"Sometimes they discover the glory"
Dorothy Allison, author of the story collection Trash and the novels Bastard Out of Carolina, Cavedweller and the forthcoming She Who, spent spring term as the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry Distinguished Visiting Professor. Allison's books have earned her the Robert Penn Warren Award and the Ferro Grumley Prize, have been finalists for the Lillian Smith Prize and the National Book Award, and have been adapted for stage and film. While at Emory she gave a series of lectures and readings and taught an Intermediate Fiction class. She spoke about writing and teaching with David Raney in April.
Is there anything about you that Quadrangle readers should know going in?
Make it up. Make me a fascinating, interesting, challenging, dangerous creature.
What was it like meeting our students—were they shy? I would've been, as an undergraduate.
Early on I got all these lovely, very polite notes in which they'd ask "If you had time, we would like to . . . ." So I've been meeting with groups of students pretty steadily. About every other week I've had a dinner with them, some group or other, and they're wonderful. That's part of the joy of the experience.
And does that carry over into the classroom?
Teaching is different. If I'm teaching I'm in a formal relationship, and I have certain responsibilities to the students. One is to treat them as students, which is. . . it can be kind of a mama role, in some ways.
Do you like teaching writing?
Oh, I love teaching writing. It gets in the way of writing, of course. I don't mean so much the time commitment—that's real—but the emotional one. Almost every writer I know says this, and I've found it to be the case. If I'm teaching, it's harder for me to write. It seems to use some of the same energy that you use in writing, the ability to engage different emotional states, really examine them, and then try to have other emotions of your own. You just go flat. By the end of a really long day of either teaching or writing, all you want to do is lie on the floor and watch late-night television. But I do love it.
So how's the new book coming? Sounds like you haven't had much time to work on it.
It's almost done. There's an 8-12 month wait until publication after I give them text, and I haven't given it to them yet. My gravestone will read: "She never met a deadline she couldn't delay." Paul Valery once said, "A poem is never finished, only abandoned." You reluctantly let go of it, or they tear it from your stiffening fingers.
Do you do a lot of postmortem on your own work, say "I wish I had done this or that"?
Oh, you pretty much can't help it. I took so long, and worked so hard, on Bastard that I can read it now and not see anything—or very few things—that I would change. I let it go when I was done. But that's the glory of your first novel. I didn't expect to make any money, and there were no promises. But then I discovered a capacity for neurosis. I used to think that only the middle class had neuroses. The working class, we don't do that. Then I discovered that we just have other varieties. And letting go of work is my biggest. It's my child; what if they mutilate it?
In that case, what's it like to know your books are being read in Norwegian or Chinese?
It makes me nervous. The covers alone can be a little daunting—one Japanese cover scared me to death. But it's kind of terrific, too. I did an Italian book tour for Cavedweller, a ten-city tour of northern Italy. In every city I went to a different bookstore and someone would read a section in Italian, then I would be asked to read the English. And by the end I was under the impression that I could speak Italian. That was wonderful.
Social class features prominently in your writing. Has that come up much this term?
It's interesting to talk about class with Emory students. They're mostly middle or upper-middle, but it's a mixed bunch, some international students, kids in different majors, really diverse and interesting. TV has made us think we all have the same world, but we don't. Whole segments of my family are convinced they're not poor because they're not actively hungry at this moment. So the standards are very different.
When I was young, learning what told you what class you were in was fascinating. Both my parents worked, so I thought we were all right. I knew the lights would get turned off every now and again, and I knew we had to move a lot, and when my mother got sick things were really bad for a while. But then you go off to college and meet people whose lives are so different from yours, and suddenly the world is bigger and you realize you're actually quite an oddity. This concept called vacation, for instance. We never went on vacation. If there was time off, you couldn't afford to go anywhere. And you didn't go to a doctor. Spit and tobacco cured everything—bee stings, bramble scratches, cuts. It pulls the poison out, was my mama's line. It seems to me that everything was treated with either tobacco or an onion.
Your students read a lot of fiction as well as write it. How do you give them a critical eye for other writers' work? Does it help them see their own differently?
One of the things I do in almost every class I teach is I have students bring in their choice of the best story and also the worst story they've ever read. Then they have to offer an argument for what is good and bad, to develop a sense of what makes a great story and what makes a failed one. I'm also giving them stories, and talking about stories, and they talk to each other. So by the end of the semester they've explored a wide world.
The whole idea is that they develop a personal standard for what is good and bad. There are certain qualities that mark a great story, in terms of . . . oh, complexity of character, beauty of language, sometimes a revelation about structure, you can make a list. But when we love a story, when it is the best story, the reasons are often very personal: it echoes your world, or some piece of the world that really gnaws at you. Some of the stories they pick as great are terrible—but that's the one that touches them, that makes them twang.
Do you tell your students to write what they know, or to try to inhabit very different lives? Critics have sometimes taken you to task for departing from what they consider your strong suit—by writing about middle-class families, for instance.
As if they could tell us what we are able to write. As if we could tell ourselves. You can set yourself exercises, you can have an agenda, but what works on the page is what works on the page. Sometimes, though, deliberately making yourself do what you haven't done, or what you don't think you can do, is the gateway to great writing. I always try to get young writers to stretch—get girls to write boys, boys to write girls, straight people to write queers, poor people to write rich people. It's all about the imagination.
Do they tend to bristle at that?
Oh yeah, they bristle. A lot of them, by the time they get to college, have developed a persona, or are in the process of developing one—that's part of it, it's one of the things that happens. And they're very resistant to stepping outside of it. They tell me they can't do it. But they can. I'll set them exercises in class, I'll give them the first line, because that almost always breaks their hesitation, and they can follow on. Sometimes they'll do it just because they get mad at me. But sometimes they discover the glory, and they step out of the walls they've put around themselves, and it's marvelous.
Watching a student get excited is truly wonderful. I've had a couple this semester who started writing stories, and all of a sudden they're writing novels. Some of them are writing out of their own history, out of stuff they know, but some of them are writing out of pure imagination. The voice starts working on the page. It's really exciting.
Are you very hands-on with student work? How does a typical class play out?
This class I particularly designed to be about revision, which is crucial. We start one story, and we do several different versions over the course of the semester. And I'm really pushing them to think about publishing. The reality is they're very young writers, and in the course of a semester they probably won't come up with a version that's going to be easily published. But what I'm trying to get them used to is the idea that the first draft is the first draft, that you'll do different versions, you'll play with it, you'll try different things, you'll challenge yourself.
The entire class reads and critiques the first draft, and then I meet with them. Sometimes the group mind can get a little overbearing, and if they've gone a bit too far I'm the counter, and we talk about what you do with this kind of criticism, how to revise. Then later I give them a line-by-line critique, ask questions, mark sections, make suggestions, say "This just doesn't work." So they get both.
Your students tell me you're "very encouraging" but also "very honest." One said "She doesn't hold anything back." Are you a tough critic?
The problem with being my age and having a child, I tend to see them—I tend to have the mama thing happening a little bit. So I'm not usually too mean. But writers need someone to be very frank with them. The biggest problem we have is that people lie to us.
Is that also true of established writers?
Absolutely. People don't want to be rude, or they've lost all judgment. You're famous, therefore you must be good. I actually think it gets harder and harder to get good criticism. So early on is where you train yourself to be critical, and to hear criticism. If you don't develop that ability, you won't be able to send work out. But in training young writers, you also have to train them to defend what they love.
You've said that in writing about people you know, you have to make them large enough that you don't sin against them. Do you mean against the character, or against the person?
Well, both. If you're going to write about family, you've got to be willing to be in the room when they read that. Which can be difficult. And I've always been fascinated by that, how we make our lives into a story. But especially when you're young, there's this tendency to see it all in black and white, heroes and villains. You get a little older, and have made a few mistakes of your own and committed your own sins, you have a little more sympathy and can write large enough to write people who are capable of sometimes doing terrible things and still being . . . good people who have screwed up. I prefer stories like that. I like playing with myth; I love some of the fable-like stories in which people you know become almost metaphors or ideas. But they should still be recognizable people. And recognizable people are neither saints nor pure sinners. We're a good mix—otherwise there'd be no need for forgiveness.