Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Dialogue on Writing with David Beard

David Beard received his Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Scientific & Technical Communication in 2002 from the University of Minnesota, Department of Rhetoric. He has written extensively on this topic of his interest and was editor, with Richard Enos, of the book Advances in the History of Rhetoric: The First Six Years. Late this fall we met for the first time at an art opening in downtown Duluth. He is currently an assistant professor of writing studies at UMD.

Ennyman: Whom would you consider the most significant American writers of the past 100 years? And which authors have been your personal favorites or biggest influences?

David Beard: The most significant writers in the last 100 years in our nation? I don't think anyone has surpassed Fitzgerald as an expression of the flaws of the American dream. I love teaching The Great Gatsby. (We are lucky to have a Gatsby expert at UW Superior, Deborah Schlacks.)

But when I was starting out, I dreamt of being Vonnegut for at least three reasons. First, Slaughterhouse Five is one of the most important books about WWII and life after WWII that is accessible to people ages twelve to eighty. Second, Palm Sunday (his first book of essays) helped me understand the relationship between conscience and literary or rhetorical style. Vonnegut, for me, I'd say is all about conscience expressed on the page. Third, and most important, Vonnegut was a writer by sheer force of effort and sheer force of will; he was an engineer by training, not an English major; he was a soldier, not a poet. But he was a writer.

E: Did I mention to you that I interviewed Vonnegut for an article once? I was a Vonnegut fan when young. Here's the short tribute piece I wrote about Vonnegut shortly after he died.

DB: In the same way that I love Vonnegut, I admire Tim O'Brien. The Things They Carried changed how I teach literature. But I've never fallen for his later work. In that same vein, Art Spiegelman's Maus changed how I teach visual communication.

But the biggest impact on students today? To be a writer, for so many young students, today, is to walk in the shadow of Hunter S. Thompson and William S. Burroughs. I admire them both, but I have mixed feelings about their legacies as "writers to emulate," or examples of the writing life. What do you think, Ed?

E: Regarding Hunter S. Thompson and Burroughs?

I come from the "belles lettres" school of thinking as regards writing. It’s the writing, not the lifestyle that matters most. Hunter Thompson became a pop icon of anti-establishment, but is that the embodiment of what a writer should be? If I recall correctly his first major story on the Kentucky Derby was just a mish mash of notes and not even a prepared manuscript. The editor of Esquire who gave him the assignment was going to print and needed the story but Thompson had done little but party. The editor asked for the scribblings and they were purportedly published as is. (I say purportedly because an Esquire editor famously altered even Raymond Carver’s writings around that time.) Any other editor would have called it rubbish but they celebrated it, printed it and donned Thompson a genius. Proof that the king had no clothes on.

I’d be curious to know how much of the interest in Thompson is due to his writings and how much due to the movies about him. And what does this say about being a role model for young writers?

What I’m saying is that it perpetuates the erroneous notion that to be a great artist (writer, musician, etc) one has to behave insanely himself or herself. Burroughs and Thompson were one-percenters as regards over-the-top lifestyle. I would argue that it’s possible to write well and live a “normal” life…

What’s your take on how the Internet has changed publishing?

DB: The Internet has made it possible for more people to be writers but for fewer of them to be paid for it.

The Internet has made it easier for writers to reach audiences, including marketing their own work, and I think, maybe, as a result, some authors become the product for sale.

Two of my favorite regional authors are Roy C. Booth and Aaron Brown. Both maintain blogs and Facebook pages. So when I buy their latest works, I'm extending my relationship with them as much as I am buying a product. Surely the same might be true of readers of Ennyman's Territory?

E: I certainly hope so. New topic... What do you mean by "the new rhetoric"? In what way is the new rhetoric different from the old rhetoric?

DB: When we talk about the Old Rhetoric, or when we talk about rhetoric in popular terms, we tend to talk about the ways that persuasive figures manipulate people. We think of emperors addressing their people ("Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears") or presidential candidates addressing their voters. We think about demagogues misleading the people to enter into power -- whether the power of politics or the power of the market (old school advertising set out to manipulate consumers the way politicians set out to control voters).

When we talk about the New Rhetoric, we're talking about the way that our society has the technologies, the social structures and increasingly the will to turn monologue into dialogue. As a teacher, that's the condition I foster, the skills I teach and the social change I want to enable.

E: Are there any universal truths about writing that you try to personally convey to your writing students?

DB: There are no universal truths for successful writing. Writing is, for me as a writer and in my classes, a local act, constrained by local forces. Each act of writing requires the writer to pull out the barometer to get the air pressure, the thermometer for temperature, the calendar, the compass for bearing, the map with protractors for location, the Farmer's Almanac for info on this date, historically, and the Ouija board for just a tiny peak into the future. Anytime any part of those writing conditions change, the strategies you'll use as a writer will change with them.

We are lucky to live in a place where writing is taught so well by so many: Heather Bastian at Scholastica, Jamie White-Farnham at UWS, John Hatcher, Chris Julin, Rachel Wolford and Craig Stroupe at UMD. The teaching of professional writers is part of the culture and climate of Duluth Higher Ed. And it's part of the climate of the town. I work with the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council, who regularly fund work by established and up & coming writers, and who teach young writers and artists the grant-writing process. And every year, dozens of college students learn from professionals like you, Ed, in internships.

E: Thank you, David, for your thoughts and insights. Let's keep the dialogue going.

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