Panel: “When Writers Repeat Themselves: New Disguises or Fresh Approaches?”
“New Disguises or Fresh Approaches?” by Michael Steinberg
“Mostly we authors must repeat ourselves–that’s the truth. We have two or three great and moving experiences so great and so moving that it doesn’t seem at the time that anybody else has been so caught up and pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and humbled in just that way ever before…and we tell our two or three stories each time in a new disguise–maybe ten times, maybe a hundred, as long as people will listen.”—F. Scott Fitzgerald
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”—Albert Einstein
A few years ago, I realized that I was becoming more and more troubled by the realization that I seemed to be repeating myself in my writing. It started when a voice in the back of my head began to nag at me, scolding me, really, for writing too much about one subject: baseball.
It’s true; in one form or another I’ve included baseball in a good number of stand-alone personal narratives and book-length memoirs. And so, I began to feel, at first, a little defensive, then, apologetic–and, finally, more self-conscious when colleagues, friends–and especially, former and current students–asked me what I was working on.
Until then, my deepest fears were a version of the following: “I have nothing original or new to say,” or; “who’s gonna’ give a damn about the stuff I write?” You know, the usual suspects; the kinds of things I tell my students not to worry about.
But these more recent uncertainties–about repeating myself–felt different. At a point, my self-consciousness turned into a creeping anxiety–a fear that perhaps I was destined to become a one-note writer, like those typecast Hollywood actors who’ve played the same kinds of character roles over and over again. My other anxiety was that I’d literally written myself out.
Soon I found myself comparing my work to other, more versatile, authors– writers, who, to my mind, never seemed to repeat the same subjects or concerns in subsequent works.
Singer-songwriter Bonnie Raitt admits something similar when she talks about an upcoming studio recording session.
“It’s been more difficult to come up with original stuff that you haven’t already sung about, or grooves that you’ve already played to be original and fresh,” Raitt said. To which she added, “I have to be very careful not to listen to Randy Newman or Jackson Browne because then I’ll be so intimidated that I won’t write anything.”
At the time, what could have turned into a debilitating writing block, instead evolved into a personal inquiry (and thankfully) on/about the reasons why some writers, like myself, tend to work with persistent, recurring ideas and preoccupations–obsessions, really–while others seem more inclined to pursue multiple, sometimes even contradictory, ideas and subjects. In addition, there are still other writers that can tackle multiple forms and genres without seeming to repeat themselves.
My inquiry began in earnest in an email exchange with my colleague Pat Madden. I was kvetching, complaining to him that, when I was writing about baseball, I felt like I was repeating the same thing over and over again. (Einstein’s definition of crazy, right?).
Pat told me that, according to novelist Jonathan Franzen, the versatile writer David Foster Wallace, sometimes despaired that he too was simply repeating himself.
It’s funny, isn’t it; that, when an idea begins to dominate your thoughts, your subconscious starts to zone in on it. Because shortly after that email exchange, I happened to read a Paris Review interview in which novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard said,
“When you write you have maybe two or three or four things that really interest you, that you want to write about. At least that’s how it is for me. Even after writing thirty-six hundred pages, I’m still interested in the same kind of issues.”
A few weeks later, another colleague sent me an excerpt from a Q and A during which novelist Ann Patchett said,
What I’ve realized is that all of my books have been the same book… that is, about a group of people who are pulled out of one family or situation and dropped into another one in which they are not familiar, and then I see how communities are formed. Probably it has to do with my childhood… my parents got divorced when I was young and my mother married someone who had four children and we moved to the other side of the country… and I think that being thrown together, being pulled out of a family and put into a family has always been very interesting to me.
Back then I remember convincing myself that these are hopeful signs. If writers that high on the food chain have doubts that are similar to mine, than maybe, just maybe, I’m in a lot better company than I’d thought.
Let me be more specific.
For the past few years, I’ve found myself reading a good deal of novelist P.F. Kluge’s work. And in a few interviews and essays, Kluge has talked openly about a singular fascination/attraction that he revisits in his novels.
Here’s a sampling:
About his novel, The Edge of Paradise, Kluge says, “The Peace Corps sent me to the Pacific Islands–Micronesia. The islands stayed with me and I’ve kept returning, checking on places and people I care about.”
Kluge also says about another novel that “…. my continuing interest in the love/hate relationship between America and the Philippines…. underlies [MacArthur’s Ghost], which spans the years from World War II to the Marcos era.”
And he describes The Day I Die, as a “ thriller set in the same Pacific islands that I saw as a Peace Corps volunteer.”
About the novel The Master Blaster, Kluge says, it’s “set on Saipan. I was there in the 1960’s with the Peace Corps, and I’ve returned many times since. Saipan is one of my islands, part of my life-long fascination with bounded, yet also boundless, places.”
To which I’ll add, that Season For War, and Biggest Elvis two other novels, are set in the Philippines as well.
At first, I was surprised to learn that three of his other books–Gone Tomorrow, Final Exam, and Alma Mater–two novels and a personal narrative–were not set in the Pacific islands but at Kenyon College in Gambier Ohio, where Kluge teaches.
But when he was asked about it, Kluge replied, “I love islands….. Micronesia –Saipan, Palau, Pohnpei– is full of them. Gambier, Ohio is another kind of island, a small, surrounded place where I live and teach. My alma mater, my current employer.”
He then adds, “If you live in a place, you write about it.”
What I take away from Kluge’s disclosures is that his fascination with specific locations and geographies become a means through which his narrators (fiction and nonfiction) are able to explore their most insistent yearnings. And by pursuing those deeply rooted curiosities, these narrators are better able to make sense of the questions and confusions that preoccupy and/or animate them.
A few years ago, I was discussing this matter Renée E. D’ Aoust, a memoirist, and Mick Cochrane, a fiction writer. The conversation with Renée came about when I was, once again, kvetching about not being able to pull myself away from writing about baseball.
“I wonder if we have a similar issue,” Renée said. “I’ve tried to quit writing about dance. Years ago, I mentioned this in a college classroom, and a student asked, ‘but if you love it, and do it so well, why would you quit writing about the subject?’ “
That question, Renée maintains, triggered the following:
“How,” she asks, “do we stay with the same subject, but not repeat ourselves? Or; is it okay to repeat ourselves? After all, isn’t writing a way of working things out?”
Right around that same time I happened to ask Mick Cochrane why he writes so much about sports; in his case, it’s also baseball. Mick’s answer was:
“I felt permission to write about sports, because Thoreau writes about beans. Melville writes about whales. Poe writes about a bird. So why not me and baseball?” He went on to say that “…. all writers seek dense, complex material over which they have some authority. And that “writers would probably be wise to engage their obsessive loves, whatever they might be.”
In some ways, Renée and Mick are both referring to the same things: permission and obsession. And so, I’ve since come around to thinking that one of the reasons why some of us repeat ourselves is that the things we write about are governed more by matters of sensibility (and disposition) than they are by design. In my case, it means that, knowingly or subconsciously, I’ve somehow been able to give myself permission to follow my obsessions. And what better (or safer) place to pursue an obsession than in one’s writing?
A few years ago, I told myself that I was all done with writing about baseball. But as I was writing a stand-alone memoir about aging, an incident presented itself that compelled me, still again, to include baseball in the piece. And that’s when I began to think, that maybe, just maybe, baseball wasn’t quite yet done with me.
Ever since I was a kid, baseball and writing have been twin passions; obsessions, which, for generations, had run parallel to one another. In my mid-fifties, when I started to take myself more seriously as a writer, the two began to merge. And for better or for worse, I now believe that a good deal of my strongest work has incorporated at least some aspect of my experience as an adolescent ball player/baseball aficionado.
In some instances–mostly works of journalism–I’ve consciously chosen to use baseball as a subject. But in others–personal essays and memoirs–it’s become a lens that my narrator(s) look through to help them better understand and articulate certain conflicts and confusions–things that they couldn’t have comprehended or resolved in any other way. And in still others, baseball has become raw material for shaping a given work, a process that Annie Dillard describes as “fashioning a text.”
So, here’s what I think now.
Since I’m primarily a personal essayist/memoirist; most of my writerly concerns are with matters of identity and self. And as I get older, the predominant, recurrent, question in my work seems to be this: how did that kid who grew up in New York city, that young boy who was an obsessive lover of baseball and books–how did he evolve into the adult teacher-writer he is today? We all know of course that in reality it’s an unanswerable question. But it doesn’t stop me from interrogating it in my writing.
So then, whether we repeat subjects like dance or baseball; or re-use island-like settings, we writers, I believe, are compelled by nature and disposition to search for ways that allow us to make better sense out of the chaos and confusions that comprise our individual and collective lives.
And isn’t this search—for shape and meaning–what drives all of us–novelists, poets, essayists, and memoirists alike–to explore more deeply in our writing?
Michael Steinberg is founding editor of the journal Fourth Genre. He’s written and co-authored six books. Still Pitching won the ForeWord Magazine/Independent Press Memoir of the Year Another, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction is in its sixth edition. He’s the creative nonfiction writer-in-residence in the Solstice/Pine Manor MFA program. http://mjsteinberg.net/blog.htm