Shannon Perri Interviews David Olimpio
The Austin-based Awst Press recently published David Olimpio’s collection of essays, This Is Not a Confession, which covers topics ranging from death to sexual abuse to a rare breed of cicadas that pop up out of the earth only once every seventeen years. Boldly relentless in its investigations, the book ultimately serves as a meditation on time, memory, and the construction of personal narrative.
Front Porch: Your book of essays is called This Is Not a Confession. How did you come up with title? What would you say your book is then, if not confession?
David Olimpio: This wasn’t my original idea for the title. I had originally wanted to call it either Shirts and Skins or These Not Quite Sleeping Dogs (both of which are titles of stories in the book). I believe it was Tatiana Ryckman (who was the first content editor of the book) who suggested we use This Is Not a Confession. (“Not a Confession” also being one of the story titles in the book).
In “Not a Confession,” I say “this isn’t a confession” to my wife in telling her about me sleeping with another woman. The thing about the word “confession” is that I feel it also connotes an apology. But the act of confessing in that story, as well as in the other stories in this book, are not that. They are not apologies. I like how that concept is conveyed by the title.
The title also does another thing though, and I should be honest and say it’s not something I really intended, but being a sort of Deconstructionist at heart, and believing that the meaning of a given text goes beyond authorial intent, I think it’s there nonetheless. I think the title calls to mind other works of art that put an object before you and tell you that it is not the thing that it is.
Most famously, there is Magritte’s painting “The Treachery of Images,” in which he painted a pipe and wrote below it the words, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” One way to extend this idea into philosophy of language is to say, “A word is not the thing it represents.” Ludwig Wittgenstein is my favorite philosopher. I am by no means a Wittgenstein scholar, but I do tend to mention him a lot. I think he might argue that sometimes we know what is meant by a word or a phrase, even if that word or phrase can be interpreted in many different (and sometimes conflicting) ways. And so he might say that clearly we know that what I mean when I say “This Is Not a Confession” is that this is totally a confessional. And yet, it is not that at all. There are echoes of this dichotomy throughout the book.
FP: The collection is broken into four parts, the last of which is a mock interview that you describe as “speculative nonfiction.” Walk us through your process of organizing the book.
DO: The sections sort of evolved on their own and with the help of the editors at Awst Press. Their input helped tremendously in the framing of those sections and I wrote about that here:
The book opens with stories about my mother and her death, which was something at the forefront of my mind for much of the last five years. All of the stories in the book, in fact, were written out of that loss. So it makes sense that the first section be about her, the middle section be about emergence and reinvention of self, and the third section to be about being open and honest and real.
The fourth section, the interview, has always felt important to me. But it almost got taken out. Part of the problem with it was that I did not originally write it as an interview. At first, it was just another first-person story. But that felt strange in the context of the book, and again Tatiana Ryckman helped me see that and kept pushing back on me to modify it.
I think the idea to do it as an interview came to me from the podcast Serial, which I became addicted to, along with almost everybody else I know who listens to podcasts. I liked the idea of interviewing people who had done things in their past and who were presented as real humans, putting the listener in the position of sympathizing with somebody who was probably a murderer. Or in this case, somebody who had molested a young child.
FP: In the book you explore how humanity’s experience of time is essentially false. You write: “our minds string together in a linear way to help us make sense of them” and that “each moment exists eternally. It is, and is forever. We are wandering in and among a huge collection of present tenses.” Further, you also mention how, though you’ve found therapy to be helpful, you at times resist the formulaic logic that people are the way they are because of their past experiences. So then, I can’t help but ask, what are your thoughts on free will? Like time, do you see it as an illusion?
DO: Wow. This is such a great question. The short answer is: Isn’t it cool to know that somewhere, sometime, you’ve always been asking this question, and I’ve always been making this response?
Ok, here’s the longer response. And let me just say, I worry that what I’m about to say is going to sound like I’m trying to make myself seem smart or super intellectual or something (as if my whole Deconstructionism comment didn’t already do that).
But look, I did actually think about this whole free-will/time thing from a very early age. I mean, when I was a kid, I played with matchbox cars and what I called “adventure men,” just like all other kids. I made jokes about poop and piss and boogers and snot. I rode bikes and blew shit up with firecrackers. But I also clearly remember having the thought that everything in my life had already happened. Right down to my death. I didn’t see any other way around it. And I would think about that as I played a game or as I rode my bike or as I pet my cat or took a shit. In those moments, I would think: this has already happened.
The frustrating thing to me has always been the not knowing. The fact that these things have happened and have always been happening and are going to happen again and yet we can’t know what these things are or when we will discover them.
I remember thinking something along the lines that there would either be an age, let’s say, of 42 for me or there wouldn’t, and it had already played out somewhere, and one of these days I would find out about it. Or that I was either going to find myself in a year we call 2016, or I wouldn’t. And I wouldn’t know until I got there (or did not get there). It seemed obvious to me that this stuff had already been determined. And luckily, here I am. And here’s what it looks like.
I still tend to think in these terms, but I have found a way to think about it and still maintain the idea that I have some kind of control over it. That there could be such a thing as free will. It’s an idea they talk about in one of the RadioLab episodes on “Time,” which I cite in my book. Because that is the ultimate take-away, isn’t it? That’s the take-away if you believe that the universe is made up of a bunch of moments that our consciousness is simply traversing: That there is no such thing as free will. But if there are these many, many moments in the universe that our consciousness does come across, there could also be many, many moments in the universe that our consciousness does not come across. And those moments can still exist, even with our bodies in them. And our souls, or our timeline, or our consciousness, or whatever we choose to call it, may have actually “lived” them if we’d made different decisions.
That, my friend, is free will.
But that’s just a theory, and it’s one I would cite to anybody who might come up to me and argue that believing time is an illusion necessarily means the non-existence of free will. But personally, I’m totally comfortable with the idea that there is no free will. In fact, I find it sort of a relief to think that. To me, it makes a kind of sense to say we are just part of a larger thing happening. A larger thing we have no control of.
Because, I mean, we are so small. You know? We are so incredibly small.
We are fleas. From some vantage point, a vantage point we can all imagine if we really think hard about it, we are only fleas. We are less than fleas.
But shit, I do in fact believe there is some form of free will. I do. I can’t help it. It would just be kind of nice if I didn’t. It might make my anxiety over how to respond to a person’s email disappear. Or my angst over what to wear to a party. Or whether or not somebody liked me. If I was able to see those things as truly out of my control, then maybe I’d be a lot less worried about them all the time. But that wouldn’t be any fun, either. It takes a worried man, you know, to make a worried song. Thank you Johnny Cash, and Old 97’s.
FP: Oh, man, the Old 97’s. They’re the best. In addition to writing, you also take pictures, many of which you share on a photography blog. In your book, you write: “Photographs are particular moments in space and time, which we are able to capture and look at out of context of either. They’re proof of our particular stockpile of present-tense moments.” What parallels—or distinctions—do you draw from writing and photography?
DO: I think that both photography and writing offer a way to construct a subjective personal narrative on top of an external, objective reality, and I really love having that ability.
I have thousands of photos of my dogs. Some of them I develop further and edit, and I craft a caption onto them. The captions and photos are a way for me to document and make sense of my daily life. They are a way for me to appreciate my daily life. To appreciate the mundane and the everyday and to try to make something of it.
Those photos and those captions of my dogs aren’t my dogs. I mean, they are. Of course they are. But they are mostly the story I choose to tell of my dogs, and myself. And in making that story, I give the dogs, and myself, a kind of meaning.
The same is true in writing memoir and nonfiction. A bunch of shit happens to you during a lifetime, or even during the course of week or a day or an afternoon. Some of it sticks. Some of it doesn’t. The stories we make out of the things that happen are the most important things we have. The shape and context we give to the events. The words we attach to them. The words we don’t. All of this gives the events meaning, and paints a portrait of who we choose to be.
We create ourselves through the stories we tell. That’s become my mantra. The things we notice (and the things we don’t) are vital to those stories, and vital to our identities. In both writing and photography, we have tools to capture the things we choose to notice about our lives.
FP: Your book tackles bold subject matter with tremendous precision and honesty. You talk about death, childhood sexual abuse, your open marriage, violence, and divorce. As a writer of nonfiction, do you feel ethically bound to consider how the content of what you write may affect those of whom you are writing about?
DO: I do think somebody who writes nonfiction has to take into account the feelings and desires of the people she or he writes about. And even, to some degree, the people he or she isn’t writing about, but who is in her or his life.
And if you love those people you’re writing about, and you want to maintain a relationship with them, then you definitely have to let them know what you’re writing and find out how they feel about it before publishing it. And then, if they have a problem with any of it, you have to make a decision as to what you do about that. Do you publish it anyway? Do you see if a compromise can be met?
Because even though it might seem unfair or unethical to a family member that you tell the story you want to tell, they have to know that it seems just as unfair and unethical to you for you not to tell it. Maya Angelou wrote: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.”
In the case of my wife, I gave her the opportunity to read all the stories before they were published, particularly the ones that are about our marriage. She provided input on them. With some of them, she helped make them better or more accurate. She did not censor any of them or have an issue with me sharing them. I’m probably most concerned about how this book could have a negative impact on her. But I deliberately made these stories less about her and more about me for that very reason.
I also showed the book to my dad and my sister before it was published, mainly so that they would be able to see it before any other family members might see it and ask them about it. (I should note that my dad and sister are not related.) My dad has been tremendously supportive of my desire to write nonfiction the way I do. That has been a huge relief to me since several of the stories are about my relationship with him as a child. As for my sister, I think she doesn’t really understand my candidness. She is a more private person. She has expressed concern with the book. But I think that concern is simply a concern for me, not necessarily a disapproval.
The most notable person in the book who would be affected by this book is the babysitter who molested me. I’ve not spoken to him since I was six years old, I think. I’m pretty certain he wouldn’t approve of the book. But I have also not named him, which was a choice I made.
I have also not named or made personally identifiable any of the other people who I had sexual relationships with and who are written about in the book. And for this reason, I didn’t find it necessary to seek approval or response from any of them.
FP: Do you find writing about past trauma to be cathartic? If so, is that a part of what attracts you to nonfiction over fiction, or is it just a nice, but irrelevant, byproduct?
DO: I have definitely found that I work through trauma best by writing about it. When my dog Honey died, I couldn’t even talk about it without crying or wanting to cry. It wasn’t until I wrote about it that I finally felt the ability to talk about it in a more objective, unemotional way. I think that writing about it did that: it made the thing easier to accept and talk about.
It’s interesting, I wrote a lot about my mom on my blog as she was going through the illness that eventually killed her. In that situation, I sometimes wrote about things I was going through on the very day I was going through them, and I made them public. I posted photos of my mom. I wrote about her and about her life. Those posts are still up on my site. I believe this helped me deal with the thing and kept me from breaking down. For me, writing about things has a way of making those things seem a lot less scary. I write about this idea in This Is Not a Confession, in the essay “The Big Bad Wolf.”
Some people write through life events by using fiction and some people do it with nonfiction. I just happen to do it via nonfiction. It’s less that I’m “attracted” to nonfiction and more that I just have trouble writing anything other than nonfiction. If I were being self-hating, I’d say that maybe this was because I was narcissistic. But I don’t really believe that. I just think it’s the mode in which I write most naturally and honestly. Some people write more honestly when they write fiction, though.
The thing that draws me to nonfiction is simply that I have a hard time making things up. All of my fiction attempts have been thinly-disguised memoir, and sometimes I think that makes them feel “false.” But I’ve discovered I’m really good at drawing connections between things. I also really enjoy thinking conceptually about stuff. So I like exploring concepts and relating those things to my life events.
FP: Lastly, what advice do you have for emerging creative nonfiction writers?
DO: It’s not enough to say, “Here’s a bunch of things that happened to me and, well, ain’t it some shit, you guys?” If you do that, you’re guilty of writing pity memoir. You have to make people care by showing them it’s not just about the thing that happened. You have to explain why it matters. Why it matters to you. Why it matters to the reader. Why it matters to the world. And ultimately the answer, which is an ironic one, is this: it really doesn’t matter. That’s it. It really doesn’t matter. That’s a hard thing to accept. But it’s also a freeing thing. And the realization can lead to some good stuff.
— Shannon Perri
David Olimpio grew up in Texas, but currently lives and writes in northern New Jersey. He believes that we create ourselves through the stories we tell, and that is what he aims to do every day. He has been published in The Nervous Breakdown, The Austin Review, Rappahannock Review, Crate, and other places. His book, This is Not a Confession, is forthcoming from Awst Press. You can find more about him here, including links to his writing and photography, or on Twitter @notsolinear.