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Wednesday, January 18,2012

Write to work

Author Jim Daniels' job is telling the stories of other people's jobs

by Bill Castanier

It’s tough being Jim Daniels. He’s often confused with another Daniels: Jeff, the actor and filmmaker who writes scatological comedies involving flatulence. Jim Daniels’ writing can be dark, but it’s never stinky especially when he weaves his favorite theme — working in the Motor City — into his short stories and poems.

He has been doing that for more than 40 years.

Daniels’ work has been compared to Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor and Tobias Wolff, but those aren’t totally fair comparisons since Daniels’ voice is truly one of the Midwest Rust Belt and the workers who keep it running, sometimes in work that is pure drudgery.

For the last 30 years, Daniels has been teaching creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, a job he calls a “good gig.” But his roots are still in his hometown of Detroit.

Daniels said he has always been attracted by what he calls Detroit’s “straight forward quality; there’s no bullshit.”

His writing is intertwined with work and the influence it has on a person’s life beyond the job. In fact, his first “real” poem, which he wrote in high school, was about his job at a party store.  “Growing up in a Party Store” is like a first love to Daniels, one he talks about with deep affection. 

Daniels said he turned to writing when his classmates in middle school started teasing him about his then speech impediment. Writing was a perfect outlet for an introspective personality. His history teacher would become his first mentor after recognizing that Daniels was writing poetry in his papers.

“When I wrote the poem about a party store it was kind of a revelation,” Daniels says. “Work is who you are, and it drives your personal life.”

Daniels was also deeply influenced by working in auto plants during summers to pay for his college tuition at Alma College.

One of his favorite and recurring figures, Digger, is an amalgam of people he met during those days on the line.

He also admits that some of the writing is autobiographical: “All writers reveal some of themselves through what they write.”

He said “writers are shameless” in the way they borrow from things they hear or observe. “I hear someone say something, and I’ve got to write it down.”

Daniels has pretty much kept the 3 x 5 index card business alive over the years by writing down what he hears. He even keeps cards at his bedside, in case he wakes up during the night with an idea.

“Not that I can always read it in the morning,” he admits. A recent card has “brouhaha” scrawled on it. “I’ll use it someway.”

Daniels is quick to list his writing influences, including Stuart Dybek, Tobias Wolff, Canadian writer Tom Wayman (whose writing also examines work), Detroit native Philip Levine, the nation’s current poet laureate, and Jim Harrison, Michigan’s emotional poet laureate.

Daniels still has his copy of Harrison’s book of poetry “Letters to Yesenin” nearby him at work.

Another significant influence in Daniels´ writing life was James Baldwin. As a graduate student at Bowling Green University, Daniels took a class from Baldwin, which is something not many writers around today can say.

“He had a big effect on me,” Daniels recalls. “It was right after the last summer I worked in the plant. Baldwin challenged the class. He didn’t teach in the traditional sense, but he challenged us to be a little more honest and get beneath the surface.

“He would tell us, ‘I’m the son of a slave and you’re the son of a slave owner.’”

Daniels admits he may have gotten a little defensive about his writing during that time. “But as I got a little more distance from the class, I understood.”

In 1993, he wrote “Time, Temperature,” a poem about the 1967 Detroit riots as what he calls a “late paper for his class”: Daniels dedicated the poem to Baldwin.

One of Daniels’ goals is to get people to “encounter literature in places where they normally wouldn’t expect it.” And one of his own poems — about the Detroit Tigers, of course — appeared in a baseball collector’s magazine.

He has also stretched his limits in unfamiliar territory. On a sabbatical in Italy he took the contrarian approach: Instead of writing about Italy, he´s working on a collection of poetry about the Middle East. His poems also have covered the lives of painters and musicians.

One of the most challenging writing assignments Daniels has taken on is script writing. He likes how it stretches his capabilities as a writer.

“I like the collaborative process (of scriptwriting),” he says. “I don’t feel so proprietary in my writing.”

While at Michigan State University for the Michigan Writers Series, Daniels will bring a little bit of short story writing and script writing to the table. He’ll read from his new collection of smart¸ sometimes snarky short stories, “Trigger Man: More Tales from the Motor City,” and will show his short film “Mr. Pleasant,” an adaptation of one of his books of short fiction.

For Daniels, films exposed a whole new side of creativity. He points to being able to work on “Mr. Pleasant” with director John Rice, who got his start as a filmmaker by working with George Romero on the cult classic “Dawn of the Dead.”

However, Daniels didn’t stray far from his focus on work in “Mr. Pleasant”: The storyline follows a working-class kid from Detroit who hopes to leave that environment behind him when he goes to college.

“We all have our own Detroits,” he says, “and we each experience place in a different way.”

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