An Interview with Aaron Angello
Photo Credit: @michaelmasonstudios
Aaron Angello is a poet, playwright, and essayist from the Rocky Mountains who lives and feels remarkably out of place in the charming, but very Eastern, town of Frederick, Maryland. He received his MFA and PhD from the University of Colorado Boulder, and he currently teaches writing and theater at Hood College.
As part of a creative writing class that focused on process rather than product, Aaron Angello chose to meditate on and be prompted to write by a single word from a single work—Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29—every day for a semester. The result is The Fact of Memory: 114 Ruminations and Fabrications (Rose Metal Press, April 2022), a collection of 114 short prose pieces, each a stand-alone but also part of what Angello calls a “long, lyric essay.” Described as “a fractal memoir,” this book uses language as a jumping-off place for deep dives into memory and creativity and Shakespeare’s sonnet as the current flowing through it all. To try to categorize these pieces is to do them and the entire book a disservice. No one is like another, and though repetition is a key to the volume’s unity, the recurrence of a word or an image is not a duplication but a transformation, a reminder that memory is not fact but the memory of fact.
Patrick Parks: In the Author's Note, you detail the origin of this book, but could you explain a bit about the workshop approach and your response to it?
Aaron Angello: As I mention in the Author’s Note, the class was led by the poet Julie Carr, who decided to run the workshop differently from the way they are usually run. I don’t want to speak for her, but many of us who teach creative writing feel that the traditional workshop structure isn’t all that effective, and my guess is she wanted to experiment with another way. The workshop included peer critique, but much less than one would expect, and most of the critique was positive. Instead, the focus of the course was on process—specifically, daily practice as process.
By the second or third week of the semester, all of the students in the class had decided to commit to a daily practice that would last the rest of the semester, and most students really committed to it. In one assignment, we were to meet with another student in the class and do their practice. I did this twice. The first was with a visual artist who had started a daily drawing practice with very particular constraints—a certain pencil, one book, something ordinary had to be drawn from life. I can’t draw, but I gave it a shot. The second was with a guy who was a progressive Christian who was choosing, at random, a passage from the Bible to meditate and write on. I’m not a Christian, but I found the practice excellent. I’d like to fully commit to that one sometime. A daily practice, like meditation or yoga, is only effective when done for an extended period, over time. Trying it out is cool, but its value is in the practice.
As I describe in the author’s note, my practice involved waking up early, sitting in a very specific chair near a window in my Boulder apartment, meditating upon a single word from Shakespeare’s 29th sonnet, and then writing. My self-imposed constraints were 1) to fill the entire page of my notebook with writing and 2) to not write beyond a single page. I think the regularity of the practice, the time of day, and the process of meditating upon a single word allowed me, in some small part, to bypass the conscious part of my mind, the part of our consciousness that traffics in the repetition of existing linguistic and thought patterns. The creative mind lies beyond that place; we just need to figure out how to get there.
This was the genius of Julie’s workshop. From my perspective, she gave us, her students, a pathway to our beyond-conscious, creative minds.
PP: Have you found ways to duplicate this same experience with your own students? If so, how have they responded? What tasks did they undertake?
AA: I haven’t done an entire workshop that centered upon a single daily practice (but once I’m tenured…). At the moment, I only teach undergrad writers, and I find we need to spend more time focusing on the sentence. That has to be there first. However, I do often try to find exercises that help students reach beyond their conscious minds and into their creative minds. Interestingly, I’ve found acting exercises work well in this respect.
I was trained in Stanislavski’s Method as a young actor in New York. Much of that training focuses on what is called “emotional memory,” or “sense memory.” Essentially, the way I see it, you are training your body to respond honestly to imaginary stimuli. I’ve found that using some of these exercises in a writing class helps the writer get to that creative mental place. I may ask them to close their eyes and focus on their breath. I ask them to pay attention to the places in their bodies where they are holding tension and to try to let that go. Once they are relaxed, I ask them to get a sense of something from their memory. I usually ask them to think of something like the carpet in a room from their childhood home. What did it look like? What did it feel like beneath their feet? Was there a smell associated with it? And that could be enough. It’s amazing how an exercise like this can drop you into this mental space