Truth Teller Spotlight: Douglas Haynes.
“Sometimes the language takes on its own life. This signals to me that it’s worth writing about.”
Douglas Haynes is taking off. He has not one but two books out this season: Every Day We Live Is the Future: Surviving in a City of Disasters, an account of the struggle to get by in Nicaragua, appeared in October with University of Texas Press; and his poetry chapbook, Last Word, will be published by Finishing Line Press in November. With that double-whammy of success in a season marred by cataclysmic world events, we were eager to get his take on the struggle as well as the joy in truth telling.
Haynes’s lyrical essay, “El Rosario Road,” appeared in BROAD STREET ONLINE in fall 2017.
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BROAD STREET: Let’s talk about the book that just came out, Every Day We Live Is the Future. How did you approach telling the truth about assorted individuals’ lives in what you call “a city of disasters”?
HAYNES: This book emerged from following two extended families in Managua, Nicaragua over five years. As much as possible, I immersed myself in these families’ daily lives and in the forces shaping them. When I couldn’t be doing firsthand observation and interviews, I stayed in touch through the phone, social media, and published accounts of current events in Managua.
The book shapes all of this raw material into a narrative that spans almost thirty years. The story conveys the hard, daily truths of poverty in one of the world’s most disaster-prone cities. These truths also reveal emotional realities that transcend this context: hope, loss, and the pleasures of love and family, to name just a few.
How do you choose a topic that you feel you absolutely must address?
I’m drawn to richly detailed stories of ordinary people’s everyday lives. In a cultural climate of political circus and reliance on master narratives, the complex realities and places that influence most people’s experiences are under-represented. I’m also attracted to documenting big political, social, and ecological crises while writing about other things, and I think this is often the most effective way of doing so. To write about climate change in my new book, for instance, I narrate two Nicaraguan families’ efforts to get out of poverty in the context of a city plagued by extreme weather. This kind of human resilience is also something that grabs my attention in a story.
Finally, sometimes the language that emerges from my freewriting takes on its own life. This signals to me that it’s worth writing about. It happened with my recent Broad Street essay, “El Rosario Road.”
Whether in nonfiction or poetry, how do you choose the details that will connect with readers?
To be able to select compelling details, I first document them in abundance. I make a point when reporting and interviewing to note images from all five senses, even details I doubt I would ever include in a finished story. What I don’t “use” is actually essential to helping me mentally inhabit scenes when I’m writing them. Then, when I select details, my first concern is that they are significant to the story I’m telling. I’m infatuated with description, so I try to check this tendency by focusing on details that resonate with central themes or aspects of characters, including the characters of important places in the story. This applies to selecting dialogue, too, with the additional consideration that dialogue needs to advance the narrative’s action or central ideas.
“I make a point when reporting and interviewing to note images from all five senses, even details I doubt I would ever include in a finished story.”
I worry more about making people and places complex and portraying them with dignity than I do about what will connect with my audience. As a reader, I know that a complex character is a compelling character, and dignified characters can do bad things or be conflicted, too. To me, an undignified character or place is a caricature or someone easily dismissed. Not only does writing such characters dehumanize people, it’s hard to care about them. So if I do my job of choosing details that reveal complexity, I think readers connecting will follow.
How does the much-debated idea of honesty affect the voice in which you write a particular piece?
I’ve thought about this a lot recently while deciding on points of view. This literary moment is dominated by the notion that a nonfiction story is more authentic when told in the first person. But I often find myself the least interesting part of the story I want to tell and a distraction from its central concerns. I’ve come to the conclusion that telling a story I witnessed (at least in part) in the third person isn’t at all dishonest, as long as it doesn’t distort the truth of what happened. Nonfiction writers regularly leave minor characters out of scenes. Why should leaving the writer out be any different? Choosing the third person is another way of shaping the story to serve its purpose.
When you were a struggling/dreaming new writer, what gave you inspiration and kept you going?
Reading great models has always kept me going and continues to do so. In the early stages of researching and imagining Every Day We Live Is the Future, three works in particular opened up possibilities and made me feel that my subject was book-worthy: James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Luis Alberto Urrea’s By the Lake of Sleeping Children, and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers. All three combine unforgettable characters with original narrative voices that shine a light on the humanity that emerges from marginalized places. The desire to continue this tradition of bearing witness motivated me.
“I often find myself the least interesting part of the story I want to tell.”
In addition, meeting and corresponding with other writers who face similar writing and reporting dilemmas has been invaluable. Writing — especially a book — is often lonely and plagued with self-doubt. Telling a story that involves crossing cultural, economic, and linguistic boundaries makes this process even more fraught. The solidarity and advice of other writers has gotten me through many uncertain moments.
In that vein, what advice do you have for aspiring writers — in any form?
Like any craft, half of the writer’s job is showing up. All forms require cultivating your quality of attention — being present to the world around you, alert to details that may mean more than they seem at first glance. For nonfiction writing, this means doing research and interviewing and observing even when you’re not sure where it will lead.
There’s also no substitute for commitment to being at your writing desk on a regular basis. And this involves accepting that sometimes nothing spectacular happens there. If my language isn’t humming on a given day, I find something else productive to do: mining details and dialogue from notes and transcripts, sketching out scenes and narrative structures.
And when rejection inevitably arrives in my inbox, I remind myself that just because a story isn’t right for a particular publisher, it doesn’t mean that the story isn’t worth being told. I don’t know any writers for whom perseverance isn’t an essential quality.
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Douglas Haynes’s lyrical essay “El Rosario Road” appeared in BROAD STREET ONLINE in fall 2017. He has not one but two books out this season: Every Day We Live Is the Future: Surviving in a City of Disasters, an account of the struggle to get by in Nicaragua, just appeared University of Texas Press; his poetry chapbook, Last Word, will be published by Finishing Line Press in November. His nonfiction and poetry have been featured in Orion, Longreads, Virginia Quarterly Review, North American Review, and many other venues.
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