Interview with Lucy Wilson Sherman

Lucy Wilson Sherman answers CNF's questions about her 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 essay wrote itself. I mean, how often do you just stumble into a story like this? All I had to do was live it, write down what I recalled, and insert my perspective.

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?

The events in this essay took place 14 years ago. I sat down and wrote it up pretty much as it is today, titling it “Lovers.” I let it sit for 14 years. Then, last year, under the guidance of a writing coach, I fiddled a bit with point of view. When the essay was accepted for publication, Lee Gutkind suggested I retitle it and that I muse a bit more about the “moral dilemma you and Rob confronted.” Its new title came easily to mind-I think it is less misleading and possibly more enticing, suggesting both mystery (something will happen at a turn in the road) and choice (something will happen there to cause an internal turning).

I had a harder time adding more quandary; I had not been in a quandary. So what I did was make that perfectly clear in the paragraph beginning “If Rob were not here,” and when I did that, what sprang to mind was the reason why I was not in a quandary-I treat others as if they are me, an approach which on the one hand stimulates intimacy, but on the other allows little room for Otherness.

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?

I write only personal essays and memoir. And book reviews, which end up being personal essays.

Speculate 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?

As a writer, I am delighted to have a name for what it is I am naturally drawn to write. As a reader, I love the intimacy of the personal essay. All I ever want to know is how an author’s mind works. As Phillip Lopate writes in his introduction to “The Art of the Personal Essay,” ” … The personal essay sets up a relationship with the reader, a dialogue-a friendship, if you will, based on identification, understanding, testiness, and companionship.” It is this relationship that hooks me.

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?

At heart, I’m more of a teller than a shower. Lopate again: “True, the essayist happily violates the number-one rule of short story workshops, ‘Show, don’t tell;’ the glory of the essayist is to tell, once and for all, everything that he or she thinks, knows, and understands.” (xxxviii, “The Art of the Personal Essay”) But a friend and writing teacher read this essay and suggested I add more about the car, the brand of beer, more about the guy’s looks, more about Rob’s looks. So I made up stuff about the car, the beer, what the guy looks like (it’s been 14 years, after all) and stuck that part about Rob’s glasses winking in the sunlight. (I like the verb, because winking would be an inappropriate thing to do at a time like this, and it highlights that I don’t know what Rob is feeling, and suggests that even if I did know, his feelings might be inappropriate to the situation.)

What advice might you offer young people interested in writing?

The collected wisdom tells beginning writers to read widely and write daily. But the advice does not explain its rationale, which, I’ve figured out, is this: When you write every day, you create an opening, an opening where there wouldn’t otherwise be one, a hole that you will fill by reading at night. The questions your writing awakens lead you to the next best work to read. Get “The New York Times Book Review” and read books that are most like the writing you do. Become an interactive reader. Write to the author in the margins. Underline the book like crazy. Star passages, object to ideas. Get a system going of asterisks and check marks and circles. Ideas are precious, but not the paper they’re written on. Every bookstore has more.

Stop reading at a sentence that’s particularly wonderful or particularly woeful. Write down how you might have expressed the thought or description. Then look back and see how the author did it. It is through the interplay between reading and writing, opening to receive (reading), closing to put out (writing), that your writing, over time, will be influenced by the ideas and possibilities which arise from your reading.