Interview with Essay Contest Winner Claude Clayton Smith

May 04, 2012

Claude Clayton Smith is a Professor Emeritus of English at Ohio Northern University, an author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, and the latest winner of our nonfiction essay contest. His winning essay, "Question Mark," caught our attention with its poignant descriptions of both the beginning and end of a relationship. The essay is featured in our Spring 2012 issue. Earlier this year, Iris connected with Claude via e-mail to ask him about his journey as a writer. Here's what he had to say: Iris: When did you begin to consider yourself a writer? CCS: That’s a great question, and the answer, in my case, was a process, one writer’s tao. When I was a kid, my parents had an ancient Remington typewriter—you had to depress the keys about two inches to make a mark on the page—and I enjoyed sitting down from time to time and banging out whatever came to mind. In junior high, after being assigned to write a short story, I knew that I enjoyed writing. In high school, an English teacher read aloud to us from The Catcher in the Rye, and the voice of Holden Caulfield blew me away. I immediately began writing a novel that sounded suspiciously like The Catcher in the Rye. In college, the professor of a literature course in short fiction allowed us to write a short story in lieu of a final critical paper. I jumped at the option. We had read Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” in class, and I adopted a naïve first-person narrator for a story about my grandfather, who, kind as he was, was a drunkard. It was a cathartic experience, and I cried when I wrote the final line. When that story was published in our undergraduate literary magazine, I knew that my future would involve writing. During my first year as a high school teacher, I published a poem in the English Journal, and that bit of confirmation encouraged me to think of myself as a writer. Shortly thereafter, when I made the best-man speech at my friend’s wedding, someone came up to me and said, “You ought to be a writer. Why don’t you go to the Writers’ Workshop?” I didn’t even know that such a place existed, but I applied, submitting several published poems along with the opening pages of a novel, and I was accepted in fiction. Getting admitted gave me a great boost of confidence. Of course, like everyone else out there in Iowa City, I fully intended to write the Great American Novel. I was 26 years old, but it was another 14 years before my first book was published. Maybe that’s when I really felt like a writer. In the intervening years I was sustained by lovely rejection letters from the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Playboy, and others, plus my own determination and discipline. Considering oneself a writer is a matter of incremental encouragement. Each small step in my tao was a godsend. Iris: What inspired you to write your essay? CCS: “Question Mark” is actually a snippet from a 35-page chapter of a memoir-in-progress that is currently 180 pages long. When I happened upon the call for submissions from Iris magazine, I knew I had suitable material. The chore was to hone it to the specified word-length. Happily, I had recently been engaged in such a process, reducing several of my full-length plays to one-acts, then in turn to 10-minute plays, once again in response to competitions. Love stories, of course, will never go out of style, and writing about them after a period of time has elapsed allows you to approach the task objectively rather than emotionally—as I’d done with that undergraduate story about my grandfather. So, I guess the question really is, what inspired me to write a memoir? It used to be that only famous people wrote memoirs, but in recent years everybody seems to be writing one. There’s even a new form of fictional memoir. The idea of a memoir as a slice of one’s life, rather than a full autobiography, is what appeals to me. I began with several reminiscences that focus on my single years, and they morphed into something larger. I’m also converting some of the chapters from this memoir into short stories.  Iris:  What is the most challenging thing about being a writer? The most rewarding? CCS: You know, I’ve heard it said too often that writers are solitary people and that writing is a lonely life. But the hours I spend at the computer (that old Remington is inoperable these days) are timeless and joyful. I suppose the most challenging thing is to accept that you are a writer and get on with it. In my case, that didn’t happen until I left Iowa, got married, and became a father and a professor. Suddenly there were two toddlers in the house, and I realized that my family’s future depended a good deal on my writing. But I was ready for the challenge because of years of encouragement. I thrived on the challenge, publishing four books in three years, with at least one book in each decade that followed. What’s the reward in all this? The doing of it. I’m never happier than when working on a project, and I’m always into something else by the time a project pans out (or doesn’t). Letters from readers, positive reviews, minor awards, advances, royalties, and recognition are all nice, but they can only arrive ex post facto. If you sit around expecting them, they’ll never come. But if you lose yourself in your writing, they will, and you’ll see how insignificant they are. So the rewards, as that MasterCard ad might say, are “priceless.”  Iris: What advice would you give to an aspiring writer? CCS: The answer to this question should be self-evident: read and write, read and write, read and write. Read widely, eclectically, selfishly. Along with that old Remington, my parents had a set of Great Books, and in those boring early-teen years when I was too young to have a summer job, I read through them all, from Austen to Zola. Read until you find a writer who speaks to you, then read everything that writer has written. Try to cast a critical eye on that writer’s style and techniques to determine how they work. Then write, write, write. Imitate that author’s voice, then move on to find your own. Further, find a time and place to write and stick to a routine. I like to write for two or three hours first thing in the morning, but I know writers who write all night. More importantly, cultivate the habit of being alone. Is it necessary to text and tweet and talk on the phone or be otherwise plugged in 24/7? A writer has to be comfortable alone, because when you’re writing—aside from the good people on the page—you are your own company. To get a feel for the writer’s life, join AWP, subscribe to Poets & Writers, and check out frequently. Many writing textbooks say know your market, but if you consult the three sources I’ve just recommended, you’ll realize that there’s always a market somewhere for anything you might write. Write first, ask questions later. Feedback, of course, is essential. I’m fortunate in that my wife has always been my first reader and editor, so I am not one to join groups. If you’re a loner, send your stuff out. Then send it out again when it’s rejected. It’s so easy these days with electronic submissions, and most places allow simultaneous submissions. Finally, a word about words on the page: The most useful advice I’ve ever received about my own writing was when the writer mentoring a novella I wrote for my dissertation scribbled in the margin: I can’t see this. You need an image here. It was a Eureka moment. Be concrete and specific. Always. And as my artist friends in Soho always say, Don’t quit your day job.  Iris: Who are your favorite authors? CCS: The writer who has had the greatest influence on my life is John Updike. I first encountered his short stories in that undergraduate short fiction course I mentioned above. Then I read Rabbit, Run and, subsequently, everything he wrote until he died. He was the first writer (Salinger’s Holden Caulfield was a prep school kid) who wrote about the public-school world I knew. Many of his short stories deal with high school students, and I taught those stories to high school students. In fact, the poem I had published in the English Journal was about a high school teacher teaching an Updike short story. When I was at the Writers’ Workshop, I sent Updike a copy of that poem and received a lovely note from him in return. I later brought him to read at Virginia Tech, then Ohio Northern University, after which I found myself making cameo appearances in two of his books. John was good enough to contribute material to one of my own books (Lapping America), and I corresponded with him until a few months before his death. However, I did not publish my first book until I stopped trying to write like John Updike! Which is why I encourage young writers to move on from their favorite writers after trying them on for size. Of course, as an English major in college and graduate school, I read all the “official” great stuff, and I’m still reading Thoreau’s lesser-known books. I have a crush on Emily Dickinson and read her poems to my wife. Proust and Shakespeare and Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson never fail to move me, and now that I’m no longer teaching, I’m reading authors I’ve somehow missed along the way—Anais Nin, Jo Ann Beard, Cormac McCarthy, Doestoyevsky, James Cain. I love discovering “far-out” sensibilities, as in the stories of Thom Jones or, more recently, Donald Ray Pollock. Recent memoirs by Sarah Silverman and Tina Fey cracked me up. Every author is sui generis, with a unique tao.  ---- Professor Emeritus of English at Ohio Northern University, Claude Clayton Smith is the author of a novel, two children’s books, and four books of creative nonfiction. He is also co-editor/translator of The Way of Kinship, an anthology of Native Siberian literature. His latest book is Ohio Outback: Learning to Love the Great Black Swamp (Kent State University Press, 2010). A native of Stratford, Connecticut, he holds a BA  from Wesleyan, an MAT from Yale, an MFA from the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, and a DA from Carnegie-Mellon. His work has been translated into five languages. Images and biography courtesy of Claude Clayton Smith.

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