Yesterday, I responded to Peter Buckland about the writing life. Pete comes to everything he does with passion and a sort of infectious joy, even when he’s tackling difficult problems, from death metal guitar riffs to poetry and fiction and then again to politics. Soon, a book of his poems will be released into the wild and currently he’s working on fiction.
For the beginning of the conversation, here’s Pete’s post.
His very gracious response to the barrage of questions I fired off is below.
Those responses were great. Thanks for sharing them. Before I answer your questions, I want to reflect on something you said. You wrote, “Nothing comes from any of it without showing up at the page every day and teasing out the story that’s there. You can’t access all of that good stuff without applying pragmatic discipline, also.” That’s something every author, poet, essayist, composer and practicing musician I’ve ever talked to (and is worth a lick) has said to me. You have to meet the page and/or your instrument(s) basically every day. It’s clear you have taken it to heart.
I’ll take your questions this way. I’ll start with the transition out of poetry and back to fiction. Then I’ll talk about my goals with fiction, how my life influences it and what I think/feel about the role of a writer.
Poetry came to me because of difficult circumstances, my growing love of my relationship with nature and my desire to evoke things in myself and others. Poetry evokes. It tugs at something inside of us and makes something small into something else. Poems create worlds of feelings and relationships from very simple means that take little time. (Usually in smaller spaces. I’m ignoring the long poems of Robinson Jeffers for example.) But I use the small form to draw something out. But with fiction, I think I end up doing much more complicated things.
When I write fiction I think I am really looking to understand this world and move it around. Poems, for me, don’t usually reorder the world as I want it to be or not. In fiction, I think my desire for a better world or an honest exploration of experience takes shape. This happens because I become other people who aren’t me. I’m not saying I don’t invoke other positions in my poetry. One need only read the eponymous poem from Heartwood when it comes back and you’ll see I do or even my attempt at what being a heron is in my poem “Herons.”
But I’m not trying to convince someone of something. The rhetoric is different. While I probably subconsciously see a rhetoric of poetry, I don’t think about it (except right now). I very consciously see fiction’s rhetoric. It probably comes from my years writing essays, polemics and writing research. The narrative experience matters and I use it to reshape my experience and—I hope—my readers. How do I do that?
I use my own life, my imagination of course and I’m guided by a maxim. The first two of those: There are things from my life that I draw on, things that I read about, snippets from here or there and things that I just have little idea of where they came from. And I use these materials to connect. Characters in my new project tentatively called So It Rises, there are people in the story who very much come from my life. There are four or five characters that are based on people I could see today. There’s a section that’s practically ripped out of emails I’ve gotten. And there are characters that I have completely made up. For example, there’s an astronaut who’s just landed in the ocean with a hurricane bearing down on him. That’s a challenge.
The maxim: In my life, Barry Commoner’s First Law of Ecology rings true: “Everything is connected to everything else.” Things probably just proceed from there.
There are two ways I think I create connections. You wrote about empathy. J.K. Rowling and memoirist Beth Kephart and many others have extolled empathy and compassion (which means to suffer with) as a virtue. I agree. So not only do I invite you to a different experience, I hope to expand your emotional perspective. And I want to push that beyond people and into the world. As you know, I love forests and fields, damselflies and assassin bugs, creeks and mires. The web of connections that holds these things together are the accumulated, aggregated and accreted connections between and among the things themselves. I love them. Revere them. As the Senagalese farmer Baba Dioum said, “In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” Fiction is a way to educate people to know, to see others—all others—as thou. I don’t mean educate like instruct. I mean educate as “educe” or draw out as Derrick Jensen writes.
But when I start to write, I don’t think, “How am I going to make someone connect to nature?” Stories are not political speeches. I observe or ride my bike and let my brain wander and find things and then I sit down and just start (usually) typing. Things just happen as a story and characters and places take shape. As I go along, I’ll find themes and threads and pick up a lot of them and throw most of them away. I may have an arc or may not. But in the end, I am connecting myself to the woman who sees a doe shot and struggling and dying in the mountain laurel. That’s how I see myself as a writer—I’m a connector.
This gets to purposes and roles, the writer’s role. I’m not sure enough of myself to think that I know what “a writer’s role” ought to be. Perhaps I can say what I think an author’s role is not.
We are not here to solve problems. Quite the contrary. My friend Richard Kahn (Antioch University) gave this great speech in Oslo a few years ago on what climate change calls on educators to do. Look it up. He acknowledges that there is a lot of problem-solving to be done. At least as importantly he pushed the audience to do education that poses problems. That is what fiction does. Really great authors pose us with problems and they don’t always get a solution in the technical sense. Rather, they are resolved through the course of living and life. The resolution may involve a technical solution, but usually not. The boy in The Painted Bird, Ged from The Wizard of Earthsea nor Gatsby solve problems in the technical sense. They provide us with windows.
That’s the role of the writer: to show us who we are, who we could have been and who we might be.
The curs of the day come and torment him
At distance, no one but death the redeemer will humble that head,
The intrepid readiness, the terrible eyes.
The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those
That ask mercy, not often to the arrogant.
~Robinson Jeffers, “Hurt Hawks”