Narrative Life: A Conversation about Autobiographical Writing with Cheston Knapp

In this interview conducted by Kaitlyn Burd, Cheston Knapp speaks about his writing experiences with candor that tends, occasionally, toward wonder. He meditates on the form of the essay, the at times tenuous relationship between writing and life, and how going to “the places where the ground gives way” can be a portal to the sublime in the autobiographical essay.

Cheston Knapp is the managing editor of Tin House. With his wife and son, he lives in Portland, Oregon. Up Up, Down Down is his first collection of essays.

Kaitlyn Burd: Your first collection of essays, Up Up, Down Down, came out this past year and has been garnering a lot of positive attention. Could you begin by saying a bit about the process of making this book? What drew you to the form of the essay and to such autobiographical subjects?

Cheston Knapp: I came to the essay form relatively late. I grew into literary desire—if you can call it that—wanting to write fiction. I started working at Tin House, and about six years into that job a certain kind of story shut down for me, and I was no longer able to conceive of fictional worlds that felt vibrant and alive. I most often say that everything started to feel like I was looking through the wrong end of the telescope; everything was miniature. I had a crisis around that time, when I was 29 and did still want to write and make sentences without quite knowing what that form would take.

I have always kept a journal and had “life writing” as a sort of side deal, and so I started to look for ways to funnel creative energy into that. I’d written about three and a half of the essays and then realized that they were circling some of the same concerns. I saw I could finish off the one I was working on and could then write three other essays I had in mind that could then inform the book: X essay would be developing the theme of the first essay while Y essay would develop another theme so that they could play off each other organically.

Burd: I want to look for a moment at the word “persona”—a term often evoked in discussions of autobiographical writing. At its roots, “persona” literally means “mask.” When writing about yourself, which masks do you think come up and which do you try to pull down?

Knapp: Persona is so important to me because the persona itself determines the structure of the essay that is going to follow. You know the limits that an essay is going to run up against by the way the persona is constructed. In many ways, I think persona defines structure and, in a lot of cases, is structure. What comes up for me is a kind of vulnerability that I don’t have the courage to walk around with in daily life. I play down a kind of goofy sensibility I have adapted as a general kind of coping mechanism to the world. So I think I am more earnest on the page than I am in life. I am able to calibrate, if the persona is built right, vulnerability and humor so that the reader feels like they’re getting to know someone. Hopefully then, the reader feels like they are in the presence of a person who isn’t quite me but an ideal version of me that is dealing with whatever is at hand in the essay.

Burd: The interplay of vulnerability and humor reminds me of a Kenneth Burke essay in which he discusses how tragedy and comedy morph our understandings of ideology. Do you feel like you are approaching a type of ideology when you enter into your writing?

Knapp: I guess I’d hope not. Ideology for me is a loaded word that comes out of a New Critical language of received ideas that are not often interrogated. So I would hope that the essays work in pushing against ideology in the sense that an essay is irreducible from personal experience. In some ways, the more you are able to focus on one’s personal experience of a thing the more resistant you will be to ideology or reductive thinking of a thing. So I would hope that I am running away from a sort of general, received wisdom and toward a more nuanced, personal understanding of whatever it is that I am writing about.

That said, I think an essayist still is beholden to making space for the reader. An essay can’t just be a parade of knowledge or of thinking—you have to open up a back door to allow a reader space to inhabit that thinking too. So my process usually involves putting too many citations or too much research into things and then having to scour away the surfaces in the revision process. Otherwise the piece would just be too reliant on other thinkers, and that comes from a place of insecurity about not being the most tremendous student.

Burd: Reading “Neighborhood Watch,” I was reminded of a remark Joan Didion once made about doing research for an essay on a group of hippies only to discover a young child tripping acid. Didion said that, while watching the child, she felt “it was gold . . . You live for moments like that, if you’re doing a piece. Good or bad.” Do you think this value system holds true in writing where one’s own life takes a central role?

Knapp: I do think that you find those moments and that they take you over; but while Didion would use that as a telling detail about the people she’s writing about, I feel like I would try to spin such a moment, or am conscious of always spinning those moments, toward me. In part, that is because I feel like I have so much trouble — and this comes up throughout the book — in feeling like I am involved in the world at all. It’s often through work that I am able to feel like I am participating in the world, and so I look for these things that I call places of emotional fontenelles—those soft spots that I that I know I don’t want to talk about or think about and that I therefore know I have to write about, for better or for worse. Sometimes you end up diving into things that you have haven’t done extensive journalistic writing about; but with Peter’s death, I wanted to foreground some of the process of writing what I imagined to be a more standard true crime piece. I wanted to explore what that process might look like and to interrogate the notion of storytelling and how these massive amounts of information are distilled into a narrative that, in the case of global news, is cheap, sensational.

Burd: How do you discover the real material for your writing? At times throughout Up Up, Down Down, it seems as though you have an ever-vigilant attention to how stories are told, but is there some membrane your experiences must pass through before you decide to write about them?

Knapp: I think this comes from the writing crisis I mentioned I went through before—not that it was some great loss that I didn’t write those stories, but storytelling had become an issue for me in the fact that I was unable to do it. There is some way in which we are all walking around trying to tell stories or at least the narratives of our lives. That is the problem we are all trying to figure out—it involves meaning-making. It gets into your relationships or can impinge upon whatever your current situation is. So, when I’m looking at a piece, it’s like Toucan Sam — follow your nose. When you start realizing that a thought could incorporate questions of authenticity or fake experience versus real experience — all of those large, open-ended questions — it becomes a gut feeling to realize as I’m working that the form or the field of inquiry can house more than just thoughts about pro-wrestling.

That interests me less than if I’m able to destabilize and question my own interest in the subject. As you work, you are looking for those soft spots and places where the ground gives way. That’s usually the rumbling in the tummy that says, “Oh, here we go. I’m going to have to fall down through this hole.” So I think I find my essays more or less as I write. This is why I think essays are as imaginative as stories in a way. We have a limited conception of imagination now; we used to be able to call it fancy, to think that imagination can also touch the sublime. And I want to say that the essay can also touch the sublime. I want to say that nonfiction writing doesn’t preclude the imagination. It isn’t just a secondary form, but it looks different. It’s not in how you’re inventing but how you’re standing in relation to everything and putting it into play.

Burd: To conclude, what habits have you cultivated to allow your writing and life to exist in symbiosis?

Knapp: I don’t know if I’ve achieved it. I journal pretty consistently, but I often go from piece to piece, stranded on an island where I will wander around. So when I’m working on something, my life isn’t there symbiotically. I keep a pad next to my bed and wake up thinking of things.

And this is what’s funny about nonfiction: you think or presume that it’s the same person in the piece and carrying on day to day, but it’s actually in that act of writing that you prove to yourself that you do have a life worth writing about. When I’m not working on something, that’s when I feel despair or a mild form of “Is it going to happen again? Am I getting dried up?” I think I am getting to the point of trusting that the coffers are being refilled, that the pantry is just empty at the end of the week and my mind’s out at Walmart getting its materials. I don’t think I could continue on like people who do work so much; I wonder if I would personally have space to live life.

Who knows what the future holds, but the process for this book was bouts of tinkering and then a full-on dive. I often have to work for a very, very long time to figure out if I have anything at all, and then there will be large swaths where I’ll find I don’t have to change but a word or two of what I’ve written. I’m sure every writer has had that experience — where you’re hitting your head against a wall, and then all of the sudden you just are given these moments where it comes and comes. And in some ways, I think that’s why we write — for these momentary hits of grace that make us feel like vessels. It starts to feel a little woo-woo when I talk like this, but I almost don’t know how else to put it because I do want to honor the mystery. It does exist, and those moments are devotional in a way that is like what I hoped to experience in my churchy upbringing. There isn’t that much difference between writing and prayer — that’s what the poets say at least, and I’ve cast my lot with the poets.