Q&A with Nonfiction Contributor Mark Walters

From our Nonfiction Editor:
We selected Dr. Walters' piece, "Limen," because of its calm navigation of illness. In our discussion of this piece, one of the words we kept coming back to was "quietness," and yet at the same time it evokes an assuredness. The piece is written in journal style, and while both Anna and I have our skepticism of this form, this piece is masterful and won us over, making us want to publish it all the more. I was particularly drawn to the literary and cultural references recurrent throughout the piece — the Faulknerian comparison, the religion, the reference to the Royals World Series game — because these solidify the story in the real world, outside the confines of homes and hospitals. The world continued on regardless of this illness, and the writer acknowledges this. We are thrilled to feature Mark Walters as our first nonfiction contributor, and I look forward to including more voices like this in the pages of Carve.

Mark Walters' work has appeared in Word & Image, National Lampoon, Christianity & Literature, Parents magazine, and Atlantic Monthly, among other magazines and journals. He teaches creative writing and American literature at William Jewell College. His piece "Limen" is featured in the Summer 2016 Premium Edition of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by July 11 for special savings and discounts.

What would you do if you did not teach? 

I think I’d be a film critic, which has always struck me as a happy profession for those who enjoy not only watching movies, but mulling them over and talking about them — sort of like books. There are, of course, cross-influences between film and literary studies, and a range of shared critical methodologies that can deepen and inform what we’re all trying to do on some level, which is to get at, understand, these evocations of human experience or perception that cause us to feel or think something in a way we hadn’t quite before. To spend your time talking and writing about this seems to me a lucky life.

How has teaching helped form you as a writer? 

I teach literature and creative writing, and so on the most basic level, I get to engage texts as both reader and writer, attending to the broader theoretical possibilities of interpretation and to the aesthetic and practical decisions of composition. I’m always in some way involved in this process, and having to articulate to students how one goes about reading or writing makes me more mindful of what I’m trying to do in my own work, makes that necessary detachment from it a little easier, the ability to read it critically and receive criticism, without which I can’t imagine how one ever really improves. I also get the chance, ongoingly, to read very closely much of the best work that’s been written, at least according to my lights, and so am exposed to a lot of good models.

What nonfiction book has had an impression on you, and why?  

As a college student I read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek with a kind of breathless amazement and pleasure, falling a little bit in love with her: her voice, marked as it was by such grace and good humor and insight and intelligence, the ability to render the often missable parts of the material world through the surprising comparison, the unexpected metaphor, more precise and illuminating than a photograph. It’s a book worth reading because it's beautifully written, and it teaches us to attend closely, patiently, to the moment, and to the natural world — the smallest motions and details of it, the astonishing revelations of it, which lead, ultimately, to the bigger questions of joy and suffering and meaning and God.

What writing advice would you give that you've learned through experience?

Read a lot and develop an eye for the clichéd, hackneyed, and formulaic. If you find yourself writing a line, using a figure, constructing a character or plot, or pursuing an idea that seems familiar, stop and cut it or re-envision it. Don’t try to be profound or teach a lesson, and don’t write for anyone’s approval or admiration; simply write what is specific and true to your observation, to the unique, often secret convolutions of your own heart and mind.