Sunday, March 17, 2013

Night Writer: Jeff Vande Zande

I don’t know when I realized that I wanted to be a writer, but I was surrounded by writing from a young age. My father, John Vande Zande, was a writer. He wrote Night Driving (William Morrow), a collection of short stories, which won a Chautauqua Literary Circle Award. I distinctly remember Saturday mornings because we three children had to be quiet so Dad could write. Such mornings were sound-tracked by the clacking of typewriter keys. When I was young, I thought that all fathers wrote stories on Saturday mornings. It was only later that I would discover that my father had a strange affliction . . . an affliction that he would pass on to me.
When I was six, I wrote my first story, which my parents tape-recorded as I read it aloud. It was called “The Strange Bug.” I can still remember the opening lines: “First I was run over by a car. Then I was run over by a train. And I was hurt. And I had to go to the hospital.” Since that first story, I’ve been an on-again off-again writer. In my teens, I didn’t write . . . sort of a rebellion against my father. In my twenties, I wrote poetry; I suppose because my father wrote fiction. For most of my thirties up until now, I’ve concentrated on stories, novels, and screenplays for short films.
I’m at a place where I am quite content with my writing at the craft level. I know when I’m working on a good poem or good story. What I struggle with at 42 years of age is the fear that I’m repeating myself . . . of not doing anything new. My most recent novel, American Poet, had a great deal to do with Theodore Roethke. Through research, I learned that Roethke reinvented himself as a poet with almost every book. It makes me wonder if I’m doing that. I worry that I’m spinning out the same themes over and over without really saying anything new.
I’ve definitely explored some specific themes in my work. I’m interested in working-class themes and how work both gives us identity and confines us. I’m also interested in themes of altruism. I’ve been told that fathers and sons is an ongoing theme in my work. Likewise, I’m interested in characters who are trying to discover their true selves. Recently, I’ve been exploring old age and retirement as a theme. That stage of our lives is the last frontier, and I think it’s been fairly unexplored in literature. It’s relevant, I think, because we are living longer, so some of us have to face the unknown of twenty years after retirement. In a way, it’s like a second go-around with our teenage years. We are faced once again with the challenging question, “Who am I?” We usually don’t have work to define us anymore. There are no maps for how to approach those years after retirement. In fact, I explored it in a novella entitled The Slow Moons Climbs. So far, no publishers have been interested in it.
Of my themes, I think I am most interested in the idea of self-identity. It’s the greatest challenge we are given in life . . . to discover our true self and to give ourselves the freedom for our self to evolve. Norm Maclean of A River Runs Through It fame once wrote, “The problem of self identity is not just a problem for the young. It is a problem all the time. Perhaps the problem. It should haunt old age, and when it no longer does it should tell you that you are dead.” That’s the theme that fuels The Slow Moon Climbs, but it is also the theme of my first novel, Into the Desperate Country. In that novel, my main character loses his wife and daughter to a tragic car accident. Years later, he realizes that he doesn’t know who he is. I have a colleague who used to teach Into the Desperate Country in a literature course. Whenever he would invite me in as a guest author, I would have excellent discussions with his students. The theme of self-identity is very relevant to them; most of them are struggling with it every day.
Recently, I’ve struggled with my own self-identity, especially as it relates to being a writer. I’ve entered a time in my life where finding time to write has become much more difficult. When my children were younger and not in school, I was a night writer. I wrote every night from 11 p.m. until one in the morning. I easily functioned on six hours of sleep. As my children and I have aged, it’s harder for me to work at night. When I was working on American Poet in the fall of 2011, I was writing until one or two in the morning and then getting up at 5:45 a.m. to get my kids ready for school. I had a cot in my office at Delta College to take naps on between classes. That schedule made it so I could finish the book but, when I look back, I realize that I was sleep deprived for at least three months. I also wasn’t very healthy.
Since then, I’ve been getting sleep . . . and I like it. I’ve been going to the gym regularly, too. I might even be in the best shape of my life. I haven’t really started any longer projects like a novel since finishing American Poet. When I’m working on something, I need to work on it every day for a sustained amount of time. Right now, my daily life offers no sustained amount of downtime. I’m in a process of trying to discover what kind of writer I’m going to be if I’m no longer a night writer. I’m trying to wrap my mind around the idea that, for novels at least, I’m probably going to have to become a summer writer. I’ll still write at night in the summer, but at least I’ll be able to sleep in. It’s difficult because I have an idea for a new novel but, short of thinking about it, I can’t really start writing it.
A recent development in my life is a writing gig I have with the Cedar Sweeper, a magazine devoted to fly fishing in Michigan. Once every two months I write a short story for them, and the only stipulation is that the story has to be related to fly fishing in some way. Also, the story can’t be longer than 2,000 words. I’ve really enjoyed coming up with ideas for fly fishing-related stories, and the practice keeps me immersed in the world of short fiction.
The last long project that I finished was a novella. I never allowed myself to work beyond midnight on it. That might be why it ended up being around 80 pages long. For me, however, this novella, entitled Parable of Weeds, is definitely new territory compared to the realism of most of my work. I guess it would be called a slipstream novella because it slips between sci-fi and literature. If I had to compare it to something, I would compare it to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I’ve done a little slipstream writing in short fiction, and I love the world-creating that it requires. Parable of Weeds was my attempt to execute a longer slipstream piece. I really wanted it to be a novel, but it more or less finished itself on page 80. Even though it was new territory, I must have done something right because it was recently accepted for publication by Untreed Reads, an e-book publisher out of California. That will be new territory for me as well . . . having a book that is strictly an e-book.
I sometimes wonder if I would still be writing if I weren’t teaching creative writing. It’s a mixed blessing of sorts. It fuels me and keeps me interested in writing, but it also drains me and makes me sick of writing. I hear a frequent question from my students: “Once this class is over, what should I do to keep improving as a writer?” I think they expect me to tell them about another class; however, I usually have pretty simple advice for them: “Read everything you can, especially in the genres that you want to write in.” Once writers know how to read like a writer (which I try to teach my students) then, technically, they don’t need any more classes. They can learn everything they need to learn by reading other writers. If students ask me who they should read, I often tell them to start with Hemingway. It’s cliché, I know, but it’s really good advice. I follow up by emphasizing that they shouldn’t stop with Hemingway. All writers have something to teach us about writing.
Interestingly, I think as a writer I have reached a point that I no longer read writers to study their craft. After twenty years of writing, I know how to write; I don’t need to study other writers anymore. Or maybe I’m simply too stubborn to learn anything from them. I don’t read a great deal of contemporary fiction, especially not the stuff that’s being called “cutting edge.” It bores me, but I’m not going to get into why. When I begin to explore the reasons behind my boredom, I come out looking like a closed-minded curmudgeon. Right now I am reading Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie, a nearly 800-page non-fiction book on the Vietnam War. I’d been teaching Tim O’Brien’s short story “The Things They Carried” for years, but I realized recently that I know next to nothing about the Vietnam War. I felt I should know something since my students were asking me questions that I couldn’t answer.
I think that I’ve also outgrown my need for contact with fellow writers. I used to have some writer friends with whom I would exchange work. Early on, it was very helpful, and I would even recommend similar exchanges for anyone who is just getting started writing. Eventually, though, I got to the point where I didn’t need other people. I often found that they weren’t making my writing better; they were just making it closer to how they would have written it. To be honest, I don’t care that much for spending time with writers . . . at least not writers who can only talk about writing. Jesus, but that gets tiring. On the whole, writers are a pretty solipsistic bunch. I would much rather spend time with their writing than with them, at least most of them. I can go many months without ever talking about writing. In fact, I’m happiest that way. For whatever reason, however, when I’m around other writers, we always end up talking about writing. There’s always a sub-textual pissing match going on beneath the surface of the conversation, too. Too often, writers seem to be one-upping each other with what they talk about. Or maybe I’m just sensitive.
That’s not to say, however, that I don’t like people. In fact, I’ve discovered that I really enjoy working collaboratively with other people on creative projects. About five years ago, I took a few classes to learn more about screenwriting . . . mainly because we had students at Delta College interested in screenwriting, and I wanted to be able to offer them a class. As a result, I now find myself teaching in a film program at Delta. I work with another professor from the Electronic Media discipline. We both feel that if we are going to teach students how to write and make short films, then we should also be writing and making them. Our most recent project will be a twenty-minute film when it’s finished. I have to say that I really love working with other people on a creative project, perhaps more than I love writing. Writing fiction or poetry can be such a lonely business. I suppose that’s why some writers like to get together with other writers. That’s the difference, though. When writers get together, it’s usually to talk about writing or something they’ve written. The creative aspect always takes place in isolation. When film makers get together, it’s to get something done. It’s not to critique; it’s to create together. Film making has allowed me to branch out in other ways, too. I’ve even taken a stab or two at acting.
I’ve been asked if I consider myself a writer. My answer: I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m most happy when I’m involved in creating something. For me, that doesn’t have to necessarily be a written piece. I’ve dabbled in acting. I’ve committed myself to working on screenplays. When I’m doing either, I feel that same creative high that I feel when I’m writing fiction or poetry. I’ve also done some painting and even tried my hand at making furniture. While doing either, I feel just as inspired and fulfilled as I do when I’m writing.
I like to create, and it really doesn’t matter what I’m creating. What this means is that I’ll probably never be a great writer. The great ones always seem to be obsessive about writing, which I’m not. If Theodore Roethke is any indication, that obsession also makes them rather intolerable people, which I hope never to be. So, maybe I’m not a writer, especially if obsession is part of the definition. Honestly, I’m okay with that. I’ve discovered that I need creative projects in my life, and that’s enough to sustain me. It’s a big part of my self-identity.
I can live with that. In fact, I can live by it.
Copyright 2013 by Jeff Vande Zande