From Emerson to Irving
The Loveliest Word in the Language: "Yes"
Michigan native Jack Driscoll currently teaches writing in Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program. The World of a Few Minutes Ago is published by Wayne State University Press.
Was writing this book a different experience from the others?
This is my tenth book. And considering that I write, as my friend Mike Delp says, at the pace of an ice age, it amazes me that I’ve arrived again at the end of another long-term project, six years to be exact. So there’s that—me getting slower and slower. And there’s also the simultaneous and unmistakable recognition that the writing gets more and more difficult, not only with each book, but with each next story. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” I’ve subscribed to that ethos, attempting always to break through into that as yet undiscovered territory. I hope/trust that I’ve touched/mined something in these new stories that I hadn’t quite previously.
How is writing stories different from other writing?
I began as a poet and wrote only poems for the first thirty years of my life, four books’ worth. Then on to short stories, essays, and novels. Now the pendulum is swinging again in the opposite direction, toward shorter forms, where, for me, the distillation of language is more intensely sustained. I was once introduced as a poet masquerading as a novelist, which I liked a lot, and the comment underscored the obvious: that everything I have ever learned about writing fiction has been informed by having written poems for all those years. And that’s how I work, trying to rouse the ear with each next note, exactly as I did when writing in lines.
How long have you been teaching and how does it affect your own writing?
I’ve been teaching for thirty-five years, first at Interlochen Center for the Arts, and currently in Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program. The dedication, in part, for The World of a Few Minutes Ago reads: “to my students, former and current, all of them everywhere.” Somewhere along the way my identity as a writer and teacher fused and I can no more separate them than I could, for example, myself from this northern place in which I live. It seems to me all part of a magical coalescence.
I understand that you teach remotely.
Yes, I teach in Oregon and fly out there twice each year for intense two-week residencies, an exhausting and buoying experience. And then I work with four students one-on-one—a mentorship that goes all the way back to the Greeks. It allows me to work from my crow’s nest above the Little Betsie River here in Michigan, the place in which I am most comfortable in the world. And, naturally, this arrangement provides me more time for my own writing. If there’s such a thing as a perfect balance, this for me is it.
Share something of value that a teacher once told you.
I had the great fortune as an undergraduate of studying with John Irving. He was the first person who didn’t give me that ‘look’ when I said that I wanted to be a writer. He simply nodded, like, okay, and I then went on to take as many of his classes—including my first creative writing class—as I could. So not so much anything verbal as a gesture, which I translate now as the loveliest word in the language: “yes.”
How does writing complement the rest of your life? Or is it the other way around?
Writing exists at the center of my life. Without it I’d have to invent another self, impossible, at this juncture, to recognize or even like. When I’m writing well is when I feel most alive, when I come closest to saying what it means/feels to be human and alive, and, if I’m lucky, to capture that in story.
Any advice for other writers?
Keep your posterior in the chair and keep hammering away at the keyboard. This impossible passion we serve is labor-intensive; it takes a long time, an ongoing apprenticeship, and talent will be defined not by inspiration alone, but by discovering its equivalent in a hard-core work ethic.