An Interview With Creative Nonfiction Writer Phillip Lopate

Lania Knight

P&W: What do you mean by worldliness?

PL: You can’t be an innocent, or a primitive. Writers are offering an understanding of the world—if I wanted to be pretentious, I’d say a postlapsarian understanding of a fallen world. They’re not offering Pollyanna-ish pabulum. They’re offering the awareness that you don’t stay young, your ideals get betrayed, and that you, yourself, betray others, which is very important to know.

In literary nonfiction, we cling to an old-fashioned, humanistic idea that each person is an individual, each individual has a kind of self, and that that self is cohesive.

You can’t always trust yourself, and you certainly cannot always trust your country, which is a whole other kind of sadness. Suppose you feel completely at odds with your country when it invades Iraq. You can bang your fists, you can kick your feet, and you can also read history and try to understand how America got into this. What are the pitfalls of empire that other countries have faced? How can America act responsibly, and what are your civic responsibilities?

Worldliness situates you in a place between the past, the present, and the future—the fact that there was a past, and you’re not just living in the present tense. You come from a certain human stock. You have parents, grandparents. Part of your responsibility as a writer is to know that you represent a tribe, you represent a lineage, and you can either choose to speak for that tribe, or you can argue with that tribe. However, you can’t escape the fact that you have those markings.

Worldliness is, in part, knowing those things about yourself, and it’s also knowing things about your time. You can’t cling to innocence, as harsh as that may sound. Henry James famously said, “Be someone on whom nothing is lost.” Isaac Babel said you must know everything. These are obviously impossible goals, but they’re something to aim for. They’re at the opposite end of the spectrum of wishing you were a kid watching Saturday morning cartoons.

Adolescents sometimes get morose and say, “Whatever. The world isn’t going to last anyway.” That’s a position on a continuum between innocence—everything’s fine—and worldliness. We could take the pessimistic outlook, but it might be more useful to try to figure out how we can make the world a better place, or at least try to understand it, and encourage people to act ethically without being deluded or filled with illusions.

P&W: Could you talk a little about your own process of writing?

PL: I don’t try to make myself write if I’m not going to have a block of time. I can’t start immediately. Occasionally, I’ll wake up with thoughts buzzing in my head. The waking mind is a very subjective, suggestible, pliable organ that you can put questions to and sometimes come up with answers. I tend to start with what I most want to write, what I can see, instead of forcing myself to just write the next part. I take advantage of enthusiasm and ballast. I’m not such a Puritan that I force myself to write the next link in the chain regardless of whether I want to or not. When I wrote my novel The Rug Merchant, I first wrote every scene that I could see, and then the transitions came last.

P&W: Do you remember what it felt like when you were younger and trying to convince yourself that you were a writer?

PL: I remember the fear in the pit of my stomach because I still have it. I know I’m a writer, but when I start a new project, I think, “Am I going to be able to pull this off?” When I started writing Waterfront, it was complicated because of all the research, and because I wasn’t an expert. Writing this book on Susan Sontag, I’m thinking, “Oh, this is going to get me in so much trouble.” If nothing else, here I am, a straight male writing about a bisexual female who was much more famous than I am, and I’m judging her. Fear enters in.

Because I always liked to write, I was able to get through the bluffing stage. A part of me was experimental. I thought, well let’s see if I can pull this off, this poem, short story, or essay. People who are meant to be writers or artists pose questions, and they try to answer them, and then they pose another question.

P&W: How do you decide if you’ve pulled off a project?

PL: It is very much like working with a lump of clay. You’re trying to form it into a statuette. Will it fall over, or will it stand? If at least you complete the process, you complete the arc, then you know that you pulled it off on the simplest technical level. Then you have to try to make it better. You go over and over, revising, and then you come to the point where you say, “I’m done.” Which may mean that this is as wise as I’m going to get. I can’t get any smarter than this.

I’m not a perfectionist, which has been a great asset. I don’t find writing to be agonizing. I know Red Smith said you just open up a vein, and bleed it out drop by drop, but most days I’d rather write than not write. I’m not Flaubert, though, throwing myself on the couch saying, “Oh, I need another word. I used that word two pages back.” I’m going to construct load-bearing sentences that will convey meaning. Not every sentence is going to be beautiful. D. W. Winnicott has this notion of the good enough mother. To me, there’s such a thing as a good enough piece of prose—it does what it’s meant to do.

P&W: In The Art of the Personal Essay, you describe autobiography as being told by a realistic narrator, and personal essay as being told by a stylized persona. In The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick discusses the need for a persona in writing personal narrative. Do you recall when you first began creating a persona?

PL: I really like The Situation and the Story. Vivian and I were in a reading group for fifteen years, and we often discussed persona. Anybody who works intensively with autobiographical nonfiction realizes fairly early on that they’re going to have to make a construct, you might say a dummy. The mind produces thought after thought, and it’s incredibly random and vagrant. We need focus, and we need to pretend that we’re more coherent than we really are. This kind of writing posits a more coherent self, which is a kind of achievement—that your self has coalesced into something, however limited, more than the rest of the culture wants to allow.

The most advanced literary theory talks about the dissolution of the self and asks if there is really an author. In literary nonfiction, we cling to an old-fashioned, humanistic idea that each person is an individual, each individual has a kind of self, and that that self is cohesive.

This is one reason why schizophrenics don’t become personal essayists. They don’t possess a sufficient coherent self. However, Daniel Schreber, a schizophrenic, wrote Memoirs of My Nervous Illness in the nineteenth century. In the glimmers of coherence, he cobbled together this book trying to describe it. Even when somebody is badly broken, he may strive for a certain coherence in order to give a credible account. I’m interested in this idea of the further boundaries of the endangered self. There was a French philosopher/theorist, Louis Althusser, who killed his wife and wrote a book called The Future Lasts Forever. He had a kind of psychotic breakdown, and then he wrote a memoir afterwards. He tried to understand, but of course, he couldn’t understand.

One of the ways you try to assert a coherent self is by constructing a self-conscious persona, saying, “I like this, I don’t like this, I tend to do this, I don’t tend to do this.” Max Beerbohm in his essay, says, “I don’t like solitude, I don’t like heavy weather…” He’s telling you a lot of things that might be beside the point, but he’s also saying, “I am this peculiar bundle of nerves.” One of the ways that you can construct a persona is to be peculiar to yourself, problematic—to mistrust yourself. You say, “I am an odd duck,” and then you begin to talk through this persona.

This persona may change from piece to piece, depending on the task at hand. There are essays in which I’m much more genial, and others in which I’m much more curmudgeonly—some in which I come across as a regular guy, and some in which I come across as an intellectual snob. I’m aware of these ranges in my character, and I see this happening in real life.

The persona issues from an awareness of natural traits, of behavior. You construct a character out of what you know to be your propensities, your limitations, your inclinations, your habits, and you play with it.

Writing a piece of nonfiction is a conscious act, it’s an artifice, however naked or transparent you want to be. You may as well accept that guilt and go at it. Roll up your sleeves and say, “Okay, I’m constructing a persona here. I want to create the appearance of total frankness, but I know that I’m being highly selective.” The selection has to do with what events or parts you choose to highlight. However, you don’t have to put everything in there. People are under the mistaken impression when they first start that if they can’t tell one secret, then they have to be reserved. You can be very unbuttoned about some things and still keep secret about many others.

P&W: Your essays feel like a conversation, but in Against Joie de Vivre and Waterfront, you write about intimate subjects that aren’t necessarily said in spoken conversation.

PL: I’m much more forthcoming in my writing than I am in spoken conversation. I try to come across as approachable and familiar, but at the same time, I’m not so quick to tell people secrets about myself. I’m not so quick to tell people, for instance, that in my first marriage, my wife had an abortion. But, here I am writing, and the time has come for me to treat that material. In the case of Against Joie de Vivre, it seemed like the essay had to go somewhere, and one of the places that seemed to be surprising, or that would have depth, was sex. If I’m taking this position against joie de vivre, I have to face the enemy, rapture. Similarly, my essay, “Portrait of My Body,” moves into the genitals eventually because if you’re going to talk about your body, you’re going to have to talk about that too.

Often a personal essay mimics the casualness of a conversation, maybe even addresses a reader, and anticipates objections that the reader might raise. That sense of internalizing the reader and talking to the reader is conversation. You’re seeking intimacy, trying to move from a formal plane to a more informal plane, where—if it’s a personal essay—you’re being more honest than is initially expected.

It’s also a self-conversation. Personal essays often end up being discussions between one part of yourself and another part of yourself. You’re interrogating yourself, and then you’re answering yourself, so you’re splitting yourself. There’s a split between the author, and then there’s the awareness of an audience.

There is a connection between the conversational nature of the personal essay and the awareness of a tradition. You’re not only talking to an audience or to yourself, but also to your illustrious ancestors and forebears, knowing that they have also treated some of these same subjects. There is a deeper conversation going on.

Many personal essays refer to predecessors. Montaigne was always quoting his favorite classical authors. Hazlitt writes about Montaigne and Lamb. Emerson has an essay on Montaigne. Virginia Woolf writes about Hazlitt and Montaigne. They think about their predecessors. They’re talking to the illustrious dead, as well as to themselves and the audience.

P&W: In The Art of the Personal Essay, you defend your choice of not including many women from earlier centuries, but there is no defense of the twentieth century’s lack—less than one-third are by women. Is this proportionate to how many women essayists were being published in the twentieth century?

PL: No, there were many more women who were being published in the twentieth century.

Jenny Spinner has put together an anthology of women essayists, an historical anthology. She was challenged by this very statement in The Art of the Personal Essay and took it on as a dare. I like what she did, and it helps to fill in the record. However, I don’t think that there were undiscovered Lambs, Hazlitts and Montaignes. I had a limited number of pages and I had to try to put forward what I saw as the canon, which was largely a canon of dead, white males. A canon wasn’t present in people’s minds; there was nothing out there that was connecting the dots between Seneca, Plutarch, Sei Shōnagon, Montaigne, Hazlitt, and Lamb, and down through Orwell, Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, Richard Rodriguez, and Gayle Pemberton. I wanted to do that. That was my mission. I’m not going to be falsely apologetic and say I didn’t get enough Native Americans in or I didn’t get enough women in.

I don’t offer these things as a last word, but to begin a conversation. We needed to connect the dots and to assert a canon in a field that was rather neglected.

P&W: Do you have any thoughts about publishing?

PL: In some ways, I’m an optimist. I like to believe that if you write something that is good, it will get published. Beyond that, all bets are off. Saying it’s going to get published doesn’t mean it’s going to get heavily promoted. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to sell one hundred thousand copies. It may only sell two thousand copies. The audience for serious literature is limited. So, let’s say there are ten thousand people in America who regularly read serious literature—there certainly are more than ten thousand writers. Once, I heard a publisher of poetry say that if only all the people who wrote poems and sent them in would buy one book of poetry a year, we’d be doing okay. Everybody wants to write, not that many people want to read.

I’m optimistic in thinking that if something is written to a certain standard, it will get published. I’m not sure that’s the case, but I need that crutch to live by. It could be rationalization, it could be false, but in my life, it’s tended to happen. I’ve never promised anybody the ability to buy a country house by writing personal essays. So, don’t quit your day job, but keep writing.