The Art Form of Choice for the Underdog: SR71 Contributor Greg Marshall Explains Why Writing Personal Essays is a Must for Middle Children, Convicts and Everyone Else in the Trump Era

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Greg Marshall author photo.jpgWhat is it about the personal essay that interests you?

Creative nonfiction is the art form of choice for the underdog. Only convicts and middle children have any business doing it, those of us with holes in our hearts and chips on our shoulders who can’t tell a good bar story to save our lives. See, I’m the Jan Brady of my family. Writing about my brother and sisters, parents and pets is my chance to control them. Call it fan nonfiction: For a few pages at least, I’m the funny one, the special one, the one hogging all the attention, the one deciding what’s “true.”

I love being that “truth-teller.” I get to take things literally, be way too sensitive and hold forth without being interrupted, contradicted or upstaged. I love taking scraps of memory or family legends and putting them into a literary rock tumbler, seeing if I can take the ordinary stuff of growing up and turn it into something approximating literature. Come to think of it, that’s exactly what I’m doing when I’m writing personal essays: polishing rocks. Could there be anything more Jan Brady?

On a more earnest note, I’m thirty-two and, I hope, part of one of the last generations of American kids to have to actually come out of the closet. (May future generations also be spared rainbow suspenders, the faux hawk and I’m happy to be living in this more open, non-binary world where a person is fractionally less likely to be presumed gay or straight, able or disabled, male or female, but I will say one benefit of coming out for me as a writer, having to declare myself in that way, is that it helped me understand that, as the saying goes, the personal is political. There’s tremendous power in sharing your story and trying to connect with readers and listeners on a human level whether we’re talking disability, queerness or anything else. There really isn’t anything more appealing or universal than a true story, well told (to borrow Creative Nonfiction’s slogan.) We can’t forget that in the Trump era.

How does “Anatomy of a Dog Story” fit in with the larger thematic concerns that you see in your overall work?

“Anatomy of a Dog Story” is part of an essay collection I’m working on called Leg: The Story of a Limb and the Boy Who Grew from It. The book is about growing up gay in Utah with mild cerebral palsy. An academic might say my work is about “intersectionality,” but I like thinking of it as a twofer: you get your quota of queerness and disability all in the same place. More importantly, the book is about being a kid. When you’re twelve or thirteen, you’re not thinking in terms of categories, peas and carrots. You’re just you. You love your dog, you see a naked girl, you have adventures. What makes “Dog Story” particularly interesting, I hope, is that it’s about the early, awkward days of puberty when you have more feelings than words and when those categories of body and sexual identity are in flux.

What does your typical writing schedule look like?

The few times anyone has bothered to ask about my writing schedule, I think of a very talented writer I knew from grad school who once claimed in a workshop that he wrote eighteen hours a day, pausing only to do sets of pushups and crunches. The workshop leader, a wry British author, let my classmate finish and then said, “If that were true you’d have three books by now. So where are they, hmm?” Point being: when a writer tells you his writing schedule, don’t believe him. When you’re asked the question yourself, lie.

If you could pick one meal that matches the piece we published, what would it be and why? 

That would have to be a sixty-nine cent McDonald’s hamburger and a bucket of fries. I’m sharing with my dog Moose.

Check out Greg Marshall’s “Anatomy of a Dog Story” in Sonora Review 71. Greg’s work has appeared recently in Tahoma Literary Review, Roanoke Review and Electric Literature. His essay “If I Only Had a Leg” will be published in Best American Essays 2017 in October. He is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers and the former nonfiction editor of Bat City Review. Find him on Twitter @gregrmarshall.