Our nonfiction co-editor Katie Stromme recently had this exchange with Barry Maxwell, our Issue #22 featured nonfiction author. Here’s what he had to say about his approach to temporal shifts and the construction of nonfiction characters in his essay; his thoughts on the “high” and “low” art that have influenced him; the effect of stretches of homelessness on his perspective toward life and writing; and his current experience at UT Austin.
What was your approach to perspective in writing “A Song for the Beautifully Useful”? You seamlessly tackle the transitions between the perceptions of a young kid and the reflections on those memories as an adult. Did you approach those temporal spaces separately as you were writing, or did they naturally flow together for you?
I can’t claim the transitions in time and perspective were crafted with intent, at least not in early drafts. They came organically, and the most conscious decision was to not worry about it, and sort it out later. It helped that “Wichita Lineman” still has such an emotional impact on me today—I wasn’t kidding when I wrote that it brings tears even now. Having access to those emotions (whatever their source) allowed for a connection between that little boy and this gray-whiskered man at his desk; they helped hold the child and the older Barry together on the page, and move from one to the other.
Writing this one involved a lot of nose-blowing, and a lot of time drifting through the memories like some sort of voyeuristic, time-traveling ghost. The events throughout “Beautifully Useful” happened around 40 to 50 years ago, and in the odd way memories work, I could tell myself “Yes, I remember Granny’s house,” and sense it in a flash, but that sort of gestalt of memories doesn’t encompass all the realities of sitting in the spaces. I had to find my way to the yard, to the living room, and let the small things show themselves. There was so much that seemed insignificant, but deserved acknowledgment. I could sit on my grandparents’ floor at a child’s level, and while there, examine the surroundings, attach to them an adult perspective and a respect that a kid would not be capable of. If the reader experiences the same sort of travel and return, and can hold both visions along with me, then I’m certainly pleased.
Where I worked more consciously was on the sections as separate entities, and how they related to each other. The architecture of the piece mattered to the various temporal spaces, as you put it, but more importantly, to get across the feeling that what happened then is still present now in the real world, and that the experiences of the boy still affect the life of the adult. My worries were whether a reader would care enough to stick with me as I wandered from chicken and dumplings to the Marquis de Sade, and whether the objective and the subjective enhanced rather than confused one another.
The construction of your grandparents on the page as characters—existing, of course, as translations of their real selves—is exquisite. Through dialogue and gesture you render them so concretely, and I feel like part of that might be attributed to your handling of their rough edges, and the way you present their harsher qualities. What else do you think goes into generating a generous-but-holistic likeness of real people in creative nonfiction?
“Exquisite” isn’t a word I typically attract, but I’ll take it. Thank you!
I struggle with characterization a lot in memoir pieces, and in fiction, too. It’s a juggling routine of actions and words, body language, the filtering of information including setting and personal biases, and deciding what’s important to present versus what the reader may be happier filling in themselves. The shades of interaction between characters, the power struggles and concessions or demands we make of each other are subtle and hugely important. I don’t ever feel like I get it right. Human behavior has too many variables.
You choose “translation” to describe the process, and I love the term. (Stealing it, for sure!) There’s a line between empathy and objectivity that’s easy to smudge, especially when writing about real people from memory. I think there’s a parallel in characterization to the old idea that everyone in your dreams is actually you. In memoir, some aspect of yourself is reflected in your memories of others, if only in the realization that memories are often chosen, not simply imprinted for later reference. We automatically bias our database to serve our own purposes. I’m often surprised to discover delicacies within a character that run counter to my biases, and I welcome that. It feels closer to the truth, and paradoxically, it’s a relief to allow this defenselessness to reveal what I hope is a more emotionally and factually accurate version of reality. It’s like putting down your mental dukes and willingly taking a punch to your preconceptions.
I worry about a sort of insidious egocentricity, too, that can creep into characterization. It’s easy to fall into projecting my own personality onto others, to demonize or idolize people, to manipulate my role in a story to look better, or conversely, to make the bad stuff even worse in order to prevail more heroically, fail more tragically. The author and narrator are characters, too, after all. I don’t think I’m alone in this, and if I see I’m in that trap, the best action is to stop and ask: “What am I hiding? Who am I trying to please, or hoodwink? What responsibility am I ducking?” That needy authorial kid is lying to Mom about raiding the cookie jar—with crumbs on their lips. You can smell this when an author heightens the contrast too much. It’s a sympathy ploy, even if unintentional or innocently self-soothing, and for me, it’s easier to see it in others than in my own work! An honest workshop group or beta-reading friends are especially helpful for this; folks that’ll tell you when you’re writing a Hallmark card instead of the truth.
The surroundings a character builds for themselves are almost as important as finding the perfect little thing they say or do. I think we create surroundings that reflect either our inner self, or a façade we want to present. The appearance of someone’s space is sometimes more important for the reader than physical traits, and the unconscious behavior in those places can paint more of a character’s reality than, say, having the bluest eyes or messiest hair or whatever. Unless a physical trait is essential to understanding a character, it’s potentially irrelevant.
Fiction gives us more leeway, but it’s still as complex. I’m working piecemeal toward a book-length memoir, the story of my homeless times told in essays long and short, vignettes, even an occasional poem, and it sounds crazy, but sometimes I can be more realistic about myself if I write as though it were fiction. As these pieces emerge, some I can approach better (objectively and subjectively) from the third person, in a really tightly limited omniscient POV, focused on a “character” who’s me. I don’t know what readers will think when they read a first person vignette in the present tense, and turn the page to find themselves reading about a character of the same name, in third person past tense. It looks like another opportunity to cross my fingers and sort it out later.
I found the final passage of your piece quite cinematic: the zoom-in on a computer screen to access a very specific geography that’s been lost in the real world. There’s also a mystery and longing that sends the reader off—“I’m tempted to…” without a statement following to point us to what actually comes to pass afterwards. That seems to highlight the author as a human, wrestling with the present, and direct readers away from conclusion and toward consideration. Is that lingering effect something you always strive for in your nonfiction writing?
I’m so happy you asked this. For one thing, I hoped simply to end the essay from where I am now, and it was an accident that I found that pecan tree online. I wanted to confirm exactly how far my grandfather traveled for his NyQuil, and realized I was looking at the remnants of that world through another level of technology and magic, spiraling up from the old radio days. It was another technological connection to the boy, and until I zoomed in tight, I had no idea what the piece’s final thoughts would be. You use the word “always,” which made me take a look at past writings, and though the effect isn’t exactly a conscious striving, it seems to be a recurring approach. I suppose it’s rooted in the reality of getting older, and finding myself consistently stumped by everything around me.
That ending is true to the shifting tone of the essay, I hope, and I did want a feeling that closure might become an eventual regret, rather than a satisfaction. I’m not sure there’s such a thing as closure, anyway. I’d been reading The Abundance by Annie Dillard, and the Joyce Carol Oates essay I borrow a line from, “They All Just Went Away,” along with Jo Ann Beard, among others. I loved their open-endedness and questioning without necessarily demanding solid answers. Observing for its own sake. It’s there in their content as well as the floating structure in some of the essays: a sense that some things don’t have answers, they just are, and that may be painful. The world is immune to one’s wishes.
One idea that you meditate on in the essay is what often gets called “low art”—as you put it, that which can be “born from the uncommon labor of common hands.” I think your phrasing is just lovely. You touch on visual art and music in your essay, but I’m also thinking of books, and the idea of guilty reading pleasures. How do you feel about hierarchies of “artfulness” in the world of books, and as part of an “art diet” that might include the kinds of wide-ranging works of art that you discuss in “A Song for the Beautifully Useful”?
Oh gosh, this is a fun one.
I’m an equal-opportunity reader, and most anything is artistic or wondrous in some way or another, like the paintings in Granny’s house. I’ve read and written from the bottom up. Long ago, sometime in the late ‘80s, I decided to quit music and become a writer. The conviction didn’t last long, but for a time I leapt from the proverbial fryer into the fire as to career choices. I sold my drum set and bought a word processor. It was great: pre-PC, with a single streaming line of ticker-tape text you could move forward or back to edit. My literary ambition at the time was nearly as primitive as my equipment. I whipped out a bad short story, a dirty one, not even erotica—it was nothing more than thinly-plotted porn—and I submitted it to Fox magazine. I got a great personal rejection with a request for a rewrite, to edit it down as a “letter.” I did the work, resubmitted and bagged my first ever sale. $25! I’d forgotten that. And come to think of it, that’s my only actual sale to date!
Being an English major these days, I’m not allowed to rest on those old publication laurels, and I’ve been willingly required to read classics I’d never gotten around to, or was just plain afraid of. Before college I’d never read Joyce, or Virginia Woolf. Kafka? Chekhov? Are you kidding? Barely any Hemingway, and certainly not “The Waste Land,” or Shakespeare’s plays, or Aimé Césaire, or Didion, or Hughes, or Dillard, and so much more that anyone truly well-read would consider essential. I’ve come to appreciate artfulness and “high” literature now that I’ve had it pointed out to me, and I’ve come to value humanity over plot-lines. But still, who doesn’t love a rippin’ good yarn?
I look back on some of my old favorites almost as nostalgically as I do Webb’s “Wichita Lineman,” but without all the tears. H.P. Lovecraft was an obsession of my early teens, and I still revisit his stories now and then. “Pickman’s Model” is a favorite, with all the ghoulishness and overblown fetid stenches and the italicized punch line at the end! (HPL earns a trigger warning today not for fear, but for full-on racism.) Horror and pulp fiction were my companions as a kid. Sci-fi, splatterpunk, and fantasy. Stephen King, Robert Heinlein, Richard Christian Matheson, Clive Barker, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, A Wizard of Earthsea, Anne Rice… While a lot of these authors are highly respected, I doubt you’ll find them in a standard college curriculum, but it’s good stuff, and above all, fun.
I think there are fuzzy borders between what’s just bad, what’s a good read, and what’s not acceptable as “literature.” It doesn’t have to be in the canon to kick ass, right? And incredible writing doesn’t have to be inaccessible. I love Tom Robbins, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, Ray Bradbury, Elmore Leonard, nearly anything with a character I can home in on and live beside for a while. I enjoy quirky. (John Irving comes to mind.) I enjoy what I call “airport novels”—things you’d pick up on the run and binge on like a Netflix series. No one needs to feel guilty about having a good time with a story, so I’m not going to pass judgment on anyone’s favorites, be they canonical classics, up-market admirables, or bottom shelf pulp fiction. At most, I’d suggest folks read out of their comfort zone and see if they find surprises they’d have missed otherwise.
I love the way you give readers such an up-close look at the geography near the outskirts of Austin, Texas, through the eyes of yourself as a young boy but also, in a way, through your grandparents, and somewhat through your mother as well. Using the land’s inhabitants as a way inside, Texas, which is often romanticized, becomes very personalized and small, in a way: knowable. You mention Issaquah, WA in your essay as well, but is Texas the land that you feel you “know” best?
The short answer is yes, I know Texas, but in an insulated way, and I’m most at home here, however embarrassing our governors and lawmakers can be. (There’s Texas, then there’s Austin, Texas, the little blue dot in a big red state. Being a Texan means you’ve got an inherited reputation to uphold, and these days, one to live down, too.) I choose the word insulated because that big-hat-wearing, Marlboro Man Texas is just as romantic an image to me as it is to y’all Northerners. I wouldn’t be surprised if some folks imagine that image to be current fact, but it’s not. At least it’s not a universal attitude or lifestyle. I was a suburban boy born into a white bread neighborhood, and cowboys lived on TV at the Ponderosa or in Dodge City, not at the mall. My grandparents place was rural and poor, but not particularly cowboy-ish.
Central Texas, where I was raised, is probably an acquired taste. It’s got its prickly pear cactus and rattlesnakes, but it’s also got wide-armed oaks and shade from the heat, rolling hills and river bottoms. Compared to other places I’ve lived, it’s a low landscape, with a thirsty, stunted beauty. The trees don’t tower like in the Northwest, but it’s pretty in a dusty way. When I returned from Issaquah after having drunk away a perfectly good marriage, I hit the Texas border from the west, coming from a desert drive through Arizona and New Mexico. I pulled over in El Paso at the first store that sold Lone Star beer, and plugged in ZZ Top’s “Fandango” CD for the remaining 575 miles to home. I guess that says something about loyalty to the land, and the comfort of the familiar, no matter how harsh it may be.
You’re the founder of Street Lit, an organization that provides free creative writing workshops to people who are homeless in Austin, TX. How often do you participate or sit in on workshops there? What is the energy like in that space? What has been your favorite part of that work?
The Street Lit Authors Club is how I spend my Saturdays. I (with help) have collected and delivered books to the shelter since 2013, and the workshop has been meeting regularly for over a year. I’ve only missed 4 days of that year, and I’ve never been skunked. The group is by nature fluid, with a core of regulars: people come and go, disappear, or move on, some come back even after finding housing. Our number has varied between 2 or 3 to more than a dozen writers at the table, but someone always shows up. I’m lucky to enjoy the privilege of sharing creative work alongside people who have been through, or are going through, similar travails. We know whereof we speak, and share a vocabulary of that life.
Homelessness is an experience I’m still regrouping from. I promise I’m not comparing my little troubles to those of a combat soldier, but it’s the closest analogy I have at hand. I can relate to the soldier who comes back from their war forever changed. In my far less harrowing way my operating system was replaced, and now it seems as though everything previous was, and I mean this almost literally—a separate life, still continuous and connected, but not the same me. Amy Gentry said in an interview with Michael Noll that “Trauma kind of forces everything else in your life to exist in relation to it.” I think this actually helped in writing about myself as that long-ago kid with his boyish epiphanies. I can still feel him, but I can also see him with more objectivity, and I can somehow love him more fully if he’s not me.
The Street Lit group is as much a breathing space as a workshop. Trite analogies suit the vibe: a calm eye in the storm, a bright spot in the darkness, etc. The stresses of circumstance are left outside the door for a few hours, and the habitual barriers and survival skills can be set aside safely. I make a point of keeping us focused on encouragement and acceptance, and try to follow proper workshop protocol, but it gets pretty loose some days—we lapse (or maybe rise?) into conversation, but it’s always writing-centric and inspired by someone’s work. The freedom makes for a bond deeper than just being writers at work. We’re writers who’ve been through some shitstorms most people don’t understand.
Professors from Austin Community College, UT, and friends from the teaching and writing community have come for visits and either held full-on classes or simply participated in the workshop. And though I’ve always insisted I’m not there to teach (I call myself a facilitator, and it’s not a class, but a workshop), I take printed packets of good stuff I’ve found online or scanned, craft essays, author interviews, and readings and prompts from my own classes. Occasionally I’ll read a short piece or a poem to get our heads into words and language. I once read a lovely prose poem: “Thursday Afternoon: Life Is Sweet,” by Holly Iglesias. On the surface the poem follows the thoughts of a woman making tapioca pudding, with asides about her family and the process of cooking. Nothing more. One of the guys at the table snorted when I asked what everyone thought. “Why would anybody even write that? Who the fuck wants to read about pudding?” Then we dissected the piece line by line, discussing the possibilities of subtext and hidden meanings. We all spoke aloud a couple of particularly gorgeous sentences. The fellow who’d been so hostile at first encounter had a rush of appreciation. “I get it, man. She’s not talking about pudding at all!” He’s since moved on from Austin, but before he left town he’d made it several pages deep into a draft of a short story told from the point of view of a homeless backpack, recounting its travels from person to person, taking on their stories along the way. I hope he’s still working on it. That sort of transformation in thought is what amazes me, teaches me, and keeps me showing up.
You are also a creative writing student at the University of Texas, Austin. What has your experience as a student there been like? Are you focusing on a single genre in your studies?
Oh, it’s a strange world I’ve stumbled into, but I like it. I’m a Boomer in the Land of Millennials, and it came as a surprise how accepting of a scruffy old dude these younger minds are. Hell, I’m almost 56, older than most of my professors—much less my classmates—but once they get used to me talking about the good old days they’re cool with having me in the room. It’s a thrill to soak in the energy of all these smart, young people, and to witness their minds in action. I’ve got nothing but respect for the changes these people are going to bring to the world, and the level of intelligence and creativity with which they’re already bringing it.
It’s impossible to look at my UT experience without mentioning Austin Community College and the creative writing program there, chaired by my friend and favorite writing teacher/guru, Charlotte Gullick. I got my GED through ACC, and I signed on initially for a program in web design, but switched at the last minute to creative writing. I’d won scholarships and grants, and knew I’d never get another chance if I let the opportunity go. I decided to spend my time pursuing something I’d always dreamed of doing, rather than a more practical choice. I don’t regret it one bit.
There’s no undergraduate creative writing major available at UT, but they do offer a certificate program as a minor. The trajectory allows undergrad students to take courses from Michener Center and New Writers Project MFA professors, and that’s been a treat. I’m in the fiction program, but poetry is an alternative, too, and classes are popping up in creative nonfiction. In fact, I can trace “Beautifully Useful” back to an idea born in an ACC memoir class, and from there it came to full form in UT’s personal essay course. Without both, it wouldn’t exist. I sure wouldn’t be answering authorial questions for the Mud Season Review! Coming from homelessness with no Plan B, I’ve been super fortunate. Scholarships from the Peierls Foundation and the Terry Foundation, along with federal grants, have enabled me to go full-time to two of the finest schools around. I’ll bitch and moan over too much homework, but I’m not complaining about the U-turn life took—I’m doing things I never imagined I could. And hey, it keeps me out of trouble, right?
What is your approach to considering and incorporating peer feedback after a workshop session?
I hope I’m not alone in my insecurity, but I still struggle with a “Please love this piece!” (and love me! by association) frame of mind. I’m getting better about it, getting comfortable in a more mature approach that says: “Pretend we’ve never met, and you picked this up in the doctor’s waiting room. Where does the author come close to nailing it, and where do they blow it? Do you have any suggestions that might make it stronger?” If nothing else, the need for producing praise-worthy work drives me to make the best effort before workshop day. And the ambition to do well tends to hush that needy voice in my head long enough to pay dispassionate attention to criticism.
In the world outside my inadequacy issues, I’ll say that listening to everyone is essential, even if you don’t agree with them or if they don’t get what you’re doing. Not everyone in a workshop—be it in a class, or an independent group—will be “your audience.” The thing is to be defenseless and learn how the words impact the reader. In a formal classroom workshop, it’s possible to enjoy carefully considered, thoughtful opinions from a roomful of serious students, and a professor, to boot. Those conditions have proved to be the most revision-inducing for me. I sit down with commented copies and write up a list of major points. If, for instance, 8 out of 10 readers have issues with chronology, or flat dialogue, or whatever, then it’s obviously something to address. On the flipside, if Reader A loves page 3, but Reader B can’t stomach it, then maybe it’s a judgment call, and I can leave it alone, or just massage it a bit.
I love being on the other side just as much. It’s a rush to be included in an author’s process, and to be trusted with their art. It knocks me out when the writing works—I get more excited over fellow workshopper’s successful efforts than I do my own. Whether other authors are as enthusiastic, I can’t say, but I’d prefer to think so. A workshop is a team where when anyone wins, we all do.
What are some of the books that have had the most critical impact on your writing career?
If you include all the material I mentioned in the guilty pleasures arena, and also most of the canonical work I’ve read in school, that’s a start. I’m still at the gentle slope on the learning curve, and everything has an impact.
Outside those lists, Tom Robbins’s novels stand out as early mind-openers, though it’s been years since I revisited them. The 100th chapter of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues changed the way I perceived a reader and a writer could interact. If you’re not familiar, Robbins stops the narrative and pops the champagne to share the milestone with the reader—with me. I’d never seen anything like it. I was camping alone when I read that novel, and it made me want to run around to find someone to show it to: “Look! Look what this guy did!” I didn’t know a metafiction from a maître d’ but I knew it was fun, and it connected me to the idea that someone real was on the other side of the words, having a good time with me.[Wait … Did you say “career?” Hmm. That’s a new one to wrap my head around, even more so than “exquisite.”]
Anyway, closer to this end of the timeline, collections such as the Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays have always been enlightening. I adore the student-created lit journals at UT and ACC. Reading the work of fellow students is another instance where younger minds blow me away, and teach me so much. I also enjoy learning from the amazing array of online journals: Mud Season, of course, also Brevity, along with Split Lip, Crack the Spine, Pithead Chapel, and Hippocampus, to name a few I regularly visit. There is so much quality out there, and so much innovative work—if I’m not writing, I’m reading, and the variety found with only a click is awesome.
At the top of my critical impact list is Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Nick Flynn’s 2004 memoir. He writes of his times working at a Boston homeless shelter, and of his father, who was a client. Flynn became a hero of mine through the kindness of Charlotte Gullick, who gave me a copy when she sensed I was hesitant to write deeply about homelessness. She told me reading Bullshit Night might help grant me “permission” to write about those years, and she was right—the book seemed almost familiar, and it helped that a writer with such heart had blazed a path for others. I give the book to Street Lit authors, and dip into it myself at random, like some folks open a religious text for guidance. I’ve met Nick a couple of times at the Texas Book Festival. He’s not only a fine writer, he’s one of the nicest people you’ll meet. I’m a fanboy all the way, and hope to be like him when I grow up.
*Author photo credit to Roberto Roldan