I want to thank Debra for answering my questions. Debra is also a contributor (along with yours truly!) to the all-women-authors anthology, Wreckage of Reason II: Back to the Drawing Board. She has won many awards for her writing, including the 1991 Eyster Prize in Fiction, the 1998 Thorpe Menn Book Award, the 2003 James C. McCormick Fellowship in Fiction from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, the 2008 Diagram Innovative Fiction Award, 2008 Inspiration Grant from Arts Council of Metropolitan Kansas City, and three Pushcart Prize nominations, among other awards. She was a finalist in the Heekin Foundation’s Novel-in-Progress. Her books include:
- Drought & Say What You Like (New Directions, 1997)
- Prayers of an Accidental Nature (Coffee House Press, 1999)
- The Jiri Chronicles & Other Fictions (FC2, 2011)
- What the Body Requires (Jaded Ibis Press, 2013)
What was the first story you remember writing about?
I wrote poems before stories. Very bad poems about animals, usually dead ones. I grew up on a farm surrounded by many different kinds of critters — dogs, cats, birds, fish, horses, pigs, cattle, and a superior cast of wild animals from skunks and raccoon, to foxes and coyotes—all of them inevitably meeting their demise, of course. Ergo my early expertise as a eulogist. The first story I recall writing was for a Social Studies class in grade school, though I cannot recall which grade—probably fifth. We were studying Mexico, its people and landscapes and resources, and we’d been given a list of words like maize, hacienda, oro, senor and rio with which we were to write a story. Mine was quite long, an adventure about a conquistador’s search for Mayan gold. The teacher gave me an E+ and scribbled something red and very nice about me being a fine writer with a vivid imagination. E, by the way, stood for Excellent. In those days, our schools used the grading standard of E (Excellent), S (Satisfactory), M (Mediocre), I (Insufficient), and F (Failure). Sometimes I think we should go back to that standard, at least in college, so that the students whose work is C (Mediocre) but think—and sometimes insist—that it is A (Excellent) more clearly understand what’s expected.
The fact that I remember quite well my first story and the how it came to be and the teacher’s comments suggests just how much influence teachers can have on a student’s course in life.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
In chronological order: veterinarian, rancher, “movie star” (that’s they were called then; not “celebrity”), war correspondent. I stuck with the last occupation but switched it to journalist after Saigon fell, ending the American-Vietnam War the year I graduated from high school. I went off to University of Missouri-Columbia with the intent of getting my B.J. (yes, an unfortunately abbreviation) but got sidetracked into creative writing for a couple of years after I look a poetry writing class as an elective.
Once I’d taken all of the poetry writing courses available, including graduate level, and one fiction course (that I did not particularly love), I decided to switch back to journalism for “practical” reasons, as in “Debra, you can’t earn a living as a poet.”
I studied in the University’s then famous J-School (which Brad Pitt also dropped out of) for only a summer and a fall. When I actually attended class, I did very well, especially in the writing courses—well enough that, when I dropped out for various reasons related to finances and general uncertainty, one of the professors looked me up at the restaurant where I was working to talk to me about re-enrolling. But I just didn’t know what I wanted yet. I was 20 years old and there were too many possibilities spread before me. I was like the cat sitting in front of a box of mice when the lid is lifted: she doesn’t catch any mice because she wants all of them at once.
Case in point: After I moved to Kansas City, Missouri, I eventually enrolled at Kansas City Art Institute where I took my BFA in painting. Then, after traveling around Europe, I moved to San Francisco to work at increasingly higher management positions in advertising and magazine production, all the while writing articles for an arts and entertainment magazine. I took a course in novel writing at San Francisco State University where I realized my autodidactic reading knowledge exceeded my professor’s; I left the M.A. program. I really loved my job as advertising productions manager at MacWEEK Magazine but had begun publishing some of my short stories. I was getting up at 3am to write in a diner near my office in the Financial District. After the major earthquake of 1989, I peered at my life 20 years thence and saw: lots of money but no art. So I quit the corporate world, moved back to the Midwest, took a low-level secretarial job (9am-5pm versus 8am-9pm) and began concentrating on my fiction and visual art.
The rest is a long path with a few roadside attractions, but essentially undeviating. I have no regrets.
Do you think writing is taught, that we know how to do it instinctively, or both? Why?
Having taught, for quite a few years, creative writing (particularly: experimental forms like hyperfiction and mixed media writing, nonfiction, and composition for students with learning disabilities), I’m convinced there are teaching methods to direct a student toward better writing and, most importantly, to make that person a better thinker. The creative writing workshop, however, is definitely not one of those methods. It’s a sloppy format for lazy teachers who don’t really want to work hard. Example: One of my former colleagues complained to me—when my course was waitlisted at 18 students and his course, with an enrollment of only eight had just lost two more students — that I had all of the talented students and he didn’t want to teach anyone who wasn’t talented. My response to him: “So, what you’re saying is that you really don’t want to have to teach.”
Really teaching creative writing requires (1) understanding and valuing the idiosyncratic aesthetics of all students to help them improve their strengths and reduce their weaknesses, while not making them write like you; (2) creating a curriculum of carefully designed assignments that teach specific elements of creative writing, like structure, musical syntax, and (significant) meaning; (3) daily improvising on-the-spot exercises that push students into learning and understanding aspects of writing and thinking that they lack; and (4) assigning reading material that complements all of the above.
Having said this, however, I would add, with emphasis, that the best writing teacher is the process of reading as much intelligent and diverse writing as you can. Also, the best writers keep writing, and exploring, and educating themselves in history, all of the sciences, technology, global politics and socio-economics, and philosophy. That’s something I see gravely lacking in MFA and PhD creative writing graduates. They’re too specialized; they cannot intelligently discuss much outside of their specialization with a sophistication necessary to evolve the discipline—and the human.
On a final note: Literary theory is its own art form; reading it does not make better creative writers, only better literary theorists.
What was your least favorite class at any point in your education? Why?
I took only one class that drove me insane with boredom: American Romanticism. Not because of the subject matter but rather because of the professor. Prof. Dickinson could take an otherwise fascinating writer like Henry David Thoreau and transform him and his writing into watching paint dry. (There was a rumor in the English Department that the professor had been married four times and three of his wives had committed suicide. Hmmm.)
Are you reading anything right now?
I’m reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking because I’m…
Are you writing anything right now?
…working on one of my memoirs, The Way Men Kiss. I finished the first draft of this collection about ten years ago. Recently I promised myself that when I moved to Hong Kong (I’m living here now) I’d spend mornings writing for myself rather than answering emails and sweating over the increasingly complex management of Jaded Ibis Press.
The Way Men Kiss is one of three memoirs in the works. The writing is fairly straightforward; i.e., not an experiment in syntax, like another memoir-in-progress, Otherwise, from which comes “Olbers’ Paradox,” my syntactically-perverted essay included in the recently published Wreckage of Reason II: An Anthology of Experimental Prose by Contemporary Women Writers).
TWMK covers the year I slept (as in, fucked) my way across Europe after my first husband, a pathological liar, left me for other women. (Yes, plural: women.) Some people might call my poor Grand Tour “revenge fucking” but it was not. I adored these men, every one of my lovers and my friends who had arrived in Europe from so many parts of the world. They were the salve to my wounded heart. The book explores much of who they were then, and who I was then—very young, all of us, and untethered to obligations of any kind. Audacious travelers on the same unpredictable road to a constricting future that would present itself to us soon enough. Soon enough we’d be less free, and older, and already nostalgic for the wilder days and nights. But until then:
“Kamal grazed on me. And I, lover of men, grazed on Kamal. We might have made love right there on the park bench along the Champs-Élysées, in view of amused passers-by, had Kamal not then slid his hands under my bottom and picked me up and carried me out of the light into the warm green darkness of the park, to a big shadowy circle of briers, conveniently hollow in the center—an intimate lair smelling of rabbits and black dirt and green-waxy ceiling of leaves. We climbed inside and kissed more deeply and groped more desperately. And then we could not help ourselves: We made love right there, on the dirt amid the thickets of that Champs-Élysées park, on that warm September night in Paris, so many years ago.”
—from the title essay, “The Way Men Kiss”