Monday, December 14, 2009

An Interview With BP Whalen

BP Whalen's short story, Semiotic Love, appears in STORYGLOSSIA 37. Here, BP takes a few moments to discuss structure versus content in stories, working through our own difficulties on the page, how culture influences our desires, his work with Americorps, and his current writing projects.

Anne Valente
: Structure plays such a strong role in this story. How did you go about mapping and constructing it?

BP Whalen: It was a struggle. I'd first conceived of the piece after stumbling across this idea of the "semiotic square" (AJ Greimas), because I was reading a lot of narrative theory at the time and thought it would be fun to annoy people in workshop by composing a story based more on structure than on content. My goal was to physically represent the "semiotic square," and the first few drafts actually sprawled across the page in three columns: my attempt to show the action of the square across the space of the page, with all the detritus between the "Him" and "Her" columns in the center -- as the sort of engine driving the action, or the function, of the square. It got a little ridiculous, and I had to realize that the story suffered when I catered too much to the physical aspects of the piece -- the theory itself. I wound up reworking both the plot and the layout over the course of two years, and probably went through a couple dozen drafts before I finally felt I struck a balance between the organization and the story itself.

I understand now, as well, that my idea could never come across in perfection, and I actually like the way the concept doesn't quite "work" as a whole -- the imperfections are part of how the story functions, I think, a symptom of its own machinery. Every system has its flaws, and sometimes that's ok (says the author): emptiness leaves room for new inventions, new discoveries, differing interpretations. I hope there's enough emptiness -- enough inconclusiveness -- in this story to spark imagination.

AV: How did love and human relationships intersect with diagrams and math for you, in conceiving of and creating this story?

BPW: I always knew this was, at heart, a story about a broken relationship, based loosely on my own failed history with love: but at first I let my obsessions with design, and with theory, interfere with the transmission of the text-- the actual telling of the tale. I think that's the danger of being inspired by something outside of yourself, especially if it has a structural element, like a semiotic formula, a diagram, or anything conceptual. There's a lot of awesome possibility for creating art this way, but there's also a lot of danger if the structure becomes more important than the simple fact of telling a half-way decent story. I've learned that no matter how complex the relationship may be between a story and its structure, the two must mesh, as seamlessly as possible.

I wrote the first draft of this story during a time when I was going through some real difficulties. I'd just been diagnosed with a mild case of Tourette Syndrome, accompanied by a side dish of OCD. All my life I knew there was something peculiar about the way my mind worked -- or rather how it refused to work, in a rational sense -- but this was the first time I had a diagnosis to go along with my oddities. I was also, as I mentioned earlier, reading a lot of narrative and literary theory, and a lot of that stuff really hit home with me -- but at the same time it made me feel even more lost, more confused about my situation. In a way I feel like my OCD is begging me to have more order and sequence in my life, while my Tourette's is busy sabotaging my attempts with chaotic, random impulses and screwy tics -- my Tourette's seems happiest when I'm in ruin.

This story was, I think, a way for me to work things out on the page: to strike a balance between composure and compulsion -- a negotiation between honoring the integrity of the linguistic "square," while at the same time undoing that integrity by embodying this weird, disorderly dreamscape in-between. I suppose the sections in-between the columns owned by Max and the female protagonist represent the mental crap that clogs the holes in the screen that exists between two people. We try to make things work in the real, interpersonal world: but our heads seem to work against us -- the hodgepodge of dreams, nightmares, and random stuff that's constantly churning beneath our controllable personalities.

In another sense, the tension inherent in the design of this story is what it's like to live inside my head. Order versus disorder, control versus chaos. Honestly, I think a lot of writers feel this struggle between what our minds want us to do and what needs to come across on the page in order for a story to be intelligible. It's not just me: it's anyone who has creative impulses. We might feel an itch to write the words "fuckety duckety goose" from margin to margin, but in reality that's nonsense. Writing needs to be intelligible to some degree: to have some sort of meaning beyond itself.

I suppose I feel it's my job as a writer to represent my own insanity in a way that correlates with other people's insanity: so there's a communication going on, a shared space where someone else can say, "Yeah, I get that way sometimes!" Or maybe they say, "Jeez, I'm glad I don't think like THAT character." Either way, they need to be able to relate, in some degree, to something in the story. Theory aside, the reader needs to feel a human being behind the text.

AV: Even though Max is the one who kisses someone else, the female protagonist seems to perpetually want something other, some idea of things and not the actual thing itself (like Max). Is there a disconnect in this relationship - and maybe relationships in general - between concept and reality?

BPW: I think you said it better than I could, but I'll elaborate for the sake of demonstrating how little writers sometimes understand about their own work.

We've all got these images in our head of good love: delusions that can never match up to reality. I think Max, though perhaps a little dull at times, is more mature in his understanding of what love really is. The female protagonist, like myself, is very much a child. I wish, for our sakes, she and I could grow up and accept what reality has to offer. Then we might just make the best of it and stop complaining.

I've never met anyone, man or woman, who was entirely content with what the world is offering. Maybe I'm just meeting the wrong people, but it seems to me an essential part of being human is this disregard for all we have in desire of what we think we ought to have. It would be amusing, really, if it didn't cause us so much pain.

I think culture is to blame, in part: the "Her" in this story is far too smart and too well read for her own good, and all the literary theory she's been forced to swallow in school has wounded her sense of identity. Everything she experiences is filtered through the lens of someone else's idea of life, sex, gender, love, etc. She's never learned to escape the pull of her pre-judgments, her learned prejudices. These things prevent her from appreciating and embracing life -- especially relationships.

On a more everyday scale, it's the problem most of us have with movies, books, music. We all want to fall in love like Ross and Rachel from Friends, or to have interesting sex lives like the characters in Sex and the City. I mean, who wouldn't want to experience love the way Avril Lavigne does in her songs? I know a girl who is obsessed with Jane Austen, and she treats dating like a 19th century affair. I think it limits her, like my own perversions and obsessions, my trivial likes and dislikes, limit me. It's healthy to understand our limitations: it opens up the possibility that someday we might change.

AV: You work as an Americorps Vista in Iowa, in collaboration with food pantries. Can you talk a little about your work? Does your day-to-day work ever influence your writing?

BPW: As a writer, I'm pretty typical: I live inside my head, I'm selfish, I'd rather spent the afternoon in bed than show my face to other people, etc. One of the reasons I chose to do Americorps was because I knew it would force me to extrovert myself. It's been an amazing experience, particularly working with Iowa Homeless Youth Centers and learning about the real material challenges some kids face, beyond the psychological. I've really had to step outside myself to do this kind of work, which is good for me.

Most writers are introverts. It's very difficult for introverts to engage in the world beyond ourselves, even on a small scale -- but I think it's essential. The work I do for Americorps -- helping to build the capacity of small nonprofits, so they can better advocate on behalf of those less fortunate -- is a daily "wake up" call. It's similar to a piece of string tied around my finger: a reminder that there's a hell of a lot going on in the world that doesn't revolve around my own interests. A foster kid who runs away from an abusive home and needs a safe place to sleep doesn't need to know about a semiotic square, just as a single mother of three who just lost her job and needs a week's worth of food from the emergency pantry could care less about the conversations that go on in writing workshops.

It's good to keep perspective, I think, and I'm finding plenty of opportunity to laugh at my own solipsism (like using the word solipsism in this context). I enjoy the daily dose of humility my job provides, and I recommend this sort of thing for any writer who shares my own obsessive tendencies. Writing is fun, sure, and it's important to be creative, to invent. But it's not good to take writing so seriously that we forget to enter reality from time to time. Maintaining a broader notion of the world, and how our small work fits into the larger scheme of things, can only help our craft: can only make our output more important, more humane.

But that sounds preachy. It's been nice, is all -- though whether or not it effects my writing is really yet to be determined. I hope it does.

AV: What are you currently working on?

BPW: Revising the novel I wrote for my MFA thesis, and trying to "clean house" and finish off this horde of partial stories and half-assed poems I wrote during the MFA. Students get a lot of attention from faculty and a lot of encouragement to churn out pages at ISU. The program there is small and wonderful, and it really changed the way I think about and go about writing. But I've come to realize, after graduating, that in my own journey to learn discipline as an artist -- that is, to produce actual work on a regular, if not daily, basis -- I wound up compromising my own vision in a lot of ways. Direction is great when you're a student, but now I feel like I'm coming into my own as writer, and I want to go back through all the work I wrote during the MFA and reinvigorate it with a stronger sense of my own identity, my own gut inclinations.

I feel a little like the OCD side of things took over while in school, which, for me, was essential in learning how to write a decent story: stuff like plot, character, pacing, perspective -- the orderly business of crafting a readable narrative. But now I think I want to set the Tourettish side of things loose for a while, to see what happens when I follow my own instincts. I'm hoping I've internalized the lessons learned from "Semiotic Love," and that I'm able now to follow my own muse, so to speak, while also striking that balance between the inner and the outer worlds, the order and the chaos -- to be true to myself as a writer and a head case, while also maintaining an open connection with my reader. I imagine, Tourette's and OCD aside, that all writers seek this sort of unity. That said, if I find myself writing "fuckety duckety goose" across the page, I'll reconsider my approach. Maybe.

BP Whalen received his MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University. His work has appeared in Storyglossia, Eclectica, GoldDust, The Dream People, and Raging Face, and is forthcoming in RHINO, WordRiot, The Delinquent, and Noun Versus Verb. He currently serves as an Americorps VISTA in Des Moines, IA, collaborating with Iowa Homeless Youth Centers, Central Iowa Shelter, and local food pantries to raise awareness about homelessness and hunger in the Midwest.

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