Monday, July 12, 2010

What use are stories?

Last August, I had the singular pleasure of reading, for the first time, a few essays by Brian Doyle, as part of a class about essays. At the end of that class, I had another great pleasure and privilege: that of sitting in the room during a phone interview with Brian Doyle himself. Here are my notes:

"The reason that poetry is in the end the greatest literary art is that it’s closest to music. It can be easily abused. There’s more bad poetry than anything else.

To say something big in a small space is a great virtue.

Part of our training as writers is to write poorly, you have to learn the craft by learning what not to do.

A lot of early writing is about the self, it’s kind of self absorbed—maturity as a writer involves looking at the glory and beauty in other things.

Large Irish-Catholic family—fanatic readers, floor to ceiling bookshelves—newspaperman storyteller father, teacher storyteller mother, everyone at the table was smart. If you didn’t have something to say, a story to tell, no one would know your name.

To be a great storyteller to me seems very American.

The mechanics and delight.

Sheer, joyous goofiness of writing. It’s like you built a chair.

I was put on Earth to be dad, that’s my job. Second is husband. But as a writer… Sensitivity and itch and joy and passion of writing, of telling stories.
As a writer, you develop an ear for true food. I’m very sensitive to fatuous homilizing, to telling someone else what to do… I’m wary of opinion and commentary, and I try to avoid it. Does it matter? Does it ring true to me inside someplace?
I try to listen for falsity, for nonsense.

My kids always say “Did you vote for Lincoln?”

Everybody carries loads, everybody has scars cut in their hearts. The story of the world is suffering, but the grace and courage and humor with which people carry their loads moves me to the marrow of my bones.

It really matters to share stories. Story is the most human food. If you don’t have stories, you’ll starve, your soul will starve.

Our job as writers is to be witnesses, to witness how other people do it.

Total childish wonder— I’m knocked out by everything. Total childlike idiot wonder, and a fascination with grace under duress.

Giggling seems to me to be a very powerful form of prayer. My idea of a good day is one where you giggle for about three hours.

I’m writing a long thing about sturgeon which I suspect may be growing into a book against my will.

I just wrote a thing about a series of books, how amazing is it when you read a book, and you realize “there’s more of this?!”

I write about my kids a little bit less as teenagers, because they’re a little bigger than me, and I’m worried about getting hit.

The first essay I published was when I was ten or twelve, and realized I had no present for mother’s day. I realized I had totally punted, and all my brothers were looking at me… I’d just finished the Screwtape Letters, and so I wrote a letter to my mother from Hell, denying her admission because she was so cool, and I put it under her plate.

Read maniacally, read fanatically, read read read read read… read all kind of writers, and see how people get voices on a page. Don’t worry about form—you’re a storyteller. It’s a craft. You get better with age, because you learn to work the tools better.

Working for newspapers and magazines was good for me. It taught me to smell a story, put it together, and get it down.

Ask questions and listen—we swim in a sea of stories.

I didn’t set out to write a collection of essays—I wrote them all and then collected them.

Write one little thing that sounded true, and then another, and then another.

The essay as a form breathes surprises for the writer the most. They’re playful, they’re the closest to the human voice. There’s room for direction and Coherence that you didn’t expect.

Essay collections are fun, because I actually spread all the essays out on the floor, and then I take my shoes off, and wander around and say “Who wants to be with who?”

I just like the word Utah—it indicates the square size and brawniness of the state—the Rockies. It sounds the way it looks.

Utah is the most unbelievably beautiful state.

Can we all speak straightforwardly to each other?

Witness in mercy and humor. So much of life is striving, and so much of the joy of life is witness and mercy.

Awareness is the beginning of all prayer.

Roads are forms of discipline and concentration.

We are an amazing species. We are headed I hope towards witness and mercy and forgiveness.

We’re afraid. We’re very violent. Witness and story are important in ways we can’t even understand

Spiritually, communally, morally, evolutionarily.

The more you can pay attention to the grace of your fellow beings, the more likely it is that the world will advance.

Attend to each other."


  1. I have no idea who that guy was, but wow, he's smart. I'm just saying Matt, when you go to Bangalore, you betta write me letters that make me giggle for three hours. I mean it's the best kind of prayer right?

    Love you. little Westwood.

  2. thanks for sharing! Now I want to go read some of his essays...