Talking with Ryan Van Meter

Michelle Boise

Ryan Van Meter
        Ryan Van Meter is the author of the recently published collection of essays If You Knew Then What I Know Now (Sarabande Books, 2011). His collection is not only compelling and charming but also down right funny and honest. Capturing the coming-of-age and coming-out experience in middle-America, Ryan never fails to entertain and evoke compassion from his readers. A native of Missouri who studied English at the University of Missouri-Columbia, Ryan received an MA in creative writing from DePaul and an MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa. His essays have been selected for anthologies including Best American Essays 2009 and have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, Arts & Letters, and Fourth Genre, among others. In 2009, he was awarded a residency at the McDowell Colony. Ryan currently is an assistant professor of creative nonfiction at the University of San Francisco where he is also the faculty advisor for the undergraduate literary magazine the Ignatian. We here at Switchback were thrilled to have the opportunity to sit down and talk with him. 

Switchback: In the Book Notes Series from the Largehearted Blog, you were asked to make a playlist that related to your most recent work, a collection of narrative essays, If You Knew Then What I Know Now, and you stated that you often write while listening to the original scores of film soundtracks. How does music inform your writing then? Why do you find this helpful?

Ryan Van Meter: I don’t know if music informs my writing, but it does offer my brain something to do while I’m writing so I’m not thinking so much about the actual writing. It’s like when my dog gets a shot at the vet, and the doctor sprays a glob of EZ Cheese on the examining table so she’s distracted and not looking at the needle. I think film soundtracks are appealing because there’s no singing – no lyric or voice competing with my inchoate sentence forming – and because there’s a sense of narrative built into them. This is the music underneath the action on-screen. I’m not sure it does, but I like to think that that narrative rhythm makes its way into my work.
SB: In this same article, you mention that your favorite song is “Lover’s Spit” by Broken Social Scene, describing that “the song is about boredom as well as complacency, and telling yourself to just get over it, whatever “it” is.” As a writer, what do you struggle with most? I mean to say, what is “it” that you find you must tackle in order to complete a piece of work?
RVM: You have to surprise your reader, and there are many ways of accomplishing that effect – through language, through revelation or insight, through character, through plot. But you have to write your way into the moment that surprises you as a writer, where you are so far inside the material that when you arrive at “it,” you’re astonished too. If you can surprise yourself, you’ll surprise the reader. But what I’m not talking about is some kind of gag or cheap thrill. Especially in essays about familiar experience (coming of age being perhaps the most familiar) the writer must negotiate the story in such a way that it rings true for any reader, but also doesn’t merely repeat everything we’ve already heard before.
SB: Almost all of the essays in your collection have been published in other literary journals and you mention that sometimes in slightly different form. What types of changes did you make to your essays in order to create the cohesive collection you have now?
RVM: I wrote most of them with those two ends in mind – that as I finished each one, I wanted to send it out for publication but then when I finished the collection, I also wanted them to sit next to each other and get along. So in individual pieces, I was going for some consistency in voice and sensibility, and then thematically, all of the essays were speaking to one another, and in some cases, finishing one essay opened the door for the next. When a character, place or situation came up again in a new essay, after it had already been described previously, I was careful not to rely on that earlier description, and made myself offer the reader some new detail. I hope this created a sense of cohesion.
SB: In your last essay, “You Can’t Turn Off the Snake Light” from If You Knew Then What I Know Now, you write, “And I wanted to say, but also didn’t, that spending so much time feeling ashamed of who we are must bear on the ways we love each other--it just has to.” It’s such a profound line on love and relationships. How do you think this notion of shame has shaped you as a writer?
RVM: Shame is an experience that exposes vulnerabilities, and I think many good essays do the same thing – they expose some vulnerability for the purpose of understanding it, and making art from that understanding – from what being vulnerable means. To write about shame is to look back at the moment of the intensity of that feeling, and to figure out what dynamics were at work underneath the moment that inspired such feeling. The reasons for feeling shame are never simple, and essays are always, in some way, about recognizing and contemplating complexity.
SB: What were your most valuable lessons learned from your experience in the Iowa Workshop?
RVM: Well I attended the University of Iowa, but not the Writers Workshop. I studied Nonfiction Writing, which is housed in the English Department. The two most valuable lessons I think I came away with were: First, that reading well is as important as writing well, and I probably learned more in workshop classes by responding to the work of my peers than I did from the feedback about my own work. Second, that revising is the real work of writing, and involves listening to the right voices. The right voices within yourself – not the grumpy negative self-critic but instead, the voice of vision and possibility – and the right voices of your peers and teachers. The voices of the people you trust, which isn’t necessarily every voice in the room.
SB: Since you’ve explored coming-of-age and coming-out themes in your work, what’s been of interest to you lately?
RVM: I’m working on a couple of things. A novel based on family history and an essay project that’s less explicitly personal than my collection – it’s a cultural criticism-type of work.
SB: As a teacher of creative writing, what do you try to impart to your students most?
RVM: I want them most of all to recognize themselves as writers and readers, and I do that by making them read a lot and write a lot. Especially making them read work that will challenge their ideas of what nonfiction is and can be. I want them to recognize the possibility of art but also the responsibility that comes with that possibility.

Don't miss the short film by Tucker Capps, inspired by Ryan Van Meter's essay "First."