“Therapy Is an Imitation of Writing”: An Interview with Daniel Raeburn

Lee, was mostly white. I’d been trying to sound wise. That’s why it’s probably best to err on the side of those doubts. The last issue, a 112-page essay about Mexican historietas, cost so much to print and sold so few copies that he finally had to stop. That it was just a bunch of anecdotes from his life that he wrote down. It had something to do with trauma and my need to relive it again and again, but with a crucial difference: control. I’m not saying that there’s a direct cause and effect between the two, but I am saying that it’s not a coincidence. I had a deep need to communicate without actually saying anything, without cheapening it with talk. ¤
Jeannie Vanasco, assistant professor of English at Towson University, is the author of The Glass Eye: A Memoir (2017) and other works of creative nonfiction. My trick is to imagine that I’m writing a letter to my best friend in the whole world — but the best friend whom I haven’t met. When I met Johnson 20 years later, here in Chicago, he told me and my writing class that Jesus’ Son was actually nonfiction. James Baldwin inspires me more than anyone. She’d stopped living, but I couldn’t stop being her dad, and writing was the only chance I got to be that dad. That anti-style, or non-style, was why I’d fallen in love with her pots and with part of her in the first place, and it was why I read so much James M. A lot of writers aren’t. Who exactly are they talking to? I think that points out the real reason anyone writes: to “talk” about the things one can’t talk about. She’s insubstantial, but she’s real. In some ways it’s what the book’s about. My technical point to my students is that this confusion of the writing process with the reading process may be why so many memoirs are too self-absorbed and self-indulgent. I guess my point is that he, more than anyone, helped me to realize that literature grew out of everything outside of lit class. Talking about it betrayed it. Which it is, but only because writing any kind of so-called creative work is self-indulgent. Even now. I’d read a lot of books that I identified with, but this was the first that was about my actual context — my literal surroundings. But my real hero of that time, the number-one influence on my 21-year-old self, was Denis Johnson. Like my reader, she’s a stranger. These tableaus are fictional, but nonfiction at the same time. The one who’s still a stranger. 
Which is what my daughter was, and why that scene is in the book. It was a lot like what the hero of Jeff Malmberg’s documentary Marwencol (2010) goes through. I’d love to say that I was very unconscious of my lyricism so that I’d seem like a natural. The weird thing is, I can’t really remember what exactly she looked like, only that it was familiar. Because talk does feel cheap to me, even now. They don’t give the impression of showing off. She’s also familiar because in the Middle Ages a familiar was a supernatural spirit or being who followed you wherever you went. ¤
JEANNIE VANASCO: I love how you intertwine not-easily-answered questions throughout Vessels. Not completely self-absorbed. The most you can hope for. And via these long, laborious, fascinating iterations he somehow gains control over his past and his own psyche. Soundless. For example, you say at one point:
I told my students that the secret to writing about their own lives was that it wasn’t about them. And that’s because you don’t know her. I realized that that had to be my prose style too, at least for this book. We recently corresponded via email about what it took to create Vessels, the advice he gives to his students, and current debates surrounding health care in the United States. Had to, seemingly against my will. John Williams too, who talked about the virtues of what he called the plain style. Actually it’s the other way around. Also the faux memoir by “Dave Wallace.” And the opening page of the book, which is basically a stunning prose poem about rural Illinois. Carver helped with that too. But the truth is that I was pretty conscious of wanting to sound “lyrical,” at least in my earlier drafts, when I was pushing the 600-page mark and swinging for the fences with every sentence. Otherwise you’re telling the reader what to feel. This was a book that I had to write. Most of the kids at my high school were black and the school on the other side of town, Robert E. In your memoir, you write: “When I tried to talk about the birth it seemed more factual, but more unbelievable. I could never hope to imitate Baldwin’s style, which makes him a safe source of inspiration. It gave me control over my past and allowed me to find or maybe even make meaning where before there’d been nothing but random coincidence. The most mature, anyway. Sure. And ultimately she did find some peace, and long before I did. More technical, more intellectual. So he becomes an artist. My two favorite American essayists are a gay black man from Harlem and a rich white woman from Sacramento. More recently, Raeburn’s 2016 memoir Vessels: A Love Story explores how the loss of his daughter Irene impacted his marriage; in their grief, he and his wife became closer to their dead child than to each other. Everyone was. That’s why this interview’s working: I’m writing, not speaking. Which requires you, as narrator, to be self-conscious, but not too self-conscious. It maintained the intimate, subjective tone, but it also allowed in more of the world at large, including the reader. Which is the real story of the book. There’s a scene in the book where our midwife tells Bekah, right after Bekah finds out the baby’s dead inside her, to please consider giving birth. It didn’t work in my case. As Wallace used to say: And but so then. There are pitfalls in imagining that you’re talking to a specific person. Discovering Baldwin in that context was like a bolt of lightning. Another way of putting it: They feel essential. So I’m going to start with a big, not-easily-answered question: how do you reconcile, as a memoirist, self-awareness with self-doubt? So I went through the manuscript, replacing the word “you” with “Irene,” and that solved the problem. I asked about Carver because you have these mind-blowingly poetic lines, and yet they don’t stand in relief to the rest of the writing. Which turned out to be the case. Bekah did the labor. That I didn’t cut them. I finally did something tangible for my child. He still is like lightning, in part because he’s so very relevant, but also because of his style, which I think Henry Louis Gates described as part Henry James, part King James. Not boring ones, I hope — just unadorned. A no-frills, almost anti-“literary” aesthetic that went against everything I’d thought when I was younger, when I wanted to wow everyone with the way I was stating things, rather than with what I was actually saying. 
But there were a few sorta fancy moments I couldn’t bear to cut, and those are three of them. I’d spent more than a little time in the drug culture and I knew those apartments, those bars, those characters perfectly. And are there writers whose work you used to like, but don’t anymore? On the other hand, I didn’t want to pretend like my daughter had never existed. Long story short: It’s about this guy who wakes up from a savage beating with no memory of who he was before. Good question. Whose writing inspires you? Was that something you were very conscious of? People assume that the two mirror one another; that’s why they think that writing a memoir is this self-absorbed, self-indulgent process. And it was, but that agony contained its own strange kind of ecstasy. There are good reasons why we honor the dead with moments of silence. I was proud of them at the time but now my tone makes me cringe. You’re thinking about other people way more than you’re thinking about yourself. Her pots look anonymous, like stones. On one hand, I think our silence was respectful and necessary. Deceptively simple in structure and style, Vessels is a deeply complex and beautifully composed work. In fact, I wound up later that night at the Vine, just like Fuckhead. Who is she? You have to be confident in your telling of what happened, but not too confident about what it means. And against a legally binding contract: Norton had contracted me to write a book about underground cartoonists, but I wrote this one instead. Not yet. At least in the plain, almost Shaker aesthetic that fits this book. She exists, if only in my mind. For one thing your narration can become too intimate, too specific, which makes the reader feel like she’s reading a diary entry or a letter aimed at someone else. Which is why I’m surprised they’re still there. This is the main reason I addressed an earlier version of the book directly to her, kind of like the way Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote Between the World and Me (2015) as a letter to his son. Someone you’re close to; someone you can tell anything to. I realize that this doesn’t make me original; when I judged some nonfiction contests recently, I was struck by just how many young essayists ape The White Album (1979) and Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968). Were you ever a big reader of Raymond Carver? It was like being possessed. On the contrary, it’s more human, and in that sense more true. I put them up on my website anyway, as my own form of penance. A good rule of thumb comes from Kafka, who said, “In the struggle between you and the world, you must side with the world.” Another good line came from my friend Mark Slouka. Like Denis Johnson. Can you say more about that? Those are facts. Another really helpful note from Mark Slouka that might explain what I mean: “The grammar of silence.” I kept that on a Post-it note above my desk while I worked. Meaning, who do they imagine hearing the voice in their head? Because I’m pretty inarticulate in person, and that’s where the written word comes in, both professionally and personally. Lyricism in prose is a little like adding violins to a film: less is more, and the more muted the better. Also Joan Didion’s essays, especially the earlier ones. At peace. I have a feeling that your readers have already heard many versions of what I could say about the Republicans in Congress. Sure, in the late ’80s, early ’90s, when I was an undergrad in Iowa City. Not necessarily his novels but his essays, which I discovered in high school in Texas. I see so many people, students included, who confuse their experience of reading a book with the author’s experience of writing it. I said, Think about this person you’re writing to, or for. Writing was the right medium for dealing with this because even though it’s language and therefore “talking,” it is in fact silent. A person I never really knew, but who changed me more than anyone. It’s the art of composition, not performance. Or vice versa? That grammar, as Mark put it. Thompson and Susan Sontag,” and Ira Glass said that “[t]here was a kind of Talmudic completeness to the whole thing, in a way that journalism rarely even aspires to. She’s my alter ego. Their second self? Anyone who’s written nonfiction, including memoir, knows that it’s nerve-wracking to constantly worry about whether or not everyone else involved in the story, including lawyers and judges, will agree with your version of it. All books are, but this one more so. His argument that boredom is a form of heroism really moved me, as did the “wastoid” section narrated by Chris Fogle. DANIEL RAEBURN: I can’t, which is why I’ll never lose interest in nonfiction. I tell them again and again that writing is communicative, not expressive. Therapy is an imitation of writing. As long as I kept it to myself, I kept it alive. That’s what writing gave me. Which was in fact nonfiction, which is I guess my point. As soon as I tried to say it, it died.” Later you say that not writing about Irene was harder than writing about her. Especially poetry and fiction, where you can say whatever you want and never have to worry about being fact-checked. This is why we actually cry for joy. And I’m not a performer. And a whole lot from in between. 
As for books I used to like but don’t anymore, I have to say my own. There I was, giving this advice to my students, without realizing that I was really talking about my dead daughter, the girl I’d seen only once but could never forget. Can you talk about what your writing process on the book looked like? Also, I wanted to get the word familiar in the book. The tone was intimate, but too narrow. The trick is to balance intimacy with universality — to assume a reader you can trust, but also one you know you have to explain the essential facts to. She’s your familiar, but she’s a total stranger. You’re walking a tricky balance beam. The emergency room at Mercy Hospital, for example, where I’d been a few times. Sometimes it’s the only thing that can help you to feel better. On the other hand, addressing the world at large can make her feel like you’re talking to everyone at once and therefore no one at all, least of all her. You’re describing emotions, not creating them. I appreciate how you integrate discussions of public health insurance into Vessels — and how issues of access to health care influenced and shaped your family. Narrative came first, and for a practical, evolutionary reason: it helps us to survive. Congress — what a perfect word for those fuckers. No ornamentation, no frills, often no signature. Irene was familiar because she looked like me and my wife combined. Can you talk a little bit about this, given recent debates about potentially repealing the Affordable Care Act? She feels left out. Those who suffered through it seemed to recover faster, at least psychologically. It’s sort of true; she has a gift for framing, and therefore amplifying, what she writes with what she doesn’t write. My hope is that those more ambitious lines stand out because they’re surrounded by so many more straightforward ones. What I will say is this: when Bekah and I didn’t have health insurance, we had two miscarriages and a stillbirth. After he read an earlier draft of Vessels, he called me and said, “Less knowing, more wondering.” As soon as he said it I knew he was right. FEBRUARY 8, 2018

BETWEEN 1997 AND 2002, Daniel Raeburn wrote, designed, and published The Imp, a series of booklets about underground cartoonists, such as Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, and Jack Chick, selling each installment on consignment to independent bookstores. Cain, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Willa Cather while I was writing the book. Vessels opens with Raeburn, then an aspiring writer and self-described “thwarted artist,” meeting Bekah, a humble award-winning potter; the narrative follows them — in spare and hypnotic prose — through dating, marriage, three unsuccessful pregnancies, two successful ones, and a friend’s suicide. Because of that I felt closer to her than I did to anyone; I had the same relationship to her that I would to a reader. Because our midwife had noticed that something about the hardship of labor helped mothers in the long run. But I can’t really blame them; I myself dip into her essays at least once a year, then spend the next few days trying and probably failing to fight off my urge to emulate them. I bury things, literally but also metaphorically, and that’s why a lot of the book’s about me and my wife not talking. I remember buying Jesus’ Son (1992) at Prairie Lights bookstore the day it came out and walking across the street to the Deadwood Tavern, where I read it in its entirety. Although the essayistic parts of The Pale King (2011) are, I think, the best things he’s ever done. Or the illusion of control, which is the next best thing. How did you deal with the emotions while you were writing? Kill your darlings and all that. He finds his old journals, reads them and says, Fuck that guy: I don’t want to be him. What’s arguably the hardest, most terrifying thing in life. He starts making these incredibly detailed and oddly beautiful narrative dioramas, set during World War II, which basically act and reenact the story of his beating, but with slight yet important variations. Before I wrote this memoir I put out four issues of The Imp, which were novella-length essays about underground cartoonists: Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Jack Chick. When we did have health insurance, we had two daughters who lived. To not do a C-section but to go into labor and deliver her the way she’d planned. Time called The Imp “a twisted lovechild of Hunter S. I had to spend years writing the book; that was my labor. The book grew out of that tension, that paradox. Not much journalism tries to be so emotional, and funny, and analytical, and thorough.” (All four issues are available from the author’s website at www.danielraeburn.com.) Raeburn also wrote a 2004 monograph on the work of Chris Ware for Yale University Press. The cartoonist Lynda Barry once said that people make the mistake of thinking that writing is an imitation of therapy. Once upon a time, the final line of my prologue was, “I can’t talk about this, which is why I’m writing a book about it.” The death of a child is unspeakable, and I still don’t know how to talk about it. At a certain point I started to realize that my “literary” style was out of whack with my wife’s pottery, which was central to my understanding of her character and of the book as a whole. It was hugely rewarding. I confused being a smart-ass with being smart. In an early draft, I called her my elder, which comes from the old High German word, alter. Their mom? But over time the relationship between emotion and narrative got more complicated. You have to have confidence in your own doubts, if that makes sense. A good cry; there was that, at least in the beginning. Not writing. Who haunted you. Silence can dishonor the dead too. In his book about music, Oliver Sacks talks about how, when we experience grief or sadness, the so-called reward centers in our brain light up, just like they do when we feel joy. How do you feel now, having published Vessels? Feeling deep grief or mourning is gratifying, like a prayer. This is also the general idea behind Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder (2005), though his traumatized reenactor doesn’t use dolls but real people, and ends up in a darker, more sacrificial place than the protagonist of Marwencol does. 
Writing and revising Vessels was something like that. They’re what propel personal narratives. The book, which began as an essay in The New Yorker in 2006, has been widely praised as an “eloquently candid” and “strangely consoling” portrait of love tested by tragedy. Yes, it’s inherently self-indulgent, but in the end the self you have to indulge is your reader’s. 
I also want my students to think about what exactly happens when they sit down to write. Their seventh-grade gym teacher? I don’t think this meaning is any less meaningful because it’s invented. Here’s one example: “Standing under trees whose bare stalks branched like capillaries for brains that had gone missing.” And then there’s this one: “Her eyes were blue and gray, like the Great Lake I’d ridden next to to get there.” And this one: “I said something I’ll never remember and pedaled back to our apartment, past babies set like jewels in the hollows of their strollers.” How did you balance spare, matter-of-fact sentences with such lyrical ones? It’s about discovering my own form of ancestor worship, except the ancestor in my case is actually my descendent. I’ve always had a soft spot for similes, and I remember feeling pretty good about all three of those lines you quoted after I wrote them down. Raeburn teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Chicago. There are other paradoxes too, like narrative tone. Long story short: She’s a fan of traditional wood-fired Japanese folk pottery, which is very earthy, very simple, very plain. You could call the process therapeutic, but I think that’s backward. The story of an essay or a memoir is really the story of thinking, of your own consciousness. I wanted the book to sound like me talking. People often assume that it’s agony to relive the death of a child again and again. As for how I feel now that the book’s done? There was something transformative in realizing that you’d been living inside this spellbinding fictional world. I like how Vessels subtly includes lessons about writing memoir. Same goes for David Foster Wallace — his essays, though, not necessarily the novels. So is the reader in my head. It was about their reader. I think that that possession has to do with what I said about writing giving you control over the past. My mom’s English, my dad’s a Midwestern Protestant, and I’m the product of a union between these two very reserved people. I think it was John Leonard who said that the white space around Didion’s sentences is more interesting than most people’s actual sentences. I’d add part Elmore James.