INTERVIEW WITH JACQUELINE DOYLE
Rappahannock Review Nonfiction Editors: In “Octopus Dreams,” we’re drawn in by the surreal quality of the images and interconnections. Were there actual dreams that impelled the writing?
Jacqueline Doyle: Long ago I published an essay in Women’s Studies about a series of house dreams I’d had and what they might mean. (I still have house dreams, often featuring previously undiscovered or proliferating rooms.) But I don’t usually record my dreams. In this case, I’d taken a great online flash workshop with Kathy Fish where she’d suggested using dreams for certain assignments. So I had the dreams on record and went back and pillaged those pieces in order to use actual dreams in this sequence (the ramshackle house with the wisteria, the classroom with the bag of onions, the lecture where I was lost in the stairwell). I love the mysteriousness of dreams—surreal narratives that we produce without conscious volition and that seem charged with meaning.
RR: What brought your focus to the octopus?
JD: There was a Youtube video circulating of an octopus changing color while it dreamed. That was just amazing to me and became the central inspiration for the piece.
RR: The fragmented structure of the essay is itself dreamlike. How did form and subject inflect each other here? More generally, how do you think about structure in your work?
JD: In graduate school, I spent months deciphering the fragmented collage structure of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and I think it left a lasting imprint on my writing—on this kind of writing at least. I’ve written a few other lyric sequences that unfold through oblique connections and associations (most recently in New Ohio Review and in Ghost Proposal, a sequence filled with references to Eliot). It’s not the only kind of writing I do by any means, but this is the kind of structure that feels most freeing to me.
I’m working on a longer hybrid project called The Lunatics’ Ball, made up of memoir (about family mental illness), nonfiction (profiles of female “lunatics” in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and fiction (imagined stories of madwomen lost to history). The title piece, blending memoir and dream, just came out in F(r)iction. A couple of the profiles were published in The Collagist (“Huntress” and “Dermagraphism”) and I have a longer profile that also incorporates memoir coming out in Passages North next spring. The nonfiction profiles are packed with facts, and sometimes the form feels very constricting and prosy to me. I’ve been imagining dream riffs for the women I profile, linked by images and literary allusions and echoes. The history of the treatment of mental illness in the past century or two has been so dark. The lyric riffs allow me to play.
RR: The essay refers to several artists and paintings. Has visual art shaped or influenced your writing in any way?
JD: I have an enormous bulletin board above my computer monitor filled with art postcards and photos and artwork my son did as a child. I often find myself scribbling madly after visits to art museums. I loved the Magritte and Munch exhibits at the SFMOMA this year; Raeleen Kao’s cover art for my flash chapbook The Missing Girl is also haunting, dream-like. Sometimes I write directly ekphrastic flash, but images also help me access my unconscious in less direct ways.
RR: Your bio mentions that you teach at Cal State East Bay. Has your teaching experience influenced your nonfiction and flash pieces?
JD: I taught upper-division literature surveys in American literature and women’s literature for years before I shifted over to creative writing workshops. My immersion in literature (to the point that I almost have some poems and short prose passages memorized) has definitely influenced my writing. My writing has influenced my teaching as well. I like to break rules when I write, so I don’t burden the students in my creative nonfiction and flash workshops with a lot of rules. I’ll say something like “Show, don’t tell,” and then I’ll feel compelled to point out all the exceptions in what we’ve read for the class. I end up saying, “Do whatever works. Try something you’ve never done before.”
Jacqueline Doyle’s work Issue 7.1: