Grateful Maniacs: A Conversation with Dawn Davies
Dawn Davies and I arrived in the creative program at Florida International University around the same time—she as a dedicated student with a memoir to write and I as an Assistant Professor of Creative Nonfiction whose good fortune it would be to direct Dawn’s thesis project.
The resulting book, Mothers of Sparta: A Memoir in Pieces, was published in 2018 by Flatiron Books, and her work to date in multiple genres (essay, fiction, and poetry) has appeared in many literary journals. Now, in 2020, it’s my pleasure to interview this accomplished writer and teacher who once sat across the seminar table from me in Graduate Lyric Essay class here in Miami.
Dawn and I spoke, among many things, about paths to publication, the power of speculation, and the role of gratitude in a writing life.
The Rumpus: There’s been a lot of talk on social media recently about productivity during the pandemic (Shakespeare wrote King Lear during quarantine is the chief example I’ve heard) and a lot of parallel talk about self-care. I’d like to start our conversation with a question about both. Do you think about writing in terms of productivity, and if so, what qualifies for you as “being productive” in terms of your creative work? Likewise, do you think about writing in terms of self-care? In particular, I’m curious to learn the role writing has played in your life during this time of profound uncertainty.
Dawn Davies: I haven’t read any talk on social media about productivity because one of the things I did early on in my pandemic isolation was to get offline. That’s some self-care right there. I give myself a half-day per week of Instagram access. I only belong to Facebook for a few private groups, which I visit once a week, and I deleted my Twitter a long time ago. No one really needs to know what I think on the daily. It’s not that special.
I used to think about writing in a way that equated productivity with volume. I mean, that’s how they do it in factories! Between 2012 and 2015, I published forty-plus essays, poems, and stories, and completed a manuscript that became Mothers of Sparta. At that point in my life, my words were bottlenecked but ready, and as soon as I hit the right vein, they poured out. It came so easily that I assumed that’s the kind of writer I was… one who wrote constantly while also needing very little sleep. I was a good factory.
But I have slowed down. The past two years since Mothers of Sparta, I finished a book tour and a novel manuscript, but I wrote only three essays. They are long and writing them took a while, probably because I am doing more fine motor things within the essay than I was initially able to do. I’m also thinking differently, so the quality of what I am producing feels stronger and takes longer than what I used to write, though the quantity is reduced.
I believe that productivity for me now means a measurable improvement in the quality of my work, and perhaps publishing something every year—stand-alone essays, or book excerpts, or poems—helps me to stay the course for book-length work, which can be so isolating. I like to get feedback from a gatekeeper once in a while—I don’t want to go off the writing rails in my own mind and not know it. Journal editors can be good gatekeepers.
Expecting people to be productive during a life-changing pandemic simply because we have more time at home is bullshit, I say. It’s like asking someone to be productive during their surgical recovery, or after a hurricane destroys their town. If you are able to see the endless stretches of time as a gift to get work done, use it. Get those six-pack abs. Program that Arduino. Learn Gaelic. Write that opus. But if you can’t or don’t want to be creative, don’t feel bad. Do what you need to do to get through this time. I write about hard things and hard times, and I have never been able to write about them while they are happening.
Rumpus: Two things I’d like to follow up on just now: What are the “fine motor things”—or even a fine motor thing—that you find yourself able to do within essays now that you couldn’t initially do? And in what ways are you “thinking differently”? Would you say that writing itself has changed your way of thinking, or has it been the means of documenting these changes—or both?
Davies: I like to try new things. My earlier essays were evidence that I worked hard to get my point across while also getting a grip on narrative tools. Setting? Check. A chronology that makes sense? Done. The right point of view? One can only hope. At one time, those were new things for me, but it feels good to leap off the gross-motor swing set.
I love what the unreliable narrator in fiction does to the relationship between the reader and the author. In many cases, it creates a two-person secret that leaves the narrator out in the cold. Both the author and the reader are in on the fact that the narrator can’t be trusted to tell an objective truth.
I wanted to see if I could create this feeling in memoir without alienating my reader or losing the truth. Can you write an essay about something that hasn’t happened and will never happen, that also addresses something real and present, while turning yourself into a character that you separate from yourself as author? Can you do this without making your reader lose trust in you? I tried in an essay called, “Music to Be Played If I Fall into a Coma” (McSweeney’s #54). I think my intention worked. I had fun facing my demons while also trying new things.
I often think about how writers engage with memories and memory. As a memoirist, this makes sense, but for a memoirist, I have a bad memory. My epitaph is going to read: “I can’t find my keys.”
My best maps for accessing memories are books. I remember what I read at a certain time in my life to help recall memories of what went on for me during that time. An example: When I went away to college, my stepdad gave me an antique four-book collection of Anna Karenina. It was tiny. It fit in my hand. I read it the week before classes started. I was lonely. It was rainy. And there were those tiny words on those torn little pages. I think of Anna Karenina and can access my homesick feelings and the smells of my new home and the sound of that rain that went on for days.
This also works when I reread. I like rereading a book and remembering what was going on in my life the last time (or first time) I read it. I also enjoy thinking the same thoughts I once thought while reading it. I recently reread The Water-Method Man by John Irving, and I recall specific things I once thought when I came across actual phrases within a sentence in the story.
Now that I write, my thinking is a meta rabbit hole. Say I write an essay. I remember the subject well enough to write about it on some level, and I can think of what I was reading at the time of the memory, which helps me better remember it, and when I later read the essay, I can also remember what I was doing during the time in my life when I was writing the essay. I can also remember the books I was reading when I was writing the essay, and then, to top off the weird, I will often think, while writing, about how I will one day remember writing what it is I’m writing. It’s a kaleidoscopic Möbius strip of memory that extends into the future. I don’t mind it.
Rumpus: I think you know I’m a big fan of your “Music to Be Played If I Fall into a Coma” essay, and one of the many reasons is the power of that “if.” To my mind, it’s a catapult of a word that has launched some of the finest subjunctive/speculative writing I know. And being human, at least for me, involves a lot of speculating, a lot of what-iffing and what one of my professors used to call “possibilizing.”
I’m curious to know what you what-iffed about the future when you were a child and young adult. I know your path to writing and teaching and even through college and graduate school hasn’t been a linear one, but our readers don’t know that yet. Could you tell us about what you possibilized for your future as you were growing up and how you found your way to a Master of Fine Arts program as well as the publication of your first book, Mothers of Sparta: A Memoir in Pieces?
Davis: A lot of my childhood what-ifs included worry. I am very tall, and for several years I worried that I would never stop growing. I wondered what that would look like. What if I couldn’t fit in a car? Would I have to live in a special house? Do they even make extra-large beds? What if I took up all the space?
I don’t recall having specific goals or plans, and I don’t recall receiving guidance for how not to let my jack-of-all-trades tendencies ruin my life. I know I loved reading above most things. I went to college too young. I quit. Then I got married and had three kids. Then I went back to college and got divorced, but I graduated! Then I got remarried and added two stepsons. Then I went to graduate school. I did everything bass-ackwards.
I can say two things for certain: I always had a well-worn library card. And I had a low-boiling rage every time I went into a library or bookstore and saw other peoples’ books on shelves. This got worse every year I was not writing.
Mothers of Sparta was written with urgency during graduate school. As my mentor, you witnessed it, Julie, and kept me from running off the literary rails a few times. I felt like I had wasted so much time not writing that I was hyper-focused when I finally had “permission” to write. I wrote like a maniac. It felt almost physical, like I had been underfed for so long and was finally being offered food that I couldn’t keep from gulping down.
I started my writing career “late,” whatever that means, but during the time I was not writing creatively, I was gaining life experience, and thinking, and also reading a few thousand books. It’s helped, not hindered me, though I believe I am less likely to be hired for jobs as an older person.
I needed to have life experience to write, and balancing the what-ifs with the life experience was good for me. The more we experience and the longer we live in “Speclandia,” the deeper our what-ifs can be, which I believe makes for better writing. The best subjunctive writing is paired with something real to ground it, even if that real thing is only the suggestion of a feeling that readers can relate to.
Rumpus: Mothers of Sparta is a beautiful, heartbreaking, urgent book. I felt that urgency as I read the first draft of your manuscript many years ago, and I felt that urgency amplified as I read the title essay—likely before we realized it would be the title essay of your book.
Readers not familiar with your work already can look up Mothers of Sparta, of course, can see all the honors the book has garnered—the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award for Creative Nonfiction, the Florida Book Award (gold medal) for Best Nonfiction, and the Best Book of the Year from BookBrowse, just to name a few. Readers might even remember you from your two appearances on the national television show, Megyn Kelly Today.
So let’s try another twist on the what-iffing here. What if 2020 Dawn had a time machine, and she could go back to her grad-student self and tell that Dawn anything at all about the literary future? What doesn’t 2015 Dawn suspect about that future, about the publishing process itself? What’s going to surprise her most about how life changes—and how it doesn’t—after the writer-self also becomes an author?
Davies: I love time machines. I go everywhere in mine. Speclandia has free parking. 2015 Dawn was idealistic and earnest and hopeful, but anxious. She believed in creative writing, wore her heart on her sleeve for the crows to peck, all while wanting the best for everyone. A secret: 2020 Dawn is the same.
In 2015, I didn’t understanding the glacial speed of the publishing industry. I finished the Mothers of Sparta manuscript in 2015, and then wrung my hands and wept until it was published in January of 2018. By the time I was on a book tour for a book award in 2019, I’d grown and eaten and composted at least two other Dawns. I didn’t feel like the same person who wrote Mothers of Sparta.
I also published with a big publishing house [Flatiron Books]. Early on, other authors warned starry-eyed me about the various pitfalls of the publishing industry, as if I were wearing a red cloak and about to skip off into the woods. They said publishers are fickle. They will use you for the money you can make them and drop you like a hot potato if you aren’t selling. Reviewers are harsh, emboldened by online anonymity. You will be flying high on book sales for a moment, and then sucking mud in a puddle for the next two years. It’s been a fun roller coaster. Mothers of Sparta was the best-selling book on Amazon, beating both Joe Biden’s and Hillary Clinton’s books at the time. For one day. Then life went back to normal. There was an empty desk with my stuff on it. I had to sit down and write some more.
Some writers who haven’t yet published a book think that publishing is the end-goal, that if a gatekeeper/editor publishes your work, you may enter the inner sanctum. You’ve been weighed and measured and you passed the test. You’ve been published. You belong. But once you are in, I found, the only thing there is another empty desk with your stuff on it. You must write more.
The writer-self-to-author transformation made me less anxious about my craft and more grateful in general. I love speaking with people who reach out to me after reading Mothers of Sparta. I answer every email. I teach at conferences and workshops now, which I love. I’ve spoken at colleges. I’m leading a tiny, intensive, distance-learning writing group this fall, and I’m developing some online workshops for memoirists. We need to build different kinds of communities while we can’t meet in person.
I believe in paying forward the gifts we are given, and Julie, you gave me a valuable mentorship. You gave me the guidance I needed, and you fed me delicious books and essays along the way. You made a big difference in my writing life. So when I teach, I think of how well I was taught, and how happy writing makes me, and I’m honored to pay that forward. This all makes me sound so chill now, which I’m not. I’m still a maniac. But I’m a grateful one.
Rumpus: Okay. We might have to call this interview “Grateful Maniacs,” of which I am also one. And anything valuable that happened to you in my classes and through my mentorship was also me paying forward the impeccable teaching and mentorships I’ve received and am channeling from my pedagogical heroes, like Tom Campbell and Dana Anderson and Annette Allen and Cate Fosl (plus many more!).
I often tell my students now, and perhaps have even told you, that I believe writing is the hardest fun (or the funnest hard) we can have. So let me ask you this, because I’m curious: hardest piece you’ve ever written? Funnest piece you’ve ever written? (These could overlap.) And most importantly—why?
Davies: You, too, are a maniac, Julie, but let’s make it clear that we each take the form of “obsessive enthusiast” and not “homicidal madwoman.”
Hardest essay: “Mothers of Sparta,” the essay. It’s about my son, who had difficult, seemingly unsolvable problems at the time I wrote it. I was a newer writer, navigating the arctic ethics of writing about family, and had no idea how that would play out in the future, both for my son and myself, but mostly for my son. I didn’t write it as a “woe are we” essay, but to examine an impossible situation. Still, part of me felt like I was selling him out to Get Published, and I was afraid of what this essay might stir up.
I finally sent it to Joyland, which at the time was heavier on fiction and lighter on essays. I love Joyland. I hoped that maybe they would take it, and it could get nicely buried in their essays. The editor at the time said he would publish it, but he would be doing it a disservice. He encouraged me to try a journal that had a bigger nonfiction audience.
So I entered a literary contest, because nobody wins those, right? Well, it won [Arts & Letters Creative Nonfiction Award]. I almost ripped up the contract and backed out of the deal. But my son and I, along with other family members, had some conversations. I asked my son for permission to publish the essay, and then the book, and he agreed, hoping that by telling our story, it would help someone else, and it ultimately did.
My son has a generous spirit. The essay brought national attention to families in our situation, which helped energize an advocacy group that I believe is still active. And my son, five years later, is in a better place and is doing well.
Funnest essay: My funnest essay is “Music to Be Played if I Fall into a Coma,” because I unleashed the what-if beast and traveled everywhere I felt like inside that thing. The essay is a look at some of my favorite songs and the memories they evoke, written from behind the unbreakable pudding skin of a pretend coma. It’s a visceral look at facing death, which is not funny, but it’s also fun. Two things can be true at once.
Photograph of Dawn Davies by Angela Limpari.