Jo Ann Beard is best known for her essay, “The Fourth State of Matter,” published in the June 24, 1996 issue of the New Yorker. It is an extraordinary telling of a 1991 shooting in the University of Iowa physics department. But Beard’s work is striking because of the uniqueness of her focus, not the drama of her subjects. She wants her students to learn that “as a writer you have to notice everything.” It’s a lesson she teaches in everything she writes. I spoke with Beard about facts, painting, and (accidentally) Texas gun laws.
When people talk about your writing they almost always bring up the boundary between fiction and nonfiction. Is this boundary important to you? How would you define it?
In some of my work that boundary has been permeable. I don’t care much about that as an issue, for me or for others, though I do care quite a lot about the truth-factor in my own work, if not the fact-factor. If there is such a thing as factual truth (there isn’t) (or maybe there is), the whole point of memoir is to be subjective, so it’s all irrelevant anyway and it’s hard enough to get the work done at all, without having to interrupt the process of not writing by thinking about what the work is. In fact, I would love the luxury of sitting back and deciding what to call something—fiction or nonfiction—besides unfinished.
In an interview for Switchback you said, “My past is light, though; I’ve written it into submission.” Can you explain what you meant? Does this still feel true?
I think it’s self-explanatory if you read the question the interviewer asked.
Why do you write?
I mostly don’t. I mostly teach, at my own school and at other schools. Right now I’m on a strangely-patterned bedspread in a small Texas town, with a computer on my lap and a continental breakfast on the table next to me. By that I mean American Continental: a styrofoam cereal bowl of Cheerios and a styrofoam cup of tea. The bedspread pattern is a jungle, blue-green fronds with tan coconuts interspersed. No monkeys, sadly. I have two hours before I need to shower up and go see the Texas college students, so I actually do have time to write, but I’d rather do this interview. And I just spent some of my interview time looking up Texas gun laws—I was afraid this was one of those states where people can bring their guns everywhere they go, like service dogs. I still don’t know, because I got bored trying to understand the doublespeak and the strange Wikipedia chart of what kind of gun is allowed where, etc. What’s a ‘long gun,’ for example, and a ‘black powder’ weapon? It all sounds more like re-enactment than enactment, which I guess is encouraging.
Before you wrote you studied painting. Are there any tools that you took from painting to use in writing?
First and foremost, I learned procrastination from my painting career. Also, how a story has to have layers of meaning. I remember once one of my teachers, during a critique, saying about a series of paintings I had made over a frantic weekend, big wild eleventh-hour-fueled things: “This looks like the product of one weekend of painting.” That was his entire critique and I still remember exactly the feeling of it—of having offered something that was all surface, no depth. A couple of us had a drink with him afterward, at the Foxhead in Iowa City, and he kindly bought me a beer and a basket of popcorn but never said another word about those paintings. It was the most valuable lesson I ever learned as a student, and therefore everything about it is amplified in my memory, from the turp-smelling sprung couch in the critique room to the layer of greasy fuzz on the Foxhead hanging lamps; everything, that is, but the paintings themselves. In the end, nobody could teach me how to paint, but John Dilg taught me something invaluable about art.
What do you hope your students learn from you?
That as a writer you have to notice everything, from the bars of hotel soap that are suspiciously Saran-wrapped to the sad lack of monkeys on the bed, to the way the Texas light at dusk is like steeping tea, an image taken from Christian Wiman’s “The Limit”. That metaphorical meaning is what separates art from the rest of writing. That it’s okay to not take it seriously, but if they don’t the most they will get for their trouble is a basket of popcorn. Which was stale.
Are there certain books that you pick up when you’re working on a new project? Or, are there particular authors or books that inspire you every time you read them?
There are certain short stories I read over and over, for the pleasure and the requisite pain. Just one example: I like Chekov’s “Gusev” for the singular, exalted moment when he twirls in his shroud to the bottom of the ocean and is unwrapped by a shark.
What are you working on now?
A narrow nonfiction book.
Author photo by Jennifer May Lores.
Jo Ann Beard is the author of The Boys of My Youth, a collection of autobiographical essays, and In Zanesville, a novel.
Heidi Sistare writes from her home in Portland, Maine, where she attended the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. You can view her published work on her website: www.heidisistare.com.