Behind the Words: Brogan Sullivan

Posted by on May 6, 2015 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

BS2We were so excited to accept Brogan Sullivan’s creative nonfiction essay “The Beat Goes On” in our second issue of Spry Literary Journal. The piece is rhythmic and fluid and welcomes the reader into its world. To say I was excited when I had the opportunity to meet Brogan at AWP in 2014 is an understatement. The best part about meeting him was realizing how incredibly awesome he is as a person, not just as a writer. I’m so grateful that we were able to stay in touch, and hope you’ll enjoy this interview as much as I enjoyed doing it.

Erin Ollila: This story of a son and father and their relationship to music is so touching. How did this story first come to you?

Brogan Sullivan: The easy answer is–as usual–the least interesting: I wrote the piece in response to a call for submissions for Life Out Loud, a local Tampa Bay-area reading event hosted by Adriana Paramo and Jaquira Diaz. They were looking for true-story collaborative pieces about music and its effect on one’s life, and my friend and colleague, Jenni Nance, asked if I wanted to work with her on a piece. Jenni and I had played music together, so it felt right, and my half of the essay eventually evolved into “The Beat Goes On.” So that’s the easy answer: I wrote the essay because it’s the first thing that came to mind when I started thinking about how to answer the prompt.


But like any story worth writing, the truth is that I’d been writing it for years. Music formed the backdrop of my childhood. It bled into everything my family did. My mom sang when she washed the dishes. If I did chores, I did them to Rachmaninoff, Gershwin, Debussy. If I was busy with homework, my father would be on the trumpet in the other room, running through mixolydian scales. We didn’t go to ball games or summer camps or movies, we went to concerts and jam sessions and jazz festivals. And although my whole family was in on the gig, it all revolved around my father; he formed the dense core of the system, the center of gravity. So the story didn’t come to me so much as it came out of me. You know how sometimes you get asked a question, and your answer to it depends on what time of day it is, or what you’re doing in the moment, or what you ate for breakfast? But for other questions, the answer is always going to be the same, no matter when you get asked? This story was that kind of answer. If I was asked to write another story about how music affected my life, I wouldn’t be able to do it honestly. Sure, I could probably attack it from another angle, put some other kind of spin on it, but then it wouldn’t be as true. So in a way, I didn’t write this story; it wrote me.


Which is kind of the point, right? Music, unlike any other art form I can think of, writes itself on you. It affects you physiologically, from the inside out. It penetrates you in a way no other art form can, not painting, nor sculpture, drama, or literature. It was the first art form, and it’ll probably be the last. And it’s generational, genetic. Once it gets in you, it never leaves. Like legacies of duty, of name, of blood, it endures. In one sense, that legacy transcends family; music unites us as a species, just like our DNA unites us, no matter how tightly some of us hold on to notions of race or bloodline or whatever tribal nonsense we come up with to keep us separate from one another. But even though family is in some sense a cultural construct, it still has an emotional resonance. To me, the father-son relationship I experienced operates on both levels. I have the relationship I have with music because of my father. And his relationship with music came from his father. That’s as far as I can reliably trace it, although I suspect that it keeps going back. But this is also a construct, and doesn’t fully address the spiritual nature of music. My father–a deeply religious person–would describe the presence of music as an outgrowth of the Holy Spirit. I am not religious, but I think he’s absolutely right, in the sense that music points to a force that resides within us, a presence that transcends all the artificial boundaries that act to keep us at each other’s throats. Robert Frost wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” To me, the voice of that something is music. And it abides.


EO: I’m always curious with creative nonfiction – did your father ever read this essay? If so, what were his thoughts. How was it like to write a piece about your father, knowing he may one day read it.
BS: When I wrote the piece, I was very conscious of that feeling that I think all writers of true stories have: the double-edged need on the one hand to tell the truth–this aching, desperate imperative to confess–and on the other hand to avoid angering or hurting the people about whom you are confessing. That’s why I rarely write nonfiction. I prefer the truths I can tell with fiction. Telling the truth about people who don’t literally exist is easy. Telling a truth about people who do exist–people who have their own version of the truth rolling around in their heads–is terrifying. But in the end, if the need to confess is stronger than the fear, you find a way to write, no matter what. You don’t have to publish it. But if it’s pounding at your chest, clawing its way out, you shouldn’t try to keep it in. And at first, I didn’t intend to publish this story. Reading it one time in an intimate gathering made sense; it was just one more story about music joining a chorus of voices. But the idea of publishing it scared me, because I wasn’t just telling my story, I was also telling my father’s story, or at least part of it. And once it was out of my hands, I feared it would be lost in translation. After all, in a way, my father and I speak two different languages.


The beauty of music, especially jazz, with its reliance on improvisation, lies in its fundamental nature as performance,  and the fact that the meaning of a song never quite solidifies. A song is actually a pattern, an algorithm for creating a performance. But a piece of writing is individisble within itself. The words are the story. You can summarize what happens in a story, but then everything that makes it what it is disintegrates. It is no longer itself. The corollary to this is that once the story is published, it can never change, and it will never die. The stakes are even higher with a piece of nonfiction, because it’s about real people, and you can never take it back. It’s always going to be out there, and it’s always going to be saying the same thing about those real people. Now, I haven’t changed my mind about anything I wrote. I got as close to the truth–my truth–as I could. But that truth is not my father’s truth.


And to my knowledge, he hasn’t read it. I know my brother and sister have, and I read it to my mother over the phone once. It’s possible that he has, but we’ve never talked about it. Part of that whole “male rhetoric” thing I mention in the essay. How do you broach the subject? “Hey, Dad, I just wrote a piece in which I suggest that at one point in my life I wanted to–symbolically–kill you. Also, I mention somewhere in there that one day, and sooner rather than later, you’re going to die. So, how do you feel about all that?” I recognize that there’s a deep irony here: I wrote the piece to communicate, and yet it has become just another way of not communicating. But here’s the thing: if we did have that conversation, it wouldn’t bring us any closer. I wrote my truth in my language, the language of story. He writes his in the language of music. Thankfully, I speak his language too. And that’s where we connect.


EO: In the story, you write, “…you can’t escape music…you are a rhythm whore…” We were so impressed by the rhythmic writing and the flow of your words. Was that an intentional writing decision, or do you think your rhythm comes from words versus music?

BS: Thank you! I mentioned before that I wrote the piece originally as a spoken word essay, so rhythm and cadence were definitely a factor. That said, language is already rhythmic. It’s harder to hear the beat when you’re reading silently to yourself, but it’s there. Incidentally, that’s one of the hardest concepts to drill into my students’ heads. But when they get it, it’s a revelation. Not surprisingly, I use music as part of that lesson.


Even when I’m not writing a piece specifically for performance, I still follow the beat. I’m one of those writers who polishes as he goes rather than writing a complete draft and then going back to revise. I’ll write a paragraph and then read it to myself, and in that moment, I am hearing the rhythm, trying to imagine what it sounds like in someone else’s head. It’s not the most efficient way of writing–sometimes I wish I could just go for broke and write ten pages without stopping to listen–but like it or not, that’s the writing process I’m stuck with. I’ve never really thought about it in these terms before, but I would guess it has something to do with the fact that I was a musician first and then became a writer.


EO: The last time we spoke, you were about to graduate from your MFA program at USF. What are you doing now with your writing? How has your writing habits changed since graduation?
BS: I’m working on completing my first novel at the moment. It’s an arduous process, and if anything, I have less time to write than I did before. I have a full teaching load, and that keeps me busier than I’ve ever been. Before, writing regularly was (relatively) easy–you either write or you fail your classes. Now, I don’t have any deadlines I don’t set for myself, and as it turns out, I’m a pretty forgiving taskmaster.


Regardless of how much room I can clear in my schedule, I’m a feast or famine kind of writer. I’ve never been able to maintain a regular practice. I’ll go days without writing, but sooner or later the feeling arrives–a certain itch at the base of my brain stem, a distinctive ache in my stomach that is similar but not identical to hunger–and I’ll look up from the computer ten hours and twenty pages later wondering how it got so dark outside. I suspect that if I were harder on myself, if I really forced it, I could forge a routine. And I may give that a try over the summer when I’m not teaching, shock my muse into submission.  


EO: If you could recommend only one book on craft to our readers, what would it be?

BS: That’s a tall order. But I would have to say my current favorite is Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing. I love her warm, conversational style and her encyclopedic approach to craft. Her chapter on showing vs. telling alone is worth the (very reasonable) cover price. (For the record, you have to show AND tell.) Also, her book is one of the few that acknowledges that, in terms of craft, the distinction between fiction and nonfiction is largely illusory, that no matter what shelf the bookstore wants to put you on, storytelling is storytelling. LaPlante discusses fiction and nonfiction in the same breath, and the anthology selections include examples from both traditions. 

EO: If you could eat dinner with any 5 literary characters, who would you invite? Also, what would you serve them?
BS: This is one of those questions where the answer does depend on your state of mind. So, on a strictly provisional basis, if I were sending out invitations right now, my list would include:
  • Meyer Landsman from Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union
  • Toby from Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood
  • Ford Prefect from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series
  • Owen Meany from John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany (COULD YOU PASS THE BUTTER, PLEASE?)
  • Honey Santana from Carl Hiaasen’s Nature Girl
And I’d be too busy to cook, thinking up questions to ask my guests, so I would have Captain Geoffrey “Pirate” Prentice from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow rustle up one of his famous banana breakfasts. (Because who says no to banana waffles for dinner? No one I want at my table.)

Erin Ollila (née Corriveau) is an emotional archaeologist who graduated from Fairfield University’s MFA program with a concentration in creative nonfiction. Her writing has been published in Lunch Ticket, Revolution House, Paper Tape, (em): A Review of Text and Image, RedFez, and other awesome literary journals. Her blog, Reinventing Erin, is her outlet for ruminating on the minutiae of everyday life.

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