Sunday, November 22, 2015

Q&A with Dinah Lenney

Dinah Lenney is the co-editor, with the late Judith Kitchen, of the new anthology Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction. Her other books include Bigger than Life and The Object Parade. She is also an actor, and she teaches at the Bennington Writing Seminars, the Rainier Writing Workshop, and the University of Southern California. She lives in Los Angeles.

Q: How did you and Judith Kitchen come to edit Brief Encounters?

A: So, Brief Encounters is the fourth in a series that began with In Short in 1996. Judith edited the first two books (In Brief was published in 1999) with Mary Paumier Jones. The third, Short Takes, for which she was the sole editor, came out in 2005.

As a student of nonfiction, I had all the books, of course—and used them and loved them—long before I met Judith. But in 2008 I was hired to teach in the Rainier Writing Workshop, founded by Judith and her husband, Stan Rubin.

In short time, we became such good friends, she and I—Judith was the most generous friend, mentor, editor, publisher, reader, writer (anyone will tell you, so many of us on the receiving end of her astounding generosity)—anyway, in the spring of 2014 she asked me if I’d like to collaborate on a fourth volume. And that was that.

Q: You include a wide variety of writers in the collection. How did you pick the authors to include, and how did you organize the essays?

A: Some had written for the series and we asked them to submit again. And, of course, one of the reasons Judith enlisted me was because she knew I’d bring in a new bunch of writers.

Then there were people we admired from afar—not known to either of us personally, but we were bold enough to go after them; and we read journals and newspapers and zines and blogs and found writers we hadn’t been aware of before, too.

Once we had a good selection it was a matter of creating a narrative. Not that most people will read from beginning or end, but we wanted to the whole to add up to at least the sum of its parts.

And this goes to Judith’s generosity all over again—she insisted I come up with my own order. She wanted me to have the experience of putting the puzzle together all by myself; but what was wonderful—surprising and not—was how similar my version was to hers.

From there it was exciting to work together to come up with an arc that pleased us both.

Q: Your own essay in the collection focuses on members of your family, and they play a major role in your other books as well. Why have you chosen your family as one of your subjects, and how do they react to your writing?

A: Why have I chosen my family... That’s funny, that’s not a question I’ve been asked before. But I’m writing about myself, aren’t I? These relationships—these moments, these memories—they seem to have much to do with helping me to define who and how I am in the world.

And how do they react? It’s kind of a mixed bag. I think at this point, they mostly don’t read. But when they do, they are sometimes pleased and sometimes not.

Q: You're also an actor--how do writing and acting coexist for you?

A: Well—they don’t literally co-exist for me as often as I’d like. But when they have, I’ve found myself writing about acting. Then, too, I’d say there’s considerable overlap having to do with not only craft, but with the original impulse.

It’s not just that actors also have to remind themselves to show and not tell, or that less is more. Or that, as concerns acting for the stage, rehearsal has much in common with revision. It’s that fundamentally, the impulse to write or to act is an impulse to perform.

And, either way, in writing and acting (and painting and cooking and gymnastics and film-making and playing an instrument), the most satisfying performances—the most exciting and authentic and seemingly natural—usually require a whole lot of prep.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m doing a whole lot of editing these days, which I have to believe is good for the work.

But what is the work, that’s what you want to know. I seem to have a few different things going at the moment. For a while I felt like I was striking matches, hoping a flame would catch somewhere somehow.

Now what I’ve maybe got is candles—votive candles—each one a little prayer, if you know what I mean. I am not writing about family. At least I don’t think I am. What am I working on...? Essays! I’m working on essays. I’m assaying. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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