by Marielle Scheid and Tristin Waldrop
Julie Marie Wade's first collection of lyric essays,Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures, received the Colgate University Press Nonfiction Book Prize and is forthcoming in 2010. Sarabande Books will publish her second book of lyric nonfiction, In Lieu of Flowers, in 2011. A poetry chapbook,Without, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in 2010 as part of the New Women's Voices Chapbook Series. Wade completed an MA in English at Western Washington University in 2003 and an MFA in poetry at the University of Pittsburgh in 2006. She has received the Chicago Literary Award in Poetry, the Gulf Coast Nonfiction Prize, and six Pushcart Prize nominations. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Third Coast, Southeast Review, Diner, Nimrod, and Georgetown Review, among others. She lives with Angie and their two cats in Louisville, Kentucky, where she is a doctoral candidate and graduate teaching fellow in the Humanities program at the University of Louisville.
Southern Indiana Review: Congratulations on winning second place in the Mary C. Mohr Nonfiction conest. As you developed your writing process, were you more aided by your formal training or simply by experiencing life? Do you feel that your writing process is constantly evolving, or have you found a way to write that always works for you?
Julie Marie Wade: There's no question that my education has made a difference in terms of how I approach the project of writing, the kinds of connections I make between the text of life experience and other texts, be they literary texts or pop cultural texts or film theory or philosophy, etc., the fact that I even regard my own experience as a kind of "text" at all—that's the effect of a particular kind of education and of being a particular kind of student who gravitates toward certain concepts and disciplines as opposed to others.As much as I always knew I was a writer, as in I always wrote and wrote passionately, I didn't have any idea what "creative nonfiction" was until college. I knew about fiction, and I knew about poetry, and I knew about theatrical drama, so those were the genres in which I attempted to write. But in college, when I declared a creative writing major, I took all kinds of workshops and also courses in literature that exposed me to new genres and hybrid genres, and in particular, I fell in love with the idea that you could write about your own life without having to "disguise it" as fiction, but also in a more formal and deliberate way than simply recording thoughts and feelings in a journal. I took a class called "Autobiographical Writing" with a provocative professor named David Seal my sophomore year, and for that class, I wrote my first piece of creative nonfiction—very traditional approach, describing a particular summer in my life—but after that, I never went back to fiction. Then, my senior year, I had a class called "The Personal Essay" with Tom Campbell, one of the most inspiring teachers of my life, and I learned that you could write about ideas you had, not just experiences you'd already lived through, but even unresolved issues in your life, and that these ideas themselves were experiences and inflected other experiences. This was stunning for me, this idea of the essay as a kind of writing that was devoted to the exploration of ideas, but with a personal "I" and a fully subjective consciousness attached to that "I."
Then, I went to graduate school—the first time—at Western Washington University, and I was a graduate instructor for the English composition program there. The premise was simple: graduate students who were working on master's degrees in English literature or English creative writing would receive funding and a stipend for teaching required comp courses to undergraduate students. This could have been a very tedious kind of task designed to fund graduate students and bring them to campus but without any real regard for the subject of English composition. Instead, we had these amazing composition mentors—Donna Qualley and Bill Smith and Star Rush—who wanted all of us, whether we ultimately I wanted to write throughmy questions, to write from uncertainty, hoping always to generate new and better questions.embraced the tenets of composition or not, to understand what the discipline was about. So, on the one hand, I was writing creatively and preparing a creative thesis, but I was also teaching and learning how to teach from people who really believed in an inquiry-driven model of writing, people who didn't see a thesis as purely argument-based but as an opportunity to explore ideas and questions for which there might be only better and more refined questions, not solid or singular answers. On our sample syllabus, Donna had excerpted a question from E.M. Forster: "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" I don't know if it did anything for my own students, but that question summed up for me a particular epiphany about what I wanted my writing to do, both the poetry and the creative nonfiction—I wanted to write through my questions, to write from uncertainty, hoping always to generate new and better questions.
I'm fairly confident I would have turned out to be some kind of writer no matter what course my life had taken, but the kind of writer I am is so much a product of the kind of reader I am and the kind of teachers I've had and the disciplines that I've grown to love, and most of all, the tenets of composition theory that shaped what I thought was possible and desirable as a way of seeing the world and my life, and how I write is a direct extension of that worldview—writing as inquiry and discovery rather than proclamation or argument.
SIR: As an openly gay author, have you noticed changes over the years towards the reception of works dealing with gay and lesbian subject matter? Was there ever a time when you felt that a work would be rejected because of this, or when you felt that people pigeonholed you as a "gay author" instead of as an author who just happens to be gay?
JMW: That's a really good question. First, I'm pretty young in the scheme of things—29—and I've only been sending out work since the autumn of 2003, so I don't have a long history as a publishing writer. I have been fortunate to publish poetry and creative nonfiction pretty consistently since 2004, and in a variety of journals, but that's still only a time span of five years. I also didn't start living my life as a gay person until 2002, so I have had to ask myself the question—did coming to see myself as gay, or queer, make me more interesting as a writer, more of a curiosity to potential readers, potentially even more of a curiosity to myself? Did it make me think I had something more valuable to write about, or more compelling at least, or some kind of obligation to speak from that subject position? And if so, is that a bad thing? One answer is that I've been writing since I was four years old, so clearly I was a writer in my own mind before I was a gay person in my own mind—long before.
And, you know, many of my literary heroes are queer people who write authentically from their subject positions in ways that are deeply personal and also always more than personal, and more than marginal. For instance, literary masters like Mark Doty and Adrienne Rich, the established genius of someone like Bernard Cooper, and the young genius of emerging poets like James Allen Hall. I think I take my cue from these writers, with emphasis on the authentic, whatever that authentic is. I can't be sure when I get rejected for a prize or a publication if my subject matter is a liability any more than I can be sure when I get accepted for publication or even win a prize if my subject matter has tipped the balance favorably. My guess is most of the time my sexuality as reflected in my subject matter is not the deciding factor, but when and if it is, it probably works for me as much as against me, i.e. for some journal in some issue, it's "too gay," but for another journal, it's "something different" or "that big token gay piece" or "we need some diversity, so how 'bout this one?" I'd probably make myself a nervous wreck if I thought about it too much, so I try to focus on what's most authentic for me. I always write what I want to write; I always follow the inquiries where they lead. I don't ever write something because I think it's what a particular journal or editor or final judge wants to hear; I just can't work that way. Writing is liberating for me. I think I'm much more likely to feel constrained or limited or judged for being gay at my local grocery store or at an awkward social gathering than I am submitting my work somewhere. And also, the queer page is different from the queer life, for both the writer and the reader; in general, I think queerness is easier for anyone apt to be uneasy to approach at a remove, the voice on the page and not the person or the couple standing right there. Entering anyone's subjectivity through writing, especially nonfiction, can build empathy and compassion, whether or not we share that writer's subjectivity, so my hope is that I might draw the uneasy reader in and invite her to wrestle with her questions or her judgments the way I wrestle with my own set of questions and judgments in my work. Maybe, without directly intending to, I'm modeling that kind of self-inspection. I'm not sure, but that would be nice.
SIR: We noticed that a lot of your work deals with relationships, whether it be family relationships or romances. How do these relationships, or perhaps people that you meet, inspire you?
JMW: Well, I guess most of my questions are tied to relationships, how we learn who we are and who we want to be and who we don't want to be in relation to other people. I was always conscious growing up that I belonged to my parents in a way that was very real for them—as their only child, as the one in whom they had invested so much of their lives and their dreams for the future—but also at the same time that I didn't belong in their world, that I didn't share their worldview or many of their vicarious aspirations on my behalf. And I wonder, where do such deep and fundamental differences come from between people who live together for so many years, like parents and children?
James Hillman has an interesting book called The Soul's Code: In Search of Character and Calling, and in it, he writes: "As explained by the greatest of the later Platonists, Plotinus (A.D. 205-270), we elected the body, the parents, the
place, and the circumstances that suited the soul and that, as the myth says, belong to its necessity. This suggests that the circumstances, including my body and my parents whom I may curse, are my soul's own choice—and I do not understand this because I have forgotten" (8). This myth of the daimon, or the unique calling, intrigues me so much, and I think it has been at the heart of my writing far longer than I've been aware of the myth as such. I like mysteries in general, so what's more mysterious than how we ended up with particular people in our lives and all the accompanying intimacies and estrangements that follow?
I think the person I am, the gay person I am, is unfathomable for my parents, and I don't imagine that they're trying to make sense of why I am their daughter or why I turned out the way I did, but I'm still trying to make sense of why they are my parents and why I "chose" them, if I did, and what I've learned from them, as I surely must have. And then as I grew up, the idea of belonging with someone by a more explicit choice—or maybe not—and all the mysteries associated with love and building a new life with another person. I'm fascinated by that as well, both the failed romances and the one that's been thriving for these last seven years with my partner, Angie.
I'm not sure it's that these relationships, past and present, specifically inspireme, so much as it is that they inquire of me; they raise questions that feel both deeply personal and also bigger than me—human questions about all the usual suspects: love, loss, grief, hope, truth. My subject matter isn't original; it's ancient. But my hope is that I'm juxtaposing different texts of experience and different kinds of already extant texts in a way that helps me, and my reader too, consider the classic, cosmic questions from new angles, in fresh light. Ultimately, though, it's the world according to me, filtered through my lenses, so there's a kind of residual ambiguity that I live with and I embrace that some readers might like and some might hate. "Nothing gets resolved!" That's a fair complaint, I'd say.
SIR: Looking at your own work, do you feel that you have changed at all as an author over the years? Is there a lesson you know now that you wish you could have known when you first began writing?
JMW: Absolutely! All the time. Still am. Always will be. Each piece of writing for me is a small epiphany, partly of what can be done with form, and partly of what I learn about myself through the process of writing. But all these epiphanies
don't seem to intertwine in some grand, unified theory about writing or about subjectivity or even about life. I could be wrong, but I'm not expecting a huge revelation at the end. It seems like most of what I've learned about how to write and what to write and what might be possible to do in writing becomes apparent as I'm ready to know it, or as I'm ready to retain it and use it in any substantial way. Everything is a clue, or a potential punchline, but if you don't know the case or the joke yet, you can't recognize this artifact or idea or method as valuable. I have that feeling in school a lot, both teaching undergraduates and being a student myself. I'll re-encounter something that I've heard before or read before, but suddenly it makes a new kind of sense because I'm newly receptive to it and have a place for it in my thinking about that subject or task.
One of the images that seems to best suit the way I regard my writing process over time—over the 25 years since I first picked up that first crayon and felt that first satisfaction of putting words on a page—is the image of a modernist painting, something like Degas' Two Dancers on a Stage. And you see these ballerinas, and they're off to the side of the canvas, and one of the women's hands extends beyond the canvas on the right, and on the left, there's some fluff of a tutu from another ballerina who can't be seen yet—who seems to be dancing her way into the scene but hasn't made it into the picture. I like this kind of painting because it suggests motion, constant motion, and the existential problem of pinning anything down definitively, let alone symmetrically and perfectly in focus and poised. Writing and relationships and life in general are perenially coming into and moving out of focus, with bursts of insight (like bits of tutu) and then huge empty spaces, like the majority of Degas' canvas, where everything hasn't been fleshed out—and in fact won't be. And that's most of it really—the blank space on the canvas or the poetic caesura or the musical rest. To me, those are all analogies for the question forming, the idea in progress, for the uncertainty without which I'd really have no reason to write. I'm so grateful for all I don't know.