Excerpt from AJ 2015: A Dialogue with Peter Turchi

Alligator Juniper’s Managing/Prose Editor, Skye Anicca, explores mystery and the muse with Peter Turchi ,”one of the country’s foremost thinkers on the art of writing” as described by the Houston Chronicle. 

Turchi is the author of five books and the co-editor of three anthologies. His stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Story, The Alaska Quarterly Review, Puerto del Sol, and The Colorado Review, among other journals. He has received Washington College’s Sophie Kerr Prize, an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award, North Carolina’s Sir Walter Raleigh Award, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

In this dialogue, published in AJ 2015, we invite readers to learn more about this incredible educator and writer.

SA: Clearly, you are invested in the teaching of creative writing, though in your most recent book, A Muse and A Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic, you’ve also written that “unlike a magical illusion, some of the most powerful effects of a story, poem, or novel actually do transcend rational explanation. Discussions of the writer’s craft, of conscious decisions, can take us only so far.” You also write that artistic “vision” cannot be taught, but it can be “cultivated.” How can the discussion-based workshop model support artistic mystery and the cultivation of vision?

PT: That’s a wonderful question. Madison Smartt Bell has written that workshops often become a fault-finding mechanism; consciously or not, participants (including the workshop leader) feel they haven’t done their job until they’ve found something “wrong” in the work up for discussion. More generally, many people, including Flannery O’Connor, have noted that workshops often encourage conformity to a conservative aesthetic, a familiar-looking story. It’s just as common to hear writers say, “If this story/novel by Alice Munro/Franz Kafka/Aimee Bender/Vladimir Nabokov had been submitted to a workshop, it would have been torn apart.”

So how do we avoid those pitfalls? We can try, always, to recognize the intention of the work on its own terms. We need to resist the impulse to turn a tractor into a Porsche, or vice versa. We can recognize what’s most interesting or intriguing in the draft, even if it seems unconventional, incomplete, or not yet fully persuasive. We should keep in mind that much of the poetry and fiction we most admire contains mysterious, even inexplicable elements . . .

SA: Your newest book points out that authors must distance themselves from their personal experiences in order to write about them effectively. Most writers have experienced the challenge of this deceptively simple advice. A Muse and A Maze offers strategies on how to do this, primarily directed at fictionalizing externals in order to preserve emotional power while allowing for distance. The book also imparts the following philosophical advice, applicable to all genres: our internal gaze must be intense, “as if we were foreign, like a scientist looking through a microscope at his own blood.” What does this aspect of the process look like for you—in addition to distancing exercises, what ways do you facilitate your ability to see yourself simultaneously inside and out? Are there some experiences from which you are unable to distance yourself enough to tell the story?

PT: While changing details of a person, event, or setting can help create distance between something from life and whatever it becomes on the page, most often the voice and tone I choose are enough to get me started shaping and re-imagining the material. Any event or response can be depicted in countless ways; as soon as I choose a perspective, I start to see the event differently, start to imagine its possibilities . . .

To read the rest of this incredible interview, please subscribe to Alligator Juniper.

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