JULIET GELFMAN-RANDAZZO: This is City Arts & Lectures. This week we’re presenting Crosstalk, a two part miniseries, in which our past speakers talk across, among, and around one another.
Over the next hour we’ll be putting some of our recent guests in conversation, exploring their common preoccupations and internal debates within the literary landscape today.
My name is Juliet Gelfman-Randazzo, and I’ve worked for City Arts & Lectures since 2018. In 2019, I began the loooong project of transcribing the thousands of events in our archive. I started with the most recent, working my way backwards. As I listened, in quick succession, to recent literary guests in conversation, I noticed moments where they seemed to be responding to something someone had said in an event months earlier or later. Crosstalk is my attempt to make that web of conversation a reality–to replicate my experience listening to these writers talk.
Here’s queer poet, and author of the recent collections Evolution and Afterglow: a Dog Memoir, Eileen Myles.
EILEEN MYLES: I think the choice, the quote, “career choice” of becoming a poet was always something that one always had to defend every step of the way. Certainly to your family. Certainly in New York and parties, somebody would say, “what do you do,” and you’d say, “I’m a poet.” And depending on what decade it was, you would get something back. You know, like in the 70s, people would say, “so, do you have a band?” You know? In the ‘80s people were just, like this incredible bored look would come over them, cause they knew they were talking to a poor person…and even it was a certain amount of bitterness among older poets when I was in my twenties, cause there was just this sense that you were young and excited and had these expectations. And I think I was always intending on some level to prove them wrong. And I think, you know, around being a poet, but also being around being queer, being a lesbian, being, you know, being female, it’s like, I think my plan was always to act as if the thing was as central as I wanted it to be.
JGR: This week, writers are talking about writing identity – whether that identity is a mantle they’ve chosen, one in which they’ve been pigeonholed, or somewhere in between. What are tactics for navigating writing those various, varied, irrefutably complex selves? How do writers write their way out of a preconceived notion of their selfhood, and toward specificity?
Author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning comedic novel, Less, Andrew Sean Greer.
ANDREW SEAN GREER: I think part of why the books were exciting for people–it’s because both of us, oddly, did not approach it politically at all.
JGR: Andrew is discussing Call Me By Your Name, By Andre Aciman.
ASG: I’m certain that André thought of them as characters, and in fact, secretly my reading, when I first read his book, was, I didn’t think it was a gay book. I thought of it about a story of two people who had a passion, and that they might not later be with other men. It just seemed to be very much specific about these characters. And it’s what I loved about it, because it wasn’t within a context of gayness.
OCEAN VUONG: I think we’re in a world where a lot of simplification is demanded of us. To be easily digested.
JGR: Ocean Vuong is a poet, and author of the explosive novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, a gay coming-of-age story of a Vietnamese-American boy growing up in Hartford, CT.
OCEAN VUONG: “Ah, you’re Native American writer, Asian American writer, queer writer.” That’s it. Oh, check, check, check. And I think it was Teju Cole, in one of his essays, where he says “the greatest thing the politicized body can do is to write towards specificity.” Because what it’s saying is that I’m this and that, but I’m also dog lover, vegan, fan of mixed martial arts, what have you, son, brother, right. Allergic to mushrooms. And all of a sudden you take from the zeitgeist, which simplifies you, and you create an intricacy and a uniqueness that is only true to you. In other words, you humanize yourself in a plane where you should have already been human. But Lord knows the history of this planet, some are often deemed more human than others.
What excited me about the epistolary form was that, you know, for the first time in my reading, or my understanding, I got a chance to write a book where an Asian-American character spoke to another Asian-American character. And that that is central. That in fact, in order to finish the book, in order to consume the book, if you will, you must enter this conversation, that in a way excludes you. And it was a moment to hold that as the center, that as a reader, you’re an eavesdropper. It felt so powerful to me, you know, particularly reading the Western canon where things are never deciphered for a reader like myself, right. England is never translated. What a castle was, right? What a friar was. Those things were never translated for me. You know, when someone says Seinfeld, I didn’t know what that was. They just say it, right. Whereas, you know, and Viet Thanh Nguyen talks about this, where a writer of color, a Vietnamese writer would write and they say, “she sat down to a bowl of pho, a beef noodle soup flavored with anise.” And it’s like, well who are you writing for? You know, am I in the room here? You know? And so it was a moment where I felt it was important as a political act to say, “this story that you’re eavesdropping on is important. And it’s important in ways that you don’t have to understand all of it. That this orientation is part of the American fabric. You know, and that’s okay.”
TOMMY ORANGE: I spent many years working in digital storytelling both at the Native American Health Center and out of a non-profit from Berkeley called Story Center, and came to revere people’s stories as their own.
JGR: Tommy Orange is the author of the novel There There, which grapples with the complex and painful history of a multigenerational Native American family living in Oakland.
TOMMY ORANGE: You know, you earn your story. You live your story and you earn it. And fiction is supposed to be something that is created. And so I never would have felt right about just drawing from somebody else’s. Even the metaphor or the language around drawing from somebody’s life–it’s like drawing blood. I would never want to do that. So the stories that are in the book or you know, they’re either from my own life or they’re just wherever fiction comes from, thin air as they say. I also was very willing to include my own personal idiosyncrasies and weirdnesses into my characters. Like I said, I have reverence for people’s stories and was more than happy to provide my characters with things from my own life. And that’s I think part of what makes characters come alive, is specificity. And so my characters ultimately resemble me more than they do actual people. In maybe embarrassing ways, depending on how much you know, I made up or come from me.
JGR: It’s often assumed that when a certain sort of writer is writing fiction – perhaps a white, straight, man – they’re fictionalizing, conjecturing experiences that are not their own. On the flip side, writers of more marginalized identities often have the opposite assumption cast upon them–their role is to explain to the former category their particular place in the world. But ultimately, isn’t anyone writing fiction allowed to…make things up? Here’s novelist and author of the short story collection Grand Union, Zadie Smith.
ZADIE SMITH: It annoys me, the idea, for example, that I cannot appropriate or steal anything from this subject, this white male subject, because he has no culture. In this construction only I have culture. I have this vulnerable thing that can be taken by anyone at any moment. But he stands again, as just this neutral being. So no one, like if I make a character like Howard in On Beauty, nobody says you appropriated white, Protestant male culture. Well, how come? I spent half the book in his body walking around, speaking for him, doing his thing? Can’t I take something? Can I be a thief? Do I have no power to thief anything? It’s funny how people read, like I was reading a review of this book yesterday, and the review was saying, “Oh, it’s about a Black lady on the beach with her children.” I realize that people read–they add so much, right. So it’s actually a story set in Poland. I imagine it’s a Polish family. But it’s so extraordinary. I think maybe it’s my subject position means that fables are not my business, right? That I only write stories about my family–obviously I don’t have four children. I don’t spend a lot of time in Sopot. I wanted to try and move the dynamic a little bit, to say, “I am also someone who has power. The power to make people. To make characters. And to invent even, yes, invent even white gentlemen. I can do that.” Authorship is strange, and it’s not like being a citizen, it’s a different thing. It’s not a rational process. It’s completely insane to write a book about loads of people who aren’t you, with different names, speaking all kinds of different voices. It is a kind of insanity. But it’s my insanity and it has a long, proud tradition of these crazy people who feel voices flowing through them…it is always possible to do it badly. I’m sure that there’s many a white male professor who finds Howard very offensive. Everybody, bottom line, is interesting to me. It’s a promiscuous interest, but I’m a promiscuous person.
TOMMY ORANGE: I came to know certain grant terminology, like resilience…
JGR: Again, here’s Tommy Orange.
TOMMY ORANGE: …which I talk about in the book–and historical trauma. And over time there’s a certain distortion that happens with both of those terms that’s originally fresh and feels like “oh, yeah that feels true,” but ultimately sort of dies, and feels actually eventually condescending. Both of the terms either end up academic or condescending. So with historical trauma or resilience, it feels like either you’re too detached to actually think about how it plays out right now in a real life, and how it still exists, or are you saying like, “good job, you got over it,” without saying what you got over. Without acknowledging all of the years of education that were taught in either like a cleansed way or like not taught at all. I was having an interview today, and the interviewer was talking about my novel as being political. And I didn’t write a political novel, but as Native people like you’re automatically, you’re sort of born political, because of what has happened and your position in relation to the US government. The way you’re positioned is automatically political. It’s strange to have this exposure for the book and to have these conversations. You know, I wrote a novel, but like all of the conversation is like who are you and what do you stand for?
JGR: On the other hand, some are self-consciously writing from a particular perspective, using their work to make a point about the identity they represent on the page. Many writers use the form to portray some sort of female voice, in order to interrupt the masculine, patriarchal one that has dominated the canon for so long.
Recently, we’ve seen a resurgent women’s movement that has only served to clarify just how expansive the categories of “woman” and “feminist” are today. From factions within the women’s marches of 2016 and on, to the discourse between younger and older liberals about voting for a female candidate, to discussions about who does and does not identify with different forms of feminism, recent years have shown that if there is such a thing as a “woman’s perspective,” it is necessarily complex and multifaceted. How do writers of multiple generations tackle the quote female perspective? How does writing from a particular point of view, using language to a certain end, necessitate political action? Author of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh.
OTTESSA MOSHFEGH: I started thinking like, how a character looks in a novel is really important, especially when they’re a woman, because appearance is so central to your identity, how you’re treated, what opportunities you have, what’s expected of you, and how you see yourself. So, when I sat down to write My Year of Rest and Relaxation, I made a really deliberate decision, very conscious, which I don’t usually do. I usually just kind of like, let things come. But I was like, “I think I’m gonna make her a babe.” There was a certain freedom I discovered in writing this character, and it was that if a woman isn’t obsessed with the way that she looks, like, if it’s not her struggle, she can struggle about all kinds of sh**. I was like, I can cut straight through all the superficial bullsh** to the existential question. What is consciousness? Why does it feel so terrible? How do I get out of it?
RACHEL CUSK: I think that I’m becoming more and more interested in what you might call the female voice.
JGR: Rachel Cusk is the author of the Outline trilogy, a series of autofictive works centered around a female protagonist who acts as a conduit for the voices and experiences of those she encounters.
RACHEL CUSK: Particularly that female voice when, as it emerges from its various institutionalized incarnations of motherhood for example, or marriage or. And I’m particularly interested in the ways in which parents and mothers in particular are in the background of expressive or creative, possibly upset, women of my generation. So that’s something that I’m just sort of feeling my way towards now, but in that is a pretty big accusation that I suppose I see someone of my generation as breaking a chain. Our mothers were harsh and failed to explain to us something totally fundamental, which was how it was clear we had to live lives that were very different from their lives. But at the same time we had to conform to all of the things that they felt constituted femininity. We have to still play by the female rules while you know, winning by the male rules. But what that becomes, when you’ve done all that you’re meant to do and had your children and tried to have your career, and what that mother figure looks like, because you’ve been very nice to your own daughters and treated them very differently. Yeah, so I feel a sort of harshness.
JGR: Meg Wolitzer is the author of many novels, most recently, The Female Persuasion, which centers upon the relationship between women of two different generations.
MEG WOLITZER: What I tell my students when I teach is, what do your friends know you as? Like, who are you among your group of friends? And if when you write, that isn’t in there, I’m not saying that’s always a problem, but I would ask that person why? Why are you not breathing the fullest version of yourself into your work, using everything you’ve got? And for me some of that is humor. We want our writers to have gravitas on the page, and get up and be funny. But what if they use their whole selves and it was funny too, does that make them less serious? Some people think it does. There’s a wonderful essay by Zadie Smith called “Fail Better,” and in it she says, “when I write I’m trying to express my way of being in the world.” And that’s it. It’s–what is your way of being in the world? Like, how do you see the world? And it’s not that all your characters will see the world the way you do, but there is a superimposition of this sensibility. And to get that so that you can slip in and out…you can move. It’s like, I don’t think it’s like being God. I think it’s like being a lesser God. It’s a limited God.
REBECCA SOLNIT: there’s things that are about feminism and why feminism matters, and then there are things that embody feminism.
JGR: Rebecca Solnit is one of our foremost thinkers on feminism and the environment, and myriad topics in between.
REBECCA SOLNIT: Savage Dreams, my second book that came out in 1994, nothing in it is overtly feminist, except that everything is. There’s that thing where it’s like, I must foreground this group. But it was just like, these people were really awesome and charismatic and, you know, and I wanted, and I was excited by them and I felt like it, you know, they were there because, you know they belonged there. So it wasn’t like, “oh, I have to fit a woman in, or I have to find a woman to highlight,” they belonged there. But it was really satisfying when the book was done to feel like I’d foregrounded a lot of women. I guess there are other histories worth writing, but what’s always seem to be valuable to me is to try and bring forward those who aren’t seen or heard, to amplify what isn’t heard, to render visible what’s invisible, to kind of insert into the record what’s been excluded from it and thereby change it in some way. Change who matters, and to kind of change in some way and not to leave the status quo as it is.
You have to have audibility, which means that people are willing to hear you. You have to have credibility, which means that people believe you, and it has to have consequences. Cause one of the shocking things you see with someone like Christine Blasey Ford, is she had audibility, she testified before Congress. She had credibility for some of us, but she testified that this person was out of control, a liar, lacked basic empathy and self-awareness etc., and it had no consequences. And you hear from a lot of women, “why should I speak up, I’ll only be punished for it?” Individual women are responsible for rescuing themselves from patriarchy, and it’s like, you need a system where if you say something it matters. And it hasn’t mattered before much.
BEN LERNER: I think that the good thing that I wish, the good thing about the present of speech is that there’s no going back from the political.
JGR: Genre bending author Ben Lerner is the author of The Topeka School, a novel about the collapse of public speech, talk therapy, and high school debate, among other topics.
BEN LERNER: The kind of like neo-liberalism with a human face, the cultural conservatism of a certain brand of the Republican party, like whatever. Like that’s, it’s gone there and died in his mouth. And the good thing about that is that that’s a moment of linguistic collapse that reminds us of our human capacity to generate a new language. And the book, this book has no program, no ideas, for like where we go from here, but it does want to model an approach to language where you say, when the language arrives at an end point, you make contact with the abstract capacity of language again, and then we have to actually listen and honor authentic speech when it arises, that are alternatives to the kind of nonsense signaling that dominates like an impeachment hearing.
JGR: Again, Rebecca Solnit and Astra Taylor, director of the documentary films What is Democracy and Zizek! among others.
REBECCA SOLNIT: Women are like, “apparently I’m incoherent. Apparently I’m unreliable. Apparently I have nothing to contribute. Apparently, you know, I don’t, I just got a PhD in physics and I don’t understand physics. I’m a doctor and I don’t understand medicine. I’m a lawyer and this drunk shlob is explaining the law to me.” And you know, and it’s like, hey–it’s not you, it’s patriarchy.
ASTRA TAYLOR: My mantra lately is like, “deep voices are not deep.” You know, it’s just that… But I think we have to like, train our ears, because like, we default to it, you know, we default to hearing…
REBECCA SOLNIT: The voice of authority.
ASTRA TAYLOR: The voice of authority, which is why I really want somebody to voiceover a Werner Hertzog movie with a valley girl accent.
REBECCA SOLNIT: These bears are really scary and life is meaningless.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Exactly.
REBECCA SOLNIT: God that would be amazing.
ASTRA TAYLOR: It would be amazing. Someone do it.
JGR: Poet and novelist Melissa Broder is the host of the podcast eating alone in my car, and runs the popular twitter account so sad today.
MELISSA BRODER: I find that like in every context there is sort of this drive for being like the most something. So for example, like even in something antithetical to that. Like, if I were in an anarchist squat. Right? I don’t see myself as being in an anarchist squat. First of all, I’m just not that good at like, being with others all the time. Like I need a wall and like, I feel like with like anarchist commune, it’s like not wall based. I do like walls, but let’s just say I deluded myself into believing like I am a person who could live happily in an anarchist squat. I know that if I were to live in the anarchist squat that I would probably immediately want to be like top of the heap for like the person who’s consuming the least. Like I would want to be the most anarchist. I would want to be getting everything out of the dumpster. And if I purchased anything, I would probably then berate like, you know, I wouldn’t be good enough. It would be like wanting to be queen of the squat. And I can kind of do this in like any situation, you know. And I think it comes from just an inherent feeling of like not enoughness. Like a feeling that like something is missing, or it’s a fear that I’ll be perceived as something is missing. That like something is wrong and I’m not going to fit in here, and my wrongness is going to be seen. Even if I was like queen of the squat, like I would just graduate, like it would be like big anarchist, small pond. Like I would just move on then to like an even rawer squat, and they’d be like, “you lived in that squat? Like that is a capitalist consumerist hell. Like that squat is the equivalent of like Neiman Marcus.” You’re never going to be the most anything.
JGR: When writers write fiction, they are often engaging with a history–whether that be literary, political, or personal. But there is always power involved in telling a history, which is, of course, a story of how events played out. How are writers subverting the histories they’re telling through writing, and how is writing new histories changing the narratives these writers tell? Marlon James, author of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first in a fantasy trilogy rooted in African legend.
MARLON JAMES: I’m trying to think how, when I decided this is the story I wanted to tell. I know when I became interested in it, which is not necessarily the same answer, and it was this before, it was this fight I had with a friend of mine. It was I think 2010 or 2011. It was a fight over the casting for The Hobbit. And I said, you know what, I’m going to argue about inclusion, you’re going to argue about political correctness, it’s going to be ugly. That’s exactly what happened. So, you know, I said I can’t believe the cast for The Hobbit is so white. And so lacking in diversity and all of the stuff. And he was well you know, Lord of the Rings is a British show and it reflects British culture and it’s Norse and Viking and blah blah blah and I said, you know, Lord of the Rings isn’t real. It’s like when Megyn Kelly says Santa is white. Santa isn’t real Megyn. But the argument just escalated as it would have, and I was like, just keep your damn Hobbit, which is not a reflection on Lord of the Rings, because I love Lord of the Rings so much I had to spellcheck the book to make sure I wasn’t copying too much. So it sent me on this mission not to write, it sent me on a mission to read. To read all the sort of African history and mythologies and so on, some of which I knew about. Everybody knows about Ghana and Songhai and Mali and Son-Jara and so on, but there was a lot I didn’t know. So at first I just, I was looking for stories. And the stories I was reading were just like so fantastic and crazy, I mean the book started to write itself.
JGR: Critic and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose first novel, The Water Dancer, tells the story of a young man born into slavery, and his journey North.
TA-NEHISI COATES: There’s small books that I love actually. But when I thought about what I wanted to read, I came away from a lot of that Civil War reading feeling like–and this was not something I had as a younger person–that like the story of black America was to me, personally, like the most exciting epic in American history and maybe in all of the West. And let me explain what I mean by that. You have this country that ostensibly fashions itself as an enlightenment Republic, oldest democracy in the world. And that democracy in that Republic is actually made possible by the enslavement–which is the total opposite of democracy–of another group of people. And what I didn’t understand before was that one literally depended on the other. You couldn’t have democracy without the enslavement. And this struggle goes on to this date for 400 years. And you can see the back and forth, the pull and the push, and all of these great characters within it. And I thought like, you want to write something epic, this is where you would go. You wouldn’t go to the plantation and write it from the master’s perspective. Why would you do that? All of the tension and the grime and the dirt and the filth and the beauty is down here.
I think for a lot of African American writers, certainly journalists, there was always this sense that we have to get out of this sort of space of being Black. We don’t want to just be pigeonholed as Black writers. And once I got it, I felt like, sh**, white people should want to be Black writers. You know like, we’re not in the pigeonhole, they are, you know what I mean? Like Gone With the Wind is the pigeonhole, you know what I mean? And everything outside of that is actually America, you know what I mean? And once I understood that, I thought, good god, I could live here.
I think part of it is like when you’re Black in this country, you’re conditioned to believe you don’t have a history. And then when we finally got to the point where we had Black history month, we realized we did, but your history is kind of boring and mostly consists of people, you know, beating the sh** out of you. I mean, that really is how it was taught. It’s a kind of, you know, sacrificial lamb sort of history, you know. And then you start to dig into it and it’s so much more exciting than that, you know?
But look, if you start from the proposition that, okay, we’re going to make enslavement new, you know, like even that very idea causes you to approach the story in a different way. Looking at African American history, another part of this is that the means that you see deployed in revenge films and in revenge stories and in westerns generally have not been available to African Americans. But there’s actually great beauty in that, because now we have to flip it and say, “okay, what can I do though?” if I can’t just kill everybody, you know what I mean, that did, you know, X, Y, and Z to me, what can I do?” And the answer to that is in history. There’s something exciting on the other side that’s not quite obvious, because we’ve been so programmed to tell the story according to the lines and the terms that white men have told the story.
JGR: In this collaborative conversation, a sort of City Arts & Lectures symposium, we’ve tried to show how complicated, contradictory, complementary, and inconclusive beliefs about writing identity are, even among a subset of successful contemporary writers working today. Not everyone shares the same views of how the world they see should be shown, as not everyone’s world looks quite the same.
We ask a lot of our favorite writers in these conversations: to explain the way they think in as lucid, considered, and succinct a form as they do on the page, to think on their feet, or, more precisely, their seats, in front of up to 1600 audience members. Sometimes we disagree with them. This can feel earth shattering–someone who wrote something that seemed so personal, that made us feel so seen, is suddenly saying something we bristle at, that doesn’t chime with our impression of who they are. But isn’t that ultimately what we hope for when seeing these authors speak–to gain what we ideally glean from their writing: a more complex portrait of selfhood? What can we and should we, fairly, expect from our writers? Again, Ta-Nehisi Coates.
TA-NEHISI COATES: I think writers should write what they know, and I think they should speak to what they know. I spent 10 years writing a novel. That dealt with enslavement. That was where my research was. I don’t have the range to speak to all the related evils. And were I to, you know, it would be like insulting to your intelligence. I would be bullsh***ing you. Listen, if we were after this and we had a, you know, having a beer together, I told you about my beliefs, I could run that down, you know, I could do it. But I’m a believer in people playing their positions and staying in their lanes. I think you’ve got to stand on what you can stand on. You’ve got to fight on what you can fight on. And my sense is not to move too much off of that.
JGR: We can’t provide all the answers–just the space for the questions to be discussed, debated, exponentially interrogated. But if these writers and thinkers are defending any one thing, it is discourse–the right to write something that someone else doesn’t agree with, the right to subvert the expectations of the form and identities they write, and the right to discuss a character in the context of their own choosing.
These are all writers who chose to sit in a seat and converse for an hour and fifteen minutes on topics ranging among their books, their personal biography, and their thoughts on any related or unrelated topics that may come up. These unscripted conversations give them a chance to do what they only can mimic on the page: engage in a dialogue with another about their current preoccupations and questions.
Implicit to the form of this compilation conversation is the idea of the dialectic–that there is constructive value to be gained from engaging with others and parlaying reasoned arguments off of one another. Though these writers were not originally speaking directly to each another, over the course of this two part series, we hope to bring their thoughts into a larger landscape, laying their lines beside one another, in order to garner a truthful picture of how these contemporary writers are thinking through pressing questions about writing and existence.
Next up, writers will talk about the process of writing itself: pleasures, pains, getting into the flow, and the feeling of trying to slice through a steel bar with a nail file. This is Crosstalk from City Arts & Lectures.
EILEEN MYLES: Finally it was like, it goes at the front of the book, you know. If you don’t know where to put it, put it in the beginning.
JGR: Again, poet Eileen Myles.
OCEAN VUONG: One of the rare powers of being an artist is that you get to resist what’s told to you by media or commercials.
JGR: Again, here’s the poet Ocean Vuong.
OCEAN VUONG: You know, we drive by, we look at things, and in our culture, it’s always about the fresh new product. “Now, better tasting.” Whatever that means, right? And when we look at the, you know, world with the faith that it can give us more than what it should, that in itself is an act of reclamation, whether you turn it into art or not. And I think maybe because I’m only 31 that I’m naive in this thinking still, that maybe in 20 years I will think what I’m saying now was all BS. But right now I think there’s the great pleasure and joy in being a writer. It’s actually not the writing. You know, I would admit here that I loathe writing. It’s so hard, and I’m not good at grammar, you know? But I love looking. I can look at something for forever, and that’s the pleasure of being alive, is to be present.
JGR: Our guests are discussing writing experienced in all of its physical forms: the good, the bad, the transcendent…and the grueling.
ANDRE ACIMAN: it’s always difficult. It’s actually, it’s horrible. You say, “why am I doing this? I’d rather go and play tennis,” which I don’t do anymore, because of my knees. But yeah, I’d love to do other things. But it’s always difficult. But it sits with you. It doesn’t let go of you. So you, you’re constantly saying, “Oh, maybe we should do that, maybe I should write this. Maybe I should just do…” You want to be freed of it, but you can’t.
ANDREW SEAN GREER: It’s the awful, like when you actually finally finish it and go through and it’s the way you want, and then you’re like, finally, I have made the thing in my head after much struggle, and then the next day, you’re empty again and you think, I’ll never write another book. And then, you start, it is awful. I mean, no one should feel sorry for either of us.
JGR: That was Andre Aciman, author of Call Me By Your Name, and Andrew Sean Greer, author of Less.
A favorite question for writers is about their “process,” that murky, amorphous, attempt to nail down, in concrete terms, how exactly writers fill their days. We want specifics: do they wake up at 6am and bang away at the keyboard for 5 hours? Do they get up in the middle of the night and scribble to candlelight? Do they have tips that, if followed to a tee, will allow us to write the next Pulitzer-winning novel? Surely if we just had a clear desk space, a room of our own, a peaceful view, a bumping playlist, a really good pen, that $30 notebook, an outline…?
ANDREW SEAN GREER: I’m not very spiritual about the writing process, but I do think that I’m really bad at getting to it when I make an outline. And the older I get, the more I don’t outline and I just walk into the abyss and try to take all the wrong paths before I find the right one and move to the next, you know, move that way, which is very inefficient. But it’s actually faster than when I follow my plan and then have to throw it all away and start again. Does that make sense?
ANDRE ACIMAN: Outlines are horrible things. I cannot write with an outline.
MEG WOLITZER: With that book, because there were so many characters and it took place over 40 years, I did need to kind of create a map, but only as late as I could.
JGR: That was Meg Wolitzer.
MEG WOLITZER: Because I’m really bad with outlines. When I was a child I was so– I didn’t understand, you know, when they made you make an outline in school? I didn’t get the concept. I would write “The Greeks. A. What they wore. Two. What they ate.” Like I didn’t know the use of an outline. I have more of a use of one now. Definitely.
JGR: Rebecca Solnit.
REBECCA SOLNIT: I always wish I had some beautiful, coherent, disciplined, organized, process to relate but I feel like I get up in the morning and I get distracted and I scrabble around and, you know, until bedtime, and then I do the same thing the next day. And somehow out of this process that feels undisciplined and incoherent, books appear and deadlines are met so….in movies that’s all, like writers they occasionally smite their brow and then they have inspiration and then they pound the typewriter and it’s kind of just ridiculous.
JGR: But there are plenty of concretes that contribute to creating a powerful piece of writing. How novel really is the novel? What are some solid chunks of advice we can use to help us start, rework, pare down, maybe even finish a piece of writing? Can we ever learn how to write a novel?
OTTESSA MOSHFEGH: I was really broke. I was living in LA. I had gone through this, like massive education.
JGR: Again, novelist Ottessa Moshfegh.
OTTESSA MOSHFEGH: I had gone and gotten, you know, and studied English and a concentration in creative writing. And I hated going to school. But I, for some reason I thought like, well, I’ll learn something that I wouldn’t otherwise learn by going to classes and like talking to others. I went and I got my masters in fine arts at Brown, which is a really cool program, but like nobody taught me how to write a novel. That was like the last thing that anyone–that was like so tacky. Oh God, how to write a novel? That’s like asking someone like, what is style? Like you can’t describe it. But actually writing a novel is a craft, and like a very pragmatic thing in a lot of ways. And the novel is kind of like, I think, at least these days, very much in line with like traditional cinema in the way that it’s structured.
And so I gravitated toward this craft book called The 90 Day Novel, which sounds ridiculous. And, you know, as an artist, I guess I have to believe that there comes a moment where like process–it doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing. You have to follow your instincts as a writer. And my instinct was that if I deliberate with myself, I will talk myself out of doing this because I don’t believe I’m a novelist yet, because I haven’t written a novel. I just need to write a novel quickly, believe that I’m a novelist, and move forward. So I followed the instructions, like, to be perfectly blunt. The first 30 days you answer a series of questions. You start out, I mean, okay, I’m not trying to say that anyone can do this. I think probably 99.9% of people who buy the book fail to write a novel. Like, I bet you. You start off with nothing. Like I didn’t have an idea. I didn’t have a character. I didn’t have a voice. I didn’t have a location. I didn’t have anything except a desire to write a novel. And the first 30 days, you just free write, answering questions about who is your character. And you try to answer it as if you know. And that, I think, is what really taught me how to write a novel. Because every day you show up, you write as if you know. Not because you know. It’s a fiction. It’s not real. You’re pretending to be the authority on something you’re making up.
SALLY ROONEY: Each time I write a novel, it teaches me how to write that novel, and then I immediately can never use any of those lessons again, because I’ve used them to write that novel, which I never want to write again.
JGR: Sally Rooney is the author of the novels Conversations with Friends and Normal People.
SALLY ROONEY: Did I teach myself anything technical that I could then apply? Maybe on a very basic level, yes, I did find out how to structure sentences without repeating the first word at the beginning of the sentence a lot of times, you know, like little things, like watching it for word repetition, stuff like that. I mean, can that make a great novel? Obviously not. You know, so, no, you can’t, I feel you cannot learn a technique that will make a novel the work. You can only learn how to make that one novel that you’re writing work. And once you’ve learned that you’ve dispensed with that already, you can’t do it again. You can’t use the same trick again, I think.
JGR: Again, Eileen Myles.
EILEEN MYLES: There’s always more work to be done. I made a place for myself in that book, and then I, and then once I wrote–it took me 14 years. Once I wrote that book, I thought, “now I can write a book.” And so then like the next book, Cool For You, took five years, you know, it’s, once you’ve written a book, you can write a book, and now I write a book, you know.
JGR: Again, Meg Wolitzer.
MEG WOLITZER: I believe in writing for about 80 pages, and I say 80 pages because it’s enough pages that you can feel pretty good about what you have, but if you put it aside, it’s not so much that you feel, I’ve wasted my life. And then you print it out and look at, as I said, what you have done. I usually kind of put it in another font, which is a great writer’s trick. It looks so much better in Palatino. It’s like a new book.
JGR: Again, Andrew Sean Greer.
ANDREW SEAN GREER I just took a trip by myself through the American South in a camper van, because I wanted to put part of that in my next book, and I went alone, because I knew that if I were alone, I would not meet people as easily, but I sure would be bored and paying attention to details, which is what I needed to do more than have amazing conversations and stories. I’ve learned that the hard way. That it actually, the details are very hard for me to make up, so I have to find out how sticky the bar floor is.
JGR: Again, Marlon James.
MARLON JAMES: I think one of the things that is very hard to teach in creative writing, which is why most creative writing teachers–and I’m making a blanket statement as if I knew all of them–don’t teach pacing. Because pacing is something the narration does. The dialogue can do it too, but the narration does a lot of that. So rhythm and momentum and so on–there’s a quiet way of describing the dark. There’s a loud way of describing the dark. You know, there’s a quiet way of describing rushing water; there’s a loud way. Think about a war scene where you can’t hear anything. So you basically become the average soldier in it. So that’s narration. And that’s volume. Because if you’re a soldier and a bomb has exploded by you, you’re deaf for the next 15 minutes, but bullets are still coming at you. So that’s what I mean in terms of how you can increase, reduce or increase, reduce, expand, contract volume and sound with your work.
REBECCA SOLNIT: Most of writing is thinking,
JGR: Here’s Rebecca Solnit.
REBECCA SOLNIT: …and that’s part of what inspired my book about walking, is that I would walk a lot to think through something so I could go home and write it. I think we’re in a culture that values productivity and efficiency,and writing requires all this time that looks like doing nothing which is thinking., I remember with my first book, I didn’t want to be one of those slackers who talks about the book they’re writing for the next 20 years at parties and without actually producing anything. And so I thought I should really, once I’d gathered all my information, I should be writing and I thought writing was typing and I like typed for three days and then, and it was sort of gibberish. And I think it’s part of why some writers hate their first drafts, is because they just pounded out anyhow, and then it has you know, it’s like you nailed all the wood together before you decided what the structure was going to look like. And then the second draft means you can pull all the nails out and start over. So then I was like, okay if writing is not typing, then what is it? And it’s like, mostly thinking. But it’s the research before and it’s thoughtfully engaging with the material, and the thinking about what it means. And then it’s the revision which is thinking about what you’ve written. It always feels to me like writing is the narrow waist of a kind of hourglass of time that goes into it, that there is this actual process of getting the words on paper, but then you’re going to erase some and change some and so much has to happen before and after.
JGR: The idea that there is an epiphanic state that writers channel, that produces the best writing, is one that perpetuates today, propagating the idea that therefore good writing can’t be taught, or learned. Some of this may be self-fulfilling; it’s easier to remember the euphoria that produced the best writing after the fact, it’s less fun to recall the unremitting rigor of revision. What does inspiration really mean? Here’s Ottessa Moshfegh.
OTTESSA MOSHFEGH: Let’s look at talent. Like talent is great. It’s great if you’re talented, but it’s not going to get you anywhere past middle school unless you exert effort. Right? So like talent and effort combined get you something. Where does the talent come from? And I feel the same way about inspiration. Like what is, where does that come from? Like, how do I know that I’m supposed to pay attention to certain things because they’re going to be the breadcrumbs that I will follow that will end up at, you know, My Year of Rest and Relaxation. How do I know that? What? Like why do I have those instincts? I have to believe that there’s like some greater power, whatever. Whether it’s like something in my soul or something in my subconscious, something that I can’t control that’s greater than me. But also I have to work really hard and I have to be up for it, you know? And being up for it means like making sure like I’m capable. That means, well, it means practicing. Like I really believe in practicing. Practicing writing. But also like, practicing using my mind. And that’s why, that’s where I think you get into living the life of a writer. It’s like, you can’t live the life of somebody else and then go home and be a writer. Like a writer is constantly collecting, learning, testing, observing and, so in essence, all of those micro-decisions I make on a daily basis become my work. You know, like, should I turn left or right? Well, I dunno, the light is really interesting over there. Or not, you know.
And when I am writing, when I am the happiest when I’m writing, is when I feel plugged in. And it’s kind of like, if you’re not a writer, you know, maybe you’ve had like a moment, like when you’re dancing, when you’re just like, “this is effortless. Like, I can’t make a wrong move. I’m just following the music,” you know? Or like if you’re a basketball player and you’re going down the court and you just know you’re going to make the basket, you know. Some, there’s like some kind of charge that is like, you’re on the path and there’s no interruption, and that’s just ecstasy. It’s total ecstasy. And it’s also fascinating. Like I’m much smarter as a writer than I am as a human being. You know, in my relationships or whatever. I’m much more imaginative, I’m much weirder. I mean, I feel free.
MEG WOLITZER: I got very excited about writing.
JGR: Again, Meg Wolitzer.
MEG WOLITZER: Work to me is such a deep tonic. I feel when I’m writing, and it doesn’t even have to be going well, but when I am working I am engaged fully. And there may be anxiety about the work, but that more diffuse anxiety is not present.
RACHEL CUSK: I wrote Outline in three weeks, I have to admit…
JGR: That was Rachel Cusk.
RACHEL CUSK: It nearly killed me. But no, when I’m ready to write a book, you know, I know everything about it. So writing is literally writing it down…Being the mother of children, and not being able to write when I wanted to, I got very used to holding enormous amounts of prose in my head and that, you know, even though they’re older now, I kind of still work like that. I think it’s not very good for your health.
MAGGIE NELSON: I’ve often gotten the feeling when you’re kind of saying like, “well, Maggie, here, just, you know, some pages I wrote the other day,” you know, but when I get them, I usually have the feeling that what you’re describing that like, you know, that you, that you plug yourself in to the flow and that almost, despite yourself, you know, literature, language, you know, that what you’re describing is flowing through you.
JGR: Poet Maggie Nelson is the author of numerous genre-blurring works, including The Argonauts and Bluets.
MAGGIE NELSON: And I wonder though, you know, I think I may have been accused of a certain kind of hypoglossalia or something at a certain point, hypomanic writing in my life, but when I actually write, it never feels like that to me. And I wonder, does it feel like that to you?
BEN LERNER: You mean it never feels like it’s flowing through you, it always feels like…
MAGGIE NELSON: No. It feels like, like the artist Sarah Lucas once said, you know, “art is like being in a prison cell with a nail file and trying to get out.” I mean, that’s how it feels to me.
BEN LERNER: That’s usually how it feels to me, too.
MAGGIE NELSON: So it might feel like that, but it doesn’t come off like that.
BEN LERNER: Well…
JGR: Again, Ben Lerner.
BEN LERNER: …like, with this book, which was the hardest book for me to write, for a variety of reasons, but because so much of it was like having to will it, and figure it out, and start over, but there were like a few sections that felt–maybe only one really. Maybe the first section that’s kind of in the mother’s voice that did just kind of come through me. It was like I’d just kind of sit down and could write this for many hours and had no idea if it’s any good or not, and would have to be made a lot better in revision. I do sometimes–not nearly enough to be like a healthy, happy person–but do sometimes have the experience of like, you know, like, just like…
MAGGIE NELSON: Flow, man.
BEN LERNER: Yeah, of flow, like, and I do, you know, like with my first book of poems, which took me, you know, four or five years to write or whatever, I wrote the first 14 sonnets in one night and then spent the rest of the time writing the other poems, you know? And it was very like, so I do have like little, they’re very rare, but I do have some of that experience of like, you know, as poets sometimes call taking dictation or whatever, but then it’s only a moment and then it’s the, yeah, then it’s the nail file.
JGR: Suffering in writing is also glorified–literary twitter is stocked chock full of laments about writers block, like this one from early quarantine: “Let’s face it, if you’re not 3 weeks into lockdown and having a crippling writers’ block meltdown right now, can you even call yourself an artist.” And if you Google “quotes about writing,” you’re almost certain to find this inspirational tidbit from George Orwell: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
But isn’t there a medium to be found, between utter incapacitation, strenuous slogging, and mystical channeling of the written word? What makes a writer a writer? Here’s Melissa Broder.
MELISSA BRODER: I think just that everything feels like, so, like everything has so much gravitas, you know, in your early twenties, like…everything feels so important. And like, actually, you can be a thousand other things, you know. Like I was, I don’t even think they still have it, but I was a peachy puff in San Francisco, which is like an old fashioned cigarette girl. We’d go around from bar to bar. I went door to door for Sierra Club for a few months collecting money. I worked as an assistant for a tantric sex nonprofit in Marin. That was weird. I worked as a grill cook. The only thing I did related to writing was I had an internship at the San Francisco Bay Guardian for a couple months, which is now, I don’t think that paper exists anymore. But, I really wasn’t doing anything else related to writing at all…but keep writing, you know. Because, writers write.
REBECCA SOLNIT: All I can say is that, you know, a writer is somebody who writes.
JGR: Again here’s Rebecca Solnit.
REBECCA SOLNIT: I loved stories even before I learned how to read and then I learned how to read very fast in the beginning of first grade. And then I wanted to be a librarian because they spend all day with books, which are the best things in the world. And then I realized somebody actually got to write them and I made my final career decision in first grade, which–and it’s super easy to decide to be a writer, but then you have to write. And it’s a lot like playing the guitar, you just have to do it a lot.
JGR: Again, Sally Rooney.
SALLY ROONEY: On the one hand, you have technique…It’s about how you construct. And how you construct a novel is a form of technical sort of mastery. Your themes and concerns are sort of like separate to that. And I think most if not all of the great novelists, and maybe the great artists in any genre, have basically the same themes and concerns forever…And the technique always has to be different, because otherwise you’d literally just be writing the same novel again and again because of the themes and concerns are the same. So I think something has to change. And so for me, it’s like the technical aspect of the storytelling, You have to like, master a new way of doing that in order to approach the themes and concerns from a new angle. But like, I cannot lie and say that my themes and concerns have substantially changed. Like I’m interested in intimate relationships. That is what I have written about, that is what I am writing about. I don’t know what will happen to me in future–maybe I will never write a book again, but if I do, I imagine it will have many of the same themes.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Once I got it, like got the voice down and got where I wanted to go and everything, I just, I had an absolute blast, man. I really did.
JGR: Here’s Ta-Nehisi Coates.
TA-NEHISI COATES: And when I was done, I was like, sad…I was like, I’m leaving. You know what I mean? Like it’s over. I’m gone. You know?…And now belongs to everyone else. It belongs to whoever reads it. I really, really liked the characters. I really did. I mean, I liked all of them. I didn’t, I know some writers don’t like all of their characters, but I liked all of them. There’s part of me in every single one of them. They were like my children.
MARLON JAMES: I think the characters come first for me, because most of the times I don’t know why they’re in my head.
JGR: Marlon James, again.
MARLON JAMES: I’m like, why did you show up? I mean there’s still characters in my head who I haven’t written stories for. So characters do show up first–that doesn’t mean I think it’s their story…I wrote around 25 pages. I wrote 25, and by the time I was done, I was so happy because I knew none of this was going to be in the book. And I was like, you know what, I’m really grateful that I wrote all of that. I’ll never see these pages again. One day I looked at my notepad and I literally just flipped it upside down. The people at the dregs of the street, at the bottom of the notepad, were people on the top. And it suddenly made perfect sense to me. But the novel did not take off for me as a narrative until I flipped it and I said, you know what, I want to write about the people who would be in the street. Well in prison actually. And that’s how it really started. It’s one of the reasons why I always thought the idea of the reclusive author was bullsh**. Because if I was a recluse, no novel would have happened. Pretty much every novel, I have had, the turning point was a conversation with somebody. You can’t write dialogue if you’re not engaged with people. Or at the very least, snooping on them.
MELISSA BRODER: I think like it’s actually better if a book is not where you want it to be, but you have vision for it, then if you think that if a book is like exactly where you want it to be and the world is like, no. You’re incubating.
JGR: Melissa Broder.
MELISSA BRODER: I think it’s hard for everybody to watch you know, people in their field have successes on any level, no matter what level you’re on, you know. It’s challenging. You know, that’s a challenging thing about the arts. And I don’t hear a lot of honesty around this, but it is sometimes hard not to take other people’s successes personally, or to feel like there are limited sizes of the pie, when over time that is just not true. Another great thing that I love about being a writer is that we don’t have an expiration date. Like we actually, like the older we get, it’s like good. Like we’re like stinky cheese, you know what I’m saying? If you want to be like a rock god, you kind of have a timer, you know what I’m saying? You’re probably not going to have your breakthrough when you’re like 50. Whereas a writer can have their breakthrough at 70. With the people who are getting book deals now, they’re not all gonna make it. They might be, that might be the last, the last of the book deals. You know what I’m saying? Whereas like, who the hell knows what’s going to happen to you in five years? So not to say like, take heart in other people’s potential failures, but, when you’re feeling really low, just know that the future is unwritten for them too. One book deal is too many and a thousand are never enough. The story’s not over yet, you know?
JGR: Hearing all of this writerly advice back to back, what we may already have suspected, what may seem like self evident advice becomes clear: there is no formula to constructing a successful piece of writing, you have to figure out what works for you, just keep at it, etc.
But what’s more interesting to consider than the perhaps at times redundant or competing pieces of advice, are the ways in which each writer carves out an explanation for what works for them–formulating a narrative around their own productivity.
Maggie Nelson, known for her considered, autotheoretical, fragmented writing style, sees the process as one of trial and sustained turmoil. Rebecca Solnit, who churns out considered thinkpieces by the week, views the writing process as one of perpetual thinking, while engaging with the outside world online and in person. Marlon James, whose dialogue and multitude of dialectics screech off the page, notes the importance of sound and conversation. And Ocean Vuong, whose power to strategically place a poignant image is paralleled by few, discusses his preference of observation over the actual act of writing.
Next week, our authors chip away at the category of the novel, and collectively cheer for disappointing novelistic conventions. This has been Crosstalk from City Arts & Lectures, and we’ll talk to you next time.
Crosstalk was produced, written, and hosted by Juliet Gelfman-Randazzo.
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