An Interview with Michael Noll
Michael Noll teaches writing at Texas State University and edits Read to Write Stories, a site that offers writing exercises based on published stories, novel excerpts, and essays. His work has been published in American Short Fiction, Narrative Magazine, Huffington Post, and The Good Men Project. Formerly the writer in residence at the Katherine Anne Porter House, Michael is currently at work on a short story collection set in rural Kansas and a novel, Seven Attacks of the Dead.
Michael’s class, “Writing Your True Story for a Magazine: From Start to Finish in One Day,” focuses on crafting short, submission-ready personal essays. For more information and to sign up, visit the event’s page here.
You teach writing at Texas State, give lectures throughout the year, and run a blog dedicated to the craft of writing, providing prompts and exercises for readers — I don’t think it would be a stretch to say you enjoy teaching. What’s the most rewarding aspect of teaching writing?
Michael Noll: I love teaching for many reasons, but perhaps the biggest pleasure is when a lesson or exercise you’ve created helps someone “get it.” This is true for all subjects, but, with writers, you’re working with people who are applying their imaginations. So, when the light flashes, so to speak, what they produce is often far beyond anything I could have written myself—and often beyond what they thought they could produce, too. Very often, when we think of our best teachers, we remember those people and moments when our perception of what was possible was expanded. The other nice thing about teaching is that I have the chance to formalize my own continuing education as a writer. So, if I want to better understand how a piece of writing works, I turn it into an exercise that will help myself and others as well. I know some people are drained by teaching, but I find that it feeds my creativity.
What do you personally find to be the most difficult aspect of writing, and how do you suggest approaching this challenge? (For example, what advice would you give on writing about personal, maybe tough to talk about, experiences?)
MN: For me, the most difficult part of writing is filling a blank page. You start with infinite possibilities, and, by the end of a paragraph or two, you have to winnow them down to a couple of paths. I’m not naturally very adept at that winnowing process, and so much of my teaching and self-education has been focused on finding ways to make it easier to get to the next page.
As for the challenge of writing about intimate, sometimes-embarrassing experiences? I think you have to approach those moments from the perspective of a social scientist (psychologist or anthropologist). Some people get a kick out of sharing embarrassing information, but those people aren’t necessarily great essay writers. Personal essays aren’t just about revealing information—they’re trying to make sense of information. So, for instance, I’ve written about my experience as a parent, but not about the usual happy moments. It’s the moments where I lose my cool or behave in a way that I regret that I think about for a long time afterward. In that hashing over, I’m trying to figure out a way to do better, yes, but I’m also trying to understand something larger: how do those “lapses” fit into my overall sense of self? It’s probably safe to say that most personal essays develop out of the writer’s process of trying to fit together a meaningful picture of who he or she is. A great recent example of this is from my friend Owen Egerton. He wrote a beautiful and weird essay about a Christmas tradition from his childhood, and yet it’s so very clearly an essay about defining one’s self. Here’s the link: http://www.salon.com/2013/12/23/jesus_never_gave_christmas_porn/
What do you find most compelling about the personal essay? What can it do that fiction can’t?
MN: This will sound obvious, but readers know that essays are true and fiction isn’t. Yes, there’s “story truth,” and the best novels make us forget that they’re fiction. And yet: there’s something deeply intimate about a personal essay. It’s as if the writer is bending over to whisper in our ear. Even funny essays like those written by David Sedaris have a sense of transgression: we’re being told something we probably shouldn’t hear. Partly as a result, personal essays have the ability to illuminate very basic and common aspects of daily life. One of the oldest examples of the form is by the Roman writer Seneca, who wrote sketches about humdrum things like noisy neighbors. A couple of thousand years later, you read those sketches and think, “Yeah, I really hate when that happens,” and that’s an amazing feeling. It’s why people at standup comedy shows call out, “So true, so true.” There’s something thrilling about having our own lives, loves, hates, frustrations, and joys suddenly reflected back at us.
As a glimpse into your upcoming class, can you share one of your secret tips or tricks for crafting a personal essay?
MN: The trick we’ll work on the most is using form to our advantage. The class is focused on a particular kind of personal essay: the 800-1000-ish word piece that appears all over, from The New York Times Magazine to Salon. In these essays, the writers use many of the same rhetorical moves over and over. For instance (and this will become clear as you read essays of this type), they almost always begin with a specific moment, experience, or description and then use a paragraph of context to essentially tell the reader what kind of story or argument that moment/experience is being placed into. This probably seems obvious to many writers, but it’s something we tend to forget. Because we’re trying to figure out our own work, we often begin with statements of purpose or theme or moral and then move into specifics. So, anytime you can remind yourself of the basics of form, you often end up figuring things that have stumped you. It’s the difference between writing with intention and writing blind. We all start out blind, but at a certain point, you can give yourself certain landmarks to help you along.
On Read to Write Stories, you write that “every writer can become a better writer simply by reading.” What genre are you most drawn to, and how does that influence your writing?
MN: I’m drawn to all genres, even (or especially) the ones that generally get no respect from “real” writers. So, for instance, on the blog in the first week of April, I’ll be featuring a second novel in a Young Adult Paranormal Romance trilogy. It’s a book that would never, ever get discussed in a MFA program, and yet the truth is that the writer is using the exact same strategies as literary writers. Those strategies are just being used toward a different purpose. It’s true, of course, that every genre contains some terrible writing, but literary fiction is no exception. I don’t know how many literary novels I’ve read lately that begin with a character on a chapter-long drive that exists only to give the reader back story. A detective novel would never do that–though it would have its own vices. As a writer, I’m always looking for ways to make my own work better–ways to make it move faster, slip more easily out of time, be more suspenseful, or step farther away from the manacles of plot. To do all of those things, you have to read widely. Certain genres are better are certain aspects of writing, and so I try to learn from them.