The best creative nonfiction is often difficult to categorize. Long-form literary journalism, popular magazine writing, memoir, biography, theology, history, experimental writing—there are so many vocabularies to draw from that the possible combinations seem almost infinite. In capable hands, the blending of nonfiction forms produces some of the most interesting and engaging writing being produced today. Michael McGregor is one such practitioner. Fusing journalism with personal essay in elegant, often lyrical prose, his writing is approachable, crafted, never flashy, emotionally honest, intellectually engaging, and profound in its search for spiritual truth. He combines an outward-looking curiosity about the world and a clear-eyed appreciation of the beauties and follies of its inhabitants with a willingness to grapple honestly with his inner life, and the result is an outlook both spacious and minute. Like a good host, the self is present at the party but never fully dominates. Image published his remembrance of his friend and mentor Robert Lax, a poet who influenced many of his generation, including Thomas Merton (part of a book-length work in progress). A Jewish convert to Catholicism, Lax developed a theory of writing as “pure act,” blending Christian mysticism with a reverence for language and a deeply mystical understanding of poverty as a form of blessing. In his essay, McGregor offers a loving tribute to his friend and a perceptive consideration of Lax’s contribution to literature that is also the story of a transformative spiritual journey, McGregor’s own.
Michael McGregor grew up in Seattle, studied journalism at the University of Oregon, and earned an MFA at Columbia University later in life. His early work as a reporter, writer, and editor for World Concern magazine made world poverty, economic justice, and cross-cultural sensitivity lifelong concerns, and a subsequent sojourn in Europe led to years of leading educational tours throughout the region. A desire to move more fully into creative writing (and live in New York) took him to Columbia, where he served as editor-in-chief of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art. After Columbia, he taught fiction writing at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale before helping to establish a graduate program in nonfiction writing and, later, an MFA in Creative Writing at Portland State University. His fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and criticism have appeared in a wide variety of publications, including The Seattle Review, StoryQuarterly, The South Dakota Review, The Crab Orchard Review, The Mid-America Poetry Review, Image, Weber: The Contemporary West, The Dictionary of Literary Biography, Poets & Writers, The Writer’s Chronicle, American Theatre, Portland Monthly, Portland Magazine, Oregon Humanities, Oregon Historical Quarterly, The Raven Chronicles, The Merton Seasonal, The Griffin, Carve, Melange, and Northwest Education. He has also written about theater for various publications for almost 20 years. His writing awards include an Oregon Literary Arts fellowship in nonfiction writing, an Illinois Arts Council literary grant, the Daniel Curley Award for short fiction, a Walden Residency Fellowship, and a residency at St. John’s University’s Collegeville Institute. This fall he will become Director of Portland State’s MFA in Creative Writing program.
I’m close to finishing what I call an ‘intimate biography’ of Robert Lax, the influential but under-appreciated experimental poet better known as Thomas Merton’s best friend. After a decade of flying from my West Coast home to his East Coast archives (at Columbia and St. Bonaventure universities) as well as places he lived—Marseilles, Paris, Rome and the Greek islands among them—I’m happy to be writing at last.
The first true biography of a uniquely creative and deeply spiritual man who inspired Merton throughout his life, my book includes both my observations of Lax (drawn from 15 years of visiting him on the island of Patmos) and Lax’s unpublished thoughts on Merton, Jack Kerouac, William Maxwell and other prominent friends. Part spiritual quest, part artistic struggle, and part travel adventure, Lax’s story will inspire anyone seeking to live an authentic life in an increasingly inauthentic age.
Between research trips, I’ve been writing a novel based on my college summers fighting fires and a collection of personal essays, most connected in some way to my years of leading tours through Europe. Never one to settle for one or two (or even three) major projects, I’ve begun turning journal entries from a sabbatical spent in the San Juan islands into a memoir dealing with death and rejuvenation, while also making notes for a book about the history, process, and ethics of writing about people.
One of my graduate school professors told me I had to choose what kind of writer I was going to be. She was probably right…but I didn’t listen.