We had the pleasure yesterday of a visit from Stewart O’Nan, best known for novels such as Emily, Alone, Wish You Were Here, Speed Queen, Songs for the Missing, and the recently released, The Odds, but also the author of an interesting book of nonfiction, The Circus Fire, about the horrible blaze on July 5, 1944, in Hartford, Connecticut. We’d read an excerpt from the book as well as last week’s articles from Gerard and Schwartz, so we were prepared with questions for Stewart about the research and writing of his book.
Here are some interesting thoughts that came from Stewart’s thoughtful responses to our questions:
1. In response to a question about whether the way he approaches writing fiction differs from his approach to writing nonfiction, he talked about his obligation. In fiction, he said, his obligation was to his characters and the accuracy of their actions and responses within a specific world. Such hold true for his approach to nonfiction as well, but in that genre his obligation expands to take on the expectations of his readers, who come to hear a true story, and to the material itself as he does his best to pin down the facts.
2. Considering the level of detail in The Circus Fire, which I would describe as lush and authoritative, Stewart talked about how he wanted “coverage” in the book. In other words, he wanted to include as many particulars as he could, not only the facts of the fire, but also the particulars of the circus world and the world of North Hartford in 1944. Stewart expressed a mild complaint about his approach, claiming that he sometimes included details that the reader didn’t need and that the story could have moved along more quickly had he pared things down. It was refreshing to hear such an accomplished writer speak critically of his own work, proving what we all know: It’s so hard to get everything right.
3. Stewart also talked about how he broke the first rule of journalism, which is, the more sources you have, the more confusing the story gets. In this complicated story of a fire, the source of which has never been nailed down, many inadequacies and rumors have spread. In the interviews that Stewart did, he found many conflicting stories. Thus, his job was to corroborate as many of the facts as he could. If he was unable to nail down a fact, he quoted the person claiming that fact to make clear that this was this one particular person’s version of the truth.I can understand, then, the attempt to gather more sources in an attempt to verify more facts. Still, Stewart feels he could have simplified things for the readers.
4. Stewart also talked about conducting interviews with people who had either gone to the circus that fateful day or perhaps meant to go but for one reason or the other stayed home. I’ve long believed that conducting interviews is very much a matter of carrying on a good conversation that begins with the interviewer’s curiosity. Stewart said he usually began his interview with the question, “Tell me about that day.” I like this open-ended approach, this invitation to narrate. It focuses the interview subject on the facts while also leaving room for stories and details that might not come out if the interviewer has too strict of an agenda. The interviewer, as Stewart did, can then direct the conversation with appropriate prompts: “Did you go to the circus that day?” “Where did you sit?’ “What did you do when you realized the tent was on fire?” Etc.
Stewart spent a glorious hour with us during which he was generous and forthcoming and extremely personable. It was easy to see that interview subjects would feel very comfortable telling their stories to him. Again, I stress the importance of being curious. It’s in people’s nature to tell us what they know. . .if we’ll only ask them.
The rest of our workshop featured the discussion of two essays from our members. Both essays, interestingly enough, experimented with form. One of them was a photo essay, the photographs providing invitations and illustrations of the text. The other essay was what Brenda Miller would call a hermit crab essay, taking on, in this case, the form of a class syllabus as a way of investigating extremely complicated and personal material about gender identification. Both writers were doing interesting things with the juxtaposition of form and content, and it reminded me of an earlier conversation this quarter that came from the Brenda Miller article that described the efficacy of these non-traditional forms in terms of them providing the safety from which to express difficult material.
The images of the photo essay were not only representational of the objects photographed but also contained the emotional complexity of the writer’s feelings about those objects. The imperative language of the syllabus stood in stark contrast to the moments of vulnerability and uncertainty that arose in the text itself. This contrast between certainty/comfort and uncertainty/discomfort led me to improvisie a writing activity on the spot. I’ll try to reconstruct, expand, and refine it now:
1. Think of one thing about yourself that you’d like to change. Maybe it’s a physical feature, or maybe it’s a personality trait. Anything that you wish you could change and that is within your power to change.
2. Imagine that you’ve achieved that change. Writing in the second person, Imagine a perfect moment in which you’re free from the flaw that’s burdened you. Be specific. Maybe it’s a glorious spring day, and you’re walking through a park. Maybe you’re challenged by another person or an occurrence, but you don’t react the way you would have in your prior life. You’re someone different now. You’re better, more ideal. Describe the landscape around you with that fact in mind. Maybe you begin, “One day, you’re the person you always wished you could be. You’re walking down the street and. . . .” Evoke a feeling of confidence and security. Your past life is gone. You have faith in the future.
3. Shift to what you can’t know within that cocoon of comfort. Allow a glimmer of your past life to emerge. “You can’t know that somewhere in the future you’ll see/hear/meet/etc. (fill in the blank with a particular; maybe you’ll meet a person who reminds you of who you used to be; maybe you’ll catch yourself about to say or do something that you would have said or done in your previous life), and when you do, you’ll (fill in the blank with your emotional and/or intellectual response, looking for the contradictory layers within that response).”
I’d love to hear how this activity works for you. I’d even be glad to see some samples posted to this site. Feel free to modify the prompts anyway you’d like. The objective is to end on a resonate chord made up of at least two different notes, one of comfort and one of dread; one of certainty and one of uncertainty; one of this old life still visible beneath the veneer of the new life.