Dead-Shot Writing: An Interview with Diana Goetsch

by Sylke Jackson

JACKSON: Do you feel that creativity, or writing in particular, can help us in the new Trump era? How?

GOETSCH: Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Atticus Finch, the gifted and unusual father in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Specifically, the scene in the film where a rabid dog is wandering down their street, a vicious creature (oddly named “Tim Johnson”) demon-possessed and no good to itself. The townspeople have gathered their children indoors, as has Atticus. Then the sheriff hands his rifle to Atticus, and Scout, his daughter, is shocked to see him kill the dog expertly with one shot. Everything about him was gentle, nonviolent, amazingly compassionate toward people, even those who’d even mistreated her—ignorant schoolteachers, nasty old ladies. But Scout didn’t know what the sheriff knew: even though he hadn’t picked up a gun in thirty years, Atticus was still the deadliest shot in Maycomb County. What she also didn’t recognize: this facet of her father was every bit as loving as all the others.

Trump’s bullying presidency is a pack of rabid dogs, staggering down a lot of streets, where many children play. Fifteen other candidates in the Republican primary field, many of them accomplished bullies themselves, couldn’t figure out how to stop him. We’re all waiting to see if the courts, the legislature—our checks and balances—will hold, but I suspect there will be moments we will need to toss out the rulebook (as Trump has already done) and practice a kind of love that is unrecognizable in common times. We will need a lot of Atticus Finches.

But Atticus Finch is a fictional character, so we will need a lot of Harper Lee’s. Lord knows we need good journalists doing their jobs courageously (they failed miserably during the last Republican presidency). Still more rare is the courageous artist, who, to use Joyce’s words, “go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” We need the courage of South African novelist Nadine Gordimer, who took on apartheid by writing “as if I were writing from the grave.” It’s easy (and maybe counter-productive) to spout on Facebook, but it takes amazing courage to protect and practice art in a time like this, and give us our Atticus Finches.

And we need all art, not just political or socially oriented art. We need it for maintaining contact with the sacredness of life, and the guidance that flows from that contact. Nietzsche said, “It is only as an aesthetic experience that existence is forever justified.” The week after the election I had a reading at a university and I read a lot of love poems—on purpose—saying, “Let’s please remember what we’re fighting for.” In Denmark, not long after the Berlin Wall came down, folk singer Arlo Guthrie played a song written by the least political artist imaginable—Elvis Presley’s “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You”—and the crowd knew every word. 30,000 people singing a love song in a foreign language, in unison: it doesn’t get more political than that.

JACKSON: Wow, that’s an amazing image. So many people, connecting across language and culture, through a simple (and beautiful!) love song. So, cultivating our writing practices, or any form of art that brings us to our love and truth, will deepen us and sharpen our shooting for the fight ahead? (As a Quaker I balk a bit at using the shooting metaphor for my own experience, but I’m going with it…)

GOETSCH: I want to say yes, that art functions precisely in this manner—though right away a voice in my head says, what about Ezra Pound’s anti-Semitism, Yeats joining the Fascist Party, or Woody Allen’s “involvement” with his children? Still, art is often a transformative experience, one that puts us in contact with the sacred and makes us want to protect it. Writing practice in particular helps cultivate what Buddhists call right speech. Writers are people who continually ask, What needs saying?—versus What doesn’t need to be said?—in order to discern what’s finally real about a situation.

Conversely, we’ve seen all kinds of activism that, however righteous, is aggressive in its approach: militant canvassers, manipulative fundraising tactics, charities led by Napoleonic hotheads. This is bad art, sloppy activism that risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and very different from Atticus Finch shooting that rifle. Atticus is no militant, he’s simply responding to a situation by doing what’s called for, regardless of how he may appear to others—maybe even regardless of his own personal beliefs. (I’d even venture to call him a good Quaker.)

JACKSON; So hopefully, in writing, we transform ourselves and tap truth. That can give us the insight to cut through abuses and transform the world. And maybe setting aside the chaos of the current political apocalypse for a moment and giving ourselves a safe place to write is also a healing, nurturing process.

GOETSCH: I agree. Practicing art requires a setting aside of something—a lot of things—in order to create space for something else. I recently re-read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, where Woolf keeps emphasizing the necessity of having such a place in order to have any shot at writing that’s going to matter. Elizabeth Bishop’s great poem “The Fish” also comes to mind: an old woman, alone in a rowboat, achieves this magnificent insight of what it is to be a warrior. Such moments of clarity, and the poems that give rise to them—and even the space in which we read them—require nurturing and protection.

But there’s something else Woolf points out: even if we do have a room of our own, our writing can still be polluted by things extraneous to a piece of art—usually in the form of unaddressed trauma, creeping onto the page. So there’s an inner place as well that requires healing and nurturing.

JACKSON: Healing the inner place sounds good. Is that something to approach through writing or other artistic avenues?

GOETSCH: I think so. Art isn’t therapy (and Art Therapy isn’t art) but what art and therapy both do is promote body/mind synchronicity, and that heals us. Each art form does this in its own way, re-integrating the troubled or isolated mind with the sanity and wisdom of the body. This embodiment is easy to see if we’re talking about African drumming or dance, but it’s also the case with writing. I’ve seen this in workshops; a certain quality of engagement comes over people while working on a piece of writing, a kind of spell is cast, and when they come out of that experience their whole state of being is transformed. I usually notice it before the participants do, but then they read back what they wrote, and they’re stunned and surprised by what came out of their pens. It’s transformative.

Among the arts, writing is especially good at helping us externalize what was previously unknown about ourselves or our world. Even if we don’t at first understand what we’ve written, there is—if we’ve written well—a visceral sense of integration. Toward the end of a workshop I watch people become hopeful in a good way—not that they will become famous authors, but the hope that they can keep doing this on their own, returning to this zone of creativity and empowerment. That’s healing, though it’s much more: it’s being fully alive. (And of course, some may become famous authors.)

JACKSON: I love what you said about people voicing something they didn’t even realize that they knew and surprising themselves in their writing. And the resulting inexplicable feeling of visceral integration. A while ago, I was explaining to a friend that I was having trouble writing. In an email to her I meant to write, “I am afraid of the void,” but by Freudian slip wrote “I am afraid of the voice”! I like the idea that in writing we integrate voices that may be powerful but are unconscious and unclaimed. And we open a connection to an untapped source of power that could help with the whole rabid dog thing.

GOETSCH: I think you said it better than me.

This next class I’ll be teaching, the fifth installment of the Free-Writing Intensive, will focus on voice—though you’re right to use the plural “voices.” We’ve all got a lot of voices in us, most of which are unclaimed, and startling in their sudden appropriateness. From a certain standpoint, all the page ever asks of us is the right voice. Maybe our times are asking for this too.