The Assay Interview Project: Paul Crenshaw
January 20, 2020
Paul Crenshaw is the author of the essay collections This One Will Hurt You, published by The Ohio State University Press, and This We’ll Defend, from the University of North Carolina Press. Other work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Pushcart Prize, anthologies by W.W. Norton and Houghton Mifflin, Oxford American, Glimmer Train, Tin House, North American Review and Brevity, among others.
About This One Will Hurt You: The powerful essays in Paul Crenshaw’s This One Will Hurt You range in subject matter from the fierce tornadoes that crop up in Tornado Alley every spring and summer to a supposedly haunted one-hundred-year-old tuberculosis sanatorium that he lived on the grounds of as a child. They ruminate on the effects of crystal meth on small southern towns, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, and the ongoing struggle of being a parent in an increasingly disturbing world. They surprise, whether discovering a loved one’s secret, an opossum’s motivation, or the unexpected decision four beer-guzzling, college-aged men must make. They tell stories of family and the past, the histories of small things such as walls and weather, and the faith it takes to hold together in the face of death.
Julija Šukys: Paul, congratulations on This One Will Hurt You. It’s a powerful and devastating collection of essays that think about, portray, and examine American bleakness, the neglected landscapes of what people call flyover country, masculine rage and despair, shame, fragility, and paternal fear and love.
Let’s start out by talking about men, masculinity, and menace in this collection. On the one hand, the men we meet in these pages feel dangerous. There’s an essay in which a stepfather kills his stepson (your nephew). There’s another text in which the narrator confesses to fighting and then choking a friend at the friend’s father’s encouragement. There are the crack dealers, a “smelly 14-year-old boy” who takes your daughter to the movies, and the frat-houses and ominous university campuses you fear await her in years to come.
But then, by stark contrast, we also meet your conscientious, if somewhat misunderstood, stepfather who tends to the fire in the freezing-cold house of your childhood. Your father who watches the sky for tornadoes. Your uncle who plays peekaboo through fire-scarred hands. And then, there’s you – the narrator who builds forts from stuffed animals and Dora sheets with his beloved daughters.
Talk about the place of men, masculinity, menace and whatever its opposite is. What do you think this series of male portraits reveals about twentieth- and twenty-first-century American men in mid-America?
Paul Crenshaw: I’ve been writing more about this recently. I am working on a collection now that looks at masculine culture, and how it contributes to all our conflicts. I’ll be the first to admit that many men are just jerks—I can certainly be one—but I want to understand why, what makes us this way, and how we can be better.
In the title essay of This One Will Hurt You, and a few others in the collection, I wanted to show how vulnerable men are, once we get past the indifference and anger we often carry around. In that essay, me and two of my friends, who are drinking beer and watching football and making fun of each other, as men will, are ultimately undone by a tiny kitten crossing the back yard. In that final scene, all the bravado of masculinity is stripped away, and we are left with three men standing in a dark kitchen trying to understand finality.
You mention the essay “Choke.” In that essay I deliberately mislead the reader into thinking I choked “Chris.” But the story is much more complicated than that. The “choking” was in a sparring match, and this sparring was based on mutual respect. On honor. Chris and I were good friends—he looked up to me, and I enjoyed being a role model to him. I started with the misdirection because it seems violence is expected of men in our society. But I’m also writing about the difficulty in understanding the full story. And the full story is that once we get past the violence, there’s a deep vulnerability. I can’t speak for every man, but every one I love and care for has it. They may hide it, either because they don’t know how to express it, or because society has taught them to conceal it, but it’s there. If it’s not there, the vulnerability, the ability to love so much it scares them, I have trouble caring about them.
I think all our male angers come from fear. Mine do, anyway. I was never more angry at my daughters growing up than when they did something that could harm them. I just wrote about an incident that occurred when I was a kid, how I was following my father when he was mowing the lawn after he had told me to stay back because the mower might throw a rock. Sure enough, I got hit in the head by a rock, and after he found out I was ok, he spanked me hard enough I remember it 40 years later. “You scared me,” he said recently, when I reminded him about it. “I thought you were dead, or at least decapitated, and it scared me so badly I didn’t know what to do.”
A lot of masculinity is rooted in fear—of being seen as weak, sure, but also of not knowing what to do, how to be. We fear losing those we care for the most, and allow our emotions to overcome us. I am, of course, not speaking of the assaults and the aggression acted upon by truly hideous men—there can be no forgiveness for that—but the menace you speak of. There’s too much anger out there. Too much fear. Too many men grabbing for things they want just because they think someone else will get them.
The opposite is love. Kindness, which so many of us have been raised to think is weakness. I’ve been in enough locker rooms to know that masculinity is often a shield for insecurity, because most of us are taught by other men to never show weakness. I wanted to be vulnerable on the page because I am vulnerable in real life. I get sad watching stupid shows. I can hardly handle myself when my daughter is driving home from college, worried of all the things men might do to her. Some men will make fun of me. But others might see something, understand something.
To ignore all our feelings, or at least not show them openly, is like trying to ignore our own insides, the hurt we hold in our hearts. The men I look up to the most—my father, stepfather, friends—may not always show their love in ways others would easily recognize, but it’s always there. I tried to write about vulnerability, love, kindness, to show that we are all afraid, and only by recognizing it can we overcome the anger and insecurity we carry with us.
It seems to me that these essays write against a version of America and American life that frames it as hopeful, full of possibility, and opportunity. But your landscapes feel bleak: landscapes like those of Western Arkansas and the the prairies of tornado country, like the cabin in which you grew up and the woods that surrounded it. You write: “[W]e are all trapped by place and circumstance and random forces beyond our control, forever looking back…” (88).
What has it meant to revisit these places in writing? Are you writing against oblivion, against inattention, or are you doing something else?
I think you’ve captured it perfectly—writing against oblivion and inattention. I want to pay homage to the people and places who shaped me. My family were storytellers. My uncle Danny always had a story to make everyone laugh (I’ve been trying for ten years to write an essay about how he and my mother get each other laughing at funerals and can’t stop.) My grandfather told stories about his time growing up, about his service in World War II and Korea. He told us bedtime stories, as my did my grandmother. Probably the thing that makes me happiest about becoming a writer was when I really started listening to the stories my older family members told me, and how, through those stories, I could get a better understanding of where they came from.
When I first started writing I couldn’t do much more than describe things: how the air feels when a storm is moving in. How the mountains surrounding my small town seemed confining when I wanted away. Those descriptions led to stories: about storm cellars and how the men stood at the top of the stairs to watch the storm, protecting us down below. How the mountains that seemed confining when I wanted away have now become markers that draw me back. Every time I visit, my father and I drive back roads we’ve known all our lives. He tells me stories about an old foundation where the house no longer exists. About things he did when he was a child, so I learn about him through geography and place, which helps me understand where I came from in multiple ways. I wrote about my great uncle Paul, after whom I’m named. I wrote about a particular bedtime story my grandmother told me, and the very real, very horrific story she couldn’t tell until 40 years later. I think of “writing against oblivion” as remembering those who are gone, paying homage to what they taught me about life, and “writing against inattention” as not letting those stories die, since they’ve become so much of who I am. And I think any time we keep stories alive, we keep alive the people who told them, and that is hopeful to me.
I once taught a nonfiction graduate workshop – very early in my life as a writing prof – called “Portraiture.” As I prepared for the semester by surveying the field of craft writing and scholarship about the essay and memoir, I found almost nothing that treated the notion of portraiture in nonfiction texts seriously. Now, years later, as I read your book, I found myself struck over and over again by the portraits you present in your essays. In fact, I might argue that some of your essays are textual portraits – here I’m thinking of “Lightning and Thunder” and “The Giving of Food.”
In This One Will Hurt You, you offer a series of portraits of people who live close to the edge of destruction (like your tornado-watching father) or who live with a memory of hunger so acute that it guides their everyday rhythms (like your grandmother who cooks for ten when you visit alone and “smells faintly of powder and hair spray and church.” I love that line.) These people are tired. They are battered by the wind. They fear running out of firewood in the winter. At times, as I was reading, I was reminded of Dorothea’s Lange’s famous and haunting 1936 dustbowl-era photograph of a migrant woman with children in a tent. And at other moments in your book, my thoughts went to James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
What are your thoughts on essay and portraiture or essay-portraits? Do my associations with Lang and Agee make sense to you?
They do make sense. I’ll point back to the answer I gave for the last question—about wanting to keep stories alive, and, through the stories, the people. My grandmother who cooked for me passed away recently. Every Thanksgiving since, my girlfriend has donated money in my grandmother’s name to an organization that feeds hungry families. She is paying respect. She never met my grandmother, but that essay touched her, and her gesture of making sure a family gets fed touches me, every time.
I’ll also mention writing that essay. I knew I wanted to write about her need to make sure her family was fed, but I didn’t really know what I was writing about, other than that she fed us. It took describing the landscape of her childhood, and a family story about her stealing a chicken leg, to fully realize what I was trying to do. It is a portraiture of her, in the same way “The Bear” is a portrait of my other grandmother, the same way “Web” is a portrait of my uncle Paul. “Lightning and Thunder” is a celebration of who my daughter was becoming, all her interests and intents.
And I’ll mention kindness again. These kindnesses hurt me, in a good way. They remind me that no matter how tired my grandmother was, she made sure everyone was fed. My stepfather warmed the house in the morning. These are the small things that we do for those we love so that they won’t have to do them. Because we care for them, and we want them to be comforted. To be fed. Cared for. If I can capture that in portrait, like Lange’s picture or Agee’s book, then others can know their stories, and, hopefully, be moved to kindness as well.
I love the essay “The Girl on the Third Floor, ” which feels quite different from the rest of the collection. It comes at a perfect middle point in the book and it succeeds in explicitly introducing the theme of hauntedness into the collection – a theme that has otherwise remained just below the surface of the preceding pieces.
This essay combines the concreteness of place, of a specific building (a former tuberculosis sanatorium) and its knowable history with speculation about what life would have been like for a little girl left there to heal.
Tell me about the writing and research process behind this essay and then tell me about the role of imagination here. How do research and speculation (or imagination) work together for you?
As I mention in the essay, my mother worked at the sanitorium—which has now been converted to a home for the developmentally disabled—for many years, and we lived in a rental house on the grounds for several years when I was a kid. When I started that essay, I was writing from memory—describing the buildings, trying to give the reader a sense of the place. I had gone back to visit, and was given a tour—as I mention in the essay—so I had recent knowledge as well.
I mention my mother working there to bring up the point that I knew a lot of people who worked there, and some that still do. I did a few informal interviews with friends. I called my mother many times. My grandmother had been mis-diagnosed with tuberculosis when she was a teenager in the 40s, and had stayed at the sanitorium for 7 months, and I spoke to her several times, listening to her stories (she’s in another essay in the collection, “The Bear,” and was a fantastic storyteller.)
This was also around the time of the 100th anniversary of the place, and there were a few newspaper articles that sent me down wormholes. And there’s an official website. The best research I found was when an old friend, Moriah Hayes Philmon, sent me a pamphlet published by the Arkansas Tuberculosis Sanitorium on its 50th anniversary, in the early 60s. This told about the history, when each building was erected, what a day was like for a resident there, and its plans for the future (not foreseeing that soon it would shut down).
So, I had a lot of research to go on. I had firsthand accounts, secondhand accounts, and my own imagination/experiences. I started with the concrete—what I knew from living there, walking through the buildings, visiting again as a grown man. Then I veered a little to the historical, and filled it in with imagination.
The final essay in the collection, “This One Will Hurt You,” lends its title to the book. The essay is, as promised, almost unbearable to read. The first essay about your nephew’s death, to be honest, is also pretty brutal. Part of what you’re contemplating in this collection, it seems to me, is how to tell painful stories and to what extent it’s possible to be truthful when walking such a difficult path. In “Choke,” for example, the essay in which you confess to fighting your late friend, you write, “I’m still not telling the whole truth, because it’s it’s a hard truth to tell. As are all the stories that sting. I’ll argue the whole truth can never be told anyway.”
Can you talk a bit about this idea of truth-telling, stories that sting, the shortcuts and omissions that might tempt a writer, and about what it means for a writer to examine closely something (like a kitten with a broken back or toddler who has died of head trauma) that’s almost unbearable to look at?
I have a story about that. When I first wrote the essay “After the Ice,” I sent it to a good friend, Brian Crocker (who is also the Brian in “This One Will Hurt You”). Brian was a year behind me in grad school, and an outstanding editor (also a damn good writer). He sent me a short story and we agreed to meet at a bar a week later, but when I got there I knew something was wrong. Usually we good-natured kidded each other about bad lines, obvious mistakes, cliches, that sort of thing, but Brian wasn’t saying much about my essay. Finally, I just asked, “What is it?” and he said “This is the worst essay you’ve ever given me. It’s terrible, buddy. Sorry, but it is.”
What I had done, in that first draft, was try to write about the death of my nephew without any emotion. I didn’t want to deal with the buried trauma. I didn’t want the memories to resurface all these years later. Brian’s blunt, but honest, response was exactly what I needed. If I was going to write about this, I had to deal with the emotional trauma. I’ve long said that if I’m not feeling some emotion when I’m reading, then I don’t want to read it, and I had broken my own rule by not letting the emotion in.
So, I started over. Completely. I actually threw that draft away and deleted the file, which I never do. But I didn’t want that draft around. I wrote a new draft that moved a little closer to the trauma, and then I wrote another draft after that. About six drafts later, I had a first draft, and could start working on it. This meant telling the truth, not just “This happened and then this happened,” but all the small truths—that I wanted to commit murder myself, that the men stood on the porch and talked of murdering the man who killed my nephew. That my family was almost undone by this, and that we still don’t talk about it. It meant writing about my daughters and my fears for them, how I was not only terrified of what other men might do to them physically, but what I might do emotionally, either by being distant, as my father sometimes was, or by not being there at all.
For me, stories that sting, or sing, are the only stories worth telling. Essays like Brian Doyle’s “Joyas Voladores” and “His Last Game” are good examples. Cheryl Strayed’s “The Love of My Life.” David Sedaris’ “Crybaby.” Tony Earley’s “Somehow Form a Family.” John McPhee’s “Silk Parachute.” Lidia Yuknavitch’s “Woven.” Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter.” Eula Biss’ “Time and Distance Overcome.” Jill Talbot’s “The Professor of Longing.” Randon Billings Noble’s “The Heart as a Torn Muscle.” Jenny Boully’s “I Remain Very Sorry For What I Did to the Little Black Kitten.” (That one especially, since I have my own cat story.)
I can appreciate a sparkling technical essay, good reportage, political commentary, but I want something that hurts, either in the painful way, or what I call the good way, the way that helps us remember what it means to be human.
The last question I have is about forgiveness. A theme of religiosity and almost false piousness runs through the book, and the scenes of your childhood religious instruction are, at times, chilling. But despite what I read as an ambivalence to a religious past, the theme of forgiveness nevertheless feels important here.
When, in the first essay, “After the Ice,” the narrator finds himself (almost) forgiving his nephew’s murderous stepfather, he resists and fights to hang on to his anger. Later, in “Choke,” the narrator appears to struggle to forgive himself, to tell the truth about his past actions. In the final essay, I don’t think you use the word forgiveness but we see the narrator reckoning with actions that are painful, difficult and necessary yet hard to reconcile.
Thoughts on forgiveness? How does the notion operate for you as an essayist?
I feel like I’m always trying to forgive myself for the things I’ve done. Not just the fights with my brother or times I yelled at my daughters, but the times I failed to show kindness, when I was selfish or insecure. The times I could have played one more game of hide and seek with my daughters. Could have read Where the Wild Things Are one more time. Could have given a little more of myself, to make life easier for someone else. It’s easy to say, but oftentimes difficult to do.
I was raised in the Methodist church. Later, as a teenager, I went to a Southern Baptist church, so religion was a large part of my upbringing. It’s a part of American culture, but I don’t always see the values espoused in religion reflected in our society. The poor are cast aside. “Love thy neighbor” too often becomes “Love thy neighbor if they look like you and think like you.” It too often becomes “Love thy neighbor unless they need help.” You don’t need to be religious to understand forgiveness—you just need to care about other people.
I have a special kind of anger toward religions that preach love and forgiveness, but don’t practice those things. Prosperity gospel is a monstrous way of looking at the world, and not only because it completely disregards Christ’s teaching.
When I wrote the essays about my overly zealous Sunday school teacher, and my overly worried elementary school teacher, I started out wanting to attack them. I was angry at the way they made me feel. But if forgiveness comes in many forms, I found a bit of forgiveness at the end of those essays. My Sunday school teacher, despite a lifetime of religious teaching, was scared at the thought of what comes next. My elementary school teacher was worried for all the things that could happen to us. They were both coming from a place of love. I think they came at it the wrong way, but they cared. I tried to capture that in the essays. And if there’s one thing I want religion to move toward, it’s that: caring. Not just about those in the congregation or those who follow the same beliefs, but all people, the understanding we’re all going to end up in the same place.As an essayist, I can try to find forgiveness, not only for myself, but all the ways we hurt one another. And, hopefully, through this process, I can figure out how to do better.
Julija Šukys is an associate professor of creative nonfiction at the University of Missouri and a Senior Editor at Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto (2001) and is the author of three books (Silence is Death, Epistolophilia, and Siberian Exile). Her essay “There Be Monsters” appears as Notable in Best American Essays 2018.