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Interview With Philip Lopate: Making The Reader Work A Little

February 15, 2013 Books, Guest Posts, Interviews, Writing 1 Comment

To Show & To Tell cover art

Guest Post by Chuck Leddy

Widely regarded as one of America’s foremost living essayists, Phillip Lopate is author of over a dozen books, including three personal essay collections. The Brooklyn-basedLopate is a frequent contributor to such periodicals as Harper’sThe Paris Review, and The New York Times Book Review. He edited “The Art of the Personal Essay,” the classic anthology of the essay genre. Lopate is also a renowned writing teacher and directs the graduate nonfiction program at Columbia University. His new book, “To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction,” was just released by publisher Free Press.

CL: What do you hope readers will take away from “To Show and To Tell”?

LOPATE: I hope they’ll be encouraged about the essay form; it’s a very viable form and, in many ways, it’s the form of the moment. Essays and memoirs are all over the place, and they’re a way people can follow out their thoughts. I hope they’ll take from [the book] the confidence to write about anything and everything.

CL: “To Show and To Tell” is ambivalent about offering hard-and-fast rules for crafting personal essays. What’s the danger in offering rules?

 LOPATE: My book isn’t a how-to book in the conventional sense. I think that almost any rule can be broken, if you can get away with it. What I’m trying to encourage is a mentality, an approach, and a process, rather than a bunch of rules which often are very fashion-driven and not necessarily relevant. For instance, some teachers will tell their students not to begin a sentence with a gerund or not to use adjectives and adverbs. Well, the English language is there to be used. I want students to write different types of sentences, not just short ones or long ones.

CL: What gets lost when essayists “show,” but fail to “tell”?

LOPATE: These essayists are hiding their true opinions or judgments. If they do everything in scenes and dialogue, they’re not using one of the most powerful tools of the memoir and essay, which is reflection – making sense of the experiences you’ve had. [Writers] should be dedicated to finding wisdom, even if they can’t get there. If you’re just showing, it’s like you’re writing with one hand tied behind your back.

CL: What are your differences with Lee Gutkind, the so-called “godfather of creative nonfiction”?

LOPATE: Gutkind has advocated writing everything in scenes and dialogue, using cinematic imagery, and trying to make [the text] read as much like a novel as possible. But a lot of great nonfiction writers through the ages have taken a different approach. I don’t think writers need to make everything go down like soft-serve ice cream. You can make the reader work a little. Writers like Emerson and Montaigne weren’t writing novels; they read like living minds grappling on the page from sentence to sentence. To me, that’s very exciting.

CL: You speak of curiosity and ambivalence as guiding principles for essayists. Why are they so vital?

 LOPATE: Curiosity is what a writer needs over the long haul. Some advocate for [following your] obsession, but obsession can only take you through one book. Curiosity is a way for an autobiographical writer to explore the world. Once you get past your traumas, your childhood stories, then you’ve got to go out into the world and be curious about something, and bring back material to write about. To me, curiosity is endlessly generative and regenerative.

And ambivalence means you haven’t shut down yet. You’re not so sure of what you think, and you’re able to think against yourself. The essay feeds on doubt, skepticism, and ambivalence. When you argue with yourself, and think against yourself, it makes for a richer, more complex discourse.

CL: Why do your think your writing students sometimes resist embracing ambivalence in their work?

LOPATE: I’m very interested in resistance. Instead of being discouraged, I try to think, “well, that’s interesting. What’s going on here?” Part of the resistance to reflecting on the page is because it’s hard work. Creative writers often don’t value their minds enough, though they value their passions or their sensational stories. Being constantly told “to show, don’t tell” creates an inhibition against thinking. But once they are alerted to the double focus (of showing and telling), then they start to do it.

 CL: How does an essayist know when a particular essay is finished?

Phillip Lopate_Photograph by Sally Gall

LOPATE: [Laughter] Sometimes exhaustion sets in. Sometimes you have a deadline and need to turn it in. But I do think there’s an inner sense writers develop after a while that you’ve done as much as you can, that you’ve struggled with the problem and come as far as you can. You don’t need to “solve” anything, but just need to keep the reader entertained.

CL: Why do you believe that most answers to issues of craft can be found by reading widely in the genre?

LOPATE: The key to writing is reading. You can solve a lot of [craft] problems through immersion reading – you read enough so that after a while your brain is reconfigured in a different way. You start using more complex syntax; you become aware that your bright ideas have been used before. But the deeper reason is that with reading, you start to feel yourself part of a long tradition. You have all that company; you link up with all those dead writers. There’s joy in knowing you’re all serving the same master, which is literature.

CL: What advice would you offer essayists about getting published?

LOPATE: The first things I’d say is to acquaint yourself with the numerous magazine, newspapers, and periodicals out there. You need to get to know which magazines have your sensibility. We’re not witnessing the “death of print” at all. Also, get a backlog, so you’re not sitting on just one piece. And if you get a rejection note from an editor that’s encouraging, try to establish a relationship with the journal and editor. You need patience and persistence, It takes a lifetime to make a writer, so what’s the hurry. Dig in and start enjoying yourself.

LeddyPhoto (1)
Chuck Leddy is a veteran book critic who contributes regularly to the Boston Globe and Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He’s also a freelance arts reporter who contributes to the Harvard Gazette and The Writer magazine. He’s been a guest lecturer for Emerson College’s Writing, Literature, and Publishing department, and a judge for literary awards. When not reading or writing, Leddy teaches business English for Cambridge-based EF Language Learning Solutions, where he trains Fortune 500 global Executives in business communication skills. You can follow him on Twitter @BostonBkCritic.











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