Many readers first encounter Jo Ann Beard through her essay “The Fourth State of Matter,” published in The New Yorker and included in the 1997 edition of Best American Essays. “The Fourth State of Matter” also appears in Beard's acclaimed collection The Boys of My Youth, which she followed with a novel, In Zanesville. In her recent collection, Festival Days, Beard's prose displays her signature precision as well as a refusal to acknowledge the gods of genre—true narratives incorporate fictional elements, and fiction stems from truth.
Beard's writing is lauded for its laser-like attention to detail—every word, phrase, and sentence has been crafted with the precision of a diamond cutter. Her exquisitely honed images and ideas move her narratives forward organically, without a hint of artifice.
The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and Whiting Foundation Award, Beard teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College. On December 1, 2022, Beard came to Indianapolis as a Butler Visiting Writer. During this time, she sat down with Booth to discuss her feelings about prolific writers, ambition, and celebrity memoirs.
Susan Lerner (SL): In terms of craft, I've always wanted to ask you about your use of the present tense. What draws you to it? What does it allow you to explore?
Jo Ann Beard (JAB): I'm never aware of things like tenses when I'm writing; that's just the way it comes out. It might have something to do with that idea of going deep inside and imagining it, like I'm watching the action as it's happening. So the present tense may reflect that immediacy of seeing the story unfold as I'm writing.
SL: It seems as though your thoughts and feelings and images come to you cinematically.
JAB: They do, like a daydream or something—but more deliberate than a daydream. In a memory piece, I like to think about what it really felt like to be in that place, what everything looked like and felt like.
SL: I'm curious as to how you remember the different things that made up that experience. How does that kind of sensory immersion happen for you? How do you help your students to do this?
JAB: Well, a lot of it is imagined as much as remembered. But over the years I've also discovered that you can train your memory. What you recall right at the beginning is not necessarily what you remember when you keep at it and keep trying. Though I think sometimes I merge memory with imagination.
SL: I would guess that maybe we all do that.
JAB: I think we all do that to some extent. I'm just doing it deliberately for the cause of the story or the essay. That said, I've given an assignment to my students that involves trying to teach them to sharpen their memory, having them just sit and make a list from memory of every single thing that's in their room: walk in the door, look to the right, what do you see. Write down everything you see. It works better for neatniks, obviously, but you’d be surprised what people can remember when they focus.
SL: In a Bookforum interview with Jenn Shapland, you said that you were lucky to have been rejected by the Iowa Writers' Workshop so early on, because it taught you about how you have to understand who you are as a writer and what your work is. I wonder how you answer those questions about yourself now.
JAB: Yes, the director of that program rejected me, and he did it in such a definitive way. He said, “Here's why we don't want you here,” and then told me all the things about my writing that he said he literally couldn't bear to read. At the time, I thought that was really strange—and that he was wrong. First, he was wrong about my writing. Second, he was wrong as a teacher. There's nobody in the world you should say that to, and because I didn't want to quit writing, it forced me to ask, Is he right? Is he wrong? And if he's wrong, which I believed, then that means I know more about my work than he does. Therefore, I, in this situation, am the expert on what I'm doing, and he, Frank Conroy, knows less than I do. It was an important lesson, and that was the moment when part of me said to the other part of me: It is not good for you to be meek about your work, because if you are, you'll go away and you'll never come back again.
SL: For many other writers, that might have been the end, the crush. It's really remarkable.
JAB: It was crushing; it made me cry.
SL: But . . .
JAB: But, I thought, I know he's wrong; therefore, I know something about myself as a writer that even people who are supposed to know about writing don't know. It's served me well through all the rejection a writer has to experience. After graduating from my program, I had to get through years of people saying “no”—the way they do to everybody. Some people just can’t bear it, and they'll go do something for which they hear “yes.” There are many reasons why you would want to be that person. However, I wasn't.
SL: I'm now thinking about how you describe the nature of your writing process. It strikes me as . . . uncomfortable?
JAB: Oh, it's awful.
SL: Okay, so, I wonder why you write. Perhaps the better question is, What keeps you writing?
JAB: In the past, what has kept me writing were the things that I wanted to write about. I would get interested in something, and want to explore it through writing. That's where all of my work has come from, just loving that discovery process.
SL: I think about how many of us are drawn to personal writing, and yet for many of us it simultaneously engenders reluctance and dread? Why do you think that is?
JAB: I can answer only for me, and for me it's because it's hard and I avoid difficult things. Our own stories are meaningless in light of the vastness of the world and of human experiences. So I have to figure out how take this little slice of my life and force it to mean something, beyond myself. That is hard work.
SL: I have a question about “Werner” and about “Cheri.” It's curious to me that you used real characters and the dramatic events that happened in their lives as a springboard from which to fictionalize. I wonder why you chose to do that rather than write those narratives in the form of literary journalism or, if you were to change enough of the material, simply as fictional short stories?
JAB: Somebody had offered to publish “Cheri” as fiction because they were uncomfortable with the imagined part of it. At first, I thought it did not make any difference how it’s defined, but then it did make a difference to me—the fact that she was a real person who went Dr. Kevorkian, as opposed to a fictional character.
SL: It's interesting that it matters to you that that did happen to her.
JAB: This was a real person who had to say goodbye to her daughters and leave them deliberately and emphatically—she had made that decision to choose her moment. I was curious about that, what it felt like. I realized along the way that it felt like courage to me.
SL: I want to ask about John D'Agata, because you've just said that in “Cheri,” the facts were important to you. In his writing, he's made it clear that the facts were not important to him. Can you talk about that?
JAB: I understand his impulse and his desire. He wants to imagine his way in and then create a story that's close or adjacent. To me, it's just important to be honest about what it is—even when it is something that resides in both camps, fiction and nonfiction. I didn't want “Cheri” to be called fiction, but I certainly didn't need it to be called nonfiction either. I think both of them are a little reductive and wrong, in terms of functioning as labels. And the labels are deceptive too—there isn’t really anything that's fitting. Literary nonfiction doesn't exactly fit. Creative nonfiction is the same thing. Nonfiction definitely doesn't fit, and fiction definitely doesn't fit. So, what else is there?
SL: You don't think creative nonfiction encompasses the—
JAB: It seems like an all-purpose term, but, no, maybe none of it is exactly right, and I don't even care where my own work is concerned; it’s hard enough to get it written. If I worked for a magazine or a newspaper, I would care a lot about what's fiction and what's nonfiction—even though I was not born yesterday and I know that even nonfiction isn't really nonfiction. Everything has a spin. I could take today's The New York Times front page and show you everywhere that our perceptions of these true stories are being shaped.
SL: Do you think there's something different about the nature of D'Agata's writing, that it more closely hews toward journalism and so it has an inherent responsibility to be factual, or do you think it's the same capacious kind of writing that you're doing?
JAB: I don't know, and I feel like I can't answer for another person. John is a little bit of a provocateur. If we can get somebody out there who is willing to provoke interest in “nonfiction writing,” I'm all for it. We have enough provocateurs in every other field of interest. We have TikTok provocateurs, so why shouldn't John D'Agata be able to nudge the door open a little bit with nonfiction writing and let in a little air and see what happens?
SL: Would you write another novel? Does it interest you to develop that?
JAB: It does. However, I know that if I wrote another novel that I'd have to sit myself down and say, You need a plot, and a plot has not yet occurred to me. It didn't occur to me before either, and that's why I had such a hard time finishing In Zanesville.
SL: I found it so delightful.
JAB: Thank you. However, you've got to admit it didn't really have a plot. I'm not dissing it at all—I actually like that book, the relationship between those two girls meandering around their town.
SL: About a decade back, in The New York Times, Steve Almond wrote that his students were seeking ways to face the toughest truths within themselves so as to begin to make sense of them. How do you feel about the idea that writing memoir is therapeutic or can even lead to a catharsis?
JAB: I think the most therapeutic thing about writing is that it requires the writer to develop heightened skills at empathy, at projecting themselves into other people's lives, minds, and issues. That's actually the opposite of what we see a lot in memoir. In memoir writing, you have to seek to do something that's beyond self-discovery.
SL: Some have argued that there is too much confession in modern memoir.
JAB: I don't really care about confession. I don't even know quite what that word means in this context. What I think is that memoir is literature and literature is art and in art you must seek to illuminate something. Frequently, what I see as a teacher is untransformed suffering, where people just lay their sorrows and their anguish on the page. That might be therapeutic for them, but that's not art. If you're aiming toward art, you have to transform the suffering into something that makes it worthwhile for other people to read it.
SL: There's a notion that in confessional memoir, the pain feels raw and unprocessed, handing over that burden to the reader, who feels they have to somehow either console or accept it . . .
JAB: Right, you can't just put it out there in the world. You have to somehow transform it into art, and how do you transform anything into art? There are some things about the craft of writing that can get you there, but really it's magic. It's a kind of mystery that I don't even like to talk about where my own work is concerned, because I don't want to demystify it for myself.
SL: In her The New York Times review of Festival Days, Leah Hager Cohen wrote that because you wed intuition and observation, instead of calling you an essayist, we might call you a poet-naturalist. What do you think of this classification, and how would you prefer readers label the kind of writer you are?
JAB: I think that that [label] could be applied to Mary Oliver and Annie Dillard, so I would take it. Because I've taught [their work for] so long, I found it very touching to be even remotely linked. It made me love Leah.
SL: To be in such fine company.
JAB: Yeah, and for her to say something like that about my work. I spend forever laboring over sentences because I really care about words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, sections, and whole essays. I craft those things to the point of no return, so to have somebody notice that really matters to me.
SL: What are your feelings about craft rules? What do you teach your students?
JAB: To break them whenever they can but also to be aware that they're breaking them. I try to teach them to challenge every sentence that they write. You have to think long and hard about what you're doing, and I'll tell you something about any essay that I've written: If you told me the first few words of any sentence in any essay, I could recite the rest of that sentence. I craft sentences as much as I write essays.
SL: Are you envious of prolific writers?
SL: Do we hate them?
JAB: We hate them! They can go to a movie at night and have fun because they did their work. Even when I’ve done my work, I have one sentence to show for it.
SL: It's an uneasy peace with your process?
SL: One aspect of your writing that stands out is the attention to detail. How do you go about parsing this, either in your own writing or others' writing, to determine which details deepen a piece's overall meaning and which ones are extraneous?
JAB: Essays are small—if you want a detail, you have to make sure it has earned its place. You can't include everything, so if you're deciding to include something, it must work on several different levels at once. It needs to tell us about the story on the surface, and at the same time about the deeper story under the surface. And it should advance the story, too . . . that’s three levels each sentence has to be doing for you. In an essay, you can’t waste people’s time.
SL: I love that you say that.
JAB: You can, a little bit, waste people's time with a novel, because people get in a novel and it feels roomy, and they just want to be there. So, you can linger here and there, and they'll have the patience to wait with you, to enjoy the milder scenery that goes by. In an essay or short story, however, you can't let them linger, it’s all got to mean something.
SL: In an interview with Chelsea Hodson in BOMB Magazine, you spoke about reaching a certain age and “moving into the final phase,” which makes me wonder about how this time of your life is for you, especially your relationship to ambition.
JAB: I used to be openly ambitious and forceful in terms of being my own best friend as a writer; I could put myself out there even when people were like, Sorry, we are not interested. Where that forcefulness comes from, I have no idea. I don't feel it in any other aspect of my life. Nowadays, literature and writing still matter to me more than anything else in the world; it's up there at the top. However, in terms of what I wanted to achieve, I've achieved it. I would love to immerse in a project again, but to tell you the truth, I spend a lot of my time teaching, and the older I get, the less energy I have for two full-time jobs.
SL: Is there a possibility that writing could become your full-time job instead?
JAB: Well, that will be wonderful someday. At some point it’s about quality of life. I want part of my life to be about just being alive and thinking about what it means to be alive and be awake and aware. I would love to have that be half my life and the other half be writing.
SL: In an old interview with Stephanie Anderson for Coastlines, you stated that you valued your writing over your life. Can you explain what you meant by this, and do you still feel this way?
JAB: Yes, I still feel that way. Nothing in my life has ever mattered to me the way my writing has mattered to me, and I don't mean my writing, like this book or that book or this essay or that essay. I mean the endeavor of writing has meant more to me than anything else in my life.
SL: Is there such a thing for you as a guilty-pleasure read, something that's just fun but not nutritious or literary, whatever that means?
JAB: I just read a celebrity memoir. I'm reading The Song of the Cell by Siddhartha Mukherjee, David Quammen's Breathless, about Covid-19, and Matthew Perry's memoir, and all three were compelling to me. Two of them I barely understood, and with the Matthew Perry book, he couldn’t stop telling us things that are either embarrassing, or that we already know. Like stop telling us how many millions of dollars you have—we already assume that about you. And apparently, you can’t transform the suffering if you are a narcissist. I think I knew that already.
SL: Some people say that listening to audiobooks is cheating a little bit, that you lose something when you are not the one reading the words. What are your thoughts on this?
JAB: I listened to E. B. White read Charlotte's Web, and there's no better way to experience Charlotte's Web than through E. B. White's voice. I listened to All Quiet on the Western Front a decade ago. It’s the best audiobook I have ever listened to. I think it's a separate thing from reading a book on the page. I think you perceive it differently. Our attention spans are being formally and informally tinkered with all the time now, so reading a book on the page is very different. Multi-tasking just feels like tasking now.
SL: I loved your narration of The Boys of My Youth, and I'm curious why you didn't narrate Festival Days.
JAB: No, they're never going to let me do that again. Nobody liked it. You don't know what your voice sounds like, because you hear it from inside your head. My voice is sort of a soporific droning sound with very little inflection, which I knew, but I really fought [to do it].
SL: You wanted to?
JAB: I don’t necessarily want someone’s interpretation, even if it happens to sound better. But the publisher’s concern, of course, is what works and what people want to buy.
SL: I have friends who don't want to listen to books that aren't narrated by the author.
JAB: I feel the same way. I have to listen to the sample to see if it’s delivered in a way that allows me to feel like I’m reading. I don’t like to hear it performed or interpreted.
SL: In a CRAFT Literary interview with Yvonne Conza, you wrote that you've learned from your students that it isn't the most gifted writer who succeeds. Can you tell me more about that?
JAB: It takes some kind of combination of having a gift and having certainty, which is part of ambition. You have to have energy, have to be able to accept rejection, which is an oxymoron, and have to be able to take from that rejection whatever you need to take from it. Sometimes, criticism is earned. Other times, you go, No, they're wrong. Both are helpful.
SL: Do your students ever bemoan the fact, especially for nonfiction writers, that in order to get a book deal, they've got to establish a platform, and a lot of the time that means they have to be active on social media?
JAB: I think that that is an excuse for people to be active on social media.