Robert Clark was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He received a BA in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and an MA in medieval studies from the University of London. He is the author of ten books, both fiction and nonfiction. Clark’s first collection of personal essays, My Grandfather’s House, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award in biography. His second novel, Mr. White’s Confession, won the Edgar Award for Best Novel. In 2005 and 2006, he spent two years as a Guggenheim Fellow in Italy where he completed Dark Water, which won the 2009 Washington State Book Award. A longtime friend of Image and instructor at the Glen Workshop, he has also taught for the last eight years in the MFA program at Seattle Pacific University. Additionally, Clark has taught at conferences and workshops all over the world, most recently at the Prague Summer Program. He lives in Seattle and is currently working on a new novel and a set of interlinked memoir essays. He was interviewed by Kelly Foster.
Image: Your work, nonfiction and fiction, covers a wide range of styles and subject matter. Do you ever doubt your impulses to depart from what has worked for you before?
Robert Clark: Not really. I mean, maybe I should have. I think my career in commercial terms and perhaps in critical terms might have been smoother and more successful if after I’d written, say, In the Deep Midwinter I’d just kept on in that mode. But I couldn’t do that. I’d told that story and the next thing I was interested in was writing nonfiction. So I wrote My Grandfather’s House. I think it goes back to an obsessive focus with whatever I’m interested in at the moment. I’m never quite in a position to do the intelligent thing because I’m focused on whatever I’m obsessed with in that period of my life so I couldn’t go write another novel just then, at least not another novel like that one. Perhaps that’s self-indulgent.
Maybe if the world has applauded you and bestowed its blessing on you for doing a certain thing, you should return the favor by producing more of the same thing. But I’m usually very clear about what it is I want to work on and on what form that’s going to take, whether it’s going to be a novel or essays or one of these hybrid cultural history/memoir books that I keep producing. I can’t think of any situation where I thought to myself, “I can’t decide if this is going to be fiction or nonfiction.” That’s always been very clear to me. It’s not so much that I make a conscious decision about it. It just seems like this is what it has to be and I cannot think of anything else to write about.
Image: Your nonfiction style tends to blend personal narrative with cultural history. Where did the inspiration for that particular hybrid come from?
RC: When I write, I almost always work backwards from whatever I’m obsessed with, which tends to be what I’ve been reading lately. It’s like I want to know everything about something, and then I regurgitate that in the form of writing. Whatever quest I’m on I try to turn into a personal essay. It’s not so much a way of saying, “What does it mean to me?” but, “How does that particular path inform my path?” Particularly in the short essays, I feel like I get two lines of thought and experience going and I find a place where they are going to converge.
I only discovered him just before I wrote Dark Water, but W.G. Sebald attained something like what I’m striving for, albeit in a much more detached way than I’d ever be capable of and of course he does it much more beautifully and successfully. I’d also mention James Agee and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in that regard, his bouncing between being a journalist and being extremely personally revealing about himself.
I get inspiration from all kinds of places, not always from places you wouldn’t necessarily suspect. Sometimes if you’re writing nonfiction, the most helpful thing you can do is to read fiction and poetry, and vice versa. If you’re writing fiction, then go read some creative nonfiction. In particular, I go to poetry. It’s not like I understand poetry in a profound way, but it shakes things loose and makes me aware of the possibilities that are lurking in the language.
Sometimes if you’re a prose writer, you’re trying to put everything in a consecutive order in a linear way, you’re trying to put one foot in front of the other, and you start feeling frustrated; you don’t know how to get from here to there, not sure what comes next. But poetry juxtaposes and flips words over to make them mean things or represent things that you never would have thought of and that to me is a very useful approach to getting unstuck. The first book I wrote that I felt had some claims to being literature was River of the West. I was about a chapter into it and I’d been working as a journalist for quite a few years at that point and I was trying to write it as a piece of literary journalism, like John McPhee would have done it. And it was not coming easily to me.
But that was just around the time when people were getting excited about Cormac McCarthy and I was reading either the first book of the trilogy or Blood Meridian. I saw that grand Faulknerian almost Miltonic style that he uses to describe the natural world and set up scenes. I thought, “Wow, could I do something like that in this book? Could I write about this river and the landscape around it in that way?” Well, I didn’t quite do that, but hearing that voice shook something loose and made me realize there’s another approach, a style and a process that could get me where I wanted to go.
Image: You have a degree in medieval studies from the University of London. How would you say that particular academic background has affected your writing?
RC: Probably not very much. It taught me how to do research. My mother always used to say to me—with some exasperation—“You always have to bore into everything.” My obsessions and hobbyhorses doubtless got tiresome at times. There might have been some mild Asperger’s there or something like it. But grad school did teach me to do library work and to work with primary materials. And I guess failing at the PhD showed me what I really wanted to do. I thought I wanted to be an academic, I liked teaching and I liked writing, but those things were not meant for me, not in a scholarly environment. My oral exams for my failed PhD were one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. You know how witty and incisive the British are with words—they just sliced and diced and eviscerated me. After undergoing that, I turned to journalism, which ultimately led to me doing books and essays.
Image: What was your entry into journalism?
RC: I was always interested in food and drink. I was always into food and wine and started freelancing with wine and travel pieces. And I started a newsletter, which was another huge failure that ended up redeeming itself down the road through the connections I made. Julia Child was a subscriber, which was how I got the job editing the quarterly of the American Institute of Wine and Food and I did that for about six or seven years. I learned a lot about writing and editing. Having that platform and having met the people I met got me my first book contract, which was for a biography of James Beard. Again, that was another thing I probably had no business doing that ultimately brought me to where I am today.
Doing journalism taught me how to write at a practical level. It taught me to write every day. It taught me more about doing research. It cleared out some of the infelicities in my writing—it taught me how to be clear and simple and to produce work every day, no matter what, which is a very important thing, particularly if you’re going to write a book. It teaches you how to receive criticism and how to see when the work isn’t doing its job. If it’s not what the editor ordered, then you are made to understand that and you are made to understand it in terms of dollars and cents rather than in terms of your ego. In pure creative writing, your ego is always on the line, which is terrifying. And despite the journalism, if something is being evaluated at an artistic level, that’s as hard for me as I suspect it is for anybody.
But journalism did teach me to work at writing as a job. I don’t have an MFA, which is perhaps bizarre considering that I teach in an MFA program. I would still tell people who want to write that there are two avenues—you can major in journalism or you could do an MFA and I think that they would both get you there eventually. That said, if you know from the get-go that you want to be a fiction writer then the MFA is a more obvious choice. When I was doing journalism, I had no idea I was going to do creative writing. I knew I probably eventually wanted to write a book, but it would be in the mode of my James Beard book. It would be literary journalism to some extent but wouldn’t have any pretensions to being art. And maybe that was a good thing. I wasn’t thinking, “I can’t wait to put all this commercial, vulgar garbage behind me so I can create art and beauty.” I was very content being a journalist until I wasn’t.
Image: What has your experience of teaching in an MFA program been like? Does it feed you, either in a literary or a personal way?
RC: Sometimes I think I should be paying tuition, because I really get that much out of it. And the reasons are almost entirely selfish. Because our students are a constant reminder of what it’s like to want to write for its own sake—out of love and urgency and the simple need to speak—as opposed to the need for attention or to top yourself or others, to be focused on the work for the work’s sake—to figure out what it needs and grapple with that. After ten books, I need that reminder constantly.
Image: Do you think you will write another book or any essays about food?
RC: I don’t know. My stock answer to that is that I spent quite a few years writing a lot of stuff about food that I was getting more and more tired of, writing to specifications of magazines and editors and newspapers. And in the James Beard book I kind of said everything I could say about it. The one thing I loved most when I was writing about food was writing profiles. I had a regular gig at one magazine where I’d go out and profile a winemaker or chef or cookbook author and I loved doing that.
In retrospect, I think it’s because I was getting to do character, not fictional characters, but I could enter a psychological realm with these people. Asking what makes them tick. I was almost always dealing with people who were very ambitious and ambition in itself is a kind of dramatic situation. One definition you could give of drama is that it’s the interaction of desire and frustration. What does somebody want and what gets in between them and that thing? When you’re dealing with ambitious people you run into that all the time. I guess you could define success as when the frustration all goes away or seems to, but then there’s always more ambition to push you back into the realm where you don’t get what you want or you don’t get it as quickly as you would like. Those situations are very interesting dramatically and a really good definition of tragedy might be getting what you want by a means you discover you couldn’t possibly want. Oedipus gets to be king and he gets to marry the woman that he thinks he wants; Lear gets to divide up his kingdom, but at a horrific cost.
Image: Of the fictional characters you’ve created, do you have a most favorite and a least favorite? If so, what determines this for you? Or do you tend to like all of your characters?
RC: It depends what you mean by favorite. If you’re talking about somebody who was fun to create and somebody who was fun to hang out with, that would probably be Mr. White from Mr. White’s Confession. I mean, I don’t like to write. It’s just that I don’t know what else to do. Often it’s sheer torture. But when I got up in the morning when I was writing that novel I would think to myself, “Oh boy. I get to be with Mr. White today.” He was just a lot of fun to write. He speaks in a kind of anachronistic way, and I love the nineteenth century and Henry James and such and Mr. White is sort of a throwback, a Victorian living in the 1930s and ’40s. So he was a fun voice to occupy.
But I suppose I like all my characters. It would be more truthful to say I love them, because when you create a character, you have to feel a strong connection to them, you have to inhabit them deeply enough and will them to be in that sense of caritas. You have to love them even if they’re not nice people. To mention Mr. White again, I’m very fond of Welshinger, who’s the bad cop in it, who’s almost borderline Satanic. But I have a kind of tender sorrow for him. One of the things he does in the book is complain in a very heartfelt way about how draining it is to go around being evil, how it’s not as much fun as it used to be. Who else do I like a lot? I liked some of the wry, worldly characters. I like the doctor in In the Deep Midwinter a lot. I like these people who are sort of the Greek chorus, who seem to have some kind of knowledge or savvy that the other characters don’t have. I like the gay memoirist who lives in the villa next door to the other characters in Lives of the Artists for the same reason because he gets to say a lot of witty, sly things.
Image: Say a little more about your interest in the Victorian period. Why does it fascinate you?
RC: Beyond objects that draw me—art and architecture, railways, maps, and the like—the nineteenth century seems to me to be the moment where the novel expands beyond the social and the comic into the tragic and psychological. It’s no longer a matter of “the way we live now” but also “the way we feel now”; the sense that people are slightly dislocated in a way they weren’t in, say, 1800 or even a few decades later. And the other thing that I think probably attracts me perhaps related to this: the Victorian era is the moment where religious belief becomes voluntary as opposed to a given; when, on account of science and perhaps even the individualism the novel reflects and inculcates, you can find yourself in the position of wanting to believe but being unable to; the moment when faith as opposed to belief is the best a lot of us can manage. And that’s the place where I live.
I think it also has to do with the place books have always occupied in my life, the sheer comfort and sustenance I get from them. And when I read, say, Dickens or George Eliot, I feel somehow safe, swaddled in narrative. Those books are so capacious, so attentive to the world, so compassionate, that they comfort me; they give me hope. Of course that’s not always true of nineteenth-century fiction: Dostoevsky and Flaubert are scarcely heartwarming. Henry James, whom I love, doesn’t offer much comfort, or at best it’s cold comfort. Regardless, when I walk around, say London, I think what I love is the sense of being inside the books I love, of having those experiences all over again, in three-dimensions.
Image: Do you prefer stories that are redemptive in some way?
RC: No, not at all. I don’t want things fixed or healed or saved. I just want things in themselves—and especially persons—given their full due in terms of their complexity and ambiguity and fallenness. Phenomenological philosophy—which I’m very drawn to—maintains that we don’t get to know in any absolute way the “why” or “what” of things, only the “how” of our experience. So I’m interested in rendering that as well as can be done.
Image: It sounds like you’re perhaps not terribly drawn to more contemporary literature.
RC: I wouldn’t say that. But I suppose that in fiction I favor the realist novel, for the reasons I just mentioned. There’s a moral seriousness—I don’t mean moralizing, I mean a consequentialness—that I don’t see in more formalist and experimental work. In creative nonfiction, on the other hand, I love the work of W.G. Sebald and people like David Shields. And I try to be open to whatever’s current in the conversation. There’s no doubt the most influential writer among my students is David Foster Wallace and I certainly see the talent and the ambition, but I can’t quite warm to him. For me, his style is a bit in-your-face, ostentatious and insistent on its own importance. But I’m doubtless in a minority. And I totally understand how he speaks to their frustrations about being encased in irony and knowingness, the way the social world conspires against one saying or believing anything with sincerity and conviction.
Image: Have you created any characters with whom you personally identify?
RC: People assume that a lot of my characters are autobiographical or at least biographical. But I think the only one who was consciously completely me is the infant in In the Deep Midwinter who, of course, doesn’t speak, he just points and says, “Car!” I really did imagine what a little me would be like. There are people I identify with not because the characters are autobiographical but because I identify with their problems and situation. Going back to In the Deep Midwinter, I identified very strongly with the boyfriend in that, even though he’s a bad guy. His besetting sin is a kind of haplessness, a not knowing what the right thing to do is, so he keeps doing the wrong thing.
I suppose you could say I have a similar feeling about Richard in that same book. He’s a nicer version of the same condition, but he doesn’t really know what’s up either. You could say the same thing of the father in Love Among the Ruins. I identify as a man with that dilemma. And I don’t know if those characters remind me of myself but they remind me of a lot of men I’ve known, and they remind me of a lot of men I’ve admired and been close to. One more character very much in that sort of hapless mode is from Heaven—the character Bud. He does not know his own mind. He doesn’t even know where his sexual attractions lie. He’s all at sixes and sevens. He’s all over the map.
Image: In your nonfiction books (and perhaps your novels as well), you seem to have an interest in the artist or writer who is overshadowed by more famous practitioners. For example, in Dark Water you write a lot about Cimabue (overshadowed by Giotto) and Vasari (who wrote about the High Renaissance masters whose reputations dwarf his). What’s that all about?
RC: I suppose I favor the underdog for perfectly self-serving reasons: most of us are Vasari, not Michelangelo. Genius is very interesting, but the struggle—the daily hit-and-miss, the constant potential for failure, even embarrassment and shame—of the average artist interests me more. On a good day, I’m no more than competent, so those are my people.
Image: You are currently working on a book about a brilliant writer friend, Jeff Smith, who died young in Asheville, North Carolina. In the book you also deal with the larger connections between depression and the writing life and your own experiences of those two things. How do you stay so productive and prolific and how do you keep enough faith in what you are writing that you can overcome a potentially debilitating onset of depression? Do you have any practices?
RC: This is tricky because I’m having a hell of a time being productive right now and have had for about four years now. The breakdown of my marriage really blew me out of the water and it’s been very hard to write…not so much writer’s block, I don’t think, as a kind of impotence. Or a kind of emptied out-ness where the ideas aren’t there and the desire to write is not there in the same way, which is probably the real reason why I’m trying to write the Asheville book, which is arguably about precisely those things.
Because as I said earlier, I’ve always been good at being productive. At one point, I think I published five books in seven years. Some of that just had to do with the way publication schedules worked out, but I was very productive. And the notion of being blocked or not having a new idea that I was dying to work on, I just couldn’t comprehend that. I certainly understood that other people felt that, but it was completely alien to me. But in the last four years that has very much visited me.
I suppose that there’s a strong similarity for me between my experience of not being able or not wanting to write and a kind of spiritual dryness or loss of faith. It’s as though something at the center of things is missing. So I think if the Asheville book gets written, it might ultimately be about a loss of faith in writing and a simultaneous loss of faith in God. Beyond loving him, one of the things that interests me about Jeff is that he wrote a very successful book that won all these awards and it took him forever to write it and he could never really get anything going thereafter.
And it wasn’t for lack of hard work and it wasn’t for lack of having ideas, but he just couldn’t get started. After he died, his mother sent me all his notebooks going back to 1988. I think there are about fifty notebooks full of proposals and sketches and outlines—all the preliminaries that a writer puts together to get going on a book, but in terms of actual manuscript pages, there are maybe a hundred manuscript pages to show for all those projects. So it’s interesting to me. Of course when it became personal in my own life it interested me even more.
Image: You’ve spoken about a connection between the desire to write and a sort of spiritual desire, as well as the reverse of that—which is loss of writing desire being connected with a loss of spiritual desire. Can you speak a bit more about how the two have come to be connected for you?
RC: Boy, they have so much in common. My experience of spiritual dryness or acedia, when my faith is very low, is that my creative energy is also depleted. And vice versa. Like a lot of writers and creative people, I’m mildly bipolar, mostly on the depressive side. When your mood’s good, it’s easy to write. When your mood’s good, it’s easier to believe. It’s more evident—everything from the glory of the created world to your sense of God’s love is more palpable. And I think the same thing is true when you write. If your mood is relatively good, you’re optimistic about your abilities and the projects you’ve taken on. You’re more likely to give yourself the kind of breaks that you need to get the thing done. You’re more likely to stick your neck out a bit creatively; to follow the hunches that are often the things that lead you into really excellent work.
I’m terrible at prayer. I can’t sit still very long. My mind drifts off. Any number of writers have said—maybe as a kind of rationalization—that writing, when you’re really inside it, is a kind of prayer. That seems true to me. And I think on the negative side that being blocked and being filled with doubt about yourself and finding yourself in a place where you’re absolutely mired in your incapacity to produce anything artistically feels like a grave crisis of faith. And I’d go further and say that for artists it corresponds much more closely to a crisis of faith or a kind of spiritual desolation than other kinds of sadness or grief or depression you might have were you in a different line of work or if you lived a different type of life. So for me in my process as a writer and my process as a Christian, those things are completely mingled. If I’m writing and feeling relatively good about what I’m producing or even just showing up every day at my keyboard, I’m also likely to be showing up every Sunday for Mass.
I don’t go to Mass because the church says to or even because I think it’s good for me or because it’s a nice example to set for my kids. It’s more like, “It couldn’t do me any harm and maybe if I just kind of put myself in the way of it, something really interesting might happen.” A lot of times when I go to church, I wouldn’t say anything really happens, but you kind of want to put yourself in the path of it, just in case, just on the chance a stray miracle happens by. When you write, you do the same thing. You need to get to the keyboard and try to write as opposed to just waiting. I do believe in a grace of inspiration, but I think to get it, you have to sit at the keyboard and try to write, no matter how agonizing. I think grace won’t necessarily come, but it also won’t come any other way. That’s all I can do. I need things to hit me over the head. To speak truly, I have to be struck dumb.
Image: You’ve written about faith overtly in your nonfiction. What role do you feel it plays in your fiction?
RC: Many of the students I teach these days come from evangelical backgrounds and I think they feel a certain amount of discomfort and unease and even guilt if they feel their work isn’t a witnessing of their faith in an explicit way. They will look at a piece of work and ask where if anywhere in this story is there any presence of Christ or faith. And they get very worried about it.
But for me religion was always voluntary. My mother was agnostic. We went to a Unitarian Church. At some point, we stopped doing that. When I got involved with religion again, I was about eleven years old. I was going to an Episcopal school. I think partly because I just wanted to be doing what everybody else was doing, I wanted to start going to church. I was baptized because I wanted to be. I can’t say that I had some kind of conversion experience, but it seemed really clear to me that what was being talked about was real. But probably I also just wanted to be one of the kids who was an Episcopalian. I loved the music. I loved the Book of Common Prayer, which taught me what prose rhythm should sound like, even if it’s in very plain English, like a good Raymond Carver sentence or alternatively, something very lyric and stately.
If nothing else, I got my ear for prose from the Episcopal Church and the Book of Common Prayer. I drifted away from religion in high school and I would come back to it now and again or I would read some books. I went through a phase where I read all of C.S. Lewis at some point in my twenties. That brought me back for a while, but not in a formal or consistent way. But even when I wasn’t attending church or even giving the slightest thought to religion, it was sort of on standby in my life, present in its absence, so to speak. The light could have gone on at any moment, and I always had the sense not that I had ceased to believe or that I had left the church but that I was just on hiatus, that there was no way that it was going to go away. That’s been true throughout my life. I made a more formal reentry into Christianity not quite twenty years ago when I converted to Catholicism.
I feel like faith is always lurking, looming, in the shadows, the light under the doorway. It’s one of the preoccupations of my writing, as is doubt. In some ways, doubt or wavering is more interesting dramatically than absolute belief. There’s an opportunity for some of that dynamic between desire and frustration. The desire for God resists the incapacity to have faith or to live in a way that feels inconsistent with faith, but never quite adequately or easily.
Nathaniel Hawthorne once wrote of Melville that he could neither fully believe nor disbelieve, and that he was “forever exercised upon this point.” So I suppose in some ways I’m a kind of Melvillian believer. I think what I am writing occupies that zone of oscillation between faith and doubt. In my fiction there’s almost always somebody around who is a more explicit practioner of a faith or is preoccupied with it in some way.
Mr. White’s Confession is in some ways my most explicitly Christian book. Once again, the church (which Mr. White doesn’t belong to) is always lurking in the background. He accidentally goes into a church and makes a fumbled confession to a priest. He ultimately has a conversion experience although maybe it’s a conversion to a kind of hallucinatory fanaticism. We don’t quite know, which is for me how it should be.
And then in Love Among the Ruins, a boy and a girl fall in love. One comes from a fairly traditional, devout Catholic family. The other comes from an utterly secular family. The girl is more devout than any character in the book but in a slightly strange way. She’s totally a Catholic girl, and even when she does things that you could argue are inconsistent with Catholic teaching, at least in my mind, she’s still very much a Catholic. Even her sins are infused with a kind of holiness.
In Lives of the Artists and in Heaven, faith is a little less explicit. People are always going to churches in Florence to look at the art, but sometimes end up being peripherally touched by something they weren’t expecting. The title of Heaven is sort of a giveaway.
These days, my writing that reflects on faith tends to end up going into essays. There’s a bunch of essays in Bayham Street that deal with my spirituality or religiosity when I was a kid—how that stuff impacted me or where it fits in today. I’m very happy with some of those essays. I’d like to add one more piece to it. I wrote this tiny Christmas essay called “Snow” for the Image blog. It’s got winter and Saint Paul and God and longing—all of my favorite things.
Image: You’ve been known to read quite a bit of theology and philosophy. How does that impact your writing—or your life?
RC: I’m always telling my students “no ideas except in things,” “God is in the details,” and so forth, but the truth is I love a good abstract argument, puzzles about eternal categories or why there’s something versus nothing. So once a year or thereabouts, I wrestle with Heidegger or whomever and feel enlightened for a few hours and then it’s gone—it makes no sense to me at all—so I can come back to it again next year and find myself just as enchanted and frustrated. I have the same habit with quantum physics: brief enlightenment and then a quick return to incomprehension. So the best I’ll ever do is comprehend the questions—be they metaphysical or theological—I’ll never quite grasp the answers. But who knows—maybe next time? And I think I like it that way. I’m very suspicious of dogmatism—secular or religious—and self-appointed inquisitors, of whom there are more than a few in my church, especially among converts like me.
Image: It seems that so many different places play a significant role in your writing as well as your life. Do you feel that one more than another has a particular resonance? After so many years out here on the west coast, for instance, do you still feel when you are writing about Minnesota that it is the place that is most your home?
RC: Seattle is definitely my home. I’ve lived here for twenty-four years, much longer than anywhere else. But I think psychologically, for the writer in me, Saint Paul is still home. Probably everything I write is set in Saint Paul or close by. Even most of the memoirs happen there. It’s where my childhood happened. And for better or worse, I’m very rooted in my own childhood. I always go back to that. I’ve gotten very interested in psychoanalysis, at least in the theories of how the minds of infants and small children work. That’s one of my current reading binges. And in Saint Paul, I know where I am. It’s automatic. I know the landscape. I know how the cracks in the sidewalks look. I know if the streets are paved with tar or cement or bricks. Which gets a lot of the work of writing out of the way right off the bat. You have a world or a situation for this thing to happen in, which, along with characters, is where everything begins.
Image: Speaking of Saint Paul, you have quite the fascinating family history. At what point in your life did you realize this? How do you use family artifacts (old photographs, old documents, needlepoint samplers) to inspire you?
RC: To take the second question first, I think it’s not so much that they’re research objects, they’re more like icons. They provide something to focus on and they provide a way in to the world that you’re trying to discover and encounter. They’re like a rabbit hole that you can go down. They have a talismanic quality because you know they belong to and were touched by characters from what is ultimately your own story.
Going to the first question, it was probably in my mid- to late-forties when I started to get interested in my family history. Not genealogy per se, but in my grandparents and parents, in the circumstances of my childhood. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that at that age people start dying. There’s a good chance your grandparents have died by that point. Your parents are beginning their decline. And I was conscious that I better get these stories and gather these artifacts and assemble the documentation while I could. At the same time, these things give you the sense that you’re not just a single subject unit separate from everything else, that you’re in a line of people that go back centuries, millennia; you have a context. So they become essential to you. You don’t exist without their existence. I guess a third possibility is that you’re starting to become afraid of dying. You’re trying in your fashion to prevent your forebears from dying. You’re trying to preserve the remaining evidence of their having lived.
At times I worried I was maybe becoming a bit morbid, avoiding the reality of what’s happening in actuality, and it’s quite possible that’s the case. It seems to be a penchant that many creative people have. I suppose any piece of writing involves memory, even if only short-term memory, and involves re-vivifying something that was and is no more. Maybe we’re all embalmers.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.