somewhere…

…and you need him in there…

It’s a book of observation and surmise. It’s not objective. I’m not objective. You can throw objectivity out the window.

Where do you fit, then, in this book you’re writing?

At one level, I had to put myself in there. It’s fruitless to me to pretend not to be involved with these people. It allows me to use other experience that is outside the immediate arena in the book. I think it might be helpful in getting more perspective, the kind of perspective a narrator can provide. I love books which are rich and have lots of perception.

Which nonfiction …. qualities?

Moritz Thomsen–he wrote three books–“The Farm on the River of Emeralds,” the?and another one I haven’t read yet. I love Annie Dillard’s “The Pilgrim on Tinker Creek.”

And what poets do you admire?

Contemporary poets? Stephen Dunn, Anthony Hecht. Adrienne Rich. I consider Adrienne Rich the major American poet of our era. James Dickey before 1970.

What can nonfiction writers do to learn from poets?

Read as much poetry as you can. Seeing how perceptions are shaped by the poem will improve your prose. I learned a lot about writing prose from writing poetry for 20 years. The discipline and intent of poetry, as well as the demand for economy of language, keep phrases snug, and imbue the text with layers of figurative language. These are attributes that would benefit any writer, regardless of the genre he or she is writing in.