Master Mondays: An Interview with David Mura
As part of our Master Mondays interview series, we caught up with David Mura—creative nonfiction writer, poet, fiction writer, critic, playwright, and Loft teaching artist—to ask him 8 essential questions about writing, genre-bending, truth in nonfiction, and advice for writers.
You write nonfiction, fiction, poetry, plays—Is your writing process different for every genre? Do you bring techniques from every genre to your nonfiction writing?
When I started Turning Japanese, my memoir of a year I spent in Japan, I had the skills of a poet and an essayist. From poetry I had learned how to craft language and individual sentences—rhythm, syntax, word choice, the use of alliteration and assonance, metaphor, precise concrete detail, use of the senses, shifts in diction, etc. From essays I knew how to analyze and critique, how to gather disparate experiences and ideas and marshal them into an argument or a thesis. What I didn’t know was how to construct a narrative. That task took me several drafts; I was helped by Jon Franklin’s Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction. Later, when I came upon Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey and Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, I saw that the narrative for Turning Japanese contained many aspects of the mythic hero’s journey.
I’ve written poems that bring in narrative structures, use fictional prose fragments, work like collages, or are more like performance monologues. I’d like to write more fiction and nonfiction that does more genre bending than the work I’ve done previously.
What’s your writing process like? Do you have a strict routine?
When I’m not teaching, I write every day, starting in the late morning and going to early evening. When I’m writing a novel, it’s more daytime work. Poems I can write at night or even in the wee hours. Some nonfiction, especially narrative nonfiction, is like the novel work; but essays and criticism I work on at any time of the day, even when I’m really tired. If I get stuck in one project or one genre, I’ll move on to another.
Who has been your favorite writing teacher, and why?
William Stafford was never my personal teacher, but his book of essays and interviews, Writing the Australian Crawl, saved me. Specifically, his advice for writer’s block: lower your standards.
There’s been some debate recently about truth in nonfiction—the ethics of melding fact and speculation. What’s your perspective on writing beyond what you know, what you don’t remember clearly or what you didn’t witness, in nonfiction?
Each writer has to determine their own rules for this. At the same time, I suppose there are limits that most people agree on. If you’re a former President and you’re writing an autobiography, you’re writing a factual history. If you stray from what is verifiable you have to let the reader know.
If you’re writing a memoir, you aren’t writing history, but you cannot make up or change a significant aspect of your life or a significant event. You can’t write about being a drug addict or suffering abuse as your own personal experience if that’s not the case. On the other hand, the young Frank McCourt or Tobias Wolff or Maxine Hong Kingston did not go around with a tape recorder or a note pad recording their own personal conversations. Obviously, they’re reconstructing and, to some extent, imagining the words of those conversations, and the reader knows this. As a writer, then, the line between memoir and an autobiographical novel is not always very clear.
With a draft of Turning Japanese, my editor pointed out that some of the passages imagining the experiences of my father or my uncle were more vivid than some of the passages involving myself. The experiences of my father and uncle occurred before I was born so I was clearly imagining them, and I realized that I was just making up certain details about, say, what they were wearing or what the weather was. When I was writing about myself, if I couldn’t remember what the weather was or what I was wearing, I didn’t put that down. So I gave myself permission to imagine details like that. I didn’t think making those things up broke my implicit contract with the reader of my memoir. But some people may disagree.
What are the elements of successful nonfiction? What elevates it from dry reporting, or sensational confession?
Story is one element. I work a lot on narrative structure with my students who are writing memoir. Memoirs don’t have to be structured as a narrative, of course. But I believe it’s useful for my students to know the structures of narrative and how to use them, to see these structures as tools not only to create narrative drive and reader interest, but also to analyze their experiences. You see them at work in Mary Karr’s memoirs or Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life or Frank Wilderson’s Incognegro.
At the same time, some writers dig deeper into things, emotionally and intellectually, politically, culturally. Works like Susan Griffin’s A Chorus of Stones or Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place or Jon Berger’s and our hearts our faces brief as photos have stayed with me for years and formed part of the lens through I view the world. Ryszard Kapuscinski wrote reportage that reads like allegories from a cousin of Kafka who witnessed the revolutions and civil wars of Africa; V.S. Naipaul’s reportage covers an astounding range of countries and cultures and penetrating insights (yes, I know there are problems with him, but his work makes that of so many writers seem embarrassingly provincial). Eduardo Galleano’s reimagining of South American history in brief fragments is another example.
Give us a one word review of your five favorite books.
Can’t do one word: Absalom, Absalom by Faulkner: oral storytelling; The Devil Finds Work by Baldwin: identity/race/film; American Pastoral by Roth: parenthood nightmares; The Lover by Duras: lyrical fragments; Woman Warrior by Kingston: groundbreaking.
Are there any subjects around which you find yourself thinking “I can’t write about that!” How do you deal with that self-censorship that sometimes arises in writing the personal?
I’ve found that it’s a lot easier to write about things that might upset my parents than about things that may upset my kids. So sometimes now it feels harder to press into certain places than when I was younger.
What 3 short pieces of advice do you have for writers of creative nonfiction?
1. Learn the structures of story.
2. Increase the intellectual and cultural contexts through which you approach your subjects.
3. Race is only going to become more crucial to our literature, not less; we are far from a post-racial society.
David Mura will be teaching "Master Mondays: Creative Nonfiction," an intensive writing opportunity for advanced nonfiction writers at the Loft this winter. He is a creative nonfiction writer, poet, fiction writer, critic, playwright. He’s written two memoirs: Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei, which won the Josephine Miles/Oakland PEN Book Award and was listed in the New York Times Notable Books of Year, and Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality and Identity. His most recent work is the novel Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire. His collection of poetry, The Last Incantations, comes out in 2014. Other poetry books are: Angels for the Burning, The Colors of Desire (Carl Sandburg Literary Award) and After We Lost Our Way (National Poetry Series Contest winner). His book of critical essays is Song for Uncle Tom, Tonto & Mr. Moto: Poetry & Identity. His essays have appeared in Mother Jones, the NY Times and numerous anthologies. He teaches in the Stonecoast MFA Program and the VONA Writers’ Conference.