INTERVIEW WITH CAITLIN COWAN
Rappahannock Review Nonfiction Editors: We love how in “Today Is Your Birthday,” we have come to understand you’s character through their absence. The unseen you is wonderfully illustrated by all of the details around the edges. Can you tell us more about how you approached that balance?
Caitlin Cowan: Thank you so much for the kind words! I’ll take some credit for the balance of known and unknown, but part of the equation is simply the work of memory. The details about the “you”—the pajama bottoms, the almost imperceptibly trembling hands—are simply things that time has left me as gifts. The details that are present in this flash essay contain information about the “you” that relates to their true character, the things about them that drew me to them (their focus on the body and its link to the mind) and the things that ultimately drew us apart (growing up and apart, geography).
Ultimately, I wanted there to be enough detail about the “you” for the reader to miss him as much as I did at first. I also wanted an audience to be able to engage in their own revisionist fantasies, as I do when imagining the “you” in a foreign country and when imagining the revised history that involved showing up at the family home of the “you” unannounced. Engaging daydreams of that kind allowed me to add more detail than even reality or memory have to offer, which was both fun to write and symbolic of the youthful dalliance I wrote about.
RR: The second person is a notoriously difficult perspective to pull off. (And we love what you did with it, of course.) Why did you decide to write in that perspective, and did you find it held any particular challenges?
CC: One challenge was finding a journal that was willing to publish it! More than one of the 19 rejection notices I received for this piece indicated that the second-person point of view was an issue: one journal said they had “already published a piece in the second person” in that issue, and others just disliked it. There is something totalizing about the second person, to be sure—it can feel like a pointed finger coming at you on the page. But I think the slight bias against it as an approach stems partially from the idea that it leaves so little rhetorical distance, makes things too personal. But as I write this, I say to myself; Too personal? In CNF? Is that an oxymoron?
My impulse is to say that I wrote this piece in the second person because that’s “how it came out,” but I’m often frustrated by magical descriptions of the writing process even though I believe writing to be, well, magic. Let me try to say something more concrete: the second person allowed me to get things off my chest, to “address” someone who I rarely speak to anymore. In other words, the piece was forged in a highly personal furnace. But through aestheticizing that personal writing, I was able to give the text enough air to lift off the ground and function as creative nonfiction rather than as a mere missive. The second person also gives the piece the flavor of a “missed connection” message, which feels deeply right.
The big, unspoken challenge of the second person, I think, is the challenge of making the story relevant to someone who is neither the “I” nor the “you.” This is a central question for me in all kinds of creative writing, really: how might a reader come to care about this person, place, narrative, image, or idea the way that I do? And that’s what I’ve tried to do in this piece: unearth something bigger than myself.
RR: Would you give this piece to the person you wrote it for? Why or why not?
CC: The answer to this question has to be yes, I think, because of the nature of nonfiction itself. You don’t need to necessarily gift wrap a nonfiction piece about someone in your life and present it to them along with a bouquet of balloons in order to qualify as an essayist, but a little piece of bravery has to be there, I think. The idea that the people who populate your nonfiction could come across your work has to be essentially tolerable. And if you believe, as I do, that creative nonfiction must be true of heart (a phrase I scribbled from the wonderfully talented Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman) if not welded to meticulously researched fact, then the act of bringing that truth into the world is its own defense.
I think the idea that I wrote it “for” the “you” in the essay is an interesting assumption. It does have that gift-like quality, particularly because the person’s birthday many years ago occasioned its writing and then informed the piece’s structure. But really, now that I am older and, I would hope, somewhat wiser, I can say with confidence that I wrote this piece for myself. Writing can allow us to do marvelous things; this piece helped me find common ground with someone who, for years, I was sure I had nothing in common with any longer, even though we haven’t spoken in years.
Sometimes I think to myself that the work of writing is mostly about relating Thing A to Thing B. This is like that. O my Luve is like a red, red rose. By coming back and taking a swing at this piece, again and again, I was able to see that the journey the “you” went on is something we all do in different ways: we leave so we can come back to ourselves. I’d be happy for them to read this and consider these ideas.
RR: What is your writing process like? Do pieces like this one come together in one sitting, or over a longer time?
CC: This one, in particular, has been in my life for a very long time. I’ve been working on it since at least 2011, and marinating on that part of my life and writing about and around it for even longer (the “you” came into my life in 2003). It started out as fiction when I wasn’t quite brave enough to write it as straightforward nonfiction, though I had fabricated next to nothing in the text itself. Time, education, and guts eventually helped me see it for what it was: not myth, but memory. I heard Diane Seuss read recently, and before launching into a particular poem, she looked up at the audience and said something to the effect of What other subject do we have besides our own, wild lives? I’ve been living more and more by such logic.
The essay also used to be much longer: one of the oldest drafts I can find clocks in at around 2,000 words, and I know that there is an older version on an ancient hard drive somewhere that’s even longer. For years I portrayed myself only as a poet while writing prose privately for myself. Recently, I’ve attempted to bring some of that work to light, and using flash pieces as a transition has been helpful, and in the case of this essay, liberating. Cutting more than a thousand words from this piece forced me to confront the essential parts of the memories, the person, and the emotions I was interested in. On the other hand, I write a lot of narrative-lyric poetry in a post-confessional mode, so having 750 words to draw a personal sketch actually feels like stretching my legs, in some ways.
RR: You have a Ph.D. in creative writing. How did your craft change as a result of your academic studies?
CC: What a great question. I think earning my Ph.D. forced me to think more deeply about the cognition of my writing and the discursive lines I was following, you might say. The inimitable B.H. Fairchild sat on my dissertation committee, and the way he conceived of narrative and its functions was influential for me. By that same turn, my dissertation director, Bruce Bond, pushed me to consider how my poems “thought” their way down the page. Working closely with older poets for extended periods of time gave me a chance to understand my writing in a way that had previously eluded me.
Because I also taught a great deal of rhetoric (in addition to creative writing and literature) while earning my PhD, I began to think of creative writing as essentially argumentative as well, not in the sense of all-caps yelling but in the sense that every piece of writing advocates, overtly or subtly, for a certain line of thinking. I love that language can be the precursor to thought, in some ways: writing is sometimes a heuristic for me, allowing me to discover what I think during or as a product of the writing process. But whether the chicken or the egg comes first, so to speak, eventually you have to figure out what you’re arguing in an essay, a story, or a poem, whether that happens before you set pen to paper or later as you excavate meaning from what has spontaneously come out of you.
After my MFA, I still had no idea whether something I’d written was any good. After the Ph.D., however, my ability to determine when something is finished increased a great deal. Since graduating, I’ve become more skeptical of what “finished” really means. I like to play. I like trying things, and I draft more confidently now because I’m less attached to first drafts than ever. The Ph.D. cemented, once and for all, the idea that revision is really what writing is, whether you work on something for a decade or a day.
Caitlin Cowan’s work Issue 7.1: