Art and method of the interview


Maura Flanagan

Recently, I published a two-part interview on ASweetLife with Maura Flanagan, a college classmate who radically changed her health habits and lost 100 pounds after a diagnosis with Type 2 diabetes. Read part one here and part two here.

These are my favorite kinds of stories to do. Interviews are akin to making one’s self a student of the subject. I ask in order to learn, and not to pruriently find out.

It takes both preparation and improvisation to conduct a good interview. As a teacher/scholar, when I’ve conducted studies on a teaching or learning question of interest, I usually incorporate an interview part. I really enjoy these kinds of engagements with people. And, whether the interview is for an online magazine or a research study, my method is similar. I describe it below, for other writers to consider as they develop their own practice as interviewers. At the end, as evidence that the method works, I quote Maura as to her experience.

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The David Sedaris method

3882941631_b1929e63a6_mI recently read the 2013 collection of essays by David Sedaris, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. It made me laugh; it made me think; and it made me write a review: link.

One of my favorite essays, which unlike many of the other essays has not been previously published in a magazine or journal, is “Day In, Day Out.” He describes his faithful practice as a diary keeper, beginning September 5, 1977 when he and his friend Ronnie were hitchhiking along the West Coast. He was mailing letters and postcards home to friends, but had no fixed address and so they could not write back to him. “And so I began writing to myself,” he reports. For a few months, he used paper place mats that he picked up at the diners they ate at. Eventually he switched to sketchbooks and “began gluing things around [the] entries: rent receipts, ticket stubs–ephemera that ultimately tell [him] much more than the writing does.” In 1979 he started typing his entries and recording details of his daily life, “writing down things that seemed worth remembering.”

Then came drug addiction (crystal meth, he says), and six diaries in a row amounted “to one jittery run-on sentence, a fever dream as humorless as it is self-important.” Re-reading the diary entries by his former drug-addicted self, he “wanted to deny him,” but couldn’t.

That’s the terrible power of a diary: it not only calls for the person you used to be but rubs your nose in him, reminding you that not all change is evolutionary. More often than not, you didn’t learn from your mistakes. You didn’t get wiser but simply older.

Since the first day of daily diary writing in 1977, he has been “consumed” by the habit. He has skipped, “on average, maybe one or two days a year.” The diary is tied to his practice as an essayist. He spends the day recording observations (e.g., “a T-shirt slogan”), overheard conversations, and thoughts (e.g., about an argument with Hugh) in a notebook, and the next morning he tries to do something with them. “Over a given six-month period,” Sedaris writes, “there may be fifty bits worth noting, and six that, with a little work, I might consider reading out loud.”

4372725422_461681d55dIn more than 35 years, he has filled more than 136 diaries, which he keeps in a locked cabinet. He has also indexed the volumes, and the index itself is 280 pages. He worries that: “I’m so busy recording life, I don’t have time to really live it.” Once, after his laptop is stolen, including eight weeks of his diary that he hadn’t backed up, he exclaims, “Two months of my life, erased!”  Hugh reminds him that he “had actually lived those two months.” It wasn’t his time that had been stolen, Hugh asserts, just the record of it. After years of diary-keeping, this was “a distinction” that Sedaris “was no longer able to recognize.”

Image of notebook stack by See-ming Lee on Flickr via a creative commons license
Image of red notebook by Jean-Jacques Halans on Flickr via a creative commons license


Early winter thoughts

On the shelf over my desk at work there is a picture of me at around age 11 sitting on my parents’ bed and practicing my flute. My mother gave me this snapshot in a small lucite frame, along with some other childhood artifacts, when I turned 40.

Sometimes I look at that photograph to remind myself, “That’s me.”  My hair is long. I smile. No doubt I had the room to myself, so I could practice. This was before my father built an addition on our house, so solitude was at a premium in our small house with seven people living there.

More and more, this seems important: to look back on the self before it became adult and look for some pure thing. Even 10 years ago, I would have disparaged (in my mind) others doing this. I believed — and rationally I still know this is true — that the self is mutable and changes every day that we are alive. Today marks the day that I am who I am.

Adult life is both full of and fragmented by responsibility to others. This is especially true as a parent and amplified by being a teacher on top of it. The nurturing of the potential of others feels like where a lot of my energy and mental overhead go.

Solitary chair, Cunningham Park, Milton, 11.29.2013

Solitary chair, Cunningham Park, Milton, 11.29.2013

Not all of it goes there. In the past few or several years, my egotistical thoughts and fantasies have become more important to me, as if they are getting unburied with the pressure of time. This is probably some adult developmental stage, and if I knew more about classical psychology or if I were in therapy, I could describe myself to me in a framework.

In my own thoughts, I am like an adolescent: who I am? what will I become? what can I accomplish that is significant?

But I am an adult too, and I remind myself that my life is well underway. The horizon doesn’t shimmer so much with promise as it does with the quiet light of certainty.

Roaring self resists. I document the accepting side of my thoughts, and a lioness stirs and says, “No. It cannot all have been written yet or done.” Promise is not only for Eli, Lydia, and Grace. Promise is not only for the college students I know for a semester or two.

These thoughts have been vividly alive in the last few months because I seem to have reached some limits. Certainly, limits can be overcome or gotten around, but to some degree I am trying to talk myself into learning to live with them and thereby retreating from the challenges they present.

If I don’t run, I won’t ever feel like an inadequate runner. If I cease my skating lessons, I can satisfy myself as a recreational skater. If I content myself with being a satisfactory writing teacher, I will quiet the desire for more authority, more prominence, greater effect. If I write only for myself and my students, I may marvel at how the written word can connect one person to another.

A smaller space might be enough. I could ease into a respectable old age.

I wonder therefore if my reflections on myself as child and adolescent are a way to carve out a space for myself alone, or a self before so many responsibilities grew in my life. “What did you want, Jane?” I can ask her, and only she can answer. The thing is, did she know?

Or, did she know, but she feared to say or do it?

It’s so coy to end on a question. If a student ended an essay or a major section of a paper with a question, I would call him/her out on it. “A reader wants to know what *you* think.”

The child in me is all desire: I want everything that I have ever wanted. The adult in me, all reason: prioritize, defer, and accept limitations (your own and others’).

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NaNoWriMo: Progress Report 2

The experiment ended, and it continues. I creep along.

4348270425_8e76a67d96In November, I wrote prose poems on 25 out of the 30 days. These are drafts, and, among them, maybe 5 are ones to work on. Whether you count 25 experiments or 5 potential poems, those are significantly more than I would have written without the special event.

My favorite writing days were when I had no more than an image to go on. Something caught my eye, I wrote it down with no anticipation of a poem I would generate, and I followed one sentence with the next. For example, one day online I saw the tagline for a crochet book: “figure-flattering crochet fashions.” It was absurd, and it stayed with me. Later that night I followed the line and wrote a character-driven prose poem.

Crocheted Sweater Vest

She dressed in figure-flattering crochet fashions of her own making. The looped stitches
were turned into squares, and squares into clothing. She imagined her vests and hats as
having an intrinsic duality: curves and edges. She was mocked at the office. Other women,
lavish in their mimicry of concern, critiqued the craftiness of crochet. It’s just not sexy.
When had sweaters become erotic objects? To Phoebe, named after the bird by her mother who had died young, a sweater was akin to grass growing on a hill or a beard
on a chin. A light coating, spongy, something that could be trampled on or gripped. It did
not ask to be taken off. But Phoebe left her sweater — rose wool, with some acrylic —
on her swivel chair overnight. She had dared herself. In the morning, it was there, the
victim of no mischief. So she balled it into the metal file drawer, locked it, and left.


Toward the end of the month, I realized that, although I preferred ending a poem on an image or action, a poem might need to go further into a question or idea. Therefore, some of the later ones (not published here) did that. I now wonder how the poem above could get beyond sweaters and self insulation. How would I change it? What  line or two would I add at the end?

I liked the daily pause and productivity so much that I will keep going but change the rules. In December, I will continue to write daily, but with no required form. The topic will be this: ANGER. I will take a crack at it — in prose, poetry, or reflection — every day.

Image credit: Tortuga con jersey de ganchillo (2010), by Alícia Roselló Gené on Flickr via a Creative Commons license.

Dead turkey inspires poem

6721770717_518cc40136_mGrace had the idea we would brine the Thanksgiving turkey, which sounded simple: put turkey in giant ziploc bag, add water to cover, and put in one cup of kosher salt for every gallon of water. The task was arduous, considering that the turkey weighed 20 pounds and the water an additional 25 pounds (three gallons x 8.34 lb. per). Getting it into the refrigerator was handled by Jimmy, aided by a sturdy dishpan.

I interacted with that turkey a lot in the 24 hours leading up to the time that cooking began. By 8am Thursday it was in the oven. Throughout NaNoWriMo , I’ve been doing my prose poem writing at night. But after my encounter with the turkey, I couldn’t wait all day. Inspiration was right there. I sat down. I went with it.

Headless Bird

The neck, broken, is inserted into the place its beating heart once went. That’s there
too, packaged in plastic, a gift from the slaughterer to the cook. The cold skin like
an old person’s, loose on the bone, yet like a baby’s, inviting touch. Empty and patted
dry, the body gets filled with white onion, branches of thyme and rosemary, and two
rubbery carrots. A long loose flap of skin I stretch over the spinal stem and under
the back, which rests on a rack. The pliant flap, like a bandage, hides a cross-section of
connectors that once signaled a head — no longer here — to turn, to look, to peck.

Image credit: Turkey (2009), wattpublishing on Flickr via a Creative Commons license.

NaNoWriMo: Progress Report 1

The first 10 days of my first-ever participation in NaNoWriMo are done! What have I learned from my daily attempts to write a prose poem? (I am following the spirit of the month-long event by writing more, although not following it to the letter, by writing poems instead of novel pages.)

draft of prose poem, “Thrift Shop Sweater,” from Day One

1. I can write creatively even on days when I have lots to write analytically. Constant analytical demands do not ‘kill’ the occasional creative ones.

2. Paper is a nice change of pace. On Day One, sick of my laptop, I grabbed a new pad of paper and a pen and wrote my lines on lines. It worked. I’ve stayed with the handwritten medium for the whole 10 days so far, and I find the blank notebook page to be more inviting and the whole experience to be more pleasingly tactile.

3. A new ritual heightens the experience. At around 9pm, I stop the chores or take a break from paper-grading and set my paper and pen on the kitchen table. Jimmy, who is writing short stories during NaNoWriMo, joins me with his laptop. I take out a juice glass and pour some wine for myself. (If you know me, you know this is typically not me.) I do not fret; I write.

4. I’m using this as an opportunity to discover what is prose, and what is prose poetry. I like introductions and I like context, and I have found that this is my customary gesture: to begin by situating the reader. A few sentences in, I realize I am explaining too much, setting a scene too much, and I pull back and try to turn off that part of my brain. (A teaching part, maybe.) Poems may not have story logic, I remind myself. I try to follow images that may not make sense. I leave gaps.

5. The constraints of a page remind me that a poem has to conclude. When I’m within about three inches of the bottom, I start to wonder how I’m going to see it through. That awareness causes what feels like a downshift or upshift, as though my imagination were a motor. The poem turns.

6. Knowing that writing is on the evening agenda, during the day I keep my eyes and ears open for inspiration. One day, driving to the rink for a skating lessons, I heard an ad for No Doz. The tag line, unbelievably, is “a trusted leader in mental alertness.” At the next stop light, I wrote down what I planned to make as a first line: “He is a trusted leader in mental alertness.” At 9pm that night, I wrote a poem about him.

7. I cannot start after 10pm at night. My brain cannot generate anything new. (Funny, I can grade papers after 10pm at night.) I thought that fatigue would help strike down mental barriers to creativity, but it only strikes down enthusiasm and vocabulary.

8. Only a percentage of my output delights me and may lead to something. I see that this exercise might yield only a couple of poems, and those will need revision. So far, my favorite thing is a title I came up with for a poem: “The Dead-Cold Peace of Saying No.” The poem is so-so, but that’s okay. The daily writing is bringing something to life.

draft prose poem, "Self Portrait," for Day Six

draft prose poem, “Self Portrait,” for Day Six

Writer’s 15-minute confession

Sometimes I feel as though I am dying by not writing.

By “I,” I mean my creative self, not my physical body.

By “dying,” I mean losing force, vitality, hope.

By “writing,” I mean the right words on a matter of personal or artistic urgency.

I went to the bookshelf to find a poem to work on with my adult ESL student today. We are studying modifiers, and those grammar workbooks will kill your interest in words. They are so earnestly done. They seem to have nothing to do with any language that people actually speak or write.

Charles Simic, Philip Levine, Robert Frost. Mark Strand’s “I Was an Arctic Explorer” was on my mind, but I couldn’t put my hand on the book. Mary Oliver’s What Do We Know: Poems and Prose Poems will do.

“Black Snake,” first line:

The flat rock in the center of the garden heats up every morning in the sun.

Instantly, you are somewhere else. You see it in your mind as you’ve seen it before. You feel it; you are the rock.

This poem was in front of me like a piece of cake I could not eat. I know I am exaggerating. But I am close to the cake — so close I could put a fork into it, put the fork into my mouth — but I cannot. Not because I am unable, and not because I am afraid, but because I should be doing something else. I am preventing myself. I am in my own way.

And time will pass, life will happen, I will notice things like flat rocks, bare toes on concrete, and the uptwist of my daughter’s hair, and someone else will be writing about them.

I will be grading your paper, attending your meeting, revising a lecture, listening to your complaints, fielding a question, cooking a meal, signing a school form, getting some sleep.

This may not be factual. This though is what it is like for me to not write.

You say editor; I say writer

Health Axioms, cover image, as poster

Health Axioms, cover image, as poster

With my MIT friend and colleague Juhan Sonin (a founder of Involution Studio Boston and, like me, an instructor on MIT’s 2.009 product design capstone course), I have been working on the text for Health Axioms, a beautifully illustrated set of cards that conveys health knowledge and preaches action. After almost a year, the project is coming to a finish. I’m so excited! The art, text, and package are smart.

Two weeks ago, I went to Invo’s fourth-floor studio in Arlington Center for a review meeting with the team, which includes artist Sarah Kaiser and Juhan’s colleague Harry Sleeper.  Propped on the final stair landing was a full-size poster of the package cover (see image). Around the studio hung more poster-sized images of individual cards. I suddenly pictured these in doctor’s offices and clinic waiting rooms. I imagined people inspired to move more, eat better, meditate, seek comfort, find happiness, and track data as a result of sifting through the cards.

It’s great to be on an effective team and produce a high-quality product. At the end of the meeting, Juhan wondered aloud if it really takes about a year to design and develop something good or, if we all had concentrated on it full time, could we have pulled it together in a month?  Knowing myself, I’d say the year was necessary. But high-energy quick thinkers might be as effective under a tighter time constraint. This much is true for all of us: quality work takes REVISION. Designers, you might call this iteration. No matter the time frame, a good product evolves over many versions. (And the first one sucks.) Continue reading