Jessica Wilson: The decision to award The Most of It the Essay Prize presupposes a consensus on our part that the pieces in the book can be categorized as lyric essays. Elsewhere, you’ve indicated a certain fatigue with the question of genre divisions; you’ve said that your “business is just to make things, and someone else’s business is to decide what they should be called and where they are best published.” Commercial considerations notwithstanding, what do you think of this classification of the book?
Mary Ruefle: I am happy and honored that the book won an award as a book of essays—to extend one’s audience, how can that be unwanted? Is there a writer alive who seeks to curtail, limit, or shrink their audience? I don’t write with an audience in mind—never!—but when I picture one, as an image in my mind, I guess I see a solitary reader reading a book. A reader who is listening to another reader speak. Audience has that element of “audio” in it, an element of listening. When I say “a reader listening to another reader speak,” I am thinking of writing as “reading one’s own mind,” and just as you don’t know what a book has to say (or unsay) until you read it, so a writer doesn’t know what her mind has to say, or how it feels about a subject, or how it thinks about the world, until she reads her mind by writing… To tell the truth, I am a little tired of the genre wars, more than a little. Lines between genres have been breaking down for at least half a century, and though I understand an older person being baffled and uncertain (perhaps the world is falling apart?) it surprises me when young people, who were basically born into the postmodern world (which I wasn’t), keep asking questions; I would think they would take the slippage between genres for granted. On the other hand, they are often in writing programs, where discussion must take place, or else the classroom would fall apart! Guess what? The world is falling apart! But it has been doing so for thousands of years, and will continue to do so for as long as it lasts. Everything falls apart—rocks, coastlines, nations, bodies, beliefs, marriages, language, books. I can’t read Old English. One day present-day English will be an object of arcane study. But falling apart is part of growth, things evolve by disintegrating and recombining in new ways. Things today change so fast that the world you were born into will not be the one you die in. My generation already knows this; one day yours will experience the same thing.
JW: In sending your work to literary journals, how do you conceive of it?
MR: The question is actually how do they conceive of it, because they have the last word. Most of my work is conceived by them as poetry. Even though I know it’s not. For instance, I also happen to like writing lists, mere lists, and these are always published as poetry even though I prefer the term ‘list’. But who am I to say, or care? I am the host and the reader is the guest; should I care if the guest called it dinner or a party or just hanging out? I do what I can to provide clues as to what the event is, but all that really matters is being alive in a way that was not unpleasant. But beware, there are always dinner parties that turn into nightmares!
This is a true story: when I was twenty-two years old I sent my first submission to a magazine. I thought I was sending a short story. The reply came back: “Dear Miss Ruefle, we are terribly sorry, but we don’t publish poetry.” I thought about it for a long time, and I resubmitted the piece to a poetry journal, and they accepted it. It was my first publication, and I never looked back.
JW: Do you bring yourself to the work in the same way, then, when you sit down to write prose as when you sit down to write poetry?
MR: I hear, in my inner ear, a difference. I am sorry to be so vague. There’s a difference, and I hear it from the beginning and I, a mere vessel, do what I’m told. That doesn’t mean prose can’t be lyrical, or poems prosaic, because they can, but there is a motion forward that is, however slightly, distinctly different to my ear. Poetry doubles back on itself—not in the sense of recurring motif or stuff like that, not in the sense of recurring sound, but more like the motion of a cobra coming out of a basket, and there is something distinctly vertical about it, whereas prose moves forward along the ground, I can feel it as a horizontal force. Poems hover and exist as clouds; the prose pieces are like trains traveling through fog.
JW: Is there a meaningful distinction between the prose poem and the lyric essay?
MR: I said once (on a panel discussion) that my prose pieces were passing fancies that paralyzed me, and my poems were paralyzations that became passing fancies. I guess that sounds merely clever now, but at the time it seemed like a good way to get out of a hole!
JW: You’ve called a poem—in the words of Jose Lima—“the linguistic search for unknown finality.” What’s an essay? And how do you think your prose work fits in with other contemporary essays, or with the lyric essay as a genre?
MR: I don’t really think about it. But what is an essay, anyway?…A writer discovering her own mind by writing—that’s one meaning of “the linguistic search for unknown finality,” and I know I have used those words to define a poem, but yes, they define an essay or a novel just as well… An essay is a toe in the water. In at least one original sense it is a trial, a test, a sample, a trying to do something. Life is an essay. Art is an essay. Language, certainly. I think the greatest essay ever written is the United States Constitution. They were trying to do something, alright. It was, and remains, a great testing of waters. It remains open to scrutiny and interpretation, it’s unfinished, it can be amended—talk about unknown finality!
But in the sense of an essay being a sashay into a subject, and examining it from different angles, isn’t there a sense in which postmodernism has turned all of art into an essay? I am thinking about how radically museums have changed; you walk into a museum today and you get a history lesson. There is more text on the wall than ever before, text that contextualizes everything, interprets it for you, seeks to enlighten you to the point it’s almost impossible to have your own experience! It can be tiresome. Sometimes you just want to encounter beauty, you want to have an experience that can’t be put into words or explained adequately. Museums were the one public space you could be alone in. Of course, on the other hand, there are times we do crave information, explanation, exhaustive knowledge. And I think the contemporary essay tries to do both things. I like that about it. The attempts at admixture. I just don’t think we should have to choose one thing over another. It may be that I want beauty on Monday, information on Tuesday, and a little bit of both on Wednesday. No one formula is going to do it for me. My moods change, and the only camp I adhere to is the weather.
I have always done more than one thing, I have always written poems, and prose, and made visual objects with my hands. I think of myself as an artist, it’s true. One who happens to be a writer. What’s so weird and difficult about artists who use language as their medium is that language bestows meaning on things, it is the medium of analysis. That makes it very, very tricky, because people look at a painting and they think ‘Here is a medium I am not an expert in’, but when they look at writing they think “Here is a medium I use every day of my life; I ought to know something about it.” Do you see the difficulty? Isn’t it insulting to say, “You may use it every day, but you don’t think about it every day, and if you did, day after day, you would see that language itself is deeply ambiguous and slippery, and is more fundamental to your world-view and your self-being that you could ever imagine as you stand there trying to use it to ask for directions.” You can’t say that! So really, everyone who writes, in any so-called genre, should just consider that they are in the same boat, and they should start sharing food instead of fighting over it.
JW: You’ve called the pieces in this book “fables,” and indeed, many of them are, literally, fabulous. Some weave fantastical elements into their narratives –letters so large, for example, that they can only be read when unfolded on a sidewalk and read from a rooftop above, as in “The Most of It;” or a diary farmer calming a sick diary under the bedsheets with a flashlight, as in “The Diary.” Relatedly, the narrators of each piece seem not necessarily to be the same person. What role do you see fictional or fantastical elements playing in the essay as a literary form? What might it mean to have a fictional essay?
MR: I don’t recall ever referring to my prose pieces as fables; it doesn’t sound like me; I think someone else called them fables and that the statement was attributed to me. Whatever. I have always called them ‘pieces’. Why not, they are figments of my imagination and of my thinking life. In fact, in so many pieces in the book—though I didn’t see it until after the fact—the attempted goal seems to be faulty logic: how if you think logically you will eventually reach a conclusion, but if you allow yourself to take a single faulty turn, and then proceed ‘logically’ from your fault, you will reach a very different, and sometimes preposterous, conclusion.
And that really is the way many of the “essays” unfold; faulty logic proceeds in a (hopefully) sincere way, as if the speaker had no idea she were hopelessly lost. Critics have complained I take an idea too far—but that was my point. Not consciously of course, but that is what happens when a ‘rational imagination’ is at work.
I love the idea of a “fictional essay” because it raises deep questions: for instance, has it ever occurred to anyone that all acts of writing, from philosophy to a manual on how to use your cellphone, are made up? I mean writing is making marks on a surface, marks that didn’t exist before, and unless you are copying a pre-existent text, it is all made up. We endlessly quote famous texts as if they were the gods of factual being, but every writer is just a guy or a gal sitting around making stuff up, by which I mean one minute it didn’t exist and the next minute it did. I think my awareness of this comes from Emerson, in an essay, when he realizes all the famous writers he quotes were once just young people staying up late in a library writing down whatever popped into their heads. To encounter your own consciousness—that’s creative, that’s creativity. So the idea of a fictional essay is actually quite quotidian—a fictional essay and a non-fictional essay are both creative acts. It’s insulting to think that one is more or less “creative” than another. Whether something is fictional or nonfictional is not the question; the question is is it any good, does it give me pleasure, does it make me think, or feel, or exercise my right to pay attention to what I think is worthy of my attention? The idea of a fictional essay begs the question: is realism dead? How does it stand in relation to fabulist writing? I believe —adamantly—that they are both real, and unreal, and that to try and untwine them is fruitless. Is natural, organic, wholesome food more “real” than Captain Crunch? It is certainly more wholesome in a nutritional sense, but it’s not more “real,” it doesn’t exist in a way that is exclusive to the reality of the manufactured. Everything that exists, exists. The job of the individual is to decide what they want to pay attention to, to not let another make the call for them. In literature, fabulism has nourished people for thousands of years. All of these questions, as you can see, lead us to questions of reality, to questions of religion and politics, to questions that call upon every ounce of consciousness we possess. You can’t dismiss one or the other without doing a great disservice to your own consciousness.
Sometimes I like to begin my sentences realistically and end them fantastically; it’s like switching genres in mid-stream, as often happens in reality—an ordinary dinner party turns into a nightmare, that kind of thing. There’s constant slippage between the real and the fantastic, and it works in both directions. I don’t understand people who defend or support one over the other. Go ask a veteran of any way—was it the realest thing you ever experienced, or the most surreal?
JW: Many of the pieces in the book appeared previously in assorted literary journals; could you talk about the process by which you came to write and compile The Most Of It? Were you conscious from the beginning that you were writing pieces you hoped to include in a collection, or were the previously published pieces originally conceived to stand alone?
MR: In every book of poems I every published (with one exception) there have been little prose pieces. Eventually (after twenty-five years) someone suggested that I pull these pieces from my books and compile them separately, as a manuscript of prose. I did just that, and so it is that my last book of poems had not a single prose piece in it. The Most of It came out of this dividing. The pieces in that book span thirty years! I mean it. Although it is true that the majority of the pieces were written in a three or four year period, my favorite piece in the book, the last piece, “A Half-Sketched Head,” goes back thirty years. At the same time, because the form of that piece (discrete independent blocks) is infinitely expandable, the piece expanded slowly over all those years; I used to add a chunk or two a year. I was actually sad that it was going to be published, because I still wanted to add chunks to it—and have, since the publication of the book. I say it is my favorite piece because it is never finished, because its form allows it to keep going. And as a writer, as an artist, one’s sole purpose is to keep on going. Just like any living thing wants to keep on going. Each of us has to find something that suffices for our ongoingness. For an artist, it’s work. That their work be a pleasure is a bonus beyond all comprehension. We thank our host, consciousness. We thank our senses. We thank the mysterious powers that be, for we know in our hearts and in our minds that it will not always be so.
JW: The book begins with snowfall and ends with gravestones. How did you decide on the order of pieces in the book? Is there an intentional movement towards something larger, or is the sequence arbitrary? Do you see the collection as a whole as making an argument or offering an exploration that is greater than the sum of its parts?
MR: I order any book of mine in a deeply intuitive way. I forget how I ordered it as soon as the task is done. I love the task, for when I am doing it I realize that no one else on earth could do it but me, well I guess that’s not true but it is a fabulous illusion. But really I can’t explain it, I have no agenda, I go by the gut of my mood. On another day, I might have ordered it differently. If the book seems shapely to readers, I am pleased.
JW: Many of the pieces invoke an almost dialectical opposition. “A Glass of Water” pits fear and desire against one another in the alternating current of a refrigerator light. “Monument” calls forth the specters of war and survival, the brutal and the mundane, the remembered and the forgotten. And some pieces overturn that dialectic: in “Snow,” there’s an eerie and beautiful conflation of intimacy and communion with isolation and stillness, and in “The Bench,” an apparently insoluble conflict between a four-foot bench and a five-foot bench, the practical and the imaginary, is resolved in a startling bit of compromise: an imagined one-foot bench, an embodiment of the distance between the two original options. How do you see the tension between (apparent) opposites as functioning in the book?
MR: The tension between opposites is at the heart of existence; that’s how I view it. But it is more complicated than that, because it is true of language, which often belies itself, and it is true of everything on earth, that the thing closest to it is its opposite: polarity mirrors itself. Look at the north and south poles: different ecosystems, but both the coldest and barest places on earth. The difference between urban and rural life: amazing, and yet, and yet, do not writers from both positions describe the human condition in amazingly similar ways? Staunch liberals and staunch conservatives: alike, alike!
The tension between so-called opposites is at the heart of all art, because artists are crucified by that tension, whereas most people just blindly accept opposites as opposites, and don’t readily see or imagine the tension between the two as being crucial: I am alive/that means I am dead (am going to die)!
JW: Many of the pieces seem to engage with writing itself: the inadequacies and peculiarities of language, the relationship between reader and writer. In “A Certain Swirl,” a sentence left unread on a blackboard after class has ended feels abandoned. “If All the World Were Paper” asks what the point is of reading and writing at all. “A Half-Sketched Head” tells us that “anyone who is literate has read only one book, or, to be precise, is in the process of reading the one book they will complete in their lifetime.” “A Minor Personal Matter” asserts that “whether or not someone liked the language they had no choice but to use it.” How do you think of questions of language and literacy as functioning in your work?
MR: Literacy is a blessing and a curse. Increased literacy means increased self-consciousness and we all know where that ends. Gertrude Stein once pointed out the difference between being an entity and having an identity: an entity is an entity but has an identity. An identity is bestowed from without, it is given to you socially. It’s your resume. But an entity is your being, and for many people, they have no entity without an identity, they confuse the two, and therein lies a great deal of anguish and suffering. Language and literacy are ambiguous because they invest one with entity at the same time they accessorize one with identity. That’s what I mean by being both a curse and a blessing. The moment someone learns to write their name, they become someone else, someone other than who they were before. A whole world open, and a whole world closes. Who am I? I am one person when I am answering interview questions, and I am another person when I am alone on a plastic float in the middle of a lake. Which is the real me? Damned if I know. But the tension between the two creates my life.
The other theme in the book, to me, is the difference between the living and the dead: there doesn’t seem to be any. This is, to me, the real theme of the book. We think of ourselves as alive, but how long does that last compared to the time we will spend as dead, or to the time we spent as unborn? A nano-second? The living are the dead, the dead are the living, insofar as they had liquid eyeballs and all that. Their eyeballs were not less liquid than our own, though we often think and behave as if they were. And if art doesn’t shake you into believing this (that they had liquid eyeballs) what will? What makes one see, if not marks left behind on surfaces for all to see? Helen Keller could ‘see’ better than someone with 20/20 sight! I think that people in a coma are far more wide-spread, and non-medical, than we could ever imagine.
Readers are people who have woken up to their own ability to pay attention, and what they choose to pay attention to—poems, stories, novels, essays, articles—is, though interesting and argumentative, quite pale beside the fact they are invested in being as a subject unto itself. Readers, unite! But as soon as I use that word, I see how similar it is to the word untie…oh, dear, I should stop.
Jessica Wilson is a University Arts Fellow and MFA candidate in the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. She writes about landscape, performance, and long-distance hiking trails.