spotlight on the craft::
February theme:: None but the Lonely Heart:: Isolation
is a theme in his writing, found in his collections of stories.
He writes about languid misfits in distant locations. Yet his
humor, vast and wicked, plays fast games with our hearts, so
while reading our interview, step lively and watch for fun and
informative steel traps.
Chris Offutt points out that whenever he discovers that
it is lost, he retrieves his writing voice from the depths of
his (week-old?) laundry. Perhaps that is why his writing voice
stands so tall and vivid in a room.
The incoming Tide rises to meet Chris:
"Offutt turns his impressive storytelling skills and unerring
eye for detail on his journey back to the Kentucky hills (No
Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home). Offutt's bold refusal to submit
to nostalgic sentimentality, even as he admits defeat and forsakes
his search for 'home,' and his skill as prose stylist set this
book apart from the many homecoming memoirs." -Publishers
The New Yorker described Chris Offutt's 1993 memoir,
The Same River Twice, as the "memoir of the decade."
WORDSMITTEN: How important is it for a writer to find
a unique voice?
OFFUT : A long time ago, I found myself in the strange
position of waking up in the morning and having been somehow
rendered utterly mute. I could think but I could not force myself
to speak. My tongue and lips were like tools with the batteries
run out. I didn't know what to do. It scared me. My ears didn't
suddenly improve or anything, either. What I did was start trying
to figure out what become of my voice. I looked everywhere-my
room, my closet, my desk, under the bed, in my car. I got scared
I'd accidentally thrown it in the trash and it was buried at
the landfill. Finally, I went through my dirty clothes and there
my voice was in the front pocket of a pair of blue jeans. I
don't know why I didn't look there first. Then I understood
that my voice was never truly lost and therefore couldn't be
found. It was temporarily misplaced. So my advice to writers
is look through their dirty laundry for their voice.
WORDSMITTEN: Baruch Spinoza once said, "Do
not weep; do not wax indignant. Understand." What can a
writer do to more fully understand and then write about the
CHRIS OFFUTT: Nothing says a writer is supposed
to understand anything. Sometimes when I cry, I understand myself
more. As far as indignation goes, Spinoza is way off the mark.
I prefer Barbara Kreuger's idea: "Disgust is the appropriate
response to most situations."
WORDSMITTEN: Most of your work, both fiction
and nonfiction, deals with where you grew up and the people
you grew up with. What can writers/artists realistically expect
from their own "communities of origin" once the recognition
CHRIS OFFUTT: Communities don't care about
an artist until the artist becomes successful, and the rush
begins to claim the artist. Once an artist has expectation beyond
himself, the art is contaminated.
WORDSMITTEN: But isn't it nearly impossible
for an artist not to have expectations beyond himself? To have
your voice heard by other people?
CHRIS OFFUTT: Most artists at the beginning
stages have fantasies of success that usually include large
amounts of money, respect from elders, adulation of peers, movie
deals, nice meals, fast wheels and plenty of hot sex. If writers
work hard enough, they'll usually get in print. The rest of
it rarely occurs. But I'm still hoping.
The minute an artist begins to think about audience, marketplace,
and sales, he may as well just go ahead and write commercial
fiction, which there's nothing wrong with, and which I constantly
fantasize about doing in order to attain the aforementioned
I need to clarify something here. An artist must have enormous
inner resources. He cannot be dependent upon outside expectations
as a motivator; that's what journalism is, pressing deadlines
for a topical story. An artist can't expect things from himself,
he can only pressure the living daylights out of himself in
the hopes that something strong will emerge on the page.
As to the inner resources, they really just boil down to a few.
Frankly, people get what they want because they really want
it, whether it's artistic success, personal growth, entrepreneurial
success or athletic prowess.
It's a very simple technique for achievement and it's how I
pulled it off with writing: Commitment. Discipline. Endurance.
Literary success is certainly not about talent, education, or
connections. I'm proof of that. Lately, I've been teaching graduate
students in fiction writing. Their stories are all better than
mine when I was their age and even older. What I did was stick
to it. Most people don't. The lifestyle is just plain too hard.
Offutt author of the acclaimed story collections Kentucky
Straight and Out of the Woods, the novel The
Good Brother, and the memoir The Same River Twice,
lives and teaches in Iowa City, Iowa.
Photo: (Left to Right) Cary Grant, Ethel Barrymore,
and Barry Fitzgerald still photo from None but the Lonely
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