January 12, 2016 § 3 Comments
Part one of an interview with frequent Brevity contributor Jill Talbot, conducted by Emily Pifer:
Emily Pifer: I stumbled upon “Lines Like Loss, Like Leaving,” your collaborative essay with Justin Lawrence Daugherty, while picking around on The Rumpus one day, but after reading, I fell completely. I followed the trail of your work together to “On Writing, Like Lust” in Pithead Chapel, and then “On Going, Like Going Back” on Hobart Pulp. The lines between you and Daugherty feel incredibly present and urgent, and the longing on both sides feels raw and open. There’s an energy moving back and forth. How did your collaboration with Daugherty begin, and how does the collaborative process typically unfold between you two?
Jill Talbot: I discovered Justin on Twitter when I began following Sundog Lit, the journal he founded and edits. I was drawn to the journal’s mission, “literature that scorches the earth.” Such urgency there. Then I started following Justin and reading the stories he was publishing (the first thing of his I ever read was “All This Roadmap of Hurt,” in Hobart.) Eventually, we had brief exchanges on Twitter and were reading each other’s work. We got the idea to collaborate on an essay about the ways in which writers do this on social media—follow, click, read, share, and admire—but ultimately, the connection is fleeting because we don’t know that writer beyond the page (or screen). That was the initial idea.
Justin and I have never met. We’ve never seen each other step into a room. We’ve never heard each other’s voices or seen what it looks like when the other laughs. So the foundation of our process is the ways in which we imagine one another through our words. I think that’s the most significant aspect of our collaborating—we do not know each other beyond the page. And that’s how we began with that first collaboration, “On Writing, Like Lust,” (Pithead Chapel) exploring the ways writers are drawn to other writers because of their style, voice, individual lines, or some other ineffable element (I call them “literary crushes”). But once we began writing, we recognized something else entirely—the longing we share, the distance we carry within ourselves, and we knew we had something, so we kept writing, and we’re still writing together.
Collaborative work seems to bring attention to contradictions within the act of writing: solitude and sharing. What drew you to collaborative work, and what about the process and “finished” product of collaboration interests you? Perhaps collaborating has revealed something new to you about writing, or has opened up something in your writing that was previously closed?
I think the surprise and the suspense of it—the idea of working within a piece of writing that someone else has started or supplied. It would probably help if I explain our process. One of us suggests a concept—that comes first. Then one of us begins. Say I begin. When I get it where I want it, I send it to Justin. Then he takes it in another direction, and I’m always surprised and stunned and inspired by what he sends back. I think that’s where part of the “present and urgent” feel comes from—that we’re exchanging this energy across the distance while writing inside of it, never knowing where we’ll end up and allowing the piece to go where it wants.
Writing with Justin has kept me grounded in my writing, and maybe there’s something there about being accountable to another writer on a piece of writing (which goes against that solitary act you mention). When I’m stuck, working with Justin ignites the writing I’m doing on my own. So much so, in fact, that when I feel stuck in my writing, I’ll ask Justin if we can start a new piece. It’s as if the space I inhabit when involved in one of our collaboration opens up the spaces I need to find for my own work. I don’t know, it feels so ethereal, the impact our writing together has on my writing—it’s difficult to explain.
I’m curious whether you often feel your work leaning—or desiring to lean—outside of what is commonly considered nonfiction. Of course, The Way We Weren’t is grounded in what you describe as “the fictions of our past.” What were some of the moments in your writing and thinking that brought you to this idea? And how do you balance the tension in memoir between the stories we tell ourselves, and what may have actually happened?
Oh, I’m leaning—I’m leaning out as far as I can over the ledge. “Creative nonfiction” is a term discussed and argued and defended in regards to fact versus fiction, truth, and accountability. That emphasis has too many restrictions and limitations for what I want to do in my work, whereas the term I prefer, “essay,” has infinite possibilities and emphasizes the interrogatory rather than the declarative.
My attention to “the fiction of history,” derived, directly, from E. L. Doctorow’s “Notes on the History of Fiction,” which appeared in The Atlantic’s 2006 Fiction Issue. In it, he explains, “That the public figure of historical consequence makes a fiction of himself long before the novelist gets to him is almost beside the point. Once the novel is written, the rendering made, the historical presence is doubled. There is the person and there is the portrait. They are not the same, nor can they be.” That’s when I wrote “The Man in the Photograph,” the essay that has that phrase you mention in the lines, “How long do we live in the fictions of our past? And how do we convince anyone that who we write is not necessarily who we are?” because when I found that photograph of me and Kenny, I recognized that he was not the man I had been writing, nor was I the woman in the photograph. I knew I had written a fiction. Years later, I found out he had, too, when I read the letter he had written to the court in 2009 (which serves as the memoir’s prologue) detailing our relationship and its end. He had written a fiction, cast me as a character in a narrative I hadn’t known existed, and that’s when I began questioning my own memory, my own story about our ending, wondering, after all those years, who left whom?
Truth seems an essential consideration to writing memoir, but what role does fiction play in any sort of truth-telling?
What I just said, for me, deconstructs any possibilities of “truth” in my memoir. Also, so much of my writing addresses the space between memory and imagination, and memory runs free from truth, darts and dashes as if on a playground, climbing and swinging. And so much of memory slides toward imagination, fiction. And what of the blank spaces? Because I admit that there’s so much I don’t remember because of drinking or blocking moments out. It’s those moments, those blank spaces, when I turn to invention. Because I’m remembering alone (because he’s “not around to tell her that no, it was not that way at all” or because my daughter was too young to remember what happened), I’m telling a story about what happened, and Kenny, as the reader learns in the prologue, tells his own story, a competing version. I think of that line, “We share a history, but we have competing versions of it.” I’m admitting, to the reader and to myself, that when we tell stories about our lives, they may as well be fiction.
Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir from Soft Skull Press. Two of the essays included in The Way We Weren’t were named Notables in Best American Essays 2014 and 2015 respectively, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Brevity, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, Fourth Genre, The Normal School, The Paris Review Daily, Passages North, and The Pinch. This year, she will be one of five writers featured at University of San Francisco’s 2016 Emerging Writers Festival.
Emily Pifer is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Wyoming, where she’s working on a collection of pop-culturally aware essays.