Chatham Views

Interview with Marc Nieson on Writing his New Memoir

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Associate Professor Marc Nieson teaches fiction and creative nonfiction in Chatham’s MFA Creative Writing program. He recently published Schoolhouse: Lessons on Love & Landscape—a memoir twenty years in the making about his time living in a rural one-room schoolhouse while attending the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the changes he was experiencing at that time. 

In one of the interviews I read about your book, you called it a coming of age tale—except you’re in your thirties when this story takes place.  That’s a little untraditional.  What do you make of that—just a matter of us all aging and maturing differently?

Well, I took longer than most people!  I move slowly; and I do think that’s the truth.  But, it’s a tale of the end of innocence—I think all memoirs are coming of age tales, no matter the duration.  They take you through a movement from where you were then to where you are now.  They’re coming to understanding, and allowing someone to ride shotgun to pick something up with you along the way.

You often talk about how long it took you to write this—twenty years in all.  How does that passage of time affect your writing of it?  How do you go back to write from the perspective of someone you no longer are?  And where does ‘truth’ enter the equation when you’re writing a memoir, but your memory has so long to shift about?

Well, I had early drafts of this book done 15 to 20 years ago.  But it’s been in the past three or four years that I’ve been able to go back and be more forthcoming about emotional kinds of things.  One main character in the book, I couldn’t even name for the longest time—I could only address them by a letter.  That distance of years has helped for that.  And the landscape I’m writing about is so specific that it’s made re-entering that place possible—that’s another kind of interest behind this book: those woodlands were a great kind of treasure to me, and now I get to share them a bit.

As far as the truth, I’m not so worried about fact-checking but representing people well, doing that truthfully.  Some of that you can only do the best you can.  You just make sure there’s no attempt to be malicious, you fact-check against your own personal compass.

What made this story something you had to tell?

On my side, it was an old heartthrob that needed to be put to rest.  I think I’ve carried misgivings over how I carried myself at that time, when I simply didn’t know better.  And some things need to be better put to rest, or owned up to.  I write in the prologue it’s not a recounting, but an accounting.

To go to a place you could escape to and be out of contact had become strangely exotic—and making this sort of escape was getting harder and harder, especially over the last ten years. It was the sense that this kind of place was going to be lost, like I discovered while staying there that the schoolhouse was going to be sold, and has since been demolished. That sense of loss connected to the narrative. That made sharing it more vital.

You currently have a novel in the works—Houdini’s Heirs.  You had to write Schoolhouse to account for something in your past; what is it that inspires you to write a novel? How is the writing of fiction and nonfiction different for you?

They both come from internal places.  The circus and sideshow, which this novel is built around, lets me break from the realist writing I’ve been doing so much of recently. Everyone says, why does the world need another novel?  There is dialogue going on right now about things in our society that I’d like to contribute something to: the blur between what’s real and what’s virtual, which I approach in the context of sideshow and illusion.  And, race.  This has given me the stage where I could talk about these things.

Getting done with this memoir, where it’s all a matter of structuring something that already happened, felt really freeing.  But then a month in I was like oh god I have to make something up again!  Oh god, again!  Fiction is a different sort of challenge.

The twenty years you took to publish this book must be a hard sell to your students, especially with the rapid world we live in.  How does wrestling with your own writing become something teachable to them?

I let them know that I wrestle, first and foremost.  Just that I’ve done one thing doesn’t mean the next isn’t just as difficult. I try to help my students get past the presumption that this should be an easy thing.  When you’re a visual artist, you know you’re going to have to do 8,000 sketches.  Somehow in writing that idea isn’t so present; people think they can just jump in and do it.  It’s all about building your facility and taking on the next challenge.  It’s an apprenticeship; you create your next challenge for yourself.

 Marc’s book is available online via Ice Cube Press