“Find out what you love. Those books are your greatest teachers,” author Paul Lisicky said, offering his advice to aspiring writers in a phone interview with The Michigan Daily. Lisicky is the author of five books and currently teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program at Rutgers University. His most recent publication is The Narrow Door, from which he’ll be reading on Friday at Literati.
The Narrow Door, according to Lisicky, is a memoir that explores the process of mourning in honor of his dear friend and fellow writer Denise Guess who passed away six years ago. It also tracks the decline of his relationship with his husband Mark Doty.
“In part it’s an investigation of our friendship but it also wants to think about what the loss of her unkenneled in me,” Lisicky said. “It’s about our friendship; it’s also about the breakup of my long relationship. It’s about Joni Mitchell. It’s about storms. It’s about Vincent Van Gogh. There are a lot of side pieces that I hope activate the main story lines.”
Lisicky defined his arrival in the writing world as an amalgamation of his early identities as a musician and an introvert — two factors that have allowed him to explore the way an inner voice is translated into art.
“I think I probably started writing because I sensed that I was smarter inside than I was able to express to other people,” Lisicky said. “I was so shy that I rarely talked in the classroom, never raised my hand, and would fumble if someone called on me. I think I had a low level fear that I might have just seemed a little bit dim and it was important for me to develop my language at least on the page.”
Although he identifies as an introvert, the candor and enthusiasm with which he spoke suggested otherwise. He expressed a passion for his work as a creative writing instructor and anticipation for the travels that will allow him to share his works with a larger audience.
That being said, he also clarified the inherent introversion of the creative process.
“I think every writer has to be in large part an introvert because so much of what we do is about the investigation of the inner life and we’re thinking about privacy and hiddenness. It just goes with the territory I think,” he said.
Lisicky said his experiences as a musician have allowed him to explore the way his inner voice manifests itself in a public way. He joked that his singing voice is “not terribly distinguished” in the way that his expression through his prose is.
“There’s not that much subtlety and nuance in my singing voice but weirdly I feel like I know how to go after shadows and nuances and complicated sounds in my written voice,” he said.
Having achieved a level of prestige as writer, it was surprising to hear that Lisicky’s early ambition was to pursue music; writing was something that came serendipitously.
“I was a musician, and I was very serious about it through my mid-20s,” Lisicky said. “It was really hard to turn my energy away from that world initially. I ended up taking a creative writing workshop on a whim and it was just out of a sense of play.”
His musical experience is inseparable from his writing — although Lisicky writes mostly prose, his grasp of sound gives his work a poetic quality.
“I still think of music in relation to what I do,” he said. “I think about music in relationship to how I phrase a sentence, where I pause and where I put commas so I always start with a voice before I start with image. I believe that has to do with my origins as a musician or a frustrated singer.”
Lisicky identified the work of another Joy Williams as writing that he’s always admired.
“That work still nourishes me, still teaches me, still reveals facets of itself every time I come back to it,” he said.
He seeks to embody the reflective, that which amplifies itself in a way that generates surprise and evolution with each encounter. These themes prove increasingly relevant in The Narrow Door, which presents an exploration of loss and the nuances of emotional vulnerability that grow and change with age.