A WILLINGNESS OF THE HEART: AN INTERVIEW WTH KERMIT MOYER
Kermit Moyer and David Keplinger, former and current directors of AU’s MFA Program in Creative Writing, respectively, discuss a writer’s sense of self and the “willingness of the heart” required of good writers in the workshop and beyond. Moyer’s second book, The Chester Chronicles, won the L.L. Winship PEN/New England Award for the best work of fiction published by a resident of New England in 2010. Moyer’s essay, “A Stranger to Himself,” published in Washingtonian magazine in July, 2011, charts his relationship with Parkinson’s Disease. The following interview was conducted at Moyer’s Cape Cod residence over a period of two days in December, 2011.
DAVID KEPLINGER: You were an undergraduate at Northwestern in the early 60’s. Did you take any creative writing courses at Northwestern? Was that something done at the time?
KERMIT MOYER: I took an introduction to creative writing and a course called basic writing in the journalism school.
DK: And did those courses help you to see yourself as a writer?
KM: I knew I was a pretty good writer, so it wasn’t so much a discovery for me as it was a validation, of sorts. But I wasn’t sure if I could carry it forward.
DK: Do you have notebooks from that period?
KM: I have some pieces I’ve kept, which I felt were finished. I didn’t keep a journal. The undergraduate courses were run basically like workshops. I had a very good creative writing teacher, Dolores Ryback, who thought enough of my work to nominate me for a slot in a writing course with Stephen Spender, the distinguished poet. But I didn’t really write anything that whole semester. It was one of the determining factors in my telling myself that I wasn’t really a writer.
DK: So Spender’s course took your career in a wholly different direction.
KM: Well, I never thought of creative writing as a career. So it didn’t really. More, it helped me make up my mind that I was going to be a reader rather than a writer.
DK: Spender was so good a teacher that you were inspired to go into criticism?
KM: (Smiling) No, Spender was very bad.
KM: Yeah, he was not very good. He looked the part. He looked like someone’s definition of a poet. Very tall, thin, with wild, white hair. He spent the first class doing nothing but reading Dante to us. In Italian!
DK: He was hard on your writing?
KM: He didn’t do much with my writing because I didn’t give him much to criticize. He was very casual about our assignments. We turned stuff in as it came out of our typewriter.
DK: There were only a few MFA Programs on the map at that time. Did students in your circles talk about going forward to earn an MFA?
KM: I didn’t look into it. But the creative writing served me. I got interviewed at AU because the secretary there noticed I had some classes on my resume. This gave her the idea that I could teach creative writing. (Makes a motion like pulling a resume from a file.) My materials stood out. Enough for her to pull my letter. I had had a few courses, but I had never taught creative writing before.
DK: Then your first “graduate” workshop came after your PhD. You took it at AU 30 years ago, with Richard Yates.
KM: Well, I was very excited when we first instituted this MFA program and its “visiting writers series” back in the early ‘80s. Writers would come to campus each semester for a week. One thing that excited me was not so much that I wanted to use the workshops for my own development, though it did become clear to me that I could do that. I just wanted to sit in on these workshops and hear what others had to say about fiction. These were writers I was currently teaching in my courses. I was the only one who did that. I attended all of the visiting-writer workshops.
DK: Who were some of them?
KM: There was Yates. He thought the world of one of my stories.
DK: That must have made you happy.
KM: It was a further validation. Gail Godwin also read that story. Tim O’Brien was one of the visiting writers.
DK: That was at the beginning of his career.
KM: He had just written Going After Cacciato.
DK: For which he would go on to win the National Book Award.
KM: He was here for most of the week. AU got him to come for about 1200 dollars! He came for four days. Peter Taylor also ran a workshop. Lucille Clifton. Stanley Kunitz. Alice McDermott. Grace Paley. John Irving. This was from 1981, say, to 1987.
DK: Were you one of the founders of the AU program?
KM: For the first few years I was involved only to the extent that I was teaching Intro to Creative Writing. I published my first story in 1983; I began teaching creative writing at that time. It wasn’t that I needed to wait. But once I published that story in 1983, I felt I had a credential.
DK: That was a big story, published in The Georgia Review. “The Compass of the Heart.”
KM: That’s right. That was an amazing experience for me. I had written a draft of the story the previous summer, the first story I wrote as an adult. By which I mean I really felt I was discovering something. And what I was discovering was that you didn’t have to know what your story was going to be about before you started. You could learn a lot just by writing sentences.
DK: That goes back to your favorite line by E.L. Doctorow. What was it?
KM: The line was: “Writing a book is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as the headlights go, but you can make the whole trip that way.” But I hadn’t even read Doctorow’s line yet. What was influencing me back then was a book by William Stafford, called, Writing the Australian Crawl. And he makes the point that a writer is not so much someone who has something to say, but someone who has a process that brings out new things he wouldn’t have thought about, if he hadn’t started speaking.
DK: What is process to you?
KM: It’s working on sentences.
DK: You’re a bricks and mortar guy. You worry about this row of bricks.
KM: You could say that. Maybe there’s a better way of saying it? It seems to me still that there’s something vaguely miraculous about composing sentences.
DK: What do you mean by miraculous?
KM: Because writing sentences so individualizes us…and at the same time is a model of connectedness.
DK: Your attention to the sentence is apparent in the two books, Tumbling (University of Illinois Press, 1988) and The Chester Chronicles (The Permanent Press, 2010). There isn’t a sense that you agonized over the sentence, more that you poured love into them. They move slowly. I’m realizing it now, as I say this. When I read the work, that’s it, I want the work to go slow. In Tumbling, the final story, “Ruth’s Daughter,” is written in the POV of a woman who has an abortion. I taught it to a class of students who later met you. When you came to class, the group was surprised you were a man, even though on the cover of the book was plastered a giant photograph of your face and the author’s name is Kermit. Were the first readers of that story shocked that you could write of a woman’s experience so convincingly?
KM: They were. I got that a fair amount. It took me by surprise because to me there wasn’t much different from writing a story from a female’s point of view and writing from the point of view of anyone who is a stranger to me. I wanted to write “Ruth’s Daughter”— it’s my sister’s story—so I called her up and asked if it would be OK. She said it would be fine. So I said, tell me the story again. With that I had the rough outline.
DK: You said something interesting a moment ago. You said, I would tell that story as I would tell the story of anyone who is a stranger to me.
DK: So this character is a stranger to you. In a way you’re suggesting that your sister, too, is a stranger to you. As you write in the Washingtonian article on Parkinson’s and life with a chronic illness, we can even become strange to ourselves.
KM: But we have access to others through the imagination. I can imagine myself as someone who is not myself.
DK: Why do writers pursue that?
KM: It’s a good question. I think it may have to do with a natural, human curiosity about other people. And therefore, the tendency to, when you sit down to write, want to play with a voice. And the voice can be exciting when it’s not you. All of the stories in Tumbling were written with the idea of voice in mind as a paramount. Each story in that book is from a different voice.
DK: And in The Chester Chronicles each story is of the same voice. Which presents a whole new set of problems.
KM: That’s true.
DK: I like how, in Chester, the voice matures the way it does in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. So the sentences and vocabulary change. There’s a change in the way the voice reflects back on itself as you move through the novel.
KM: I think there’s something to that. For me, however, it wasn’t a conscious plan on my part. It’s the way the voice came out when I allowed him to talk about his high school experience, his college experience, what have you.
DK: You were influenced by Frank Conroy and Fitzgerald. You have whole passages of Fitzgerald memorized.
KM: One of my favorites is this, from a little known story of his called “The Swimmers”: “France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter: it was the graves at Shiloh, and the tired drawn faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart.”
DK: A willingness of the heart. Why that passage?
KM: It seems to me to explicate Gatsby. His story is the story of the willing heart in the new world.
DK: Are you drawn to that because it’s your story too?
KM: In a way, I think it is.
DK: What about Frank Conroy?
KM: Frank Conroy’s book, Stop-Time, knocked me over when I first read it in graduate school, 1968 or thereabouts. What struck me was the clarity of the writing. It was incredibly clear without at any point losing its other sense of being poetic. It was poetic in the best sense of the word. It was poetic in the sense that it was precise. And it was terrific at evoking the feeling of Conroy’s experience in the past. It felt to me like my book. Like, how could he have written this? This is my book! (Laughing.)
DK: Did you set out to write Chester with Conroy in mind?
KM: I had Conroy in mind. There are sections of that book in present tense, where he’s using present tense in a memoir. It’s contradictory. How can you be remembering in the present tense? It was clear that the voice was the voice of the adult, even though he’s writing about childhood in the present tense.
DK: In Chester, only the opening story, “The Color of My Eyes,” is in the past.
KM: That sets up the novel as a retrospective. Then it goes to the present from that point on.
DK: Conroy was a fixture at Iowa and deified there. Tom Grimes wrote Mentor, which gained a lot of attention last year. It’s the story of his apprenticeship under Conroy. Conroy came to AU for a year in the 1980s and you had the chance to serve on a few thesis committees with him.
KM: It was incredible for me. He was working in Washington as head of the literary section of the National Endowment for the Arts. When I heard that was the case, I called him and asked him to visit my class; we’d read his book. It was extraordinarily exciting for me. Later he joined the faculty as an adjunct. His way of teaching was not my way, though. From what I gathered—say, you had your story we’re discussing today—he’d start by reading aloud the sentences. And he would be cruel—he wasn’t being cruel—he would be honest. I guess at some point he’d stop reading once the incidental problems began to mount up. I got to introduce him when he finally came for a reading. But I never managed to get close to him in any particular way.
DK: But his writing brought you close, ironically. His writing for its measure of precision, its clarity. Is that to you the greatest measure of its beauty?
KM: I would say grace. Grace is the greatest measure of beauty. The grace of the language…
DK: And that grace is measured by…
KM: By me. (Laughs.)
DK: Who recognizes it when it looks like…what?
KM: Well, a lot of it is a matter of rhythm. You know, I’m sure I pointed it out before. The sentences of this book (holding up The Great Gatsby) achieve a rhythm: “Everyone expects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”
DK: And your first sentence of The Chester Chronicles?
KM: “My eyes are hazel. If everyone has a secret physical vanity, this is mine.”
DK:I can hear the echo there. Was it conscious?
KM: It was.
DK: Kerm, 30 years ago, when our MFA program was being developed, there were only a handful of them across the country. Now, hundreds. At AWP last year, nearly 8000 attended. Many of them, graduate students. Many want to do what we do for a living: spend their lives talking about writing and working with other writers. In the face of the competition for such positions, where do you see the purpose and worth of MFA programs today?
KM: In a way, their worth and their position haven’t really changed. There’s the issue of money, of course. It makes sense to go to a program you can afford. But it also makes sense to go to a program where you’ll be excited. One of the good things about a writing program is that it encourages people to read closely. You’re doing in a workshop what you don’t normally do in other lit courses. You think of writers as people who are narcissistic and self involved, but it’s a way of getting you out of yourself and focusing on someone else’s work for a while.
DK: There’s that theme again, getting out of yourself.
KM: The particularly paradoxical nature is this: you’re getting out of yourself as a way of looking more deeply into yourself. That’s the virtue.
DK: So you celebrate the proliferation of MFA programs?
KM: I celebrate the proliferation as I celebrate the proliferation of English departments throughout the country. Studying literature forces you to think about what’s not said, or to hear what’s said in such a way that requires special attention.
DK: Can that “willingness of the heart” be taught in a creative writing workshop?
KM: The student would have to begin with a willing heart to accept the teacher’s council.
DK: When I was a graduate student my teachers suggested things to me, and as I remember it, I tried anything. That sense of, “I will try anything,” the “primitive curiosity” Russell Banks talks about in his interviews, seems the crucial thing.
KM: You have to try everything. No one knows what their work is going to be!
DK: Are there other roles of graduate workshops? Should students join a program under the assumption that it will help them to get published? Isn’t that why they come?
KM: A program can’t make promises for its graduates. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. (Taking down a handful of books and studying the names) But many of the students have published novels and collections of stories and books of poems. Sandra Beasley, a poet, and Liz Poliner, Carolyn Parkhurst, novelists. Donna Hemans. Alex MacLennan. Novels. Amy Stolls, a novelist, and Barbara Goldberg, a poet.
DK: So let’s talk about your books now. I’m holding a copy of The Chester Chronicles now and reading the blurb from Michael Cunningham. It says: “Kermit Moyer is one of America’s undiscovered treasures. I find myself periodically imagining a parallel world that’s exactly like this one, except that in the other world Moyer occupies his proper place in the literary universe. I can only hope that with the publication of The Chester Chronicles, that world is on its way.” In 2011 you won the Winship Prize, a major award from PEN/New England. You’ve been asked to read beside the likes of Richard Russo and Frank Deford. All this year, in retirement. How important is it to you, to have that world realized, the one Cunningham is talking about?
KM: The good thing about being well known is that more people are interested in reading your work. So it feeds the same hunger. After Tumbling got a New York Times book review, I got my first fan, a carnival owner named Monte. I liked receiving that letter! I wouldn’t want to be so well known that people would point at me. Even at Northwestern, I can’t say I ever had any fantasies about being famous. But I wanted to be validated.
DK: Recently, as I mentioned earlier, you’ve gained a lot of press because of an article that appeared in Washingtonian magazine. “A Stranger to Himself” maps your relationship to a chronic disease, Parkinson’s. Until a few years ago, you never formally announced that you had Parkinson’s.
KM: It never seemed significant. That’s funny. People made a big deal of that. At a bookstore on the South Coast of the Cape, a very small turnout, I sort of had a stumble and I said, “I’m not drunk, I just have Parkinson’s.” It was the first time I’d publically announced that fact. There were already, I remember, many people in the audience who knew I had Parkinson’s.
DK: After that, you began to write more openly about life with Parkinson’s. Your piece was then featured on Michael J. Fox’s Foundation’s website. Was it a conscious choice to bring that part of your life into the work?
KM: Yes, it was. A conscious choice.
DK: You were diagnosed in 1995. 17 years have passed and it’s changed your notion of the self, as you write in the last passages of that essay, speaking of yourself in the third person limited:
Thus he’d become both the subject and the object of his own attention, which is to say he’d developed a third-person relationship to himself. His once so-familiar self had become a virtual stranger. And his condition was another country—a country that remained foreign even though it was where he now lived, a country whose weather he charted moment by moment and whose landscape was the landscape of his own mind, body, and soul.
Has this disease offered an insight into how, not just you, Kermit Moyer, writer, but everyone is the subject and object of their own attention?
KM: It’s an aspect of our alienation, isn’t it.
DK: You live now on the Cape. Big changes from Washington, D.C.
KM: There are major differences, mainly that there are many fewer people here. Not so much in the summer, but in the winter it comes down to a skeleton crew. That’s one kind of change, but the other is that the landscape is so different. And the ambiance is different as a consequence of that. Amy and I love it here. We didn’t really love Washington, D.C. We were there 37 years. I notice that when you’re living in Washington it takes a long time to get anywhere. Here, it’s not the case. There’s no highway driving. Beyond that, the people are different. There’s little tension. That’s something you notice pretty immediately. As a writer there’s more of a sense of a community for me. You know more people who are part of an artistic community. You end up knowing more painters and musicians.
DK: In Washington there are so many artists, but the sheer numbers make it harder to know a collective of them.
KM: That’s right.
DK: So for you, and for many, it’s better to be in a community where there are less, to get to know that few, and to sink oneself into that community.
KM: I’m looking at my watch because it’s time for me to take my pills. Not because this is a boring conversation.
DK: (Laughing) That’s going into the interview.
DK: Did the regimen of pills affect how you wrote The Chester Chronicles?
KM: It did in the sense that I did more writing early in the morning. I’d get up at 5:00 in the morning and work til about 11:00. That’s a long time, anyway, to spend on something that you’re writing.
DK: Did you walk away exhausted?
KM: I’d walk away generally sort of satisfied. I wouldn’t think about it until the next day when I was working on some sentences again. My way of working was not to work in terms of plot—what happens next—but in terms of the words on the page.
DK: Was it hard to keep track of what you were working on yesterday when you were just focusing on what’s illuminated by the headlights?
KM: Not exactly, because the writing is not as linear as that. It is linear in the sense that you’re going forward in a straight line. A lot of the writing that I’d be doing would be expanding a paragraph that I had drafted the day before. So much of what I wrote proceeded along that way. After reading the Stafford, I’d envy poets. He could get up and write a new poem daily. Writing prose requires more peasant-like skills, going back and returning to a state of mind, instead of encouraging a new state of mind, every day.
DK: Do students know how to write good sentences?
KM: Students as a general rule are just learning how to write good sentences.
DK: Graduate students.
KM: I don’t know why they’re so hard to write. Apparently they are.
DK: Is it because each sentence is like a poem, embodying the nature of what it’s saying?
KM: What you leave out is the quality of voice, the common denominator that runs through the sentences and limits the kinds of choices you can make, and helps to determine the rhythm of what you’re saying, the syntactical rhythm (Taking up a copy of Tumbling and reading the first lines of the first story):
A little girl in a white nightdress is standing in a long upstairs hallway of an old beach hotel. The hallway is lit by a series of flared glass wall-fixtures that diffuse a warm, nearly amber light, and the hardwood floor is overlaid with a worn runner, so threadbare that its scenes of crinolined ladies and tailcoated gentlemen strolling in a park are barely discernable.
As opposed to the opening of the second story:
Early one rainy morning just about a week ago, Jack and me were sitting in a laundromat in this little town where we’d spent the night in an unlocked car. We sleep in cars a lot of times, it’s not as bad as you might think.
DK: That shift reminds me of Hemingway’s In Our Time, when readers come upon the voice of “My Old Man.” Suddenly we’re thinking in a very different way. It’s a shock.
KM: That’s very true. Like this opening:
My mother and Mrs. Kincaid are trying to talk Doris into going with me to the evening movie, which tonight is outside on the top deck. The trouble is, it’s a Western and Doris only likes musicals and comedies.
That’s the same kind of voice, a kid voice. (Turning pages.) But this opening:
Peggy Landis was my father’s girlfriend in those days, but I was the one she called her “beau.” My brother Toby was “Mr. Tobias.” Peggy came from Georgia, and these old-fashioned or formalized pet names were one of the ways she had found to exaggerate her Southernness and thereby perhaps more clearly characterize herself.
DK: That’s an adult.
KM: That’s an adult.
DK: There’s a maturity in the voice, not just in the vocabulary but in the way the sentences unfold. How do you teach that?
KM: The writer must have a sharper sense…What I always find is that the voice has to come from a specific person, and you can sort of discover that person through trial and error. The page that takes the longest for me to write is the first page. I’m looking for the voice. This is the point at which maybe workshopping is not the best idea, because readers maybe can’t hear your voice, and that might convince you you don’t have a voice to be heard.
DK: You got your first (and only) job at AU because the secretary lifted your resume out of the file. Sitting here I realize I had that experience, too, and with you. I applied for a position in the MFA and was among what must have been over 200 applicants. Denise Orenstein, the director at that time, happened to like something I had to say about teaching the children of ranchers in Colorado. And when we met, you and I, there was a clear connection. So, I got the job.
KM: That’s right. Lots of accidents.
DK: A lot of accidents, right? When I’m advising students who want to become teachers, I tell them they have to trust that these accidents will happen, but not in the way they might have planned.
DK: Teaching was the right thing for you.
KM: Without a doubt. It used me well. I mean, I felt like if I were a hammer, I was hitting the nail. There was an exact correspondence between what was needed of me and what I had to give.
DK: Did teaching teach you?
KM: In some fashion, yes it did. It means, allowing yourself to be spontaneous and being present in the moment in the classroom, as opposed to being all charged up with what you had intended to say. You can discover new directions by paying attention to what is happening in the present moment.
DK: It does sort of move like a story, in the way you describe the movement of a story. Sentence by sentence. And of course the whole workshop depends on the students in it, their willingness to be open.
KM: I was just thinking that to listen well, which you have to do in a workshop, requires “a willingness of the heart” to change. You can’t be too rigorously committed to your first draft. It took me a long time to learn that but I have learned it since then. To be patient when Amy is talking about a draft of a story I’ve asked her to read. And not to be defensive. We’re not going to make this story worse. If I’m open to what she has to say, we’ll only make it better.
DK: Kerm, there’s such beauty in that. “To listen well…requires the willingness to change.” That’s a piece of wisdom I’ll carry with me.
MORE INTERVIEWS WITH KERMIT MOYER
LISTEN: Kermit Moyer's interview on Writerscast Podcast is here