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"The Entire Experience Seemed Like an Invitation": An Interview with James M. Chesbro

James M. Chesbro’s work has appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, The Washington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Under the Gum Tree, Connecticut Review, The Huffington Post, AOL.com, The Good Men Project, Superstition Review, Pilgrim, Weston Magazine, The Connecticut Post, and Spiritus. You can follow him on Twitter @Jamie_Chesbro.

His essay, "Green Mazes," appeared in Issue Eighty of The Collagist.

Here, James M. Chesbro talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about feelingful thoughts, memory gaps, and mowing the lawn.

What can you tell us about the origins of your essay “Green Mazes”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

Unlike all my other roles, mowing the lawn brings me immediate satisfaction. I like drawing stripes into the yard, of cutting all the blades the same length, of bringing order to the unkempt. The results are immediate, unlike writing, teaching high school students, or freshman undergraduates, and fathering three young children.

One particular time, as I write in the essay, “the gasoline fumes and the cooing mourning dove made me think of my father,” and my childhood backyard. These thoughts and feelings wouldn’t leave me alone long after I finished the lawn. In Phillip Lopate’s “The Personal Essay and First-Person Character” he writes, “In my own essays, I try to convey thought infused with feeling—a feelingful thought as well as a thoughtful feeling. I try to merge heart and mind.” I began to give the material a try because this seemed like what I had—lots of “feelingful thought[s]” to work with. From inside, I could still hear that mourning dove, cooing, cooing, cooing, and the entire experience seemed like an invitation.

Your essay contains several phrases that imply uncertainty about certain details: e.g., “I bet when I asked him,” “he must have given me some instruction,” etc. How much leeway do you give yourself when filling in the gaps of memory? Do you have an obligation to the reader to make it clear when you’re embellishing or making an assumption about how an event probably happened?

Sure, but I think the reader intuits that I’m working with memory, rather than anything verifiable and I suppose these somewhat self-conscious asides remind them of that as I move along. I like how Tobias Wolff addresses writing about memory in his brief preface for This Boy’s Life. “I have been corrected on some points, mostly of chronology. Also my mother thinks that a dog I describe as ugly was actually quite handsome. I’ve allowed some of these points to stand, because this is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell. But I have done my best to make it tell a truthful story.”

That’s the goal for all literary nonfiction writers, right?—to do one’s best in telling a truthful story. We research what is researchable, look at pictures, ask family members if they remember an event (sometimes). We speculate another’s perspective, their internal workings, their motivations. 

As I mention in “Green Mazes,” my father was an artist. He completed his BFA at the University of the Arts. At night or on the weekends he often took classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Sketch Club, where his favorite artist, Thomas Eakins once belonged. The Sketch Club chose to display his work once (and they misspelled his name). I think his figure drawings were attempts to sketch the human body with as much honesty as his ability and skill would allow, which is what I think writers try to do in words with human experience. Your question prompts me to think about the correlations and overlapping considerations visual and literary artists have about how to approach assumptions, embellishments, and portraying the truthfulness of memory.

The second-to-last line asks, “What kind of father am I becoming, and what do the memories of my dad have to teach me as flashes of his figure walk over the lines we’ve drawn?” I’m interested in this turn because the rest of the essay hardly mentions your own children. Were you at all tempted to focus on your own family and attempt to answer this question within the essay, or was this piece always more concerned with your relationship with your father?

This essay was always about the reconciliations I never made with my father, it just took me a long time to see that larger subject. I hope “Green Mazes” causes the reader to ask themselves these questions, about their own parents, which is one reason I’m comfortable letting them linger. The essay can stand alone, as it does in The Collagist, but it also serves my linked collection well as the first essay, as a launching off point for the rest of the manuscript which is mostly about fathering and looking at my deceased father from the new vantage point of being one.

One of the essay’s more profound moments comes when you write that your father’s death “has become an extension of the reconciliations we never made.” How do you approach a topic as universal and sentimental as grief for a family member in a work of nonfiction? And why broach the subject in the context of recalling something as seemingly trivial as mowing the lawn?

Writing about mowing the lawn gives me the occasion to ponder the other matters you mention. How to avoid sentimentality when writing about grief, about family? I have several quotes nailed to the exposed stud above my computer in an unfinished section of our basement where I write. One of my favorites, and one that can address this question more eloquently than I can is from Adam Gopnik’s Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York, when he writes: “We can write about the world only by writing about a world, and that world the one we think, at least, we really know. Journalism is made from the outside in; but writing is made from the inside out. Applicable metaphors, not all-over views, are what writers and readers trade in. The metaphors of experience each writer finds in his own backyard, or air shaft, or palace gardens, have, of necessity, different colors—some are gold and some are green and some merely gray—but in the end, the shapes we know are all the same: the arc of desire and disappointment, the rising half circle of hope, the descending crescent of aging, the scribble of the city or the oval of the park, or just the long, falling tunnel of life. Each of these shapes is to be found in any life lucky enough to have any shape at all. (The cosmic-sentimental essay is, in any case, a kind of antimemoir, a nonconfession confession, whose point is not to strip experience bare but to use experience for some other purpose: to draw a moral or construct an argument, make a case, or just tell a joke.)”

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

Of the books I picked up at AWP, the two that have been winning my attention are: B.J. Hollars’s This Is Only a Test, and Patrick Madden’s Sublime Physick: Essays.

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