Ruth Joffre: In the Author’s Note of , you write, “This is not a craft book in the traditional sense.” In the process of writing this book, did you find yourself having to work against or position yourself in relation to this craft tradition, and, if so, how did you navigate that experience?
I’m going to write a book of craft essays
RJ: Your essays draw from a wide range of sources, including literature, history, psychology, music, religion, and more. When you sit down to write an essay, do you specifically seek out these sources while researching the subject, or do these materials accrete in the course of your daily life?
RJ: Taken together, the essays in present not only lessons on the craft of writing but real-life examples of how to move through the world as a writer, drawing from your experiences, successes, and mistakes. Why was it important to you to model these ways of being and thinking?
RJ: The first essay, “In Praise of Navel Gazing,” is a powerful condemnation of the ways that personal narrative as a form has been maligned and ridiculed by those afraid of its power. What advice would you give to a writer who find themselves in the position of having to defend personal narratives and protect their own belief in their project?
The best advice I can give to those writing personal work and to those dismissing it (these are not mutually exclusive groups) is to sincerely inquire whether their assumptions about the genre come out of their own experience as a reader and writer or whether they are simply the internalized voices of those who most benefit from the silence of those most likely to write about their lives.
I expect that most readers have absorbed many intellectually and aesthetically interesting works of personal nonfiction, works that are no more indulgent of their authors’ egos than comparable works of fiction. Probably it was a teacher, a review, a classmate, an interview with a writer they respect that inscribed the bias on their consciousness. My experience of being a writer is one of continual waking, of striving for better discernment between my own ideas and those conditioned in me by a culture that does not value my sovereignty or that of most historically marginalized groups of people.
RJ: At one point in “Mind Fuck,” you note, “I’ve spent my whole life being prescribed narratives about my own body.” How do you recognize when you are prescribing to imposed narratives, whether in life or on the page, and what advice would you give to a writer just starting to break free?
MF: For me, it has been about cultivating a practice of awareness. Creating a space between my thought and any associated action or reinforcement. That is, learning to ask myself, Wait, is that my thought/belief, or is that the heterosexist white supremacist patriarchy piping its bullshit brainwashing through the speakers of my own interiority? Like, do I really think no one cares about my intensely crafted story? Do I care what that one asshole thinks of my body or my art? Do I actually prefer small asses to fat ones?
It is by recognizing the insidious terrorism of my social conditioning that I become more able to reject it, to replace it with my own convictions. I’ve had a practice of journaling every morning for over a decade now, and I have a list of reminders that I write out by hand every day. One of them is “Today I reject the patriarchy’s bad ideas.” Because I am reminded incessantly what I am supposed to think—by TV, magazines, other people’s casual body-shaming—and to resist it, I need to counter it with just as consistent alternatives. For instance, when those thoughts arise, reminding myself: I am interested in art made out of experience. I only care about the opinions of people I respect. I prefer fat asses to thin but recognize the beauty and integrity of all kinds of asses.
Honestly, meditation has been a huge part of creating this mental breathing room. Also, surrounding myself with other people doing similar work. I attend multiple groups per week—different kinds of mutual aid/consciousness-raising situations—in which I collaborate in this awakening kind of work (whether it focuses on antiracism, recovery, or meditation) with other people who are committed to it. Community is such an integral part of any conscious change.
Today I reject the patriarchy’s bad ideas.
RJ: In “A Big Shitty Party: Six Parables for Writing About Other People,” you write, among other things, about the ethics of writing about real people. Is developing an ethical code an essential part of developing craft as a nonfiction writer? How do you teach the ethics of creative nonfiction to your students?
MF: Absolutely. It’s unavoidable. Even if a writer chooses to ignore the issue, that is itself an ethical code. Over the course of publishing four books, it has been an area of significant growth and change for me as a writer and a person.
I don’t think an ethical code is something one can teach, per se. I do talk about it a lot with my students, how important it is to consider and to make decisions based on their beliefs rather than their fears. I give them a lot of examples of ways they might handle implicating others in their work and the consequences of each. I share the opinions of other writers, ones who approach it from a variety of positions. I also talk a lot about my own trajectory of handling it, how experiences have refined my thinking and my personal code around it.
When it comes to scary or emotionally challenging experiences, especially unavoidable ones, I find that we sometimes reach for simplistic rules of behavior. We want a single guideline, so we don’t have to carefully wend our way through each encounter. For me, that has never worked. I mean, in the sense of simplifying my experience or the conflicts that might arise. There is no shortcut through a compassionate and ethical handling of other people’s stories. Whatever course we take, there is a cost and a burden of responsibility.
RJ: “The Return,” the final essay in the book, focuses on the art of confession and includes a series of reflections on your past selves, including yourself as a girl and as a new author. How do you maintain compassion and perspective in writing about yourself, and, in the event that this compassion falters, what do you do?
MF: Oh, Ruth. It’s such a work in progress! There are past selves (and even past things I’ve written) that I have a really hard time facing with compassion. The creative process, specifically that of personal writing, has been my best method (along with therapy) of finding a way to love my past selves, to look at my past ignorance and mistakes with empathy, forgiveness, and, eventually, sometimes, love. In a way, this whole book is about that process, how it dovetails with the aesthetic processes.
I have this trick that I use a lot in my daily life, when I am trying to be more generous and patient with myself. I just imagine someone else whom I love—a friend, a student, a child—and I consider how I would respond if it were them struggling instead of me. I would never, ever treat someone else I loved (or even someone I hated!) the way I sometimes have treated myself, with that kind of impatience and expectation. In a way, writing personal narrative is a version of this exercise. I am externalizing my past self, creating a character out of her who then becomes objective to me; she is no longer me, though I am drawing her with the colors of my own memory. I am telling myself a story about the past, in which I can relate to my former self as a character—in all her innocence and error, her vulnerability and grace. It is easier to access love that way, and then graft it back into my present self.
Ruth Joffre is the author of the story collection Night Beast. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Lightspeed, Nightmare, Pleiades, khōréō, The Florida Review Online, Wigleaf,Baffling Magazine, and the anthologies Best Microfiction 2021 & 2022, Unfettered Hexes: Queer Tales of Insatiable Darkness, and Evergreen: Grim Tales & Verses from the Gloomy Northwest. She co-organized the performance series Fight for Our Lives and served as the 2020-2022 Prose Writer-in-Residence at Hugo House. In 2023, she will be a visiting writer at University of Washington Bothell.