Interview with Priscilla Hodgkins

Writer Priscilla Hodgkins chats with CNF about her recent essay

Q: What pleases you about the way your essay turned out? Are there any ways in which you feel it fell short of your original goal?

A: The overall tone was a pleasant surprise. I didn’t set out to establish it nor did I pay much attention to it. I wasn’t aware it had a tone until someone pointed it out to me. It falls short in that I could have gone deeper into the darker side, but then that, as they say, would be another story, or at least that is my current excuse for not showing the reader emotions that are not so nicely controlled.

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

A: It developed out of thin air. I was reading Edward Harrison’s book, Masks of the Universe, which is a physicist’s exploration of the universe as a “world of our own making.” I was also taking care of my mother whose memory and sense of time was altered by a series of small strokes. I was fascinated with Harrison’s ideas about the universe and his explanation of the space-time continuum while simultaneously witnessing my mother’s separate and unique perception of time and her loss of short-term memory. From Harrison s discussion of space and time it was a short step to think of my mother as a time traveler.

What happened that was not expected?

There was some emotional comfort in transforming the mundane frustrations of tending to my mother into high-minded disquisition. While I was reading Harrison and writing this piece I was transported out of my life and it’s day to day burdens to a place that I could explore freely. It was like flying above it all and at the same time be completely immersed in everything essential.

I was also surprised that I could begin to understand what Einstein had theorized. Living with my mother probably helped.

Q: 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?

A: I enrolled in the MFA program at Bennington College to write short stories and maybe sneak up on a novel. In my third semester I took the option to switch genres and studied nonfiction with Sven Birkerts, a very fine essayist and critic. I wanted to write high-minded essays, think pieces on the future of our health care system, and the way the baby-boomers would approach old age and death. I wanted to write in that third-person know-it-all essay voice (I had Alistair Cook in mind) but Sven insisted I include personal experiences and drop the imitation of Mr. Cook.

As a story writer, the change to nonfiction meant that I could no longer hide behind the fiction curtain, that I had to step out front and with a generous spirit offer to the reader facts and incidents as they actually happened. In a short story I could give my petty fears, poor taste in clothes and disingenuous traits to a shallow car salesman. In nonfiction, I had no car salesman to hide behind. It was a very difficult transition, but once I made it I didn’t want to go back to fiction.

The material in the personal essay (“Einstein…”) was also used in two short stories. The stories are perhaps more truthful while the memoir is more factual. Take them all together and there is still a wide chasm between what is real and what is told.

Q: 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?

A: The line between fiction and nonfiction is getting fuzzier every day. Memoirs are written with the intention of telling a good story and autobiographical facts are edited out in service to the arc and reach of the story. Novelists have been mining the mountains of their own experiences since the first novels were written. What we call creative nonfiction may be the space that exists between the borders of pure fiction and pure nonfiction. Perhaps it is a territory where the writer of facts is allowed or expected to be creative. Of course this is not new. What may be emerging is our need to provide a specific label and a hunger for the actual as opposed to the imagined.

The day-time and early evening television schedule is crammed with “real-life” programming. The Sally-Jessie-Povitch-Lake shows offer live, on-stage exhibitions of freak citizens — people caught in otherwise shameful excesses of jealousy, rage, and sexual betrayal. I remember day-time TV as a parade of soap-operas and celebrity game shows. Is there something significant in this change from the fictional and fantastic to the real-time degradation of real people? I hope not.

There is currently a race to write and publish memoirs. Readers want to explore the experience of another person’s life untransformed into fiction. Is this related to the day-time TV-viewer’s hunger for citizen-freaks? I hope not.

I’d like to think the increased interest in creative nonfiction is an expression of our interest in understanding one another directly. It is perhaps a counter-balance to the digitally abstracted connections and deluge of data delivered via computer screens. We want to know who is writing the essay and we want to know how they feel about their subject. We long for the personal voice that “creative” nonfiction allows. I only wish we could think up a better name for it. I always cringe when someone says, “I’m writing creative nonfiction.” I assume all writing is “creative” and so I hear, “I’m writing creative creative nonfiction.” Bully, bully for you.

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

A: At the editor’s request, I omitted some dialogue in this piece to improve the pacing. I think it’s better without it, but in the future I might want to try the whole thing as dialogue in scenes. Would it still be considered creative nonfiction or would it stand as a story? Just exactly where is that line between fiction and nonfiction? When writers use the elements of fiction (scene, dialogue, etc.) in nonfiction what, except intention, separates the story-writer from the memoirist? The memoir writer intends to tell the truth; the novelist intends to write fiction.

I use whatever techniques work. The trick is to have read enough to know what your choices are and then work the edges of your imagination. Try different techniques on the same piece. Work in different points of view. What would happen to this piece if I had written it in the third person — think of the voice of Alistair Cook telling you what it was like to live with my mother?

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

A: Read. You’ve undoubtedly been told this many times and the reason you will hear it repeated all your life is that it is universally the best advice for all writers. Read everything: stories, essays, novels, biography, poetry, crime novels, science fiction, letters to the editor, your local paper. Read a personal essay and, like a car mechanic, lift the hood on the essay and see what makes it go … or what needs fixing. Try to point to exactly what it is that makes it wonderful and makes you love it. When you can’t stand to read something, before you stop and throw the book across the room, note what it is that you don’t like. Then remember to never, ever do that to your readers.

Study the masters, just the way art students study great paintings and sculpture. See how the best ones do it, but don’t copy them. Just observe, acutely, assiduously until you know when something has the right shape, size, and density. These words may not make much sense to you now, but a well-written essay has all those elements in perfect balance.