Nonfiction co-editor Julie Patterson recently had this exchange with Issue #47 featured nonfiction writer Steven Moore. Here’s what Steven had to say about writing a memoir, the challenge of marrying form and content, how his work as a journal editor informs his writing, and more.
This essay takes us on an unpredictable journey as readers, yet it’s clearly such an intentionally crafted one by the author. What can you tell us about the evolution of it? How did it begin, what was your purpose, and how did things change as you worked on it?
I started the essay thinking about work and identity, and I began by writing out everything I could think of that I’ve ever been paid to do. From when I was a little kid and got paid to clean up after the county fair demolition derby, to the jobs I’ve had more recently in the Oregon nonprofit sector. I wrote out a big list, and started going into detail with some of them, then looked for patterns. I was just thinking about the different jobs I’ve had, and who was surrounding me at those places, and what perspective that gave me about a certain community at a certain time.
I wrote a lot of threads for the essay that didn’t make the final piece. I cut a thousand words about the grocery industry in the 90s. How the big chains went berserk when Walmart started selling groceries in the late eighties. One draft had a thousand words about a musician friend of mine in Iowa City who was really into death metal and boa constrictors, and that got cut. I tried to learn something about the essay from each section that didn’t work. Like, there was a scene where I was holding one of my friend’s giant boa constrictors, and the scene was really tactile and tense, but it ruined the essay’s pacing. It felt like the essay was getting stuck in that moment, which told me the piece needed to have a certain amount of nimbleness in order to be successful. I needed to keep the essay light on its feet. Hard, novelistic scenes weren’t going to work.
Another thing that kept coming up was this kind of environmental fragility. How communities respond to disasters, or prepare for them. And how the way communities are organized spatially usually means that the most vulnerable populations become even more vulnerable when something bad happens. I’d recently read Elizabeth Rush’s Rising, and she writes about how climate issues affect vulnerable people disproportionately. And I was trying to use that lens to look around where I lived. I got on the county website and started downloading floodplain maps. You can tell a lot about the values of your community by looking at a floodplain map.
How long did it take you to write this essay, from start to finish?
Five months. Ten drafts.
In the essay you talk briefly about a job as a writing instructor, about telling a student “what I thought he was trying to achieve, and how he might continue going about it.” Can you say more about this philosophy of teaching and how it perhaps evolved?
I was teaching during my MFA, and the feedback model I was using emphasized earning credibility as a reader, and as a giver of feedback, by telling the writer what you think they’re trying to do. Like, if someone is halfway through building a vehicle and you walk up and explain how to finish it as a rocket ship, when actually they wanted to make a Honda Civic, you’re all wasting each other’s time. So if you can describe to someone what you think their project is supposed to be, it establishes you as a credible source of information about how to go forward. So I’d try to tell a student, it seems to me you’re building a Honda Civic, and given the scope of that project here are some options for how to get closer to having a Civic. It’s like, as a reader, you’re trying to look into the same distance the writer is looking into, and trying to help them figure out a path into that distance. Or at least give them some information about which moments seem like they’re moving toward it, and which moments seem off-track.
Probably the biggest evolution I noticed in using that model was giving the essay more and more agency. It evolved from ‘What kind of vehicle is Jim building?’ to ‘What does it seem like this vehicle wants to be?’ Where the essay began to have its own impulses. And what I liked about that approach was then even the writer could get in on the conversation and not feel responsible for the art they’d dragged in. We could all just get around this essay and talk about it and try to figure out what it was supposed to be based on the text. And it was really just a trick, because only one writer was going to take the essay home and finish it, but for a while you could help them step outside the process a little.
One thing we glean from “Song for No One’s Backyard” is that writing isn’t your full-time job, or at least not your only one. How do you juggle it all? What habits of mind or practice enable you to carve out time to write?
I have an office job at a nonprofit, and the challenge with getting my writing done is less a problem with time management than a problem with getting into the right headspace. I can usually find the time. The challenge is, when I do find the time, I’m coming to the page from a farther away place. I’m not transitioning from teaching essays to writing essays. I’m transitioning from Excel spreadsheets and committee meetings and pulling reports, to writing essays. It feels like a bigger gap to cross. I try to make it work by writing in the morning, so the art comes first in my day. I try to do two hours before breakfast. Reading or writing or research. I just like the act of putting it first. Before I get worn out. Then I listen to a couple episodes of Tracy K. Smith’s “The Slowdown” while I’m making my omelet. I strongly recommend doing that.
What has the process of submitting your work for publication been like? What might other writers learn from you in that regard?
I started submitting my work nine years ago. Since then I’ve been doing anywhere from 20 to 40 submissions per year, which is probably fewer than what a lot of folks are doing. I’m not sure. I think the standard advice is right, that you have to be familiar with the journals. And to me, that doesn’t mean you go read two or three back issues before you submit. I was doing that for a while, kind of just performing a little due diligence before I sent things out. But it meant I wasn’t really reading the journal. I was just looking at the content to see if the style sort of matched my style. Submitting things for publication became a lot more rewarding when I started just being a consistent consumer of those publications. Actually reading them as much as I could. I felt more connected to the community I was participating in.
Your memoir, The Longer We Were There: A Memoir of a Part-Time Soldier, focuses on the role of storytelling during your time in Afghanistan with the Iowa Army National Guard. Can you tell us more about it?
That book, in its way, is also just about a job. The longest job I’ve ever had was being in the Iowa Army National Guard. I joined an infantry unit in high school and stayed in for seven years. I did Guard training while I was in college, then deployed to Afghanistan about two months after graduating with a literature degree, so I had this intense focus on writing and storytelling, then went overseas. And my experience in Afghanistan seemed really incompatible with what I thought I knew about storytelling. In part because it seemed like no one was listening—it seemed like no one cared about the war, so there was no one tell it to—but also, it seemed like there was no narrative arc. No movement. Nothing was changing on the ground. And obviously there was no conclusion. The experience was confusing and frustrating, and the book works through that and tries to understand it.
What role do writers and artists play in helping us make sense of life in times—and places—of war or political unrest? Do you feel a sense of responsibility in that regard?
I do think writers have a responsibility for sense-making. I think we’re always going to be in a time and place of war or unrest. The political context for my adult life has always included war or some kind of national or international emergency. And I don’t think every writer has to—at least overtly—write about a political or environmental injustice, but I do think writers have to figure out what they most give a damn about, and approach that thing as urgently as they can.
What was difficult for me was figuring out how to balance that sense of urgency with the circuitous practice of art-making – all the experimentation and digressions and failed attempts that are involved. When I first started writing about Afghanistan, I was working on these essays and I was really compelled by my topic, I thought it was really important, so I tried to come right at it and tell the story exactly as it happened, in the order it happened, plus my insight at the end. And I ended up missing a lot of opportunities to tell the story more effectively, and a lot of what I was doing fell flat. Because I was treating form like it was ornamental to the story. I wasn’t seeing that the structure has to be part of the sense-making, that the essay’s form has to be working to solve the problem of the essay’s content. Like, probably the story doesn’t get told exactly in order, because I lived it in order and I still have questions. I think you have to figure out a balance between the political urgency of the material and the digressive practice of fashioning it into something, so the urgency kind of tugs you forward but you’re not cheating the artfulness either.
Your bio also mentions your role as a journal editor. How has serving as an editor for a literary journal helped you grow as a writer? What’s most challenging about that work?
I think reading submissions and editing essays helps me become a better writer, but the point of it, for me, is to help the other person grow, the writer who sent in their work. Help them become a better writer and move a little further along in their art. Whether it’s recommending the journal accept the essay or decline it. I just want to give people the best information I can about their prose. I feel really thankful that so many journals rejected certain essays of mine at certain times. It was useful information in the long run. So I want to be focused as much as possible on their work and their growth, even in a minor way. The challenging part is not being able to write an entire workshop letter to every person who submits something. Remembering that’s not my job.
Any parting advice to share with other writers, maybe something you’ve been told that stuck with you and has proven useful?
The writer T. Geronimo Johnson talked to a class I was taking once, and someone asked him how do you keep it going when you’re not part of a university. Once you’re sort of detached, or you’re not part of a literary center, how do you keep the work going. And he said you have to make it not about yourself. Even if you’re telling stories that happened to you, you have to figure out how they’re not about you. Because the more your writing isn’t about you, the more responsibility you’ll feel to the work, because you’ll see how the work is part of a bigger picture. And it wasn’t at all a dismissal or critique of personal essaying, it’s just a way of reframing what’s personal, and rethinking what all that includes. It’ll be harder to give up on something if it includes a lot of people. I’ve found that advice to be really helpful.