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Chris Offutt

:: spotlight on the craft::
:: Chris Offutt :: author of No Heroes ::

:: 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 Weekly

The New Yorker
described Chris Offutt's 1993 memoir,
The Same River Twice,
as the "memoir of the decade."

By Tim Ljunggren

: How important is it for a writer to find a unique voice?

CHRIS 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 world?

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 level rises?

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 rewards.

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.

Chris 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.

::  Cary Grant in None but the Lonely Heart ::







Photo: (Left to Right) Cary Grant, Ethel Barrymore, and Barry Fitzgerald still photo from None but the Lonely Heart


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