Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.”
At this time in 2010, I was working with my advisor David Jauss, and I invited him to write a post in the How We Spend Our Days series. He declined, saying it would be a pretty short post—he wrote and he taught. When his new book came out a year ago, I asked him again. Same answer, he said. Somehow, Jodi Paloni managed to catch him. And what’s more, she caught a lot of him—three days’ worth. Come back on OCTOBER 2nd to hear what Dave has to say about Alice Munro, Anton Chekhov, and the short story. Then come back on OCTOBER 3rd to see what he has to say about point of view.
I couldn’t be prouder to include in the series the man I think of as the god of writing craft.
JODI: I know that many of your September days—years and decades of days, in fact—have been spent heading back to teach the full-time academic year at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, after a summer of relaxing and teaching in Vermont. How long have you been a student or a teacher, heading back to school in the fall?
DAVE: Since (gulp) 1956.
JODI: You recently retired from full-time academic teaching. What has it been like this year, not heading back to school during the back-to-school season?
DAVE: For the most part, I’ve barely noticed the fact that I’m not back in the classroom. That’s probably due to the fact that I’m still teaching for the low-residency MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and I spent the first two weeks of the fall semester critiquing my advisees’ work. But every now and then, I think about how much more time I have for my own work and get a whiff of bliss.
JODI: I like that, “a whiff of bliss.” So how do you find yourself spending your days?
DAVE: Besides writing, reading, and teaching my VCFA students, I spend time with my wife, our children and their significant others, our grandkids, and our pooches. I’m also currently addicted to the Danish television series Borgen.
JODI: I haven’t heard of that one, but I’ll check it out. Let’s talk about Glossolalia. The opening story, “Torque,” is a domestic tragedy, but told with a unique twist. You deal with your main character with such a deep sense of compassion regarding the “point of no return.” Heart-breaking stuff. I have to say, it may be my favorite story in the collection and one that has stuck with me since the first time I read it in Black Maps. Do you have an all-time favorite story of your own?
DAVE: I’m glad you like “Torque.” It just might be my favorite too, though I’m also more pleased than not with “Glossolalia.” I made them the first and last stories of the book not only because they’re my favorites, but also because I see them as “bookends” of sorts. “Torque” is about a man who suffers a breakdown and loses touch with reality, and “Glossolalia” is about a man who recovers from a breakdown; the first ends in darkness and despair and the last in light, forgiveness, and love. I wanted the collection as a whole to trace that arc from darkness to light (for lack of better words) as much as possible, and that’s why I began it with the stories I consider the darkest, ones about mental breakdowns, death, murder, loss of religious faith, etc., and ended it with stories that are more hopeful (though still dark, alas; I’m not the world’s most optimistic guy), ones about love, forgiveness, acceptance, etc. I realize that the order of the collection doesn’t perfectly enact this narrative arc—at times I felt the need for contrast, a change of voice or subject matter, etc.—but I wanted the book as a whole to suggest it.
JODI: What are you working on post Glossolalia?
DAVE: I’m working on some new stories I hope to include in a second volume of new and selected stories that Press 53 plans to publish next year. Besides the new stories, this volume will contain some works there wasn’t room for in Glossolalia, including a revised version of a novella from my first book, Crimes of Passion, and a couple of stories from my second, Black Maps.
JODI: I’m looking forward to that. You write poetry as well as short stories. Tell us a little about your work. How much time do you give to poems versus short stories? How does being a poet impact your story writing and vice versa?
DAVE: Although I write poetry and short fiction, I’ve never been able to do both of them at the same time. I’ll go through periods in which I write nothing but poems and other periods in which I write nothing but stories. I can’t explain why, but sometimes things come to me as poems and other times they come to me as stories. It’s as if there’s a switch in my brain, and when it’s flipped one way, I write poems and when it’s flipped another, I write stories. And unlike some people who write in both genres, I’ve never written a poem that turned into a story or a story that turned into a poem. Stuart Dybek has done that, he says, but it’s never happened to me. Nor have I ever written what could be called a prose poem. Although there are a lot of similarities between poems and stories (more than there are between stories and novels, I’d argue), they require, at least for me, very different modes of thinking. When I’m writing poems, I’m thinking in lines, and when I’m writing stories, I’m thinking in sentences. In any case, I don’t seem to be able to choose what genre I can write at any given time. When I’m writing stories, I can’t imagine ever writing poems again, and vice versa. Right now I’m in the longest story-centered period of my life; I don’t think I’ve written a poem for six or seven years. But who knows?—I just may wake up tomorrow and find the switch in my brain has flipped from Fiction to Poetry. However, because there are so many similarities between poems and stories, thanks to their mutual focus on communicating an experience as compactly as possible, I think my writing in each genre influences my writing in the other. Specifically, I think writing poems has made me more conscious of rhythm and sound in my fiction than I would have been had I never written poems, and I also think it’s led me to write stories that are less overtly plotted than traditional stories, more “lyrical” in form, so to speak. And conversely, writing stories has led me to write some poems that tell stories, albeit in a more oblique way than in my fiction.
JODI: As a student of the short story, it has been such a privilege for me to know you and work with you and read your stories. You’re known as one of the legendary short fiction master teachers at Vermont College of the Fine Arts. Do you enjoy teaching or writing, one more than the other?
DAVE: Well, since legends are by definition either exaggerations or out-and-out lies, I guess I can accept the title of “legendary master.” No doubt a lot of students would beg to differ with that description, however. But I do work very hard on my students’ behalf and I enjoy it almost as much as I enjoy writing. For me, it’s just another way to feed what Jean Rhys calls “the lake.” In her Paris Review interview, she says, “Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.” If Jean Rhys is a trickle, then I’m at best a drop, but in both my teaching and writing, I’m trying to feed the lake to the best of my ability.
JODI: In my estimation, you most certainly are. I am grateful for the countless drops—pearls—from you that impact my writing, which is why I wanted to create this post. It gave me a chance to chat with you again about the work. I’m curious, too, about the place where you work. Would you send some photos?
DAVE: I can’t imagine anyone would want to see a photo of my office––it’s pretty dull.
JODI: What? I love seeing people’s offices. Are those all of your books? How do you decide which ones to keep and which ones to let go?
DAVE: No, those aren’t all the books I have. The photo shows only two of the seventeen bookcases scattered around the house, not to mention the piles of books I have stacked on endtables and nightstands, etc. Except for the bathrooms, every room in the house has at least one bookcase and most have several. I used to have an office full of books at my university office too, but I had to give more than a thousand of those books to the library because I didn’t have room for them at home. And I’m at the point now that I can’t get a new book unless I get rid of one–there’s just no more room.
AND THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?
- Steven Schwartz’s Little Raw Souls. I chose it because I have long been a fan of Schwartz’s work. To my mind, this is his best book to date. Anyone who loves the short story form ought to give themselves the great pleasure of reading it.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- Don’t neglect body language. Depending on what scientific study you most trust, 65 to 90% of all communication in life is conveyed via body language, yet we tend to use it only sparingly in our fiction. Rather than describe a character’s body language, we tend to interpret it. We say things like “He was visibly angry” when we should be making the anger visible.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I don’t think I have any strange reading or writing habits. Doesn’t everybody yodel and tap-dance while reading and writing?
By David Jauss