Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author talks about her/his writerhead…a precious opportunity for looky-loos around the world to sneak into the creative noggins of talented writers and (ever so gently) muck about.
Back in February, I featured fiction writer Elizabeth Stuckey-French here on Writerhead Wednesday. Today, I’m thrilled to welcome the other half of that brilliant writerly equation: Elizabeth’s husband, Ned Stuckey-French. I’ve been a fan of Ned’s work for a good while, but recently I’ve also become a fan of his insightful (and funny ha ha) commentary about nonfiction / creative nonfiction / essays / truth / etc. (You can often find him over at Brevity magazine…)
So kick back, my writerhead fans, and enjoy…because as I suspected, Ned’s description of his writerhead is like everything else he writes: addictive.
1. Describe your state of writerhead (the where, the when, the how, the what, the internal, the external).
When she answered this question for you, my wife, Elizabeth, said her writerhead never turned off. The same is true for me, but mine is different. Mine is less purely imaginative and more relentlessly interpretive. She’s a fiction writer; I’m a nonfiction writer, an essayist, and cultural historian. I’m also more of an analyzer and an arguer than she is. Which is not to say I don’t imagine. I do and much of what I love about the cultural history I write is that I get to spend long afternoons with Thurber and E. B. White in their little office at the New Yorker, smelling cigarette smoke and listening to the paper wads hit the metal trash can, or drinking with Dottie Parker and Bob Benchley at the Algonquin as we try to ignore the oogling tourists.
Much of the time, however, my writerhead is trying to think about what I really think, what I really believe. I am an essayist and so skepticism is where I live. I turn things over constantly. I am constantly watching myself, listening to myself. A part of me is always sitting in the press box of my own game, doing play-by-play and color commentary. It started when I was a kid shooting baskets in the driveway. 3 – 2 – 1… French stops, pops. It’s good!
But if am skeptical and questioning, I am also hopeful. I’m a very political person and believe in possibility of progress. Elizabeth teases me constantly about how earnest I am. I am the son of Stevensonian Democrats. My family vacationed in Concord and Lexington, Valley Forge, and DC. We saw Sunrise at Campobello at the drive-in movie. My mom was a poll watcher for the League of Women Voters and as a toddler I sat with her on Election Day and colored pictures. Later, I was a Student Council nerd, shook Bobby Kennedy’s hand a month before he was shot, and then, transformed by the Sixties, became a communist trade union organizer for ten years. So, in my writerhead, I’m constantly refining my position, questioning myself, and others, and trying to figure out what makes sense and is convincing. Is that fair? Is this what I think? I am always, always turning such questions over in my head. They are my version of Montaigne’s Que sais-je?, or What do I know?
2. What happens if someone/something interrupts writerhead? (a spouse, a lover, a barking dog, an electrical outage, a baby’s cry, a phone call, a leg cramp, a dried-up pen, a computer crash, etc.)
Life is all interruptions, or as John Lennon so nicely put it, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Life is about adjustment and so is writing. Or maybe revision is the better word. You make a plan and head off this way and then you’re interrupted by a grammatical error, some faulty logic, a limp and silly adjective, and you want to fix it. But, you’ve got to keep going to the end, knowing all the while that your first draft is mostly potholes and speed bumps. But, if you’ve got to keep the editor out of the room till you get a first draft (which Anne Lamott has so helpfully reminded us is always shitty), you must eventually let them back in. I’ve got two editors, by the way, a male and a female. She looks like a 7th grade English teacher. Her hair is up in a bun, where she keeps an extra pencil. He wears a green visor and looks like Bartleby. And while both are scolds, they are also part of my writerhead team.
So, writing is writing, but it is also revision. Montaigne did three editions of his essays, never cutting, only adding. An essay is a conversation, with your reader and yourself. It’s a fireside chat, a late night bull session that solves the world’s problems. In this conversation, you say something, then interrupt yourself or ask a question and then follow that digression. The talk eddies and curls and maybe it circles back and maybe it doesn’t, but it always keeps rollin’ along.
3. Using a simile or metaphor, compare your writerhead to something.
Well, I guess I’ve already offered a few—time travel, press box and game, conversation with self, river—but here’s another. Borges said, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” Writerhead is Paradise. It’s where I like to be, and it’s kind of a library where I’m a kid again. I wander the aisles looking for one book, another catches my eye, I pull it down and begin reading, and soon find myself somewhere else, perhaps back at the Algonquin where everyone is a writer and so I start writing too.
BIO: Ned Stuckey-French teaches at Florida State University and is book review editor of Fourth Genre. He is the author of The American Essay in the American Century (Missouri, 2011), co-editor (with Carl Klaus) of Essayists on the Essay: Four Centuries of Commentary (Iowa, 2012), and coauthor (with Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French) of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (Longman, 8th edition). His articles and essays have appeared in journals and magazines such as In These Times, Missouri Review, Iowa Review, culturefront, Pinch, and Guernica, and have been listed three times among the notable essays of the year in Best American Essays.