Talking about writing–Raymond Thibeault

The best thing about interviews, I’m finding, is listening to the voices and stories of other writers. I’m so appreciative of everyone who volunteers for a stint.

Today, I’d like to introduce you to Raymond Thibeault. Ray has an MA in Creative Writing from MSU. He’s had work published in Thema, the Mississippi Review, Rosebud, SIPS, and the PrePress Awards: An Anthology of Emerging Michigan Writers. Another story was a finalist for a University of Illinois Press anthology of Midwestern fiction. He’s also taught creative writing in MSU’s College of Life Long Learning and led a writing workshop for former students.

To begin, I’d like to talk about the fact that you didn’t start writing seriously until you were in your early forties. This mirrors my own experience with writing, give or take a few years, and it’s interesting to me because culturally we place such a premium on youth and being a prodigy. My experience was that I simply wasn’t ready to write earlier, at least not in the way I am now. What moved you to start when you did, and what strengths do you feel you have in place now that you might not have had when you were younger?

I think that, just as you said about yourself, I was not ready to write in my earlier years. I was busy with so many other things–marriage, graduate school, then a child, and later a divorce, from which my recovery was a long and bumpy road. What finally got me going had a lot to do with my English teacher’s response to the metaphors (“almost professional”) that I wrote in high school. That bit of encouragement was always roaming around in the back of my mind–and it was ultimately the long-glowing spark that set me to writing. Once my first short story was published, I remember trying to contact him and pass on my thanks–only to learn that he had died at a fairly young age. That news saddened me a great deal, because of his too short life, of course, but also because I wanted him to tell him how much his one, supportive comment some twenty-five years earlier had meant to me.

As for what strengths I have now that I didn’t have earlier, I suppose it’s mostly a more finely tuned ability to reflect on my experiences, as well as those of others, and to see, not just their immediate impact, but their longtime significance.

You’ve been on the teaching end of creative writing as well. How was that experience? Did it affect aspects of your work, and did being a writer shape your approach to teaching?

Being a writer made me want to provide my students with the basic skills of successful writing–use of the active voice, strong verbs, the rule of three, etc. because I know how important those skills are. Many of them wanted class to be just a workshop, where they would have their writing critiqued. The problem with that approach in an introductory class is that it ends up with the uninformed critiquing the uninformed. So I used tons of handouts and assigned short writing tasks based on those handouts–with class critiquing limited to the skill the writer was trying to develop in that particular assignment. I did, however, also ask them to be working on a short story, in which they would try to incorporate all the skills they were learning as the course progressed. We then work-shopped these stories during the last two weeks of class. I also make it clear to them that, once they had acquired the basic toolbox of writers skills, they could then experiment with breaking those rules, and I would quote Faulkner (I think he was the one) who said there is only one rule in writing, which is that there are no rules. But that is only after you have mastered them, I would always add.

Teaching the course helped me improve my own writers’ toolbox. The old saying that “The best way to learn something is to have to teach it” is very accurate.

It’s easy to find opinions about writing; it’s more rare to find reasoning behind why a piece of writing did or did not achieve its purpose. I think the basic toolbox you mention aids writers not only in their writing, but in being able to synthesize criticism, to separate that which is useful and that which is destructive, something crucial for anyone looking to share their work publicly.

How has the experience of publishing short stories been for you? I admit to always approaching the release of a new story with a touch more terror than glee. It fascinates me that writing is such a solitary pursuit, but that the outcome is one we’re so often driven to offer to the world. I’m always curious how other writers respond to act of publication.

When I began sending out my short stories, I was both eager and anxious to hear back–then, of course, disappointed when the answer was no, which was most often the case. These rejections were especially hard to take at the beginning because the first short story I sent out was actually accepted by Thema (the story had to be about a train wreck involving a circus). Unfortunately, this made me think getting published was quite easy–but the next one hundred rejections (I exaggerate, of course) produced only “Thanks, but no thanks” responses, disabusing me of that assumption. Just as use dulls the edge of an axe, rejections dulls the edge of expectation, so now my response to rejections is quite ho-hum. Sometimes I don’t even remember that I had submitted a story to such-and-such a magazine until I check my submissions list. It’s still a disappointment, but one that is fleetingly, as opposed to my three-month depressions. (Again, I exaggerate, but it was much harder to swallow back at the beginning.)

Yes, the act of writing is solitary, and, yes, we writers are driven to share. That’s why I don’t believe writers who say, “Oh, I really don’t care if my work gets published. I just write for my own pleasure.” I agree that writing is pleasurable, though hard, work, but if that statement were entirely true, why would such a writer submit? We all, I think, do want to share by having our work published. But, your question is, what is behind that desire to share. I think there is a Mulligan’s stew of answers: 1) ego gratification (Look what I did!) 2) having a sense of completion (a story, poem, essay, novel seems to me to need publication to be complete, begs to have as many readers as possible 3) a sense of accomplishment, which is first cousin to numbers one and two 4) the desire to connect with other human beings by moving them to feel something: sadness, empathy, joy, fear, longing–or simply entertained, nothing wrong with a beach read. 5) the hope that reading our words will somehow make someone else’s life a little easier, enjoyable, or better understood.

I think that with the first novel I wrote–I had quit all writing from when I was in my early twenties until just shy of forty–I really did believe that the act of writing was the only important thing. I had no intention of sharing it, told almost no one I was writing it, and I changed my mind mainly because of one very persistent friend. That experience, the intensity of connecting with someone over a story that I’d woven so much of myself into, changed everything. As you said, sharing becomes the final, necessary step.

At one point you mentioned to me that you spent a lot of time alone as a child, time you filled with exploring and with reading. I, too, spent a lot of time alone, and there’s a thread that runs through my life, from my childhood to now, that is storytelling. Not written, necessarily, but the sorts of stories children tell themselves. I’m curious whether you feel something of the same. Just as publication may be the completion of writing, perhaps writing is sometimes the completion of daydreaming as a child.

As for the connection between childhood solitary wandering and daydreaming and adult writing, you raise an interesting point. I never thought of that before, but, upon reflection, I think that’s true–at least for me and, as you said, for you.

Being by oneself a lot as a child results in the need to create friends inside your head, to create events, in general to live inside oneself much more than would a child who is most often surrounded by siblings or neighborhood friends. It’s a life that, by necessity, is more a life of imagining. So, in a way, solitary children are “interior writers.” Their stories just aren’t written on paper. But what training! Even today, I often find myself living inside my head, explaining something to someone, creating a scene for something I wish would happen, or wondering what life in winter is like for Paul, a possum who lives and hibernates (I guess) under our deck.

Exactly–“interior writers” is a perfect description. My shift from not writing to writing was as simple as realizing that the stories I told myself when I was alone could be transferred to paper (or pixel), as long as I could find the time and stamina.

I sometimes think that there is just one true story that I’m trying to write, and everything I do, every single story I complete, is practice toward that end. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about a Kurt Vonnegut quote regarding the writing of Slaughterhouse Five. It’s rather lengthy, but I’m going to stick it in here nonetheless:

“I felt after I finished Slaughterhouse-Five that I didn’t have to write at all anymore if I didn’t want to. It was the end of some sort of career. I don’t know why, exactly. I suppose that flowers, when they’re through blooming, have some sort of awareness of some purpose having been served…At the end of Slaughterhouse-Five, I had the feeling that I had produced this blossom. So I had a shutting-off feeling, you know, that I had done what I was supposed to do and everything was OK. And that was the end of it. I could figure out my missions for myself after that.”

Do you have that sense, in your own writing, of something you’re trying to reach? Not good reviews, or bestseller status, or any of those external trappings of success. Instead, I’m thinking of that daydreaming child, of the arc begun early in life and translated by the adult mind. What elements would be part of your Vonnegut-esque bloom, be it genre, or theme, or setting, or any other aspect?

I think for me the bloom is in the ending. If I have a sense that the ending is just right, then the flower of the writing is in full bloom, and I enjoy the sense of a satisfying completion. Why? Maybe it’s because so many things I experienced while growing up did not have satisfying endings–or an ending at all.

Certainly, my brother’s death was not a “rose in full bloom” kind of ending. Nor my mother’s death from cancer when I was thirteen (I don’t think I mentioned this before.) My father chose not to tell me–and warned others not to–that she was dying, thinking, of course, that it was best for me to keep thinking she would get better (which I did) and not to be constantly upset during the course of her illness. So that ending was quite a shock. To keep the flower analogy, it was as if the rose of that experience was clipped without having had the chance to follow nature’s course, namely, allowing me to deal with my mother’s terminal illness as it wound its way toward her demise.

As well, there were just so many other things not talked about–career choices, books read, friendships, my brother’s alcoholism. Such a non-verbal environment does not make for a good garden, meaning many important events were not fertilized or watered so that they could come to their natural ending, whatever than might be–understanding, resignation, hope.

So maybe that’s why it’s so important for me to have a sense of completion with my short story and novel endings. Unlike Vonnegut, however, I quickly want to start something new and bring that to the right, for me, ending. Maybe it’s as the old Quaker (or Shaker?) hymn would have it–the one about turning, turning, and turning so that things will “come out right.” If I keep writing, writing, writing, things (life) will come our right.

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