Sean Lovelace interviews Ken Sparling for Big Other
Lovelace: Your publishing history is, in a word, fascinating (also unique, but that’s two words). You have been with Knopf (U.S.) and then you actually created your own book at home (with your family sewing the cover and drawing the covers, as I understand) and then with the independent Canadian press, Pedlar, and now the reissue of Hush up and listen stinky poo butt with Artistically Declined Press. Can you briefly comment on the differences between self-publishing versus giant mainstream publisher versus small press?
Sparling: It does look fascinating when you summarize it like this. Looking back, it’s good to see that I’ve tried different approaches to organizing my life. I like that I’ve done some exploring – not just through my writing, but through my efforts to get published, as well.
Getting published by Knopf when I did was like getting flown by helicopter to the top of a mountain and being dropped there. It felt amazing to be going up there, but the excitement came before I got to the top, from knowing I was going to the top. Once I got there, I was mostly just afraid of falling back down the mountain.
After Gordon Lish told me he wanted to publish a book with me, he said, “This is a great opportunity. Don’t fuck it up, Sparling.”
At the time, I thought he meant, don’t make a crappy book, and maybe that’s what he did mean. But when I think about it now, I think the potential to fuck up lay more in the course of action I was about to organize my life around now that I was going to have a Knopf book. It wasn’t so much the danger of fucking up what I put in the book (I had no book written when Lish decided to publish me), but more about what sort of life I would erect around the fact that I had a book with Knopf. What would I make of the life that carried this book forward and saw it out into the world through publication with Knopf?
With Beth at Pedlar Press, I already had a book ready when I went to her. I’d written Hush up and listen stinky poo butt and I’d shown it to my friend Derek McCormack. I’d talked to Derek about making the book myself. I’d asked him questions about how he thought I might be able to make the book myself. At some point, he said I should maybe try Beth at Pedlar Press. Beth said she wanted to publish Hush up and listen stinky poo butt and I said, great, let’s do it. But at the last minute I backed out so that I could continue my attempt to do it myself.
Beth said she’d be interested in seeing my next book after Hush up and listen stinky poo butt, so when I had another book, I sent it to her and she took it for Pedlar. That was my untitled book. I just handed her the manuscript and waited for her to deal with it. I think I was particularly suspicious of my desire to get published at this point, and also afraid of putting together in a book the things I had put together in the untitled book. I think fear and suspicion were part of the reason I wanted the book to be untitled. I think I intuitively felt a need to undo the damage done by packaging my writing in a book. I thought that leaving the book untitled might go a ways toward accomplishing that. I told Beth I wanted just a blank cover with absolutely nothing on it.
Beth’s designer, Zab, is brilliant and her solution to an untitled book was brilliant. She took the boards they use in hardcover books and just didn’t bother covering them. Just bound them with binding tape that wraps around enough on the cardboard to have space enough for a barcode. Beth thought they better put my name on the spine, so they put my name on the spine, and they put the Pedlar logo at the bottom of the spine. The untitled book is as beautiful in its way as Hush up and listen stinky poo butt and I’m totally grateful. Grateful is probably a good way to describe my relationship to Beth and small press.
Overall, in my experience, the difference between publishing with a mainstream press and a small literary press is pretty negligible. In both cases my involvement more or less stops when I hand the manuscript over to the publisher.
The experience of making Hush up and listen stinky poo butt was absolutely the best of the three publishing experiences you mention in your question. I spent a lot of time and energy thinking about and talking about how I was going to make this book. One of the people I talked to a bunch was Derek McCormack. Derek was a big inspiration for me. I love his writing, and he’d done a beautiful book with Pedlar Press, and also some work with Pas de Chance, a publisher that makes the most gorgeous books. When Derek was doing his book The Haunted Hillbilly, Pas de Chance published a small excerpt from the book that came in a sewing pattern envelope and included a pattern for a Western Shirt, which was the name of the short piece they published. Hearing about what Pas de Chance was doing made me want to make something cool, something physically cool, to surround my words with something extraordinary. In the end, they were surrounded by this extraordinary experience of bringing this book into existence.
Lovelace: There is an ongoing war against the imagination. Your books often align themselves with the Kings of one of the warring countries, the Children. Discuss. Follow up: Is a child a type of poem?
Sparling: Somehow I think imagination isn’t the source of the imagined. The imagined is an act, like how I put words together, the act of putting words together. Not the consequence of putting words together, not the result. The imagined is an act like the setting down of a single word, and then nothing, space, emptiness, and then the setting down of another single word, and then more nothing, and then the setting down of another word, and then, at some point, the removal of a word, or the replacement of one word by another, or the motion when a sentence swings around and gets reordered by an act of the writer… Somehow I think that the imagined comes not from the imagination, but, rather, exists only as a consequence of action – and not even that, because the imagined doesn’t follow action, it exists as action.
Is a child a type of poem?
A poem is a product of deliberation. Even if it’s an inspired poem, even if it’s a product of the muse, even if it’s something that seems utterly spontaneous, there comes a moment when the poet deliberately sets the poem out into the world. Once seen, the poem becomes an object. This, it seems to me, might not ever be what the poet hopes for. If what the poet hopes for is something that never settles into itself as object, never forgets itself as question, then maybe what the poet hopes for is a poem that looks something like a child, a thing that enters into the world, is seen, yet never settles into itself as object.
A child in action is further away from deliberation than a poet in action. But an adult watching a child might be as an adult reading a poem. A child seems to act outside of deliberation. A child’s actions are not a symbol for something else, whereas a poem is made up of words and words point. Words stand as symbols for something other than the words themselves, and that something else is what they point to. When a child acts, is that child pointing? Is the act of a child a deliberate attempt to become a symbol for something else? Insofar as a child is only herself and her actions are only what they are, she stands for nothing.
Can a word stand for nothing? I think a poet begins in the hope that a word can stand for nothing. From our perspective as adults, a child is a child relative to what she is not. A child is not an adult. A poem is not a story. Language is freed for a poet relative to what language is to a story writer. Action is freed for a child relative to what action stands for for an adult.
A poem tries not to be captured by the things that capture story. But a child makes no effort to remain free of the things that capture an adult, because a child is already simply and originally free of those things. A child is a type of poem only insofar as we, as adults, re-imagine what the child does relative to what we ourselves do.
Does this mean a poem achieves what the poet hopes for when the poem need not make any effort to remain free of the things that capture story, and yet does remain free of these things? Does a poem become what the poet hopes for only when the poet resists the urge to re-imagine what the poem does relative to what a story might do?
What might a story do? A story seems like a kind of direction, a kind of effort to perceive direction in a series of actions. A child enters story not in the mind of the child, but in the mind of the adult who re-imagines the child based on the child’s actions. If a child’s actions exist as a series of actions that move like a story in a perceived direction only in the mind of the adult who, in his mind, directs the action, then a child is a type of poem insofar as she resists the desire to direct the action.
But a child never actually resists directing the action, because she never even contemplates directing the action in the first place. Her failure to direct the action is not in itself a failure; it is only a failure insofar as her action is directed in the mind of the adult.
A child might play at directing action, but her actions lead only back into themselves, never into the world, in the sense that they are play. When the play is over, the action collapses. It has no consequence in the world outside the play.
Is a poem, then, play in the sense that it leads back into itself and collapses whenever someone tries to bring it into the world and press upon the action of the poem a direction that leads out of the poem and into the world?
Brian Evenson’s book Baby Leg, which was just published by New York Tyrant, is a brilliant exploration of the idea of imagination. He has his main character’s brain filling in gaps when he hears a voice that seems oddly displaced. He has the villain of the book accusing the narrator of a failure of imagination because the narrator can see only a stub at the end of one of his arms where everybody else seems to see a hand.
The war against imagination begins as soon as the child stops acting on the gaps she perceives in the world and begins imagining as a way of filling those gaps, just like Evenson’s characters fill the gaps to make sense of the world. Imagination is the filling in of the gaps that the child previously saw no need to fill, gaps that the child previously had no fear of and so was able to simply live with.
In a way, my work as a writer constitutes a war on imagination in the sense that I’m working to pry open the gaps that adult imagination continually seeks to fill. The questioning (troubling, bothering, violating) I talk about is a prying open of the gaps that imagination covers (glosses) over. A poem is a form of questioning, of prying, in the sense that prying constitutes a sort of curiosity, in the sense that to pry means to look into.
A child is not a poem so much as a metaphor, from the perspective of us adults, for the idea of poem, for the poetic. A child might represent for an adult the poetic ideal, but for the child, who lives and acts among and through, and so in a sort of harmony with the gaps in the world, the poetic is not yet necessary.
Strange as it may seem, the poetic turns out to be itself an act of war on imagination, an act of war on what imagination does to blind us to the gaps we need to strive to continue to perceive in the world in order to render ourselves poetic.
Lovelace: This making your book at home thing is kind of awesome. How many did you make? Did you have a set process? Set materials? How long would it take you to make one complete book? If I threw the book against a wall, what would happen physically to the homemade book?
Sparling: I feel like it’s awesome. I feel like some guy called Ken Sparling made a decision to make a book, and followed through, stumbled through, worked through the problems, and, through his own hands almost exclusively, imagined a book into existence. I feel like I can look back at the dude who managed to imagine that book into existence and be proud of him the way I might be proud of one of my kids. The guy totally excites me. I would never try to be that guy now, but I love that he could have existed. I love that he followed a path that I would never follow. I love that I could be a guy back then who I would never be again, the same way I love another writer because she can be that guy I’ll never be, because she can walk that path I’ll never walk.
It was very exciting trying to work out how to do a book all by myself. Making the manuscript into a book was like a series of problems to solve. How do I get it laid out? How do I get it designed? How do I get it printed? How do I get it bound? The excitement came from me having no idea where to start, but launching into the project anyway.
I started out thinking of it as something I could maybe get other people involved in. I asked a designer that I work with at the library if she would lay it out and design it, and she agreed. But in the end she didn’t have the time, and I’m actually quite glad about that, because it pushed me to rethink the whole thing and treat it as a problem I needed to solve in a way that kept me involved more directly in the process.
I didn’t want to direct the process, I realized, I wanted to be the process. I wanted to imagine the book into existence using my hands, the way I’d imagined the manuscript into existence using words.
I got terribly frustrated at times trying to figure out how to make a manuscript into a book, and then trying to execute my solutions, but it was partly because of all that frustration that it felt so deeply satisfying when I finally managed to create that first copy of the book.
I don’t think I’ve made quite 100 handmade copies of Hush up and listen stinky poo butt since I made the first one around ten years ago, but it’s probably close to a hundred.
If you threw the book at a wall, the cover would probably come off, but the rest of it would definitely hold together, because it’s sewn. And you could easily put the cover back on with just a little duct tape.
It probably takes close to two hours to assemble a single copy of the book. This includes photocopying from the master, folding each photocopied 8.5×11 sheet in half to make a good crease, having my wife sew eight sheet sections of the book into little booklets (four book pages to a sheet), and binding everything into a withdrawn hardcover library book that I’ve ripped the guts out of. But that doesn’t factor in the time it took me to lay out the master so that the pages fall in the right place when I bundle them into sets of eight sheets and then put all the sets together and fold everything.
Lovelace:·How can I avoid asking a clichéd question about your relationship with Gordon Lish? Maybe you can help me. What’s something you wanted to say no one would ask?
Sparling: When I decided to try to get published by The Quarterly, the magazine Lish put out when he was working at Knopf, it was like a seduction. After I’d sent a few pieces to the magazine, and I’d gotten increasingly encouraging rejection notes, I came to understand that what I was actually doing was trying to make Gordon Lish fall in love with me. I sent Lish words I thought might make him fall in love with me, and in among the words I sent that I thought might have any sort of outside chance of making Lish fall in love with me, Lish finally found some words that he could rescue from my work that would make him fall in love with me.
Although, I think, in truth, Lish fell in love with himself as he searched through my words for sentences he could rescue. He fell in love with himself because of me. He fell in love with himself, like he had again and again all his life, by finding in among the words someone sent him some select words that he could love himself for finding.
When it came to the point where it seemed like the seduction was working, that Lish was falling in love – with me, or with himself, or with the self he found himself able to be again in the presence of the words he was able to select from the words I sent to try to make him love me – I got scared. Someone in Lish’s office sent me a note that said, “Gordon thinks he may be falling in love with you.” I panicked.
I talked to Lish on the phone just after he decided he wanted to do a book with me, and he said, “This is a great opportunity, Sparling. Don’t fuck it up.”
I was pretty certain I would fuck it up.
I was also afraid I was going to be abandoned. Either because I would fuck it up and Lish would abandon me, or because Lish would get fired from Knopf before I could make a book for him. I was certain Lish couldn’t continue to do what he was doing at Knopf, signing writers like me to do books, and get away with it. I worked like a fiend to make a book so that I could get it to Lish and get it published before they fired him. I didn’t make it. They fired him before I sent him my book. Or just after I sent it, I can’t remember. But I’d signed a contract, and Knopf agreed to honour any contracts Lish had entered into prior to him getting fired.
Lovelace: During a lonely part of my life, in a cold, foreign town, I was fortunate enough to have a library right below my apartment. The library was a place I could go and hang out for hours and no one would question me, harass me, or try to sell my something. Can you discuss the library as unique space?
Sparling: A guy in Toronto just recently blogged about the library’s new automatic checkout system, which didn’t work too well for him. After explaining in great detail what a hassle his first use of this new system was, he had to add: “I really do love the Toronto Public Library System. For all its growing pains I’m sure they will work it out.”
For this guy, same as for me, the idea of the public library lies in something like intention. For me, the space that is the public library isn’t so much a physical space, as it is a unique intention. In your question, you talk about the library as a place where you felt welcome on your own terms. The library invited you in without asking for anything back. The library creates space by letting you be whoever you need to be by not needing you to be anything in particular.
The first time I took books out of the library by myself, without my mom doing it for me, I was afraid to leave the library building because I thought someone would stop me. It wasn’t exactly that I felt like I was stealing, but it seemed like no adult would let me get away with borrowing books on my own. The library was just so different from anything else I was experiencing in my life as a kid, I couldn’t believe they were able to maintain the kind of trust that allowed them to let me participate in this amazing adventure on my own terms.
The library opens a space by not being what everything else is, by not being a closing in on you, by not trapping you into being something in particular.
And even when the library’s intentions don’t quite translate into reality – even when the reality fails completely to reflect the intention – the intention is still there, visible somehow in the reality.
You see a different side of the library when you work there, of course. But what is amazing to me when I think about it, is that the idea of the public library as I encountered it before I ever worked there remains at the core of my feelings for libraries even after having worked for the Toronto library system for more than 20 years. If anything, my feelings now are stronger.
We indulge in some pretty maudlin, sentimental, almost slick propaganda in the marketing department, which is the department I work in at the library. If you list the things a library stands for – freedom, democracy, community, access – it sounds foolishly idealistic to believe that any institution could truly embody those things in the modern world without having an angle, but I actually believe most of the stuff we say in our promotional efforts for the library.
Lovelace: Philip Larkin was offered “Writer” positions (grants, Poet Laureateships, etc.), but always wanted to stick with his library job. Is a library position a good idea for a writer, or some other job, or none?
Sparling: I don’t know if I have the sort of experience that would allow me to answer this question. I have no idea what would have happened if I stuck with another job, or if I managed to have enough success as a writer to have no other job. I worked as a safety supervisor at a school bus company when I was younger and nearly had a nervous breakdown, so I quit. My wife said: If you hate the job so much, quit and be a writer for a year, and at the end of a year, if you’re not making a living as a writer, get another job. So I did that. I quit my job and did nothing but write and send out my writing for a year. At the end of a year, I wasn’t making a living as a writer, so I got a job at the library.
There have been times when I’ve nearly had a nervous breakdown working at the library, but I didn’t quit this job. I stayed with it mostly for practical reasons, because by then I had kids and we’d bought a home.
I don’t know what I’d do if I was offered “writer” positions. It sounds almost romantic what Larkin did, turning down writer positions to keep working at the library. But if I had to make a decision about staying at the library or not, it would hardly come down to anything very romantic. It would come down to some pretty practical concerns, like economic stability, and will my wife kill me if I do this (which sort of presages another of your questions coming up).
Lovelace: Is your internal writer divorced from your internal editor? Or: Do you revise while writing, later, or never?
Sparling: Writing is a movement from one word to the next. In the space between words, when you’ve got to the end of one word and are moving through the space on the page on your way to the next word, and you haven’t yet set down the next word, when you’re still in a position where that potential to move in any direction exists, are you writing or revising?
But is deciding already a form of revision, in that it makes choices, rejects possibilities in favour of other possibilities. If writing is deciding, like a series of decisions, what is revising?
Is revising a different sort of decision?
If you revise someone else’s work, how is that different from revising your own work? With another person’s work, you’re sort of stuck with something, some framework you can’t entirely escape. When you revise another person’s writing, you deal not just with words, but with another person’s intentions.
When you’ve written something yourself, and you go back to it with some idea that you will revise it, are you sort of stuck with what you’ve written, as though it were someone else’s work?
If there is the potential to completely abandon the work you’ve already done, in a way you couldn’t in revising another person’s work, what is the significance of revision when it comes to revising your own work?
Sometimes, I kind of feel stuck with what I’ve written before. I’ve got drawers and bookshelves and boxes in the garage full of writing I did over the past thirty or so years. I don’t feel like I can throw any of it out, or even like I should throw any of it out. But when I pull some of this old writing out and look at it, I don’t really know what to do with it. I’ve been working on this problem of what to do with all my old writing for a while.
For a while, going through that old writing was like a rescue mission for me, where I went through what I’d written and pulled out bits that seemed worth saving. Is that a kind of revising, where you rescue sections of writing out of larger pieces but don’t actually make any changes to anything yet?
Nowadays I feel I’m less doing discrimination, or selection, and more doing a kind of improvisation. I find myself comparing the process to jazz. My pieces that I wrote years ago are like jazz standards, like a structure built not so much to be repeated, but to be questioned again and again through a constant reorganizing, a constant search for new melodies that will work overtop of the structure of the standard. Would you call that process revising? Would you say a jazz musician doing a solo was revising? I suppose you might.
Lovelace: What is the worst writing advice you could ever give?
Sparling: Treat the line through your writing as a command to excise. Whether the line through your writing is literally something put there by your editor, or whether the line through your writing is literally something put there by yourself, or whether the line through your writing is something you imagine there, treat that line through your writing as a reason to abandon your sentence, to give up on it, to walk away from your sentence, to give up and forget that sentence with the line through it. Forget the crossed out sentence and move on to create a whole new sentence that has no relation to the sentence crossed out.
Lovelace: If you could be any other writer but yourself, who would you be?
Sparling: I can’t think of another writer I’d rather be than me. There are times when I don’t particularly love myself. Or, at least, times when I feel distanced from the me I love. But there’s a guy, Ken Sparling, who is a writer, a great writer, who I’ve been in love with since I was in Grade 4. I loved that guy like you wouldn’t believe. I loved that guy, this writer guy named Ken Sparling, this guy who I imagined, in much the same way I love the library, even when it fails in reality to measure up to its intentions. This Ken Sparling is a great writer and I’ve watched him from a distance and tried to become him for years.
Sometimes I’ve gotten close to being something I think is exactly what that great writer Ken Sparling would be like if he really existed. But when I get to that place where I feel like I’m closest to being like that Ken Sparling who I fell in love with in Grade 4, I often feel most lost, least in love with myself, most afraid and most unsure. And when I think back to that frightened, hopeless, useless, desperate guy, I love him even more than I love the guy I thought was the great writer Ken Sparling.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read writing by other writers that I love, but I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to be any other writer, except that guy named Ken Sparling that I made up, fell in love with, and will never quite be.
Lovelace: Do you enjoy reading over your own books?
Sparling: Yes. Most of the time. Or, at least, more often than I might ever have expected. What I enjoy about reading my own books, I think, is being surprised by what I’ve written. I don’t ever go and set out to read an entire book by me. Most of the time when I’m reading over some of my published stuff, it’s sort of casual, like an accident. For instance, I hadn’t made any copies of Hush up and listen stinky poo butt for a few years and suddenly a few people wanted copies. When I’m photocopying the master copy, I’ll sometimes read some pages of it at random. I’m usually surprised and happy about what I read at those times.
I’ve read parts of Dad says he saw you at the mall that I’d entirely forgotten and they made me laugh out loud.
I did a little author visit to a teen writers group a friend of mine runs at the library, and at some point one of the teens wanted me to read the boner part near the beginning of Dad says he saw you at the mall. I briefly thought: I can’t read that part to these kids. But I read it and it made me laugh reading it in that context. I mean a good solid laugh that came out of a deep fear and a kind of communion I felt with those kids, just for that moment, as I read what I’d perceived as something outwardly inappropriate. What I think I loved, beyond the content of what I’d written so many years ago, was the boldness of just stepping back into it and not hesitating again after that first hesitation. It’s a bit like the decision I was talking about when you treat what you’ve crossed out in your writing as something dead, something to be walked away from and forgotten. As soon as you make that decision, you need to turn back and step directly back into that sentence and decide not ever to give up on yourself again until the day you give up on yourself again and, by giving up on yourself again, you make a new opportunity for yourself to once again decide never to give up on yourself again.
Lovelace: What are the challenges coming up for writers?
I see the challenges coming up for writers as something on the other side of a wave. A wave just high enough to block your view of the challenges coming up for writers. By the time you see the challenges you’re already wet, drenched, soaked from the wave washing over you. By the time you recognize the challenges, you’re already immersed in the medium that provides these challenges.
Lovelace: I was reading The Road recently and thought of your writing (though you don’t go as crazy with tone and mood [the word ash appears maybe 1,000 times] as much as McCarthy). Can every sentence or paragraph of a larger book be its own book?
Sparling: I was on the subway with Gordon Lish in New York once when he told me, “You need to read this book by Cormac McCarthy called Blood Meridian.” So I read it. After I read it, I wanted to read everything by Cormac McCarthy. I went on to read the books in The Border Trilogy. I finished them all. I tried to read another book McCarthy put out, but didn’t finish it. I tried to read some of the books he put out before Blood Meridian, but didn’t finish them either. I don’t even remember the titles of those books I didn’t finish. But all along I said to people, I don’t care that I don’t finish a book by this guy, I have so much respect for what he tries to do. But I didn’t go out looking for his books anymore, and I didn’t even know when he put a new book out anymore.
One day my wife and I were at the Richvale Library, which is our tiny local branch, and I saw on the new book shelf a new book by McCarthy. It was The Road. You know how it is when you believe in someone, and you wait for them to do something you can love, and they don’t quite do that something you can love, but they keep trying and then finally they make it happen? That’s what it was like with The Road. It was like McCarthy, or me, or both of us, returned to a place where we could love again.
So to have you say you thought of me in connection with The Road… well I loved that book, because it was a great book to read for me, but also because of my history with the man who wrote it, my history as a reader of this other writer. So thanks for saying that, for making that comparison.
Every sentence has to matter. No sentence can exist as a passage to the sentence beyond it. You can’t keep a sentence because it’s necessary to keep it in order to support the sentence that follows it, or to support the plot, or to bring out the traits in a character. No sentence can be subservient. You can’t afford to entertain a sentence that doesn’t have within it the strength of the entire book, that doesn’t bring with it the full force of who you are, that doesn’t hold within its motion, it’s hinging of one word onto the next, its decision to move this way or that, to add this word or that, to slow with a comma, or stop with a period, or careen past all punctuation, you can’t support any single sentence that doesn’t bring with it in every motion it presents the full force of who you are.
Every single sentence becomes a book on its own only when you come to understand the nature of a book. A book is you. A book is the writer. A book is the reader. If you invest every single sentence in the book with every single part of who you are, that book is a success. As I said in another interview, imagine that you had only one thing to say, but you weren’t quite sure how to say it. Now, every sentence is an example of you saying that one thing you’re trying to say. Every sentence is you trying to find new ways to say the one and only thing you have to say but are not quite sure how to say. Every sentence is an example of you trying.
It isn’t the product you create in the end that matters so much. It isn’t a conglomerate of sentences that exist together to create an entity that is bigger than its parts. That isn’t what makes the book work. What makes the book work is the taste of you trying that lies behind each sentence of the book. In that way, maybe each sentence is a book in itself… in the sense that what you’ve invested in the book is invested in each sentence. It isn’t an investment that compounds or develops or grows, but rather an investment that divests itself again and again in order to reinvest. It’s an investment in the moment, a looking down at your feet long enough to forget the horizon.
Lovelace: In your books there is always a tension between responsibility to self and responsibility to someone else, or expectations. Like, In my heart, I want to do this-even if perceived by others as silly or irresponsible or wrongheaded-but you need/want me to do that. A friction exists. Discuss.
Sparling: People come across you when you are in a certain place in this world and they want to hold you responsible for being in that place. I crashed my mom’s Volkswagen Beetle into the back of a police car when I was sixteen years old, and when that happened people wanted to hold me responsible for it. When I’m riding my bicycle to work and people come up behind me in their cars, they want to hold me responsible for my position in the lane of traffic. The police who pull me over on my bicycle want to hold me responsible for how I manoeuvre my bike relative to stoplights, stop signs, pedestrians, sidewalks, etc.
I don’t want to be held responsible. I don’t mind taking responsibility. In fact, I think I’ve come to enjoy taking responsibility. But being held responsible is like being held in prison. It’s like being held in the small space where you found yourself at one point in your life and not being allowed to leave that space, even though, in reality, you left it long ago.
It takes a great act of imagination to lock a person in a space they haven’t inhabited for years. It’s a great waste to spend your life imagining people in a way that holds them responsible for a moment in their life that is gone. It’s a great waste for the person doing the imagining, and it’s a fucking nuisance for the person being imagined.
The people I’ve loved most in this world were the people who let me off the hook when they could have held me responsible. The cop who talked the store owner out of charging me when I got caught shoplifting as a teenager. The math teacher in high school who gave me a couple extra percent on my grade so I could be an Ontario scholar when I graduated.
But those people are the exceptions.
When I saw that most people were going to hold me responsible for the places they found me in in this world, places I found myself in often in spite of myself, I started to think about, and worry about, where I was headed, in case I wound up once again in a place I didn’t want to be held responsible for finding myself in.
When I arrived in a class at high school with a paper in my hand, and I handed it to the teacher, the teacher would read it and hold me responsible for where I’d arrived at in that paper. I was supposed to learn how to arrive at a place in these papers I wrote where the teacher could hold me in high esteem, which is just, in the end, another place people could hold me responsible for arriving at. Being held responsible for arriving at a highly esteemed location in an essay I wrote is no different than arriving on the back bumper of a cop car in my mom’s Beetle, as far as being held responsible goes. In both cases people take note of your location in a single moment of your life and base all their actions relative to you on their memory (imagination) of you in that single location, a location you are no longer in.
What I did when I began to grow afraid of being held responsible was to look for ways to arrive in places where people would be happy to find me. In order to arrive in those places, you have to locate them in your imagination ahead of time. When you write a paper at school, you need to figure out what you want to say first, then say it. This is what being held responsible fosters in easily frightened people like me. It tells people to carefully direct themselves toward a place where, when they arrive, people will be happy to find them.
In this life, it doesn’t matter really where you arrive, what matters is how you direct yourself, and being held responsible can hurt you into believing it is best to know exactly where you are going before you try to go there. So your life becomes less spontaneous, you become more and more afraid to improvise, where improvisation means listening to the moment you find yourself in and basing your actions, your decisions about how to move forward, on what you are hearing right now in the moment.
Lovelace: I work with a lot of student writers and they rarely have their own style (not surprisingly, I think a writer develops this late). You certainly have your own style. In fact, I have tried to mimic it before (I do this with all writers I admire, naturally). I feel like if I picked up a piece of writing of yours with no author or title I would say, “This is Ken Sparling.” Can you discuss your style of writing, its genesis or way?
Sparling: Often I’ll misread what I’ve written and revise it to read as I misread it. I’ll misread a word and replace the original word with the misread word.
Sometimes I’ll hear a phrase or a sentence in my head and I’ll write it down, not because I like what it says – what it says often seems irrelevant, or even meaningless, or totally without context – but for some reason I’ll like the phrase or sentence, maybe just the rhythm, or the combination of words, I’m not really sure. Sometimes I’ll attach the phrase I heard in my head and liked to another phrase I’ve heard in my head and liked. This second phrase could be something I hear in my head the next day, or any other day, really. I try not to worry about whether the two phrases work together. I try to move on, leave it alone a while… I guess that means I resist the temptation to revise immediately.
I try to trust that I’ll see a way to bring things together next time I come through, or the next time after that. At my best, I bring a sort of trust to the process that allows me to relax in a certain way and move through as though it doesn’t matter where I arrive in the end. What matters is the moving through. This is when I’m at my best.
Maybe we could forget about the idea of revision and think in terms of re-harmonizing. When I re-read a piece of writing, I mis-hear words, I pull things apart and reorganize, I lift a sentence and drop it elsewhere, rework the sentence to make it seem more in harmony, or more in discord, with what surrounds it in the place I’ve newly dropped it.
I feel like my writing has and continues to evolve, but I’m glad you think there’s something at the core of what I do that makes my writing identifiable.
Lish said, don’t be afraid of your limits. He never said those words, but he told me at one point to put everything I’d written together and not be afraid that it didn’t look like it should be together in a book the way I was putting it together in a book. He was saying, I think: Don’t let the idea of book as it is traditionally considered circumscribe what you accomplish with your writing. To go back to what I said before about imagination and responsibility, don’t lock yourself into a moment in your life where you had a certain notion of book, or of writing, or of marketing the library, or of loving your children, or of preparing the evening meal. Listen to the questions the world is asking of you and question those questions. Let your questioning of the questions the world is asking of you direct your life. Questioning the questions is a form of listening, and it’s the strongest form of listening I’ve encountered, a form of listening that empowers in a way that answering questions never will.
So I have to believe that the genesis of my style has something to do with questioning writing, of putting words together in a way that questions continually the structure I imagine words need in order to survive together on a page.
This is something like saying I should not be afraid to enter a room full of people even though I don’t feel like I am the kind of person who should be in among that particular room full of people. Being in a room full of people where I don’t feel I belong, where I don’t feel any kinship with the people, is uncomfortable – for me and for the people I’m with, too, probably – but this discomfort is itself a form of questioning. It questions the room in a way that can potentially make it a better room full of people to be in.
In the end, what has allowed my style to develop, what allows my style to stand independently and proclaim itself, is my relationship to everything in my life, my family life, my work life, my writing life. And it has to do with acknowledging limits, with not being afraid of my limits. Or maybe it has to do with being afraid of my limits, but not letting this fear stop me from moving, from acting, from deciding. Maybe it has to do with being mortally afraid and exploring, questioning, troubling this fear even though it sometimes threatens to paralyze me.
John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.