“Look in Thy Heart and Write”: A Conversation with Mark Slouka

Image provided by Mark Slouka

Mark Slouka, Visiting Hurst Professor in Nonfiction Writing at Washington University in St. Louis this semester, speaks with MFA candidate and Spectacle editor Katharine Monger on genre and the role of the essay, the rise of the MFA, the 2016 American presidential election season, and on what it means to write the essential.

Slouka is the author of works of both fiction and nonfiction, including Brewster, Lost Lake, The Visible World (which was a finalist for the British Book Award), and Essays from the Nick of Time (winner of the PEN/Diamonstein-Speilvogel Award). His work has appeared in Harper’s, Ploughshares, The Paris Review, Granta, NewYorker.com, as well as the anthologies Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays. A Guggenheim and NEA fellowship recipient, he has taught literature and writing at Harvard, Columbia, and The University of Chicago. His memoir, Nobody’s Son, is forthcoming this October, and his blog, “Notes from the Shack: On Nature, Culture, Politics and Technology,” can be found at markslouka.com.

Katharine Monger: What is “essay” to you?

Mark Slouka: I think an essay—as the word suggests—is an attempt to understand something that you the writer haven’t understood before. For me it’s often a combination of things—events in your life, the outside world, your past, what have you—that seem connected somehow. Your job as an essayist is to try to figure out what that connection is between that dream you had yesterday, that thing your father said to you when you were six, and that piece you read in the paper about the guy being pushed under the subway in New York. Somewhere, there’s a connection to you, personally. I think the best kinds of essays are the ones in which you, the reader, feel that you’re watching the writer figure it out, following her obsession to some kind of—temporary, maybe—answer.

Someone asked Robert Frost once what a poem was, and he said it was a “temporary stay against confusion.” The man knew what he was talking about. What’s true for a poem is true for an essay, is true for a story, is true for a novel to some extent. It’s a temporary stay against confusion. It’s not meant to be a final resting place. It’s a pivot point.

KM: I was thinking about what we were talking about yesterday, where, if you know too well where you’re going in an essay, it can turn out badly.

MS: Yeah, I mean, if you already know the answer, why are you writing it? Often the worst essays, or for that matter the worst fiction, feel sort of pre-cooked. Like one of those TV dinners or something. You just stick it in the microwave. I think for literature to work, it has to be precarious, it has to be dangerous, it has to surprise you, and it has to disturb you on some level. It doesn’t have to be a negative disturbance; just disturb the atmosphere. And the only way that’s possible is if the writer himself hasn’t figured out what this wilderness is that he’s walking into when he’s walking into it. He just senses that he has to walk in there. Which brings up another subject: an essay, a story, a book—has to feel necessary. Like, this needed to be written. I think the shelves are full of books that really didn’t need to be written, and they’re the ones I’m least interested in.

I’ll give you an example, actually—this is fun, but you’ve got to tell me to shut up if you have another question because I’ve had a lot of coffee.

KM: No, no, go ahead, please.

MS: Actually, I think I wrote about it in an essay, I’m not sure which one. Oh, okay, I think I do know. I think it was the one about Seifert and Dostoevsky.

KM: Oh, “Arrow and Wound?”

MS: “Arrow and Wound,” thank you. I should know the name… I wrote it.

KM: It’s one of your favorites, right?

MS: Yeah [laughs], except I don’t remember what it’s called.

So there’s an anecdote there that I heard when I was in Czechoslovakia. It was before the Revolution. One of the prisons that the Third Reich had in Czechoslovakia at that time was an interrogation center as well as a prison. This was an end-of-the-line kind of place. But when they liberated it they discovered that often, inside, behind the niches of the bricks, prisoners had stuffed little balls of toilet paper on which they’d written poems.

Now you’re talking about individuals who had been or were going to be tortured and eventually executed. And yet in those days or weeks or months that they had left, they took pieces of toilet paper and wrote poems on them. Talk about essential, you know? This was something that they had to express even though life was over. What an extraordinary thing that is.

KM: Speaking of essential: there was something you wrote in the introduction to Essays from the Nick of Time—well, it seemed like you were very hesitant to write that introduction to begin with.

MS: There’s a story there.

KM: Do you want to tell that story?

MS: Sure, but don’t forget your question [laughs].

The story is that I had an earlier publisher who wanted the essays, but wanted me to write an intro. And I felt like, “The essays are their own intro. Read the damn essays. You either like them or you don’t, they either say something or they don’t, and whatever I say in the intro isn’t going to make a difference.” But she really pushed on it, she really wanted an intro, so I thought about it. And I figured out that the only way I could write an intro was to write about the impossibility of writing an intro.

KM: Yeah, there was a line in there. And it made me think about what you see as the essayist’s role, which we’ve sort of skirted around already. You wrote that, “Timidity belongs in other lines of work, not ours.” And I wondered, since writing that, do you still feel that way? Do you see yourself as resisting timidity?

MS: I believe it more now than I ever did, and I think it’s essential more now than it ever was, because I think there are all sorts of market forces working to homogenize us, to declaw and defang us. And that kind of intellectual, ideological neutering is a really subtle process, because the market makes you do it to yourself. There’s no one saying, “You can’t publish this,” but you bend your own voice to fit what you feel the market wants. Because you need to make a living. Because you want to be loved. Because you want to have that line at your book reading snaking around the block. It’s a very insidious thing. If you’ve even had a modicum of success, it’s human nature to figure out what you did there and do that some more. The problem with that is that it’s a slippery slope. Pretty soon you’re painting by number. The market tells you what number it is and you just apply the paint. It’s like asking a painter to paint a painting that will go with a blue couch. It’s wrong. Make the couch fit the painting if you have to fit in anything, but not the other way around.

I think it’s important for writers to not be timid with the world, but more importantly, to not be timid with themselves. I think that’s where the gray area is; you have to be willing to go to some unpleasant places, to scrutinize yourself as well as where you came from, the people in your life, the stories you were told, the lies you were told. Ideally what you’re striving for, I think, is for there to be almost nothing off limits. But even then there’s always a danger that you’ll slide into some sort of exhibitionism. Some self-indulgent, “Oh, look at me, I’m so daring” pose. I’m talking about going to the places that are necessary for some bigger reason, not just to prove to people that you can shock the shoes off of them. Timidity should not be for us. If you can’t do this, do something else. There are a lot of things people can do in the world, God knows. But if you’re going to do this, and your ambition is to be more than just an entertainer, then a certain kind of honesty is a requirement. There are all kinds of ways of hiding on the page. And sometimes the better writer you are, the better you are at hiding behind all manner of cleverness and wordplay, persona, voice, all the different masks. But I think a good reader can see through that, can sense a certain authenticity, or lack of it.

An example: A hugely talented writer, who I sometimes found quite frustrating, was David Foster Wallace. Big talent, but I found myself—I never knew him personally—I found myself wishing I could sit down with him at some point and say, “I feel like so much of what you do is operating behind these layers of hugely inventive cleverness—it’s the five page footnote, it’s the humor, it’s the ‘post-y’ thing which you do, which you do so well. But just once I want to see you really risk yourself. I want you to strip all that away, and I want to see you walk out on that branch, as far as you can.” Because I’d have loved to see what he could have done. And I find that a lot in Junot Díaz as well. Junot Díaz is a really good writer. But I get tired of that hip, modern thing, that dance. It’s not that it’s not good. It’s good—it’s really good. Maybe it’s just because I’m getting older and I’m getting tired of the games that people play.

And so the writers, the ones I’m coming to admire, are the ones that seem to cut down to it, just get to it. It’s not a popularity contest; it’s about telling the truth as best you know how. If you do that, it’s a beautiful thing.

What I’m arguing against is what I think of as a kind of hipster style of writing. And I’m being a little bit unfair, but there it is.

KM: Don’t be timid [laughs].

MS: OK, what I’m talking about is writing that’s about a certain kind of pose. It’s hip, it’s contemporary, it’s very knowing, it’s often very witty, and it’s constantly referring to the world we live in now. But sometimes, reading it, I feel like I’m standing on a corner in Brooklyn and everyone’s wearing the right shirt, the right hat, the right glasses, the right scruff, right suit. It’s like when I used to walk into Dodge Hall at Columbia and the film students would be standing out front. And they were all wearing black. They were all looking disaffected, smoking their cigarettes. And that’s how you knew they were film students. Would you not be an auteur if you were wearing something else? If you had an uncool haircut? So sometimes what I get with these authors is a little bit of that. You’re popular, all your friends are popular, hand washes hand. But the ones I’m drawn to are the ones who risk it, the ones who seem to be oddballs. Writers who seem uninterested in impressing anyone, except maybe themselves. To me that’s hopeful.

KM: This feels like a good segue into my next, admittedly bold question. It’s been ten years since you wrote that letter in the Columbia Spectator about MFA programs (I’m simplifying it here). I wondered if your thoughts have changed since—and not so much limiting the conversation to the context at that particular school. Has the world of writing changed in a way that you find troubling?

MS: That’s a big question with a lot of parts to it. I spent a lot of years teaching writing, so I have a lot of thoughts. But let’s start here: In a way it’s incredibly encouraging that there are so many people, even in a culture that seems less and less interested in reading, who want to write. It’s an extraordinary leap of faith. What could be less practical than that? Which is the reason I love it. So let me start with that. You’ve got tens of thousands of people who want to be writers. Well, the problem is that the market has answered. There’s demand, so we need supply, and so we’ve supplied programs. A lot of programs.

And that’s where it begins very quickly to get into ethically troubled waters, because not every program is the same. I don’t regret that Columbia letter one bit, though the program I was associated with has changed since then. I haven’t been there in ten years, but I know that the faculty has changed considerably, and that many of the people they have there now are incredibly good. But at the time, we were trafficking shamelessly in our name. Which was hard. I had to be one of the people to call people up to accept them, and you get somebody’s mother on the line. And you say, “I’m Mark Slouka, I’m calling from Columbia University,” and they go, “Oh oh, one second!” And you hear them off the phone whispering, “It’s Columbia University! It’s Columbia University!” So this person gets on, their voice shaking, and you get to deliver the good news, “Congratulations.” And at some point in the conversation they say, “I probably shouldn’t but, can I ask, is there any money? Is there any, like, help?” And then I get to be the guy who says, “Well, I’m happy to say we’re offering you $3000! Your first year is $35,000, but we’re offering you $3000!” “Well, how about the second year?” “Well the second year, there are some opportunities. You might be asked to teach freshman composition, which would mean that your tuition would be substantially reduced. But you might not. And actually it’s a real dogfight to get those positions.” And I don’t know what the ratio was, but I’m guessing only about one out of five people got those positions. So the answer to that question actually was, “Nope, you’re in for two years, that’ll be $70,000 please.”

It gets worse from there. Little does Jill from Iowa, or Jack from California, know that they’re entering a program in which fiction will be bringing in 42 people, or 44. Nonfiction will be bringing in 35 plus. Poetry will be another 25, 30. In other words, you have this huge program that basically doesn’t offer financial aid, and on top of that isn’t willing to tell a student early on, “You should reconsider.” First of all, you shouldn’t admit them. But then, having admitted them, you should have the courage to say, “We’re not telling you not to continue, we’re just sending up a warning signal here. Before you go $70,000 into debt, think hard about whether this is for you.” That takes a lot of courage, because you’re dashing somebody’s hopes, potentially. But on the other hand, it’s the right thing to do.

So if you put all these things together: the fact that there’s this demand, that all these programs are proliferating, that often they don’t provide the kind of financial aid they should, that often they don’t provide the kind of instruction they should, you have a situation. At Columbia back then, it was almost literally impossible to fail out. You could do whatever you wanted. No one failed a single time during the six years I was there. As far as I know, I was the only one to fail somebody and my decisions were overturned. You put all these things together and it’s hard to escape the sense that you’re dealing with something that’s a bit dishonest. I’m sorry if that comes off as harsh to some people, but there it is.

That said, I think there are programs all over the country that are legitimate to various degrees, that can truly help writers who want the community thing for a while to help them figure out the complexities of what they’ve chosen to do—basically they can save you a lot of time. That’s how I’ve always seen an MFA. It’s not that you wouldn’t figure it out yourself eventually, but it might take you 8 or 10 years instead of 2. To see that, “Oh, that’s what I was doing,” regarding voice, say. A good program will show you the menu of options that’s available to you sooner so that you can move ahead. When it’s done well, it’s a great thing. But it’s probably not done as well as it should be as often as it should be. And now with this huge proliferation of programs, it’s up to the students to really find out, “What am I getting into here?”

That’s going to win me a lot of friends. [Laughs]

But hey, we’re writers, for Christ’s sake. We’re kind of paid to piss people off a little bit, right? I mean, not deliberately. It’s not like we’re writing, “Fuck you,” on the garage wall to piss off daddy when he gets home. It’s about telling the truth as you see it. I thought that’s what writers were supposed to do, but that may be changing. A year or two ago, I read about these publishers who took to polling readers about what kinds of books they like. A certain plot and so on. This was amazing to me. The idea, I guess, was to first create a database; you have a hero and a heroine—should they look like this, like that, this background, that background, this crisis, that crisis. And then they’d assign it to a writer, guaranteeing that they already have the readership in place. To my mind, that’s the death of literature right there, which I said in a letter to the New York Times. At that point, we can all go do something else. That’s the end of it.

KM: I think we’re working toward a question I brought up yesterday. In our workshop class, we read a few essays from Essays from the Nick of Time, one of which was “Coda: A Quibble,” which came out in 2009, right after Obama’s inauguration. I don’t know if you’ve revisited that essay recently. Do you feel a sort of fulfillment of what you were alluding to in that essay, in the way that the election is going this year? You write about the danger of the American way of celebrating ignorance, of trusting our guts over concrete knowledge, warning that such mindless subjective instinct could easily be preyed upon by the “wrong individual” who would bring about a “tyranny of the majority.”

MS: Well, we’re there, aren’t we? At least we’re flirting with it. I think in the same essay I wrote that we’re as gullible as a boxful of puppies. Show us the plastic bone, we’ll follow you right off the cliff. Partly we’re talking about Trump, but we’re really talking about what the Republican Party has built over the last, I’d say, 30 years, probably since Reagan, and maybe before. It’s gotten worse with Fox News and a certain kind of propaganda machine. It’s about yelling, not debate.

I mentioned in another essay this time I was in a Motel 6 somewhere in Nebraska, I think. I was talking to some guy in the pool. Nice guy. And somehow we got on the subject of immigrants—this was probably about 6 or 7 years ago. He was troubled by the immigrant situation in America, and was talking about English and second languages and things like that. And at some point he says, “Well, if English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.” Where do you even begin with that?

But it’s all around us. My neighbor wants to torture a terrorist. And I asked him, “Really? Who? When?” and he said, “This waterboarding BS the liberals are all whining about, I had the boys at the pool [he’s a part-time lifeguard, among other things], tie me to the sit-up bench and pour water down my nose, and it’s just water up your nose, you know?” So I said, “Well, yeah, but they were doing this stuff during the Spanish Inquisition, so, you know, I don’t think you got it quite right.” And he says, “What’s the Spanish Inquisition?” And the joke here is that he teaches high school. He’s a teacher. So you begin to think, well, okay, we have an issue here.

It’s not that educated people can’t be despicable like everyone else. It’s just that when your education deficit is so huge, you can be talked into anything at all. Anything at all. Give me a little while, I’ll get you to believe it. And I think that that’s partly what the Republican Party has been doing—conning the ignorant. They’re not completely alone in that, because there’s been a general dumbing down of all political discourse. But the Republicans have been particularly bad, and it’s coming back to bite them in the ass. Here’s the monster. They made him. And now the monster is out wrecking the village, and they’re thinking, how do we reel him in again? And the answer is, you can’t reel him in again. I think he’s going to wreck the party this year. It’s going to be a mess. But maybe it’ll be a wake-up call for all of us.

But it’s not just ignorance we’re talking about. It’s a kind of willed irrationality, as in, “I don’t care what you tell me, I just believe it, and the more you talk at me, the less I’ll want to hear it, because I don’t care.”

It’s a big subject. But if we don’t get this right, then I think politically we’re going to be on increasingly dangerous ground. We’re just waiting for the right demagogue. I don’t think Trump’s the one. He’s a buffoon; he’s not going to fly. But eventually we’re going to get one who’s handsome. Who’s got that popular touch. Who’s kind of appealing, and a nice guy, and you really kind of want to sit down and have a beer with him. Then we’re in trouble.

That’s the most stunning thing about this political season: You have demagogues piled on disasters. You have Trump, who the Republican Party is committed to keeping out, because he’s a potentially dangerous person. But the joke is that right behind him, second in line, is Cruz, someone who’s just as bad or worse. He just doesn’t have the same luster. But if you really look at the policies, it’s like, “Oh, that’s a great idea! Let’s go carpet bomb the Middle East.” Half the time, I don’t know what he’s talking about. His first day in office, he’s going to get rid of Obamacare? No, he’s not. The system doesn’t work that way—that’s a lie. And he knows it’s a lie. He’s a smart guy; he went to Harvard Law. So the Republicans are really in a fix. They can’t bring in a white knight from the outside because people, with some justification, will be up in arms, because they’ll have completely disregarded the electorate. So they’re in a real bind. Part of me says, “Well, there’s some poetic justice here. You’ve been flirting with this for a long time. And here it is, knocking on your door. Now what are you going to do?”

KM: We’ve covered a lot this afternoon—I’m grateful for your candor. I think we’ve touched on a lot of subjects that will really resonate with readers, with writers. Before we wrap up, is there anything else you wanted to add?

MS: There’s a framed quote I keep on my desk that my daughter gave me a couple of seasons back as a birthday present. It’s from Sir Philip Sidney, I believe. The line goes, “‘Fool,’ said my Muse to me, ‘look in thy heart, and write.’” Writers worry about so much: how will this be received? Am I going to get into trouble? What was I meant to say? My answer would be: “Just look in thy heart and write.” Sometimes it’s just that simple. Figure out what you believe, or think you believe, and go from there. I think there’s a lot of noise in the air these days. A lot of distraction. So to the extent that you can block that out, you’re good.