The last two summers, I’ve had the good fortune to spend a week in June at Chautauqua Institution in New York where I do readings and teach writing workshops. On a particularly balmy Sunday afternoon, I sat on the porch of the Writer’s Center listening to that week’s prose writer-in-residence, David Lazar. His discussion focused on “The Essay as Queer Genre” and the efforts to capture essay into a genre category. Sitting in front of me was a very special guest – Lazar’s 11-year-old son – who was attending one of his father’s formal readings for the first time. I noticed that the young boy was as attentive and interested in what was being said and read as the rest of us were. And for good reason. Lazar takes the written word quite seriously. He is the author of The Body of Brooklyn and three other books and founded Hotel Amerika, a literary magazine. Lazar’s work has been published in three different anthologies, and five of his essays have been called “Notable Essays of the Year” by Best American Essays.
David: I don’t think you decide to make something a passion. I think you do make decisions about what schools you’ll go to, and what you’re going to emphasize in your life. I started writing poetry when I was a boy, and it was very important, though very private. I never took any workshops, nor did I share my work much, but I read lots and took a lot of literature classes. After I did an M.A. in an unrelated field, and got some strong encouragement from Stanley Plumly and A.R.Ammons, and a young poet named Shirley Jackson, I decided to make writing my life’s work.
What is your writing process? How do you get to the core/truth of your work?
I frequently don’t. If I do, it’s because of luck, and insisting I go further and further, and ask myself the most difficult questions possible. I try to give myself the hardest time imaginable. And I re-write endlessly.
You seem to be fascinated by the role memory plays in writing and in everyday life. What conclusions did you draw on the topic after putting together Truth in Nonfiction: Essays?
Well, I expected more of the writers I included to feel the way I did about staying closer to the facts of their stories, not manipulating them, which is what I do. I happen to feel that memory, even though unreliable, even though a construct, is essential to us, and where we live much of the time, blended into the present. What it means, how we understand it is much more important, ultimately, than questions of facticity, so the unending questions about facticity start to bore me.
How do you define “nonfiction” as opposed to “creative nonfiction?” Are they shifting in meaning? How experimental should they be?
I don’t like “creative nonfiction”—an American invention that adds the unnecessary and defensive adjective. Nonfiction itself is just an umbrella term that isn’t particularly useful—it doesn’t exist in France. I prefer the terms “essay,” “memoir,” “prose,” “diary,” all of which speak to the nature of the work.
You created the Nonfiction Writing programs at Ohio University, and at Columbia College Chicago where you now teach. What have you learned from your writing students?
I learn from my students endlessly, about the possibilities and plasticity of forms. About the generous nature of constructive criticism. About enthusiasm. About looking in corners that have been overlooked. I love to teach and have been blessed for many years with talented students, many of whom have stayed in my lives for decades.
Is the future of nonfiction in good hands?
I couldn’t say. It isn’t a pressing issue for me.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing or teaching?
I love spending time with my son, watching movies, listening to music, walking. Baseball.
Fred Astaire, the Yankees, Billie Holiday, the Magnetic Fields . . . .
So what did your son think after hearing you read at Chautauqua Institute?
He’s a great listener with a scary memory! He asked me a few questions about what some words meant. And asked me to tell him some of the stories again.
Any upcoming writing projects?
I just finished a book of prose poems, and I’m editing, with a former student, an anthology of essays of Montaigne re-written by contemporary essayists—they take one of his essays and re-imagine it.
What advice do you have for memoir writers?
Break chronology. Distrust memory. Investigate desire.