by Barbara Lane
Photo: Peter Turchi
Peter Turchi will be among our excellent panelists at NonfictioNOW 2015. Turchi is the author of multiple works of fiction and nonfiction—including New York Times bestselling A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic and Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer. He directed the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson for 15 years, the Creative Writing Program at Arizona State University for 5, and currently teaches at the University of Houston. Turc6hi has revived numerous awards, including fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, North Carolina’s Sir Walter Raleigh Award, an Illinois Arts Council Award, and Washington College’s Sophie Kerr Prize. We are honored to have him join us at NonfictioNOW and excited to attend his panel on Saturday afternoon, October 31. Joining him will be distinguished writers Tara Ison, David Stuart MacLean, Nancy Pearson, and Emily Rapp.
BL: Your panel at NonficitoNOW is intriguing: Finding the Story, Finding the Form. In your experience, how do story and form interact? Does one come before the other?
PT: The relationship between story and form varies depending on the work. I’m interested in the pressure form puts on content, and the way that formal choices can inspire or provide new opportunities. Sometimes a work’s form is perceptible only to the writer; in other cases the form is apparent or explicit, and so part of the communication with the reader. For example: Eula Biss’s essay “The Pain Scale” is divided into 11 sections number 0 – 10, just like the pain scale she’s discussing; that formal choice is immediately apparent to the reader and, at the very least, creates anticipation, even mild suspense (will the sections somehow increase in intensity? What will they build toward?). In another essay a writer might choose to ground a discussion in three personal anecdotes, each of which introduces a new operative metaphor. The reader would see the anecdotes and metaphors, but would have no reason to know that the reader chose to build the essay from them.
Of course, story itself has certain familiar movements, and even the beginning of a narrative(“One day…”) is charged with implication. But writers of prose don’t have the tradition of fully defined forms that poets have; we don’t have the sort of templates provided by the sonnet, the villanelle, the ghazal. We need to invent them for ourselves.
BL: I am currently reading Maps of the Imagination, so I am very curious: In the process of writing this particular book, how many false starts did the project take before you found its final form?
PT: I don’t believe that anything in writing is “organic”—it’s all created—but Maps of the Imagination grew like a plant. My memory of writing the original essay that became the seed for the book is of sitting at my desk, surrounded by books, trying to articulate connections and metaphorical implications as quickly as they came to me. It was an ecstatic surge of ideas, one of those prolonged visitations by the muse that don’t come along very often. Then I was done. A year or so later Barbara Ras, my eventual editor, asked if I was interested in expanding it into a book, and I told her I wasn’t.
But I kept thinking of ideas that were connected to that essay, that I hadn’t fully explored; and I kept thinking of ways that the metaphor could be fruitfully developed. I can’t say the rest of the book came easily—one part in particular was a prolonged struggle—but the more I wrote, the more ideas came to mind. And at some point I realized I had said what I had to say on the subject. There could have been more close readings of stories, and there could have been more on all sorts of maps, but none of that felt necessary; the balance felt right.
So: there were no false starts to the book as a whole, though of course there was the usual pulling and pushing, tugging and revising that’s part of any longer project.
BL: Both A Muse and a Maze and Maps of the Imagination contain a wealth of images, creating a rich interplay between word and image. How much of this did you originally have in mind for the projects and how much came about as a result of revision and discovery?
PT: Most of the material in both books began as lectures I wrote and presented at residencies of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, which I directed for 15 years and still teach in as often as I can. Nearly all of those had some visual element—some had music—because I tend to think associatively and metaphorically, I enjoy a certain amount of indirection, and it’s nice to break up the blah blah blah of a lecture with other kinds of input. When I put together the manuscript of Maps of the Imagination I very carefully printed and cut out all of the images I wanted to use, taped them where I wanted them to appear in the manuscript, photocopied the result, and sent it to Barbara. If she were a normal editor she would’ve told me to get over any dream of including so many images; but the press had a good budget and she in fact likes to make beautiful books, so she ended up asking me to provide more images.
The issue, for some readers, concerned how I use images in that book. In some cases there’s a pretty explicit relationship between image and text: I refer to a certain kind of map, and there it is. But I wanted the reader to be engaged in the process of making connections, taking leaps; so some images appear without explanation, never referenced in the text. That annoys some people, but it pleases me, and there seem to be a good many other readers who don’t want every single connection spelled out.
I knew I wanted A Muse and A Maze to include a variety of puzzles, some of which I had made for the book; but it, too, contains images, some of which were crucial to my own understanding of some of the ideas I discuss. And again, Barbara asked me for more images than I initially delivered. In both cases, some of the images were part of the original lectures, and others were the result of my searching for a visual way to express a notion. I have been extraordinarily fortunate to publish these two books with Trinity University Press, and to have two wonderfully talented groups of designers attached to each book. DJ Stout of Pentagram designed Maps and ALSO designed A Muse, and both books won all sorts of design awards.
BL: What would you add to Maps of the Imagination now that you’ve had some time away from it?
PT: I’ve thought about that briefly from time to time. As I said, I could certainly provide more examples from writing, and analyze some of the texts more thoroughly, but I think the basic points I tried to make should be clear with what’s in the book now. There are other kinds of maps to discuss, including interactive maps and animated maps, and it might be fun to pursue those, metaphorically, to talk about some other possibilities for narrative. But I don’t feel the book has gaping holes; if I never get a chance to add to it, I’m happy to have it exist exactly as it does.
BL: What are you most looking forward to at NonficitoNOW?
PT: The things I don’t know enough to look forward to. I want to be surprised, I want to compile an enormous reading list of essays and books and multimedia nonfiction and writers I’ve never heard of, and I want to come away with new ideas for how to teach nonfiction writing. I feel confident the conference will deliver.