A sample from the interview, another of the 100,937 reasons I think Martone is a brilliant, brilliant guy. (He's also incredibly nice.)
Related to the first question, what do you make of the semi-recent memoir craze and the more recent false-memoir craze? Do you read memoirs? Do you have any observations about why these are so popular? What do you think the value of memoir is? Is there such thing as a true memoir? (Or are they examples of another kind of slippage?) (There seemed to be a lot of memoir in Racing in Place, and combined with Michael Martone, the two books formed not a definitive memoir but a sort of jazz-like theme/variation version of a “standard” memoir.)
I do think of Racing in Place as a collection of experimental memoirs. The memoir’s problem is that it needs to find, to narrate a kind of death in order to make sense of life. I think of it, the constructed death, as a parentheses, an artificial parentheses, that the writer must draw around a life, or this part of life, to be able to stand outside of it and see it for what it is and isn’t. Hard to make sense of a train wreck that is still happening. So you have “childhood” as such a closed period. “My junior year abroad” is another. “My marriage”or “my divorce”—all this works I think. Memoir for me is always about also the act of memory, the drama of remembering. So, I guess, that is why there is such anxiety about the veracity of the memoir. If it is a function of memory, and it seeks to make sense of the fluid dynamics of a life still being lived, how could we expect it to be accurate in any real sense? The memory is a flawed instrument for record, as we know. Even though other residue of event, evidence of happening such as letters, news reports, photographs, tape recordings, witness statements, etc., can be faked, we certainly trust those more than our own memories. I guess I think the memoir’s real purpose is for the enactment of remembering, the performance of that. That is, I am not so much interested in event per se but in watching the individual writer write and, in writing, remember. My role as audience for the memoir is that of priest confessor or Freudian analyst. I like to attend as the writer surprises him or herself with what gets dredged up once one decides to remember. Freud was a great fiction writer. I would love to have invented the character named the Unconscious. What an invention! This fiction makes memoir possible. It is the drama acted out between a consciousness and its unconscious. How thrilling that so much of what you thought you were is hidden from you. We sit and watch that other side, that deeply buried other you come out and play. I guess in that sense it is all fiction, a staged drama of many possible and simultaneously running lives in one, none of them the “real”life, all of them, however, real.
How has teaching creative writing affected your own writing? In your students’ writing, do you notice trends or areas of interest that morph over time?
MM: I teach different kinds of creative writing courses. Forms courses and workshops. In both, I don’t pretend to know anything. I am not that kind of master teacher where I know something and transfer that knowledge to students who don’t know. Instead, I guess, I teach curiosity. I try to create in the classroom interesting environments and then, with the students, discover things that, perhaps, we already knew or know but didn’t know we knew. I think my other job as a teacher is really to resist the bias bred into the institution where I am housed. A university is by nature a critical institution. I want to resist having my students learn to be critics. Instead I want to inculcate the habit of writing and in doing, so I think one has to defuse the tendency to judge quality of work, to even resist asking the question, “Does this work?” Students come to me ready to think of the classroom as a place of battle. They have already been naturalized into thinking that a workshop, say, is a simulation of the way the world works. You write something and an editor or reviewer beats up on it. So students have come to think of workshops as a way to create calluses, to out-think the critics. Instead, I like to invite them to remember the intrinsic pleasures of the business, the act itself of sitting down and writing, not the ritual of self-sacrifice. My students’ writing have, for a long time, been quite timid and, as they love to say, traditional. The many classes many of them have taken have led them into an aesthetic that is by design static. The realistic narrative—once a highly experimental form—has produced a series of stylistic rules that can be taught and my students have learned—don’t use exclamation marks, underlining, or any graphic measure to intensify emotion, for example. Those kinds of rules are set in stone. What is to vary realistic story to story is the content, the local, the details. You can in that kind of aesthetic do things wrong. And the critical institution we work within loves that kind of knowledge. I have seen recently more and more students attempting fiction outside that particular drama. More interest right now in the fantastic, irreal, the magical. Also a growing interest in more things lyrical, meditative, associative, and less linear.