Category: dialogues

Question-sets

When I first published The Craft of Ritual Studies, my son, as a joke, counted the number of questions in the book.

I was a curious kid who became an academic, so I’ve made a virtue out of what many consider a vice, asking way too many questions. Now that question-asking has become a “thing,” I have to step back and take a second look. 

My wife and I complain about people who don’t ask questions. You tell a story. It reminds them of something, so they tell another. Story-chains are fine, but we wish people would sometimes ask us perceptive questions.

Below are question-sets written by others.

Great Questions

by StoryCorps

© 2003-2017 StoryCorps, Inc.

Here are some of our suggestions for getting a good conversation going. We encourage you to use the ones you like and to come up with your own. This list is in no particular order. Choose one of the categories below, or scroll through and read them all.

GREAT QUESTIONS FOR ANYONE

  • Who has been the most important person in your life? Can you tell me about him or her?
  • What was the happiest moment of your life? The saddest?
  • Who has been the biggest influence on your life? What lessons did that person teach you?
  • Who has been the kindest to you in your life?
  • What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in life?
  • What is your earliest memory?
  • What is your favorite memory of me?
  • Are there any funny stories your family tells about you that come to mind?
  • Are there any funny stories or memories or characters from your life that you want to tell me about?
  • What are you proudest of?
  • When in life have you felt most alone?
  • If you could hold on to one memory from your life forever, what would that be?
  • How has your life been different than what you’d imagined?
  • How would you like to be remembered?
  • Do you have any regrets?
  • What does your future hold?
  • What are your hopes for what the future holds for me? For my children?
  • If this was to be our very last conversation, is there anything you’d want to say to me
  • For your great great grandchildren listening to this years from now: is there any wisdom you’d want to pass on to them? What would you want them to know?
  • Is there anything that you’ve never told me but want to tell me now?
  • Is there something about me that you’ve always wanted to know but have never asked?

FRIENDS OR COLLEAGUES

  • If you could interview anyone from your life living or dead, but not a celebrity, who would it be and why?
  • What is your first memory of me?
  • Was there a time when you didn’t like me?
  • What makes us such good friends?
  • How would you describe me? How would you describe yourself?
  • Where will we be in 10 years? 20 years?
  • Do you think we’ll ever lose touch with each other?
  • Is there anything that you’ve always wanted to tell me but haven’t?

GRANDPARENTS

  • Where did you grow up?
  • What was your childhood like?
  • Who were your favorite relatives?
  • Do you remember any of the stories they used to tell you?
  • How did you and grandma/grandpa meet?
  • What was my mom/dad like growing up?
  • Do you remember any songs that you used to sing to her/him? Can you sing them now?
  • Was she/he well-behaved?
  • What is the worst thing she/he ever did?
  • What were your parents like?
  • What were your grandparents like?
  • How would you like to be remembered?
  • Are you proud of me?

RAISING CHILDREN

  • When did you first find out that you’d be a parent? How did you feel?
  • Can you describe the moment when you saw your child for the first time?
  • How has being a parent changed you?
  • What are your dreams for your children?
  • Do you remember when your last child left home for good?
  • Do you have any favorite stories about your kids?

PARENTS

  • Do you remember what was going through your head when you first saw me?
  • How did you choose my name?
  • What was I like as a baby? As a young child?
  • Do you remember any of the songs you used to sing to me? Can you sing them now?
  • What were my siblings like?
  • What were the hardest moments you had when I was growing up?
  • If you could do everything again, would you raise me differently?
  • What advice would you give me about raising my own kids?
  • What are your dreams for me?
  • How did you meet mom/dad?
  • Are you proud of me?

GROWING UP

  • When and where were you born?
  • Where did you grow up?
  • What was it like?
  • Who were your parents?
  • What were your parents like?
  • How was your relationship with your parents?
  • Did you get into trouble? What was the worst thing you did?
  • Do you have any siblings? What were they like growing up?
  • What did you look like?
  • How would you describe yourself as a child? Were you happy?
  • What is your best memory of childhood? Worst?
  • Did you have a nickname? How’d you get it?
  • Who were your best friends? What were they like?
  • How would you describe a perfect day when you were young?
  • What did you think your life would be like when you were older?
  • Do you have any favorite stories from your childhood?

SCHOOL

  • Did you enjoy school?
  • What kind of student were you?
  • What would you do for fun?
  • How would your classmates remember you?
  • Are you still friends with anyone from that time in your life?
  • What are your best memories of grade school/high school/college/graduate school? Worst memories?
  • Was there a teacher or teachers who had a particularly strong influence on your life? Tell me about them.
  • Do you have any favorite stories from school?

TEACHERS

  • When and why did you decide to become a teacher?
  • Tell me about your first day as a teacher.
  • How is teaching different from how you imagined it to be?
  • Tell me about a time when teaching made you feel hopeful.
  • What are the most challenging and/or funniest moments you’ve experienced in the classroom?
  • How would you like your students to remember you?
  • Was there a teacher or teachers who had a particularly strong influence on your life? What did you learn about teaching from them?
  • Looking back, what advice would you give to yourself in your first year of teaching?

LOVE & RELATIONSHIPS

  • Do you have a love of your life?
  • When did you first fall in love?
  • Can you tell me about your first kiss?
  • What was your first serious relationship?
  • Do you believe in love at first sight?
  • Do you ever think about previous lovers?
  • What lessons have you learned from your relationships?

MARRIAGE & PARTNERSHIPS

  • How did you meet your husband/wife?
  • How did you know he/she was “the one”?
  • How did you propose?
  • What were the best times? The most difficult times?
  • Did you ever think of getting divorced?
  • Did you ever get divorced? Can you tell me about it?
  • What advice do you have for young couples?
  • Do you have any favorite stories from your marriage or about your husband/wife?

WORKING

  • What do you do for a living?
  • Tell me about how you got into your line of work.
  • Do you like your job?
  • What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
  • What did you want to be when you grew up?
  • What lessons has your work life taught you?
  • If you could do anything now, what would you do? Why?
  • Do you plan on retiring? If so, when? How do you feel about it?
  • Do you have any favorite stories from your work life?

RELIGION

  •  
  • Can you tell me about your religious beliefs/spiritual beliefs? What is your religion?
  • Have you experienced any miracles?
  • What was the most profound spiritual moment of your life?
  • Do you believe in God?
  • Do you believe in the after-life? What do you think it will be like?
  • When you meet God, what do you want to say to Him?

SERIOUS ILLNESS

  • Can you tell me about your illness?
  • Do you think about dying? Are you scared?
  • How do you imagine your death?
  • Do you believe in an after-life?
  • Do you regret anything?
  • Do you look at your life differently now than before you were diagnosed?
  • Do you have any last wishes?
  • If you were to give advice to me or my children, or even children to come in our family, what would it be?
  • What have you learned from life? The most important things?
  • Has this illness changed you? What have you learned?
  • How do you want to be remembered?

FAMILY HERITAGE

  • What is your ethnic background?
  • Where is your mom’s family from? Where is your dad’s family from?
  • Have you ever been there? What was that experience like?
  • What traditions have been passed down in your family?
  • Who were your favorite relatives?
  • Do you remember any of the stories they used to tell you?
  • What are the classic family stories? Jokes? Songs?

MILITARY

  • When were you drafted or when did you enlist?
  • What do you remember about the day you enlisted?
  • How did you tell your family and friends that you were joining the military? Are there any conversations that stand out from that time?
  • If you enlisted, what were some of the reasons that you joined the military? How did you choose your branch of service?
  • How did you imagine military life before you joined? How did your perceptions change after serving?
  • What was basic training like?
  • Can you describe a funny moment from boot camp?
  • What are some of the things you remember about adapting to military life?
  • Where did you serve during the war?
  • If you deployed overseas, how did you tell your loved ones you were being deployed?
  • How did you stay in touch with family and friends back home?
  • What are some things you remember most about your deployment?
  • If you saw multiple deployments, how did they differ from each other? How did you change?
  • Can you describe how you felt coming home from combat?
  • Was there anything you especially missed about civilian life?
  • Is there someone you served with that you remember fondly? Can you tell me about him/her?
  • What are some fun things you and your friends did together while you were deployed?
  • Did any of your military friends play pranks on each other? Can you describe a funny one?
  • Did you ever get caught breaking any rules? Did you ever get away with something you weren’t supposed to do?
  • Did you ever learn something about a fellow service member that surprised you?
  • When did you leave the military? What was that process like?
  • What were your first few months out of the service like?
  • Was there anything or anyone that helped you during the transition from military to civilian life?
  • Do you have advice for others transitioning out of the military?
  • How do you think your time in the military affected you?
  • What did you learn about yourself?
  • What are some of your hopes for the future?
  • What phrase or word will never be the same now that you served?
  • When you were first discharged, what are some things about civilians that were difficult for you to deal with?
  • Is there anything you wish civilians understood about military service?
  • What are some habits you developed in the service that you like? What are some that you dislike?
  • What are some things you miss about being in the service? What are some you are glad to have left behind?
  • What has been difficult to communicate to family and friends about your military service?
  • Do you have advice for other military couples?
  • If you have children, what do you want them to know about your military service?
  • Remembering the Fallen: What was your relationship to _______?
  • Remembering the Fallen: Tell me about _______.
  • Remembering the Fallen: What did _______ look like?
  • Remembering the Fallen: What is one of your favorite memories of _______?
  • Remembering the Fallen: How did you find out about _______’s death?
  • Remembering the Fallen: What has helped you most in your grief?
  • Remembering the Fallen: Do you have any traditions to honor _______?
  • Remembering the Fallen: Do you have any funny stories about the two of you together?

REMEMBERING A LOVED ONE

  • What was your relationship to _____?
  • Tell me about _____.
  • What is your first memory of _____?
  • What is your best memory of _____?
  • What is your most vivid memory of _____?
  • What did _____ mean to you?
  • Are you comfortable/ can you talk about _____’s death? How did _____ die?
  • What has been the hardest thing about losing _____?
  • What would you ask _____ if _____ were here today?
  • What do you miss most about _____?
  • How do you think _____ would want to be remembered?
  • Can you talk about the biggest obstacles _____ overcame in life?
  • Was there anything you and _____ disagreed about, fought over, or experienced some conflict around?
  • What about _____ makes you smile?
  • What was your relationship like?
  • What did _____ look like?
  • Did you have any favorite jokes _____ used to tell?
  • Do you have any stories you want to share about _____?
  • What were _____’s hopes and dreams for the future?
  • Is there something about _____ that you think no one else knows?
  • How are you different now than you were before you lost _____?
  • What is the image of _____ that persists?
  • Do you have any traditions to honor _____?
  • What has helped you the most in your grief?
  • What are the hardest times?

Our stories tell us who we are

Steve Otto

Originally published in The Healing Heart Communities

Edited by Allison M. Cox and David H. Albert. New Society Publishers: Gabriola Island, B.C. 2003

This list can be revised and expanded to meet the cultural and age differences of the specific audiences. Making the list appropriate to the group will be pivotal to the success of your program. The best stories are those that happened to each of us! Remember when you used to walk three miles to school . . . Uphill both ways . . . With snowdrifts over your head? . . . Barefoot . . . ? Well, sometimes our memories are better that way. Let’s go back in our memories and pick up some of those stories of events that made us what we are today.

  1. LIVING CONDITIONS
  • Did you use outdoor privies?
  • Did your house have central heating?
  • On what kind of stove did your mother cook?
  • Did you always have electricity? What happened when you got it?
  • What other things do you remember about your home?
  1. FOOD
  • What was your favourite food? Why?
  • What was your least favourite food? Why? Did you have to eat it anyway?
  • Do you remember any special meal? Birthday, holiday, special day?
  • Where did you eat meals? Did all the family eat together?
  • Did you keep your food in a refrigerator, icebox, cellar?
  1. HEALTH CARE
  • Were you sick a lot? What happened?
  • Do you remember having your tonsils out?
  • Did you have a favorite doctor? Did he make house calls?
  • Did you or a sibling almost die? What happened?
  • What drugs did you take?
  • Did your parents make home remedies for you?
  • Can you remember a time you got sick at a very inconvenient moment?
  1. TRANSPORTATION
  • Do you remember your first car? How much did it cost?
  • How much was gas? How long did the tires last?
  • Did you ever take a long trip?
  • Did your car have a heater? Air conditioner?
  • Do you remember learning to drive? The first time you took the car out by yourself?
  • Did you ever have an accident that you didn’t tell your folks about?
  • If you didn’t have a car, how did you get around? What did you do?
  • Can you remember a trip that you would NOT want to take again?
  1. YOUR FAMILY
  • What kind of people were your parents?
  • How many children were in your family?
  • Did you play jokes on each other?
  • Did you have responsibilities at home?
  • What were some of the happy times you had?
  • What was the saddest time?
  • Did you do things together?
  • Did you fight with your siblings?
  • Do you remember something you did that you never told your parents? Did they find out?
  • Can you remember a time you got in trouble for something you had already been told not to

do?

  1. ENTERTAINMENT
  • What did you do for entertainment?
  • Did kicks in your neighborhood play Kick the Can or Hide and Seek?
  • Do you remember the days of radio? Did you have a crystal set? What programs do you remember?
  • Did you play cards? Dominoes? What else?
  • Was going to the movies a big event?
  • Did you ever get caught sneaking into a movie or event?
  1. WHERE WERE YOU AND WHAT WERE YOU DOING?
  • The day the stock market crashed?
  • On V-J day?
  • When the Korean War began?
  • The day Kennedy was shot?
  • The day the first man landed on the moon?
  1. HOW DID YOU CELEBRATE?
  • Your birthday? Did you have a cake?
  • Christmas? Hanukkah?
  • What presents did you get? Did you ever have a holiday or birthday where you didn’t get anything, or thought you wouldn’t?
  • Did you celebrate any other religious or seasonal holidays?
  1. TOYS AND THINGS
  • Do you remember your favourite toy?
  • When did you get your first bicycle?
  • Were your toys handmade?
  • Do you remember losing something special?
  • What was your favourite gift?
  1. CLOTHES
  • What did you wear?
  • When did you realize that clothes were “important”?
  • Did you have a favourite outfit?
  • How much did clothes cost?
  • Did you stand in the shoe store and x-ray your feet?
  1. COURTSHIP AND MARRIAGE
  • When was your first date?
  • Did anything funny happen?
  • Do you remember your first kiss?
  • Did you marry him/her?
  • Can you remember the names of high school dates? What happened to them?
  • What did you on dates?
  • Where did you go?
  • Do you remember the marriage proposal? Who proposed?
  • What happened at your wedding?
  • Where did you go on you honeymoon? Did anything funny or bad happen?
  • What were the hardest times during you marriage?
  • What things do (did) you like best about your spouse? Least?
  • Where did you live when you got married? What did you eat?
  1. CAREERS
  • What was your first job? How much did it pay? What did you do?
  • What was your first full-time job? Would you do it again?
  • Tell about your boss. What kind of person was he/she? Do you think that your boss was as good/bad now as you did then?
  • Did you change jobs? Why?
  • Did you ever have to work hard physically? Were you ever hurt on the job? What happened?
  1. REMEMBER?
  • Do you remember the time when you got locked out when you needed to be somewhere?
  • Do you remember when your first impression of someone turned out to be completely wrong?
  • Do you remember when you learned something from your children?
  • Do you remember a time when you were lied to or tricked?
  • Do you remember a time when you almost won, but not quite?
  1. MILITARY TIME
  • Did you enlist or were you drafted? Why? What service?
  • Do you remember experiences of basic training or boot camp?
  • Was this your first time away from home?
  • Do you remember your First Seargent, etc?
  • What was your barracks like?
  • Were you shipped out to go overseas? Where did you go? How did you go?
  • Were you in battle? Tell about the experience. Were you afraid?
  • Did you lose friends? How did you cope with the experience?
  • Were you married at the time? What did your wife/husband do?
  • If you were left at home, what did you do? Letters, jobs, children?
  • In retrospect, was this good for you? What did you learn?


How little questions become bigger questions?

RadioLab is an exciting, quick-cut, question-asking podcast. Supposedly, it’s about science, but over the years, the questions keep growing. Little questions evolve into big questions if you are dogged in pursuing them as Jad and Robert, the two hosts, are. In “Bigger Little Questions” a kid asks why Earth is called “Earth.” Another question is whether space junk could accumulateuntil it kills, or strands, us. Big Questions indeed.


 

One of the most interesting dialogues in “Bigger Little Questions” is about fat. The discussion starts with a report about fatbergs, huge globules of fat that clog the London sewer system.A fatberg can weigh as much as 130 tons, 11 double-decker English buses, says The Guardian. Gross, for sure, but what’s the big question? How to dissolve it? How to prevent it? For Londoners maybe, but there is a persistent Dutch guy who is obsessed with fatbergs, wants to build one, but more than that, he wants to know where fat comes from. How did it enter the universe, and what good is it? To pursue the question he and colleagues build a purer fatberg than the British one. Partly it is a science experiment, and partly, an art installation. By the end of the “Bigger Little” discussion, it dawns on you that fat is the essential container for human life. Without it, we wouldn’t be.


Sleeping with the author

by Susan Scott & Ron Grimes

first published in The New Quarterlyhttps://tnq.ca/sleeping-with-the-author/

 

“When it comes to fighting against white supremacy, it’s not just what you stand for, it’s who you sit with.” –Jamaya Khan, Maclean’s, August 16, 2017

“Now, mind, I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest.” –Ralph Ellison, Paris Review Spring, 1957

 

Editing the work of friends and family is a common goodwill gesture, often done as a favour, or, as is the case with certain literary couples, by design. John Gregory Dunne once told the New York Times that he and Joan Didion serve as one another’s “first reader, absolutely.” Glen David Gold described his and Alice Sebold’s harmonious writing-and-editing rhythms as expressions of the couple’s “complementary neuroses.”

My spouse and I are three decades into editing one another’s work, a lively partnership we safeguard by confining ourselves to separate sandboxes—his, in academia; mine, in arts and culture. The rise of Trump disrupted this peaceable arrangement. Suddenly, my husband was exploring explosive family history in a personal essay I’d encouraged him to write.

 What I discovered in the process was unsettling. As an editor, I want the truth exposed. As a spouse, I sometimes dread it.

The following exchange with Ron Grimes took place in August and September, 2017, while he was submitting “The Backsides of White Souls” to literary magazines in the U.S. and Canada. If the essay is published, we will link to it, here.

                    –Susan Scott, TNQ nonfiction editor

 

Susan Scott: Canadian editor, American scholar. I wonder, have I done justice when it comes to your incendiary essay?

Ron Grimes: Sure you have. You’re doubting?

SS: The aftermath of Charlottesville, Virginia, got me thinking about the marriage of editing and culture. Megan Garber wrote in The Atlantic about Trump’s addiction to flouting norms—even when he’s handed a statement that’s been vetted, he will not stay on script.

His behaviour reinforces this dismissal of the rational, cooling space that editing affords. Left and right, we’re seeing that cultural cooling space collapsing.

But cooling off can also mean constraint. Editing can just as easily undercut what the cultural moment calls for. “House of the Dead” exposes racism in an old American family. Looking back, I wonder, have I simply reined you in?

RG: Sometimes, but I knew you would do that, and I invited it. This essay is personal and dangerous. I kept losing perspective on it and needed your editorial eye. We both know the value of trying to imagine “the reader’s” eyes. We both believe that blindly accepting an editor’s suggestions is a mindless exercise. But we’ve done this before. The ultimate decision is the author’s, so I had to figure out when to let you rein me in and when not to.

SS: Fair enough. I wanted to think with you as you wrote, and I wanted you to think with me—not just resist, or capitulate to my suggestions. Not that you’d ever capitulate, really, but the creative tension between us colours how you write, and how I edit.

So, what about the spousal edit? When is it effective?

RG: Well, for instance, you helped me rethink the knife on the bedpost. I had that image in early drafts, and you wanted me to take it out.

SS: Right, the early draft you sent to friends confessed …

RG: Sorry, it wasn’t confession, it was fact. That knife had hung on the bedpost since my teens. You never complained about it until you read the essay, when you said …

SS: I said, “Okay, even if the knife does hang there, is that how you want to introduce yourself to readers? Unless you want to shock them, think about cutting the reference to the knife.” You still had ghosts and guns. Page one, no less. The knife’s important to the story; how it was handled was the question.

RG: Right, I don’t mind if people dismiss me in the last paragraph, I just don’t want them to dismiss me in the first paragraph.

SS: So, was it a loss, excising the knife?

RG: No, I didn’t excise it. The literary knife is back in now—reframed. I put the actual knife away one day when you were gone (and pulled it back out momentarily to stage this photo). I thought, “I don’t need this ritual object hanging here anymore.” Did you notice?

SS: Ah, so that’s what happened. Editorial prompt as ritual prompt; that’s novel. Anything else come to mind?

RG: You and I both love economy and compression in writing, so I asked you to steal some of my words. I also love hyperbole, sparkle, and spew, so I sometimes dump economy. You suggested cutting:

 

Having moved north of the border to Canada in 1974, one might wish the load of baggage had been left behind, stuffed in a carpet bag and stashed in some remote, deep-south alley. But, as kids used to say in New Mexico, you can’t pee in only one corner of a swimming pool. Canadians put it more discreetly: When America sneezes, Canada catches cold.

SS: Yep, that had to go. Shall we talk about why, or is it obvious?

RG: I still like the passage, but I followed your suggestion. The context was too serious for horseplay. Those lines are now composting in my fragments file, waiting to jump into the next essay.

SS: Right, you know that I’m uneasy, still, about “House of the Dead” going public.

RG: Sorry to hear that. You urged me to write the essay. Why dread it now?

SS: I asked what you wanted to accomplish, and you said you wanted to make a racket, dragging skeletons out of the closet.

RG:  I want white people to talk about being white. So, yes, open the closets and let the skeletons out, let them rattle their bones.

SS: Absolutely, but then what? Scott Gilmore called out Canadian racism in Maclean’s after the violence in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2015, and that was well before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report. As a country, we’re just now admitting we have skeletons, let alone rattling them. Editing your essay made me realize I need to own up to that reluctance.

RG: Meaning what?

SS: You were starting brush fires using religion and politics as kindling. My response was to tamp down the flames. I argued that the longer the thematic checklist, the greater the danger that your characters would be flattened to little more than props. And on the one hand, that’s true. The more themes piled on, the more the clutter, and the less oxygen for power and precision.

On the other hand, your instinct as a writer is to fan the flames. I edited in favour of a smoulder.

RG: Compared with what’s happening in Charlottesville, I’ve built a tiny Boy Scout campfire surrounded by rocks to keep it from spreading. “House of the Dead” is a complex essay, but I had a hard time figuring out what the argument was. In academic writing I’d start with the thesis and argument. But in this essay I had characters, dialogue and a plot. My problem was less with characters than with plot and setting. They were too elaborate You had to keep straightening out my chronology. Anyway, we agree that an essay needs both a story and an argument, and there’s only so much you can do in 5,000 words.

SS: True enough, but I suggested that you try creative nonfiction (CNF) because it would expose you to techniques for exploring disturbing insights. Of course, like any art form, CNF is demanding. “The essay must be artistically rendered,” as Phillip Lopate says.

Sure enough, there you were, struggling with the form.

Let’s just say, I’m culpable on two fronts. I suggested CNF as a kind of discipline, then pulled back once I saw exactly where it took you.

RG: I asked you to give me homework, and I’ve done it. Sure, “House of the Dead” needs to be artistically rendered, but it also needs to be ethical and critical. The essay takes up unfinished family, ethnic, and national business that implicates living members of my family. I can’t think only about characters. I also have to think about people. Across five generations mine has been a “good” family, respected in the community. Among us siblings one is an atheist, one “believes pretty much what he believed as a kid,” one is far to the religious and political right, and I am, what shall I say, ludically religious. All these categories are inaccurate, but they will do for now. Two of us voted for Trump, two didn’t. If you asked my siblings, probably we’d say we’re not racist; some of us have non-white friends. In the 1970s we had a shouting match, not typical in our family, followed by an agreement never to talk again about race, religion, or politics. We may love each other, but in the current political climate we’re dysfunctional. America is failing, and the family so far is unable to deal the rifts. We haven’t faced our heritage, so we are unable to negotiate America’s loss of moral credibility.

SS: I see that. I also see ethical tripwires in your writing: whether to use people’s names; how fair it is to expose the voting choices and religious beliefs of family members; how to depict polarizing figures like your grandma. Then there’s the question, do you want your readers to empathize with all these figures?

RG: I do fieldwork on ritual, so empathizing is a part of my academic research. I have to consider the ethics of privacy as a part of my profession. I’ve rewritten the voices and depictions of my brothers and sister dozens of times. I care about their feelings, but I also want to tell the truth—as I see it, of course.

SS: I like that you’ve explored the use of dialogue. Now we hear real voices.

RG: Well, my reconstruction of real voices. My sister’s voice was the most difficult to represent, since our conversations kept breaking down. Trump supporters and Christian fundamentalists will likely read her character as courageous, standing up for her beliefs. Liberal readers will read her religious and political views differently.

SS: Either way, what readers want, I think, are compelling characters who make us think and feel. I want to understand your family, and I want your essay to help me do that. Is that an undue burden for the author? Maybe it is.

Are you showing the essay to your siblings?

RG: Maybe it’s a fair expectation of novels or great short story writers, but for me it’s an undue burden. This is a brief essay, and I’ve presented selected bits—characters, not actual personalities—and that’s as true of me as narrator as it is of the other characters. Even though I don’t use my siblings’ names, I decided against springing the published essay on them, so I am showing it to them before publication. I’ll listen to them, but I may not always take their advice. The essay reveals a big family secret. Some relatives may not like that I’ve told it publicly, but the current political crisis in the U.S. makes hiding irresponsible. Anyway, I first sent the essay to readers whose opinions I respect, people who could help me improve it.

SS: That surprised me, your circulating such an early draft.

RG: That’s part of my writing process, to send an essay out early to colleagues, while I’m still open to criticism and suggestions. Later, I’ll dig in, becoming more resistant to changes.

SS: Another classic difference between us: we have a radically different sense of timing. I suggest that authors hone their work before they show it, on the assumption that, the greater their confidence in the piece, the greater their resilience, weathering critique.

But it’s your essay and your process. And, let’s be frank: no matter how well the work is crafted, it isn’t going to heal the family.

RG: You’re guessing. Sure, it could be a bombshell, but it could also lead to some good, difficult conversations. I read Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir and Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington. Both tell about writing controversial family stories and getting surprisingly receptive reads by relatives. It’s a risk I’ve decided to take. Are you worried?

SS: I am. We seldom see your family. It’s hard enough, resolving minor conflicts at a distance, let alone your airing family secrets. You also take a stand on how the family functions. People will feel hurt. How that’s going to help, I wonder.

RG: People “may” feel hurt. You’re now playing therapist rather than editor, right?

SS: What can I say? It’s a hazard, sleeping with the author.

We both want good, hard conversations about equity and justice, but we both know that those are often easier to have with strangers.

Part of what I love about the small magazine world is that we’re exercising whatever modest power we have to open doors for writers. Releasing work that’s vital and authentic is what attracts me to publishing. Editing, for me, is deeply moral work. So here’s the irony: editing your essay made me aware of fears and inhibitions I wasn’t owning up to.

RG: Okay, I have a question for you. Is this the hardest editing you’ve ever done?

SS: In one way, yes. Academic-creative crossover pieces are hard to edit. Knotty. Resistant. But the truth is, it’s been a hard project because I am invested. We’re a small cross-border family that’s ill-equipped to deal with a lot of fallout.

Unintended consequences—I stew about those, too.

RG: Between us?

SS: No, we’re fine. We have a long history of bumper-car editing. You value hyperbole, I value understatement. We clash a lot.

RG: I’m from New Mexico, you’re from Ontario. Bang, bump!

SS: (laughs) Yes. You’re expansive, vocal. Your last book was over 400 pages. I’m a minimalist who works towards peaceful resolution.

Alice Quinn of the Poetry Society of America has spoken to the New York Times about the sense of urgency she’s seeing, what she calls the “reckoning and responsibility” that’s supplanting the introspective, personal tone of yesteryear’s poetry. We’re seeing the same shift in creative nonfiction. As an editor, I’m a fierce advocate for transgressive stories, but inhabiting “House of the Dead” with you has made me see that I’m also caught between private and public.

Now’s the time for reckoning on several fronts.

That’s where I’m at. And you?

RG: For sure, it’s a time of reckoning. As a Canadian, I too long for peaceful resolution, but as an American I’m not sure that’s always possible. Anyway, I’m still nosing around in literary journals where I hope to publish. I found “The Old Grey Mare,” an exquisite personal essay in the Yale Review by Colin Dayan, who also wrote The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons. We write about some of the same things—ritual, racism, mothers, the South. Reading her essay, then the book, made me realize how similar and yet how different the South is from the Southwest. I sent her an appreciative note. Now we are trading essays.

SS: Say more.

RG: When I read her essay, I thought, wow, that is literary. I wish I could write like that. I vented to you in frustration, “Please, make me sound more like me.” And you retorted that you were trying to get rid of my academic formalisms, make me sound more literary.

SS: Right, storyteller and scholar—you veer between the two.

RG: I don’t care much whether I sound either academic or literary. I would like my writing voice to “sound” like me.

SS: Fair enough. I love your cowboy storytelling voice, but there’s a time and place for it. “House of the Dead” isn’t it.

Umpteen drafts later, did you find the right voice for the essay?

RG: I’d be the last to know.  I’m sure the editors and readers will let me know.

SS: Submitting to this world is new for you. After doing your research, you ended up with fifty-plus pages of notes on literary magazines in the States and Canada. Now you know more than I do. I’m curious, what’s the take-away?

RG: Having taken a grand tour on both sides of the border, I’d say that while magazines might be muses, they’re also Scylla and Charybdis—a rock shoal and whirlpool separated by a narrow pass through which your rowboat essay must pass. Several times I saw submissions rates in the thousands and acceptance rates of two percent. The literary rite of passage is just as daunting as the academic one. I’ve submitted to seven literary magazines and to the radio show, This American Life. I have ten more magazines lined up for September. I expect success, but many failures first.

SS: Okay, but you’re still reading, too. What’s the draw? Why burrow into lit mags?

RG: Same as you, I care about writing. I want to write better. I just read Terence Byrnes…

SS: Montreal writer-photographer, featured in TNQ 106 (Spring 2008).

Ron’s maternal grandparents

RG: “South of Buck Creek” in Geist is a fabulous photo essay, so I wrote him. I’m busy trading stories and essays with him too. I rarely communicate with authors, but I am thoroughly enjoying it. But you ask why. This essay could die on the vine, or, if published, the shit could hit the fan. Either way, I want company. I love being a student. I’m hungry to learn from writers who struggle with the same issues. I want to learn how to honour but also to question the ancestors—well, my ancestors. By dragging the skeletons out of the closet, then talking publicly, I want to learn how live more justly—on stolen land, and benefitting from slave labour.

SS: On that we are united. So, you’re not about to quit my sandbox, are you?

RG: Why quit? I’m just getting started.

 

Bios: Ron Grimes is co-editor of the Oxford Ritual Studies Series and the author of several books, including Fictive Ritual: Reading, Writing, & Ritualizing. Susan Scott is TNQ’s lead nonfiction editor and the editor of Body & Soul: Creative Nonfiction for Skeptics and Seekers.