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Gertrude Stein

The seven sections of Colin Winnette’s slim new novel Revelation correspond to the seven angels of the Book of Revelation. They bring with them fire, hail, receding oceans, bitter water, falling stars (and bodies, in a chilling moment), darkness, locusts, sinkholes, and, of course, those pesky horsemen. The seven sections also depict seven stages of the life of Marcus, whose love and despair we encounter intimately. These biblical calamities, very subtly rendered in unique and memorable visages, are backdrops to Marcus’ struggle, a reminder that life’s great apocalypse – its end – is always an intensely personal one. I had a chance to speak with Winnette about his work on this novel, his other projects, and the writing life.

Brian: Can you talk a little about your development? What authors and styles have shaped you? How has attending a program changed your outlook (or not)?

Colin:  Influence is a tricky thing to talk about.  I can say that Ben Marcus’s work was extremely important to me.  It still is, but at one point it totally saved me.  Or, reinvigorated me.  I was finishing up undergrad and I was in love with writers like Beckett, Proust, Chekhov, Joyce, Kafka, these iconic figures who did what they were doing so masterfully that there seemed nowhere to go at all after that.  That was also the result of my age at the time and what being in school can do to you.  I didn’t realize it then, but I had a pretty narrow vision of what it meant to be a writer and what one could do with fiction.  But then I picked up Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women and I was just totally blown away.  It was an entirely different approach to working with and examining language than I had ever encountered before.  Those books led me to Gertrude Stein and William Gaddis and all of these authors who were breaking language apart, yes, but also reclaiming it, making it do new and fascinating things.  And, I mean, they had been doing this for a long time and in different ways, and here was Ben Marcus doing it still in his own way and just killing it.  So I suddenly felt very free again.  It’s interesting the difference between grad school and undergrad.  In undergrad I was constantly being told what good writing looked like.  It looks like Carver.  It looks like Chekhov.  It looks like Pynchon (and indeed it does!).  It looks like Austen.  Etc.  Workshops were little help because they were often the same kind of thing: I think you should do this, or I think this should happen, etc.  Initially I lacked the confidence to assert myself.  Then, when I gained a little confidence, I asserted myself by just ignoring pretty much everybody and only listening to the 2% I thought made sense or seemed to come from a good place.  I started to tune a lot out.  So I left undergrad fed-up, but with a lot of energy.  I wrote and worked and traveled and didn’t write and two years later I went to grad school with a much different attitude.  I used that time to write as much as possible.  I listened to people and read as much as I could, but took the whole thing less…personally, I guess…than before.  I took it seriously, but I knew the conversations we were having in class were often selfish in that we were all interested in enhancing our work by discussing the work of others.  Helping one another wasn’t exactly the point, although we certainly did help one another from time to time.  And I should say I think all that’s great.  The two most important things grad school gave me were time and a sense of purpose.  I felt encouraged to work and I had the hours in the day to do it.  Or if I didn’t have them, I made them because I knew my time was limited.  I taught myself how to make time to write.  I was writing a lot on the train and in bed my first year.  I wouldn’t let myself sleep until I had done a certain amount of work.  I’m not sure I would have had that kind of discipline at first if I weren’t in a program.  Now, it comes much more naturally.  I had to learn how to kick my own ass.

Brian: I found that the discipline angle served as a wheat/chaff scenario in my own fiction writing classroom. The students who wrote well were the ones who put the time in. Is that level of focus and concentration waning in the generations that come after us? Is it something that can be taught?

Colin: Obviously practices vary.  The kind of disciplined work ethic that worked for me in the past just wouldn’t work for everyone.  It’s very personal, I think, and the method I described is one that fits with the way I am, in general, about many things.  I can be rigid and extremely hard on myself, especially when I’m working on something I care about very much.  And it doesn’t even work for me all of the time.  In fact, being too disciplined or too hard on oneself can often be a hindrance, and can drive one to resent something that should ultimately be pleasurable and thrilling.  So another thing I had to learn was to not be so hard on myself all the time.  It’s a balance, I’d say, something I’ll be perpetually tweaking.  But can discipline be taught?  I think yes and no.  You can’t make anyone do anything, really.  Or, who would want to?  But you can give them (and I assume we’re talking about students here) ideas about what to do.  In a classroom setting, I think it’s important to emphasize the variety of ways that people have worked and will work.  I think it’s important for young writers to write often, even if it’s bad.  Especially if it’s bad, maybe.  Just write it all out and use up all your clichés and lazy sentences.  For me it was like I just poured all of this garbage out onto the floor, but in it were these little pieces of rubbish that I actually kind of liked.  These nuggets I could polish and be proud of.  Seeing it all messed together like that, it was easy to start understanding the difference between something I thought was good or attractive or effective and something that wasn’t.  There’s a process of learning to identify what interests you and what you’re trying to do and what helps you do it.  But that’s just how I do things, you know?  As a kid, I was the one who poured all the Legos onto the floor then went digging for the pieces I wanted.  I needed to see it all at once.  But I had a lot of friends who were much cleaner and more deliberate in their selection.  And we both eventually built whatever it was we were building. There’s no right way to do it.  You just have to do it.

Brian: Ben Marcus and Adam Levin speak highly of Revelation. How do mentors shape your work?

Colin: I’ve always had relationships with other writers and artists.  For me, it’s essential.  I’ve also been blessed enough to attend schools with curriculums that involve one on one meetings with faculty, so a lot of my education occurred in that intimate kind of setting.  I learn a lot from other people.  Or, really, I learn everything from other people.  And I love people very much, so it’s always a pleasure to get together with someone whose work I admire or who is really insightful and engaged and talk through things and get to know one another better.  Having Ben Marcus respond to the book was really one of the most thrilling things that ever happened to me.  He’s a champion and I owe him a lot.  Adam Levin teaches at SAIC, where I earned my MFA, so I had the opportunity to work with him both in class and as an advisor.  He has an incredibly active mind and cares very much about fiction, so our conversations were often incredibly invigorating.

Brian: Do you have any interest in teaching your craft?

Colin: I love talking about fiction.  And I love talking about fiction with people to whom it really matters.  People who have a personal connection to writing.  Often, but certainly not exclusively, you meet those people in an academic setting.  You meet people who are trying to figure things out for themselves, trying to better understand their work, trying to improve, and so it can be a wonderfully open and productive environment.  It can also be a hostile and competitive environment.  It’s a mixed bag just about everywhere, I think.  But I’m optimistic.  I’m happy for the good when it comes.  I’ve had a number of teachers who really inspired and encouraged me.  The bad experiences tend to melt away and the good ones still drive me years later.  One of the best gifts a writing teacher can give, I think, is the sense that the work of a young writing student is as important as the work they themselves are doing.  It sounds obvious, but I think it’s much more difficult than most people realize.  I’ve had a number of teachers who did this, but one of the first was Brian Morton, whom I worked with at Sarah Lawrence College.  While our opinions about fiction were occasionally at odds, I always felt that he approached the conversation as earnestly and attentively as I did.  He was studying, his mind was always working, and he was kind and generous and honest.  He was an early guide, but also an attentive friend.  It was a gift.  My interest in teaching writing would come from a desire to give other young writers something like this, because it meant so much to me.  And still does.

Brian: You manage the imagery from the book of Revelation so gorgeously and subtly in your novel. How did this idea occur to you?

Colin: It was really very sudden and intuitive.  Honestly, I was first attracted to the idea primarily as a constraint.  I had no idea why, but it just occurred to me to write a book that was seven chapters long, each chapter of which would be invoked by the sounding of one of the seven trumpets of the Apocalypse.  And I knew each chapter would jump forward radically in time, so that the book covered the entire span of a character’s life.    It wasn’t until I had written the first draft of the book and was beginning revisions that I really started to understand what was interesting to me about using this structure/content, other than the fact that it gave me the push to begin the work as well as a set of loose guidelines to move the project forward.  It’s something I say all the time about the book, that it was a sort of exorcism of certain narrative modes I was steeped in as a kid growing up in a small Texas town, as well as the models of “great writing” I was beaten over the head with as a young writer.

Brian: How important are constraints for anything that you work on? This is, to me, the delightful irony of experimentation. You exhibit freedom and limitlessness through the very limits you impose on yourself.

Colin: I was extremely interested in working with constraints at one point for many reasons, one of which was exactly the reason you detail here.  I followed and studied the Oulipo, and other artists working with constraints, like 60s/70s performance artists or musicians, and many working today.  I’m interested in the idea that we are always working with constraints, only some are more apparent than others.  When I sit down to write a work of “fiction” on my MacBook, in Microsoft Word, a vast number of decisions are made for me before I even begin.  One’s limited knowledge of the tradition in which they’re working can also be viewed as a series of constraints guiding all of one’s production.  Making the conscious decision to impose constraints is a way of acknowledging and engaging with the constraints that are already in place.  There’s a quote from one of the more famous Oulipians, Raymond Queneau, in which he says, “…inspiration, which consists in blind obedience to every impulse is in reality a sort of slavery.  The classical playwright who writes his tragedy observing a certain number of familiar rules is freer than the poet who writes that which comes into his head and who is the slave of other rules of which he is ignorant.”  It is also a way of knowing more about what you are doing before you do it.  For me, it is also a way of incorporating one’s limitations into the work itself.  And, as you and Queneau point out, the marvelous thing is the way in which engaging with limitations or constraints, be they self-imposed or otherwise, can actually be liberating.

Brian: Most other narratives of this type depict a man-made apocalypse and thus morph into social commentary. Some would argue that even the end-of-days apocalypse is man-made, due to sin, etc. What causes the events in Revelation?

Colin: Yes.  Exactly.  It’s funny no one’s thought to ask this so directly before.  The quick and easy answer would be to say there is no answer.  Or, we don’t get to know.  This is something the characters in the book are struggling with, or trying to ignore, or successfully ignoring.  I’m much more interested in the ways we come to understand, deal with, or not deal with traumatic events in our lives, rather than tracing any kind of causal relationship, casting blame, etc.   I’m interested in the stories we tell ourselves.  I think examining those stories brings us closer to an understanding of what it means to be an actively living/seeing/perceiving thing.

Brian: This is a good point. Your answer clearly applies to Marcus. We don’t get to see the ups and downs (mostly downs?) of his life actually happen to him. We’re always, at the beginning of a section, thrown into some sort of aftermath, or dénouement, of another major life change. You have a taste for, as you say, the way we re-present these moments to ourselves, after the fact. I find it would make for a very interesting film. Have you thought of this book cinematically? Does thinking cinematically help you?

Colin: I think it’s hard not to think cinematically at this point, at least when writing a book with such clear scenes and imagery.  I certainly pictured every scene I wrote in my head as I was writing it.  And movies have dramatically impacted the way I imagine things.  This is true of other work I’ve done as well, that the work relies so heavily on the concreteness of a certain image or gesture that I have to really picture it before I can write it.  I have to see it and look all around it and check it for weak spots.  I’ve been so effectively trained by movies and television as to how one looks at and around a thing, that my imaginative eye often examines an imagined thing in these camera-like sweeps and zooms.  I am a slave to the machine.   But I think you’re also talking about the narrative itself here, and I would have to say that in constructing the story I wasn’t thinking at all cinematically.  I also would be interested in seeing a film that moves in this way (I’m sure they’re out there.  In fact, I’m sure I’ve seen a couple without realizing it).  I think most movies emphasize the moments that this book tends to leave out.  We are attracted to stories with high-drama and with rising tension that moves toward a rewarding climax because it makes the events of our lives seem meaningful.  I am not belittling this method of storytelling.  I love it, in fact.  And I’m interested in it.  I’m interested in the ways we construct meaning.  And I think we always draft the narrative of meaning after the fact.  There is a quote, though I cannot remember who said it, that thought occurs in the wake of experience.  This idea has been stated in one way or another by many, I’m sure.  And I like that.  If it’s something that’s been said over and over in myriad ways and contexts, that seems right.

 

This is not my first year of teaching high school English, but it is my first year teaching at one of Portland, Oregon’s lowest-achieving high schools. There is much to say about my students’ backgrounds that might explain their sub-standard reading and writing: they come from a variety of places, including the mountains of Southeast Asia, refugee camps in Africa, former Soviet republics, Pacific Islands, etc; the neighborhood culture is, in general, one of generational poverty, which means that many students lack good role models and education-minded guardians at home (or they transfer to other schools in the district, as more than half of the neighborhood’s students have done based on their No Child Left Behind right to attend successful schools); a lack of steady educational funding and organizational constitution has created tremendous instability in this particular school in recent years; and this list of could go on forever.

But I’m not writing to regale you about the challenges of public education in North Portland. What I’m interested in today is how writers think about and cash in on unintended slips in language. For example, my ninth grade students recently wrote essays about a novel in which a character wakes up from a coma. In every third paper, however, I found this character waking up from a “comma,” and immediately wondered if I myself could capitalize on their typo by using it in a poem. This reminded me of hearing Matthew Zapruder talk to a gathering of graduate poetry students last year (myself among them) about his process in writing one of his books.

First, Zapruder told us, he had the romantic notion to write the whole thing on a typewriter. Second, he told us that when he made an error, he let the typo remain in place of the consciously intended word, with the rationale that typos plumb the depths of our consciousness and contemporary word processing suppresses or erases evidence of our subconscious language about the world. Zapruder seemed to feel that his typos weren’t missteps, but expressed what he perhaps truly, if only deep within, was trying to say.

Clearly, this is not what was happening in my students’ papers. The fact is, bless their hearts, some of them do not appear to know that “coma” and “comma” are different words. This suggests that Zapruder’s approach could, in the wrong hands, lead to automatic writing—which of course points to the experiments of Gertrude Stein and a whole host of early 20th Century ideas about the structures of our minds, identities, the occult, and language. I’m dubious about this as a process for writing good poetry, despite the scant mathematical possibility of a hypothetical monkey, given enough time and a typewriter, randomly recreating the works of William Shakespeare, and/or all of the “Chicken Soup for the [insert your typo here] Soul” books, and/or Matthew Zapruder’s poems (which I admire), and so on.

Yet this approach to writing also reminds me of the classical notion of divine-inspired artistry. In a more positive light, Zapruder’s method invites a muse, disguised as Accident, to write his poems. Per my own romantic leanings, I’m far more willing to accept this as an approach to making poetry. The poet, in this schema, is conscious of his or her agency as a conduit for divine creation. Mebdh McGuckian’s wonderful poetry springs to my mind here, as I long ago heard her use the word “vatic” to describe her process. Yet in this same discussion McGuckian was quick to mention that she remains highly conscious about words and their apt usage—she asserted that you only get to use some words once, and then never again. The word “fontanelle” was the example she gave as one that she never will be able to use twice, even if her subconscious or muse might will it. One’s ability thus to revise, to assert his or her consciousness on the muse’s inspiration, is required. The Ancient Greeks themselves were well aware that some people were better “conduits” for poetry than others.

Lastly, as a final thought on accident and inspiration, my students’ coma/comma confusion also reminded me of a poem by Stephen Dunn. “His Town,” which appears in Different Hours (which won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize), bears the epigraph: “The town was in the mists of chaos. –A student’s typo,” and the first stanza reads:

He wasn’t surprised. What town wasn’t?
Everywhere the mists of property, the mists
of language. Every Main Street he’d known
shrouded in itself. The mist-filled churches
and the mist-filled stores in strange collusion.

For Dunn, accident is supple—a point of possible redirection from we expected or intended to go. In his student’s error he finds not a rueful mistake but a useful “mist.” And perhaps this is a clue about how to think about accident and inspiration. When lucky, our mistakes may become mists. We may credit the divine or the murky depths of ourselves for such slips, or we can acknowledge the great mistiness of where everything comes from, including our mistakes. For in the end, concern for from whence the products of our lives spring might amount to a bit of pedantic frippery—psychology, spirituality, whatever. Yet somewhere, someone will always be waking from or slipping into a “comma,” including the best educated, the most grammatically and syntactically refined of us. We should remember to thank our proverbial gods for this.