A confrontation at a cafeteria table in first grade begins Richard Gilbert’s moving essay, “Don’t Call Me Dick” (Issue 6), about naming, adolescence, and coming in to one’s own. In his interview, Gilbert discusses his influences, his happiest moment, and the reason he decided to write his piece.
Richard Gilbert is the author of Shepherd: A Memoir, a story of dreams, loss, fatherhood, and farming. His essays have appeared in Brevity, Chautauqua, Fourth Genre, Orion, River Teeth, and Utne Reader. He has taught creative nonfiction writing and journalism at Ohio State, Indiana University, Ohio University, and currently at Otterbein University, where in addition to teaching essay and memoir writing he has created a popular class around the theme of the relationship between humans and nature.
What inspired you to create this piece? It was something I had never written about, something very private—so a topic that I sensed might lead to discovery. It did, it always does. For instance, I don’t think I foresaw writing about teasing my mother about her name. But I can seldom really remember, except the reward of writing for me seems in large part to reside in discovery. Putting the pieces together, adding two and two and getting more than four.
How would you characterize your creative process as you worked on this piece? (ex: fast and furious, slow brew, fits and starts). I worked on it steadily, adding and refining. Because I was not in a rush—which sometimes I am, a keenly felt emotion provoking intense work—I even took time for historical research into names. I was glad to not have an intense emotional flame under me; I felt I needed distance, to not be seen asking the reader for anything. I tried to bring a harder-edged “I’m okay now” older, adult perspective, to not be only that hurting boy but to have some wisdom and as much humor as possible
What writing or other artistic expression has had a profound impact on your writing? Why? Reading fiction in my youth laid a great base, primarily in terms of lyric expression and going for deeply subjective connections. In the past decade, the memoir form has captured my imagination—thrilling to see how some turn experience into art and especially how they work out the persona of the writer telling the tale.
Where do you create? Tell us about your workspace. For years it was at a typical desk and in an office chair. But in tandem with migrating to a laptop, for years now I’ve moved around the house, writing in a recliner or on various couches.
Who has been influential in your writing/creative work? Why? The chief deputy of my writing posse, my brother in law John Wylie, a retired psychiatrist. We’ve cheered each other on in in our respective projects—he’s writing a book about evolutionary psychology—and he encouraged me to view my chasing a dream more positively but also to go deeper and darker in one key place in my memoir, Shepherd. He’s heard it all, and at my lowest state in the book he thought I was holding back or could be more forthright.
What do you do to help yourself get over a creative block? Read.
What living writer would you recommend other nonfiction writers read? What titles in particular? Why? I have learned a lot from Lee Martin’s nonfiction, his memoir From Our House and his collection of memoir essays Such a Life. He is so good at writing in scene but also at reflecting from now, the writer at his desk making sense on the past. His stories are interesting in topic, and how he structures them is always worth study.
You say this was something very private. What made you decide to put it into writing and to publish it? I felt the need to explain, because I found it so amazing, how I could achieve ownership of my lifelong dream, a magical farm, and lose it, and yet be okay— when I would have thought that would have killed me.
Why do you think you weren’t in a rush while writing this piece? I was in a rush! But learning to entertain an audience with my deeply personal story and revelations took me a long time. The memoirist, or any writer of personal nonfiction, faces explicitly and implicitly the So what? question: I have my own story, my own triumphs and pains, why should I care about yours?
People are on guard against the mere narcissist. As well they should be. Even my editor said to me, “I usually don’t like to read memoirs.” There’s a lot of that kind of resistance to overcome. It can take a lot of writing and application of craft to distill a story that makes your truths matter to someone else.
We asked Richard to dip into the “Proust Questionnaire” and select a few fun (less writing-related) questions to answer. This probing set of questions originated as a 19th-century parlor game popularized by contemporaries of Marcel Proust, the French essayist and novelist, who believed that an individual’s answers reveal his or her true nature.
If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be? A wild duck. They’re elegant and jovial masters of air, land, water.
When and where were you happiest? When I was in my mid-thirties and our children were small. I was incredibly busy at home and work, but lost myself in that busy world.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse? “Deft.” It seems like I edit it out all the time.
Which talent would you most like to have? Self knowledge.
What is your motto? Currently I like my hired hand Sam’s from Shepherd: A Memoir: “Let’s do something even if it is wrong.”
This interview was curated by Erika Williams, Proximity‘s Interview Series Coordinator and a creative writing student at Ohio University.