When a particular dream compels the dreamer to share her dream with others, in writing, in a long essay, what does that tell us about dreams, about life, and about the creative process?

I considered that complex question as I read Stories We Tell Ourselves, by Michelle Herman. Herman, author of two novels, a novella collection, and a memoir, is the director of the MFA program in creative writing at Ohio State University.

Her 150-page book, part of The Iowa Series in Literary Nonfiction, contains two extended memoir-ish essays: "Dream Life" and "Seeing Things," about a family medical mystery. They feature more than the author's psychological insights about her own carefully observed experiences, but also related reflections about history, science, art, and culture. Revealing, anecdotal, and sometimes surprising, these essays pull you in and hold your interest.

In the interview below, Herman shares her thoughts on writing, rejection, talent, and how she likes to stay very busy.

Q&A with Michelle Herman:

Q: Knowing that people usually love to retell their own dreams but find those of other people less enthralling, what made you decide to discuss dreaming in this new book?

Two things: first, the sheer challenge of finding a way to talk about dreams and dreaming that would be compelling, that would push through that barrier; second, it was simply that I couldn’t stop thinking about writing the essay! I kept coming back to it, being defeated by it, setting it aside, and then returning to it again. I figured that anything that was that determined to be written really had to be written.

Q: What's your creative process like, specifically? Do you keep a detailed notebook, complete with conversations?

I don’t keep a notebook—I never have, actually, with two singular exceptions: for a month or two when I was a teenager; and for the entire length of my pregnancy, and continuing, increasingly sporadically, for the first two years of my daughter’s life. The latter has proved immensely helpful to me, since I can check my recollections.

I do report dialogue, as you’ll note, in a way that seems excessively detailed, given that it’s remembered dialogue—and it’s not much of a confession to say that I am recreating it, based on memories and what I know of what the people I know typically say and the way they say it. So it’s not strictly, journalistically quoted dialogue—it relies on my experience as a novelist—but I don’t feel bad about that. I remember things that happened in so much detail that I most often am obliged to leave details out when I write the scenes. I remember my dreams, even years later. And whenever I can (when it comes to incidences, events, days and times, et cetera), I check my memory against research sources.


Q: Are you always working on a book, or on more than one thing at a time?

I’m always working on something, and yes, almost always more than one thing at a time. I have a restless mind, and I like to be very busy at all times. I would be uneasy if I didn’t always have various projects to return to—though usually there is one big project (a novel, a linked collection of essays, a very long essay along the lines of “Dream Life”) and then many smaller ones (short stories, shorter essays, even poem—which in the main I write for myself and never show a soul).

Q: How do you deal with distraction, rejection, and other hazards of a writing life?

My life is one big distraction—I have a very demanding job that I take quite seriously—and I learned years ago that when I sit down to write—whether I have five hours, three hours, an hour, or fifteen minutes to myself—I simply must shut everything else out. It took a long time, and a lot of practice, but I can do it: I can turn on a dime now. 

Rejection is another matter: I am crushed by it, always, and although you’d think it would get easier, in some ways it gets harder. I’ll give myself a day, if I need it, to sulk and feel sorry for myself (usually it doesn’t take a whole day—just a few hours), and then I’ll shake it off. I suppose there’s one way in which it’s gotten easier: I no longer expect good news, the way I think I must have when I was young. I hope for it, and I’m terribly disappointed by bad news, but I go in, always, expecting the bad news to come.

Q: How did you work out that it was okay with your daughter to write about her odd medical syndrome?

My daughter is the most generous, open-hearted person in the world. It never occurred to her to say no. She has always been interested in the way life turns into art, and I suppose because she has never known anything else but a mother who is a writer, it never crossed her mind that anything that went on would not end up in a book. (And now that she is all grown up and has started doing some writing herself, I naturally expect her to make use of this material too. Will she write about me? Who knows. But she’s certainly entitled to.)


Q: This book is very personal. Can you talk about the difference between your experience of writing fiction vs. writing memoir and essays? And which one is next?

I find writing personal nonfiction to be hugely liberating. And, for me, it’s much easier, too (I know that other writers who do both have found the opposite to be true). I love writing fiction (and yes, my next project is a novel, and I’m already well into it) but nonfiction comes almost as easily as breathing (at least in the first draft—whereas I write fiction quite slowly).

For me, it turns out, nonfiction is a natural, because the way I think is very naturally tangential and expansive, exploratory, winding, and so on—and when I discovered that in an essay I could allow myself to track every single idea down to its final hiding place, wandering as far as I needed to, I thought, “Goodness, why did it take me so long to discover this!” In fiction I am forever reining myself in (and hiding behind a tree, not wanting my own ideas to take over from the story).

The only trouble with having these two parallel writing lives is that I have had to give up using episodes from my life in fiction! Now I have to make absolutely everything up. But that turns out not to be a “trouble” at all. It’s much more fun, and much more interesting. It makes me wonder why I ever used any episodes from my “real” life in my fiction. (Well, no—I know why: because I didn’t want them to “go to waste.” Now they don’t, and I get to make up lots of stuff for my characters.)


Q: You have taught adults, and you direct a program for teens. What can you say about how writing ability changes over the lifespan? Do you sometimes recognize talent no matter the person's age? Or is it some other quality that alerts you to the fact that a person may turn into a good writer?

This is a wonderful question. I am forever looking for, and at, evidence of potential. From choosing the teenagers who will be invited to our summer program (it’s an all-scholarship program, and each year, of those who apply, I find the 30 kids who seem to me will most benefit from it), to deciding whether to grant permission for upper-level writing workshops at Ohio State (limited to 15 students apiece), to deciding whether to agree to direct an undergraduate honors thesis—which takes up a great deal of time and energy (this spring, I had three of them: one was a 400-page experimental novel, much of which was written in verse), to admissions for our MFA program (when I have to read hundreds of writing samples over a very short period and pick four fiction writers and four nonfiction writers to admit)—and so on—I am spending time every day assessing talent, ability, skill, potential.

And because of these different kinds of populations I’m looking at, it’s not as if I’m looking for the same thing, or even the same kind of thing. But having said all that, it’s true that when I read anyone’s writing—anyone at any age, even when I read a story by a child, someone seven or eight years old—I am always aware of a way of looking closely and thinking about the world that seems to me evidence of potential that a “real writer” may be in there. And a feel for language—the evidence that the person who has written these lines believes that every word matters, that choices have been made about this word rather than that, and that those choices are interesting and inviting and even musical—goes a long way to convincing me that this is someone to keep an eye on. 

In our MFA program, we have invited students approaching 60 and those straight out of college. Sometimes it takes a long time to discover that what one needs to do, and should be doing, with one’s life is to write; sometimes that gets figured out early, and it’s obvious that there’s nothing else for it but to write, to devote the rest of one’s life to writing. I will say, though, that most of the time the writers I “find” are old enough to have been working at it for a while, and trying the idea of being a writer on for size. I always say that it takes a lot more than talent and skill—and that “potential” is fluid and mysterious.

Writing is a lot of work, and it’s in the main thankless work, except for the pleasure of doing it itself. One really has to want to do it (and not only want to have done it): one has to be interested in sitting in a chair for hours every day, alone, with nothing to fall back on but one’s own thoughts, and find the idea of turning words around—around and around—until they seem just right, just the right words in just the right order—the best possible use of one’s time.

Copyright (2013) by Susan K. Perry

Follow me on Twitter @bunnyape

You are reading

Creating in Flow

A Sciencey Take on Time Travel Needn't Break Your Brain

Time travel fiction is fun, and so is this nonfiction account.

New Fun Ways to Share Art with Kids

Can kids learn to appreciate the art of the ages? You bet.

5 Lessons About Success from Nobel Laureates

How do Nobel laureates achieve success? (Guest post by David Pratt)