Will McGrath has writing out in The Atlantic and Foreign Affairs, and forthcoming in Guernica. In 2014, he won the Felice Buckvar Prize for Nonfiction from the Bellevue Literary Review, and in 2015, he won the 11th Annual Nonfiction Contest from the Black Warrior Review. He is currently finishing work on a book about the southern African nation of Lesotho. Follow Will on Twitter @wtmcgrath.
I wrote a version of this essay long ago, when I was working at a homeless shelter in Phoenix, almost fifteen years ago now. There were so many people I knew then who inspired me, whose stories I thought deserved a wider audience—instructive and beautiful and funny stories—but these were people who were struggling to make it through the day. They didn’t have the time or resources to put their stories on paper: they were people inhabiting the fringes, people who had greater concerns than thinking about tense and mood and what South Mountain looked like at a particular time of day. So I wrote these things down, at least in part, as an act of preservation. I didn’t want to think of these stories as lost. Because while we were in the middle of one of the largest metro areas in the United States, the whole neighborhood around the shelter felt cut off from the outside world. It seemed important that these stories not stay confined to a few forgotten industrial blocks.
Alex and Shanteria’s story in particular stayed with me over the years. I tried out different ways of telling it, but never knew quite how to get at what was powerful in it. I’d always had a sense of Alex as a Caravaggio-esque figure—his raw emotion, the fine line he walked between hardness and utter vulnerability—but that notion was always lurking somewhere just beyond my full comprehension. The day it slipped into view was the day the rest of the essay came together. I knew I needed to make the Caravaggio comparison explicit. And once I started looking into the painter’s life more, it made sense to include him as another character in the story.
What do you hope readers come away from your work thinking or feeling? How did the surprising link between tragedy and Caravaggio’s art come about?
For me, this essay is about looking squarely at the less beautiful aspects of our society. We expend a lot of energy linking beauty with worth. As a society, we turn away from our ragged and unpretty fringes, from the things that don’t fit well. We try to make those things invisible.
I hope this essay works in the opposite direction: as something that makes visible people who certainly felt invisible. I wanted to explicitly link the people in this story with something unassailably beautiful—and regardless of their often brutal content, Caravaggio’s paintings are that. He was a master at rendering the impoverished outcasts of Rome with humanity, with real tenderness. He slipped social pariahs into some of the most prominent and visible artworks of the Western canon. In this way, then, Caravaggio functions as content and character and inspiration. Ultimately, this essay is about the ways we value human life. It is about insisting on dignity, which is what Alex did, even if he’d never admit to it.
Share with us a specific element of your writing process (Routine? Place? Superstitions?).
While I can’t work with music playing, or even with people talking nearby when I’m in a public place (the urge to eavesdrop overwhelms all else)—I do love listening to music as I sit down at my desk. I try to find a specific song that both a.) gets me amped, and b.) sets the mood for the specific piece I’m working on. Once I find the right song I stick to it. It seems almost to tie into muscle memory—I find that the rhythm and routine of a specific 4-minute burst really jumpstarts the writing session, gets me into the right mindset. Sometimes references to the lyrics or ideas in the song filter into the piece. One recent essay I published was set entirely against the backdrop of “Road to Nowhere” (Talking Heads), and another was done to “Quartz” (TV on the Radio). I’ll even cop to an article I did that had Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” playing beneath the text, but I’ll never tell which one.
What are you reading right now, or what have you read most recently?
I just finished Helen DeWitt’s marvelous novel The Last Samurai, about a genius single mother trying to raise her genius son. The book is dense, ambitious, obsessive—and very funny, which is something you don’t usually get to say about a novel that goes on tangents about aerodynamics and higher mathematics and contains passages of Ancient Greek and Japanese. A few years back I read her other novel, Lightning Rods, which is also fantastic, also hilarious, and about as different from The Last Samurai as a novel could be. DeWitt is brilliant, and if we have to wait another decade for a new book from her, so be it. I enjoyed The Last Samurai so much that I wrote a piece of fan mail after I finished it, giving her an open invite to cocktail hour at my house if she was in the neighborhood (she lives in Berlin and I live in Minneapolis, so we’ll see if she takes me up on the offer).
What advice would you give to aspiring writers? It could be a piece of craft advice, or life advice is always welcome!
With writing, I think you need to find some strange balance between confidence and humility. You need to start from a place of confidence, from the belief that you have a story worth telling and know how to tell it—you have to set out from this place with gusto. Then immediately open yourself to humility and the certainty of some kind of failure.
Whenever I’ve finished writing something, I send it off to people who are much smarter than me and ask them to help me make it better. Then I read their comments and give myself one moment to say aloud “That is literally the dumbest comment I have ever read.” Then: take a nap, pet a dog, go to the park, whatever. When I come back I can look again with fresh eyes and realize, “Actually, that is a very good, very smart comment. That is an excellent solution to a problem I didn’t know I had.”
What essay by a fellow author would you recommend to our readers? Why this specific piece?
I recently read “Cover Story” (in the February 8 & 15, 2016 issue of The New Yorker), by Elif Batuman, which deals with her decision—as a Turkish-American woman—about whether or not she will wear a head scarf while living in Turkey. I found the essay to be an amazing work of memoir that was both deeply personal and politically engaged: it dealt with secularism, religion, gender, Islam, agency, literature—all with nuance and grace. There was no rhetoric, no agenda, just a sincere consideration of personal identity. Ultimately the essay is about the ways we communicate with other cultures: what we think we’re saying, versus what theythink we’re saying. Beautiful writing—the kind of subtle thinking that is so important in navigating our contemporary world.