Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Talking with Jordan

One afternoon, a student wandered into my office to talk about writing. Here's what happened:

Originally published in Connotations Press

Jill Moyer Sunday teaches writing at Waynesburg University, in addition to directing the Writing Center. Her apprenticeship to creative nonfiction began at the age of 11 when she discovered her father’s copy of Capote’s In Cold Blood on a pile of true crime magazines. Beginning her career as a magazine journalist in the ‘70s, she was schooled in the New Journalism, which naturally led her to creative nonfiction. Currently, when she’s not writing or teaching, you’ll find JMS in her office talking writing or at home with her family, who more often than not end up reading about themselves in her writing.

Jill Moyer Sunday interview, with Jordan Merenick

So tell a little bit about yourself professor. Did you always want to be an author?

When I look back, I realize that I must have always wanted to be a writer, but the moment I became aware of it was in a freshman English class. My professor pulled me aside and asked, “Has anyone ever told you that you can write?” Her statement changed my life. At that point, I was a nursing major. Now, when I ask talented young writers the same question, I’m honoring Sister Terry Coyne. I would have made a terrible nurse.
What was the first story you wrote?

My first story was actually a novella, I believe—although my memory might be adding pages to the actual script. I wrote it when I was very young about my cat, Patches, who loved to eat spaghetti. I wanted to send it to a publisher, and my mother humored me, but my dad asked, “Who would publish a story about a spaghetti-eating cat?”
How did you start writing nonfiction?

After finishing graduate school, I fell into a position at Pittsburgher Magazine. A friend who worked there called me about a paid internship, and I applied. The next day one of the staff writers quit. The editor, a burly, old-school news type of guy, called me into his office. “You can write, can’t you?” he barked at me. That day I became a staff writer. This was at the end of the ‘70s, and I was taking on a genre greatly influenced by the New Journalism. It was a magical time to enter the field, and I began to write creative nonfiction. Soon it was my genre.

Do you remember your first nonfiction piece?

I do. I wrote an article about the forgotten veterans of the Vietnam War, titled “Whatever Happened to G.I. Joe.” I interviewed so many veterans who had been rejected by American society, and, more importantly perhaps, by the American government. At that time, the government was denying the harmful effects of Agent Orange, refusing to pay healthcare charges related to illnesses caused by exposure to this defoliant. I was young, and the veterans’ stories were complicated and tragic. That project helped to form my style, my awareness, and my life-long interest in the underdog. This first piece won a Golden Quill.
Who influenced you in the nonfiction genre?

Truman Capote. Of course, there are so many others, and as I continue to read creative nonfiction, I am still influenced. Creative nonfiction is such an explosive genre in that there is much to learn. But Truman Capote set the bar high for me. I first found In Cold Blood on a stack of true crime magazines my father kept in the bathroom. I was about 11, and I read it without understanding so much. The power of his work held me, though, and over the years I’ve reread, studied, researched, and taught this piece. For all who choose to write creative nonfiction, it is the touchstone of the genre.
Who do you compare your writing style to it?

Oh dear. I dare not compare my work to those I admire. I do read Anne Lamott, Annie Dillard, and Joan Didion for inspiration. Scott Russell Sanders, and Bernard Cooper, too. David Sedaris, Dave Eggers, Mary Clearman Blew. The list is long. I want to capture the extraordinary that lives daily in the ordinary. I hope to stick my finger in the reader’s sore spot, causing her to say, “Why, yes. That’s exactly what x, y, or z feels like.”

How do you normally compose your works? Is it spur of the moment? Or do you sit down and plan out what you are going to say in an outline format?

My writing isn’t spur of the moment. I do a lot of prewriting while I’m driving, in the shower, cooking dinner. Sometimes a line or an image snags in my brain, and I start there. I don’t really make an outline or draw bubbles of ideas the way composition handbooks instruct us to. I guess I just think, and the ideas grow. Once I sit down to write, I have to write, to get the ideas out, so I can think again, breathe again, live my non-writerly life for a while. Some of my children write, but the majority of my family doesn’t understand the invisible cloak I pull over my head when I write, so I write while the television plays in the background, and I’ve gotten really good at answering questions through my filter. When I think of myself writing, though, I see myself at a rough-hewn table in a storm-battered, cedar-shingled cottage by the sea, and I am alone.

What inspired you to write this piece?

I was really struggling with another piece I thought I would write for Connotation Press, and I was talking it through with another writer, a former student of mine, Sarah Hulyk (whose work appears in this issue), and in the middle of our conversation, I started talking about my youngest daughter’s worry about a prediction of an earthquake in San Francisco, where she lives. Sarah said, “Well, why don’t you write about that.” And so I did.

I understand from previous conversations with you that this piece went through several different versions?

Well, it wasn’t actually “The Earthquake Kit” that went through the versions; it was the piece I’ve been struggling with called “Finding Truman.” This is a piece about my discovery of my father’s copy of Capote’s nonfiction novel, but, as I tell my students, “the piece will show you what it wants to be about.” “Finding Truman” wants to be about my father and his alcoholism, but I’m not prepared to write it yet. In a piece I wrote about the writing of the piece (funny, huh?). I liken it to the black snake that often takes up residence in our garage, flipping away from me as I try to catch it.

 After reading this work, an obvious love of family comes through. Do you always write about your family? And how do they feel about this? Are they like, “No mom not again”?

I do tend to write about my family, a lot, though not just about my children. When you write creative nonfiction, you tend to see symbols and stories in every fold of family life, and, as a mother, wife, and daughter, I use what I know and see. My children are very supportive, and I’ll often get a text or email telling me they love what I’ve written. I think it helps that in writing about my family, I’m really writing more about myself and hopefully uncovering some universal human truths, so that while I am writing about Matthew, Andrew, Laura, and Rachel, I’m really writing about something much more. I think the “no mom” sounds more in my head than theirs, and I choose my material carefully. There are some things I will not write about because I understand the hurt it could cause. It’s a balance, you know?

 Now you’re also a professor of nonfiction here at the University. Do you find the same amount of joy teaching nonfiction as composing it?

Yes. I love what I do. When I am in the classroom, I feel like I’m a goldfish that’s been out of the bowl for a bit, and then I’m dropped back into my element, and I can breathe again. I was that girl who bought all of her school supplies before everyone else, and I still love the smell of paper. It’s just all about words, though. I love to write them. I love to read them. I love to bat them around with students.

 How do you go about teaching nonfiction to creative writing students, and how does your experience as an author help with your teaching of this genre to your students?

I guess we go about it the same way writers have been going about it since the beginning. We read, a lot, and we write, a lot. In between, we talk about it all. The process is an immersion technique. We drop ourselves into a vat of creative nonfiction, and then we analyze how the great ones have done it, and we apprentice ourselves to them. You’d have to ask my students, how, if my being a writer, helps them to learn this genre, but I look at us as a group of writers sharing ideas, successes, failures. They like to hear my stories, I think.
Are your students open to the nonfiction genre?

Many students come to me as poets or fiction writers, totally committed to their chosen genre. After some time of total confusion, they do embrace the genre, especially, with its limitless boundaries, as Mary Clearman Blew tells us, “as fluid as water.”

What are some of the emerging trends that you see in nonfiction?

One of the most exciting aspects of the genre is its malleability and continuous growth. Right now we are examining food memoir, graphic essays, and lyric essays. Who knows what will come next? In a work-shopping session this week, one of my students advised the author “just take a risk.” Risk-taking, hanging from the cliff by a finger—that’s what drives the trends in the genre.

Lastly, do you have any more nonfiction projects in the works?

I do. I’ve written short pieces all of my life, but now I’m surprised to find myself with three longer projects in development. One is a memoir/literary nonfiction novel called An American Failure, the story of my (along with my husband) attempts to live the American Dream, a dream for which all of the acquisition rules changed somewhere along our journey. The second is called Three-Fifths of a Life and is a collection of segmented essays about the women in my life—my mother, my daughters, my sister, and, of course, me. The last, untitled as of yet, is a food memoir. I’m including family recipes, along with the stories of the people who cook/cooked them. Some are dark; some are funny. Of course, I’m always blogging, and readers can catch up with me here.

Friday, March 8, 2013

History Lesson 101

The following tale took place in my classroom a couple of years ago and was recently published in the Winter 2012-2013  Journal of the Assembly for Explanded Perspectives in Learning (JAEPL). I haven't been able to get Joe out of my mind, so I thought I'd share him with you, too.
 I heard Joe before I ever saw him. Late on a Wednesday afternoon, I sat in my office, hunched over a pile of papers, becoming more agitated as the clock pushed toward five, rushing to finish a set of responses for my morning composition class. In the background, Joe’s high, reedy voice rose and fell in conversation with a professor from another department.
I refocused on the papers in front of me. Seconds later another conversation began…this time between Joe and one of my colleagues, just two doors away. A conversation with a visitor was not what I needed, and this fellow seemed to be working his way down the hallway. I remember thinking “if I pull the door closed right now, before he comes any closer, he won’t know the difference.” As I quietly moved the door into its frame, Joe’s words hung on the air.
The next morning, I rounded the bend from my office to my classroom, coming face to face with a short, trim man, his white hair cropped in military style. This had to be Joe. “Good morning!” I called out, anxious to make up for the click of my door against him the night before.
“Are you faculty here?” he asked.
“I am.”
“Are you teaching a class today?” Gesturing at the professional-looking camera hanging around his neck, Joe identified himself as a graduate of our university, on campus to attend his 50th reunion. “I’m taking pictures for the Coast Guard auxiliary newsletter. Would I be able to visit your classroom?” Papers done, eager to be the ever-accommodating teacher, my conscience now slightly assuaged, I led Joe into room 321.
Joe told me a little about himself while we waited for students to settle in. After WWII, he’d come to our university via the G.I. Bill, and the changes on campus since then amazed him. “I didn’t recognize the place,” he said, as much to himself, as to me.
“It’s a coincidence that you’re here today,” I told Joe, just before he walked to a seat at the back of the classroom. “We’ve been reading and writing about WWII, the Holocaust really. They’ve just been to the Holocaust Museum on Monday.”
A few years back, a friend in the department and I developed a first-year shared-reading curriculum focusing on social justice issues. During their first semester, all of our students visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., as part of their Fiat Lux course (Latin: “let there be light”), and the idea for our project came from a student comment during a  classroom discussion of their trip.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             
 “I’m just so glad that the Holocaust is over,” a young woman said. “It’s such a relief that nothing will ever happen again.”
Images of Darfur and the Sudan crashed against her statement. I responded by listing genocides that have occurred since the Holocaust, but I knew a list of names was useless. Over lunch, I shared my experience, and from that unsuspecting student’s words, a curriculum was born. Broken into three parts--Gazing into the Abyss, the Burning of Human Beings, and Watching the World Burn--the middle section is rooted in writing about the Holocaust.
My class, on the day Joe visited, had just finished reading from that section: segments of Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus and Marione Ingram’s essay “Operation Gomorrah.” As a class, we’d been concentrating on eliminating the general from our writing, and these richly textured pieces helped the students to see complexities they hadn’t considered before.
We began class by discussing their visit to the Holocaust Museum earlier that week. I asked the students which exhibit took the Holocaust from a historical notation to reality. They told each other about piles of old shoes, covered with a blue patina of mold; about the boxcar, some hesitating to enter, some offering a prayer as they walked through; about the pictures drawn by children, the recordings of survivors, the silence of visitors. All of them mentioned the Tower Room, a room stretching upward for three floors of the museum, four walls covered with photos of the 3,276 Jews of Monastir, Macedonia, none of whom survived their deportation to Treblinka. The photographs, while submitted to the local Nazi regime for tallying purposes, are poignant signs of ordinary life stopped short—graduation and wedding shots, families picnicking on summer lawns.
“It could have been me,” one of the students shared.
“It could have been any of us,” someone responded.
“What if my father had been a Nazi?” a blonde, blue-eyed boy asked. “Would I have been able to turn against my parents?”
Granted, this may have been the most difficult class of the semester, as students confronted the reality of human betrayal. Our journey through the semester would eventually take us to a brighter place, in our research of people and organizations that worked against oppression.
But, on this day, we still had to view a film clip from Sophie’s Choice. (If you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, William Styron’s beautiful mix of American naivete and the residual effects of the Holocaust, put it on your list). The clip shows Sophie’s arrival at Auschwitz with her two young children. In a desperate plea, Sophie tells an SS officer that she’s a Polish Christian. He responds by offering her a choice of which child will be allowed to live. The clip ends with Sophie’s little girl screaming for her mother as the officer carries her away under his arm.                                                                                                                                                                                            
Pushing the button to start the clip, I remembered Joe. I’d looked back at him several times during class. He’d stopped taking pictures a while back, and he sat upright, with a deep look of concentration on his face.

The room was silent after the clip. I turned on the lights and honored the silence for a bit. “Well?” I asked. “Let’s put this all together. Reactions?”
Our recent class discussions examined the impossible choices represented in our sample of writing about the Holocaust. The students picked up that theme again, centering on the tragic resonance of Sophie’s choice and the implications for survivors, on the legacy of grief. Though the film clip is hard to watch, I’ve shown it so many times, led the ensuing discussion so many times, that I could predict the outcome.
Or, so I thought.
“May I say something?” Joe asked from the back of the room. The students seemed to have forgotten him there. One or two turned toward him.
“I was eighteen years old,” Joe began. “I was there.” The change in the classroom was physical. Every student—the majority of them just eighteen—moved, as if part of a rippling wave building momentum, adjusting their seats to look directly at Joe.
“My unit went to Auschwitz. We were one of the first at the camp.” Joe said. “It was…it was…,” Joe continued with a sob, raising his hands to cover his face, and the rest of his story became wet words wept into his hands. In that moment, history came alive in my classroom. Movie images faded away, and, for us, it was Joe standing at the gates of Auschwitz.
“Joe,” I began. My knowledge level plummeted, and I failed to find words significant enough. “Thank you for being there. Thank you for sharing with us.” The students nodded, almost in unison. One or two stopped to speak to Joe, and he was gone.
His presence was still in our classroom on Monday when we met again.  The students wrote about him, and many stopped by my office to discuss his visit. I told his story over and over again, knocking on colleague’s doors, ironically modeling Joe’s behavior on that previous Wednesday afternoon.
I could sense their withdrawal when I began my story. “Oh, that guy. I heard him in the hall, too,” was the universal reply. Some told me they also closed their doors, anxious not to be disturbed. But when I told them about Joe’s role in the liberation of Auschwitz, their faces changed, softening, welcoming the idea of my unannounced visitor.
As for me, I will always be rushing to finish a stack of papers, but Joe’s visit will stay with me for a long time. What did I learn from him? Lessons are everywhere, my friends. Sometimes history breathes. Don’t close the door. You might just miss it.

Reprinted with permission from JAEPL's wonderful editor, Dr. Joonna Trapp, Chair of Communications at King College.

Sunday, Jill Moyer. "History Lesson 101." JAEPL Vol.18 (Winter 2012-2013): 133-134. Print.