When John Skoyles was 19 years old, he wrote a letter to the famous beat poet Allen Ginsburg asking for writing advice.
His reply came in the form of a postcard. Ginsburg wrote “only raw mind creates surprises, not deliberate calculation,” and recommended that Skoyles take classes at The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in New York City.
Skoyles, currently an Emerson professor and poetry editor of Ploughshares, took Ginsburg’s advice and met a cast of quirky characters while studying there. He recalled one man he met who called his poems “shirts.”
He reprinted Ginsburg’s reply, along with a slew of memories, in his latest semi-autobiographical novel, A Moveable Famine. Skoyles estimated that 70-80 percent of the book is nonfiction, while the rest is fictionalized. Some of the novel’s central characters, like the protagonist’s colleague Artie Barkhausen, are composites of multiple real people.
“It’s all the stories I’ve been telling aloud, put into print,” Skoyles said.
Skoyles attended Fairfield University for his undergraduate degree, but said that the program offered no creative writing classes.
“I was hungry for criticism and guidance,” Skoyles said. “Because I didn’t have a formal education in college, I sought it elsewhere.”
A Moveable Famine is a compilation of Skoyles’ memories while studying in New York City; Provincetown, Massachusetts; and Iowa. Skoyles said though he often writes serious poetry, he hopes that A Moveable Famine captured an informal, humorous presence.
“We don’t teach humor very often,” Skoyles said. “We relegate humor to late night talk shows and comedians, but there’s a lot of very humorous literature, and it can be grave as well; it doesn’t have to be silly.”
Skoyles offered additional advice on writing creative nonfiction: Learn to separate the essential from the inessential. This is especially difficult for the author, who said that he has a nearly photographic memory.
“In my poetry classes, I can recall whole poems and recite them,” Skoyles said. “It’s nothing I deserve credit for, but it’s great when you’re a writer. Looking back, I can remember names of books or people.”
Skoyles said that in addition to including the right details and being honest, a nonfiction writer must put everything into perspective.
“Sometimes you have to choose: are you going to write a good book or be a good family member?” Skoyles said. “But I’ve tried to give balanced portraits of these people...I know I’ve been fair in my descriptions.”
Skoyles advises aspiring writers to seek education beyond academia.
“I learned a lot, but it was not in school,” he said. “By having a classroom, I can bring to the classroom what I missed.”