So let’s talk about The Object Parade. Nonfiction, right?
Wait—can I just say—I’d so much rather someone else were asking the questions.
Why? What do you mean?
You’re always telling your students to interrogate themselves on the page—
So don’t be coy then. What do we have here? Essays? A Memoir?
Yes and yes.
And what kinds of objects are we talking about? Large? Small? Valuable?
All of the above. Large and small—all of them valuable to me.
But why objects? Why a parade?
You have to read to find out. But here’s a hint: consider the other words we have for objects: talismans, treasures, heirlooms, belongings…We have objects of affection and objects of desire—our objects encumber and comfort us, right? They’re loaded with history and memory and meaning—
So the book isn’t actually about the objects themselves?
Well, it is and it isn’t. It’s about how the objects remind us who we are. And lined up one after the other—hopefully they tell the story of wanting to be an actor. And moving to Los Angeles. And falling in love, and getting married, and having kids. And dogs. And trying to grow up. It’s about how it is to be somebody’s daughter/wife/mother/sister—
Geez. You cover all that? In one book? So is there anything you won’t write about? Anything that’s off-limits for you?
Not off-limits, not exactly. But I’m careful when I write about my kids and my husband. Because I want them to continue to speak to me.
What about your parents? Have they read the book yet?
I sent them a copy a few weeks ago—enclosed a long letter. Cited page numbers, quoted whole paragraphs—the happy parts, I mean. But maybe I doth protest too much…
Well, that’s pretentious.
It’s not! I played Gertrude. In Hamlet. In a black box production. Have you even read the book?
Ha ha. Do you do much acting anymore?
I don’t. Between teaching and writing and editing I don’t have a whole lot of time.
And do you miss it?
I’ll tell you what—I miss the company of actors. The collaboration of theater. The scene already written and waiting to be played. Acting is hard. But writing is harder. And writing is lonely when it’s not going well.
What about when it is?
When it is, it’s a lot like acting. Totally, wonderfully, scarily absorbing. But literally, too, the impulse is much the same. Writing is a kind of performance and the rules apply: show and tell. And less is often more. And shtick is shtick. And rehearsal—revision, that is—is a requisite.
Let’s get back to the book for a minute. I’m looking at this table of contents: 32 objects. Divided into three parts.
Like a three-act play…
Is that how you think of it?
Sort of. Yes. Yes, it is.
Metronome, spoon, Gertrude’s scarf (I remember, yes)—chandelier, chicken stew—wait: chicken stew is an object?
You don’t think so?
Collar. Are we talking about a shirt here?
That’s the one about the dogs.
Script, Spice Chest—Letter to Dad? Is that a real letter?
Nope. Imaginary. My father died years ago.
But I thought this was nonfiction.
Well, I really wrote it, didn’t I? I truthfully invented the letter I’d send if he had an address. Hey, are you trying to trick me?
Isn’t it the other way around?
You sound like my mother. She loves it when her friends ask her about me.
Mom’s Friend: What does Dinah teach?
Mom: Creative nonfiction.
Friend: What’s that?
Oooh…She’s onto you.
She isn’t. She thinks creative nonfiction means I’m taking liberties. Making stuff up. But it doesn’t mean that at all, not to me. What it means is that I’m determined to get to the truth as honestly and as artfully as I know how.
Artfully? Are you the best judge of that, please?
Maybe not. But that’s my aim—of course it is. Nobody wants to read my journal, right?
Do you keep a journal?
No. When the kids were little I did—and I sometimes wish I’d kept at it—but there are reasons we remember what we do, right? So I write nonfiction. With the goal of rooting out what I remember. And why I remember it. I want to figure out what I think; and what I didn’t know I knew. To acknowledge the impossibility of getting it right. To keep trying anyway and to catch myself out. To admit my subjectivity— but to avoid invention—and to discover rather than impose the metaphors.
So the objects are metaphors?
Some of them are. And some are placeholders. And some are irritants. And some, I confess, are only an excuse to tell the story.
How did you choose them?
They mostly chose me. They would not be denied. (They itched, I scratched.) But each object in the book came with a narrative—or suggested one anyway—hey listen, you think 32 is a lot? There were half again as many that didn’t make the cut.
Was it hard to let them go?
Sometimes it was. But mostly it wasn’t. I had a great editor. (Dan Smetanka at Counterpoint.) From his first read, he understood the book and its arc—he had a sense of how the pieces worked together to tell the whole story and he kept me on track.
The whole story?
The story so far.
You don’t mean there’s another act to be played?
You bet I do. Although perhaps without props next time.
Well, that’s good. Because you must know, attachment to worldly things is unhealthy.
Maybe for you it is…
DINAH LENNEY is the author of Bigger than Life, published in the American Lives Series at the University of Nebraska Press, and excerpted for the “Lives” column in The New York Times Sunday Magazine. She serves as core faculty for the Bennington Writing Seminars and for the Rainier Writing Workshop, and in the writing program at the University of Southern California. She has played a wide range of roles in theater and television, on shows such as ER, Murphy Brown, Law and Order, Monk, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Sons of Anarchy. She lives in Los Angeles. Her new book of essays The Object Parade published this month by Counterpoint Press.