A Conversation with Dustin Parsons
Dustin Parsons teaches creative writing workshops and American literature at the University of Mississippi. He has won awards from the American Literary Review and The Laurel Review and his essay “Pumpjack,” published in Crab Orchard Review, was a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2014. He has received an Ohio Arts Council grant and a New York Fine Arts grant. His debut collection of creative nonfiction, Exploded View: Essays on Fatherhood, with Diagrams, was published in April 2018 by the University of Georgia Press. In the collection, Parsons tracks his sense of fatherhood by reflecting on his time working various jobs with his father when he was younger, and, now as father of two boys, by examining the realities his children are growing up in. He talked with Joe Bueter about short essays, apprenticeship learning, and fact-checking with family members.
Joe Bueter: Your book is full of interesting diagrams and drawings from a variety of technical sources, including maps from a university library and shed construction plans from a blog. You use these visuals for a variety of purposes: as supplements, as metaphors, to create form, to hint at a subtext. How did these visuals figure into the writing of the essays?
Dustin Parsons: The images are often simultaneously triggers for the essays and a frame to help me define the scope of the memory. Often, I would look around the public domain sites and stumble across an exploded view image of, say, a transmission. They are cool looking diagrams, and it would remind me of the time my dad enlisted my help to change the transmission seals in his auger truck. Then I would look at the way the original diagram listed its parts and challenged myself to stay within the confines of the numerical listings for the parts. My hope, at the end, is that as you read the essay, the diagram begins as just an image of a mechanical part but ends as a vital accompaniment to the words. That the image and the memory don’t just refer to each other directly, but that the image takes on a heavier or more ironic or more emotional role.
JB: Some of the drawings from the book were created by you. What experience do you have with architectural drafting or technical documentation, either from a production or user perspective? Do these experiences inform your sense of attention and detail in your prose?
DP: Actually, I have no experience with drafting or drawing of any sort. I like to doodle, and I realized as I was writing this book that I missed the quiet time with a sketchpad and pencil. It took me a long time to do the few drawings that I did in this book and I always felt like they stood out as amateur. But the process of creating a drawing was useful. It often stimulated another angle for the essay.
JB: One of the exciting aspects of this book is your novel execution of hybrid forms. Including the diagrams, some of your essays are hybrid in about three or four different ways. What different challenges arose when you wrote these essays? For instance, “Solar Array” includes narrative in the form of a technical description, setting details in the form of a map legend and a real estate listing, among other blends of professional documents and nonfiction elements.
DP: Well, there were the practical issues, such as how to sharpen the images and make them crisp on the page. The dog image in that essay is also one of the challenging jobs I had—I flipped the image around for the second mention of the dog. I had to use it for the introduction and the conclusion of the dog, so it had to change slightly so we would see the dog differently, and I settled on this reflective view of the original, which made the essay work. It took me a long time to figure out that that is what I wanted to do. Also, lining up images with text in the legend of the map was a headache, and when I turned it in to University of Georgia Press, the gifted graphic designers, specifically Erin Kirk New, made quick work of getting it on the page correctly. But as I’m writing the essay, I want the text in the right place so I can feel and see the relationship. I spent a long time getting the images in the place on the page that I wanted them.
I had all kinds of help from great editors at magazines too. Ander Monson, at DIAGRAM, was the one who really helped me find the cleanest form for these essays. He is a whiz at making the imagistic feel natural in the essay. I also love writers who use the form of the words and their physicality to define how the essay unfolds. Sarah Minor is really great at that. Her essay written about, and in the form of, a quilt is fascinating. But imagine how much labor goes into arranging the words in such a way? It is dizzying and it changes what you have to say.
JB: Throughout the collection, a theme develops: human intervention on nature is done with the unreliable premise that the effects of our action will be predictable. This idea is particularly compelling in “The Flood Plain” in the first section of the book, where the Cimarron River’s ecology and cultural presence is changed by a government’s decision. Is there anything like this happening recently that you find quixotic?
DP: Right now I’m writing about birds and their cultural and metaphorical effect on society, and I stumbled across the various regulations we have in place to protect certain birds, like, say, the bald eagle, called the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940. But when these efforts at preservation work so well and are used in conjunction with the bald eagle as a symbol of our country, their numbers grow, and suddenly catfish farms in the southeast have troubles controlling bald eagles from devastating their catfish crops. There is a fundamental quandary in this I find particularly interesting and it is where a lot of my essays now gather steam. I love writers who wrestle with these kinds of troubles, like Rebecca Solnit and Rachel Carson.
JB: While there is a consistent examination of the sparring between the natural world and our mechanical designs on it, there is also an examination of how the physical power of the gun complicates nature, especially human psychology, any time one appears. What is difficult when writing about guns or introducing a gun as a metaphor, as you do in the short essay “Drop Off”?
DP: The hardest part is to balance the relationship of the gun to the words. I’ve always been scared of guns, especially handguns. And I’ve seen more than a few. It would be easy to just be more direct in those essays, and say, “Guns are bad and scary and it should be harder to get them.” That’s what I believe, but I’d only be preaching to the choir or to those who wouldn’t be persuaded by my argument anyway. So, the gun has to be a call and the text has to be the response. “Drop Off” was the first such essay I wrote, where the image was a way in to the essay and also dictated its length. And I used the language of the parts of a gun to claim ownership of those words again, like “rifling” or “trigger.” They don’t belong to a gun, but they are so intimately tied up with guns that it is hard to use them in any other way. I wanted to have the gun there, to see it “exploded,” so I could take those words away from it.
JB: Has your experience with fatherhood shifted the way you reflect on—even remember—moments of significance with your father? I’m thinking about the essays “Pumpjack” and “Come Celebrate the Radial Arm Saw.”
DP: I’m always asking my dad how he remembers things happening, and since his memory is worse than mine, he often says, “It might have happened the way you remember it.” The fact-checker in me wants to know I did my best to try and track down the right answer. But now that I’m raising two little boys, I know why some of the things my father did were necessary. I was remembering the other day how my father got so mad at me when I was a kid for telling him he was a chicken for not taking a big hill in a dune buggy we were driving in. I was kidding at the time, but he got so mad at me and I was confused. Now, when I look back at that, I know he was scared I’d try it when I was in that driver’s seat years later, and he wanted to scare me into not doing that. So obvious for a father to know, but so hard for a kid to understand.
The hardest thing I’ve done in some time was to sell the radial arm saw I spoke about in the essay. Maybe I wouldn’t feel the same if I weren’t a father, but that essay was a letter to my father, in a way. I knew at the time I wrote it I would have to give that saw up. I was already heartbroken.
JB: In the third section of your collection, several essays involve the making of objects with and for your family, particularly your sons. With the Makerspace movement in education and the larger DIY trend, what do you think is the impetus for a return to “making”? Or has there been continuous interest in making as a means to raise and educate our children?
DP: I don’t know about trends, but I know that these were the kinds of things my father did with me. My mother too. I’d help my dad take apart a Camaro in the afternoon and help my mother make dinner in the evening. If there is a trend, it is to interact. I help my boys build stuff, and help them create drawings and stories, because apprenticeship isn’t just the best way to learn, but it is also a conversation between generations. The truth is my wife does even more of this, and she is twice as busy. She’s amazing when she has them molding things out of clay and journaling in the summer and researching a bird she wants them to draw. And the boys eat it up. They are hungry to learn and create. I was hungry for my dad’s attention because he had to work long hours, but I did love that time in his shop, even if I complained about it. I couldn’t tear apart an engine, but I can concentrate on intricate details for hours on end, and I’m convinced I learned that skill way back when.
JB: Your writing in the collection often demonstrates this impressive ability to converge personal memoir and historical, biological, and ecological knowledge without sacrificing the intimacy of a scene. How do you decide when to research and how to leverage what you find?
DP: That’s a tough one because it is always different. I’ve taken lessons from some really great writers who can do this, including Elena Passarello, Camille Dungy, and Amy Leech. All of these writers can balance heavy research with intimacy like masters, fluent in history, biology, ecology, and any number of different disciplines depending on what the essay needs. And then they add beautiful language and unique points of view to the mix and the product is mesmerizing. Seeing when writers like this pull back and push forward with information and scene is how I learned. I love the jargon of the oilfield where my father works, of woodworking, of the mechanical. There is a music in that jargon, and I love to play with it. Typically, I use my ear to decide when it has gone too far, but I also have readers I trust. My wife Aimee is so good at this. She’ll just tell me outright, “This has too much for the reader to digest,” and she is always right. If someone who hasn’t spent their life in the oilfield gets lost or bored with the moment in my essay, I won’t necessarily know it, but she will.
JB: My daughter is nearing her first birthday, and since she’s been born my reading habits have turned more toward poetry and episodic prose, stuff that is expertly paced. My writing, too, has been limited to writing shorter poems. With two children, do you find yourself writing with a serial or elliptical structure? Is there anything different about your approach?
DP: The last few essays I wrote for the book were composed in waiting rooms or between classes on a park bench, and revised on an airplane. That idea that getting “to the desk” is what a writer does is only in metaphor: my desk is oftentimes in the evening at the kitchen table or on a small notebook at my son’s tennis practice. I’ve been drawn to work that is short and creates a tight, singular moment, even before I had kids, but now it is a necessity. My colleague Beth Ann Fennelly’s new book, Heating & Cooling, is a great example of this, as are the short essays by writers like Ross Gay and my own wife Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Ross calls his essays “delights” and Aimee thinks of hers as “wonders,” and I love that the essay is so flexible that it can encompass all of that. Even in a paragraph, or a page, they can tell an entertaining story and wrestle with big questions about the world.
I think there is a talent in being able to do this. It isn’t just telling an audience what happened to you; it is insuring that the audience knows that inside what happened to you, there is a whole world of social, emotional, and political decisions that led them, and the writer, to that moment. My structures change based on what I need them to contain, but for me there are times where the essay has to end with a repetition, such as the end of “Prairie Panhandle” and there are times when the essay has to wrap things up tightly with a stark image like in “Jackfruit.” Kids really put that kind of ending in perspective, don’t they? They play with language when they are learning how to use it, get words wrong in the most wonderful ways, and it teaches me lessons constantly.