Writing the Surreal: A Conversation with Author Steve Kissing

Ericka McIntyre talks with Steve Kissing about how to write the surreal.
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“The term ‘surreal’—we use it to describe the very best and the very worst experiences in our lives—both the highlights and the horrible.”

This is how writer Steve Kissing introduced his talk on all things surreal at a recent Creative Mornings event in Cincinnati. Kissing wrote a rather odd and interesting memoir, in both narrative and graphic novel form, Running from the Devil, about his childhood. He’s also a poet and has published several magazine articles. His day job is as managing partner of the marketing firm Wordsworth Communications.

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In his (hilarious) talk, Kissing shared some of his favorite surrealist poetry (his own and others’), and how he harnessed the power of the offbeat to market his book. He did the post-talk Q&A session while putting on a HAZMAT suit, complete with rubber fish mask—if you can get more surreal than that at a breakfast lecture, let us know.

WD’s Editor-in-Chief Ericka McIntyre had some questions for Kissing about how to write the surreal, and he shared his thoughts.

What advice do you have for writers about translating their surreal ideas and experiences into words? In poetry? In memoir?

Trust your idea and run with it. However, be sure to bring your readers along with you. There needs to be enough of the “real” in your “surreal” writing for it to resonate. Otherwise, you end up with bizarre gibberish that only satisfies those looking for bizarre gibberish.

Writing and Publishing Graphic Novels from Start to Finish

In poetry you can push the surreal to its very limits because the genre is so flexible and malleable. This doesn’t mean you should, only that you could. I find a good deal of contemporary poetry unintentionally surreal simply because it’s so dense and obtuse it can leave your head spinning as if you just saw an octopus get off a city bus. I’d rather read an “accessible” poem about that octopus.

If you think of the “surreal” as those ideas and experiences that remind us that truth can be stranger (and more startling, and more beautiful, and more just-about- everything) than fiction, then memoir is a most natural place for the surreal. In fact, as so defined, I think it’s fair to say that memoir all but demands a touch of the surreal. After all, isn’t the notion that “I can’t believe this is happening (or has happened) to me” at the heart of memoir?

 Kissing sporting a HAZMAT suit at his recent talk in Cincinnati

Kissing sporting a HAZMAT suit at his recent talk in Cincinnati

How has surrealism played a part in the marketing work you've done? In other nonfiction writing?

Marketing and advertising are all about gaining attention, so it’s no surprise that surreal and oddball ideas are often found there. For instance, I created a self-exorcism kit to market my book, Running from the Devil.

Of course, you see the surreal in ads for big national brands, too, such as Skittles (“Taste the rainbow.”). The current TV spots for Progressive Insurance play off a very surreal fear that many of us share: turning into one of your parents. Yikes!

I have converted surreal real-world experiences of mine into magazine pieces. I once inadvertently got myself trapped in some stranger’s car. That was a surreal moment. Another was experiencing a drag show from the vantage point of the dressing room. I believe editors and readers enjoy such stories because they’re often funny and they’re surely relatable. The feelings associated with the surreal are, like the feelings of deja vu, part of our common humanity.

Who are your favorite writers who've tackled surrealist themes, and what can other writers learn from them?

For me, one of the best of all time is the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Tate. His writing sets such a great example on a host of fronts, especially when it comes to making the surreal feel oh-so-real. This only serves to make the sensation of the surreal all the more powerful. Reading his surreal poems can open your mind and prime it to engage in your explorations and expressions of the surreal.

For more on Steve Kissing and his graphic memoir, Running from the Devil, visit www.runningfromthedevil.com.

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