Finding the Inside Story: A Conversation with Paul Crenshaw
He’d grown up in small town, heartland Arkansas against a backdrop of tornado sirens, a nearby military base, and conservative Southern Baptists. I’d grown up in a small town in the Northeast and was terrified of tornadoes thanks to annual viewings of The Wizard of Oz.
Mine was a fear born of ignorance, not actual experience, which is a metaphor Paul Crenshaw asks readers to reflect upon throughout his debut essay collection, This One Will Hurt You. In fact, Crenshaw asks us to consider all types of storms—physical, emotional, environmental—and how we weather them.
The essays contemplate grief, love, and pain. Through Crenshaw’s lens as an adult he reflects on what it means to be a soldier, on why his grandmother sang a certain song to her grandchildren, on fighting and fornicating, and the birth of his daughters against the backdrop of the murder of his nephew. He feels things deeply and works hard to ensure his readers do as well.
I spoke with Crenshaw by phone on a calm, spring-like afternoon in late April. We touched on vulnerability, the 80s, the man code, parenthood, and our writerly obsessions.
The Rumpus: When you’re writing an essay what are the questions you ask yourself to find out what you think? How do you self-interrogate?
Paul Crenshaw: I’m always trying to find out what the essay is about. And I’m not saying that to be coy—I’m always trying to find the inside story. The outside story is whatever topic I’m writing on, but that’s a shell for the inside story, which is what the essay is really about. For example, I was thinking about words that are shortened or abbreviated, and I thought I could write an essay using shortened words, but had no idea what the inside story was until I started writing, and thinking, and questioning.
I’m also looking for the unusual. I get bored easily, so I always want to go somewhere unexpected, either in the narrative arc or idea, or in a phrase. With the shortened words essay, I looked at how common words like “goodbye” and “fax” had changed with time, and I realized what I was really writing about was time, how it seems like we have so little time to do all the things we want to do.
Rumpus: Yes, the unusual. As a nonfiction writer I sometimes think “I’ve gotta get out and let things happen to me.” What do you want to do so you can write about having done it?
Crenshaw: For years I wanted to expand my essay “Storm Country” into a book about tornadoes. Finally, in 2017, I started doing some field research. I went to Greensburg, Kansas—a town that was wiped out by a tornado—and there were only three buildings standing in the entire town. I didn’t plan it this way, but I was there on the tenth anniversary of the tornado and the town was having a homecoming and remembrance. Next I want to go storm chasing. I’m going to sign up for one of those Bill Paxton, Helen Hunt Twister type things where you jump in a van and chase down tornadoes. That will be a chapter in my book.
“Storm Country” started when I was driving to Washington, DC with my friend Matt Armstrong and this dangerous-looking cloud came over the horizon. He said it looked like a tornado and I explained (at length) why it wasn’t. I must have gone on for a while because afterward he looked at me and said, “What are you, a fucking meteorologist?” But I’d known all about tornadoes from living in Arkansas and was amazed other people didn’t know this much about them as well, so that got me thinking.
Rumpus: I’m struck by your empathy on the page and your ability to change your mind and let the reader see it happen. You’re from conservative Arkansas, went to Baptist Bible camp, are ex-military, and are a bearded, tattooed badass-looking guy, yet you write with tenderness and a deeply feminine mindset. What gives? Explain yourself.
Crenshaw: I spent a lot of time writing male fiction in grad school—characters who are always fighting and fornicating, avoiding responsibilities, and drinking too much. Men can be both badass, as you say, and vulnerable. I’d say many, if not most, of the men I know are vulnerable. They don’t often show it in ways everyone understands, but they are. So I wanted to write that. I recently published an essay about the way my father and I joke with one another, how we communicate in this antagonistic language steeped in violence and bravado, but it’s really a code, and anyone who knows us well recognizes that. Why we choose this code is another matter, but the vulnerability is there. I also have two daughters. And as they grew up I began to wonder what would happen if they read my work. Was I representing a world I wanted them to live in, or was I helping create and/or maintain a world that would treat them as lesser? I’ll be the first to admit it’s a bit shameful that it took having daughters to see that simple truth, but once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And if you can’t unsee it, you have to do something about it.
Rumpus: Ahhhh, vulnerability, and this male code of which you speak: It is like another language. I’d imagine this type of coded language features heavily in your next collection of military essays and if so, how do you examine it from different angles?
Crenshaw: The first essay in my new collection is “Names,” which was in Best American Essays 2016. I started out riffing on the names we called one another in the military. Everybody had a nickname and you didn’t even think to call them by their real name, ever. It was a way to name people by a feature or characteristic you wanted to make fun of.
All male language is coded in bravado and violence and phallic symbols and that Hemingway-esque type of idea, but what surprised me in that essay is how all that stuff was born of fear. All the male-code bullshit comes from fear—of being seen as weak, or not living up to the code, so you use the code to reinforce the code. These essays ask the question why do we see soldiers as heroes when really they’re scared kids? It’s like all of America decided to collectively embrace this code of violence.
One of the questions at the heart of the book is my journey from eager recruit to father worrying about whether his daughters might enlist. Thirty years later I think, Why? Why did we see Desert Storm as a war for freedom and why was Desert Storm so different from Vietnam where returning soldiers were spit on for being baby murderers? What is our collective unconscious thought process of war and why did it change, and does that have to do with the language we use when talking about war?
Rumpus: Speaking of essay collections, how did you decide what to put in to This One Will Hurt You and what to leave out? Did your editor have thoughts on this, too? Did you swap a few or rearrange? Asking as a writer who is trying to put together an essay collection herself, so, you know, “asking for a friend” as they say.
Crenshaw: The collection was a finalist several times, and every time it came close but didn’t get published, I would swap out an essay or two. What I found is that I gravitated toward the more painful essays. I tell students that if the reader isn’t feeling some emotion, then why are they reading? So I finally ended with essays—with a few exceptions—that, hopefully, move the reader to some emotion.
Rumpus: What is a question you rarely get asked that you feel is important?
Crenshaw: More people should ask about work. I hear questions about how to get published, about writing every day, about metaphors, and sometimes structure, but I rarely hear anything about the work of sitting down at the desk and writing. The actual, physical process of occupying that space and creating. That’s where the sunshine happens. I wish more writers embraced the act, or at least talked about it openly, not the accolades and accomplishments, because none of those things happen without the act. Of course, the act is difficult to talk about, so we talk instead about where ideas come from and how to get an agent, but nothing happens without the sitting.
Rumpus: Speaking of pain, you excavate pain, vulnerability, and grief and transforms it into strength. Is there anything you’ve found too painful to write about? What and why?
Crenshaw: In a way, yes. The first essay in the collection, “After the Ice,” is about the death of a child. I wrote a draft of it that was terrible. Like, really, really bad. One of my writer friends, a guy named Brian Crocker, read it and told me how terrible it was, and after we had talked about it, he helped me realize it was so bad because I was afraid to write the hard parts. So I started over completely. About seven drafts later I had a first draft. So I did, eventually write about it, but I don’t think I’ll ever read that essay in front of people. I highly doubt I could get through it.
Rumpus: One of my favorite and perhaps the most powerful in your collection is “The Bear.” It’s a tornado of an essay that slams the reader to the ground in two powerful ending paragraphs. You and your grandmother bear witness to each other. It’s pain transmuted into strength. It reads like a fable, and its structure reinforces how she allowed you to realize the metaphor by yourself, as if luring you—a wild thing of a boy—out of the forest and into adulthood. What did she teach you about the importance of storytelling?
Crenshaw: After she told me the story of being sexually assaulted, I told her she should write it down. That it was important. She got a yellow pad and wrote her name at the top, and that’s as far as she got. And even though it’s her story to tell, she wanted it told, so she asked me to write it. I started with the bear because it was such a dark story, but as kids we loved it. I think we guessed even then that the world is much more complicated than it seems, or maybe she just did such a good job telling the story that we knew something else lurked in the words. We knew it was important. Storytelling was always important when we stayed at her house, and one of the things we looked forward to—I never realized how important it was to me until I started writing years later and could still remember not only the story about the bear, but the way she told it, the timbre and tone of her voice. So she taught me that stories are important, but also how they’re told.
Rumpus: That’s interesting because as kids we don’t realize the deeper meaning of a particular story do we? But upon examining through an adult lens what we were thinking and feeling at that time things seem to crystallize and meaning seems to harden. How do you write about feelings, while avoiding sentimentality and gimmickry?
Crenshaw: This is me putting on my tweed jacket for a moment, but there was all this talk about sentimentality in grad school, and I thought it meant that there should be no sentiment in your work, that all emotions should be stripped. Which is nonsense, because as I wrote I realized the pieces that were doing the best (getting published for instance) dealt with sentiment. It’s a constant struggle between offering sentiment and being sentimental. At heart we’re all a bag of emotions, aren’t we? I tell my students, “If you’re not making me feel something in your work why am I reading it? Why am I emotionally invested in this piece?” So the trick of course is how to render emotion without being emotional.
What’s that Chekov quote? “Don’t tell me you kicked the dog, show me the dog who flinches when his owner walks past.”
There’s all sorts of ways of doing this, but I love reading writers who describe something in a way that’s perfect and new. I call it the Flannery O’Connor effect, where something happens that is both totally unexpected and totally expected at the same time. When you get to the point in a story or essay where something unexpected happens but you think of course it had to happen, that’s a success. Those sorts of descriptions/actions/turns are what let you see the world in a new way. That’s what I’m always looking for and always trying to do.
Rumpus: I remember one of the most powerful and affirming things (for me) that you shared on social media was listing how many times you’d been rejected. I felt it was an important lesson in persistence.
Crenshaw: I’d guess I’ve had several thousand rejections at this point. I think I was talking about winning a Pushcart. The essay that won was rejected sixteen times. And that was my seventeenth Pushcart nomination, first win. I also remember in 2018, I had just gotten an email from Bob Atwan of Best American Essays saying I was going to be included in the anthology, and then I got four rejections that same day, so even on a great acceptance day there were several rejections.
But when I was an undergrad I had really great professors who were realistic about publishing. They talked often of how difficult it was, how you needed to be immune to rejection, or at least recover quickly. The most important thing they said was to keep trying. You use the word persistence—I’d say stubborn, because you need a bit of stubbornness to keep going when it’s so difficult to be published.
But to go back to my answer about doing the work, that’s the focus for me. Doing the work. The rejections will arrive, as will, hopefully, the acceptances. But the work is the important part.
Rumpus: Trying to find the right home for a certain piece is like the ultimate matchmaking, isn’t it? We writers are obsessive creatures, aren’t we? I’ve lately been obsessed with writing about love in myriad forms—being held for instance, loving my younger self and holding her as I would my own children or my grandson. What have you been obsessing about lately?
Crenshaw: The 80s. I’m working on a revision of a memoir, which starts in 1980, when I was eight. My parents had just divorced. My mother worked at an old tuberculosis sanatorium, which had been converted in the early 70s to a home for the developmentally disabled. After the divorce, we moved into one of the rental houses maintained by the institute, and every morning my brother and I walked past all these old dormitories that had once housed tuberculosis patients and now housed developmentally disabled residents to get to the bus stop.
I’ve also been working on a collection of essays about pop culture and the Cold War. For example, there’s the professional wrestling-slash-Cold War angles of how Hulk Hogan fighting against Nikolai Volkoff and the Iron Sheik, and Dusty Rhodes, “The American Dream,” fighting Nikita Koloff, “The Russian Nightmare.” I wrote about watching movies like Red Dawn and The Day After and Invasion USA and listened to music like “99 Red Balloons,” which is about an accidental nuclear war that started because someone released balloons. All this pop culture was a reflection of how fucking scared we were of nuclear war.
Back then I thought the literal definition of hell meant nuclear war because I was going to a Southern Baptist church and they told us daily that we were going to hell. At the same time I was terrified of nuclear war so I thought hell would come to earth in the form of literal nuclear hell fire.
Our obsessions always come back to our childhoods. My next book has toy soldiers on the cover, which is a visual reminder of exactly that.
Photograph of Paul Crenshaw by Jennifer Simon Smith.