Danielle Dutton On Creative Practice and Reaching Beyond Your Grasp

via Cameron Russell on Flickr.
via Cameron Russell on Flickr

Danielle Dutton is a writer, editor, publisher, and artist whose work explores the vital friendship between art and reality and the space that surrounds (and often collapses between) the normal, the bizarre, and the wonderful. She is the author of two novels, Attempts at a Life (Tarpaulin Sky) and S P R A W L (Siglio Press), and her writing has appeared in Harper’s, Fence, and BOMB, among other journals and magazines. Danielle is also the founder of Dorothy, a publishing project, which is “dedicated to works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction, mostly by women” and publishes two books each autumn. And, in her spare time, she is an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where she teaches creative writing.

Dutton-reading-cropIn Danielle’s writing, each paragraph is a meticulous, nuanced, and unexpected universe. It’s a writing of multiplicity. It’s easy to pore over her pages again and again, like the act of physically touching a newly-discovered and beautiful guide to a forgotten landscape that may (or may not) hold treasures.

Her writing leads others to inspired prose, too, and the writing about her writing is its own quiet art. Daniel Handler, better known as the prolific and mysterious children’s book author Lemony Snicket, identified Attempts at a Life as “criminally underrated” in a column in Entertainment Weekly, and described it as “indescribably beautiful, also indescribable. In fact, I’m not quite sure what this book’s about, really. Read it; remind yourself that comprehending things all the time is really boring.” In The Believer, where S P R A W L was a finalist for the Believer Book Award, author Kate Zambreno said the novel “reads as if Gertrude Stein channeled Alice B. Toklas writing an Arcades Project set in contemporary suburbia.” That is high and poetic praise.

Danielle was kind enough to answer a few questions about her creative practice over email.

How do you practice?
For much of the year I don’t keep a regular schedule, primarily because of teaching. I write whenever I can, but I need uninterrupted time. So, one or two mornings a week. A lot on the weekend. And then there’s my kid, who is vaguely curious about what I’m doing at my computer but mostly just wants me to stop it and come play. On an ideal day, though, there’s be no meetings or emails or chores or phone calls and I’d get to work after breakfast and write until lunch, then go for a walk, then come back and write some more until it’s time to have a glass of wine and cook dinner. Or maybe someone would take me out to dinner. I love to sit and linger over a meal. Especially if we can sit outside and really waste some time. After dinner I’d walk again and then read before bed. Walking and cooking are especially important interruptions for me. I think better, or differently, doing both. And reading is what gets me outside myself and my patterns of thought (the habitualness of my own thinking). Travel does this, too.

Reading this back, I see how boring my routine sounds — like I’m 90 — but I think writing has been one of the things I’ve used over time to calm and stabilize my life (I started writing during a fairly tumultuous time). Perhaps, then, it’s inevitable that I enjoy the process so much, need it. I’m never quite satisfied with the result, but I’m engaged in the process, and that engagement feels important to who I am and how I choose to live.

What are your raw materials? What tools do you use? How do you scratch?
My brain, my fingers, the keyboard, my computer screen, my eyes, my glasses, my chair, and other books. Other books are where I scratch for new ideas. There are always several stacks on my desk. Right now: Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s Madeleine Is Sleeping, Mary Joe Hughes’s The Movement Beyond Form, Virginia Woolf’s The Years and A Writer’s Diary, and The Diary of Samuel Pepys 1666. Sometimes, less now than when I was younger, but sometimes music is key to how I work (or have worked). I used to want to write a story that would make someone’s stomach tie up in knots the way some of my favorite songs could do to me. Or just leave a reader with a feeling of sound and movement. And my second book, a novel called S P R A W L, was written largely in response to a series of still life photographs by Laura Letinsky. So while a lot of my ideas come from other books, I guess there’s a sort of eros or drive that often comes from non-literary places.

What was your first successful creative act? What was your training?
That’s a tough one. I think it must have been when I was a kid, depending on how we’re defining “success.” But if success just means that I was happy with it, or that it did more or less what I meant for it to do, yeah, it must have been something I built or drew as a girl. I actually got in trouble in the second grade for coloring outside the lines. Maybe that was my first successful creative act? But in terms of how I became the writer I am right now, it’s so hard to say. I don’t think we can know what goes into that, exactly. There are the obvious things: I have an MFA in creative writing and a PhD in English with a creative writing concentration. I’ve always loved to read.

Dutton-workingWhat do you do when your reach exceeds your grasp?
I always feel like what I’m reaching for exceeds my grasp, and I think that’s the only way to work, though it’s often demoralizing, privately humiliating, frustrating, etc.

What’s your creative ambition? 
I’d love to do something that’s much more collaborative than writing. I wish I was a ballerina! Or in a band.

I actually did just finish a collaborative project with the artist Richard Kraft. He makes insanely gorgeous and hilarious collages, and in response to them I wrote a series of what we’re calling “interpolations”; it will all be combined in a book forthcoming in December 2014 from Siglio Press. It’s called Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera.

And in fact I can report that I took great pleasure from working with Richard in a directly collaborative way (as opposed to how I’ve worked before, using an artist’s work but without any contact), although part of what was interesting, too, was that our collaboration established its own unusual terms. From the start, part of what Richard and I talked about were models of collaboration or collaborators that interested us . . . Cage and Cunningham, in particular, with the one not hearing the music as he choreographed the dance, and the other not seeing the dance as he wrote the music. So there were ways we worked blind, for a while. Talking but not sharing. But also that apartness was part of a larger conversations we were having about types of artistic sharing, or variations on collaboration. So you get this thing, a collaboration, which is like a machine you build not knowing what sort of product it is supposed to turn out. Anyway, it was a very energizing experience, which is perhaps why I now have collaboration on the brain.

What’s in it for you? What’s your motivation? 
Well, there’s one answer, which is that my job is dependent upon my creative output and my family is dependent upon my job. But the other answer is much harder to articulate. There’s what I said earlier about feeling more grounded (which, to me, means more alive) when I’m writing. I am dull and restless when I’m not working. And it’s lovely to feel (even if it is fleeting and rare) that something I’ve written moved or delighted or pleased or changed someone else.

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Eric Meltzer is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.