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Guy Choate: Creating Something Universal

“Learning to structure a sentence from a drill sergeant is a unique way to learn writing.”
– Guy Choate

 

“Learning to structure a sentence from a drill sergeant is a unique way to learn writing.”

–Guy Choate

What do you hope readers will take away from “I Know, But This is Nice”? Why do you think this is an important story to tell?

My 2020 New Year’s resolution was to document a single day’s events once a month. I did my best to choose a day that had some significance. In this case, it was my wedding anniversary, April 2. My initial goal with these journal entries stemmed from wanting to give my children their father’s perspective of this time in our lives. But I do think this piece – and all the journal entries I wrote in this effort – captures something universal about those early days of the pandemic. Something universal about how hard it is to parent, and how satisfying the love of a good partner can be. I think it’s important to tell those kinds of truths in a way that doesn’t sugarcoat the experience. I hope I accomplished that.

One of the challenges of creative nonfiction is maintaining the balance between creativity and credibility. Some nonfiction writers add scenes, characters, and dialogue to make the story more interesting, while other writers argue against it because it violates the contract with the reader. What are your thoughts on this?

I won’t shame people for however they approach this kind of thing in their craft, but I do believe we writers owe it to our readers to be upfront about our individual approach. I’ve experimented with collapsing time, characters, and dialogue, but I’m most comfortable when I do everything possible to write a story accurately, even when life gives me too many characters and over the span of too much time. 

You joined the Army at a young age. Do you think this experience has influenced your writing? If so, how?

Definitely—I joined at 17 years old. When the recruiter asked me what job I wanted, I had no idea, so I said I’d do anything that let me work in an office and gave me a signing bonus. Based on my aptitude test and my stipulations, they said they’d give me $3,000 to become a print journalist or a supply specialist. I chose journalism and basically set my course. The Department of Defense journalism school had a 50% graduation rate at the time—they took writing and grammatical foundations seriously. Learning to structure a sentence from a drill sergeant is a unique way to learn writing. But graduating from that place made college seem like a walk in the park. Army journalism and its commitment to accuracy gave me my writing foundations, and my belief in documenting things accurately. I’m thankful for that experience, but I’ve been learning to deviate from those rules ever since, which has been fun. 

What are some of your strategies for switching gears from your day job and family life to your writing work? 

I spend my days managing a communications team at an engineering consulting firm, which keeps me plenty busy. I get to flex way more creative writing muscle than I ever thought I would at an engineering firm. I write video scripts and directing videos in our various offices, which means I do a lot of regional travel. But, I’m usually mentally spent when I come home. When I walk through my front door, I have a four-year-old and a newborn to parent. Trying to find time to write for myself has gotten harder and harder. But my wife Liz knows I process my life through writing, the same way some people process theirs through psychotherapy. She prioritizes my writing time nearly as much as I do, which I’m tremendously thankful for. We’ve tried various strategies for me to find time. Right now she takes care of our boys two non-consecutive weekend days a month, when I spend all day at my computer.

Who are the writers who have influenced you most?

I loved reading as a kid, but I stopped reading for pleasure after about 6th grade. Picking up David Sedaris’s Naked in college brought me back. I didn’t realize those kinds of things were accepted as literature. He made me want to write. Things really kicked up a notch when I surrounded myself with other MFA candidates at the University of New Orleans. They had all read so much more than me. I’m still playing catch-up and discovering authors I should have found years ago. 

There’s a writer in Little Rock who’s virtually unknown outside of the city, Rhett Brinkley. In 2019 he self-published a collection of essays called I Want to Stare at My Phone with You that’s fantastic. I saw him read in a coffee shop in 2010. It convinced me that I didn’t have to live in New York or Chicago to be a writer—I could write from central Arkansas. That was a game-changer. Also, discovering Dani Shapiro’s style in Hourglass inspired me to write the 2020 series of journal entries. If I could choose one person to study with right now, it would be her.

Who are some of your favorite writers to read for fun?

I run the Argenta Reading Series, and I love the range of writers who come through. We have well-known writers like Kevin Brockmeier, Maurice Carlos Ruffin, Molly McCully Brown, Mary Miller, Marco Rafalà. Also, many writers who would probably otherwise fly under my radar: Tatiana Ryckman, Edward McPherson, Anna Leahy, Angela Mitchell… I shouldn’t have even tried to list them, because I love getting to know the work of every writer who comes through. Plus, discovering who they are as people. I also enjoy Bill Bryson when I want to learn something mundane. Barry Hannah or William Gay when I want to tap into my Southern roots. And I have a soft spot for Nora Ephron’s voice.

Tell us about your dream vacation.

Any vacation would feel like a dream at this point. My wife and I celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary this year, and we’ve yet to take a honeymoon— we had our first-born just over a year after our wedding. I’d like to spend a month or so with Liz in a Nordic city that appreciates the arts and has good restaurants. And a decent coffee shop where I could write for hours without interruption. Is this the part of the interview where you tell me Mud Season Review is going to gift me that vacation and care for my children while we’re gone? Because I’m ready. You can tell me now.

By Suzanne Guess

Suzanne Guess is editor-in-chief of Mud Season Review. She is a writer living in central Iowa, where her family has resided for six generations. She holds an MA in Literature from Iowa State University, and an MFA in Writing from the University of Nebraska. She has work upcoming or already published in The GirlfriendBrevityIntercom, and Concurrence. She is also the founder of the Raccoon River Reading Series. When she’s not writing, Suzanne plays flute respectably, but not expertly, in a wind ensemble.