Joshua Doležal is the author of Down from the Mountaintop: From Belief to Belonging, published just this month. University of Iowa Press acquisitions editor Elisabeth Chretien asked him a few questions about writing his book, growing up in Montana, and his life in Iowa now. Check back Wednesday and Friday this week for the rest of the interview.
Some say that no one under 50 should write a memoir. You obviously disagree. What were the challenges of writing a memoir earlier in life?
Perhaps the hardest part of writing creative nonfiction is being honest. Is this how I really thought as a ten-year-old boy playing Little League, or am I projecting my adult sensibilities onto the child? How much of my ignorance and narcissism as a teenager can I expect a reader to tolerate? These questions grow more complicated when everyone featured in a memoir is still living, and honesty must be tempered by ethical choices. Is full disclosure more important than the potential impact on my relationship with my parents? How do I tell the truth without telling all? But all of these questions are part of private life, too, part of what it means to code switch between being a husband, father, son, grandson, brother, uncle, teacher, and friend at age 38. All of those selves are a little different. Writing a memoir is just another way to wrestle with those choices, with the ongoing struggle to be the best person I can be. A book written later might draw on a broader perspective, but it might also elide the insights and urgencies one can’t avoid in the thick of a life.
What drew you to write this account of your coming-of-age?
From my earliest school days, when I wore handmade clothes to kindergarten and carried a fringed leather lunch satchel, I knew that my childhood experience was different from everyone else’s. I see essays as experiments in explanation, efforts to make what was and is foreign in my life comprehensible, maybe even familiar, to a reader. And I suppose like many memoirists I was trying to make sense of my past. In “Small Rooms in Time,” Ted Kooser explains how unsettled he was to read a news story about a murder in an apartment building where he once lived, how reconstructing and interpreting the memories he had of living in that place was a way to hold “the violence of time” at bay. That was part of my purpose, too: sealing some of those memories in art and protecting them from the confusion I felt then, as well as the potential violence of forgetting those memories partially or altogether.