book of graphic nonfiction, Imagine Wanting Only This, is forthcoming from Pantheon Books in 2017.
Meghan Robins (MFA Fiction ’14) talks with Optimism One (MFA Literary Nonfiction ’14).
Meghan Robins: When did you first start writing?
Optimism One: It’s been off and on since grade school, really. I always liked to get creative with school assignments. Then I moved on to writing songs from the time I was a freshman in high school. After that, I went through a poetry stage in college. And finally I moved on to nonfiction. With all that said, I have never made such an effort to ‘be a writer’ as I have now.
Meghan: What made you choose to attend SNC for your MFA degree?
Op: The faculty at SNC is very impressive, and two of the nonfiction writers had published books on topics that I want to address, in particular, Suzanne Roberts’ travel writing and Kelle Groom’s writing about her excessive drinking in I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl. The latter book is certainly not an addiction memoir, but I knew she would understand what I was trying to do. The same goes for Suzanne since she has traveled the world as much as, if not more than, I.
Meghan: Would you ever consider writing fiction? or another genre?
Op: I would love to write fiction. In fact, my ideal would certainly be a balance of nonfiction and fiction. As for poetry, I was quite engaged with that genre during my undergraduate studies and immediately following that, but that was almost twenty years ago and my interest in it (outside of reading and/or listening to it) has waned.
Meghan: Do you think you have more than one memoir in you?
Op: Yeah, I do. Right now, I envision a memoir that covers the ten year period between receiving my B.A. and my M.A. There is a LOT of material there. In another memoir, I can cover my early years if I like or the following years. If not, I’m open to the idea of writing collections of essays.
Meghan: How difficult or easy is it to write about your personal and truthful past?
Op: Wicked hard but ultimately fulfilling. One issue is memory, trying to accurately recall distant events, especially when I might very well have been intoxicated to one degree or another. Another issue is simply being honest with myself, including my harmful behavior as much as the good stuff. Finally, I have a tendency to want to wrap up my experiences in tidy little bows at the end, showing my evolution and ultimately my liberation from painful experiences, but the reality is that life is more complicated than that, which can be difficult to convey in writing.
Meghan: So how do you feel about James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces?
Op: Oh, well, I understand the desire to make things sound more spectacular than they really were, but I don’t want to do that with my writing. With that said, I recently wrote about what I recall being a recurring scene in my house when I was a young boy. Then I mentioned it to my mom and she looked at me like I was crazy, saying “That didn’t happen.” However, when pressed, she said, “Well, maybe once.” So who knows? Whose memory do I trust? Hers or mine? More importantly, whose story do I tell? Hers or mine?
Meghan: Do you worry about hurting the people in your life with your writing? Do you take into consideration those people when you write?
Op: Yes and no. I assume that nobody except for those who are in my writing group or who are currently teaching me will see my early drafts, so I try to let it fly no matter what when I start writing a piece. Now, publishing that work is another story. I haven’t yet had to cross that hurdle where someone might be hurt by my written words.
Meghan: Is your writing meditative or a means of coping? Basically, why do you write what you write?
Op: In some ways, yes, I write to understand myself, I write to get it out, an act of catharsis, and I write to connect to others in a way that I have felt connected to other writers.
Meghan: What are you favorite books? Who are your most influential writers?
Op: There are so many, of course. Some of my early faves are fiction, stuff like Toni Morrison’s Beloved. My all-time favorite essayist and poet is June Jordan. As for more current stuff, which has to include all of the faculty teaching in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College, I love Chuck Palahniuk, Amy Hempel, Nick Flynn…should I keep going? Also, I have to say that my favorite memoir of all time might just be Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water.
Meghan: What activities do you enjoy besides writing?
Op: I tend to travel a lot, usually to developing countries whenever I get the chance. I also like to train for and participate in triathlons.
Meghan: What is your writing practice (what time of day, how long, etc.)?
Op: It varies, really. I so much want to be a morning writer who sits down after some yoga and meditation and then writes for a few hours, but that rarely happens. Also, I tend to write in short bursts while drafting, maybe fifteen minutes at a time, until it’s time to start revising and trying to shape something more coherent, and that requires more sustained attention.
Meghan: What does your writing space look like? Do you compose on a computer, notepad, recording device?
Op: My writing spaces have moved around over the last eight months with so much travel, but right now I have a beautiful writing space in front of two upstairs windows where I’m also surrounded by books, a printer, my computer, and every office supply I could possibly need, but curiously, right now I am typing at the kitchen table. I also like to write while propped up in bed. As for what I write on, I do carry a small notepad with me wherever I go to jot down ideas, but I always write on a computer unless it’s my morning pages, which I do in a notebook.
Meghan: How do you feel about swearing in your writing? Is it easy/ comes naturally? Or do you take pause before writing it?
Op: I can hardly speak without swearing, so I don’t mind it in my writing, but now that you mention it, I surely do much less of it, especially in final drafts.
Meghan: Do you think you’re writing would have the same effect with more or less swearing?
Op: Even though my everyday speech may not reflect it, swearing tends to lose its effect with overuse, so less is more, I suppose. Of course, dialogue is a whole different story. If the people in my life happened to cuss a lot and I am trying to capture those scenes, then there are going to be lots of F-bombs.
Meghan: What emotions come with revealing yourself so openly to an unknown audience? Is it scary, liberating, indifferent?
Op: There is fear, for sure, but what seems clear to me is that I am not all that unique, particularly when it comes to emotions or whatever human foibles I might be sharing; therefore, what readers might do more than shake their heads is nod in agreement or identification. With that said, when it comes to writing about sexual experiences in nonfiction, I seize up.
Meghan: What would it take for you to write about a sexual experience in nonfiction?
Op: Well, Kelle Groom, among others, says that wherever we want to look away from, that’s where we should start, so she pushed me to write about a very uncomfortable sexual experience, which I did in between pacing around the room, cussing out loud to myself, and eating a lot of crappy food. So far, only she and Paul Lisicky and a few of my peers in workshop have seen it. We’ll see if I ever try to publish it.
Meghan: Do you have a library? And how do you feel about books versus devices like kindle/ nook?
Op: I do have a rather large collection of books at home and in my office at work. I prefer paper, without a doubt. With that said, I have embraced e-books because of their convenience with traveling. After all, schlepping 10-20 books around in a backpack while getting on and off buses and whatnot is not all that fun.
Meghan: What is the best piece of writing advice you have heard that sustains you?
Op: Just to do it. Everyone says that, but it’s true. Just sit your butt in the chair or whatever every day and let it fly. Also, be an employee to art. I stole that from Suzanne Roberts, but I’m not sure if she took it from someone else. We’re all thieves in one way or another, aren’t we?
Optimism One is an MFA student in Creative Nonfiction at Sierra Nevada College who also teaches writing full-time at Modesto Junior College. His work has been published in Matador, I-Magazine, In the Grove: California Poets and Writers, and June Jordan’s Poetry for the People in a Season of Love.
by Optimism One
Kelle Groom told us in English 517R (Craft of Literary Nonfiction Workshop) that at one point in her writing career, a pivotal point, she put her writing desk right by the front door of her apartment so that she always saw it before she left or when she came home.
This is what I’ve done.
She also told us that she made folders–physical, tangible folders–of all the printed drafts and pieces that went into individual essays or chapters or poems, labeling each folder according to its given content and keeping those folders visible on her writing desk.
This is what I’ve done.
Finally, she said that she designed her life in such a way that if it supported her writing, then it was welcome; if not, it was not.
This is not quite what I’ve done, but I’m certainly moving in that direction.
I’m in Bali, Indonesia, from now until Christmas and the next residency. I’ve rented a nice studio apartment and a motorbike, and I have a regional mobile phone, a ‘handphone’ in the local parlance.
My responsibilities are so basic (eating and sleeping) that there really isn’t any excuse but to read and write as much as possible. Therefore, so far, I’ve read all of a few literary magazines (The Normal School, Fourth Genre, and Creative Nonfiction), parts of a couple others (Tin House and Poets & Writers), and all of Suzanne Roberts’ Plotting Temporality [awe-some!]. Also, I just started a collection of interviews called A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration. Meanwhile, after getting a somewhat slow start on my writing due to (excuses, excuses) not having and not being able to find a proper voltage converter and apparently not feeling compelled enough to simply put pen to paper, I have written a few things: “Yes and No,” a list of experiences and insights about being in the Hong Kong airport for thirteen hours; “Whipped by the Old Man,” a sketch on my first surfing expedition since arriving in Bali; and a few different parts for a much longer piece that is tentatively titled “What’s In a Name?,” an exploration of the various names I’ve had over the course of my life. All of the above are most certainly in the first-draft stage. Also, I keep my SNC MFA notebook with me everywhere I go, jotting down ideas and lines that come to me when inspiration shines. This latter idea comes from Suzanne Roberts, who said in our travel writing class that she has different-sized notebooks to fit any and every occasion.
This is what I’ve done.