Today’s featured writer: John Proctor
The featured writing: “Meditating Underwater” published at Atlas & Alice.
John Proctor—not that John Proctor, as he notably distinguishes himself (via his website address) from The Crucible‘s hard-on-his-luck character—is a fellow graduate of mine from Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA in creative nonfiction) and an editorial colleague at Hunger Mountain.
John is a writer of wry humor, wit, poignancy, and reflection. His work varies in scope from baseball to crabbing to fatherhood, often writing about his blue collar-family upbringing in Lawrence, Kansas, as he does in his excellent essay “The Question of Influence” (which I highly recommend) published at The Normal School and listed as “Notable” in the Best American Essays 2015.
What I love about John’s writing, besides his well-crafted prose, is his vulnerability and honesty. John lays himself bare as a character in his essays, not afraid to expose himself as an example of the complexities inherent in the human condition. This capability engenders not only trust in his narrative voice, but a certain kinship as well.
“Meditating Underwater” is a melancholy and moving essay about family—both the ones we are born into and the ones we choose—and how the very fact of birth into a family doesn’t necessarily cement a longstanding belonging even amidst deep love and caring. I’m a sucker for stories that tug at the heartstrings. The subject matter for much of my own writing is loss and death, so I’m partial to heart-wrenching narratives. While “Meditating Underwater” isn’t calamitous in nature, it does delve straight to the conflicts of the heart in both subtle and not so subtle ways.
Here is an excerpt:
My mother’s body, between the hours of 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. today, is undergoing a drastic and permanent sea change. Every major organ in her body is being removed and set on a table as a team of doctors inserts screws and cement into her spinal column in order to correct her rapidly advancing late-onset scoliosis. “The doctor sounds more like a mechanic than a surgeon,” my stepfather chuckles. From half a country away, at a beach house with a family most of whom my mother hasn’t met, I try to gather the strands together and make something meaningful, even beautiful, out of the destruction of her body. This is perhaps my greatest betrayal of my mother.
I have read “Meditating Underwater” several times now. It is one of those essays that I will go back to again and again. I encourage you to give it a read as well. It will leave you a little breathless, but in the best way.
John Proctor lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, two daughters, and Chihuahua. An active reader on the New York City open mic scene, he’s written memoir, fiction, poetry, criticism, and just about everything in the space between them. His work has been published in Atlas & Alice, The Weeklings, Essay Daily, The Normal School, The Austin Review, DIAGRAM, Superstition Review, Underwater New York, Defunct, New Madrid, Numero Cinq, McSweeney’s, Trouser Press, and New York Cool and is forthcoming in an international anthology of microfiction. His essay “The A-Rod of Ballhawking” was nominated for a 2016 Pushcart. He serves as Online Editor for Hunger Mountain Journal of the Arts and Dad for All Seasons columnist for the blog A Child Grows in Brooklyn. He teaches academic writing, media studies, and communication theory at Manhattanville College. You can find him online at NotThatJohnProctor.com/.
A few questions for John:
“Meditating Underwater” is such a deep and introspective look into a man’s relationship with family, both past and present. What were your goals and intentions in writing this piece, and do you feel you achieved them?
Roughly 75% of the piece actually comes from my journal during the ten hours of my mother’s back surgery, so I’d say the most pressing goal I had in writing the piece at the time was just to get through the helplessness, self-loathing, and fear I was feeling during those hours. I guess the next goal for the piece was to communicate these feelings to my wife by letting her read the journal that night.
Thinking about this now after having just reread my piece, perhaps the reason why I dug it up months later, tinkered with it for months, and finally started submitting it to journals was that I saw it as a sort of testament to my inner life – a life that, while fulfilling my many personae that you list in a question below, I sometimes feel the need to hide or neglect. I think it’s expected that men silence our inner selves to do our jobs, get things done, impose our wills, or whatever, and I’m kind of a pleaser, so I tend to try to give people what they expect of me, at least in person. I don’t necessarily want to change that part of myself—I like pleasing people!—but I’m starting to recognize that some of the writing I enjoy most is the stuff in which a person, fictional or otherwise, bares her or his inner self in a way that feels honest, artistic, and pathos-laden. So ironically I channel my need to please by giving myself free rein in my writing to do the type of things that please me when I read them from others, perhaps in the hope of pleasing readers like me.
The environment of your childhood in Kansas seems to heavily inform much of your writing. Do you find it difficult to recapture the scenes from your more rural past as a current urban dweller? And if so, do you have a process to help access those memories and feelings?
I don’t know that I have a process … Actually I do, but I think of it as more of a method of collection: I just try to have something ready to jot down memories and inspirations when they come to me. These initial jottings are rarely pithy, and sometimes barely intelligible. Many times I have no idea what I was thinking or doing when I wrote them, and I actually love when this happens. (I feel the need to state an obvious influence on this practice, Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook.”) Come to think of it, let me pull out some recent jottings that I haven’t yet looked at, and try to make sense of them:
- Not so much seeing what’s there as imagining what’s not there [I had to think for a minute, but now I remember: This was something the instructor said at an urban gardening workshop I attended in February. He was talking about sitting in your garden space in winter and looking around, imagining what you want it to look like in full bloom. A great way of thinking about envisioning an essay too, perhaps?]
- “Writing is a series of performed focuses” – Maggie Nelson [She said this at the NonfictioNow conference late last year]
- The Phantom Tollbooth and The Cyberiad – these books are remarkably similar [For whatever reason I felt the need to underline this when I wrote it sometime last year. I’ve been thinking a lot about connections between the things I’m reading with my six-year-old daughter and the things I’ve read and enjoyed growing up.]
I could go on and on, and still not answer your initial question of my urban present vs. rural upbringing. Sorry, but I still haven’t found a suitable answer for that.
Where did your love of books/storytelling/reading/writing/etc. come from?
My mom has a story she loves to tell ad nauseam from when I was maybe seven or eight years old, about deciding to make me spend an hour in my room reading after school before I could play outside, thus instilling in me a love of reading. Looking back on it now, it seems like such a strange decision considering she’s never been much of a reader herself, but she always says something like, “I wanted you to be smarter than I was” or some such. And she never dictated or even suggested what to read, just required that I spend that time reading. It’s hard to question her judgment now, all considered, and she obviously had to have some inkling of my proclivities; if she had stuck me in my room every day balancing ledgers, for example, I’m unconvinced that would have made me an accountant.
I also had an uncle who seemed to be living with us roughly nine months of most years when I was a child, and I routinely raided his book stash—mostly horror stuff like Stephen King, The Exorcist, and just a whole lot of that ilk. That, along with my grandfather’s love of Central States professional wrestling and my father’s obsession with slasher flicks, formed my early mythology and probably explain many of my character flaws. I’m hyper-cognizant of this right now, as my six-year-old daughter is just learning to read and has a thirst for narrative that both excites and terrifies me. I read to her quite a lot, and we’re currently on Book 10 of the 13-volume A Series of Unfortunate Events series, which as a parent makes me worry about carrying on a family tradition of non-age-appropriate reading but as a reader and dreamer provides a common palette for mutual dream-weaving.
What writers do you like to read? Who has influenced your own writing?
Wow, I love and fear this question. Instead of trying to pinpoint my overarching influences or resort to the dreaded “I like a wide variety of work,” maybe I’ll just write a bit about what I’ve been reading lately. First, I decided at the beginning of this year to read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s 6-volume My Struggle and Elena Ferrante’s 4-volume Neopolitan novel series slowly and concurrently over the course of the entire year. Both are engrossing, and really interesting to read together (I’ve just finished the first books of both). Knausgaard is loopy, Ferrante is sharp; My Struggle is overt memoir while the Neopolitan novels are fiction that feels completely lived-in. Both first-person narrators are fearlessly broken.
In terms of essays, I’ve been rotating between Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel (what a master of the list-as-story), Virginia Woolf’s two Common Readers (I’m convinced she couldn’t write a piece, however trifling, without at least five sentences that knock me to the floor), Borges’s Labyrinths, and Lydia Davis’s big long story collection (both Borges and Davis write the most essayistic stories). And last month I read Patrick Madden’s new collection, Sublime Physick, which is dense and mind-expanding and a quick read, three adjectives rarely used in conjunction about a single book.
Did I mention I’m also rereading Moby Dick?
Oh, god. I’m actually working on 3 unpublished book-length projects in various stages of development, all of which I survive as a writer by conceptualizing as a bunch of interlinked essays. The one I consider most finished (when is anything ever finished, really?) is a series of memoir-y essays I’ve been writing for the past seven years, which I link with a series of list-essays organized by decade; right now I’m calling that I Was Young When I Left Home.
I’m also finding myself writing some pieces on people who are known either for failure or for success in fields no one much cares about. This idea had its genesis last summer when I wrote a piece on Zack Hample, the guy who caught A-Rod’s 3,000th hit and who is actually kind of the A-Rod of catching baseballs in the stands of major-league games (yes, it’s a thing, called ballhawking). As I was writing that piece, I mapped out a book’s worth of proposals for essays looking at people I’ve known, either in person or through the media, who are similarly situated on the “success” spectrum.
The other project involves a shoebox full of letters my grandmother gave me in 1997, written by my great-uncle Ollie Chaney between the time he was drafted at 18 years old and his death on the shores of Normandy. I was in graduate school and had been telling my grandma I wanted to be a writer, so she asked me to transcribe them. Through reading and typing out those 200-some letters, I developed a relationship with my deceased uncle that I felt transcended time and class and somehow made Uncle Ollie some sort of apotheosis for the Twentieth Century, but I’m still trying to figure out how. This is a research-heavy project, and most of my research for it is a balance of long conversations with family and lots of reading and correspondence with fairly inefficient federal agencies. Funny enough – this is the project I’ve spent the most time on, but drafted the least of. It’s brought me closer to much of my extended family though; I think most of them think of me as a writer not because of my writing, but because I transcribed all of those letters from their deceased brother/uncle/cousin.
You wear a lot of hats: writer, professor, father, husband, editor. How do you balance them all, and how do the demands of family and work interact with your writing life?
Oh, don’t even get me going on my to-do list. Really though, I do find myself keeping track of what I’m doing, planning on doing, coordinating with my wife, promising to others, and asking of myself more than I ever have previously in my life. I try to take stock yearly and monthly of how I most want to use my time, then I actually break it up into hourly units and allocate those units on Excel for the month. (Yes, I do this—ask my wife! Her term for it is OCD.) Much like formal constraints in writing, I find breaking my time into these little units frees me up to be a better improviser as I go, gives me a sense of short-term achievement when I click these off, and also makes me generally more—not less—at ease in the knowledge of where any given moment sits in relation to other past, future, and possible moments.
I feel like I might have just let everyone know a bit too much about myself.
Do you have any words of wisdom to share or little gems of writing advice?
Oh, boy. I’m really bad with advice. I feel so unequipped with wisdom, and I have so many bad habits (one of the worst of which, my emotional connection to a college basketball team, makes this one of the most emotionally wrenching months of the year for me). I guess the best “advice” I have to give is to take stock occasionally of what’s most important to you, and make sure to give time and space for these things. I don’t necessarily mean making goals, but just giving your time and attention completely over to the people and things you love, in turn and individually. Be conscious of the limited time you have for these people and things, and love them in your way, preferably through action rather than thought.
Well, that’s abstract and fairly impractical. I told you I was bad with advice.