How I Write - Conversation Transcript
Diane Middlebrook loves writing, and she radiates an almost giddy energy, determination, and joy about for writing (and living) throughout our conversation. She can admit that “I find writing a miserable job” when she gets stuck, but at the same time she can get completely absorbed: “When I get inside the book I lose all my bearings.”
Prof. Middlebrook explains her great pleasure in writing biographies, in particular, referring to her previous work on Anne Sexton and Billy Tipton, as well as her work-in-progress on Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath and Ovid. She demonstrates how she employs different notebooks for different tasks in the complex task of doing biographical research. She explains her highly developed techniques for doing research, her multiple notebooks for keeping track of sources and quotes and her own activities for this particular genre – concrete tips for the working writer. The practical business of research gives her particular pleasure: the feel of a particular kind of three-ring binder in the hand, the joy of discovering a form of narrative organized around objects, the delights of revelation, work, revision, and the thrill of entering the subjectivity of the person she seeks to know.
“With a biography there is no straight line,” she explains, “all is muddled. You don’t know what you know, you don’t know what you don’t know; if you find anything you make a note about it because some day it may find its partner. You have to have very good ways of keeping track of what you have found and where you have put it.”
Diane Middlebrook shows us how there is “no straight line” in any kind of writing. In this conversation, she “keeps track” of the wonders she has found, and with great verve shares them with us. Writing to her can be “miserable,” a tough set of difficulties, at times – but her overall enthusiasm and pragmatism shine through everything she speaks about. By the end of our talk I felt like jumping up and writing a book – and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one! --Hilton Obenzinger
Transcript of How I Write Conversation with Diane Middlebrook
We are lucky to have Dianne Middlebrook, recently emeritus of the English department, author of many books, including Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton. She has written a biography of Anne Sexton, as well as The Poetry of Anne Sexton, and two books in the works: one on [Ted] Hughes and [Sylvia] Plath
DM: It has a working title – titles are a good thing to talk about – the title is Her Husband.
HO: And she’s also doing research on a biography of Ovid.
DM: No estates, no psychotherapy, no interviews, no history – I just make it up.
HO: Yes, the best kind of writing. I'll have a conversation with Diane and after a while I’ll pass the mike around. We are videotaping this so that we can make a website that will be available to the Stanford community. Ultimately I hope to put together something like William James did – the “Varieties of the Writing Experience.”
DM: In the spring I had a very interesting conversation over dinner with Arnold Rampersand, who was just about to undertake his biography of Ralph Ellison. I was dumbfounded that the theme of this dinner party was his dread of this book, the fear of writing; because it is horrible to be at the beginning of the biography project. You know that you are ignorant and will remain ignorant – you will find a lot of things to say, but there is always the fact that people are really unknowable. If you are writing about someone’s life, it is only the experienced person that would have the kind of dread that Arnold had. He said that he had gotten a lot out of coming to one of these talks – John Rickford. I listened to him and realized that he was talking about the objectification of one’s experience of something that takes place at a level of subjectivity so deep that awareness of it would be a distraction. There is something about hearing someone talk about what he or she is doing that gives you a bit of momentum out of the dread.
HO: Just to share with you, I worked commercially, writing for business or science etc., and every time I got a new project I would have a panic attack – how can I write about microwave electronics? – and eventually I learned that a panic attack was part of the business.
DM: Yes, that never changes, but you must recognize where you are.
HO: How did you start writing?
DM: I just always did. I had a poem in the Spokane Daily Chronicle on the cartoon page when I was eight years old. It stays in my mind as a very thrilling experience.
HO: So writing was always a pleasure?
DM: No, not really. There just isn’t a replacement for it: if you have the desire to write something, that’s what you have the desire to do. And you do it. And then later you do it as an occupation. It is a medium and expression that there is no substitute for. I think it is something you refer to as a way of exploring something.
HO: You’ve had various different experiences – writing a dissertation for example – how has your writing changed?
DM: Well, my dissertation was a piece of apprentice work; I was learning how to do lots of things. I don’t think it was a very good dissertation – it got me a Ph.D., that’s what it was supposed to do – but as a piece of thinking and writing, it is primitive. But I learned a lot by doing it: research techniques, how to shape an argument, the mistakes . . . Never have a title that has “and” in it. The title of my dissertation was “The Mythology of Imagination” – Harold Bloom was my dissertation director, he loved it – but Cornell, who published my book, wanted a bread and butter title, so I said OK, “Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens.” And now you can’t find my book in the library, because it isn’t in the Whitman place, it isn’t in the Stevens place, it’s in some American Literature place.
HO: That says something about cataloging techniques
DM: Yes, but it also points to a flaw in the conception of the argument, that it never did finally come together: there was one thing and then another thing. The arguments that I made along the way were interesting, but I don’t recommend anyone try to read it. It was worth writing.
HO: I looked for it [Suits Me]: there’s a copy in the law school, and in the music library, but not in Green. In the bookstore it is in the jazz section.
DM: Interesting; I hadn’t tracked it in the bookstore. I guess I lost my authorial narcissism.
HO: From writing the dissertation on, you’ve had the experience of a lot of different types of research. There's the usual muddle, the mystery, the famous discussion about the psychiatrist’s tapes and that stuff, but how did you feel about incorporating sources?
DM: Let’s turn it around: the work I did on Anne Sexton came from being the head of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender. In 1974 I received tenure in the fall and about a week later I was crossing the quad when the provost was coming the other direction. He said, “Oh, I want to appoint you as the head for the center of research on women.” “What? I haven't done any research on women” – true: Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens. He said, “You have the only two qualifications: you’re female and you have tenure.” It changed my life. I was beginning to be re-socialized intellectually by my students. There was beginning to be such a thing as feminine criticism and my students always said, “Why don’t you study women?” So a bunch of us female faculty members got together – there weren’t many of us – and we formed a group called The Crow Group and started to read the feminist criticism. We had some help from some very cutting-edge scholars who were at Stanford: Shelly Rosaldo, an anthropologist who died on a research trip in 1981; Estelle Friedman who had recently been hired in women’s history; and there was a bit of work being done by literary people – and of course Eleanor Maccabee who had done important work in gender and psychology. There were some very exciting questions that required interdisciplinary thinking. At that point I was invited to write the biography of Anne Sexton in 1981. I’d never thought of writing a biography, and I didn’t particularly like Anne Sexton, but what I did like was what I knew about her, because she was an extremely improbable person to turn into a poet, and a famous poet at that. I felt that the work I had done at the Institute for Research on Women had been good preparation for that.
Ten years later, after I had finished the book, I felt that I had found my metier as a researcher and writer: I love writing biography. It is the most interesting kind of writing that I can think of to do. For one thing, people like to read it. Nobody wanted to read Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens. But lots of people like to read biographies; I loved that I was writing for a general audience: intelligent people who were interested in the historical situation of someone who had accomplished something important. The research was wide-ranging, it got you out of the library, you had to interview people and travel a lot, it was a surprisingly extensive enterprise. So I decided that I wanted to be a biographer. I felt that I had built a factory – that I had gotten reeducated in order to write one book. So I thought that while the factory was running, I'll do another one: I wanted to write something as far away from literature as I can get. So I did music – I’m always interested in artists’ careers, and this jazz musician wandered into my life.
HO: You were chosen for that as well.
DM: Let me tell you about getting chosen for the [Sexton] project. I had gotten the contract for the Anne Sexton book, and it had an enclosure in it from the estate: Linda Sexton had sent a series of points that the estate wanted to make about my relationship to the material over which I was going to have exclusive rights to access – which was a great benefit – but I didn’t know what I was about to sign. So I went to a man who used to be a lawyer for the Stanford University Press, and for what I thought was an outrageous fee he reviewed the contract with me and I asked him if I should have an agent, and he said, “No, you have a very good contract for an English professor, but when you write this book you’ll be a biographer, and then you’ll need an agent.”
HO: For both books, the research was a lot like detective work – you had to ferret out some people.
DM: Yes, and my best resource for that was something I had never used in graduate school: I was invited to speak to the Knight Journalism Fellows: this crème de la crème of journalists who come to Stanford for the academic year, and who are wonderful features of our literature classes because they are over 23. Journalists learn how to find people: you learn that persistence is the key: never failing to make phone calls, keeping after it, and so on. Lots of help came to me in that moment from the investigative journalists’ practices. I joined their organization for a while, because they have journals and conferences –
HO: – ways of discussing how to find things out
DM: – yes, and where public documents are and how to get them.
HO: Ten years for the Sexton book?
DM: Eleven from the date of receiving the invitation.
HO: When did you feel in that process that you were actually sitting down to write?
DM: I’m glad you asked me that, because I was wondering what I could bring tonight that would show my discovery – there was something that I stumbled onto doing while writing the book on Sexton that was the best thing I could have done. (I didn’t think it would take me eleven years, I thought it would take me two.) About four years into the project I started doing something that I have continued to do. Here are two fetish objects: one is a handsome clipboard so that you can write on your lap any time. (I like to write with a pencil and colored paper so that it doesn’t look like a printout.) Now, here is the world’s most beautiful three-ring binder. This one I ordered out of a catalog, it is Swedish, and the rings open and close in the most marvelous way, so that you can hold it flat, and it gives me pleasure every time I use it. Now my principle division of my activity in writing biography are divided into four parts. The first is called Log and here it says “22 February 1999, arrow.” Now I open my computer the first day of work and I put a date down. This was when I was in the Emory University archive in Atlanta: “2-22-99, 8:50 am. Met with Steven Ennis, librarian. He told me he had brought the papers from Roy Davis, made two visits to England.” So I am making notes about the first conversation I had at the library that morning. What I do is tell myself either what I am doing or what I think I am going to do. And occasionally I write things that I think I might say in my book, but I don’t know where they will go. But my life is passing – this is not a personal journal, though sometimes I will put my feelings into. Sometimes I try to tell myself what I am doing. One of its utilitarian uses is to tell me something of what I have already done. Because you are so ignorant when you start. I feel like Rumpelstiltskin – the princess – you go into a room of straw and you are supposed to spin it into gold! You look at this room of waste paper, and you don’t know what it means. So I make a register of what I have read and sometimes I know by the second day. Mainly it is just “Finished heroic job of typing important letters from Ted Hughes to Fritz Meyers through 1975; begin tomorrow from '77. And cross check these letters for dating purposes” (since these guys didn’t date their letters). It prevents me from doing what I did with Anne Sexton, where four years passed where I read a whole lot of things I had already read when I didn’t know what they were about. This was such a waste of time, so I decided to keep track of it. I am so attached to it, since it gives me the history of my reading and thinking, and gives me a place to do something that I don’t want to do. If I write something, then I will think that I have solved a problem. But I haven’t solved a problem; I have just written about it. But occasionally I do have a feeling that I have something that I need to say; I put it in the Log and italicize it. Very frequently it is purple prose – because, when you feel inspired, watch out. Usually it is not the way that I want to put something, but it is something that I definitely want to say. I notice that by July ’99, when I started writing, I have things that are better than what is currently in my introduction.
What is it that interests me about Ted Hughes? Now that I am beginning to know him a little bit. I think that the reasons people read biographies are because the biographer has done a lot of work for you: going through the piles of trash, making the notes, assembling them into a chronological structure, and then making judgments about things. You may not agree with them, but you have someone making judgments for you. I want to be that narrator as soon as I can. The fundamental question that the biographer asks is “So what?” You think that all this information is valuable, it was really hard to find, but “So what?” And most biographies are way too long because the information was way too tough to find and the biographer doesn’t know why it is important.
HO: So also you have a book already before you have a book – you have the material for the whole research process, everything you are doing is invisible.
DM: But I don’t use the Log except to enter things.
HO: You don’t take anything out? You don’t say, “Look I found this thing here . . .”
DM: Oh, the book, the blue book here; no, I don’t read the log, I just write it, like a journal. The master file, in a biography, is the dates of the subject. I’ve got “Ovid, 43 BCE” – every year of his life has a date. I have another file that is called Chrono; every note that I take in the archive finds its way into Chrono. To me it reads better than the narrative because everything is in it in a random way. I wish that the subject could read it; the biographer is in the privileged position of knowing more about the life than the subject does. Anne Sexton’s daughter called me up once: “Diane, we were having a debate the other day: when did my father change jobs?” That particular raw version of the book is one of the great satisfactions of it. It is like a photograph that begins to develop; you are so surprised to find juxtapositions: this day this happened, this day that happened. That’s the one I go to all the time, when I am writing a piece of the book, to remind myself of all the things I have left out – and did I leave anything out, when I have formulated this particular era – was there something that I overlooked when I was selecting, and do I want to put it back in. In writing through the book, I had overrun the page limit by 200. My manuscript was supposed to be 300 pages, and is now over 500. The final will be clearer and much tighter, true – but a lot of things need to be left out. So you are always looking for things that can be left out, or crucial inflections that can be given to what is already there.
HO: Log, Chrono . . .
DM: Let’s see . . . The Draft. I print it out.
HO: As you go?
DM: Fairly often; I can't read on the screen; I have to have pages to know what I have said. Usually my revision takes place after I have made an outline of what I have written. If I print it out and put it with one of these – a red for point A and a green for point B – and figure out how the narrative is supposed to be straightened out – and I print it out and want to keep that printout because immediately I start revising again. I just tuck them into drive D to keep them safe from my revisions, because my revisions often worsen it instead of improving it. So I want to go back.
The fourth section is usually the incidental materials: photocopies of the illustrations, for example. I have Hughes’s astrological chart, since he was interested in astrology. He used to decide when his book or Plath’s book should be published by casting a horoscope. He would send horoscopes to friends when their children were born, and so forth. So I need to be an astrologer as well.
HO: You are taking notes, you are in your archive, you are trying this out – when it comes to the draft you are working away – in your office?
DM: Yes, at home; not here. I find writing a miserable job. If I get up a 4:30 in the morning and know that I will be at the Opera at 8pm, for some reason that makes me feel that I don’t have time to do anything. When I get inside the book, I lose all my bearings. I don’t know what time it is, where I am. It is strange and paranoid making.
HO: 3, 4, 8 hours?
DM: Not that long; but as long as I am actively involved in writing, I am really not here; writing is so much an entering of a subjectivity and staying there. It is an infantilizing as well.
HO: You are working at home – you get up in the morning and start writing?
DM: No, I drink a pot of coffee first: that’s my drug; it makes me feel elated and smart. I have learned not to lavish that precious illusion on the New York Times. If I am feeling professionally on top of things, I will read something in The Times that I know is really well-written. Just to read something that I know will be really good. My favorite book is by Claudia Pierpoint Roth, called Passionate Minds. She is a beautiful writer, every paragraph is beautifully written. But she also has a way of writing what amounts to a miniature biography without making you feel that she has left anything out that is important. My second favorite is a writer named Adam Phillips who is a child psychoanalyst that has written on a number of subjects. Psychoanalysis is an examination of subjectivity, of finding out what a person is. He is very good at opening you up to the actual existence of an unconscious. If you are reading poetry – trying to talk about what poets do – you need to be alert to the expressiveness of everything that wants to come to you already like a statement. You want to find its network, its radiations into other things. So by reading psychoanalysts I can prime myself: “They did it; I can do it; right!”
HO: And it gets going!
DM: I wasn’t kidding about the pot of coffee: 6 cups.
HO: OK, do you keep a tidy desk; piles?
DM: Yes, my piles; I know where everything is.
DM: Absolute silence. I’ve had arguments – kind of impolite ones – with my students. I don’t think that writers can write when some other art form is in the background. Writing demands so much of your attention that anything in the background is an interruption.
HO: Do you ever take note sitting in a café: white noise?
DM: I can do that, since it is anonymous. I have my clipboard for that. I fold my paper in half, take my notes on the left, make my observations on the right.
HO: You’ve been developing these procedures over years, right?
DM: Yes, since 1981.
HO: So you didn’t just work like this all of a sudden?
DM: No; with a biography there is no straight line; all is muddled. You don’t know what you know, you don't know what you don’t know; if you find anything you make a note about it because some day it may find its partner. You have to have very good ways of keeping track of what you have found and where you have put it.
HO: Do you ever get stuck?
DM: All the time.
HO: And what do you do?
DM: I suffer. I think writing is miserable, miserable, miserable work. Revising is better.
HO: At least you have something.
DM: Yes, when you are writing at least you are producing the stuff that is wrong. It just feels that you are making messes.
HO: Do you just spit it out, stream of consciousness so that then you can revise it?
DM: Well, I am usually working from a nugget of information; so I have got something to make sense out of. I guess with the Ted Hughes book, which is a book about marriage – so not a biography strictly speaking, it is a book that has topicality as its priority, not chronology, which makes for difficulty. I want each of the pieces of it – each chapter has one work for a title, no date – so “struggle” is one – people struggle in marriage from Day One. Hughes and Plath had a very dramatic meeting and the struggle goes on for all the time that they were married. I decided that I would organize the struggle around various types of furniture. The Bed is about the children, Table is about the sex. Then there is the Garden. I love that chapter.
HO: Back up; how do you get the idea of organizing a chapter around things?
DM: It was a lightning bolt from above: I was sitting in my study in London and suddenly “Boing!” and I thought “Who did that?” And I had Sylvia Plath’s journal, when she was making herself into a writer. Plath, by the way, was writing her journal as a member of her generation – as a work of fiction – the diary “I” of the novel. So, on her honeymoon she writes this amazing prose. And later I discover that she was actually writing an article for the Christian Science Monitor about being in Spain. She talks a lot about the way they sit at their table. Dining room table and desk are the same in this moment. And then I found letters to her mother: Plath sits out on the terrace with her back to him – neither wanted to be distracted by the other – and she talks about how he can draw this shade around himself.
So this is about how I got the idea. And I knew it was fabulous – but could I make it work? Because I think that biographers should make up nothing – not one thing. I knew the principle was solid gold, but would it work? It takes me at least two months to write a chapter, so I might work for 2 months and find that it was bullshit, but I wouldn't know until after the two months.
HO: How do you get unstuck?
DM: I just understand that I am in one of my avoidance modes: I get over it; stay with it. I look at the Chronology, I've always got that, it's where the facts are. Sometimes I decide that I need to reread something that is the stimulus for what I am doing. No, you never turn your back on it, because it isn’t going to go away. There was a word I was trying to think of, it wasn’t quite right, and in the shower the other day I thought of what it was.
HO: There is a professor here who gets so many ideas in the shower that she put up one of those grease pencil boards in the shower and just writes in the shower.
DM: Very smart; I don’t mind jumping out.
HO: In the dorm that might not work as well. Let’s open this up to other people.
A: Do you run your drafts of individual chapters past friends or family members; do they every serve as a reality check on what you have done?
DM: Yes; there is a biographer seminar that I have joined right now to talk about the Ancestors chapter, which is the most difficult part of any biography. Nobody likes to read it, it is hard to write, hard to know what to put in. So I thought I would show it to the pros. I don’t want to share it with people while I am working on it. The biographer’s projection of the readers [tape break] and then have a reader. Because the minute I got home after passing out these 12 copies, I realized that there was a structural problem, that I needed to talk about the mother before I talked about the father. I revised it only because passing out the copies made me think of how a reader would see this chapter. It is so hard to be a reader. One of the ways you can turn yourself into one is by presenting it to other people. The hardest thing of all is to be able to see what needs to be done to a piece you have written. I showed the biographers a problem they would be familiar with. I said aloud that I thought it was the dull part and [Professor of History] Peter Stansky said, “I like the ancestors, I like lineage.” I called him the next day to ask him about the Sassoon family. Plath’s first serious lover was named Sassoon and we know nothing about him. Stansky knew he was part of the family, but nothing else about him, which was information in and of itself. Anyway, it is always useful to work with people who understand what you are doing.
So my preliminary draft I gave to four people who had said they would be willing to read it to me. They were plain readers; people who like to read a lot; they are my audience. They might think Plath is Anne Sexton, know she killed herself – “Didn’t she have that terrible husband?” – and I got lovely feedback. But that’s my answer. I think it is a good answer. It is aggravating to show people only a bit of a biography, since they don’t know why you have taken such pains to describe a particular piece.
A: Where did you get that binder?
DM: Lizell.com; $40 each, but worth it.
A: It seems biography is very like fiction, the way you describe it.
DM: Yes: your readers expect a story, a story that answers the question, “So what, why do we care about what this person has done?” You have to be willing to offer your judgment about things, but try to be right. Not to have an axe you are grinding, but to be that poised intelligence in the present looking at the past. I only write about dead people; once they are dead, they can’t read your book. You are their transmitter, in a way, to the future. But you have to be a story-teller.
HO: But organizing things by objects is a different way of telling a story; just as there are different ways of writing a novel, there are different ways of writing a biography.
DM: True; but the curious narrator wants to know, when Sylvia Plath and Hughes struggled with each other, what was it about; why did they struggle? Because it is my view that they had an extremely successful marriage, and that they made each other into the poets that they became without being at all alike. They made the context in which the development of each as an artist could occur. It ended; but while it was going on, what was it like to be one of them? There was struggle, then success. When Hughes turns 30, he’s a success; when Plath turns 30 she is. The rest of the marriage takes place posthumously, for Ted; but he is never not married to her. He writes Birthday Letters which he schedules to be published on the 29th of January because it is the date for the release of a book that he has been working on for 25 years. And he is talking to Plath as if she were alive. The book shows the arc of the maturing of a marriage; how a marriage changes over time as people develop different interests and see their younger selves from the perspectives of now. The topicality is “What is going on in the marriage at any given moment.” That’s me saying, “It never really ends.” I leave a lot of things out, but I try to record the turning points, the typicalities, the fascinating things about their personal life.
A: A question about revision: especially when you are working on a long text: when you finish one of those big pieces and you say, “No, this isn’t the story I want to be telling, it is not the most coherent or the most economic expression for the connections that I want to make.” How do you begin to get the new eyes to see those problems?
DM: You should revise with certain purposes in mind. In a biography I am always finding that the chronology is screwed up: I am anticipating, forecasting; I am clumping things together because it is topical, but it doesn’t work yet; I haven’t developed enough of an argument for this to work. Then, looking to see whether my quotations are too long; whether I have quoted too much. People quote too much anyway; you put more in when you quote because you haven’t written the context yet and you don’t know how it is going to read, you think, “This is great,” and you plug it in; then you go back and see that it doesn’t fit. Looking at the style too; when I was starting out with this book, for reasons that had to do with the problem of fair use, I am doing a lot of paraphrasing. Ted Hughes’s letters are unpublished, they belong to the estate; the estate says they can’t be published, so this is dangerous territory. The US Constitution says, “Yes, you can use them,” so long as you use only a little bit. So I decided to have a very strong area voice so that you would always know when I was writing. My model was Anthony Lane, who writes a lot of movie reviews; I think his work is really exemplary: he only writes about things that really interest him. I used a lot of contractions, short observations; signatures of a writing style. When my daughter read it, she said, “This is not good, this doesn’t work.” I really didn’t believe it at first. So I went though to see what I should do about those places. So that was a problem. I also strongly recommend outlining your own work after it is written, because then you can see where the logic is breaking down, or where you repeat yourself. Shrinking it down improves it. If you have a revision strategy, and know what you are looking for, and know that these are typical faults – editors know that we all have a surface signature syntax – then you can be confronted with them as problems to be worked on, rather then thinking of them as failures, which is so discouraging.
A: What did you do with the archaeology of your subject – the photos, the other artifacts?
DM: I think they are terrifically informative. For one thing they almost always have dates on them; a lot of them have stamps that tell you where the person was, which is very hard to find out frequently. They give you a pathway into a person’s subjectivity. And it all goes into the chronological file as well. If I don’t know what category something might belong to, it ends up in the chronological file. A lot of times objects tell you things more than writings do. I think it is a good thing for biographers to deposit the archive of the writing of their book in the principle archive of the subject. Each of us is a nexus of random historical passages, very little of which leaves any trace whatsoever, but someone who wants to find Ted Hughes again can look at my Chrono file and find not only the way I organized things, but also things I found at the Lyly library, and so forth.
A: Why the biography of Ovid and what interest does that hold for you?
DM: The first year I taught at Stanford was 1966; in January of 1967 I taught what is now Poetry and Poetics for the first time. It is a departmental staple, and I always adored it because it is not about an era of poetry or a nationality of poetry, but poetics, so I would always start with a look at the Metamorphoses. It is an interesting pool of tropes that appear again and again in literature. If you read the first six books, you are ready for the Renaissance. But also, Ovid is the most clever narrator in the world; there is no trick of narrative that does not appear in that book. So I got more and more interested in giving a little background to the book, started reading Roman history, and acquired such a load of stuff about Ovid, Roman legal history, that my course started using more and more Ovid. As I moved along I felt that I had a very strong sense of who it was that was speaking in these poems, and it occurred to me, after I had a couple of biographies under my belt, and after Jack Miles won the Pulitzer prize for a book called God, A Biography, I thought, “I could do that,” because God exists only in his texts, and so does Ovid. I saw him as a whole being produced with a self-consistency that is expressive of his period. So the wonderful Roman social history that we have of the period feeds into it. He also wrote a biography about the sorrows of exiles, and gives a lot of information about himself, something few other poets do. Also, there was a short book published in 1966 by a crabby learned English classicist called History in Ovid. He goes through everything thought to be historical about Ovid and says why it is wrong. A great resource.
A: I’m always interested in the inner life. You’ve been talking about Ovid and how you felt you came to know him through a lot of external things, including his works. Can you talk about that discovery of the inner person, or your immersion in someone's life and writing and how you feel you know them?
DM: It’s a tricky question, since I know only the Ovid that is written. There is a representation of subjectivity that is sometimes there in the first person plural “we.” There is a self-consistent character who is positioned in the grammatical first person, which we all use – but I don’t believe that there is a way to correlate it with a flesh and blood human being – I don't look for that. I know the Ovid that ended the Metamorphoses by saying “as long as Roman power dominates the language, I shall be living always.” It is a great joke, Shakespeare uses it, “not marble nor the gilded monuments.” If you can read this, I am still alive, is what it says, because I am in my language – what I made is there and you are grasping that. But it is an artifact, not a human being. So when you want to analyze it, you want to be aware that it is always mediated by language; rather than assuming that you can contact something else. I think that it is something that has been done by someone that knows how it works. Ovid even predicts his death, says, “The part of me that doesn’t matter, my body, will change.” But something isn’t going to change – maybe. And that is the readability of what I make, because I have mastered the craft. We have to die, but occasionally some people leave something behind that makes other people feel they have been addressed in a continual stream of intelligence that someone has joined the stream of literature and passed it on to you with all of the artifacts that could be built into it in the historical moments in which it is made and delivered it to a future so that we could all share it.
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A: Do you have some words of wisdom for those of us who are in the business of helping graduate students to learn to write well and interesting stuff? Just at the moment when they need to be finding their professional personal voice, they are distracted by this phony process of constructing from the outside in a professional identity.
DM: I'm going to give you a truthful answer, but I don’t know if it is a helpful one. I told you about my dissertation: it was helpful to me, and I got my degree. And I think that is enough to ask about a dissertation; it shouldn’t have to be a book. Normally a dissertation has three readers. You write for them, they are the experts in the field. They want to see that you have covered things, how you formulate things, that you know how to acknowledge things, how to use what you have found, maybe advance the frontiers in the discussion; but it is a work that precedes your release into the profession more than anything else, and that is hard enough. I don’t think that in the arena of academic work we are expecting good writing of people. There are a lot of academic works that are badly written, not just because they are full of jargon, but because they don’t know how to organize things, how to be selective, how to make them interesting, how to do the things that would make them readable. That’s a feature of American culture more than English culture. There is more of a play between the journalistic and the critical. In the humanities we should all aspire to be better writers; I think that at the moment of the dissertation, though, you should just be writing as well as you can. But the thing you should really be doing is writing the first draft of the book, which is going to be much different when it has readers in the real world, than when it just has three readers who are going to sign off on it and say that “This is legitimate work for the granting of the Ph.D.”
There is nothing like finding a model. Find a book that is really well-written in your field, and just study it.
HO: I do that with undergraduates who are going to graduate school: analyze the books of professors whom they will work with in graduate school; see how it is written, figure out whether it is good or not, and then figure out how they are going to deal with it, and what the expectations might be.
Do you ever read bad writing and get inspired by the bad writing?
DM: I do bad writing – enough of that!
HO: Thanks to Diane for coming!