ask questions and then ask more questions

Our nonfiction co-editor Katie Stromme recently had this exchange with Andrew Maynard, our Issue #24 featured nonfiction author. Here’s what he had to say about his serendipitous start to writing nonfiction, his typical work habits, and the genesis of his essay “Reservation.”

 

There is an acknowledgment of un-authoritativeness that comes up at multiple points in “Reservation,” and of the narrative voice coming from an exploration of a geography which, though part of your home state, feels unknown. What compelled you to write about, in many ways, a presentation of “home” from such a memory?

I didn’t begin “Reservation” with a compulsion to present this landscape as home. I began with a memory of being mesmerized by tumbleweeds, my dad’s purchase of the “Don’t Worry Be Hopi” shirt, and a desire to form an intersection between the two. This is how my essays typically go: they start with an anecdote or an image and rarely find their path until later drafts. So I guess a sense of “un-authoritativeness” is a natural consequence of the explorative/investigative nature of my essays.

 

What was the most surprising part about writing this essay?

My essays always begin as a mess (and sometimes stay that way), so the most joy for me is watching the mess whittle down into something sensible.

 

When did you begin writing nonfiction? Is that the genre you work in most often?

I started writing nonfiction when I was 21, somewhat unintentionally. I was interested in screenplays and short stories, but when I signed up as a fiction major all the classes were full, so I enrolled in nonfiction for lack of a better alternative. At the time I equated essays with stuffiness and academic rhetoric. And then I was exposed to essays that were anything but—“Pain Scale,” “Fourth State of Matter,” “If You Knew Then What I Know Now,” etc.—the types of essays I never imagined people were writing, let alone publishing. Though I am currently working on a novel, I still identify as an essayist first.

 

Much of the essay’s energy dwells in the aftermath—literal and emotional—of a violent crime, and echoes some larger, historic crimes. Another one of your essays, “Scorpion vs. Black Widow,” also discusses violence but deals more with physical confrontation. Is crime a theme that often comes up in your work?

Not by design, but yes, it tends to surface. I’m drawn to Arizona and the relationship between its libertarianism and gun culture. I explored visits to crime scenes and death row inmates with my dad, encounters that triggered my interest in writing about the death penalty and criminal justice system. I believe all essays should be a confrontation, and mine happen to deal with confrontation in the physical sense. I plan to eventually move past this.

 

Speculation plays a role in the essay as well, in terms of imagining the crime in action, and the lives of the people on the Hopi reservation—though you draw hard lines between observable facts and speculation. How do you approach inserting the “unknown” aspects of experience into your work?

I’m naturally drawn to essays that do the same. My favorite is “The Limit” by Christian Wiman. When I teach this essay, I focus on his ability to insert visualization and speculative insight into a scene, to conceptualize nonfiction that is not limited by objective events.

 

In one moment in the piece, you observe that, “I’m dressed like the type of person I picture making documentaries. I realize this isn’t an accident.” Do you find that asking yourself questions, as an essay’s narrator, brings out observations that might otherwise stay hidden?

Definitely. It’s the job of the essayist to ask questions and then ask more questions so you can eventually find yourself asking better questions. It’s a probing process, a way of uncovering. The essayist is more archaeologist than painter.

 

The essay considers your emergent identity and your developing role as a soon-to-be college graduate and adult in the larger world. How do you think this experience in particular contributed to the formation of what you consider to be your current identity? Did contrasting your younger self’s opportunities to the marginalization of the surroundings lead you to any conclusions about your place in the world and the responsibilities or consequences of being a writer?

I’m not totally sure how to answer the part about the responsibilities or consequences of being a writer. But I can say that my identity was (and is still) heavily influenced by encounters with marginalized people. These encounters were a product of privilege, and I don’t think I understood that at the time. To paraphrase (possibly butcher?) an idea from Bryan Stevenson, there is power in proximity, and so I strive to stay proximate.

 

What is your writing practice like? When and how do you work? 

These days it is sporadic at best. I teach second grade and coach middle school volleyball and basketball after school.  Free time is hard to come by, so I find little chunks in the week to sit down at a coffee shop and basically see what happens. Every now and then I hit a groove and make noticeable progress on a project; more often than not I’m just chipping away slowly with the hope that something larger is eventually revealed.

 

What other activities do you find help support your creativity as a writer? Have you done any further work as a videographer?

I am retired from my short-lived stint as a videographer. As far as activities, I go on long runs and bike rides that don’t necessarily provide material for creative work but do offer long stretches of time with nothing to do but think. I teach college-credit creative writing classes at San Quentin Prison during summers, which engages me with writing in a more structured way. Most importantly, when offered a chance to do something out of my comfort zone, I almost always say yes.

Andrew Maynard

Andrew Maynard’s work has appeared in Bayou Magazine, DIAGRAM, Essay Daily, Switchback, and elsewhere. He lives in San Francisco and has taught creative writing at the University of San Francisco and San Quentin Prison.

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