Monday, May 03, 2010

12 or 20 questions: with Ryan Knighton

Ryan Knighton [photo credit: Brad Cran] is the author of the critically acclaimed Cockeyed: A Memoir, which was published around the world and is in development as a major motion picture, and a follow-up, C'mon Papa: Dispatches from a Dad in the Dark. His comic essays have appeared in Esquire, the New York Times, the Globe and Mail and Salon. At the age of eighteen Knighton was diagnosed with the degenerative eye condition retinitis pigmentosa and is now blind, which is blinder than he’d like to admit. He teaches English at Capilano University and lives in East Vancouver with his wife and young daughter.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

First book was poetry. An apprentice book. I was trying my hand at the effects, at least the ones  I could manage, of line, measure, omission, metaphor, pause, and the rest of the springs and gears in Williams’ version of “the machine”. I was imitating books I liked: Gentle Northern Summer, For Love, Kerrisdale Elegies, Aurora, et al. Changed my application of language to experience, which is how it changed my life.

Now the lines are elsewhere. Haven’t composed in that way in a long time. It might come back. But for now I’m wading through sentences. So many directions to go. So many denials in making one sentence over another. Though I write memoir now – which is to say a combination of chronicle and gesture – it’s to make a version of what happened. Whatever the language settled into.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

Physiology. I was losing my sight, of course, so as a student at SFU I studied poetry, particularly that with slender lines. Thesen’s jeweler’s cuts. Creeley’s nodes. I could string 3 letters together at a time in my right eye and, as they say, read. Less was more. I could memorize the poem and excuse myself from consulting pages when tasked to write essays. Three letters at a time is not a way into Dickens. Later I gave in to audiobooks. Clunky tape cassettes. Twenty-two tapes at half speed to read the idiot. Audiobooks gave me back sentences. I was raised in poetry, then moved to the paragraphs. Paragraphs are where I spend my day right now, but poetry taught me how to live there.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

I have no idea how long it takes to start. How long is a start? It starts, I guess. It wasn’t, then it is, and on it goes the wrong way, then the right, and then the terms change, you shed the crutches of right and wrong,  and you start over, but that’s not a start, that’s just a continuation of what you suspect hasn’t begun. Meanwhile I sit at my desk eight hours a day, five days a week. Occupied. It’s the occupation that matters and gets me wherever.

4 - Where does a poem or prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

These days it always begins with something that happened. That combined with something I might think about. That’s about as plain as I can describe it. It also begins with digressions, because I don’t want to think I know what matters in order to tell a chronicle. I don’t’ want to tell a story, not exactly. I want it to tell me something. Sometimes, at least most of the time these days, I’ve proposed a book so I’m consciously working on it. It’s a book. But I’m always working on a piece of the book. So I work on pieces. But until I have a book, I don’t know what a piece really is, not until I look back and see how it could be just that, and so it conjures a thinking and telling that isn’t exactly my own, not the kind I might share at dinner or use to plan a vacation. So, at least for me, I tend to feel in any given sentence I’m wanting for something both big and small, something that has the quality of inertia necessary to books,  but also maybe something that wants to be left behind in passing, in the reading, to belong back there like a street corner, be it a sentence or an act or a passage or an ugly expository lump. Conduits to the book, but places of their own to be read. 

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

I’m  growing more verbally private the more I write about what happens. The books are becoming a public reading, I suppose. Maybe my voice is migrating there. My wife says I mumble more than I used to.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

This, like other answers I can try, is only temporary. My suspicion is that memoir does its work when it isn’t ultimately about you. How to accomplish that is of concern. What work it can do is provide a method – one of many, not necessarily the best or most significant, but a method – to shape questions from the fog of relative experience. What happened is not a personal thing. It’s too often assumed to be a question of the personal, or the psychological, or the private. What happened, to tell that, is to ask how we are in a broader sense of the world, its forces and its shapeliness. Memoir as method. Meta hodos. Greek for “on the road”. To be out there, not in here. 

7 - What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I wouldn’t prescribe, other than to say I hope there isn’t such a thing as “a writer”.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Both. But who cares, really. Agonism works. Just try editing something with “Have a nice day.”    

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Perspective by incongruity.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

A question of measure: how hard, easy, pleasurable, difficult, etc, the various facets of writing are for me. But it’s hard to answer measures.

My dad welded chain link fences while my mom dispatched for emergency services. Those strike me as hard jobs in their respective ways. Writing is hard, too. Sometimes. And driven by appeal, but only sometimes. And it’s also come to me with some ease, that of necessity – what’s a good job for this body? -- and genuine curiosity. Curiosity is the appeal that keeps me moving from poetry to memoir to screenplay to radio, etc.

But that movement, the indulgence of time and curiosity, is predicated on this: I’ve a good teaching gig, I travel, I’ve a home in this over-inflated market, I eat well and so does my daughter. All of that makes any hardship in writing easier, far far easier. Blindness makes all of it harder, again. Blindfold yourself and try to find a urinal at the CBC. Ask strangers to take you. Hard. So hard. But there’s a 7 year average before burnout, true nervous exhaustion, for most emergency dispatchers. My mom was forced to move to a whole new career when she was in her fifties. I lost enough sight to find sentences by the time I turned 30, and so I tried my hand at memoir. Blindness is difficult every minute, but I’m noticeable. And in this over-inflated market of books and writing, every glitch defines you from the noise. Blindness as ease. I eased from poetry to memoir, in that respect, too. So I’ve no
answer for how easy or hard it has been. You just weld it together.  

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

In the morning I drop my daughter at the university’s daycare, then work in my office on campus from 8:30 until 4:30, five days a week. I have lunch with her and the other kids at noon for an hour. Teaching takes away some of that writing time, but only part of the year. For the past few years I’ve taught from January to June, and  written from July to December. Whatever I’m tinkering with, I stop mid-sentence at the end of the day and leave myself a few notes that point to wherever it is I think it’s going. Easier to pick up the next morniof start it. And I never write after 5PM.  

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I turn away from whatever it is. Do something else. Do something.

13 - What was your most recent Halloween costume?

Don’t remember.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Radio. Bar stool yarns. Those and the way my brothers tried to one-up each other at the kitchen table. Shaggy dog stories. 

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I don’t’ want to leave anybody out and there’s too many. Of books, I will say that Jim Knipfel’s Slackjaw was immeasurably significant for me as a blind guy and someone who was about to try memoir. His book gave me a kind of permission I didn’t know I’d been waiting for. It’s permission was to say, “Stop waiting for whatever fucking permission you’re never going to get, you precious ninny.”
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Play my Gibson like Cousin Harley.. 

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I might not be writing in a couple of years, so maybe I’ll find out.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I don’t want to know. I’m serious. I probably just like doing it. I’m suspicious of lending it the quality of a “calling” or something woo woo like that.

19 - What was the last great book you read?

My favourite novel is Great Expectations. I don’t read many books, though. Mostly articles and scripts right now. “Ruined Cast” by Dash Shaw, which has yet to be produced, is the best script I’ve read in a long time.

20 - What are you currently working on?

A travel book called Nothing to see here. It’s not about blindness. It’s a project about educating my other senses. I’ve also got two screenplays in development and two more in early stages. Most are adaptations of books by other folks. 

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