Dig where you stand

Our nonfiction editor, Brett Sigurdson, spoke in-depth with Craig Reinbold about his essay, “Here in the Museum of Things Gone Terribly Wrong,” the writers and places that inspire him, and the role of the modern essay.

 

What inspired you to write “Here in the Museum of Things Gone Terribly Wrong”? Was there any one event?

Well, it wasn’t any one event that got it rolling, but rather a weird confluence off all kinds of things. This essay got off to kind of a bizarre start actually.

I was in a workshop at the University of Arizona, it was led by Ander Monson, and each week he’d give us an assignment, like, Write an essay recording a day, or Write an essay in a form that fails to contain the essay, and one week it was Create a map essay. We were reading Denis Wood’s Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas and Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands, so there was a lot of inspiration around and there were no rules involved—it was really just go forth and see how interesting you can be. I’d recently come across Crossing the Line, a report put together by the Tucson-based advocacy group No More Deaths documenting “human rights abuses suffered by migrants while in the custody of the United States Border Patrol,” and I’d also recently become infatuated with “Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge,” Dinty W. Moore’s Google Maps essay, and I thought I would try to join those two together.

That first rough draft (I lie—it’s actually like the tenth draft of that original essay-as-Google-Map-idea) is still available, I think, here. You’ll see some of the text is the same, but the overall theme is somewhat different. In this version it was more about the power of maps, their ability to launch our stories into the world and all that. For some reason, it just didn’t work—though I still can’t articulate exactly why. It just felt incomplete somehow. So eventually I ditched the map idea and started threading the stories together on the page. The result is much more personal, I think. I also made this switch around the time I was first getting into Charles Bowden, and I’d recently read Lia Purpura’s On Looking, and both of those writers obviously influenced me quite a bit in the later version.

Kind of funny actually, in the first draft of this essay as it appears now I quoted Bowden for like four pages straight. Early readers were all like, Oh my god! You can’t do that! And they were probably right. I was just so obsessed with his stuff at the time, his writing, but more so his outlook—his uber-intense views on life and death and writing. Eventually I trimmed it down, but couldn’t bring myself to cut it entirely. And I’m glad I didn’t. His voice adds an important edge to the essay, I think. A certain demanding quality.

Maybe this is just an essay about obsession? Or at least the way certain stories never leave us, we just carry them around and they weigh on us but we can’t let them go. Like I try to get at by bringing up Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” we carry these stories around with us and it’s a real challenge figuring out what to do with them, but we need to do something—or at least I feel the need to—because otherwise they end up like stones in our pockets. I don’t know. Maybe I just wanted to get these stories out into the world, share their weight, and if anyone is listening, see what they might have to say.

 

Place—specifically Tucson—is such an important part of this essay. What is your personal experience with the city and how does it reflect the themes you explore in this piece?

Tucson is probably my favorite place I’ve lived. It’s not even that Arizona is beautiful. Beautiful is how I describe my home state, Wisconsin, in the summer. Arizona is majestic. But the state is also plenty gritty, and everything there feels more intense: the flora will stab you, the fauna are poisonous, the heat will bake you, and the politics are more caustic. It’s gorgeous country, Arizona, but also formidable in a way Wisconsin isn’t. Formidable might not be the right word? A better adjective might be: portentous, or exhilarating, or sublime?

Anyway, the phrase dig where you stand seems like an essayist’s mantra if there ever was one. We write what we’re thinking about, and what we’re thinking about is often tied to where we are at any particular moment. I’ve been back in Milwaukee for a year, and this city’s issues don’t seem to have changed much since I last lived here almost ten years ago: poverty, racial segregation, gun violence—these themes seem tied to this place like cold winters. Living in Tucson, the big issues were always water use, mining, gun rights, and of course, immigration. Obviously, these aren’t the only themes that have worked their way into my writing—life is built around more than where we live—but they turn up again and again. With this essay, writing about immigration and migrants’ rights was the springboard that led to writing about everything else—all those things that aren’t tied to a particular place, or to place at all. In that sense, this essay couldn’t have been written anywhere but Tucson.

 

Speaking of place, you’re an editor for Terrain.Org, which publishes art and literature “that searches for the interface—the integration—among the built and natural environments that might be called the soul of place.” How are the writers you’re publishing capturing the “soul” of their own places? What has drawn you to their work? 

My own interpretation of the quote above is pretty broad. I mean, what doesn’t qualify as being in some way about the interface of built and natural environments, which is to say, the interaction between people and where they are?

The phrase dig where you stand seems like an essayist’s mantra if there ever was one.

I’ve curated a few different series for Terrain.org, each covering different themes and topics, but every piece I’ve had a hand in publishing reveals the author as a resident—though maybe temporarily—of a particular place, and importantly, the author is questioning what it means to be there, to participate in the culture, or be part of the landscape. It’s that questioning, that interrogation of what it means to be from, or in, or up against a particular place that for me really begins to illuminate the “soul of place.” And it’s that interrogation that draws me—authors who dig in and really question and hit hard and who shock me out of complacency by making familiar places seem new, whether they’re writing about Tucson, or a patch of New Mexico desert, or the highways of the US, or even the world in general.

 

Charles Bowden’s voice plays a big part in “Here in the Museum of Things Gone Terribly Wrong” as a source, but I also sense similarities in style. Can you speak to Bowden as an influence in style and subject matter? Who are some other writers who have influenced you?

A few weeks ago, right after Bowden died, a friend texted me “RIP Chuck Bowden,” and then she texted again, as an afterthought, “Actually, it’s hard to imagine him ever at peace.” That’s exactly right, I think. Only knowing him through his work, I believe Bowden was a real hardass, but also principled and uncompromisingly moral, though not necessarily adhering to my own sense of morality, which only makes me appreciate him more as this means his writing shows me a world I wouldn’t normally see.

In memoriam, Luis Alberto Urrea said we tend to think of Bowden’s writing as being focused on border issues, but that’s wrong. That was merely where he worked. Rather, his focus was on the darkness of the human soul. That’s what Urrea said, completely without irony. The darkness of the human soul. That seems right, too.

People seem to love Bowden’s work, or hate it, or love to hate it because it’s sensationalistic, and melodramatic, and macho, and masochistic, and myopic, and whatever else—and maybe it’s all of that. But it’s also honest, brutally honest—and that’s often the hardest trick for a writer to pull off.

Everything we read, everything we come across, everywhere we live, and the writers who have been there before us influence us.

I suppose that intense honesty is what I am aim for too, though I don’t think this is a reaction to Bowden so much as an explanation for why I’m drawn to him.

I often think to myself, Man, I’d love to be John McPhee. But I never wish I was Charles Bowden. The darkness of the human soul—I don’t think it’s in me to make that my business. At least not to the extent he did.

Ultimately, I feel like everything I read influences me, though admittedly some writers show up more than others in my work. This essay wouldn’t have been written, or at least it wouldn’t have turned out as it did, if I hadn’t been working with Ander Monson, and reading Bowden and Purpura at just the right time. Writers like Luis Alberto Urrea and John McPhee, and even Jon Krakauer, and essayists like Joni Tevis, Albert Goldbarth, and Nicole Walker played a part. Before moving to Tucson I spent a couple of years traveling around interviewing veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,  trying to put together an oral history in the mode of Studs Terkel, and a number of the stories presented here come from that project. So from Bowden to Terkel—there are so many influences behind just this one essay. The roots go deep. Everything we read, everything we come across, everywhere we live, and the writers who have been there before us influence us, right? I imagine that’s how it is for most of us. That’s how it is for me.

 

At the same time, some of your other work has displayed an interest in grim matters, specifically death. In “The Many Ways to Die,” for example, you ponder all the ways your loved ones could perish. Your story “Girl on Tracks” centers on a woman who commits suicide by jumping in front of a subway train. “All Things Equal on the West Side” is about life and death in Chicago. Your VanderMey Prize-winning essay “The Girl in the Photograph” is about journalist Bernice Cosulich, who committed suicide. While your work is about so much more, death is a fulcrum in your writing. What attracts you to the subject?

To be honest, I don’t see death as being at the heart of anything I’ve written. Mortality, maybe,

"Rust on orange," Fabio Sassi

“Rust on orange,” Fabio Sassi

but that’s just another way of saying I write about life. And it’s true, sometimes life is violent, and people we love die, and people kill themselves, and those moments often kick us in the ass and get us thinking, but for me that’s not the focus—that’s just a jumping off point. It’s where we go from there that matters. In “Here in the Museum…” I say, “These things can make us laugh, make us sad, or make us think about the world in a new way.” It’s that thinking about the world in a new way that I’m after.

That said, I do believe thinking hard about those rougher, tougher moments is necessary if we’re to live honest, thoughtful lives. We’re all going to die. Everyone we love is going to die, painfully or peacefully, sooner or later. That’s just how it is. Maybe acknowledging this will help us live better now. What do I mean by live better? I suppose I mean living more thoughtfully. With more compassion, and more intention.

It’s probably worth mentioning that in “The Many Ways to Die,” for instance, I also spend 300 words thinking about sex museums.

Sex and death. Doesn’t get much more real than that.

 

Talk about your writing process, particularly with “Here in the Museum…” The essay weaves a mixture of research and personal experience. Take us through the process of finding the story and putting it together.

It was really a process of collecting stories and then slowly piecing them together, paring them down, shaping them just right, setting up juxtapositions, making connections. Revision was intense and long—on the sentence level, but also on a macro-level, figuring out the structure of the piece. It was a lot of trial and error. Having someone read everything, listening to their response, talking through how to make it more focused, how to make it tighter, how to make each section resonate.

 

You work with the writer Ander Monson on the blog Essay Daily, which bills itself as “a filter for and an ongoing conversation about essays and magazines of interest.” With so much writing vying for our attention today through blogs, social media, and websites—and so much of it bite-sized—what is the role of the deeply considered essay today? Do you think it’s possible for a writer to have the kind of influence on culture that essayists like, say, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, or James Baldwin had in the late twentieth century?

What is the role of the deeply considered essay in a world bombarded—and for the most part content—with bite-sized media snippets? That’s a big question. I can only try to answer that slant-wise, I think:

So the other day at work (I work in a cubicle city, within ten feet of a dozen people who I never actually see and might go days without speaking to, which is crazy) this older guy, Jerome, leans over the partition between our desks and tells me Kimberly-Clark is coming out with tube-less toilet paper rolls. He’s a great guy, wears French-cut shirts, and designer glasses, and rides a mountain bike to work that is completely covered in reflective tape. He’s up at 4 a.m., every morning, reading the “internets,” and this is just the kind of news story I depend on him to find for me.

The next morning this tube-less TP roll prototype was on the front page of the print edition of our local newspaper and Jerome was throwing his arms up about how ridiculous it is that this news rag of ours 1) dedicates its front page to toilet paper and 2) they’re so slow they’re telling him something he’d already learned about a day earlier from some site like Gawker. I asked him if he’d actually read the article in the paper, and he hadn’t. I had, and I spent twenty minutes telling him it was actually a pretty thoughtful, in-depth article, with lots of information the Gawker piece hadn’t mentioned, and maybe that’s the role of “slow” journalism (e.g., actual reportage vs. click-bait news blogs and news tickers and gossip sites)—to give us more, more information, more context, more to think about.

I suggest the role of the deeply considered essay might be to process (and help us process) all that information/context even further. At least a certain type of deeply considered essay, like, say, Christopher Hitchens’ “Believe Me, It’s Torture,” which ran in Vanity Fair in 2008. We all saw headlines about waterboarding, and maybe we read some news pieces about it, and maybe, maybe this helped us begin to form an opinion one way or the other. Then comes Hitchens’ deep consideration of the topic, this essay, for which he had a bunch of ex-military guys actually waterboard him. He took reportage to the next level. He wrote an essay. And for me this bit of writing captured the arguments and the significance of the issue more than anything else I read on the topic.

We’re inundated with facts, knowledge, information—the deeply considered essay filters the noise. The deeply considered essay thinks. And prods and helps us to think too. Ideally, reading (and writing, certainly) an essay is an exercise in being more thoughtful human beings.

On that note, can a writer today have as much of an impact on culture as someone like Norman Mailer or Susan Sontag or James Baldwin? I think writers can, and do, though perhaps not as noticeably as those three you used as an example, if only because those three weren’t just essayists, they were celebrities, in their own way. Even Hitchens wouldn’t be so widely read if he hadn’t been such a personality.

I think writers can certainly influence culture, even today, if they can get noticed, and, even more difficult, if they can get people to read their stuff. And that’s a tough trick. We all know the 21st century demands that we’re in competition with. People in our culture binge on TV, what, an average of 4 hours a day? A day! Who reads essays?

We’re inundated with facts, knowledge, information—the deeply considered essay filters the noise. The deeply considered essay thinks. And prods and helps us to think too.

As writers, I think it’s more useful to think about how the act of writing (i.e., thinking deeply on a topic) affects us personally. If what you write makes its way into the world, great. But I wouldn’t count on that happening. And if you knew you’d never make a big splash in the literary world, would you stop writing? If you would, you should probably stop now and run for local government.

Ultimately, I say give in to reality, avoid the disappointment and misery and just write for yourself. Of course, that doesn’t mean giving up on getting heard. Keep shouting into the corn field. Why not? What better way to spend this one wild and precious life? I’m just saying, don’t take it too hard if no one ever shouts back.

 

Where are the best essays being published right now, either online or in print?

There is so, so much being published right now, which is great, and terrible, though probably more great than terrible. It’s not terrible. Just overwhelming. But one bonus behind this glut is that there’s a venue for just about any type of writing. In 1950 maybe there were, like, what, five big magazines publishing essays? And in 1980, maybe there were 50. Today there are hundreds, or thousands, and a lot of those publications focus on a particular type of writing, so if you’re really political, there’s a place for you, and if you’re into lyric essays, there are a few journals you’ll really get into, and if you write short emotive essays there’s home for you, and so on.

Especially with the ease of online publishing, there’s a real democratization of publishing happening. Which is great, though more people publishing more also means fewer people are able to make an actual living writing, and that’s fine if you’re an idealistic twenty-five year old living off grad-school loans, but if you’re older and working full-time to support a family, it means writing is relegated to hobby-hood. Though all things considered, maybe that’s actually better for less sell-able genres like the essay.

Keep shouting into the corn field. Why not? What better way to spend this one wild and precious life? I’m just saying, don’t take it too hard if no one ever shouts back.

A lot of essayists in the past called themselves journalists first, and that’s how they made their money. Today, since no one is making any money anyway, maybe there’s less pressure to conform to that system. Maybe it’s easier for writers to view themselves as artists, and consequently to take greater artistic risks. And now there are so many venues for publishing, it’s easier to send work out into the world that in previous times would have been rejected as too personal, or too weird, or too meandering, or whatever.

I don’t really know though. I’m a product of this new generation. It’s difficult for people in my position really to see just how much things have changed. It seems notable, though, that (without consulting D’Agata’s anthologies) I can only name, maybe, ten pre-20th century essayists off the top of my head. And maybe 25 from before 1980. And now, suddenly, there’s an essayist everywhere you look. Being published everywhere. It feels like a heyday, for sure.

On that note, I’m really grateful to some of the old-school journals that have published my work, but they also tend to be print-only, and I wonder if there’s much of a point to publishing essays (or short stories) in print anymore. It’s published, a few people read it, or look at it and read the first paragraph or two, and then it’s gone, destined for the library’s archive. Maybe if you’re publishing a collection it’s a sort of test run, but really how many of us are ever going to get that far in the literary world? Publishing a collection of essays seems harder than publishing a book of poetry. Online pubs rarely pay much, if anything, but if your goal is to get your work into the world, publishing online makes so much more sense. Your stuff remains available. For better or worse, it’s there for anyone to see at any time—that seems great to me.

This is a central reason Mud Season Review was immediately on my radar—being an online journal, but also a journal that only publishes one piece per genre per month. It’s the best of both worlds. The exclusivity of print, with the accessibility of being online.

Wow, that got long. And I realize I haven’t answered your question at all.

If you’re interested in finding/reading the best essays around, really, check out the Essay Daily sometime. The folks who contribute there really have some great things to say.

 

You wrote an essay earlier this year about the effects aging and responsibility have on the essayist and his or her output. In particular, you explore how young adulthood is an ideal age to be a writer because it is fertile grounds for exploring the unknown—writers of this age have “that kind of fuck-the-world swagger; openness; generosity; heart; writing with humility; writing with hubris; embracing so many contradictions,” you write. How has your writing—your approach, your interest in subject matter—changed since you’ve entered your 30s and become a father?

You’re thinking of a piece I posted on the Essay Daily earlier this year. I actually wrote that in response to a great essay by Lucas Mann, “On Writing Young,” in which he explores how being a younger writer is ideal, at least for essayists, because they’re maybe more open to the world and more sincere, writing from “a place of hubristic confusion, an uneasy balance of both reflection and discovery,” and from this comes a unique tension that readers find gripping. He’s thinking primarily of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s early essays, and Leslie Jamison, but he certainly qualifies himself, too. And he seems to be speaking real truth. Still, like the hammer to the knee reflex, as a thirty-something (as Didion once pointed out, still young by some accounts, but older than the fucking hills by others), I felt I had to respond.

On a practical level, as I mention in that essay, it’s not so much getting older that changes one’s writing as the trappings that come with getting older—i.e., getting married, having kids, no longer being able to get by on an adjunct’s allowance. These things make it so much more difficult to sit at a computer writing for eight hours a day—actually they make it impossible.

A couple of years ago, I cornered Craig Childs—a nonfiction-writing, adventuring hero of mine—after seeing him speak and asked how having kids has changed his game. He told me it has been an adjustment, but he’s survived. There’s no dithering, he said. When he finds a moment to write, the pressure’s on and he gets to work. Every spare minute counts. He writes less but produces more.

Of course, as inspiring as that might be, it’s notable that Childs was already an established writer when he had kids—established, with an agent and editor and royalties and paid speaking gigs. Still, a universal truth: sometimes there’s nothing like an imposed constraint to push your work in an interesting direction.

Having a family certainly brings new life to one’s work. My wife appears in most of my essays, as a minor character of sorts, because I’m often writing about what’s on my mind day-to-day, and she’s an integral part of my day-to-day world. Now I find my son is in there too. Being a father changes the way you see the world. It certainly changes your writing. It’s like you’re painting with red and green and yellow, and now suddenly you’ve got blue too, and orange and purple and cerulean and magenta and a whole new palate. I’m not sure that metaphor works, but the idea seems right.

 

Our journal grew out of a writing workshop group. Describe your worst workshop experience.

A fellow workshopper once told me—in a workshop, in a room full of people—that my writing was a straight-up waste of his time. That was pretty awkward—and, I think, uncalled for.

It’s notable that he (and others in that particular workshop) actually made a point of being jerks because they were under the impression this is how editors would be, and that as writers we had to develop really thick skins. Which in my experience is total bullshit. I tried not to let it get to me, but such negativity wears you down. They were bullies. They made people cry. They were, and this is the worst, unhelpful.

The real benefit of a workshop is not only having, say, ten readers available to you, but discovering those two or three who are going to continue to read your work—and support you and challenge you—on into the future…Writing might get lonely but you’ll never be a lonely writer again. 

Leading workshops, I always use that particular comment as an example of something that has no place in the room because it’s just not useful. And in a workshop we should strive to be useful to each other, right? Seems to me that’s the whole point.

I think a lot of negativity comes from insecurity, which is understandable, but should not be an excuse. For me, a good workshop isn’t boot camp. And it’s not therapy either. It’s like going to work. As writers, we don’t all need to be friends, but I don’t think we need to be in competition either. We’re much better off collaborating, forging professional relationships with some people, and actual, ongoing relationships with others.

The real benefit of a workshop is not only having, say, ten readers available to you, but discovering those two or three who are going to continue to read your work—and support you and challenge you—on into the future. Even the best workshops eventually end, but if you can form a couple of writerly friendships that will last two years, or ten years, or twenty, and if you invest in their work, and they in yours, then you’re set. Writing might get lonely but you’ll never be a lonely writer again. 

 

You’re buying: Schlitz, Pabst, or Blatz?

When I was in my early twenties, living in Milwaukee, I frequented a great punk bar that served pitchers of Blatz for $5. Some nights it was the go-to, and others it was a great jumping off point, and I was always comfortable in that bar. So I kind of romanticize Blatz, I kind of love it, and I still drink it when it’s around, but I’d definitely think twice before buying it for somebody else. Come to Wisconsin, I’ll treat you to a New Glarus.

Craig Reinbold

Craig Reinbold’s work has appeared in the Gettysburg Review, Guernica, Gulf Coast, Brevity, New England Review, Iowa Review, Ruminate, and a number of other more or less literary places. He is an assistant editor at Terrain.org and helps manage the Essay Daily, a blog-cum-conversation about all things essay. At the moment, he resides in Wisconsin, with his wife and son and dog, Olive.

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