2020 Summer Contest interview Issue 26

Dawn Davies on the Fourth Genre, Writing Humor, and her Personal Essay Wishlist

by Kristin Gallagher

Dawn Davies is an author, mother, and founder of the Whistle Tree Writers program. While the pandemic made an in-person meeting impossible this summer, Dawn and our Assistant Managing Editor Kristin Gallagher connected over email. 

Dawn Davies

You earned your MFA from FIU. When you started the program, what ideas did you have about what you wanted to do for your thesis project? How did those ideas develop over the course of the program?

When I started the program at FIU, I was “fiction or die.” I only wanted to write novels and short stories. Although I read nonfiction, I did not understand the art that goes into making a good essay, and thought that writing nonfiction was either for journalists who wrote about other folks, or people with really interesting lives.

My thesis was going to be a novel, which I would complete in entirety before leaving graduate school, then quickly publish with one of the “Big Five.” 

I didn’t know as an incoming first year-student that when classes opened for registration on say, August 1st, they meant August 1st at midnight, so when I got up the morning of registration day and went online to choose a fiction class, they were filled. I angrily signed up for a nonfiction class with Madeline Blaise, and she was the right prescription for what ailed me. I was hooked on Maddy the first day and excited about nonfiction by the end of the first week. I began to write essays, and after getting feedback that my weird slant on memoir would not be an insult to the genre, I decided to explore what I could do within it. 

Can you pinpoint when you developed the first kernel of an idea for your book Mothers of Sparta

I think I just kept writing essays, and the essays were about things I was thinking about in my life at the time, so they tended to have a common theme. I was also practical, and didn’t want to “waste” my precious, dreamlike MFA experience. I had waited a long time to start the program, and I knew how special the opportunity was, so I made my work fit together. I started to put some of the essays next to each other to see how they felt and by the time I had a thesis advisor (Julie Marie Wade), we saw pretty clearly that the collection could be a thesis that made sense.

In Mothers of Sparta, “Three Places” is written in the second person “you.” In my own writing, I find that sometimes I have to write sections out that way because they are too emotionally difficult to write in first person. What made you decide to write this chapter in this manner? 

People either love second person point of view or they hate it. It was really popular for a while (think Italo Calvino and Jay McInerney and Lorrie Moore in the 1980s, though I think Calvino’s was actually first published in Italian in 1979), and then it fell out of favor, then it came back a bit, especially in YA fiction in the 2010s. We can all quickly recognize when second person works and when it doesn’t. It either pulls you in and you are part of the story, or you are slogging through someone’s poorly-planned trickery, very aware that you suddenly hate a set of pronouns.

But I have had success with second person a few times. The first was an essay I wrote called “How to Be A Crappy Parent” which was published by Brain, Child as “Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Mom.” It worked because it was funny. I was trying to convey what it feels like to parent three kids under the age of four and it bordered on the absurd, with characters becoming caricatures. But it also allowed me to write bad things about being a mother, so the second person was an emotional shield, as was the humor, I suppose. 

“Three Places” was about some struggles I had during childhood. It was the first tough essay I wrote about family and I was scared to do it. So I tried it in second person. It worked on an emotional level, and I think it helped convey the essence of the places I was writing about at the same time so I kept it. 

In “Keeping the Faith,” you write about people in Massachusetts clutching their purses closer when you said good morning to them as you passed in the streets. Not only is this an accurate description of New Englanders, but it’s so funny! In fact, this book made me laugh out loud many times. In the drafting process, do you have some way to gauge the “funny meter” so to speak? A trusted reader perhaps?

Humor is tricky. It’s nearly impossible to teach someone to write funny, and it’s hard to set out and create something funny when you are writing. You can understand the theory of humor and dissect techniques that writers use, but not everyone who learns about how humor works can write funny. Ultimately, humor stems from surprise. We tend to laugh when something happens that we don’t expect. 

When I write a first draft of something, I turn off my inner editor, which allows me to let in every irreverent, absurd, dirty, non-PC, startling, angry, exaggerated, frightening thing that pops into my head. Most of it doesn’t make it into the essay, but sometimes the first thing I think that I would ordinarily not say aloud ends up illuminating something in a surprising way, so it gets to stay. If it makes me chuckle, or if I go back to it a third or seventh or twentieth time and it still reads funny, it has a better chance of making the cut.

I don’t have a “trusted reader” for humor because different people find different things funny, though my husband reads all my drafts and he is viciously honest and I trust him. Sometimes I will write something that I think is observational or just simply wry and a reader will find it hilarious, which is my favorite type of feedback, because it surprises me. With the exception of surprise parties and bad blood work, being surprised is usually delightful. 

Has anyone who read “Keeping the Faith” not cried at the end? (If so, they are likely a monster.)

I am sure plenty of people have read “Keeping the Faith’ without crying at the end. Different things float different people’s boats. You know, I am not into melodrama, and am sensitive about appealing too much to people’s emotions. The experiences in this essay were emotional and the memories I wrote about remain tender to me, so I wanted to convey this, but not….too much. I was writing about people who died, and I wanted to do right by them without hearing the sound of tiny violins playing in the background. People are made of more than the sadness of their deaths.

What excites you in a CNF piece? What are elements that you look for in a well-executed personal essay? 

Here’s my list:

  • I like essays that connect me to the writer. I’m all for “experiencing” something through an essay that I don’t have to personally go through, which is why I am a fan of, say, autopathography and war memoirs. 
  • I adore getting glimpses of personality.
  • I like essays that depict the fine art of human wonder. 
  • I like memoirs and personal essays that are not trying to generate sympathy for the author. Sentimentality and melodrama aren’t my jam, and they can stifle the otherwise complex relating a writer and reader can do within a text. 
  • I like essays about small subjects or big, as long as the subject is treated thoughtfully and is glued together by a theme or concept that will give readers the gift of thought.
  • I appreciate essays that try to have fun or that mash humor with the tough stuff.

But if you are thinking of submitting an essay for a contest or a  journal, write the thing you want to write and don’t slant it to fit any judge’s sensibilities. Write it the way it needs to be written, and if it does its job, people will respond to it and it will find the right home.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

Best piece of writing advice I have ever received is from my mother, who knows my sensitive nature, and has given me permission to apply these words of wisdom to many life situations. It’s perfect for the ethically squishy world of memoir. It’s two words. Very simple: “Fuck ’em.”   

Dawn Davies is the author of Mothers of Sparta: A Memoir in Pieces (Flatiron Books, 2018), which won the 2019 Florida Book Award Gold Medal for General Nonfiction and the 2019 GLCA New Writers Award for Creative Nonfiction. Her essays and stories have been Pushcart Special Mentions and Best American Essays notables.

Kristin Gallagher is the assistant managing editor of Gulf Stream Magazine and an MFA candidate at Florida International University. Previously a practicing attorney, she now uses words for a different purpose. Her work appears in Anti-Heroin Chic and is forthcoming in Qu.