5Q Interview: Micah Fields, Nonfiction Writing Program

The Writing University conducts a series of interviews with writers while they are in Iowa City participating in the various University of Iowa writing programs. We sit down with authors to ask about their work, their process and their descriptions of home.

Today we are talking with Micah Fields, an MFA candidate in the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program, from Houston, TX. He teaches writing and literature, and has published work in the Oxford American, The Baffler, Sonora Review, and elsewhere.  

1. Do you have a plan or project in mind for the current year?

I'm deep in the process of my MFA thesis, which will eventually become a book: a nonfiction narrative about the singular city of Houston, the Texas Gulf Coast, and the wild relationship between that region's history of art, industry, and natural disaster. It's also a heavily personal project, incorporating my life in the Marines, scenes from my time in Houston during Hurricane Harvey, and dispatches from my own quests made to Texas in an attempt make sense of that strange place.  

2. What does your daily practice look like for your writing? Do you have a certain time when you write? Any specific routine?

In an abstract sense, I write every day, by which I mean I am always thinking about sentences and images, and within 24 hours I have at least once sat in front of a word document and considered the keyboard. Sometimes words appear on it, sometimes they don't. I agonize before and after either outcome. But I am seduced by the development of successful rituals, and I spend a good amount of my time trying and failing to cultivate them. My desk is a mess. I've made it into a curation of totems and ephemera that I dream will someday bring me reliable, crystalline inspiration. There's a short stack of books I keep at hand for quoting or quick guidance, thesaurus shamelessly among them, a picture of my wife, Amanda, in Spain, a pile of little pretty stones, a crystal, a ceramic cradle full of 3x5 cards, a mug of pens and pencils and scissors, a wooden pendant of Saint Gertrude, a "creativity candle" I commissioned from Houston's last remaining voodoo shop, a tape recorder, a salt lamp, a wooden duck, a small bungee cord I like to fidget with and wrap around my head when I'm thinking, an old brick made with mud from the Brazos River, and a photo of my great grandparents, Lorenzo and Lucy, standing on a parcel of land they sharecropped in Cord, Arkansas. All desperate gestures to wrench writing into more of an ordained and spiritually summoned act, as opposed to what I increasingly find it to actually be: painstaking, manual, cumulative, bodily work, in the crudest sense. Laying bricks and shoveling mortar. No metaphor there. Being in a program with some of the best nonfiction writers in the world has taught me that art doesn't come easy for anyone. There's no fairy dust. There's no plateau. It's all uphill. But the hill can be fun! I like hiking. 

3. What are you currently reading? Are you reading for research or pleasure?

Research is pleasurable! But I see what you mean here. I guess I'd split my reading into categories of "topically important" and "artistically rigorous," though often the best books are one and the same. For the former, I'm working through Jack E. Davis' The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea, which is a fantastic and beautifully researched narrative of how the Gulf of Mexico propelled and defined the culture of the United States. It's also laced with some truly wacky facts along the way (like that for over a hundred years, Spanish explorers kept starving and dying off on their search for the mouth of the Mississippi, mostly because they were grossed out by the prospect of eating seafood. They'd kill and eat their own horses before they'd touch an oyster. Now they're 30 bucks per dozen at Clinton Street Social Club!) For the latter, I'm bouncing between a bunch of books, but the most recent and fresh in my mind are Ben Metcalf's "novel" made of rants/essays against rural living, Against the Country, C. D. Wright's lyric manifesto, Cooling Time, William Carlos Williams' Paterson, and Shawn Wen's recently published book-length essay on the fascinating mind and life of Marcel Marceau, A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause.

4. What is something the readers and writers of Iowa City should know about you and your work?

I'm a dyed-in-the-wool disciple of the essay, and it breaks my heart sometimes to see Iowa City cast purely as a novelist's or poet's town. The insane concentration of talent in this community spans genre, including those working under the roof of essays, memoir, journalism, nonfiction film, hybrid forms, and so on. There's room for all of us here, and I wish more folks knew about the exciting and innovative work in nonfiction that this place and its generosity have made possible.

5. Tell us a bit about where you are from -- what are some favorite details you would like to share about your home?

I hail from The H, Space City, Bayou City, City of Magnolia, the nation's most diverse metropolis, energy capital of the continent, birthplace of AstroTurf and Chopped-and-Screwed Hip-Hop, home to the Astrodome (humanity's first indoor domed stadium, and the unofficial "8th Wonder of the World"), a reigning World Series Championship baseball team (go Astros!), and more oil refineries and air-conditioners than you can shake a mesquite stick at. The most distinct cuisine of Houston is Viet-Cajun, a mashup of bayou-style crawfish and pho, created by necessity from the area's robust population of Vietnamese immigrants. Houston's full of that kind of cross-pollination. It's irreverent and artistic, and beautiful in that way. It's also a city that has long been misunderstood and under-appreciated. In spite of its dynamism, the city is hard to pin down, aesthetically collaged and challenging to define. It speaks a strange and shifting language that repels the brief visitor. For that reason, there's a whole canon of insults to Houston. People love to dis it, and I've collected quotes over the past couple years, shaping them into a kind of provincial burn-book. I think of them as badges of honor. These are some of my favorites:

"Houston is an example of when architecture catches a venereal disease." 

-Frank Lloyd Wright

"They have here more of infidelity, subtle, organized and boldly blasphemous, than I have ever met in any place . . . May God graciously visit Houston with a mighty revival of religion, and that right soon!"

-J. O. Andrew, Methodist Bishop

"Houston has a bayou: it smells." 

-Gregory Curtis

"Most of Houston will spend eternity in hell." 

-Billy Graham, Evangelist Pastor

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Thank you for talking with us today, Micah!