CHARLES D'AMBROSIO'S writing first found a home in the Mercury's sister paper, The Stranger. The resulting essays, collected in Loitering, a new book from Tin House, are some of the best you'll read this year, covering everything from the politics of whaling in the Pacific Northwest to Mary Kay Letourneau to the artifice of TV news. D'Ambrosio, who until recently lived in Portland, just started a plum teaching job in the worshipped-by-writers MFA program at the University of Iowa. D'Ambrosio took a break from his teaching schedule to talk to the Mercury about alt-weeklies, Loitering, and writing about nothing.
MERCURY: At the Portland launch for Loitering, you mentioned that some of the essays in the book were first published in The Stranger. What about alt-weeklies spurred on your writing?
CHARLES D'AMBROSIO: I've always been drawn to the rough and tumble of alt-weeklies, the scrappy spirit, much the same way I loved old-school Seattle newspaper columnists when I was a kid, guys like Emmett Watson, who was our Herb Caen, our Jimmy Breslin. Watson was a character and a crusader, radical in his bones, hardboiled and high-minded, kowtowing to no one, and I've always considered the alt-weekly an extension of that kind of impulse, with a similar vibe and freedom.
At The Stranger I was given space—an ample word count, a community—which I took as permission to go at things in my own fumbling way. All that elbow room loosened up the prose quite a bit. I could say what I needed to say... I like to think it was fairly clear to the average reader that I wasn't writing articles or anything remotely resembling journalism, but maybe it was just puzzling. Or annoying. Anyway, I wrote essays, and because the editors were writers too, I was able to assume an immediate audience who'd be sympathetic to weird beats and risk and playfulness. In this way, the alt-weekly universe offered me an open hand, which made possible a possibility. I really doubt I would ever have written an essay, let alone a collection of them, if not for The Stranger.
I've heard you describe those essays as explorations from "the nothing beat." How would you define that?
After standing around all night in the rain at this crazy crime scene where, it would turn out, no crime had actually been committed, I called Emily White, who was my editor at the time, and tried to convince her that I should be given a beat at The Stranger covering stories where nothing happened. Like in the [table of] contents they'd list: News. Music. Savage Love. Theater. Visual Arts. Nothing. I'd do stories, in other words, that weren't stories at all. That night was miserable and rainy and a media circus, with every Seattle TV and radio station and newspaper present, but all those big-time journalists booked as soon as the story they had in mind broke apart. By some kind of mysterious professional agreement or understanding they all knew at the very same time that the story was no longer a story. Suddenly, it was nothing. Sometimes I think that as a writer you can never be stupid enough, and the comedy for me was that I hung around to the bitter end, long after everyone else got wise and left, and I wound up writing 5,000 words about... nothing. That piece—"Loitering"—is now the title essay of my collection.
The idea of home—searching for one, not quite having one, not doing home "well"—is central to your work. Do you find that a sense of movement pushes you to write, or does it make writing more difficult?
You're absolutely right to say that I don't do home well. Today is November 26, the day before Thanksgiving, which happens to be the anniversary of my brother Danny's suicide. I'm an American so I know what the holiday's about and it's partly about doing home well. I know you're supposed to gather and give thanks. I love all that stuff, all the food and drink and the fondness and nostalgia, but I've replaced the national holiday with a private one, a separate and fairly quiet celebration. I haven't done Thanksgiving in a long time. I just don't do it. And it's not like I lack gratitude. I have a lot to be thankful for, but I mark the day with different rituals. All that moving around, that restlessness... I don't recommend it. Writing is a sedentary activity, and in a practical sense settling down and staying in one place generally benefits the work—which gets done by showing up at the desk and putting in the hours.
You're currently teaching at Iowa. How does teaching fit into your writing practice?
Writing and teaching are somewhat separate for me, each an art form that comes to you through instinct and desire and lots of practice. I'm still working out the kinks in my teaching deal. My friend Jon Fontana says that any kind of conversation or negotiation is made up of roughly 30 percent content and 70 percent presentation. That sounds about right to me. When I conduct a workshop, I've got the content part down, mostly, but I need a lot of work on the other 70 percent.
You've described the personal experiences you write about not as confessions, but as facts, which isn't always how it's framed by other people. I read one review of Loitering that described it as fitting into "the male confessional mode," whatever that means. Why do you think people are so quick to call personal writing confessional?
The idea of being a confessional writer, working in "the male confessional mode," or any "mode" at all, makes me cringe. I'm a Catholic, and I go to confession, but when I sit down to write I'm just slinging sentences. I'm not confessing to anything. I write personal essays, but the self in those pieces is a kind of questioning presence, an energy, an angle of vision, closer in "mode" to a persona than anything a fact-checker would verify as autobiographical. This is partly a matter of form, I think, or genre. In a genre that doesn't interest me all that much, the memoir, a reader has every right to expect that the self at the center of the narrative bears some resemblance to the real person. (Ask Oprah, ask James Frey!) In a personal essay, the self is something of a mask, whereas this "confessional mode" would seem to be about stripping away that mask, as if the mask were false. It's not, not in art, anyway. The way I see it, a persona isn't false or untrue but rather a way of enlarging the self so that it can enter into and experience and think through the whole truth, all sides of it. Persona is a self with room for all the conflicting currents that come at you as you write.
When I talk directly about my life I'm often stating simple facts, so, for instance, my brother's suicide is no more the material of confession than the fact that I'm from Seattle. It would be like calling James Baldwin a writer in "the male confessional mode" because in Notes of a Native Son you learn, among other things, that he's a black man. Of course, if word comes down that Baldwin qualifies as a male confessional writer, then I'll rethink everything I've said here.