Nurturing Craft in an Age of Content: An Interview with D.L. Mayfield
This is the second in a series of interviews with creatives who inspire us by staying craft-focused in a era of easy-to-consume, shareable Internet content. Our aim is to explore the tension of art versus entertainment, empowering readers to both find, nurture, and stay true to the stories inside of them. Enjoy!
When we started brainstorming this series, D.L. was at the top of our list. We love the way she humbly approaches hard topics, always with honesty and hope. We're super excited about her new book, Assimilate or Go Home, which released last week, so we asked her a little bit about the writing process, how she got to where she is, and how storytelling transforms her.
Upwrite Magazine: Is Assimilate or Go Home a book that you always imagined yourself writing? What were some of the surprises that came during the journey to its publication?
DL Mayfield: I grew up thinking I was going to be a missionary in a far-away country, so writing a book later in life came as quite the surprise to me. I started blogging about eight years ago, detailing a bit of my life living and working with refugees in low-income housing in Portland. A few years after that I won a column contest for McSweeney’s internet site which forced me to write for an entire year (an excellent way to get better at it, fast). I started writing a few more essays here and there and eventually realized it could be a book. I put together a proposal for The Festival of Faith and Writing four years ago and that attracted enough interest where I got an agent, and eventually a book deal. I know this isn’t a terribly typical story these days, and I am so grateful for the opportunities I have had.
The main shift I see in the four years since I put together that first manuscript is that I no longer view myself as an expert on anything and I shifted the book to be more about self-interrogation. I can’t speak for the refugee experience in America but I can talk about what it means to have a savior complex and start to come to terms with my privilege.
For the book itself I have always loved reading essay collections and was excited to be able to pursue that. I wanted it to be weird and wild but through my partnership with HarperOne and my awesome editor Katy it gelled into a more cohesive book, and hopefully both challenges and empowers people to think through issues of social justice in America. It definitely has changed through the editorial process, and I think it came out a much smoother book.
Upwrite: We’d like to give you an opportunity to tell readers about Assimilate or Go Home -- what it means to you personally and why our audience should read it. Feel free to expand upon what the book is about and tell us more about it.
DM: The book is about the journey I undertook from being a confident, bright, young 19-year-old missionary to a conflicted, confused, and hopeful neighbor immersed in marginalized communities in America. It critiques, through narratives, many of the ways western Christians often engage with people who are different from themselves. A few years ago I started to take Jesus very seriously when he talked about who would be blessed in his coming kingdom: the poor, the sick, the sad, and the oppressed. So the book is about my quest to barrel into those communities, and what happened to me as a result.
Personally, one of the reasons I felt compelled to write the book is that we don’t hear a lot of complicated narratives in the world of social justice/activism or in the world of Christian writing. Everyone has one “message” they are trying to get across, and to me it lacks nuance. I wanted to explore the easy answers I had been taught and see how living in the real world made everything so messy. As I say in my final chapter, “The world is more broken than we can believe, and God is more wild than we are being taught.” It’s a book about my interactions with refugees, but it’s also a book about a faith shift--from certainty to doubt and finally to a place of wonder. I hope to convey that there is still so much work to be done in regards to inequality in America, but that doing this work won’t make God love us anymore.
Upwrite: It seems like to make a name for yourself (i.e. get a book deal), you have to brand yourself. What’s your advice for someone who has a message and would rather nurture his or her craft instead of a “brand”?
DM: My personal philosophy when it comes to writing is twofold: live an interesting life, and read a lot of good books. The writing will come as an overflow of your heart. As the mother of two young children, it’s also important for me to recognize that writing comes in seasons, and that all the life we live in our heads as we go about our daily lives IS a part of writing.
As far as “personal brands” go, it seems like they can get old, fast. I am more interested in people who put forth good work and write interesting pieces. This is not to say that you should and can hone your writing to center around the subjects that obsess you--which can be a part of identifying your work--but the second you can be summed up in a Twitter bio is the second your writing goes downhill. There are a lot of smaller publishers out there who are on the lookout for talented writers, and a ton of places to write for on the internet that value craft over hot-takes. It might takes years, but I still believe that good writing (stemming from a life lived with intentionality) will find a home in our world.
As far as expanding your platform, a better way to look at it is how can you foster a community of readers and writers that is with you on the journey? For me, being involved in writing groups and finding online communities has been so important. I share my own work but I try and share the work of others too. There is no scarcity in the kingdom of God, and that should apply to both our writing and our social media interactions!
Upwrite: How can we fuel hope in an otherwise critical and hopeless Internet while remaining authentic and honest?
I think that Luke 6 speaks to this in a pretty amazing way. In the sermon on the plain Jesus says that the poor and the hungry and the sick and the maligned are blessed, but that the rich and the full and the happy and the popular will receive nothing but woe. Without the woes, and our realization of how broken our world is, we cannot have hope. For me, listening to marginalized voices on social media has been life-giving, and I take their critiques of systems to heart.
Still, I struggle with being overwhelmed with the cares of the world and feeling powerless in the face of so much systemic sin. But I try to remember that our hope has to be established in the subversive nature of the upside-down kingdom, and not in a reliance on ourselves (including how “good” we are at being religious, or at changing everything). I don’t think that we will ever see the blessings of the kingdom fully established in this life, but I am fully prepared to be a witness to the glimpses of them that I see.
Upwrite: Sometimes we live stories by telling them. How did the process of writing Assimilate or Go Home shape you as an individual?
DM: Writing this book has definitely made me become a more authentic person. I have had to own my issues in a more public way than I ever thought I would be comfortable with. One of the issues I anguished over was whether or not I had a right to tell the stories of my refugee friends and neighbors. I was and still am very conscious of how traditional missionary biographies and memoirs often turn other people into mere props in the story of ourselves. I know I made so many mistakes, but I hope to keep learning from them. Writing started off as a way to simply process my life, and now it has turned into a way of sharing my experiences and inviting others to contemplate their own inner worlds. Sometimes I feel so incredibly insecure and ridiculous, like I have no business writing anything.
But then I remember how reading books has changed and shaped me, even though the authors were not perfect people, and it gives me a bit of hope. I think the Bible is one long story of God using messed-up, damaged people to bring about the kingdom, which is very good news for me.