So suddenly I was a college graduate and I was about to find out that, contrary to the beliefs of my parents’ generation, a humanities BA in the 1980s was worth nothing. I had decided to become a writer when I was six, so I didn’t have some of the complicated career decisions most people do. I realized that I’d learned how to read, which was really important, but I hadn’t learned how to write. There was some sense that the world and I weren’t ready for each other yet. So I had a wonderful year off when I went to a lot of punk shows and had a pretty good time and filled out my one and only graduate school application, which was to the graduate school of journalism at U.C. Berkeley, where I was pretty sure they’d teach me to write and to do something professional for a living. Happily, creative writing programs didn’t yet teach nonfiction, and I think I got a lot of practical and ethical things out of journalism I wouldn’t have gotten from a creative writing program.
What did you learn from journalism school? Was there anything you had to unlearn? I could never attain that perfectly flat voice that I think is as affected a style as any but that’s supposed to be the style of objectivity. But I understood what it was and when to restrain opining and expressing and florid touches and individual style. Basically I think it gave me a good sense of when that’s relevant and when it gets in the way and undermines what you’re trying to do. There was one news professor that I really drove nuts, because of my inability and/or refusal to write in that tone that I think is both Hemingwayesque and ultimately masculine in ways that are dubious. I did much better with professors like Ben Bagdikian, who said that there’s no such thing as objectivity but there is fairness.
How did you become interested in writing about the visual arts? One of the great things about the graduate program was that I got a work-study job at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art doing serious research.
I don’t know why they entrusted it to a twenty-one-year-old without an art history background and with a punk-rock haircut—because these were all nice ladies in pearls. But they did, and I had a fantastic two years researching major works of art in the collection for the fiftieth anniversary catalog, but also, with each piece, getting an education in Matisse or Duchamp or the Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo. And in this wonderfully practical way that also helped me understand what the actual lives of individual works of art are as I traced their exhibition history and ownership history. I think in a lot of ways the museum was as much an influence and an education as school was.
I ended up being an art critic with a review due every other week for a local weekly newspaper. I think the sheer volume of those early years was really great. In the way that musicians have to play a lot of chords, writers have to write a lot. The short review is like a very short essay. You have to set the scene, you have to lay out the facts and somehow negotiate the relationship between them and your opinions and ideas and interpretations, and you have to come up with some kind of conclusion, and a lot of times you have to do that in eight hundred words.
The essays in the new collection frequently draw upon the work of visual artists and photographers. Writing about visual arts was very liberating in a way that trying to be a literary or even maybe a film critic wouldn’t have been. Ann Hamilton, Richard Misrach, Meridel Rubenstein, and artists like that were really important early on. There was a way they would think about something and investigate something—Meridel Rubenstein, for example, picked up the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos and approached it from a number of different directions with narrative and images and symbols and analogies that also modeled things for me that I don’t know that I would have gotten from writers. I didn’t know a lot of writers during my formative period, which I would say comes through in Savage Dreams. And Savage Dreams was where I really figured out who I was and where I was and what I wanted to do about it in life and in prose.