Stephen Dobyns Was His Own Toughest Critic
Stephen Dobyns has been called a “restless and insistent writer” because of the number and range of books he’s published in his career to date. Dobyns has published more than a dozen books of poetry, twenty-plus novels and two excellent books of essays on writing. His poetry has been featured in top publications like The New Yorker and the Paris Review, and his fiction has been included in prominent anthologies like Best American Short Stories.
While Dobyns’ restlessness and insistence may have helped him to be prolific, these traits may have also led him to be harder on himself when he was first getting started as a writer.
“In my 20s and moving into my 30s, it was difficult to forgive myself for writing badly,” he told Opening Lines in an interview last spring. “I would write out something, especially in fiction, and I would re-read a chapter and it was terrible. I learned you have to forgive yourself for writing badly. Even though it was bad, it was still on the page and you can revise it. Once I understood that, I could write more easily without beating my head all the time.”
Dobyns chatted with Opening Lines last Spring opens up about his unreleased first novel, why he disliked poetry in school and how journalism helped his fiction and poetry career.
Opening Lines: What were your earliest experiences with poetry? Did you start reading it at a young age or did it find you later in life?
Stephen Dobyns: My mother would recite poems to me from last century. There were a lot of books in the house. In school, I didn’t particularly like poetry. We mostly read the 19th century poetry and there was a sense it was in a code and the smart kids got it and the dumb kids didn’t. I was one of those kids who sat in the back row and didn’t pay attention and didn’t respond to Emerson’s poetry. I think many teachers are frightened of poetry. When you go to a high school where teachers love poetry, whole classes will respond to it and align with it.
When I was 15 or 16, I liked jazz and I was listening to some poetry being read in jazz and I didn’t realize that poetry could be read in the way one spoke. After that I became more interested. I didn’t know what to read, so I read from [T.S.] Elliott and [Wallace] Stevens and Emily Dickinson, and it just sort of broadened my attention.
OL: So when did you get into fiction?
Dobyns: When I was in 6th or 7th grade, I read a lot of science fiction. I had read all I could find in the school library and eventually found John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down, which I was sure was science fiction, so I read it and I was struck. I didn’t know why I liked it so much, it wasn’t as exciting as sci fi. But I continued reading it, and then people said if I liked that, I should read Hemingway. So all through junior high and high school, I read fiction.
OL: Did your parents or your teachers ever encourage you to write early on?
Dobyns: I had teachers that encouraged my writing. I’d write something in class and the teacher would read it out loud, which both excited me and embarrassed me. But it was really after I started college that I started turning to writing in a stronger way. In my last semester before graduating college, I took a graduate class on Yates and I was struck by how certain he had been in what he wanted to do. At that point, I thought either I will do it seriously or else forget about it. I applied to Iowa [Writers’ Workshop] and really worked on improving what I knew.
I’d started writing a novel when I was about 22, worked on it for a while and nothing came of it. It wasn’t very good. So I started another and another, and eventually I was able to publish one.
OL: Can you tell us a little about what that first novel was about? What made it not good in your opinion?
Dobyns: The first novel was called A Man Named Harriad, a comic novel about a person who was extremely rigid in all of his habits and then comes upon a venomous woman who tries to disturb him out of his habits. There were a series of 18th century poems with names ending in “-iad,” so I got the name from there. It was very episodic, and it moved from one ridiculous sscene to another. At that point, Catch 22 was just coming out and there were other books of that ilk certainly, and that’s why I thought that’s what I would try doing. I spent a lot of time with that book and it really taught me a lot about writing. And the third book was a mystery novel that I managed to publish.
I was writing poems at the same time and shortly after that I started working in journalism. The three sort of complemented each other.
OL: What kind of work did you do in journalism and how did your experience as a journalist inform your fiction and poetry?
Dobyns: I got a job as a general assignment reporter at the Detroit News in my 20s and was being sent out to cover whatever there was. A lot of it was very exciting. Then months later, I started writing long feature stories for the San Diego Reader. It wasn’t closer to poetry, but it paid for me and satisfied my curiosity, whether it was about the homeless or working on a tugboat. That was very pleasurable to me.
I probably learned more about writing from journalism than I did studying for an MFA. The MFA taught me who to read, but in journalism the edits were so fierce. Most simply, it was having to write correct senses and having to describe events and developing a sense of structure. It all goes back to sentences – how do you say something exactly. In poetry, fiction and journalism, you’re trying to translate the world into language and are always looking for more exact ways to do it since you never can because language is always a diminishment of reality.
OL: What would you say was your biggest obstacle as a writer during these early years?
Dobyns: Discipline and money. I had to really fight myself for the discipline because I would write something and not like it. And money, because money buys you time. It’s hard to write without that. Or at least having a job that I’m not ashamed of in some way.
OL: Since you mention discipline, how has your writing process and routine changed over the years?
Dobyns: My process of writing has changed over the years. I’ve grown more comfortable doing it and I’ve learned more about it. I can start at a different level, as it were. If you look at Yate’s early drafts, he’s really thrashing around trying to find what he wants to talk about. And that’s true of his later ones, but there are far fewer drafts. You’re always faced with choices when you’re writing and those choices become easier. Often when you’re younger, you want to be liked, you want to have a poem published, and these things become constraints on your writing. So finally if you write just for the poem yourself, to the degree that that’s possible, you’re free from a lot of those.
In my 20s and moving into my 30s, it was difficult to forgive myself for writing badly. That could be a serious frustration. I was typing things and I would write out something, especially in fiction, and I would re-read a chapter and it was terrible. I learned you have to forgive yourself for writing badly. Even though it was bad, it was still on the page and you can revise it. Once I understood that, I could write more easily without beating my head all the time.
OL: What was your writing routine like in the early days when you were working at Detroit News and later when you started teaching? How did you find the time to write creatively?
Dobyns: When I worked at the News, at the beginning I was working an afternoon shift, so I didn’t have to be there til 4 pm, which gave me the day to write. Then I had a regular day shift. One of the difficulties of doing journalism for a writer is that if you spend all day writing journalism you don’t feel much like writing anything when you get home. And then when I first started teaching full time – teaching 4 classes – it took a lot of time obviously. I really enjoy teaching, but there were times when it was competing for my time to write and I became quite resentful.
OL: Do you think it’s easier or harder to make a career out of being a poet or fiction writer today than it was when you were getting started?
Dobyns: There are surely more writers than there were when I was in school, mostly owing to a great number of MFA programs. You talk to the editor of almost any magazine and they get hundreds and hundreds of submissions. It’s hard for a young writer to break through that haze of anonymity, to make themselves somebody whose name they recognize. As for fiction, there’s a lot less of it being published. I don’t know where that is going. I do think there is a lot of poetry coming out in online magazines and blogs and all that sort of stuff. Maybe that’s more the way it’s going to go. We’re at the edge of seeing electronic books take off and that makes publication cheaper. As to how these things are advertised and disseminated, I don’t know.
But certainly with poetry, you cant write with any hope of future end. You have to write the poem for itself, however frusrtrating it might be. You can’t use the poetry or the writing as a tool to get to some brighter spot. I’ve met students who just write to get themselves to an MFA teaching job.
OL: So what, if anything, can poets and writers do today to improve their chances of making a name for themselves?
Dobyns: Pick a few magazines that you like and keep sending to those magazines til you get some name recognition. Beyond that, all you can do is shoot a congressman and get on the front page of the news.
OL: Finally, what piece of advice do you wish you could have given yourself when you were starting out?
Dobyns: To have more patience in my writing. To not feel that I was in a rush. But at the same time, to forgive myself for writing badly. But mostly the patience, I think. And that too is kind of forgiveness. The poems I read were wonderfully graceful poems and then I wrote something that looked absolutely like dogshit and the impulse was to stop entirely, and sometimes I would, but then I’d come back to it. The frustration that caused me to stop, I should have just been easier on myself.
Image courtesy of YouTube.