Jack Driscoll: The Past Ticks Inside the Present
A Conversation with Jack Driscoll on the History and Future of Creative Writing at Interlochen
This year, Interlochen Arts Academy’s Creative Writing division celebrated its 40th Anniversary. On May 17, 2016, Interlochen Review editors Olivia Alger, Annalise Lozier and Mickayla Noel sat down with fiction writer and former faculty member Jack Driscoll, who helped to found the department and the review. They discussed how the program was founded and has grown since 1976, as well as Jack’s love for the short story form and the way Northern Michigan has shaped his writing.
Jack Driscoll is the author of four books of poems, two collections of short stories, and four novels. In addition, he is the recipient of numerous grants and awards, including the NEA Creative Writing Fellowship, the NEH Independent Study Grant, two Pushcart Prizes and Best American Short Story citations, the PEN/Nelson Algren Fiction Award, the Associated Writing Programs Short Fiction Award, and seven PEN Syndicated Project Short Fiction Awards. His stories have been read frequently over NPR’s The Sound of Writing,and his work has appeared nationally in magazines, literary journals and newspapers, such as Chicago Tribune, Kansas City Star, Civilization, Poetry, The Georgia Review, The Southern Review and Ploughshares. His novel Lucky Man, Lucky Woman received the 1998 Pushcart Editors’ Book Award, the Barnes and Noble Discovery of Great New Writers Award, and the 1999 Independent Book Publishers Award for Fiction.Stardog, his third novel, appeared in 2000, and How Like an Angel, a University of Michigan Press Sweetwater release, appeared in May 2005. His newest short story collection, The World of a Few Minutes Ago, was published by Wayne State University Press in 2012. Jack taught at Interlochen Arts Academy for 33 years, and was a founding member of the Creative Writing department. He currently teaches in the Pacific University MFA program in Oregon.
Annalise Lozier: How did you first come to Interlochen?
Jack Driscoll: At the time I was working construction, and I applied for this position in what would become the Creative Writing department at Interlochen on a whim. I called my mother from the airport on my return trip, telling her I had no idea how the interview went. And then she said, “I just got off the phone with them. I told them you had a graduate degree and shouldn’t be working construction.” I didn’t tell her I kind of liked construction. I said, “What did they say?” She said, “I think they said yes.” So that’s how I got here.
AL: When the writing department was being founded forty years ago, there weren’t really any pre-existing models of what a creative writing education of this depth should look like at the high school level. What decisions did you have to make and what models did you follow when deciding how the department would be structured?
JD: There was a woman already here who was offering Creative Writing classes through the English department. And she wrote a grant proposal to the Ford Foundation and they awarded us 250,000 dollars, which in 1975 was a lot of money—it’s a lot of money now, but it was a lot more money back then. Her name is Loretta Sharp. She was the one who interviewed and then hired me. There were only the two of us. There was Loretta and Jack. So I was the “founding father,” as it turns out.
I don’t think a creative writing major at the high school level existed anywhere. In fact, I think in 1975 there weren’t all that many graduate writing programs, what we know now as MFA programs. So no, we didn’t have a template and we didn’t have a model to follow. We made it up as we went along. We knew we were funded for two years, and if it could then be self-sustaining, alright, we’d go with that.
Mostly I taught poetry workshops. In addition, I offered a number of different electives. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was as many as forty different classes. We attempted not to repeat classes, just all new offerings, because in some cases students would be attending Interlochen for four years and would only have two of us teaching. There was, in those days, no Writer-in-Residence. That program came later. And the third faculty member, Terry Caszatt, didn’t arrive until the fourth year, followed by the fourth faculty member, Nick Bozanic, followed later by Michael Delp and Anne-Marie Oomen. So it was a little tricky, and maybe that’s where my insomnia helped because it was a lot of late nights, I can tell you, a lot of late, late nights as we were trying to figure this out.
Mickayla Noel: Why did you feel the Visiting Writers Series would be a vital component of the writing program? How do you feel it has strengthened the department over the years?
JD: You have great teachers here, but like me, maybe you enjoy being in the company of other writers, and to be in a conversation, a direct conversation, with them. Some of the writers I invited in were people I would have given anything to sit down to dinner with or have a conversation with, and they turned out to be people like Galway Kinnell, who visited here twice. I have a new book coming out next year, and the epigraph is, “Here I sat on a boulder by the winter-steaming river and put my/head in my hands and considered time—which is next to/nothing, merely what vanishes, and yet can make one’s/elbows nearly pierce one’s thighs.” That’s one of my favorite poems, it’s called “The Road Between Here and There.”And William Stafford visited, and Maxine Kumin. Jim Harrison, who just died recently. He too talks about time, particularly in his later work. He says “Time rushes toward me—it has no brakes.”
I loved being in the company of writers; that had never happened to me before, even in graduate school, and I thought that it would be a terrific thing for students to actually be in the company and conversation of producing writers. And so we brought them in, and part of the Ford Foundation money was directed there, for that purpose. I think it constitutes, over the forty years of the program, one of the best visiting writer programs in the country, and I don’t mean on the high school level, I mean anywhere. It was phenomenal. We thought—I thought, particularly—that it was essential, and that we had to find a way to maintain that, to keep that going. And the students back then loved it too, and apparently you guys do as well. That’s great.
AL: What part did you play in the founding of The Interlochen Review and what were your hopes for the journal at its creation?
JD: I’d always been interested in either working for a journal, or even starting one. But sometimes ambition overmasters what’s doable, and I never quite got around to that until we got here, and then Loretta and I, in conversation, thought, well, we need a literary magazine, which became the Red Wheelbarrow. But we needed something larger than that, a kind of showcase for the student work at the end of the year. In fact, some of my photographs appear on the covers of the early issues. If you look at graduate writing programs, most of them have journals, such as the University of Michigan, which publishes The Michigan Quarterly Review. And there’s The Georgia Review, and The Southern Review. It’s a tradition, and these journals are often subsidized and supported by the universities, so we did have a model for that. We knew this existed on the graduate level and maybe we could make it work here, and we did.
Olivia Alger: That’s awesome. So, I’m wondering how teaching younger writers has influenced your own writing. Did you ever find yourself learning from your students you were teaching?
JD: Yes. You’re smart and you come from everywhere; it’s such an eclectic community. I’d never entered a venue like this. This was like another world to me...it was so fascinating because people from everywhere assembled in the same classes, engaged in the same conversation. It was a much smarter conversation than I was used to. When I arrived, I was still in my twenties, and knew nothing. I’m not saying I was entirely self-educated, but to a large degree I suppose I was. I learned how to teach here and I also learned how to write here. I don’t know to what degree the students influenced anything in terms of subject matter, but I knew immediately I was in the company of smart, inquisitive, imaginative people. People buoyed up by the success of their peers and applauded their successes. I thought, what a wonderful thing; I hadn’t seen it operate that way elsewhere very often. And certainly in retrospect, after talking to [former Interlochen students] like Doug [Stanton] a lot, and Mohammed [Naseehu Ali], and Marya Hornbacher, and Kate Angus...these are writers who have gone off to do terrific things and I have learned enormously from them. They’re doing most of the talking and I’m doing most of the listening and I’m thinking, man, this is so good!
Change is time related. You’re the next wave of writers. Somebody at Interlochen, I don’t know who, is going to write something that is just going to blow everybody away. Maybe it's one of you three. If you stick with it you will succeed. As Donald Hall says, you have to work on it and work on it and work on it to get the worked on quality out of it. Any strategy to make the process easier will fail you miserably. You have to be fanatically persistent. You have to want it that badly, and if you do, it’ll happen. What I like about working hard is that when it does happen for you, that first story or poem published, it feels so good and you think, Ah, here it is. Jorge Luis Borges says, “I am more proud of the books I’ve read than the books I’ve written.” But I’d amend it this way: I’m prouder of the books my students have written than the books I’ve written. My wife and I are bibliophiles, and we own a private collection of I don’t know how many books, many of them first edition signed copies. And I have one shelf reserved for books by my students, and I’d trade all of the books in our entire collection for that one shelf.
The question I get sometimes during interviews is, does the teaching get in the way of the writing? And a lot of writers would say yes. Because if you do it honorably, and I do believe it is one of the most honorable vocations, then it requires an effort. A real effort. I didn’t have enough good teachers in my educational experience and I’ve come to believe that maybe, if you have one really great teacher who speaks specifically to you in a language that you’ve been waiting to hear and know that it’s the voice of someone you can learn from, then you’ve probably had a successful educational experience. My big break came when I met John Irving at Windham College in Putney, Vermont. It was my fifth undergraduate college. He changed my life. If it hadn’t been for him, I wonder what I’d be doing now. I don’t like to think about that possibility.
OA: Much of your work is really influenced by landscape and rural settings, so I’m curious how place has affected your writing. Also, how has your time at Interlochen shaped your idea of precious spaces and literary landscapes?
JD: That’s what winter does to you here, and that’s why there are so many Northern Michigan jokes. Here’s one: there are only three seasons in Northern Michigan—July, August, and Winter. Or, Jim Harrison: “July and August—two months of bad sledding.” Ortega y Gasset says, “Tell me the landscape in which you live and I will tell you who you are.” We’re defined by place. Behavior is defined by that place. And if you live in an area such as this, in a region so cold and snowy, it’s going to enter your work. So, has it entered my work? Yes. Was it conscious? No. There’s a part of the brain that’s happy to stay ignorant about all of this. The subconscious part of the brain, where the imagination lives. We’re rarely aware of what we’re doing in our stories. This just happens. That’s the magic of it. So I didn’t sit down and say, oh, I’ve got to write stories that are located in Northern Michigan. All I knew is I was starting to write stories that were rooted here, and particularly in winter.
After reviews started coming out, that’s where I learned what I was writing about. What my themes were, and my obsessions, what I kept going back to. And landscape continues to be one of them. If my stories were set elsewhere, they would cease to exist. Everything about the stories depends on the place itself. You could argue that place is character, that it, too, has a mood and a sensibility and on and on. It’s why if you read Ron Rash, you’re reading about Appalachia. If you read Harry Crews, you’re located in an area in Florida. If you’re reading Eudora Welty or Flannery O’Connor or Lee Smith, you’re rooted in that tradition of Southern writers. If you go to the East Coast, to New England, then you have of course the greatest and most interesting mind in American Letters, Emily Dickinson. You have Robert Frost, you have John Updike. You have Mary Oliver, who lives on Cape Cod. And so writers are associated with region. You have your Pacific Northwest writers, your Southern writers, your Midwest writers, your Western writers. You met Stuart Dybek, right? What’s his collection of short stories?
OA: The Coast of Chicago.
JD: The Coast of Chicago. And if you read I Sailed with Magellan (which is both a novel in stories, or what we sometimes call a “shnovel”), those are all set there, too. So you see, this is not unusual at all. This is how it happens. Place matters.
MN: You retired from Interlochen in 2009, and you ventured off to teach in the MFA program at Pacific University. I wonder through that transition how your writing routine and eye to craft has changed, because I noticed a lot in your interviews, and even just reading your work, that you say you write slowly because you want the words and what you’re saying to be alive. Can you speak to that and your writing process—how has it changed?
JD: The program I work in now, Pacific University, is really an amazing program with a convivial faculty. There are craft talks every day—three craft talks, sometimes even four, every single day—and I sit and I listen and I learn so much doing that. That would be reason enough for me being there, just to keep learning from these other writers, and some of the talks are truly transformative.
I don’t know that any of that has changed my writing habits. I know how to work, and I like how I work, and I’ve learned this from my parents, even if they didn’t know I’d bring it to such a totally different venue, something so antithetical to their work lives. But my father, just to underscore what I call my “blue collar” work ethic, worked 364 days a year, sixteen hours a day. Do the math—you think that’s impossible, that it can’t be done. But he did, because he had five kids and we were the first generation that was expected to go to college. My father believed that we could leverage ourselves into a better place with a college education, and he was right. That kind of renunciation can only announce itself in one word, and it’s “love.” The love for his children—to do that, to deny himself absolutely everything so his kids could be better off. I saw him work like this and I said, “I will never do that.” That’s the promise I made to myself, and sometimes we believe we’re actually going to know what we’ll be thinking and feeling in the future, which is preposterous. What I really meant by that is that I wouldn’t do what he did, which was own a bar. But I bring that same work ethic to what I do.
I don’t think we change much over time. I think we grow deeper into who it is we always were as artists. You’ll see this when you look back in twenty-five years. What you’re doing now is practice, getting ready for the thing that’s going to happen years from now. If you keep doing this, you’ll get better and better and better at it. You’ll arrive at that place where you recognize your own, authentic voice. Part of this will be from reading. The two most important things are, number one, to write, and then to read. And then to reread. Rereading is as important as reading because then you know what you’re looking for.
Now, this gets to the craft part. You’re learning how to make a poem, how to make a story. Make, from the Indo European root mag-, as in mud and straw, to actually build something. To construct something, its architecture, its orchestration, its arrangement. This is what you’re learning, all the craft elements. This is why you’re here. If you’re writing stories, to learn what character is, to learn what voice is, what point of view is, what tension and conflict are, what psychic distance is, what place means, or setting. Some people call it the toolbox; I call it the repair kit. And there are all these tools in there. One of them is called elision or deletion, how to cut stuff out, how to get rid of everything that’s extraneous to your story, that’s actually not working in the service of it, but rather working against it. How do you know when you’re overwriting? That’s craft. What gets us started is inspiration, what keeps us writing is technique, or craft. Technique defines the serious writer. The question for us, coming in and starting this program, was could creative writing be taught on the high school level? Yes. And could it be sustained? Absolutely. Here we are, having this conversation.
MN: You’ve written a plethora of poems, novels, and essays, but more recently you seem to have gone back to the short story, as if it’s your first love and you can’t forget about it. What about writing short stories interests you?
JD: I have no intention of writing another novel. I’ve written four. That’s the bigger canvas, and constitutes a much bigger commitment. If you fail at a novel, which might have taken you a decade to write, that’s huge. If you fail at a single story, that’s not so awful, you can recover from that quickly enough. I started writing as a poet and I was even introduced not all that long ago as “a poet masquerading as a novelist.” I love that. Poetry’s place in the sentence, the paragraph, in the story. That kind of distilled language is much more difficult to sustain novel-length. Like a comet, it burns out because of its intensity when you try and sustain it too long. There’s a writer named Lee K. Abbott, and his prose is like this, and you think, another sentence and this thing is going to go up in flames. I love the intensity of his language, and I’ve read everything he’s written.
I didn’t start writing fiction until 1984, when I was given a sabbatical. I promised myself that if I finished a poetry manuscript ahead of time, I would try fiction for the first time ever, and it was, of course, short fiction. I then went from short fiction to the novel. Most people would agree that the poem and the short story are much more closely-related than the short story and the novel. For example, I can do things in the short story that are very difficult to sustain novel-length, even though I’ve tried. That kind of extended lyricism can be difficult on your reader.
But I’m a lyrical writer, and that’s why I was introduced this way, as a poet masquerading as a novelist. I love language, and I love to see how much I can get into every sentence. This started when I was in graduate school and took a class in Chaucer and I fell in love with Middle English. There’s a writer named David Roderick who says, “It’s not the tale that pleases, it’s the telling.” It’s what T. S. Eliot refers to as “the auditory imagination,” the hearing. The Listen, listen, listen, you cannot listen closely enough. When Robert Bly was here, he arrived with ancient string instruments, which he played as he recited his poems. And I thought, “Oh, I love that, I just love the musical quality of this,” and then he said a great thing. I think the students will remember it, I certainly did. He said, “The eyes report to the brain, but the ear reports to the heart.” And he said, “And this is what musicians can do that writers maybe can never quite do, not that directly.” Or, the great Walter Pater: “All art conspires to the condition of music.” Jim Harrison: “Music came before words.” I’m all about it. I love the sound of language, and it’s why I love poetry, and it’s why I still read as much poetry as I do fiction.
I thought I would go into academia. I was en route to getting a PhD, and then I got diverted. A poet by the name of Joseph Langland invited me into his workshop. He must have pulled some strings somewhere. I attended and I really loved what was going on in there, and I’d always wanted to write, though I never thought I would do this with any degree of success. It’s why every time something good happens to me I’m just as elated, and revert back to my twelve-year-old self. I get giddy and think, “Oh, how did this happen, it must have been a mistake.” The short story allows me to do both, to be a storyteller and still use the kind of language that I do. Another way to say it is this: to hear more clearly is to see more clearly. What’s sometimes referred to as sound and sense.
Anyway. So this is where I’ve settled, and my wife says to me, “Well, this is how it went!” She wants to do a pendulum thing: “You’ve started as a poet, and then you went to short fiction, and then you went to novels, and then you went back to short fiction, and now are you going to go all the way back to poetry?” I’m careful about how I answer, but I’d always say to her, “No, no, no, no. This is where I’ve settled, this is it, this is the last thing I’m going to do.” And all of a sudden I’m not so sure. She almost has me convinced me that that’d really be a nice way to do it, to come full circle to where I started, thinking of myself as a poet. I might do that.
JD: You three listen to music? You like music? You have favorite songs?
MN: Kanye’s new album.
JD: Alright. And?
OA: I really like the Beatles, a lot.
JD: Give me one song you like from them.
OA: Blackbird from the White Album.
JD: Oh, yeah. That’s a gorgeous song.
AL: Philip Glass.
JD: [Laughter] I don’t know how to make CDs, but friends make them for me., “You’ll love this!” they say. And, you know, you don’t, because they don’t know your tastes. But I have a CD with seventeen covers of “Danny Boy,” the most beautiful love song ever written. It’s gorgeous. I’m Irish, and so I kind of love sadness, because I associate sadness with beauty. I don’t know why, when we leave our houses each morning, we don’t collapse to our knees in unstoppable sobs because everything is so beautiful. And what makes it so beautiful is that everything is in a state of disappearing, in a state of commencement.
Language in all genres has a similar effect on me. It’s physiological. It’s really visceral. You know, you have all these metaphors about making the hair stand up on the back of your neck. I read a poem by Theodore Roethke called “My Papa’s Waltz” to little kids one time, they were surrounding me, and I had my arms out, and my sleeves up. And one of the kids, maybe ten or eleven or twelve years old, reached over while I was reciting this poem and went like this, rubbed my arm. And I acknowledged it out of my peripheral vision. I looked over at her, and she said the most beautiful thing. She said, “Look at your arm! Look at your arm! It’s all goosebumps!” I said, “Oh, God, yes, thank you.” I hadn’t noticed it, but it was true. Now when I recite that poem, I look to see, and every time, it happens. When you read something like that, that does that to you, maybe saves your life, sort of like a message in a bottle—it’s thrown out and you receive it and there it is, and it’s what we call our sainted poems or sainted stories—the first thing we want to do is give them to somebody else and say, “Oh, God, read this. You’ve got to read this.” Because you want to move these people. When you find these texts you love, go back and reread them. Reread them and figure out how it was made.
AL: What do you hope that the writing department carries with it into the future?
JD: What a good question. You know, the future becomes the present, and the present becomes the past, and the past becomes the distant past. Future is white space, future is conjecture. We know that the past and the present exist together. They exist in tandem which is why we have terms like simultaneous time, composite time, or the one I like best, stereoscopic time, where the past ticks inside the present, which is why we have the terms flashback or backstory. We carry the past with us. It’s called memory; we can recall these things even though something like ninety-six percent of everything we register disappears within four minutes or less. Why? Because we don’t have the capacity to retain it all, and because it’s not important enough. The past is with us, but the future isn’t. We haven’t seen that yet, so we have to project.
When I first came here, this building didn't exist, technology didn’t exist….so what I hope is that the program continues to do everything that we brought to it. And that everything you’re bringing to it now will continue the tradition of this phenomenal program.
I am rarely unequivocal, but this is how much the place matters to me: I thought it was just a stopover on my way back to the East Coast. I thought maybe I’d be here for two years and then be on my way elsewhere...I didn’t know where, but after the first year, I knew this was the place I was meant to be. I didn’t know for sure, but I thought maybe it was the place I had always been looking for, and it made me think that maybe the big things in your life have a way of finding you more than you have a way of finding them. And even if it’s the only thing I’m sure of in my life, it’s this: that Interlochen was the single most important thing that ever happened to me. Totally, in every possible way. As I said, I became a teacher here, I became a writer here, I met my wife here, I settled here, my writing is located here, and I want that all to move forward. I want there to be that next wave of people who it matters to in the ways that it’s mattered to you, I hope, and certainly in the ways that it’s mattered to me, and whoever comes next.
It’s a great, great place, and so many of my students are adults now and out in the real world. They become people. They’re not just students. I had a teacher who inscribed a broadside for me, a single poem, and he had it framed, and he said, “to the student who teaches the teacher.” And I love that and I use it now too, to my students.