The PEN Ten Interview: Author William Dameron on the Artistry of Writing
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week Hafizah Geter, PEN Ten guest editor and editor at Little A from Amazon Publishing, speaks with William Dameron, whose memoir, The Lie: A Memoir of Two Marriages, Catfishing & Coming Out, is forthcoming from Little A on July 1, 2019. See Dameron in conversation with Garrard Conley (Boy Erased) on July 8 at Powerhouse for the launch event »
PEN America is excited to celebrate Pride Month with a curated selection of the best poetry, interviews, readings, and more from some of the greatest LGBTQIA+ writers, past and present, across the globe. Read the Pride roundup here »
1. What was the first book or piece of writing that had a profound impact on you?
There is a line that divides my life in two, and Augusten Burroughs’s memoir, Running with Scissors, was the book that greeted me in the second half. My childhood certainly was not as disturbing as Burroughs’s, but I identified with the lost boy he was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. I identified with his struggle to find his place in an insane world. This book made me want to become a writer, to tell my truth, something I had only dreamed of before I came out.
I made a wish that Burroughs’s agent, Christopher Schelling, would become my agent and 10 years later, he did, proving that when you figure out who you’re meant to be, wishes can become a reality. But wishes without action can be dangerous because they turn into regrets.
“The artistry of writing is in selecting and weaving the threads of our stories into a pattern of truth.”
2. How does your writing navigate truth? What is the relationship between truth and fiction?
Our task, as writers, is to be vulnerable on the page, and so I write what I think I cannot say, pretending that no one will ever read it. When those fears are on the page, I gain power over the truth. The French writer André Malraux said, “Man is not what he thinks he is, he is what he hides.” I dig up the hidden things and expose them to the light, and that is when my story transforms, and the truth reveals itself.
What I have also come to learn is that while our lives progress chronologically, our stories do not. The present is always informed by the past. To understand ourselves and the motivations of others, we must examine the past as it relates to the present. This was a revelation that came to me when writing my book. In my memoir, there are two bookends, the end of one marriage and the beginning of another. I thought the space would be filled with a series of chronological events, but each time I started to write the current story line, there was an echo from the past that would not be silent, and a call from the future to look at the events through a different lens. The story lines existed side by side, until, at one point, they intertwined. The artistry of writing is in selecting and weaving the threads of our stories into a pattern of truth.
3. What does your creative process look like? How do you maintain momentum and remain inspired?
Throughout the day, inspiration may strike me, a word, a phrase, a sentence. I’ll write those in an email and send them to myself. My inbox is full of emails with no subject from me, addressed to me. When I look at my inbox now, I see these two phrases: Imagine who you could be, if you weren’t afraid to be who you are and My masculinity wasn’t just toxic, it was nearly fatal. Those phrases will find their way into an essay or become the seed of one. The important thing is to capture the inspiration as soon as it sparks.
And part two is to show up, pure and simple. Every morning, I get up early, sit in a chair at our small dining room table, and open my laptop computer. Sometimes I write a sentence, and sometimes I write 500 words. One well-written sentence can be enough to inspire me to keep on going, but the success of writing is in adherence to the process.
4. What is one book or piece of writing you love that readers might not know about?
Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father, by Alysia Abbott. I think that literary readers certainly know this memoir, but it’s important to keep lifting books that sing of a history that should not be forgotten. It’s the story of a gay parent/straight child relationship that takes place in San Francisco at the onset of AIDS and the demise of the Beat poets. This book was so instructional to me on many levels: how love between a father and daughter endures, the importance of Steve Abbott to the literary world, and finally, how to craft an exquisitely written memoir, at the sentence, paragraph, and narrative level.
5. How can writers best contribute to society? How can artists affect resistance movements?
For me, simply living the truth, instead of hiding, is a form of resistance and persistence. Yes, we can, and should, write about specific atrocities committed by the current administration. But, we must also write about what makes us human, how we love, who we love, how a family with two dads, or one with two moms or a single mother or single father, or any other configuration are families deserving our admiration and respect. Our foes seek to dehumanize us so that they can dismantle our rights. We must dig deep and expose our most human experiences. For me, loving my husband Paul is a political act. When I write about that love, it threatens to expose the lies that form the basis of their campaign of fear.
6. Whose words do you turn to for inspiration?
There is a Tin House podcast with the writer Ann Hood that I listen to over and over: “How to Write a Kick-Ass Essay.” It may sound purely instructional, but it is so much more. She quotes William Carlos Williams, who said, “No ideas but in things.” She tells us to write about the thing that is keeping us up at night, and that no one is a total villain and no one is a total hero. She describes 10 steps that make an essay sing. It turns out that understanding how to write a kick-ass essay is also how to make sense of life.
7. What is the last book you read? What are you reading next?
The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai. I began reading her book, which is written by a straight woman, with a great deal of skepticism. I thought, “Is this her story to tell?” A large portion of the story revolves around the AIDS epidemic in Chicago in the 1980s. I still feel such guilt for hiding in the closet during this period, so I feel protective of it in a way. But by the end of the book, my skepticism vanished, and I felt such gratitude for Makkai. She took such tender care of the story, in a way that many straight women took care of gay men dying of AIDS during that period. When a writer’s words turn you from being a skeptic, into a great believer, that is a writer worthy of high praise. You should always write to the author and let them know this, which I have done.
I have fallen head over heels in love with the next book in my TBR pile, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, by T Kira Madden. This sentence from the book slayed me: “Secrets are the only kind of love I know.” Swoon.
[See T Kira Madden in conversation with Nicole Dennis-Benn on July 11 for Summer Salons with the Brooklyn Museum!]
8. What do you consider to be the biggest threat to free expression today? Have there been times when your right to free expression has been challenged?
My right to free expression is challenged every day. When I want to hold my husband’s hand in public or kiss him goodbye at the airport, there is never a moment when I don’t look first to see if there might be someone who wishes to harm me for expressing my love.
When my husband Paul and I first started seriously dating, he would say that he was fine with marriage for heterosexual couples and domestic unions for queer people. Many people believed that this was fair, but I was incensed. After so many years of being in the closet, I couldn’t accept anything less than equal. Sometimes, when a population has been suppressed for so long, they don’t even know when their right to free expression is challenged. That was the case with Paul. But he supported me at the New Hampshire state house when the Republicans tried to reverse the marriage equality act, and I testified for our right to marriage equality. He learned that separate is never equal.
The “Religious Freedom” acts that are being implemented at the state level are nothing more than legalized discrimination, a backlash against the rights that queer people have gained. They seek to limit our expression once again, under a new and nefarious scheme.
9. How does your identity shape your writing? Is there such a thing as “the writer’s identity”?
I have always wanted to be a writer, but when you are closeted, nothing you write sounds authentic. It was as if I was storing up all of these words my entire life, and when the closet door opened, they tumbled out. My identity and my words are inextricably linked.
I have a close friend and writing mentor, Elizabeth Cohen. When I would recount some of my painful experiences, she would cock her head, smile and say, “Bad for life, good for the book.” I don’t believe that writing a memoir is a substitute for therapy, but I do believe that the pain we endure shapes our writing. How could it not? Something magical happens when the writer takes his pain and makes sense of it on the page. That is when it changes from a diary entry into art.
10. What is the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words? Have you ever written something you wish you could take back?
I put a politician’s name in my memoir, and I wish I could take that back. I hate that his name is tied to my story. His name is so polarizing that a certain segment of the population stops thinking and closes down their minds when he is mentioned. But, I think we need to name our enemies, even if that means fewer sales or a backlash from reader reviewers. Once our stories are published, they are no longer our stories, they belong to history and a history without names becomes mist.
11. What advice do you have for young writers?
- Show up, every day, and write.
- Write the thing that you think you cannot say.
- Never read the comments on published works from anonymous internet trolls, find someone you love to filter them for you.
- You can and should have a day job to support your writing, but you should not let that stop you from writing.
This advice is for all writers, regardless of age, because sometimes writers come to this game later in life.
12. Which writers working today are you most excited by?
There are so many! I am fortunate to be a part of a Facebook group of 2019 debut writers, and I have learned so much from them. At 55, I am a late bloomer, so it is exciting to be surrounded by younger writers who are receiving such acclaim and producing such beautiful books.
The writers I am most excited about today are the ones who are creating change by telling their queer stories. Garrard Conley, who wrote Boy Erased, has had a huge impact on stopping the dangerous and harmful practice of “conversion therapy.” By telling his truth, he is saving people’s lives, something I hope my memoir will also do.
T Kira Madden has such a fresh voice that is like a spark on the page. You can feel it sizzle. In the chapter titled “The Lizard” from Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, she writes about a lizard that she is trying to capture, so she can be the adult who rids the house of this intruder. When she accidentally cuts off the tail, she writes, “A body, severed, does not die right away. It fights, thrashes. Every part of it remembers.”
“All good tales have the story on top and the one lurking beneath, and they’re not finished until the two collide.”
13. Which writer, living or dead, would you most like to meet? What would you like to discuss?
Maya Angelou, and I wouldn’t care if the only thing she said was my name, because she was everything wonderful and beautiful as a writer/poet/singer/actress and fierce advocate. In fact, I’d ask her if she could just sing my name.
14. What do you think makes a piece of writing compelling?
Conflict. Without it, why would the reader care? All good tales have the story on top and the one lurking beneath, and they’re not finished until the two collide.
15. Why do you think people need stories?
Stories are emotional food; without them, we fail to thrive. They let us know that we are not alone, and they teach us how to be human. Our entire lives are one long story, with a beginning, middle, and end with conflict and resolution. We have this basic need to find the pattern in our stories, aka the plot, so that we don’t go insane.
16. For authors writing from marginalized identities, in your case, queerness, how is the meaning of and your access to free expression impacted by your identity and the outside cultural and political forces that work against it? (Or in other words, how can culture and politics in American culture function as an indirect form of censorship?)
I was born pre-Stonewall, attempted to come out as a teenager during the Reagan years when the AIDS epidemic devastated the gay male population, and finally came out for good during the Obama Administration. I now find myself publishing a memoir during a fearful and regressive political time period. When I am old and feeble and fearful of the nursing home staff, will I return to the closet? I have lived my entire life with the gun of culture and politics to my head.
Recently, I used a piece of software to examine my online reputation, to search for things that might be questionable. It flagged the terms I use to describe myself—gay and queer—as potential risks. My identity in the current cultural environment is deemed a questionable risk.
When a writer is a questionable risk, the publishing industry is less likely to take a financial risk, which results in an indirect form of censorship. “We don’t need any more coming out stories,” I was told by one publisher. But, every single day, queer people have to come out, and I’m not talking about the big, rainbow cake and glitter, Swing wide open the closet door type of coming out. I’m talking about meeting the new neighbors, listing your emergency contact on a form, and visiting your spouse in the hospital. Our stories, like our lives, are littered with coming outs. To deny those stories is to deny our daily lives. Discrimination harms everyone.
William Dameron is the author of The Lie: A Memoir of Two Marriages, Catfishing & Coming Out. He is an award-winning blogger and essayist and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Salon, The Huffington Post, and in the book, Fashionably Late: Gay, Bi and Trans Men Who Came Out Later in Life. He is an IT Director for a global economic consulting firm, where he educates users on the perils of social engineering in cybersecurity. William, his husband, and blended family of five children split their time between Boston and the coast of southern Maine.