Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Zoe Dabbs’ nonfiction piece, Twin Suns
Sommer: You write this piece very effectively from the perspective of your younger self. This brings an evocative and real-life tension between what is actually happening and what you as a child perceive. Was it challenging to write from this younger perspective? How did you decide upon it?
Zoe: Thank you for saying so. Writing from an adult perspective proved impossible. I couldn’t write more than a sentence without calling bullshit – every time I started to write, it sounded like a school essay my mother had gone back over to correct all the grammar and insert words I was too young to know. When I finally figured out I had to tell it from the point of view of my six-year-old self, I was relieved, and the writing of the story became much more intuitive.
This perspective was much more authentic to how I experienced it at the time. I originally started writing the story the way I normally write non-fiction (as an adult), and it didn’t seem natural or reflect the true memories of the events the way I experienced them as a kid. I realized that my memories were much more non-verbal and less explicit than my memories formed later in life. So I decided to write in the way that I remember – as a child who felt viscerally but didn’t have the adult vocabulary to go along with those emotions.
I decided on this way to tell the story because, even though it is creative non-fiction, it is the truest representation of how I experienced it, and for this story, couldn’t have been written any other way.
It seems as if the younger perspective lends itself to a more poetic view of the world (“The doctor’s face opens. Black hole mouth. It sucks my mother’s smile”). Do you think there’s a correlation, and if so, why?
Children think about things more poetically; more creatively. They haven’t been taught how to think yet, they just think. More importantly, they don’t try to control their emotional response as actively as adults tend to, and let things wash over them without trying to compartmentalize or suppress.
When kids are still very young, they are not yet inhibited in the same way adults are in terms of how they communicate their experiences, and so can express things originally or differently without trying. They’re also sponges. While they may not fully understand everything going on around them, they feel it; they soak it in.
I can’t remember who said it, but someone once said that all children are artistic geniuses, and then they grow up. I write poetry more than I write anything else, and I know a poem is good when I don’t have to explicitly explain something for the reader to have an emotional response. Poetry is intuitive, as I believe children are.
Do you write fiction as well? If so, what do you find are the differences between writing a piece of creative nonfiction like this one, and fiction? How do you decide which one to pursue?
I write poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. My approach to writing nonfiction and fiction doesn’t differ at all. All the fiction I write has at least some foundation in my reality. The first short story I had published was called “Til It Happens to You,” about a father who is edged out of his own family and made obsolete when his son learns how to fish, from him no less. While nothing in my immediate life resembles the story itself, I wrote it based on a passing observation I made about one of my friends’ mothers.
I have absolutely no process at all other than sitting down to write. Whatever comes from that is always a surprise to me.
After you decide to write a piece of nonfiction, how do you access and nurture what may be hard truths in order to best write it?
My dad has always said that if you’re not uncomfortable writing, you’re probably not writing anything worth reading, and that’s always stuck with me.
Ensuring you write an authentic and meaningful piece of nonfiction requires the same kind of brutal honesty with yourself that you have to have in therapy. You have to look at all the ugly parts.
So when I write a piece of nonfiction, I pretend I’m on the couch. I am careful to catch myself when I find myself omitting the negative, the unflattering, or the painful. There’s no point in writing if you don’t tell the truth, even if it’s not true.
Do you have any advice for writers on handling rejection?
I have been rejected more times than you can count, and all writers will say the same. All I would say is keep writing. There is someone, some journal, some publisher who will read your stuff and go “this is it.”
And sometimes they won’t. So write another story. And another. Submit those.
Writing will always be rejection-laden. But if you’re a writer, all you can do really is keep writing.
Thank you for doing this interview with me, and congratulations!