The nonfiction editors, Rappahannock Review: How has being involved with another artistic pursuit (music) influenced your writing?
Joe Oestreich: Watershed, the outfit I’ve played bass and sung in for 25 years, is a power-pop band. Our songs are fast and catchy (hopefully). Three minutes, tops. It took me a long time to learn to write poppy, concise songs, and now, in my mid-40s, I’m still learning how to write prose with that kind of economy. Whenever I’m working on an essay and start to feel that I’m being too long winded and self-indulgent, I try to draw on my songwriting background. In rock-and-roll there’s an old saying, “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus,” which to me serves as a reminder not to indulge myself. Instead I want to indulge the reader, who I always think of as being slightly impatient and mildly skeptical—and yet hoping to be won over. Which makes my imagined reader just like all those real bartenders, servers, and soundtechs that Watershed has played for over the years.
RR: On the surface this essay seems to be about a simple moment, a moment that could easily fade from memory. What is the benefit of writing about, and giving meaning to, moments such as this?
JO: I think creative nonfiction exists largely to give meaning to the seemingly simple moments, the ones that could easily fade from memory. The moment I depict in “Misfire” is one that didn’t fade, however, and that’s because it left me with a few lingering questions, namely: “How and why did I do something so stupid?” This is a recurring theme in my work, I’m coming to discover. I would never claim to be anywhere near their league, but one of the many things I’ve learned from writers like Annie Dillard (in brief essays such as “Living Like Weasels”), Lia Purpura (in “Autopsy Report,” for example), and Roxana Robinson (in “Wild Duck”) is the importance of writing deeply into a single moment as opposed to writing broadly across a span of time. Especially in a short piece: I’m not trying to water the lawn; I’m trying to dig the well.
RR: There seems to be a struggle here between recognizing responsibility while holding on to youthful dreams. How did that conflict come into play while writing the piece?
JO: What’s that ironic hashtag? The struggle is real? Yeah, you’re right. As a middle-aged band dude who’s also a tenured professor and father of two, I’m absolutely living in the tension between the dream and the responsibility. I actually wrote a memoir about this very tension; it’s called Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll. In writing this essay and that book, here’s what fascinates me; as kids, we’re all told that following the dream (rockstar, astronaut, stand-up comedian, whatever) is virtuous. But then—as you age and if the dream remains elusive—there comes a point when the same behavior that folks (and specifically, maybe, your folks) once saw a virtuous, they now see as pathetic. Quixotic. And I understand why they see it that way. It’s not like there’s an expiration date on dreams, but as responsibility increases, so does the opportunity cost of following the dream. In my case, I’m pretty lucky. My responsibilities are great: fulfilling job, marriage, and home life. And as a bonus, Watershed has stuck together, so I still get to write songs and play shows. Now that I’m older, I realize that having the chance to do the thing you love—forever, while also keeping up with the responsibilities—is the dream.
RR: What do you think is the importance, if any, of holding on to a youthful spirit?
JO: If by “youthful spirit” you mean optimism and enthusiasm and a willingness to engage in big ideas and experiments, then I say it’s a necessary requirement for living, right behind oxygen and water. Slightly ahead of food.
RR: You talk about the unrecognized musical dreams of the members of your band. How did realizing that in the end you were still playing for the “love of the music” and for friendship’s sake itself affect the dynamic of the group?
JO: It made us realize in our forties something that we knew when we were teenagers, getting together for our very first practices and writing our first fledgling songs: that playing for the love of the music and for friendship’s sake is the only real and lasting reason to play. Everything else is a firefly in a jar.
Joe Oestreich’s work in Issue 2.3: