Monday, July 11, 2011

An Interview with Ryan Van Meter

Ryan Van Meter’s collection of linked essays, If You Knew Then What I Know Now, was published by Sarabande Books in April. His essays have been anthologized in The Best American Essays 2009 and the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction.

In If You Knew Then What I Know Now, Van Meter writes about growing up gay in the suburban Midwest, about gender and masculinity, and coming out. With poetic language and profound empathy, the book essentially examines how we learn to love.

Van Meter recently visited Minneapolis from San Francisco to read at Magers and Quinn as part of Gay Pride week and generously took time out for a conversation with me about this collection.


One aspect that I’m particularly interested in is how you’re able to be very revealing of yourself within the context of many other people – in particular parents, friends, and exes. And the people you write about are portrayed as full and complex characters, but never seem to be exposed. Could you talk about how you approach writing about others and how you think about others’ privacy? 

Van Meter 

I was conscious that in telling my own story, I had to tell other peoples’ stories too, but I didn’t want to reveal anything that I didn’t think was mine or that I didn’t feel I had permission to reveal. So there are a lot of subjects about the other people in the book that I am writing around, and hopefully the reader doesn’t notice those absences. I was trying to focus on my own experience because that was what I could interrogate most honestly, and hopefully the reader doesn’t feel as though I’m ignoring certain possibilities. As honest as my book is, I never felt pressure to reveal anything I didn’t want to. Either about others or about myself.

And I was always trying to choose intimacy and honesty instead of sensationalism. Instead of confession for the sake of a thrill. If I was going to reveal something, then I had to really think about it and I had to really look at the revelation not just from my perspective but also from others’ perspectives and develop sympathy for all of the characters even when I didn’t necessarily want to. And I think that might be how the details ended up being intimate rather than sensational. 


Were there ever any uncertainties or gray areas of writing about other peoples’ more private lives or did that line always feel pretty clear to you? 

Van Meter 

One of the essays that was most gray was “The Goldfish History.” In that piece, the two significant characters are my friend Kim and my ex. Before I sent that one out for publication, because I had used their real names, I sent it to them and told them to let me know if they had any qualms about any of the material and I offered to either change names or change troubling details. And neither of them wanted any changes. But because I felt I was revealing so much about their vulnerabilities, I felt I needed to make sure they saw it first. 


Did you get any kind of negative response from family members about the book? 

Van Meter 

The family characters are absolutely true characterizations but I made them purposefully generic so that they could also be the every-dad or every-mom. And so my parents are both supportive of it, but I think maybe that’s easier because they have been made into archetypes.


So, back to what you were saying about choosing intimacy. In reading the book, I felt like that was really done through portraying the vulnerability of yourself, the narrator. For example, there’s this great moment in the last essay, You Can’t Turn Off the Snake Light, with your first boyfriend and he asks you to talk dirty. Your response creates this sweetly awkward moment when you don’t know what to say and just blurt out, “I love you.”

Writing with this kind of vulnerability – is that something that comes naturally or that you have to work toward? 

Van Meter at Magers & Quinn
Van Meter 

Well, I don’t know why this is, but when I’m choosing material, I seem to be attracted to really awkward moments. The book is kind of a record of my most cringe-inducing moments. And when I started that essay, I knew that I wanted to write about how gay men learn to be in love when they have to spend so much of their time growing up being closed off from honesty in relationships or thinking about men being in love with men. And how, when I grew up, I didn’t have any images of that.

The memory of the moment you mentioned popped into my head and I thought it perfectly encapsulated all of the themes. It’s supposed to go one way, is supposed to be easy, and then it becomes some terrible, awkward moment. And the thing the narrator says awkwardly is about love. It seemed to perfectly set out all the ideas and then from there I could go into all of my other directions.


In addition to getting into vulnerabilities, in this book you really have to get into the character of the narrator over a long span of time. You have essays from very early childhood, then later essays covering material that happened very close in time to the actual writing of the book. How is it different for you writing about this very different material?

Van Meter 

I think it’s more difficult for me to write about more recently lived material. Just because there’s not that distance to feel somehow as though it’s safe.

Especially if the psychological story is still unfolding, as a writer, you have to create in your brain a stopping point, even though you might not be completely finished living something as a person. That was one of the challenges in the essay about dating again after being dumped. I wrote that when I was still kind of healing and figuring stuff out, but I had to stick with a date in my head after which I couldn’t borrow from any of my healing or any of my psychology in order to get the essay done or it would still constantly have to be revised because it was still constantly being figured out.

When you’re writing about old material, childhood stuff from when you’re five or nine feels a lot more comfortable because you can use your memory and your imagination simultaneously. I don’t get freaked out if I don’t remember something. I think that your imagination will tell you most of the time what was accurate and right. I don’t think you can really imagine something that was wrong or dishonest.

So those essays are more interesting to write because you get to choose from years and years and millions of things and you have to build that into a single story. That challenge was where I had the most fun in writing.


And as far as more recent material, how do you know when you’re able to start writing about it? Or are any events just too recent and need a certain amount of time before you can start shaping them into an essay?

Van Meter 

I don’t know that I recognize that there’s this thing I’m living through that I want to write about but can’t until some expiration date. It’s more that I don’t realize I want to write about it until after some time has past and I think, oh that’s interesting.

So the essay about dating again largely came out of journal writing. I hadn’t written a journal in ten years. And that essay feels really raw and very close to the surface because I had written so many pages of horrible, embarrassing emotional outpouring all in pencil scribbles. I believe that was the only experience in the book where I thought would probably write about it and then I did.

It was also one of those times when life gives you a little bit of material, because I started the book before I knew I was going to be dumped. And as I started to write about starting over and figuring new things out, I realized oh, this is part of this book. That it was all leading up to this. But I hadn’t known that at the time. 


And along with the time span and closeness of material, I’m wondering how you approached point of view. Especially in those early childhood essays when the perspective is very close to the child self.

Van Meter 

Well, my natural tendency is to write in present tense. It wasn’t until my second year of graduate school that I wrote an essay entirely in past tense. I know it sounds strange, but that was my “experimental” essay. My peers would be writing experimental essays that didn’t even have words or that weren’t even on paper, and my experiment was trying to put “ed” on the ends of verbs.

So I always write in present tense even when I’m not writing essays because I like that constant sense of the unfolding. And I think that’s what lends the closeness. But it’s tricky when someone tries to write sounding like a child. What I hope I’ve done is use adult vocabulary and adult syntax, but folded in the child’s sensibility. It’s the figurative language that holds something a child would say. And lots of writers do this really well, Bernard Cooper being one of them.

One example is in my essay about little league baseball. The narrator recognizes that something is impossible for him to understand, and instead of saying “that’s like brain surgery,” as an adult might say, he says, “that’s like multiplication tables.” I had to ask myself what is impossible to understand at the age of eight? That’s where I believe the writing gets close to child’s sensibility, but it’s not necessarily trying to mimic how a child speaks.

At the same time, I wanted to employ a lot of different perspectives. So there’s past and present tenses. There are also different points of view—there’s first person, two different kinds of second person. There are essays that play with form. And I wanted to put all of those next to each other. Partly because I didn’t want to create the expectation that this was a memoir. I wasn’t trying to write a book that took into account all the time between the beginning and the end, with chapters. I wanted to be able to move through time and isolate certain important moments.

But also, I liked the idea of playing with the concept of imposture. The book is so much about identity and I wanted the reader to feel the narrator’s identity lurching and going all over the place as a way to emphasize that idea.


In the book you mention both a friend and a boyfriend who are much younger and had never really been closeted. Why do you think it’s important to write about experience of understanding sexual identity during a much more closeted time?

Van Meter 

If you look at it right now, like with the It Gets Better Project, we know that gay identity is not something that is totally accepted. And whether it’s because we’re more aware of it or because it’s being reported more, we also know that suicide rates are going up among gay teenagers. We know that it’s getting more visible, but I don’t know if it’s getting better as fast as we would like it to.

One of the things that I wanted to write about was how these types of stories from the late 70s and early 80s—my childhood—are still happening today even though many people might say this is 2011, everything is so much more accepted. It’s still a struggle, especially for children and adolescents. Adults have a much better time of it, but children are still starting from zero.

One of the audiences I was going for were the parents of gay children and the peers of gay adolescents. Because they can make a big difference in those children’s lives. And that’s a big reason why I wanted to step outside my experience and sympathize with those other characters. I wanted to emphasize that this issue isn’t just hurting the gay children and the gay adolescents; these really strict ideas about gender and masculinity and sexuality are human problems more than they are only gay problems.


I’m curious about the process of turning these separate essays, most of which had been previously published, into a book. Did you know when you were writing the pieces that they would become a book? And the two that hadn’t been published (You Can’t Turn Off the Snake Light and To Bear, To Carry: Notes on “Faggot”), did you write those specifically to complete and shape the book?

Van Meter 

I wrote them all so that they could stand alone because I was, in a career way, conscious that I wanted publishing credits. But I hoped that they would lean on each other and enhance each other when they were next to each other in the book. The final essay in the book, You Can’t Turn Off the Snake Light, is the last one that I wrote, and that was the only one where I was conscious of its position in the book when I was writing it. I knew that I was writing “the last essay” and I never sent out that one on its own for publication.

The first essay of the book that I wrote was the title essay. And when I wrote it I didn’t have a book in mind. I was just writing other things and thought I was accumulating a miscellaneous collection of the essays I wrote in these five years of my life.

But then I wrote the essay “Lake Effect,” which has a similar strategy with the sympathy where I’m sympathizing with the other figure, the so-called antagonist of the story. I saw those two essays together as forming the idea of the book. Then I went back and took out some and revised others so that they all, at some moment, allowed me to look through the eyes of someone else, and to consider what it was like to be that other person, even if it was momentary.

That is one of the main ideas that the book pivots around. As well as this idea of how children like me become teenagers and adults who aren’t sure how to be in love because they’ve never been able to talk about these sorts of things.

When I was putting it together as a graduate thesis, there were other pieces that either repeated what was already said or weren’t as strong, or didn’t feel related enough, or their form was too out there, or just didn’t feel part of the book, so they got tossed aside.

The way I put it together was with my thesis director, Susan Lohafer, who is amazing, had what she calls “the big table meeting,” and we had all the pieces that we thought might go in the book. She had me lay them out on the table in the order that I thought they might go and she had me justify the position of each one. And after that exercise, it really felt like a collection that cohered without anything extraneous.


You’d mentioned that having different forms of essays in the book was important to you. How do you find the form that the essay requires? Is it fairly clear from the beginning what the subject demands or does it take a lot of rewriting?

Van Meter 

Several of the pieces here work as a story where a narrative arc is built with some sort of transformation and resolution. They are very conventionally shaped, as short stories go, which may or may not be conventional for essays.

So with essays like “Practice,” “Lake Effect,” or “Youth Group,” I just marched forward, detail by detail and the story sort of told itself. Then there were essays where I was still telling a story, like “Cherry Bars,” but I felt as though I had to do something different with form. That essay is actually two stories unfolding side by side—one that takes place in a single afternoon and one that takes place over a year and a half, and the essay goes back and forth between. And that represented a technical challenge.

With every new essay I write, I try to give myself some sort of technical challenge – even if it’s something the reader would never notice – something that I’ve never taken on before, which helps me think that I’m not writing the same essay over and over again.

Then there’s an essay like “First,” which uses the idea of the narrative arc, but for an experience that took only 15 seconds to live. So how small can the story be and still hopefully pack as much of the emotional wallop of a twenty-page essay?

“Things I Will Want to Tell You on Our First Date but Won’t” took a really long time figuring out the form. It had to endure all kinds of really terrible, failed forms in order to find the right one. It was an open letter at one point. At another point, the whole monologue was directed at the figure in the story who now is only in one sentence, the person I give my phone number to in a coffee shop who turns it down.

I don’t even know how I settled on the eventual form. I was reading list essays around that time, like Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book, which is a giant collections of lists. And I liked its flexibility, how you have to create a narrative not out of cause and effect or things getting worse for the character, but out of some other system.

And a lot of these essays came out of assignments in graduate school. Susan Lohafer had this class where she gave very prescriptive prompts and that essay, “Things I will want,” and “Specimen” actually came from the same prompt. I just did it twice. But the subject matter demanded such different forms, so they don’t look anything alike.


Do you remember what the prompt was?

Van Meter 

It was something like “write about how an injury to the body or an undiscovered instinct in you suddenly emerged and clarified or complicated your sense of self.” Like I said, very prescriptive! And wonderful, wonderful prompts.


The question about love and how we learn to love is so central to this book. Is this a question that is still motivating your current writing or do you have new questions now?

Van Meter 

I found that this was the obvious subject matter that I had to write about. And now that I have written about it, my brain does feel freed up to write about other things. And I think I’m always writing through that filter, or through that gate.

James Baldwin says in his essay, “Autobiographical Notes” that people always ask him, and I’m paraphrasing badly, why he only writes about race. And he says that it’s not the only subject that I write about, but it’s the subject through which I write about anything else.

And I think every writer probably has a gate in their mind.

So I’m not working on a nonfiction book, but I have written smaller projects where I’m allowed to ask other questions because I have, at least for this moment, answered the ones that were bothering me during this book.


And do you have any other kinds of upcoming book projects?

Van Meter 

I’m trying to write a novel, that’s my next big project. But I’ve still been writing essays here and there when I let myself get distracted.


Has it been a different kind of experience to be writing fiction rather than nonfiction?

Van Meter 

I find the difference is more about writing something long. For all these pieces, I could write a 15-page essay, put it in the stack, and work on something else. But they were all self-contained and I could write without having to worry about sustaining tension or constantly taking on a bigger or worse complication for the characters. Right now, the biggest challenge is writing something that is constantly unfolding over many, many pages.


And finally, I can’t help asking about your writing process. Do you have any kind of regular writing process?

Van Meter 

Well, I usually write long-hand first because it feels more urgent and I’m less picky about sentences and word choices when I’m just writing in pencil and on throw-away paper.

I don’t always have to write the whole thing out long-hand, but enough to get a starting place. Because we don’t always start writing at the place that is the start of the essay, I like writing long-hand to see what the essay is and where it’s going before committing it to Microsoft Word. And that way when I type it up, it’s already a second draft, even though it’s technically the first draft. So it’s a psychological trick I play on myself.

And then I try to get a complete first draft down before I think about any sort of line editing. The line editing and the going over and the polishing are the longest part of my process. It can take and has taken years. I’ve had fifteen pages done for three years and still I was moving paragraphs around and taking things out and re-doing scenes. That’s the part that I like most. I don’t necessarily enjoy starting something from scratch. I like having lots of stuff done and moving words around. That feels like actual writing to me.

And the way I revise is by reading it aloud a dozen or twenty times. I think that’s how you can hear the rhythms of the sentences and the mistakes. And also find the things that your brain gave you as a present. The thing that might be a throwaway detail you didn’t realize could be the metaphor for the whole thing. I notice all of that only when I’m hearing it aloud.

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