Wednesday, June 08, 2011

5 (or so) questions with Sarah Einstein

It's summertime and we have a lot of fun planned here at Ninth Letter! To start things off right, we have a new 5 (or so) questions. For this edition, I had the pleasure of speaking to Sarah Einstein via email about her essay "Mot," for which she won a Pushcart Prize, from vol. 6, no. 2. We spoke about, among many other things, responsibility when writing nonfiction, the effects of winning awards, the value of MFA programs, and movies. Sarah has a lot of great things to say, so let me get out the way. Enjoy!

9L: "Mot," which is so layered and rich, poses a lot of questions that don't have very clear cut answers or ones that can't really be answered at all. This is part of what makes it so effectively unsettling, so powerful. Many essays seem to be less comfortable with this, trying to make some kind of grand gesture that tries to sum up or explain a lot of complicated issues that can't be. I appreciated how you never do this in "Mot," and even at times say you don't know the answer. It never feels like you're withholding, but simply acknowledging the complexities of the situation. As you wrote the essay, did you ever feel any writerly discomfort with the ambiguity?

Sarah Einstein: Actually, I was far more uncomfortable any time I approached the sort of grand gesture you mention, whenever the writing wandered toward suggesting that sort of authorial insight. My goal in "Mot" wasn't to explain what happened to the reader. It was to offer the reader the experience itself. I'm not wrong about what happened but if I tried to say why it happened, or what it meant, I almost certainly would be very wrong.

As a reader, you probably have insights into the larger questions raised by the essay that I don't have. Like everyone, I'm blind to much of what is right in front of me. And I don't want to limit your understanding by superimposing my own. And, in truth, most of those larger questions don't have clear answers. If I tried to convince the reader they did, and I knew what they were, I'm not sure I could call the piece nonfiction. I think there would be something dangerous and immoral about pretending a wisdom I don't really possess.

9L: I want to talk a little about the mood and the characters in the essay. There's a quietness to the essay and at the same time there's a lot of tension. This seems to mirror both Mot's personality and your relationship to him. I'm curious about the process of rendering those juxtapositions on the page. Did one click better than the other at first or did they develop at the same time. What were your concerns, if any, in creating Mot and your relationship with him on the page?

SE: One of the first things I knew about the work was that it would fail if I invited the reader to reduce Mot to the spectacle of his delusions and that, if I put Mot on display in that way, the piece would be exploitative. Ultimately, this isn't an essay about mental illness or homelessness, it's about friendship. Foregrounding the tensions would have obscured the comfort and happiness that friendship brought to both of us. So I tried to give more weight to the moments that connected us than to the ones that broke us apart. And because the friendship itself was a quiet one--we were at our best when we were just out driving or walking together in the desert--that meant the writing needed to be quiet, too.

This ties directly with my concerns about creating Mot, and our relationship, on the page. It's no small thing to try to recreate someone as a character, and frankly I think writers have to earn the right to do so, that simply having crossed paths with someone isn't enough to grant that privilege. It requires a commitment to that person, and to the truthfulness of the telling over the artfulness of the writing. I knew I was going to write this essay before I went to Amarillo, and I took careful notes which I often showed to Mot. He sometimes made corrections, particularly to the way I described the inner-workings of his delusional world, but also to my understanding of my own actions or motivations. And sometimes those corrections made the story a little more ambiguous, a little less compelling. But, still, the work is more true because they were made, and I think that's crucial to writing ethically about someone else.

9L: Every time I read "Mot" I come away with something new. One thing that really stood out to me this last time was the vivid sense of place. It could have been very easy to let Mot and the questions you're struggling with throughout the essay overshadow the fact that this is happening in a town with its own struggles. I ended up getting this sense of Amarillo as a kind of lost, almost forgotten place. You weave the details about it so well into the narrative that it feels rooted and not like, "okay, let's stop and talk about the town." How did you go about balancing the place concerns with the character ones? Also, when it came to creating Amarillo, or place in general, did you feel a sense of responsibility in how you portrayed it like you did when creating Mot as a character?

SE: The lostness you identify, the almost forgotten air of the part of Amarillo where we spent most of our time, let me--and, hopefully, the reader--see Mot a little more clearly. It was exactly the sort of place where he could live out of doors, or in his car, unnoticed and undisturbed. It had a ruined quality that's common to the places he's said he'd called home over the years: the remnants of a bombed-out monastery in Italy, a wrecked boat half-hidden by a stand of trees near a fishing village in Croatia, a kudzu-covered gazebo on the lawn of an abandoned manse in Florida.

We met up in Oklahoma City for our second visit and the KOA campground there was further outside the city, more in keeping with what you'd expect from a campground. There were a couple of houses nearby, but they were new and of the McMansion sort. If the essay had been about that visit (as several chapters of the book-in-progress about our friendship are), place wouldn't have been nearly as prominent in the story because, on his own, it's exactly the sort of place Mot would avoid. There, we needed my middle-class expectedness to mask his homelessness. In Amarillo, he was the one who belonged and I had to hide behind his identity to go unnoticed.

But no, I didn't feel the same responsibility toward Amarillo that I did toward Mot when I was recreating each on the page. We were tourists, and the reader knows that from the very first paragraph. My portrait of Amarillo is specific to our experience there, and because the reader knows we're only visitors, I didn't feel obligated to provide a more well-rounded picture of the city.

9L: You won a Pushcart Prize for "Mot," which we were all very excited about in the Ninth Letter office. Did winning a Pushcart make getting a table in a restaurant easier? Just kidding. Did winning a Pushcart have any effect on your writing life? Did it change how you approached writing at all?

SE: This is a tough question, because the answer isn't what it's supposed to be. It's not No, I don't write for prizes and recognition, I write for the art of it or I'm grateful for the prize, but it hasn't really changed anything. If I'm honest, I have to say it's made a significant difference in my writing life. I think we all worry about whether or not the quality of our work justifies the sacrifices we, and the other people in our lives, make so that we can practice and grow in our craft. For instance, it's no small thing to be a forty-five year old woman and decide to spend another five years living on a graduate student stipend. My choice to do so requires not just emotional, but also financial, support from my partner and from my parents. The prize made it easier to ask this of them, and I suspect it also made it easier for them to say yes.

I've always been afraid that I was one of those people who really wants to be a writer, who works hard at being a writer, but who just can't make all the elements gel on the page. I think most of us secretly fear that our work isn't very good. And how could we feel differently? I just checked. I've received 214 rejection, and 9 acceptance, letters since I started sending work out. That's a lot of rejection! Pre-Pushcart, each rejection made me doubt myself. I haven't noticed that winning the prize has made it easier to place new work, and I still rejected about ninety-six percent of the time. (And doesn't Duotrope love to tell me so!) But post-Pushcart those rejections don't sting so much. I'm able to see them for what they are: decisions by editors that a particular work isn't right for a particular journal at a particular time. And that's how every writer should feel, but that's easier said than done, especially when you're just starting out.

And, of course, a Pushcart Prize isn't a bad thing to have on your vita. I will never know if I would have gotten in OU's Creative Writing PhD program without it, but I have to imagine it helped me compete against all the other wonderful writers who applied. I was also contacted by a few agents after Publishers Weekly included "Mot" on their list of notable pieces in their review of last year's anthology. It would be dishonest, then, not to acknowledge that it's opened certain doors to me. It has, and I'm grateful.

Finally, one of the best things about winning a Pushcart is that you then become a contributing editor. You get to nominate other writers whose work you admire and have some hand in sifting through the torrent of nominations to pick out pieces that will be awarded the prize in the following year. Winning the prize makes you a part of the literary community in a way that I, at least, was not beforehand. And that is, no doubt about it, seriously cool.

9L: That's a great point, choosing a life as a writer requires an enormous leap of faith and often knowing if it was the right choice doesn't happen for a long time. Any advice for people considering/struggling with that choice?

SE: Very little that's of any practical use and hasn't been said many times before, except maybe this: writing isn't something most of us can learn on our own. Everyone seems to be worried about the value of MFA programs and the questions of whether or not writing can be taught. This baffles me. You wouldn't tell a promising young pianist to go sit in her practice room alone every day for a few hours and expect her to emerge ready to win the Van Cilburn competition. I don't think it's any more reasonable to expect that of writers. I've been lucky to study with some amazing writers--Kevin Oderman, Mark Brazaitis, Ethel Morgan Smith--while at WVU, and it has made all the difference. So, if you're serious, consider entering a writing program, or at least taking advantage of local workshops. Good feedback is invaluable.

9L: Agreed. Feedback is so important. Okay, last question. In the essay, you and Mot spend some time at the movies. What was the last movie you really loved?

SE: Okay, the last movie that I really loved--in that buy-the-DVD, make-your-friends-watch-it kind of way--was the documentary Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale. I can't say much without ruining the film for those who haven't seen it, but there is a moment of amazing serendipity in the movie, a moment when something that just shouldn't be possible happens and, because it does happen, the viewer gets to see something true and beautiful about the enduring nature of love. And that's what draws me to nonfiction. It's a scene no fiction writer would dare to try to pull off because it's so improbable. But so much of the best stuff in life is. And the payoff--in this film, one of the sweetest kisses you'll ever see--makes it worth waiting around for those moments so that you can tell them true.

Many thanks to Sarah Einstein for taking the time to speak with me! To read "Mot" pick up a copy of vol. 6, no. 2 in our webstore.

Stay tuned to the blog all summer for more contributor interviews, news on the soon to be released spring/summer issue, and other surprises.

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