Today we speak with the inimitable Evan Knapp, author of Where There is Movement. Knapp is a maverick personality, spurning conformity. He’s spent 30 years in the theater, playing every part from dancer to producer. Now he is retired and instead choreographs the movement of words into stories.
How did you become interested in memoir specifically, as opposed to fiction? What prompted you to tell your story?
(The answer to the first two questions intertwine.) Never did I intend to write a book, and had I, I most likely wouldn’t have leaned toward memoir. Throughout my life, I’ve chipped away at earning a sheepskin, though the attempts were, first, disastrous, then, interrupted by getting a contract with a dance company I wanted to work with, once, I took a hiatus from college for a choreography job, and yet another time, I dropped out because of a particularly nasty round with my ever-recurring depression/anxiety. My final attempt, I found a program at a private liberal arts college which catered specifically to current, transitioning, and retired dancers. It fit like my favorite pair of Sauconys. My final course to complete was an elective. At the time I thought I wanted to slide into private or state college/university dance education, so I proposed an independent study course heavy on pedagogy and taught in the only other language I speak than English, Educationeese. My advisor had a different idea. “Why don’t you take something… fun? Your profs have told me you write well, what about a one-on-one creative writing course?” Initial reaction? No. At over $1000/credit I was determined to get as much education out of my education. My advisor sweetened the pitch with, “I could set it up with Christian De Matteo.” Christian was (and still is) the best prof I’ve ever had. A New York Italian, a bonified word-nerd, and a man with a love of language and the written word unlike anyone I have ever met, except maybe my friend Heather. I pretended I didn’t want to, just in my own head (but I so did). So I did. The petition for the course was drafted. There was a conference call to solidify details (I was living in Sandy Eggo, CA at the time, the college, in N. CA, and Christian, the right coast) and I started negotiating like I would have a contract for a performing gig. “50 pages? What if I give you 30 pages with extra reading and maybe a few additional Interpretative Essays.” I’d learned how to write those fairly well in a Writing for the Liberal Arts course. “Nope,” the School facilitator flatly stated. I knew I wasn’t going to win, so I just agreed. 50 pages in 10 weeks, and the course: memoir writing.
The first class (a phone call – all of it was done via email and phone) Christian asked me to tell him a bit about myself. I gave him the boring “I just met you answers,” while feeling his patience/boredom amplify, ever-so barely so. I’m sure he’d heard almost the exact same list of where-I-grew-ups, and I-danced-for-(insert best resume line.) I just threw out, “I ran away from home once,” and had we been wrestling, he would have pinned me right then (one, two, three) to say, “I’d love to read about that.” I wrote my first agreed to 5-10 pages that week starting with the line, “Leave a note. I had to so they wouldn’t worry.”
Did you discover anything that surprised you about yourself while writing this memoir?
Perhaps not surprised, maybe pleasantly surprised. Something a director told me when I was a kid – kid, somewhere in the time of WTiM – finally made sense. He said, “Once you understand the technique of one of the fine arts, you understand all of the fine arts.” And not literally, I think that’s why I initially discounted the statement, though, I hung on to it because there was something in it that made my ears lift. All forms of music, theatre, painting, sculpture, dance, writing… anything that has a technique, or any creative endeavor; cooking, metallurgy, baking, masonry, sewing, plus all things with a tradition of craft that is passed down or studied – they share many commonalities. Even the terms to describe them are often the same. The line of a sculpture, the line of the body, the musical line (the color notes) the alto takes in a choral composition. The phrasing of a scene in a play, the phrasing of a paragraph, a movie… a short piece of choreography is called a phrase. Nuance, tone, pacing, clarity, honesty, structure, emotional conveyance. “The rules” of each, which could be the color wheel, or Russian, French, British, or contemporary ballet, music theory (different between cultures, yet rest on similar principles). It started to make sense to me when I began to write something longer than a short story or poem. And, realizing it’s the same thing, coming through the same conduit but manifesting in music or verse or on a canvas or in heavy bronze form or as movement. I guess I discovered I know more than I thought I did, I just hadn’t let it all meld, I hadn’t merged what I know, to vastly varying degrees, about different art forms. It’s the same process no matter what you’re creating. Sharing, with honesty while sidestepping your ego as much as possible is the intent. Creating is creating.
What was the most difficult part of the writing process for you in writing this memoir?
I gave up because it was too difficult. I’d gotten to the point in my story where one of my best friends died. It was excruciating to write about, taxing, draining, filled with tears and regrets, the “I wish I had”s. I wrote chapter after chapter going on tangents, jumping to the future, talking about everything else except her death. Finally, my writing coach suggested I just get the events down on paper, “even just bullet points,” he told me, so I could have something, a place holder, and could go back to it later. That freed me somehow, well, not at first. At first, I was writing in “I” and “she” and that was still too close, so I changed it to “Evan” and “Leandra” and that gave me enough room, enough distance to start. Then, it was doable, and, I had a new form to play with: was it possible to convey the story with the potency and emotion required, in one sentence clips? Turned out, yes, it’s possible. But, after I got it out, that was it – I stopped writing. It seems, the closer I get to my present, the more difficult it is to write about – and Leandra died over 20 years ago.
What preliminary steps would you recommend to someone interested in writing their own memoir?
I wouldn’t even attempt to recommend anything to anyone. Each one of us is gorgeously unique. Everybody’s story, process, wants or needs for their work, individual and specific to them. For me, I made an unspoken pact w/ myself that if I was going to do this, there’d be zero tolerance for watering down or avoiding stuff I remembered, no matter what – to some, maybe daunting, to me, the shackles dissolved and the gloves were put on. I guess also, I can share what my writing coach told me after I asked him for the n’th time if I could do this or that, or was it okay to…? He stated, “It’s your book, you can do whatever you want.”
In a memoir based on memories of an incident(s) that occurred in decades past, where do you feel the writer’s responsibility lies: with the truth of the facts or with their perception/feelings about what occurred?
I’ve thought about that a lot. It is impossible to remember every single detail – it just is. BUT, because they’re your own, you can extrapolate based on the shards of memory, or in some cases vivid memories – but sometimes even the vivid aren’t accurate. One story I remembered, I was with my sisters. I wrote my rendition, then called one of them to compare/fact check, and her remembrance was so vastly different – I put in both, mine and hers. (It’s further on in the story – not in the “slice of memoir.”) Which brought up the question, and also answered it. Memoir opposed to biography is your perception, and it’s your perception at the time you write it. After unearthing emotionally potent scenes, and images, stories, I found it fosters others to tag along, maybe not immediately, but if you’re patient, little details (sometimes what I think are verbatim lines people’ve said to me) emerge gently, and often brazenly – sometimes in dreams, sometimes while spacing out or talking to someone about something completely different. The charge then is to choose what best describes, illuminates the hunk’o’story, but mostly what is closest to the honest, cellular memories.
You reveal exceedingly personal stories and that takes incredible courage. Did you struggle with the decision of whether or not to expose intimate details, participation in social taboos, or previous illegal activities?
That one makes me laugh, in that, I had no intention of publishing this, so the whole courage factor didn’t come into play until after it was up for public consumption. The moment it was live, I was terrified. Like oversharing in a group of new acquaintances, or drinkie-texting. And… I spent my life in front of people, on stage, basically naked (most dance costumes are designed to show the body and its lines) but that’s a live performance. Reading is much more intimate. You and the book. My story with a stranger, alone. Finally hit me that, shit, it was out there. Being wigged about it was an after the fact reaction, so I stopped freaking out about it. Also, I did not shy away from the reality of the situations I endured, and yes, I talk about alcohol abuse and getting beat up, prostitution, yes, raw topics, but there was no reason to write about them raw-ly, so I don’t think my ditty is particularly shocking or anything anyone hasn’t heard of or maybe experienced themselves, so no need to be courageous – I mean, everyone picks their nose, everyone had their first orgasm, or the realization that their parents were not only parents but actual people – I just wrote mine down.
What do you hope that readers will take away after reading about your experiences?
Perhaps the best way to address this is to reflect on some of the reviews I’ve received from people I don’t know. (Most of the reviews are from people I don’t know). First off, I love the reviews from people on the fence. I love those that start out, “I don’t normally read memoirs,” or even the lowly rated, “I would never recommend this.” Those, to me, mean: they had some kind of strong reaction – strong enough that they took the time to write a response (no one EVER has to write a review) – or reading my story was challenging, or perhaps off putting (I think sometimes it’s the gay author factor – I finally put a “warning” in the description, which was a bit… almost humiliating, but also unnecessary – like, I don’t like reading straight people sex scenes but could you imagine if someone wrote a review aghast with a male/female sex scene in it – oh wait, that happens all the time, but for different reasons) but, if what I made, made someone I’ve never met feel something, and take the time to post that somewhere, then maybe there’s something universal, something relatable in my story, especially if the reaction isn’t praise. I exposed my nerve endings, my struggles and misconceptions and horrible decisions, and the joy and friendships, the wants of my teenage self in a way that elicited a response, and response indicates interaction, and interaction, I think, is all any artist is after. Sharing, regardless if it’s elation or devastation, failure or triumph.
What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
What’s next for you… that is always the question. Well, since January, with the goings on in the world, I’ve had serious concentration issues. The undercurrent of unease, dis-ease not disease. I’ve talked to friends and family, and it’s not uncommon now. Ya know, some people deal by doing. In the past, that would have been me, though now, I find myself in this state of maintaining. I haven’t been able to read, or write – well, a little, a very little – or edit the stuff from the edit pile (that just reminded me of the clothes folding pile, like you could just wear it, wrinkles and all, but would you go out in public?). I’ve been promoting Where There is Movement. That’s been doable. Trying to get on podcasts, doing readings, I had the cover redesigned. I don’t know at what point concentration is going to stabilize to the parameters needed to get more out. Based on how it’s worked before for me, it’ll just happen when I’m ready, and it’ll again be time to get more out in words.
Where can your fans find out more about you and your work?