“Ask Me Whether What I Have Done Is My Life”: An Interview with Judith Kitchen

C. J. Bartunek: “The Circus Train” gives a feeling of a whole life distilled into this one elegantly spare essay. In it, you write, “This could be called a pre-posthumous memoir.” Would you tell me about how you came to write this piece and about what your vision of it was when you first conceived it? How is it similar or different in its form or concerns than other of your personal essays?

Judith Kitchen: I began this piece when I was at a low ebb, recovering from the bad effects of chemotherapy. I had been reading Beckett—and it seemed as though I could write a kind of female version, a woman’s memories. I wondered how they might differ from his. So I just started, realizing that I could begin anywhere and let them accumulate. So I started with the toes, the ones that chemotherapy had turned neuropathic. And I did just what I’d intended, letting myself go, letting memory lead to thought and thought lead to speculation and speculation lead to retrospection and to memory again, touching base every so often by returning to a couple of memories that I had decided to use as touchstones. At the time, I was having fun, and I had no idea what it was adding up to. The segments are quite short—anywhere from two words to maybe around two hundred. They just seemed to occur in snapshot-sized pieces, to linger on brief moments to think about why they now seemed to matter. They are not so much different from my other essays as they are a bit more like my earlier poetry. Then, when it was getting too long for me to have any hope of publication, Stephen Corey accepted it—IF I could cut it down a bit. So it became even more condensed, and actually quite a bit better.

I want to add that part way through the writing—which did not feel so much like writing as it felt like capturing, being there and snagging the moment, or the insight, or the stray thought—I was put on an experimental combination of drugs and began to improve dramatically. So then I began calling it a premature valedictory. At some point I realized that I was writing the anti-Beckett. That is, this piece, whatever its origins, was celebratory. More Fellini than Beckett. But a mild Fellini because my life was more cerebral, less surreal. But still, there were colors and sounds and textures and I wanted to get those down, who knows why, but maybe to try to answer William Stafford’s question: ask me whether what I have done is my life. Because life is more than doing, but exactly what? What are the qualities of living? The emotions that accompany not-doing? And so this form got under my skin. I’ve since written a shorter companion piece that will be published in Water~Stone Review in the fall. And I’m working on a third—because don’t all things come in threes?

CJB: Your essays often use “ordinary” personal experience as a way into a consideration of larger philosophical or social issues, and your concentration as a teacher is in the personal essay. Would you talk a little bit about the pleasures and insights of this genre and about how it came to become one of your preferred forms?

JK: The essay has always been a home for philosophical or social issues, but the renaissance of the personal essay (about 15-20 years ago) meant that the personal and the public might be able to live under the same roof. That appealed to me, probably because I tend to argue from first principles, or from my own experience. I usually go from the specific to the abstract. But I do see larger implications when I look to the events of my own life—as in how my personal experience of Kennedy’s assassination fits into my sense of myself as an American, that kind of thing. So I’ve loved being able to wax philosophical behind the mask of trying to make sense of my life. I think I enjoyed being able to play around with words and ideas the way one does in writing poetry—but the canvas seemed a bit larger so I could give myself more time to see what would emerge. I suppose I could have written longer poems, but that seemed daunting, while writing an essay felt liberating, inviting, expansive in ways that allowed me to surprise myself or to see more deeply why something had persisted in memory. Had made its presence felt.

CJB: You have said about your teaching that you feel strongly that aspiring writers should be allowed to embrace their own habits of mind, to follow their natural bent. How would you describe your own “natural bent”?

JK: Good question. I probably have more than one. But if anything has characterized my work, no matter the genre, it’s been a kind of truncated interior voice—as close to the mind at work as I can get. I veer away from the sentence to the fragment, those pronounless, sometimes verbless, places where the mind can work like a skipping stone. Touches down. Hops. Makes a little ripple on the water. And of course finally sinks. But meanwhile, it leaves a trail to follow—quick—before it, too, disappears. I like to invite the reader in, but not give much room for explanation. Either you get it or you don’t.

I write that way in nonfiction, for sure. Wrote that way in poetry, to the dismay of many editors. Almost wrote that way in fiction, but then I borrowed models—Joyce and Woolf, Joyce in Woolf’s clothing—that gave me a whole lot of permission. The only place I don’t find myself doing that as much is in the reviews I write for The Georgia Review. Partly because I know Stephen won’t let me get away with it, partly because there I do want to be sure the thread can be discerned, partly because I have some point I think I want to make rather than simply discovering what hasn’t been on my mind, or not consciously.

CJB: What discoveries did you make while writing “The Circus Train”?

JK: I am not sure what I discovered, but I did realize that a retrospective look at an ordinary life reveals the importance of the moment—discrete moments that become indelible, that mean something even if you couldn’t quite put your finger on what they mean. I also discovered that chronology doesn’t matter so much as synchronicity. I don’t know why I said that—it just sounded good off the top of my head. And that’s another thing I discovered—that things that come off the top of your head sometimes yield some real insight. Incite. Fire up the neurons and get you thinking in ways you hadn’t been thinking a minute earlier. And then there was revision! When Stephen asked if I could make it shorter (yes, shorter), I found that I could. I whittled eight pages from it. I had thought I would just get rid of certain moments (who doesn’t have lots of redundancy in life?) but instead I found myself getting rid of phrases, especially those ones that seem to come in threes, and words, especially the ones that come in pairs, and sentences, especially last sentences where you tend to say what you already said. Still, that doesn’t add up to eight pages, so I guess I must have gotten rid of some moments in my life . . .

CJB: At several points, “The Circus Train” references Beckett’s novella Company, which also renders a mind taking stock of itself and its past. In many ways, your own essays seem to have a kind of Modernist sensibility, at least in the way they deal with memory and consciousness. Do you see that tradition as having directly influenced your work?

JK: I’m sure I’d say yes if I could keep in my head what exactly Modernism is. Or was. Seriously, I do find that I play off the ideas and words of others, use other writers as a point of departure or entry—maybe a portal—into my own thoughts and ideas. So maybe I’m more post-modern. I know I’m post-Beckett. Even if in a kind of conventional way. If ways of thinking can be inherited (and I suspect that there may be certain biological DNA-linked ways that the mind does work), then it might be of interest that my grandfather, who died when I was one, spent time in Germany studying under Husserl. I’m not sure I understand phenomenology either . . . but “The Circus Train” both insists on and questions the reality of memory, and I guess I have tried to make the past palpable—as in something that really happened and also as it is reconstructed as a source of insight and observation. This sort of makes my head swirl, but at the time I’m writing I do think I’m at least half-aware that my “scenes”—or whatever they are—are not only there as a remembered event, but as part of a meaning-making whole. That they are building blocks in an edifice that has not yet found its full form. I really hope that THAT makes sense.

CJB: I’m interested in what you said earlier about writing a kind of female version of Company. One thing that I love about your work is that you don’t segregate your gendered experience—being a wife, mother, grandmother, daughter—from your discussions of philosophical or artistic issues that might be more universal. Of course no one should have to, but I think that many women academics / intellectuals feel a certain pressure to write from a sort of non-gendered, bodiless standpoint so as to avoid having their work pigeonholed as speaking only to female readers. But your work clearly speaks to both men and women. How have your views as a feminist informed your artistic decisions as a writer?

JK: When I was in third grade, I insisted on playing baseball with the boys, and I’ve been doing that ever since. I had babies in diapers when Gloria Steinem hit the newsstands, but I was already ahead of the game. I refused to submit my work to women’s only issues of journals; I wanted to play baseball with the boys. And I have to say, the boys let their hands walk up the bat and then chose me for their teams. Literally and figuratively. I think of Stan Lindberg (former GR editor) as one of those boys. He wanted my work, and that was what counted. So I have had to resist the women who came later and claimed so much discrimination in publishing. I know there are some statistical differences, but they have been steadily shrinking (probably in direct proportion to the invention of washing machines and coffeemakers). I do not believe that women write only for women, or if they do, maybe they are the ones who need to expand their horizons. It’s a large world, and it includes so many differences. I do not believe you have to be disabled to play someone who is disabled in the movies (a recent issue that drove me crazy when I saw it on Facebook). Nor do I believe you can’t imagine the life of someone of the opposite gender (even the interior life—witness Molly Bloom). Sometimes I feel as though we’ve been teaching our women to act like victims instead of teaching them to fight for their rights. Now they act as though publication is their due, just for being female. I have made it clear to my friends in VIDA that I do not agree with them. If women write well, I believe it will be validated with publication.

And yes, I have been pressured, but mostly by the academy. By the very people who are now unwilling to “get on with it,” now that they’ve won the battle, and almost won the war. They like the war. I’ll repeat that: they like the war. It gives them something to complain about when, really, they should be trying to perfect their craft. There’s room on the playing field. That fact has informed my writing in that I have just tried to be a self, a writing self doing the best I can to say exactly what I mean, and if that includes washing dishes, then yes, dishes will be washed in my work, and if it includes thinking hard about what it means that my father was a conscientious objector, then that will find its way in. I do not believe in being bodiless, because we write from a body, our work is physical as well as intellectual, and besides, isn’t the brain a part of the body too? Oh, I thank you all: John Straway and Joel Sundquist and Jack Kelley and Gerry McUmber and Bobby Dalrymple and Ray Hakes—you let your hands climb the bat, and then one of you said my name, I was on the team.

CJB: So many aspiring writers, male and female, struggle with self-doubt as they strive to get good enough to be “chosen for the team.” Are you a person who always knew she wanted to be a writer? What were your early efforts like? Where did you find encouragement?

JK: I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but that doesn’t mean I was always writing—well, except for the book reports I sold to other kids for $1.00. It wasn’t until I was well into my thirties that I thought one night—while washing dishes—you know you can’t think of yourself as a writer unless you put pen to paper. And so I began writing very bad short stories, then began writing poetry. When I got to the point I could write a predictable poem, I felt I was cheating, so I entered the arena of the essay. And found my true home.

Frankly, my best encouragement was discouragement. In college, I published one poem in the college’s literary journal. My favorite professor reviewed that issue, and of my poem he wrote, “While technically perfect, why bother?” This may seem cruel on the surface, but it saved me a whole lot of juvenilia because I waited until I had something to write about. And I remained friends with that professor until his death, well into his nineties. In fact, he listened to my novel on tape and he commented, “You remind me of Henry Adams.” High compliment! I wrote for him, and because of him—but I could say that about many people and many circumstances. I want to stress, though, that the editors of The Georgia Review have long been receptive (I had 17 rejections before my first acceptance) and have encouraged me in too many ways to count. And I can’t forget my husband, who provokes me into passionate disputation. And my sons, who do not let me get away with easy first drafts. And myself, because I keep learning more about revision. And friends . . . but you have to be cautious with friends.

By the way, since I’ve told this many “stories” just in this interview, I guess I didn’t have a whole “lifetime distilled” in “The Circus Train,” but that’s the interesting thing about this particular form—any question (internal or external) can call up an illustrative event, and then you can mull it over, let it spin on the spindle of retrospection.

CJB: It’s been a pleasure to talk with you. I look forward to reading your upcoming essays!


C. J. Bartunek received her PhD in English from the University of Georgia and her BA from the University of Southern California. Her writing has appeared in Oxford AmericanPacific StandardThe Big Roundtable, and elsewhere.