Our nonfiction editor Mindy Wong recently had this exchange with Lynne Feeley, our Issue #36 featured nonfiction author. Here’s what she had to say about her writing and revision process, her inspirations and influences, and the research involved in crafting her essay “The Measurer of Ruin.”
What inspired you to write “The Measurer of Ruin”?
In the essay, I describe a childhood memory of waking up in the middle of the night to find my father loading newspapers into his car, getting ready to leave for a pre-dawn paper route. The blaze orange cap he was wearing is one of my most distinct early memories, and I’ve held it close in my mind for nearly 25 years. I think the image of the cap struck me with such force when I was a child because I had never seen it before and had no clue he owned it. I remember this making me feel a little frightened that there were things about my dad that I didn’t know. The same is true about the paper route as a whole. When I stumbled into my parents’ secret, I remember feeling like, who are these strangers? Oh wait, they are my parents. As an adult, I’ve come to realize exactly how much and how little you know your parents. So in addition to wanting to make a record of the tremendous work they put into our family, I wanted to write something that captured the strangeness within the known.
I was also inspired to write the essay by my dawning awareness of how much tragedy my father must have heard about as an insurance agent. I remember overhearing people describe car accidents to my father, but it wasn’t until recently that I realized how big a part of his life this must have been—listening to people’s stories of accidents, hardship, and loss. I think my dad’s clients liked him so much because he is so good at listening and at comforting people. It strikes me that this function of the insurance agent is a thing of the past. I wanted to write the essay so that I could say something about the human aspect of a business that can seem faceless and exploitative.
Could you describe your writing process?
I write fabulously sloppy first drafts! It’s a stretch even to call them drafts. They are these long, free associative musings on a topic. I over-write, eventually cutting the thing way, way down. I write this way because I used to spend a lot of time being stuck, staring blankly at the computer, or writing and deleting a single sentence for hours. I was obsessed with sentence-level exactness, which worked against the discovery of ideas. It also took much of the joy out of writing. So, at some point I decided that in the early stages of writing, I would give myself permission to use the page as a space for thinking, not crafting. I put a lot of faith in revision, and I often rewrite essays many times before I feel like I’ve arrived at a working draft.
How much research did “The Measurer of Ruin” require, and how did you balance research and the creative aspect of this essay?
I did a bit of research into the demographics of Auburn and Syracuse during the 1980s and ‘90s, looking mostly at data from the 2000 census. Since I grew up in the area, these numbers gave me a statistical way of understanding the impression that I already had of the racial and class make-up of the two cities. My spouse, who is a sociologist, also pointed me toward a tool called socialexplorer.com, which visualizes social data. When I was drafting the essay, we spent a morning looking at the map of Auburn and trying to make sense of the city’s demographics. I knew that the vast majority of Auburn residents were white, but when we pulled up the map, the center of the city was shaded in deep red, indicating that it was predominantly African American. For a split second, we were like, what is that? And then at the same time, we were like, oh my god that’s the prison. Then we kind of just sat there, staring at the visual record of injustice: white freedom, black incarceration.
I also spent many hours interviewing my dad. He told me all about Kentucky, about my grandfather’s work with Agway, and about Allstate. So, I used the sociological data to enhance my understanding of the economy and demography of the essay’s setting, and I used my father’s recollections to fill in some of the gaps in my memory, and to learn more about his experience of these events of my childhood.
I enjoyed the essay’s quiet observation of your father, from the lens of your childhood perspective, and wanted to hear more about your relationship with your father. What was it like growing up with your father, whose work was so entrenched in insurance?
As you can probably tell from the essay, I have the deepest admiration for my father. He’s a polymath—a former marathoner, history buff, and consummate hobbyist. When I was in high school, he built an airplane in our garage—an actual airplane! He renewed the pilot’s license he had gotten in his 20s and flew the thing for a few years, before dismantling it and moving onto model railroading. He has told me that he always considered his work in insurance to be a means to the end of having the family life and hobbies that he really wanted. I think of his work in insurance—the day in, day out of the office—as a huge sacrifice that he made for our family. But he doesn’t really think of it that way. It’s just normal to him; it’s just what fathers do. He’s an extremely steady, temperate, and mild-mannered person, and I think this disposition of his was a true gift of my childhood.
Growing up in Syracuse, and having lived in Kentucky for five years, do you find that either place has influenced your writing? Was there a certain point in your life when you started to examine your hometown and what that meant in your writing?
Because I was so young when we lived in Kentucky, it feels to me a bit like a mythic past. My earliest memories are from Kentucky, but they are fairly limited—I remember riding bikes around the cul-de-sac, I remember the backyard and the cornfield, I remember the time our neighbor accidentally bonked my sister in the forehead with a cow bone we had been throwing around (!) and she needed butterfly stitches. But a lot of what I remember from Kentucky is shaped by photographs from that period. So, I have the sense that this place was important to my development as a person and writer, but it’s hard for me to name exactly how.
Syracuse has definitely had a big influence on my writing. I left Syracuse when I was 18, and at the time, I was dying to get out. The rambling and wide-ranging reading I had done as a teenager had led me to feel as though there was this huge world out there that I was missing. I thought growing up in Syracuse had made me provincial and had, in some way, restricted me from art and culture. I now realize that this could not have been further from the truth! As I discuss in the essay, Syracuse suffers from structural racism and segregation and intense poverty, but like many cities where housing is relatively affordable, it has a booming arts scene. I grew up going to punk shows and poetry readings, and it wasn’t until I left that I began to realize how lucky I was to come of age in a city that supports alternative subcultures. As I get older, I am more and more smitten with Syracuse and upstate New York in general, and I plan to keep exploring these places in my writing.
What writers have been important to your development as a writer?
The essayists that have been most on my mind lately are Sarah Smarsh and Leslie Jamison. I love the way both of these writers weave personal narrative together with cultural analysis. Smarsh has this beautiful essay about the relationship between teeth and poverty, which narrates her family’s struggle with dental care to the end of pushing against class bias and pushing for universal dental insurance. And I find Jamison’s titular essay from The Empathy Exams absolutely remarkable for its level of emotional detail. In the essay, she writes elegantly for three pages about what it feels like not to receive a text message when she most needs one, and I envy this self-knowledge and the precision with which she articulates it.
I also love experimental poet-essayists like Susan Howe and Claudia Rankine.
What is the inspiration for your writing topics/themes? What do you find you’re most interested in exploring through your work?
I think that in my academic and non-academic writing, what I am most interested in is exploring the ways in which people are not consumed by the oppressions that surround them. As a scholar of slavery, I never want to diminish the unthinkable suffering and brutality of the system, but I do want to highlight the myriad ways enslaved people did not accept these exploitations. They pushed back, often in inventive and subtle ways. I have wanted to use the space of my academic writing to amplify these strategies and risks. My literary nonfiction explores different topics entirely, but I think the assumption that people are not reducible to their social categories is still the operative paradigm. Michel Foucault writes that life always escapes, and I believe him.
As a lecturer in the History & Literature Program at Harvard University, how do you approach your work with students? How does your teaching inform your writing and vice versa?
One of my biggest priorities as a teacher is to empower students to tell their own stories and to have confidence in their own ideas. At Harvard, I have been lucky to teach classes that are small and discussion-based, and in these settings, my role is largely to ask the right questions, to facilitate conversation, and to create an atmosphere in which students feel heard. In general, I think the work of the humanities classroom is to teach attention and sensitivity, which we do through the close study of texts, but which I think are highly portable (and hugely important) skills in all sorts of other environments. This ethos of attention is absolutely what I am trying to replicate in my own writing.
Do you have any advice for beginning writers on how to develop their own voice?
Writing a lot helps. Being clear about your commitments helps. Reading people whose voices jump off the page—Wallace, Solnit—helps. And having patience.
Because we grew out of a workshop, we like to ask: what is your best or worst workshop experience?
The best workshop I was ever in was a poetry workshop taught by Ken McClane my last semester at Cornell. In addition to being an extraordinary poet and essayist, he was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, because he was able to create an environment that was both affirmative and critical. He took us very seriously. He was raw, present, and exuberant in class, and this way of his gave us all permission to be open and real, both in our writing and in the space of the classroom.
As it turns out, my single most memorable workshop experience was also in this class. I submitted to the group a deeply strange series of experimental poems called “The Malevich Poems.” Malevich was a Russian painter who did geometric abstract paintings (like a black square on canvas), and I got it into my head to write geometric abstract poems. I remember that there was some math behind them, like four words per line, four lines per poem, etc. I’m not sure. What I do remember is that this pretentious exercise of mine totally bombed. My fellow students were like, um no. At the time, I remember being defensive and a little hurt, but I see now how important that feedback was. Obviously I was not connecting!
We’re looking forward to reading Ground Plans: Abolition and the Philosophy of Nature. Can you tell us what led you to writing this and what you hope readers will take away from this book?
This book comes out of my doctoral research on resistance to slavery before the Civil War. When I started doing the research for my dissertation, I knew that abolitionists like Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass made fierce arguments against slavery on moral, political, and religious grounds. But what I started to notice in the writings of abolitionists was that they also seemed to be making another, different kind of argument: they were making a scientific argument against slavery. I saw a pattern emerged in the antislavery works I was reading, an insistence that slavery was not only morally corrupt, but that the so-called science behind it (of African inferiority) was fundamentally incorrect. So black abolitionists set out to rewrite science to show that science did not support slavery; it supported emancipation. I hope the book will add to our picture of what resistance looked like, and what it can look like.