It’s hard to say when I read Garielle Lutz’s work for the first time. I know that a professor suggested Stories in the Worst Way. But I think I already had purchased Divorcer by that time, though I cannot recall if I had read it. Her work knocked me out.
Lutz’s work is wholly and completely singular, a feat that feels as difficult as ever, though a phrase that feels ubiquitous in our times. But I dare you to find another living writer doing what Garielle is doing. Something that strikes anyone when first reading Lutz is the surgical precision, the kaleidoscopic vocabulary. Much of her work is a masterclass in defamiliarization.
There is not much that can be said that hasn’t already about her genius, and if you are reading this interview, you know it already. She has, for writers like us, completely changed the game and though I know many who cite her as an influence or claim her as one, I can think of very few for whom I can see her fingerprints. Her latest book, Worsted, feels both a continuation of Lutz’s previous work, and something exciting and new from the writer who has been thornily typing out life’s most ordinary adventures for over twenty years.
Garielle and I talked about teaching, retirement, and influence, her latest work, and what’s next.
I know that you taught creative writing as a Visiting Writer at various colleges and universities, but I believe you have mostly taught composition during your time as an academic. Can you talk about teaching composition versus teaching creative writing—if they are completely opposite to you, if you find yourself a more productive creative writer while you teach one or the other, etc.
I’ve always been drawn toward menial but personally meaningful jobs, and at most colleges, the most menial sort of faculty employment seems to be teaching freshman composition. When, during my second or third year of teaching it, I told the chairperson that I had no desire to teach anything else, another prof in the department took me aside and said, “Bad career move.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I didn’t think of teaching as a career. I needed a job to support myself, true, but I’d always thought of “support” in its most literal sense–as a way of simply holding up. I found teaching composition to be an unsullying use of my time, a way to keep myself grounded. I’ve long felt that somebody somewhere ought to be telling students the truth about commas, about clauses, about the dark enchantments of specificity. Teaching comp is, of course, dirty work, because among the many papers coming at you every week you can always expect that more than a few of the pages will be provocatively grease-spotted and crudded with smudges and splotches and crusts–byproducts of all-nighter practitionings with snack foods, cosmetics, bodily discharge. On one page it might look as if smidgens of clay have been pressed deep into the paper stock; on another, you might come upon the dark bloods of whatever insects were still alive and crushable that month. As an instructor, I always felt it my duty to return the papers promptly and scrubbed reasonably clean. I tried my best with thicksome, stone-colored ink erasers that worked pretty well on certain strains of smutch, and there were chemical treatments that didn’t call for all that much ventilation. Some days I resorted to little more than dollar-store wipes. (The pages would often be warped, though, by the time I was done with them.) Other days the filth would be obstinate, irremediable, permanent. You had to accept that there was only so much you could do. By the end of my workday (I did all my grading in my office at school), I’d need to get far away from words on paper, from any further verbal circumstance. So, no, I never did any writing of my own during the press of the semesters. When I returned to my apartment after work, I always reached for my electric guitar. It was a cheap, solid-body thing I never plugged into an amp, because I wanted the chords I fingered to come out as alluringly trebly and inaudible as I could manage. More often than not, these were nonsense chords, not the simple, stalwart C, F, and G of the recognizable blues. The music I produced lacked any universality whatsoever. I wrote my stories during the summers. I never taught creative writing often enough to draw any conclusions, other than that the students were always smarter than I was.
Do you feel like your process or approach to writing has changed over the years, or do you find yourself still writing in the same manner? If it has changed, how?
I was never a fast writer, was always a dawdler, a layabout, but the pace has slowed even further in the past few years. I long ago read somewhere that a writer, or any other sort of artist, is usually granted only fifteen years in which to come up with something decent, and after that, the work sinks into mannerism and the bitter brittleness of self-parody, or else completely dries up. That sounds just about right to me. I might have had a good month or two here and there. I feel I can live with two or three little things I’ve put into words.