by Ana Fonseca
Maybe you’ve read one of his commentaries in The Beacon, or flipped through his work in Portland Magazine. He could even be on your syllabus for next week, or there’s a fair chance you’ve already met him.
UP gem and resident writer, Brian Doyle, and his like “a burst, a verb, a sprint” writing is everywhere. Brian Doyle’s writing delivers a crisp, witty, honest punch which jolts us; his writing can’t help but stop us to make us think.
His new collection of essays, Children and Other Wild Animals, was published in October by Oregon State University Press.
You can also read his piece “Dawn and Mary,” published in Portland Magazine, posted below. He had this to say about this particular piece: “this story matters- and not because I wrote it, but because it’s a stunning story of grace.”
Brian Doyle will present as a part of the Schoenfeldt Writer Series on Thursday, October 30th at 7 PM in BC Auditorium.
In anticipation of his reading, I asked him a few questions about his writing and even scored some great tips:
When did you decide you were a writer, and what does being a writer mean to you?
O dear – probably at about age ten. My dad was a newspaperman and a writer, my mom a teacher and a gifted storyteller; I grew up American and Irish and Catholic – all story-addled cultures… my great ambition as a kid was to play pro basketball, but second was to be a writer – ideally a reporter. The idea that you could go around and ask people to tell you amazing stories and then you could have fun composing them and then even get paid for the privilege – that’s the job for me. What does it mean to me now? The chance to connect, to rub hearts and brains with people, to catch and share astonishing stories of grace and courage and pain and endurance and creativity and laughter. Storycatching and storysharing are crucial ancient holy acts; if we do not do so we will eat nothing but lies and sales pitches. Stories are the bones of everything: religions, countries, families, marriages, universities….
What is your writing process like? Any tips?
Do it every day for at least an hour. Make it normal. Just type fast and stop thinking before and during the typing. Think about what you have written after you have something written. Editing’s easy. Writing should be a burst, a verb, a sprint, something you do while humming and dreaming.
What role has the UP community played in your writing, or in your experience as a writer?
A million stories. Utterly stimulating, entertaining, moving. Extraordinary people – I mean, Kate Regan, Becky Houck, Father Ed Obermiller, Dave Doe, Lars Larson, Joanne Warner, Christine Sinclair, Donald Shiley, Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Alice McDermott, Ian Frazier, Garrett Smith, Carvel Cook – there are so many riveting people here – I always feel bad that I do not know every single student…
What writing has been especially formative for you as a writer? What are you reading right now?
Formative: essays, especially Robert Louis Stevenson, E.B. White, Annie Dillard, Twain – I love the essay, the form closest to the speaking voice, closest to how we actually think in the wilderness of our heads. Also great newspaper columnists, I think, really had an effect on me – Mike Royko in Chicago, Steve Duin here, Murray Kempton in New York, Martin Flanagan in Australia, Brian O’Nolan in Ireland. Reading now? Maritime history – I am writing a big long wild novel and all I can read is maritime history, for some reason. I am afraid of other writers getting in my head and that’s a safe genre for me.
What can you tell us about your new collection of essays, Children and Other Wild Animals? What’s special about this collection to you?
Me personally I think it’s an entertaining book, in which all the essays are very short – great book to read in the bathroom, my dad says. But the underpinning of all the pieces, I think, is attentiveness, witness, savoring, amazement, wonder. We so take the odd painful glorious mysterious gift of All That Is for granted. Sure we do. I suspect we cannot live except by mostly taking it for granted, but we ought to shout about the wonder of it as much as we can.
Any advice for young or beginning writers?
Stop thinking before and during your writing. Just tell a story with your fingers. Then when you think you are done, go through and cut all repetition, comment, opinion, sermon, homily, advice, snarky remarks, conclusions, and the word ‘unique.’ You should have something decent left. Send it off to be published. Expect no money from the writing life. Expect no romance, either. Hope for connection. Hope to make a difference in someone’s heart. If it all goes wrong, blame Professor John Orr. That works for me when I get in trouble.
Dawn and Mary
Early one morning several teachers and staffers at a grade school are in a meeting. The meeting goes for about five minutes when the teachers and the staffers hear a chilling sound in the hallway. We heard pop pop pop, said one of the staffers later.
Most of the teachers and the staffers dove under the table.
That is the reasonable thing to do and that is what they were trained to do and that is what they did.
But two of the staffers jumped, or leapt, or lunged out of their chairs, and ran toward the bullets. Jumped or leapt or lunged— which word you use depends on which news account of that morning you read. But the words all point in the same direction
—toward the bullets.
One of the staffers was the principal. Her name was Dawn. She had two daughters. Her husband had proposed to her five times before she said yes and finally she said yes and they had been married for ten years. They had a cabin on a lake. She liked to get down on her knees to work with the littlest kids in her school.
The other staffer was named Mary. She had two daughters.
She was a crazy football fan. She had been married for thirty years. They had a cabin on a lake. She loved to go to the theater. She was going to retire in one year. She liked to get down on her knees to work in her garden.
The principal told the teachers and the staffers to lock the door behind her and the other staffer and the teachers and the staffers did that. Then Dawn and Mary ran out into the hall.
You and I have been in that hallway. You and I spent years in that hallway. It’s friendly and echoing and when someone opens the doors at the end of the hallway a wind comes and flutters through all the kids’ paintings and posters on the tile walls. Some of the tiles are clay self-portraits by kindergarten kids. Their sculptures were baked in a kiln and glued to the walls and every year there are more portraits, and pretty soon every tile on these walls will have a kid’s face, and won’t that be cool?
The two women jumped, or leapt, or lunged, toward the bullets. Every fiber in their bodies, bodies descended from millions of years of bodies leaping away from danger, must have wanted to dive under the table. That’s what you are supposed to do. That’s what you are trained to do. That’s how you live another day. That’s how you stay alive to paint with the littlest kids and work in the garden and hug your daughters and drive off laughing to your cabin on the lake.
But they leapt for the door, and the principal said lock the door after us, and they lunged right at the boy with the rifle.
The next time someone says the word hero to you, you say this: There once were two women. One was named Dawn and the other was named Mary. They both had two daughters. They both loved to kneel down to care for small holy beings. They leapt out of their chairs and they ran right at the boy with the rifle, and if we ever forget their names, if we ever forget the wind in that hallway, if we ever forget what they did, if we ever forget how there is something in us beyond sense and reason that snarls at death and runs roaring at it to defend children, if we ever forget that all children are our children, then we are fools who allowed memory to be murdered too, and what good are we then?
What good are we then?