Dustin Beall Smith has been many things—a skydiver (in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Smith helped pioneer sport parachuting in the United States); a college dropout; a political campaign worker (he worked as an advance man for Robert Kennedy’s senatorial campaign and for the Norman Mailer-Jimmy Breslin mayoral campaign); and a key grip in the film industry (see Dustin Smith at the Internet Movie Database). He currently teaches writing at Gettysburg College.
Smith’s work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, the Atlanta Journal/Constitution, BackStage, The Gettysburg Review, Hotel Amerika, the Louisville Review, the New York Times Magazine, Quarto, River Teeth, The Sun, Writing on the Edge, and elsewhere. His honors include the Katharine Bakeless Nason Prize in Nonfiction for his book, Key Grip. A Memoir of Endless Consequences; fellowships in 1995 and 1996 at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
Knowing his past experience as a skydiver and a member of the film industry, I was expecting someone who was arrogant and overtly masculine when I met him at the Conversations and Connections conference in D.C. last April. Instead, I discovered a gentle, humorous man who was willing to talk to me about writing and life as a writer even though I am not well-published, nor writing all that much these days. (We were introduced by his partner, Kim Dana Kupperman, an old college friend of mine.) He is also a patient man—this interview began by email prior to that in-person meeting, and continued in bits and spurts for a few months after.
For more on Dusty, and to see samples of his work, see his web site: Dustin Beall Smith.
Why are you a writer?
I don’t think I have a choice in the matter. It seems to be in my DNA, even when I’m not honoring the gift—or the proclivity, I should say. There are times I envy people who have no need to write—wrongly, of course, since they have other needs. My own need comes from a basic inability to make sense of the world in any other way than writing about it. If I go for long periods of time without writing, I tend to sink into a curmudgeonly mood. My focus then tends to become negative. When I write, especially about things that disturb me, I often discover a brighter, more optimistic side to myself—one that involves more generosity of spirit. Humor informs me, whereas, without writing, depression is always lurking in the wings.
In your book, Key Grip, you describe yourself as being a writer-wannabe for many years. Now you teach writing, and you have a book in print. Was there a moment when you knew you were writing for real, or was it a gradual transformation? Was earning an MFA part of that transformation?
It was a gradual transformation, actually, beginning with a piece I published in the New York Times magazine over twenty years ago. Appearing in that venue was enormously energizing—it has over a million readers—and I was so taken with my success that I began immediately to write a novel. That project turned out to be a five-year-long detour from autobiographical writing, and because I was still working long hours on movies, I often felt like I was drowning. Not until I entered the MFA program at Columbia did believe I was writing for real—that I somehow “belonged” in the writing community. It helps to believe you have an audience—which is to say that you have an effect as a writer. Breaking into the ranks of published writers has always been a daunting task, but more so today than ever, I think. The world is full. With fewer and fewer high-profile publishing venues, and more and more writers looking to publish, the MFA system—its teachers and its students—has helped absorb the overflow by providing the community—the network—the audience.
Many of the chapters in Key Grip were first published separately as pieces in different publications. When did you start to think about compiling them into a book—and, did it require any rewriting (for transitions, etc.)?
The chapters in Key Grip were first published as discrete personal and autobiographical essays. They are arranged in reverse chronological order, honoring the Native American concept of the heyoka—the sacred clown, who does everything backwards in his performance (a subject discussed in the first essay). I submitted the collection as a “memoir-in-essays,” but Houghton Mifflin published it simply as a memoir, I guess because essays scare away readers. I intended it to be a perverse collection, one that forced the reader to connect some dots, rather than a straight-forward beginning-to-end description of my life. My life has been episodic; the book is episodic. My task in putting the collection together was basically to remove repetitive autobiographical material, and to solve the problems that arose from reverse chronology. The book can be picked up at any point. It can even be read backwards—something a few of my students did, to their apparent satisfaction.
What are you writing now?
I am now chomping at the edges of another memoir, this one having to do with my experience of coming to the profession of teaching, late in life—how I got here, what informs me as a teacher, the pleasures and vagaries of connecting with young people, the bittersweet task of passing the torch—the flame. It probably won’t be composed of discrete essays, and might well turn out to be anecdotal and chatty. I’m still looking for the right format. I like small books, but brevity is vastly harder than long-windedness. So much is being written these days. I just want to fit in edgewise somewhere. I’m just finishing rewrites of a 400-page novel, and hoping to get that out soon—even though the market is terrible. For me, writing fiction is a wonderful balance to writing nonfiction. Summer is a blessing: it’s mine, mine, mine. No student work to read, just my own feeble drafts.
What other types of writing have you done? Do you feel established with memoir, or are you itching to try new genres/types of writing?
I’ve gone through stages where poetry bubbles up in me, but I’ve never been happy with those results. I rework my poetry to death. And I wrote a screenplay that never got produced—about a college professor who gets involved in a terrorist plot to shut down America (in the early 1990s). I still toy with revisiting these genres, perhaps because I also teach them, but I think my real voice emerges when I write directly about my own experience, in relation to some larger theme. I can tell a story. And I have stories to tell.
Do you ever write with a target publication in mind, or do you only start to look for markets after a piece is completed?
I do now, but only if I’ve published there before, or if the editors have asked for more material. Generally, I think it’s a bad idea to put the cart before the horse. You are your own first (and best) audience. Writing specifically for The New Yorker, say, could cause you to pander to an imaginary audience (who is The New Yorker, really?) rather than to write from the heart in a focused, unself-conscious manner.
The piece I published in the NYT Magazine was about drinking and failure and promise. I had to write that piece. Its publication was just the icing. There’s a lesson there: if the voice is right, it will be heard. If I’d had a million magazine readers in mind when writing about failure, I’d have failed, I’m sure. Better just to write what you have to write, making urgent the subject, not the publication—or the exposure, or (rarely) the money.
How did you get that piece published?
I happened to be cutting public trails with a guy who lived in my town, and I got to talking about this little piece I’d written. He asked to see it. The next day, he called me and asked if I’d mind if he passed it along to his boss, the editor of the Magazine. A few days after that, his boss passed it down to another editor, with the dictate: publish this. My exhilaration was entire, I can tell you, but the success also felt appropriate: I’d had to examine my failure before I could achieve any success.
Do you have a schedule for writing (daily, weekly, monthly)? Or, how do you set time aside for writing?
I’m almost afraid to answer this question honestly, for fear of being a bad influence on writers seeking role models. But the truth is that I don’t have a schedule at all. Writing either takes center stage and dictates that I do little else with my day, or it stands smoldering in the corner like some reprimanded child—always nagging at my consciousness. To be fair, I also teach, and my teaching schedule changes every semester, so that dictates my schedule to some degree. In any case, I’m a believer that not writing is often as important as writing (Is it possible to write too much?), in the same way that leaving a productive field fallow for a season produces a greater yield in the long run.
Has working in the film industry affected your writing in any way (other than it being a subject of some of your memoir pieces)? For instance, does that experience help you see things visually, or to pay more attention to detail?
Work in the film industry is episodic; you’re always on to the next project. In that sense, it mimics writing. The old saying that you’re only as good as your last job holds true for writing, too. Some projects work, some work better than others; some fail. You move on. The secret is to move on: to get acquainted with the rhythm of beginnings, middles and ends. I believe we write against a backdrop of cosmic loneliness, perhaps even to relieve that loneliness. The bittersweet feeling that accompanies the wrapping-up of a film mimics the bitter-sweetness that accompanies publication. Success is great, but it isn’t immortality—even for immortal writers. It is impermanent and fleeting. Keep beginning…that’s the answer. That’s why the “beginning” of Key Grip comes at the end.
Does teaching writing help your writing?
Teaching helps to remind a writer that writing is all about process. That’s something we tend to forget, especially after a book is published and the book tour is done, and suddenly you’re staring at a blank page again. We begin with nothing, then suddenly a voice descends and we have an opening—an urgency of some kind—and from there on, it’s all just hard work. What feels good at the end of the day, often feels terrible the next morning. But knowing that it will work is invaluable. When you watch this struggle with creativity in your students, you learn to be more forgiving of yourself, more tolerant of process, less wowed by and concerned about the polished product. Antonio Porchia once wrote that nothing that breathes is complete. That’s the beauty of writing—and the payoff of teaching writing—watching the incomplete self unfold on the page.
If your house was burning down and you had to grab one or two things you’ve written (not a hard disk, but actual things on paper) what would they be?
No question, I’d grab the two large boxes containing my fifty-odd notebooks. Not because they contain special writing or special accounts of what I’ve done and where I’ve been, but because they contain my dreams. I’ve lived a life guided by dreams. Dreams are the ultimate nonfiction—perhaps the ultimate biography.