Interview of Scott Russell Sanders

by Robert L. Root for The Fourth Genre

Spring 1999

Robert L. Root: Annie Dillard has written of the essay: “The essay can do everything a poem can do, and everything that a short story can do.” Do you agree with that?

Scott Russell Sanders: The essayist certainly can use most of the strategies open to the writer of poetry or fiction—narrative, dialogue, exposition, and so on—but not all of them. Nothing in the essay corresponds to the force of the line in poetry, for example. Nothing in the essay, as I conceive of it, corresponds to the unreliable narrator in fiction. I don’t think any one genre is a substitute for the others. We need poems and stories and novels and plays, as well as essays. Each genre offers us paths through the dark woods of this life, and we need all the paths we can find.

RLR: Do you turn to one form or the other because of what it can do or what you need to get done?

SRS: I don’t write poetry, although I read it with great pleasure. I made my start as a writer of fiction, and I had finished half a dozen novels or collections of stories before trying my hand at the essay. Once I got the feel of the essay, it began to draw me away from fiction. As I say in my introduction to The Paradise of Bombs, I turned to nonfiction at a time when minimalism and irony and postmodernist games-playing ruled the world of fiction. I was tired of reading stories whose characters and narrators were inarticulate, obtuse, or numb, and I had no desire to write such condescending and stripped-down stuff. Against the vacancy, shallowness, and silliness of so much that was fashionable in stories, the essay appealed to me for its directness and urgency and grace. It seemed to me a form in which one could pursue any question, no matter how difficult, and to which one could bring the full range of intelligence. I keep imagining that I’ll return to the writing of stories and novels, but for the present I’m still absorbed, still challenged, by the essay.

RLR: A number of writers have emphasized the relationship between the devices and strategies of creative nonfiction and those of fiction, but some others have emphasized the relationship between creative nonfiction and poetry. They think of the essay as principally a lyrical form rather than a narrative form. What associations do you make between these established literary genres and the fourth genre of nonfiction?

SRS: The essay is a capacious genre, with room enough for lyrical as well as narrative forms. Because of my own training in fiction, I often use narrative strategies in organizing my essays—scenes, character sketches, dramatic gestures, plot, and so on. But I also frequently organize essays by a logic more common in poetry—using a sequence of governing metaphors, for example, or fashioning a collage of images, or playing up the role of the speaker’s voice, or relying on patterns of sound to bind together seemingly disparate materials.

RLR: You remarked in “The Singular First Person” about being “bemused and vexed to find one of my own essays treated in a scholarly article as a work of fiction . . . . To be sure, in writing the piece I had used dialogue, scenes, settings, character descriptions, the whole fictional bag of tricks; sure, I picked and chose among a thousand beckoning details; sure, I downplayed some facts and highlighted others; but I was writing about the actual, not the invented. I shaped the matter, but I did not make it up.” What limits of creativity and accuracy do you apply to the essay?

SRS: The line between fiction and nonfiction may be fuzzy when seen from the outside, by the reader, but from the inside, from the writer’s perspective, it seems to me quite clear. When I write what we’re calling creative nonfiction, I feel bound by an implicit contract with the reader: I don’t invent episodes, don’t introduce characters who were not actually present, don’t deliberately change circumstances. Of course I may change circumstances without knowing I’ve done so, because memory and perception are tricksters. We all realize that no two people, confronted by the same event, will see exactly the same thing; we realize that memory shapes and edits our past. So when I sit down to write about actual events and places and people, I don’t imagine that I can give a flawless transcript, but I do feel an obligation to be faithful to what I’ve witnessed and what I recall. In writing nonfiction, I feel an obligation to a reality outside the text; in writing fiction, I feel no such obligation.

RLR: Controversies keep erupting around the definition of creation nonfiction— indeed, around the very name—and the boundaries people want to establish for it. What would be your term for the kind of writer you are in nonfiction? What’s your sense of the boundaries of nonfiction as a literary genre?

SRS: I suppose we do have to use labels, but I don’t find “creative nonfiction” to be an especially useful one, even though I’ve won prizes and taught workshops bearing that title. “Nonfiction” itself is an exceedingly vague term, taking in everything from telephone books to Walden, and it’s negative, implying that fiction is the norm against which everything else must be measured. It’s as though, instead of calling an apple a fruit, we called it a non-meat. Sticking “creative” in front of “nonfiction” doesn’t clarify matters much, and it’s pretentious to boot, since it implies that other forms of nonfiction—Plato’s Republic, Ellman’s Joyce, Hawking’s A Brief History of Time—are not creative works of intellect and imagination. So I prefer to think of myself as an essayist, and to speak of what I write as essays. It’s a term with a venerable tradition, and it preserves Montaigne’s emphasis on essay-ing—on making a trial, an experiment, an effort of understanding.

RLR: No doubt you’ve been aware of the recent reaction against the memoir, particularly the backlash against the so-called “victim” memoir. There’s been a curious kind of antagonism against literary forms of nonfiction. Do you worry about the self-involvement of the memoir?

SRS: I feel that a lot of what goes by the name of memoir these days is merely autobiographical reverie; it’s too loose and self-indulgent for my taste. I generally feel impatience or boredom in the face of purely confessional writing. As a reader, I’m not interested in the events of other people’s lives, no matter how colorful or traumatic they may be, unless those events are illuminated in the telling by insight and beauty and meaning. Without that transforming vision, the events themselves are merely gossip. Nothing in my experience deserves the attention of readers merely because it’s my experience. I don’t write in order to win sympathy or praise; I write to share understanding about the human struggle, and to share delight in the power of language.

RLR: Have you ever written the same incident as both fiction and essay?

SRS: Yes, I have, a few times. For instance, my first novel—blessedly unpublished, and now moldering in a box on my shelves—was called Warchild, about a man suspiciously like myself who grew up on a military reservation and then became a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. It’s a clumsy, didactic, and overwrought production, because I didn’t yet know how to write a novel and I didn’t understand why I felt such a revulsion against that war. About ten years after abandoning Warchild as a lost cause, having begun writing essays, I suddenly recognized how I had been shaped by my childhood years in the Ravenna Arsenal, and out of that understanding came “At Play in the Paradise of Bombs.” The essay accomplished in 20 pages what the novel had failed to accomplish in 300, in part because the essay is less concerned with me than with the exemplary place where I once lived. In “At Play in the Paradise of Bombs,” I wasn’t trying to vindicate my feelings about the Vietnam War; I was trying to suggest how nuclear weapons had cast a shadow over my generation; I was trying to understand the conflict between a love of wildness and a fascination with the machinery of death.

RLR: You said something about your typical composing habits in “Letter to a Reader.” Does that description still apply? Are you still trying to write every morning? How many projects do you typically work on in the same period?

SRS: Yes, I still follow the habits described in “Letter to a Reader.” I still try to write every morning, although the demands of family, house, teaching, traveling, and correspondence frequently interfere. I tend to concentrate on writing one project at a time, so as not to scatter my attention, although I might be making notes toward five or six other projects. In my ideal life, I’d write from six a.m. until noon, and then I’d garden or hike or do carpentry or make music all afternoon, and I’d read and talk with friends in the evenings. But like everyone else who tries to make art, I don’t lead an ideal life. Even though I work sixteen hours a day, six days a week, about fifty weeks a year, I must battle constantly to find any time for writing.

RLR: What difference is there between the processes you go through for nonfiction and what you would do for fiction?

SRS: For essays, I make elaborate and detailed notes, sometimes over a period of months, before I begin composing. I feel as though I must gather a critical mass of ideas, images, memories, speculations, and associations. With fiction, I usually begin from some haunting tableau or mysterious figure or tantalizing line, and then follow along to see where it leads. In fiction, I can set people on stage and watch them act. In essays, the mind itself must provide the dramatic line, as it traces the shape of an experience, as it seeks meaning, as it records and reflects.

RLR: What kinds of string-saving do you do? For example, what about a journal or field notes? What about marginalia in what you read? How much are you thinking about the writing you’re going to do as you go through your normal life? I mean how much are you subconsciously alert to potential subjects and how much are you able to separate the writing life from the teaching life or your stint as an administrator or the like?

SRS: I suppose I’m writing all the time, or at least I keep finding material and ideas and images everywhere I turn. The process isn’t deliberate. I don’t go to the farmer’s market, say, or to the lumber yard, looking for just the right patch of conversation or the right slant of light, but over and over again I find what I need. I read with pencil in hand, marking passages that teach me something new, underlining phrases or sentences that seem well made, but I rarely go to books for specific information. Since I’m an essayist of ordinary life—rather than a travel writer, a memoirist, a journalist, or a scholar—I’m apt to brood on just about anything I encounter. I jot things down in a pocket notebook, and occasionally I write more elaborate accounts in a journal, especially when I’m traveling. But when I’m in the flow of composing, when a piece of writing is moving well, I quit making notes and invest all my energy in the work itself.

RLR: How important is on-site journaling or composing for some work? How possible is it to recollect in tranquility?

SRS: As I mentioned, I sometimes write fairly elaborate accounts of journeys, and these often lead to essays. There’s the “Mountain Music” sequence in Hunting for Hope, for example, arising from backpacking trips with my son in the Rockies and Smokies. There’s “Voyageurs” in Writing from the Center, about canoeing with my daughter in the Boundary Waters. Or there’s “Living Souls” in Secrets of the Universe, about living with a Russian family in Moscow as the old Soviet Union came apart at the seams. “Doing Time in the Thirteenth Chair” from The Paradise of Bombs, about serving as a juror in a drug case, derives from notes I made in the courtroom as the trial proceeded. Most of the time, however, instead of recording my experiences as they happen, I’m working from memory. As everyone knows, memory is tricky, but it’s also the power that holds each of us together as a coherent person; it’s what binds us in families and friendships and neighborhoods. Memory helps make us human. Without reflecting back on our individuals lives, and on the collective life we call history, we’re only dust motes, bouncing from one collision to the next. And so I recollect, if not in tranquility, at least in wonder and gratitude.

RLR: What kinds of strategies do you have for getting around dead ends, road blocks, dry spells?

SRS: If I’m blocked on a piece of writing, I’ll set it aside and work on something else for a spell, or I’ll take a walk, or I’ll pull a favorite book from the shelves and read a few paragraphs, or I’ll climb out of my head and dwell in my body—doing carpentry or gardening, for example. Often I’ll try to explain the problem to my wife. Ruth is a biochemist, a rational and lucid person, and if I can find an explanation that will persuade her, then I can probably move ahead in the writing.

RLR: What’s the normal gestation period for something you write? How long between the time when you first notice the subject or record an interest in writing about it to the time you send it out into the world?

SRS: That all depends on the work in question, of course. As soon as I heard the news of my father’s death, I knew I had to write about him, and yet it took me five years to discover how to make “The Inheritance of Tools.” It took me three more years to write “Under the Influence,” about my father’s alcoholism. By contrast, I wrote “Doing Time in the Thirteenth Chair” within a week after the conclusion of the trial. One of my most widely anthologized pieces, “The Men We Carry in Our Minds,” was conceived and written in a couple of days. More commonly, an essay might develop over a period of two or three months. A book takes me three to five years. I worked on my most recent one, Hunting for Hope, almost every day, waking and sleeping, for four years.

RLR: How many readers see your work before it’s published?

SRS: Because I started writing on my own while I was a graduate student in England, without knowing any other writers, I fell into the habit of showing my work only to Ruth. She’s still my first reader, and often my only reader until the work goes to a magazine or publisher. I don’t recommend that practice, and yet, even though I now know quite a few writers, I still can’t bring myself to impose on other people by showing them drafts of my work. Curiously, people I’ve never met keep sending me manuscripts through the mail, or calling to ask if I will evaluate their work. I sympathize with their desire for advice and for a boost up the publishing ladder, but between my current students, former students, and writing friends, I’m always buried under a pile of manuscripts by people to whom I already feel obligated.

RLR: How many drafts do you write?

SRS: That’s difficult to calculate, but by any calculation the answer is, too many. I write very, very slowly. Because I taught myself to write in isolation, almost entirely by reading, I formed the habit of composing sentence-by-sentence. When I begin a piece, I recast the opening sentence in my head dozens of times before I find a form that satisfies me, and then I type it down. Then I recast the second sentence in my head dozens of times before I set that down. And so I inch my way ahead. Whenever some later sentence raises questions about anything that has gone before, I go back and revise those earlier passages. And every time I return to the keyboard—after a night’s sleep, a walk around the park, or even a cup of coffee—I start over at the beginning, polishing my way forward, line by line. This means that, by the time I finish an essay, the opening paragraph has been revised maybe a hundred times, and the closing paragraph has been revised four or five times. It’s a foolish way to write, but it’s the only way I’ve found that suits me.

RLR: What tells you that you have a subject worth pursuing? Have you ever pursued something and simply couldn’t make it work, couldn’t make it develop into anything?

SRS: Oh, sure, especially in the early years, before I discovered my deepest concerns and before I learned to recognize myself on the page. Nowadays I can usually figure out during the note-making stage if I’m drilling a dry well. If the notes don’t begin to take on life, if they just pile up like so many bricks, then I know to leave them alone. Because of my laborious way of composing, and because of my struggle in recent years to find any gathered time for writing, I can’t afford to start essays that I’m not going to finish. When the well is wet, when the material is rich, I feel a combination of excitement and bewilderment, and that’s when I know to go ahead.

RLR: What’s the approach you take to teaching nonfiction? Do you make major distinctions in venue (e.g., Indiana undergraduates vs. Bread Loaf workshoppers)? What would you like to see happening in the teaching of nonfiction?

SRS: In my nonfiction workshops, whatever the venue, I make sure that we read some published essays together. Aspiring poets have usually read a lot of poetry, and aspiring fiction writers have usually read a lot of fiction, but aspiring writers of nonfiction often know little about the history or possibilities of this genre. So we discuss selections from a good anthology, such as Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay. Although we do examine manuscripts by the students themselves, I want the workshop discussions to focus on issues of craft and aesthetics and ethics, rather than purely on ways of improving a given piece of writing. The workshop should not be a repair shop. It should be a place where the student learns about the potentials of form, about ways of establishing a voice, about the nature and implications of his or her own material.

RLR: What response have you gotten to your piece on the suppression of the first person singular in academic writing, composition, and criticism?

SRS: I wrote that essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education in light of my own history, for my schooling had taught me to hide myself behind many veils. I also wrote against the background of contemporary academic prose, much of which is bloated with jargon and bogged down by pretense and burdened with sloppy thinking. I believe that writing should convey ideas, not hide them. It should foster community by sharing understanding. It should reveal what’s at stake for the writer, how the writer thinks and feels, how words arise from the writer’s experience. When I set out those views in the essay for The Chronicle, quite a few teachers wrote to say they agreed with me, and a few complained that my approach would undermine scholarly objectivity. I value scholarship, whether in history or physics or psychology. But we shouldn’t confuse objectivity with anonymity, as if knowledge were gathered by machines instead of persons. To claim that writing should be open to the personal is only to say that we should acknowledge our humanity, including our ignorance and our faults.

RLR: What’s the most important thing you tell your students about writing?

SRS: Writing is a way of discovering what you don’t already know, of clarifying what you don’t understand, of preserving what you value, and of sharing your discoveries with other people.

RLR: What’s your best strategy to get students started with a personal essay?

SRS: I get them thinking about puzzles, questions, confusions. What excites and bewilders them? Too often students think of the essay as a vehicle for delivering chunks of information or prefabricated ideas. I want them to see the essay as a way of discovery. I push them to take risks on the page, to venture out from familiar territory into the blank places on their maps.

RLR: In your view, what’s the connection between writing and publishing? What should the young nonfictionist’s attitude be towards these aspects of a writing life?

SRS: Naturally, every beginning writer hopes one day to be published. For some the allure is the supposed glamour associated with being an “author.” For most, I suspect, the appeal of publication is much simpler. You want to share your work with strangers; you want to offer up for public scrutiny what you’ve made in private. You want people to read your work for the same reason a carpenter wants people to live in the houses he builds. So I respect the hunger for publication in young writers. At the same time, I think the young writer’s chief business is to learn the craft, explore material, try out ideas, and develop the habits of art. If he or she learns well enough, and has the necessary talent, then publication will come in due time. Unfortunately, the majority of aspiring writers will publish little if anything at all, and that’s a source of great misery. I know, for I spent quite a few years sending around books that nobody wanted. The same cruel proportion obtains in all the arts: many are called and few are chosen. If you measure the worth of your writing only by your success in getting it published, then the odds are that you’ll be disappointed. If you measure the worth of your writing by the pleasure and insight you gain from the making of it, then you have a good chance of being rewarded, whether or not it’s ever published.

RLR: You’ve said that anyone who writes well “writes primarily by ear, listening to the music of words.” Thinking of your own voice for a minute and how your voice is represented in your prose style, have you caught yourself writing un-Scott-Sanders-like prose? Can you think of an example where you looked at something you’d written and had to change it to sound more like yourself?

SRS: Less often now than in the early years. I can show you lots of hand-me-down Faulkner or Conrad or Joyce in my early story collections such as Fetching the Dead or novels such as Bad Man Ballad or Terrarium. In my first essays, including those collected in The Paradise of Bombs, I can show you patches in imitation of E. B. White, James Baldwin, Flannery O’Connor, George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, Wendell Berry. Soon, however, I learned to distinguish what was authentically mine from what I’d borrowed.

RLR: Particularly when there are so many influences in what anyone reads and so many voices you may ultimately have, how do you tune your ear for your voice?

SRS: For better or worse, I spend more hours a day writing my own prose than reading anybody else’s. I think you grow into your voice on the page, just as you grow into your body. A singer performs with his or her body; the body is an instrument, and each body, if developed to its full power and subtlety, produces a unique sound. When I’m composing, and sorting through those dozens of sentences in my head for every one that I put down on paper, I still hear plenty of false notes, but I discard them. I’m listening for what sounds right, what sound true, what carries conviction. That’s not to say I never hit a false note, never lapse into imitation, but I think I do so less often nowadays because I test everything against my stubborn sense of who I actually am.

RLR: What’s the difference between the voice of your essays and the voice of your fiction or your children’s books?

SRS: In fiction, including the stories I’ve written for children, I often assume the voices of characters who are quite unlike me. They may be older or younger than I am, may belong to another race, another sex, another country; they may have had quite a different education, or they may embrace quite different beliefs. Taking on those imagined identities is one of the pleasures of fiction, and one of the reasons I hope to return to making stories and novels sometime soon. In my nonfiction, the voice is as close as I can come to my own deliberate speech. I realize, of course, that the persona on the page is made out of words; I realize that it’s constructed. But the construct bears a close and steady relationship to the person I am outside the page. One way of measuring that closeness is by the reactions of people who meet me in the flesh after reading a number of my books, and who generally find—or at least so they tell me—that the human person could be a twin of the literary persona.

RLR: You’ve already written about the future in your science-fiction. As we turn the corner into the next millennium, what plans do you have for the direction your writing will go?

SRS: I want to continue pushing at the edges of the genre called nature writing, so as to make space within it for exploring social life and family relations. I want to write about race, about the Vietnam War, about the impact of technology on our lives and minds. Because I’ve written so intently about my place, and about the impulse to stay put, I may write more commissioned pieces—as I’ve begun doing for Audubon, for example—as a way of getting out and about in the world. I want to continue on from Hunting for Hope by reporting what people are doing across our country to heal the wounds in landscapes and communities and individuals. I’ve been teaching now for more than a quarter of a century, over half my life, and yet I’ve rarely brought this work directly into my writing; now I’m feeling that I should write a book about teaching, if I can find a fresh way of doing so. I’m still grappling with religious questions, especially as they come into conflict with the view of the universe revealed so magnificently by science, and I feel moved to ponder those questions further. Writing is my way of thinking about whatever’s difficult, facing what scares me, celebrating what gives me joy. I’ll run out of energy or clarity or time before I run out of motives for writing.