by Nikki Carroll and Amanda Giracca
How great is nonfiction writer Eula Biss? Well, last spring, when she visited the University of Pittsburgh as part of the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series, Eula’s schedule was so full with her Q&A, reading, and meetings with faculty and students that she didn’t have time for a regular interview. Instead of declining, though, she suggested doing an interview in the car. On the way to the airport. In said car, she volunteered to hold the driver’s digital recorder and even offered to read the directions to the airport.
Here, Eula Biss (author of The Balloonists and Notes from No Man’s Land) speaks with Amanda Giracca and Nikki Carroll of Hot Metal Bridge about experimental essay forms, her new book-in-progress about vaccination and metaphor, teaching nonfiction writing, and the fact that one book you write will never quite prepare you for the next one.
(Q&A transcript below)
March 23, 2012
Hot Metal Bridge (Nikki Carroll): It seems to me that experimental essays and lyric essays are getting to be more popular. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on why that might be, or what it is about our time and place that lyric essay is responding to.
Eula Biss: I don’t know. That’s hard for me to answer, because that kind of work has always been what I gravitate towards, and what I read, so for me it seems more constant—I’ve always known people who were doing that sort of work. But I know what you’re talking about, too, and that is an observable phenomenon. I think part of it is having an informed readership. And having something that was previously falling between categories being named and categorized makes it, in some ways, more accessible for people. [But] I have mixed feelings about that. I always think that something gets lost in the process of categorization, and that the more solidified a category or genre becomes, the more rote the expectations, and the more dead that space becomes artistically. I have definitely encountered students who are interested in writing what they call lyric essay but are approaching it in a very formulaic way. Like saying, I’ve noticed that what is called lyric essay has this characteristic, this characteristic, and this characteristic, and I would like to produce work that has all those characteristics. To me, that seems like a backwards way of approaching your own artistic work. For me, form has always been more of a product of process. It’s more, I went through this thought process and here are the relics of that process, rather than I decided what I wanted my product to look like before I started writing and wrote to that. I don’t write form first, and some writers do, and I think both ways of writing are legitimate and productive for people, but that’s not my particular approach or my way of thinking about writing. It is useful to me when I find the form the work is going to take—that is extremely useful—but I rarely decide before I write what it’s going to look like formally. I find that through the process. Like the long work that I’m working on right now—I had no idea before I started writing it what exactly it was going to look like. And I didn’t even know it was going to be as long as it’s turning out to be. I thought I was going to write a long-ish essay, but now it’s probably more like a short-ish book.
HMB (Amanda Giracca): That’s the metaphors and medicine you were talking about?
HMB (AG): So you’re defining that as all one essay?
EB: Yeah. My original idea was to write four long essays, and those would be a book. But the one essay about vaccination is getting bigger and bigger and bigger and seeming like it’ll probably be a novella-length piece of nonfiction that I’ll publish as an independent book. And then I’ll see what happens with the other three essays I was planning to write! [Laughs.]
HMB (AG): Were those stylistically similar to what you have in Notes from No Man’s Land?
EB: Well, the vaccination essay is taking its own form. It’s written in sections right now, and I don’t know if it’ll stay that way, because it’s still in process. But it’s written in sections of about 1,500 to 2,000 words that each kind of have their own thrust. But it’s definitely a continuous piece. Those sections are fairly cohesive, and the relationship between the paragraphs is pretty linear and narrative, though the piece itself isn’t very narrative, because it’s a highly meditative piece. And that’s a little bit of a departure for me as a writer, to have a piece that’s so intensely meditative. Joan Didion has been really important to me, but in this piece the writer I’m gravitating towards for guidance is Susan Sontag—a really different presence on the page, and a different way of using your mind on the page, too. But this piece is a little more heady that way, and a little more abstract, and dwells a little bit more within the landscape of the mind.
HMB (AG): Any Sontag piece in particular, like Illness as Metaphor?
EB: Illness as Metaphor. Yeah.
HMB (AG): So are you writing directly to her, in a way?
EB: There are some moments. In the course of writing this I’ve re-read Illness as Metaphor several times already, and so she’s very present in my consciousness and my writing. And her thinking around metaphor is really a big part of this piece. It’s as much about metaphor as it is about vaccination. Vaccination is probably secondary in this piece to thinking about metaphor and what metaphor does to and for us. And in this piece, I begin to think about metaphor as its own kind of medicine. Like, are there ways in which we “treat” ourselves with metaphor? And Sontag was asking, are there ways in which we damage ourselves as patients through metaphor? But I’m also thinking about other ways that we forward our health with metaphor.
HMB (AG): So in terms of talking about influences and how Sontag is a part of this book, when you are writing, do those sort of connections to other works come out naturally as you’re writing, or do you consciously go and try to find those connections? And, if so, do you ever feel like, or have you ever been criticized—I’ve been criticized for this—as fabricating that connection or finding that text?
EB: I’ve never been in another piece of writing where I’ve thought, I’m really drawing on Sontag now, she’s a really important writer for this piece. But she’s been an important writer for me for a long time, even though I haven’t consciously drawn from her. I read Illness as Metaphor as an undergrad, and that book really resonated with me and has been on my mind ever since. But I don’t think I returned to it again for a second read until I started this project, and then that was one of the first books I returned to. So as soon as I knew I was going to write about medical issues, the first place I went was Illness as Metaphor.
HMB (AG): What about Kierkegaard?
EB: Yeah, yeah. Kierkegaard. There’s another writer I encountered first as an undergrad and didn’t pick up again until I started this work. It was very surprising to me that Kierkegaard emerged as somebody I had to read again—I went back to Works of Love and re-entered that text. And it makes sense for me now that I better understand the differences between this new work and my older work. This new work is more firmly lodged in that philosophical space, and some of my other work has been a little more tethered to the—I’m not sure what to call it—I guess the narratives and experiences and the concrete stuff of life. That’s still there in this new essay. It was touched off by experiences and the stuff of life, but the writing about that material is fairly minimal—writing in a more abstract and philosophical realm is a bigger part of this piece than it’s been for me as a writer, probably ever. So it’s interesting to read Sontag. You can go for hundreds of pages of Sontag without a scene or a story or a narrative, or even necessarily an example. She illustrates her thought in various ways, or she’ll talk about books, or other texts, or reference—but the bulk of that writing is the movement of her mind over a subject. And that’s true of Kierkegaard, too. It’s mostly the movement of his mind.
HMB (AG): At what moment was it, when you were writing this, that you started to realize how “in your mind” it was, and how philosophical it was, and kind of triggered you to go back to Kierkegaard?
EB: Yeah, why did I go back to Kierkegaard? I went back to Kierkegaard when I realized the dimensions of the moral and ethical issues around vaccination. I went back to Kierkegaard specifically because he was writing on “you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself” and that, in the context of vaccination, became an even more complex commandment. Because vaccination is about protecting other people’s bodies as well as protecting your own. And there’s this complicated aspect of vaccination where, as long as most people vaccinate, it’s actually quite safe not to be vaccinated yourself, because you will be protected by the immunity of everyone around you. But if enough people don’t vaccinate, we lose that effect. So there are certain states in this country where vaccination levels have dropped far enough that they’ve seen herd immunity eroded. That point, where herd immunity disappears, is the point where the people who are getting sick are both people who have been vaccinated and people who haven’t been vaccinated. Because vaccination doesn’t produce immunity in everyone. So, like, in Minnesota, I think, a couple of years ago the board of health announced that they’d lost their herd immunity to Hib virus, which is kind of like meningitis. I’m not actually sure what biologically goes on with that, but it’s something that’s really terrible for babies. A number of babies died—I think five babies in one year in Minnesota—from Hib, and I think half of them were vaccinated, but the vaccine didn’t produce immunity. And they were in communities that didn’t carry enough immunity to protect them. So that’s brought up this question for me of, you know, what does it mean to love your neighbor? There’s this aspect of vaccination that invites us to participate in the protection of people around us, and that’s the part that’s really interesting to me. I think there’s totally legitimate reasons why people don’t want to be vaccinated and don’t want to engage in vaccination, but I think that those reasons need to be in constant conversation with the benefits to other people conferred by vaccination. And in surprising ways this comes back to the subject matter of my last book. I live in this community that’s very mixed racially and fairly mixed socioeconomically, too. So within the community where I live, I’m probably at the very highest end in terms of income. And there are people I interact with every day who are far less advantaged than I am in pretty much every dimension. So my son and I play on a playground where, periodically, a daycare for disadvantaged youth comes, and it’s kids who are clearly—to my eye—less healthy than my child. Kids who are clearly not getting the care they need to have optimal health. Some of them are very small for their age; some of them have huge slugs of snot coming out of their noses all the time; some of them don’t seem to have had a diaper change in a long time, and it’s very obvious that some of these kids are not thriving, health wise. I don’t have any way of knowing where they are in terms of vaccination, but it occurred to me one day when I was on the playground and my son had, himself, a runny nose, and was interacting with all these other kids, I thought, Wouldn’t it be awful if I didn’t vaccinate my child and he passed a disease that wasn’t very serious for him—because he’s in fairly good health—to a child it killed because the child was not in very good health? Of course, that would take a lot of unlikely things happening. The funny thing about talking about vaccination is, no matter what you’re talking about, you’re talking about things that are highly unlikely. So if you’re talking about side effects of vaccines, they’re highly unlikely. If you’re talking about people getting contagious diseases that are going to kill them, that’s also highly unlikely. But there are many plausible chains of contagion. Because I teach at a big university where my students travel very frequently, it’s not unimaginable to me at all that a student could pass a disease to me that they caught in another country, or that they caught living in the dorms or whatever, and that I could pass it to my son, and then my son could pass it to another child on the playground. That doesn’t seem to me impossible at all. And right now, there are a lot of vaccine barriers in that chain: my students are probably vaccinated, I’m fully vaccinated, and my son is fully vaccinated. If that weren’t the case, it seems even more likely to me that something could be passed through this chain to children who are very vulnerable in every dimension. They’re economically and socially vulnerable. They’re also vulnerable in terms of their health. So that’s the sort of thing that got me thinking about Kierkegaard and the moral questions involved.
HMB (NC): I have a teaching question. I’m always thinking about the classroom, because I’m someone who tends to gravitate towards a more lyric style of writing and I’m wondering how that affects my teaching. And I’m wondering how you think your process—the way you work and the way you’re willing to follow ideas and do really open-ended research—affects the way you teach your students, how much that transfers over to them. I find myself always trying to work against it in some ways so they leave with [a variety of] skills.
EB: I try to teach to a really wide aesthetic, especially since I teach undergraduates mostly, and the course I teach most often is Intro to Creative Nonfiction. So I try to make sure that students are touching a lot of different aesthetic areas in that course, and I try to make sure that they’re not writing in one way the whole time. But, that said, I think that no matter what their aesthetic is, it can be really important to encourage them—especially the specific group of students that I work with at Northwestern—to do open-ended research and to go into an essay not knowing what’s going to happen, because they’re very unaccustomed to working that way. A lot of them are really successful students, but successful academically, and they have really well-developed skills around planning. For a lot of them, their natural approach to an essay is to decide what they’re going to say, and then execute it on the page. And I feel like every quarter I see students doing that and then not being sure why it isn’t working, you know? Why is this not producing an interesting essay? Why is this essay flat? So a big part of the teaching process for me is teaching them that they have to make room to be surprised in order to create surprises on the page. But that room to be surprised is a kind of risk-taking, and my students are a little averse to that sort of risk-taking. They want to know that they’re going to come out with a good product on the other side, so that’s a challenge for me.
HMB (AG): I think that’s always risky as a teacher, too. Because with certain essay assignments I try to encourage my students to do that, and it often happens that they’re just writing, writing, writing, trying to work through something, and it doesn’t go anywhere.
HMB (NC): Or they run out of time.
EB: Yeah, and it doesn’t work out. I remember this principle that I learned when I was an undergrad in an education course. I was taking an experiential education course, and the instructor impressed on us that you need to leave room for your students to experience failure in order to be an effective teacher, and that part of the problem with our kind of mainstream educational system is that we’ve made failure seem like it’s not part of the learning process. In our system, failure signals a failure to have learned. I think the truer way of integrating failure is to acknowledge that failure is part of the process of learning. And so I try to teach ungraded essays, and I try to find various ways of getting assignments into my courses as opportunities for controlled failures, for students to get into an essay that they can’t get out of. I also usually have several revision opportunities, and try to use that to control the degree of disappointment they feel over their work that isn’t going where they want it to go. But I think that’s a real challenge.
HMB (AG): That room for failure seems crucial for writers.
EB: For us, too, yeah. And when you get out of school, it’s still important to allow yourself to get into something that isn’t going to work out, or to allow yourself to get into something that changes shape. Like this book I’m working on right now: I wrote for a lot of grants for this book, and I won some to work on it, but I said I’d do one thing and the book is changing into another thing. And a lot of these grants are not binding for exactly that reason. They know that an artist needs to be able to allow the work to change shape. But it’s also an exercise for me to remind myself that I don’t have to do what I said I was going to do if it’s not the best thing for the work.
HMB (AG): It sounds almost like the majority of the time you don’t really know what’s going to happen when you start.
HMB (AG): And, it works, obviously, really well for you—you write beautiful essays. Do you have any advice for people to just be more trusting of themselves, or trusting that their work can go somewhere?
EB: Part of it is, you have to become comfortable with a period of chaos in the work. I experience that every time. It’s become easier for me because I have written enough essays now that I recognize a certain arc that every process takes. Now when I’m in it, I can think, Oh, this is the period of chaos at the beginning of the work, where I’m full of ideas and see lots of interesting possibilities, but I haven’t fit the puzzle pieces together yet. And the work is all over the place on the page, and I maybe haven’t formally figured out what’s going on. Another reader would be totally lost in this mess. That can really induce some panic. [Laughs.] And it used to for me. Almost every time I hit that stage, I’d think, Oh, this is falling apart, this is a mess, this is not going to go anywhere, how am I gonna rein this in? And now I’ve done it enough times that I think, Ahh, this is the period of chaos. I need to work through it and I’ll come out the other side eventually. And I’m glad I have that because what I’ve discovered in this longer work is, the longer the work, the longer the period of chaos. [All laugh.] So I read a very short bit last night. I actually have a ton of writing for this new book. I have well over forty pages, but it’s all pretty rough and chaotic because I haven’t hit that moment where everything gels and comes together yet. And I’ve never had that amount of text—like forty, fifty pages—not under control. Usually by the time I get that much text, the essay’s done, or nearly done, and it’s gelled, and I know what I’m doing. So I’m glad that I’ve prepared myself with shorter-form work before I got into this long-form piece.
HMB (AG): That’s so interesting. So you’re just learning right along with this new book, and having new experiences.
EB: Yeah. And my husband just reminded me of this quote, this John McPhee quote. John McPhee said something like, “Your last book doesn’t teach you how to write your next book.” And my husband brought that up because I was saying something about how I feel like I’ve never done anything like this. And I haven’t, actually. I’ve published two books, but none of them are one sustained, long work. The Balloonists is quite short in itself, in small pieces, and then there’s a collection of essays. So I am learning how to write the work as it unfolds. And I think—I suspect—that will be the case for the rest of my career as a writer, that each new work will be a new learning experience for me. Which I’m totally at peace with at this point. [All laugh.] I think that’s part of the rewards of being in this line of work, that it doesn’t get stale if you really engage on a deep level with the art. Each experience is a new trial.
March 22, 2012
Abbreviated introduction by University of Pittsburgh lecturer Jennifer Lee:
Eula Biss published her second book, Notes from No Man’s Land, in 2010. [It] won both the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for criticism. Her essays have appeared in Harper’s, The Believer, Fourth Genre, and Gulf Coast, as well as in The Best American Nonrequired Reading and The Best Creative Nonfiction. Her work is currently supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA Literature Fellowship, and has also been recognized by a Pushcart Prize and a Jaffe Award.
Eula Biss earned her BA in Writing at Hampshire College and her MFA at the University of Iowa. Currently she teaches nonfiction at Northwestern and is at work on a book about metaphor in medicine. So, with that, I give you Eula Biss.
Eula Biss: Thank you, and thanks very much for having me here. I’m happy to hear questions on anything: on subject matter, on writing, anything you’d like to ask about.
Audience Member: The whole time I was re-reading “Notes from No Man’s Land,” I just kept seeing the Trayvon Martin killing through that lens, and I was wondering if you would just start by talking about that. Not about the specific case, because I wouldn’t ask you to do that, just the different ways in which fear and guilt get played out in the contemporary social and political landscape.
EB: In my writing, I don’t think about the extreme violent form [of racism] as much as I think about more subterranean forms. The results of those more subterranean forms are often as devastating in lives as violence but usually play out in ways that are more socially acceptable: people being excluded from certain neighborhoods rather than killed there, or excluded from universities rather than killed there, or excluded from certain professions. But what that all boils down to, of course, is institutional racism in which the result is a whole subset of our society not having access to the kind of health care, education, and jobs that the rest of us have access to.
The other thing that makes me think about that case is the history of gangs in Chicago, which I looked into a little bit in my book. [In] the essay I’ll be reading from tonight I mention someone saying something about gangs, and then I also mention in that essay that I, myself, know nothing about gangs, which is true. And after writing that line I thought, Well maybe I’ll learn something about gangs, and I went and read a really interesting historian’s work. It was a retrospective of gangs in Chicago—I think the span of time he was looking at was 150 years. It was a really long time period, and what was interesting was that, up until recently, almost all of these gangs were white youth gangs. “White” is a shifting thing in Chicago—various ethnicities make up what we now interpret as “white.” But those gangs were all about protecting turf, and defending neighborhoods, and all about keeping out people who were seen as dangerous. And usually these gangs were dual-purpose: they were seen by the people in the neighborhood as both a kind of plague and a protection, so they’re an interesting force.
The other interesting thing about these youth gangs was that they were a route into legitimate work for the gang members. One of the Mayor Daleys in Chicago—I lose track of them—was a former gang member when he was young. Lots of business owners in Chicago were former gang members. It was a route into a livelihood. Whereas, now, black youth gangs are not like that, because they’re so socially and politically and economically secluded that even gangs don’t function in the way they used to function for people. That’s a huge tangent from your question. What else are you thinking about, or would you like to talk about?
AUD: So your essays, a lot of the time, use both historical fact and quotation, and then you sort of drop in these moments of autobiographical information; I was wondering how you come up with the ideas to write your essays, how they come to fruition—if it’s that you find something to latch on historically or if it’s more like internal thoughts and your own past history?
EB: Almost all my essays start with a problem or a question that’s usually from experience or [of a] personal nature, and then often the question or problem leads me into some sort of investigation or research. So, one example is the final essay in my collection, “All Apologies.” That came from a phrase that was just kind of repeating in my head. I was in grad school when I wrote that, and I kept—for reasons I didn’t understand—remembering this silly little phrase my sister had said as kids, really little kids. We’d fight, and I’d hit her, and I’d say, “Sorry,” and she’d say, “Sorry doesn’t cut it!” For some reason this was surfacing in memory a lot, and I was thinking about that question. The philosophical question that’s lodged in that kind of silly phrase is the question, does “sorry” cut it? What is the value of an apology? And is a violent act something that cannot be atoned for? All of these bigger questions came from this silly memory, but the memory itself was not the territory to write about the idea, because there wasn’t anything else there in terms of the memory. There was just that phrase.
So I was a little bit at a loss in terms of how to write that essay. I do a lot of really open-ended research where I don’t know what I’m looking for, I don’t know what I’m going to find, and I use my research tools in ways that they’re definitely not meant to be used. So I went to Lexis-Nexis—many of you probably know this database. It’s a large digital database most big universities like this have access to, and you can search the full text of articles back into somewhere in the 70s or 80s. And I searched my lifespan, because I knew that I was working with my memory, so that seemed natural, and then I just put the word “apology” in. No librarian would tell you that this is going to be a productive search in Lexis. To search thirty-five years with the word “apology” is not a good idea. And thousands and thousands of articles showed up. And I started sifting through them, and of course, because of the nature of the database I was using—it’s a news database—I was finding a lot of information about political apologies. First Reagan apologies, and a couple of those show up in the essay, and then Bush number one apologies, then Clinton apologies—he apologized a lot—and then Bush number two apologies, and then the essay took shape from there. I realized, Okay, this is an interesting arena to talk about that philosophical question: what is an apology worth? And what can an apology accomplish? And a lot of these presidents were dealing with apologizing for things that can’t be apologized for, like Hiroshima and the Japanese internment camps, and slavery, and there was a little bit in there about massacres of Native Americans. It’s giant wrongs done to giant groups of people.
So that’s one story. The other essay that began that way for me was the title essay of my book: “Notes from No Man’s Land.” That began with me just noticing a word that kept coming up. I had just moved to my neighborhood in Chicago, which is Rogers Park, and I had noticed that a lot of my white neighbors were using this term that I hadn’t heard used this way before—the word “pioneer.” So I’m talking to my white neighbors and I hear things like, “We’re pioneers here,” or “This is a pioneering neighborhood,” or “It’s nice to see another pioneer!” And this sounded very odd to me, and unsettled me, and made me deeply uncomfortable. And so in that case I also felt like, Okay, this is something I can write about. But, again, I wasn’t sure how, because all I had was my discomfort around the word. And so, in that case, I worked with memory a little bit more, because I asked myself, Well, what do you know about the word “pioneer”? And I realized that I knew, again, almost nothing except what I’d learned in Little House on the Prairie, which I’d read when I was seven. So I thought, Oh, okay, that’s a starting point. I’ll go back, and I’ll re-read Little House on the Prairie. And that became a really important foundation for the essay, because Little House on the Prairie was not what I expected it to be when I went back to it. Not at all the kind of naïve and overtly racist text that I thought I would find. So that led me into the essay that I was hoping to write. Does that answer your question?
EB: That’s kind of the long answer.
AUD: Sort of that seeds can germinate in a lot of different ways.
EB: For me, yeah. And some essays definitely begin in a memory or an experience and are expanded initially through the memory or experience, and then I almost always at some point turn to research as a way of reflecting my ideas off something unfamiliar, or testing ideas in a new territory, or expanding ideas. But the point at which research comes in is usually different in different essays. In many of my essays, it comes in almost immediately. And research comes in as a way to solve the problem of: How do I get any farther with this idea? I know the thought that I have entered into, but I don’t know how to expand it.
AUD: You once said that when you’re writing you tend to generate problems and not fix them. Why do you do that?
EB: I would fix them if I could. I think part of it is the nature of the problems that I find myself writing about. Huge systematic things like racism are probably not going to be fixed by an individual writing an essay. But I guess where I see my place or role being in terms of fixing problems is in forwarding conversation or forwarding discussion. One of the things that was really important to me in this last book, Notes from No Man’s Land, was making sure that race was talked about in a franker, more direct way that I was used to hearing it talked about, especially by a white person. I felt like a problem that I had identified was that white people have a problem talking about race in honest and direct ways. And I thought, Okay, that is a problem that one person can address by engaging in a different kind of dialogue and taking a different approach. In terms of solving the many, many-faced problems of racism in our country, I think that’s beyond one author’s scope. But this also comes down to a kind of stylistic approach too. My essays come from questions and they generate questions, but they’re not in the tradition of essays that make a firm argument and stand by it and support it, even though some of my essays end up making arguments almost inadvertently, or I find an argument as I’m writing. My goal is not to argue a case so much as it is to make a discovery as a writer.
AUD: I’m wondering if you could talk about the writing process for “The Pain Scale,” in particular how you did the circular pattern of bringing it all back at the end.
EB: This essay, “The Pain Scale,” came from—coming back to this question—came from an experience I had of going through really intense pain for a long period of time. So after about a year of pain, I knew I wanted to write about it, but again, I was in that very, very undirected, amorphous space of just beginning the project, and didn’t know what form it was going to take. I wrote the first page of that many times and was dissatisfied. The first several tries were all in the form of a narrative personal essay. Very much telling the story of my experience, what had happened to me, going in for a diagnosis, and then bringing in memories of my father, who’s a physician. All of it was fine material for an essay, but I was really, really frustrated. It was not doing what I wanted it to do. And I knew that the issue was formal in some sense, that this narrative place I’d written myself into wasn’t yielding what I wanted it to yield. But I stayed in that frustrated space for quite a while as a writer. And I almost never have epiphanies, but this was a piece where I had an epiphany. I was literally sitting in the doctor’s office, looking at the pain scale on the wall, and waiting a very long time for a doctor to come in, and staring at this scale, and it just dawned on me: Aha! I will write a page for every number on the pain scale and that’s how I will write this essay. And it didn’t just restructure the essay; it reoriented the focus. And I realized, in choosing that form, what I had wanted to write about all along was the quantification of pain. That’s what I’d wanted to write about.
I was less interested in the story of what had happened to me than the problem of how we measure something that’s essentially unmeasurable. So what the scale itself allowed me to do was kind of focus on the numbers. I wrote about zero, I wrote about one, two. And some mathematical stuff got churned up because of that form, but also these main questions about quantification were highlighted, or they rose to the surface because of that formal shift. And then, at some point, that form became arbitrary. I’d decided that I’d write one page for each number on the scale, and I found myself at some point really pressing against that arbitrary one-page limit. I realized there was no reason why zero couldn’t be three pages long and seven could be half a page, so I let myself out of that formal guideline.
AUD: You write a lot about race. Would you say you receive more criticism or praise for being a white woman writing about race?
EB: On the balance, probably praise. And I’m not entirely sure how to feel about that, because my sense is that, if I do what I’m trying to do as effectively as I want to do it, people should be uncomfortable with what I’m saying and suggesting. So I’m not always extremely pleased by praise, because it’s a signal to me that I haven’t actually accomplished what I’m trying to accomplish. In some cases, I’ve received neither praise nor criticism, but something in between, some kind of bafflement, so almost every time I give a talk or teach a class or am in a new place where people can ask me questions, or give an interview, I’m usually asked the question—and I’ll save you all from asking this by talking about it now—I’m usually asked, What happened differently for you? What was special about your life that you ended up writing about race as a white person?
And it’s a really hard question for me to answer, because I think the subtext is that, if I were a normal white person, I wouldn’t talk about race, and that being a white person is not a racialized experience. The other thing that I’ve been a little uncomfortable with is sometimes, in the press for my book, the fact that I have some family members who are not white is exaggerated or trumped up a little bit. So I’ve seen reviews and articles about my work that go out of their way to say that I have cousins from Jamaica, and that my stepfather was black, and that I’ve had all of these—what are seen as—racialized experiences. When my belief is that whiteness is a race, and that being white is a racialized experience, but one of the privileges of being white is that we don’t have to think about our race. And that’s maybe one of the main privileges, that we don’t have to have a constant awareness of our race and what it means in the world and what it means to other people. And, for me, it was the experience of moving to New York City and living in a place where I was in the minority—in the racial minority—that made me begin thinking about all these things, and made me begin thinking about the extreme privilege of never having to think about yourself as a racialized being. And now I know that I’ve veered far off from your question… oh, it was about praise and criticism. So, yeah. There’s praise and there’s criticism and there’s something in between. There’s a kind of bafflement. And it’s probably the bafflement that is most distressing to me.
AUD: How does it make you feel, or what do you think, when you hear or see an interpretation of one of your works that isn’t necessarily in line with what you intended?
EB: That happens all the time, and I think at this point in my life and career as a writer I’m much more at peace with that than I used to be. I do think that a certain amount of that is just inherent in the relationship between an artist and an audience. I think that, if you’re engaged in art-making, you have to be okay with your audience making their own interpretation and finding their own way through the work. And I definitely found that when my first book, The Balloonists, was written about and reviewed, it was interpreted in ways that were sometimes wildly different than what I’d intended. But that book leaves a lot of room. There’s a lot of white space in that book—a lot of things that don’t happen on the page—so that’s how the art is functioning there. It’s leaving room for interpretation. So I shouldn’t have been that surprised that people took that room and used it and made it their own interpretative space. So you can see that I’ve put some intellectual work into being okay with this, because it is still hard sometimes. Especially in issues that are really charged, around stuff like race, it can be difficult for me when I see what I feel is a radical misinterpretation of something that I’ve put out there. And there are some essays in Notes from No Man’s Land where I took measures to work in ways that were stylistically or formally different than how I’d worked before, that actually left less space for interpretation than I was used to leaving in my text for expressly that reason. There were certain interpretations that I did not want to make available to the reader. Even so, in some of the pieces that are a little more associative, those interpretations still get made. So, for instance, I got a letter from a Bell Telephone employee who assured me that the Bell Telephone company was not guilty of mass lynchings. I have an essay where I write about lynchings from telephone poles, and the interpretation there was that there was some kind of mal-intent on the part of the telephone company [audience laughter], and that was definitely not intended in the essay. But I’m not sure you can control every reading out there. It still feels a little unsettling and odd.
AUD: It’s funny that you mention that essay, “The War on Telephone Poles,” [an excerpt from “Time and Distance Overcome,” published in Harper’s] because my next question has to do with that. Specifically, in your author’s note for “Time and Distance Overcome,” you mention that you started that essay just researching telephone poles, and you just fell into all of this information about this lynching happening. Is that a good thing when you’re writing, when your subject is coming out as totally different than what you started with? Could you go into more detail about that problem?
EB: I think it is a good thing. And when I teach, I really encourage my students to not decide what they’re going to do before they get into the essay, to not premeditate every move. So I think it is a good thing, but I do have to acknowledge that it doesn’t always feel like a good thing when you’re in the piece as a writer. So I think that moment where the piece begins to turn and take its own direction feels very chaotic and unsettling, and it can feel like you’re losing control of your piece at that moment. This piece about telephone poles and lynchings is the first piece in my collection, but it’s one of the last pieces that I wrote, one of the last essays I wrote. And I had this idea that I was going to write a lighter piece for the beginning of the book, because I could see the whole book in front of me and I knew that it was relatively heavy material—pretty earnest, and kind of intense and serious, and I thought, Okay, well this is going to be in some ways a difficult book. Maybe I can write an essay to open it that will invite people in. And so that’s how I landed on telephone poles as subject matter. I saw that that telephone pole—which is its own unique structure but connected to other unique structures with a wire—I saw it as kind of a symbol for connectedness, and I thought that it might be a way to talk about how we as a population are connected to each other, and to start in a place that was a little more upbeat.
So, again, I used a search engine in a way that you’re not supposed to, and this time it was The New York Times historical archive. This is an amazing resource, by the way, if you’ve never used this. And I’m sure your university owns this New York Times archive. It has full text of everything that’s ever appeared in The New York Times. Articles, obituaries, weather reports, everything, back to the very first issue: 1851 to the present day. It’s PDFs, and it’s searchable by terms. And you can limit in many different ways. It’s a totally incredible research tool—I can’t emphasize this enough. I actually just discovered this when I wrote the essay. I took a class of mine at Iowa to the library, and the librarian told us about this tool, and I thought it was the most incredible thing I’d ever seen. And so I chose a date range that was around the early years of the telephone. So, like, 1890 to 1920. Which I should have known at the time was also Jim Crow, and I did know that, but I didn’t connect the two things. So I put that in, and then I just put the word “telephone pole” in.
And the first few articles, or the first many articles I turned up, were the zany, kind of funny type of article I’d expected to turn up in that search. One of my favorites was an article about a man who had been found alive, tied in a sack at the top of a telephone pole with a note tied to it. And the note said, “Don’t let this man out of this sack until he tells you what he did.” [Laughter.] And the police got him down from the telephone pole and said, “What did you do?” and he wouldn’t tell them. And they had to let him go, because he hadn’t seemed to have committed a crime. And it was that sort of story that I was hoping to find, and that I thought I could build a kind of lighthearted essay around, but what happened in my research was, after reading through a few of that type of article, there was a period of time from about the turn of the century to like 1900, for many, many years, where the only mention—or almost the only mention—of telephone poles in The New York Times was when someone had been hanged from one.
And it was a really, really shocking, disturbing research experience, because not only were these articles about hangings, but—you see this in the essay a little bit—every article included details beyond the hanging that were incredibly graphic and horrible. So it became clear to me that this wasn’t something I knew from my U.S. history background, that most hangings involved torture and brutalization of other kinds: cutting off the person’s genitals, burning their legs, shooting them multiple times, stabbing them, cutting off ears, cutting off noses, cutting out tongues. And these details showed up over and over and over again in this long litany of hundreds of articles that I read through. So, after doing that research, the nature of the essay changed. In my mind, there was no going back to my original idea. The lighthearted essay could not be written at that point. And my project in the essay changed dramatically. It changed from making a kind of inviting piece that looked at metaphors for connectedness into a piece that would reproduce the kind of shock and horror of my research experience for my reader. So that’s what that first piece in the book tries to do, and in ways it’s exactly the opposite of what I thought I was going to do. So it’s one of the crueler pieces of writing I think I’ve ever done, in that it’s somewhat manipulative. It starts out in a light way and there’s a really sharp turn, and then it’s relentless. It’s a relentless list of lynchings that is deeply, deeply unpleasant to read, but is intended to be so.
AUD: Do you have a particular audience in mind when you’re writing your essays?
EB: Not really. Most of my essays start out from, like I said, a very personal question, and at least in the initial stages of writing, I’m really trying to figure something out for myself. So I guess my audience at first is me. And when the essay develops to a certain point, and I start working on refining my syntax and things like that, then I do begin thinking about a reader, but it’s not usually a specific reader I have in mind. When I do think of a specific reader, it’s my sister, whom I’m very close to. She actually is a real reader for me, so at a certain point I often send my essays to my sister and ask her opinion. And my sister’s a little bit smarter than me, and a little better read than I am, so I guess that’s my audience—someone slightly smarter than me. [Laughter.]
AUD: Specifically with “The Pain Scale,” you share a lot of personal information. Do you create a filter so you don’t say too much personal information? And, if so, how do you decide what’s too much or not enough?
EB: This question often comes up when I talk with students about writing. I work with a fairly easy-to-follow rule of thumb where, in most of my writing where I write about my life, I’m usually writing through my life. So I’m not actually writing about my experience so much as I’m writing through my experience about some idea or question I have. So I usually only mention or bring up things that forward my project in the essay. And that determines how much or how little I tell. And in some pieces, that actually demands that I tell quite a bit. In some pieces, I need to tell very little. In that piece about telephone poles, the first person doesn’t come in until the very last page, and there’s very little about my life in there. And there are other essays, like “The Pain Scale,” where there’s a significant amount about my life, but [there were] things that didn’t need to be told in that essay, interestingly. There were things in the first draft that I discovered didn’t need to be told. So, in that essay, you don’t know my diagnosis, you don’t know how long I was sick for, you don’t know what I was treated with exactly; there’s actually a ton of my experience as someone who’s dealing with a chronic illness that never makes it to the page in that piece. And, actually, a lot of the details, the kind of intimate details of suffering… that piece doesn’t get into what it’s like to be awake all night when you’re in pain, or the way that my writing or my studies at school suffered from pain. None of that, actually, I get into, because all of that turned out to be pretty irrelevant to the questions that piece was looking at.
So, quite a bit of that was in the first draft. But once I realized what the essay was really talking about, that helped me to determine what I needed to say and what I didn’t need to say. There have been instances where I’ve written about other people in my life and then showed them the draft and they asked to be taken out of it or excised. And that happened in my most recent book, Notes from No Man’s Land. I showed the draft to my mother before it was published, and she did ask me to take out a few parts. And I do that for people who are close to me. I’ll remove material if it’s something they’re uncomfortable with. And that’s not as difficult for me to do with a finished product as it is for an essay that’s in progress. If my mother had asked me to take out stuff halfway through the drafting of an essay, it probably would have killed that essay. And that’s why I often encourage students not to worry about that until they’ve finished a piece of writing. Because once I’ve finished a piece of writing, if I have to remove a paragraph, I understand the piece at that point. It’s done, I know what that paragraph is doing, and I can think creatively about other ways to handle what I’m doing there, or say what I’m saying there, without mentioning my mother. Before I understand what the piece is doing—like, if this is the span of time that I spend in process on an essay [spreads hands far apart, about two feet]—almost all of it is spent not understanding what the essay’s actually doing. There’s a tiny bit at the end… this is the part where I know what’s up [holds hands only inches apart] in what I’m doing. [Laughter.] So for the vast majority of my process, it would be really damaging to have someone say, “You can’t say that” or “You can’t do that.” But, luckily, usually by the time things go to publication, I can remove material, either about myself or about other people, and write something else to fill that space.
AUD: So how do you know when you’re finished, when you’re dealing with this amorphous material and you’re discovering as you go along? Is it when you get to the end and you know what you’re writing about, is that when you know?
EB: This is one of the trickiest questions I ever have to answer. I think usually I do know in a kind of really broad way that I’m nearing the end of an essay when I start to feel some sense of— I’m not sure what the right word is—something like greater understanding of what I’ve entered into. So for a lot of the process of writing I usually feel really confused and really disoriented. And there’s a point, usually, in the writing of the essay where I become better oriented and slightly less confused, and that’s where I feel like it starts tipping towards being closer to finished. And I used all this vague terminology because I don’t ever feel like the questions have been fully answered. If I waited for that moment, the piece would never be done. But usually I come to a greater level of comfort around the subject. So in places where—like in this piece, “All Apologies”—I started with just vague discomfort around the [phrase] “Sorry doesn’t cut it,” I wrote to a point where I felt more comfortable with my own understanding of what was going on in that [phrase].
That said, some of the essays in my collection were five and seven years old by the time I had written the newer essays in the collection, and what had once seemed finished no longer seemed finished to me when I got to that point. So I did end up really, really radically revising some of my earlier work to try to bring it up to my current understanding, and my current consciousness. Even so, the time in between turning in the manuscript and the book actually appearing in print was probably about a year. So I finished the book, copyedited it, everything, a year passed when it came out, and I looked through it and thought, I could do this better now. I could write this better. [Laughter.] But it has to end at some point, right? And the newer realizations and growth as a writer or growth as a thinker, I think that just has to be applied to the next work. Or at least it does for me. And I do know other writers who work over the same work for many, many, many years, and don’t let it end, and there’s something to be said for that kind of process, too—you get a really, really rich document.
AUD: So, throughout the writing process, when do you let other people read your work, and then how many people do you usually let edit your work, and how much do you consider their word?
EB: It’s different from piece to piece, but there is a pattern for me now. In the early stages of writing something, I talk about it a lot, with pretty much anyone who will listen to me. But I don’t show it to anyone. And it’s unfortunate for me that our dominant model of pedagogy for creative writing is the workshop, because the workshop has never actually been all that useful for me as a writer. Showing a piece at any point in the process to a large [group]—to twelve people or so—has rarely been useful to me until the piece is almost done. So the point at which it’s useful to me to do a workshop is when I’ve got a piece that’s very close to completion. Workshopping early drafts was never useful to me, but what was and continues to be extremely useful to me is when I’m about three drafts or so into a work, and I say three drafts because I’m a very multiple-draft writer—I write fifteen, twenty drafts, so three drafts is very early in my process—at that point it becomes really useful to me to show it to one other person.
And that one other person has been many different people for me, but I always, wherever I live—and I’ve moved around a ton—have a reader whom I meet with periodically, and we exchange work. And sometimes this reader has been a friend, but often it’s been someone whom I’m not really friends with, just another writer, and we agree to do this for each other. And usually at some point we become friends through the process of reading each other’s work every two weeks or so for years. But the thing that I like about that one-on-one reader relationship is that you know your reader very well. You know their prejudices and their abilities, but you can control the process a lot more too; you can control the feedback. So early in writing an essay, I often—and this will sound maybe kind of sacrilegious—but I often only ask for positive feedback early on. And the readers that I have relationships with, we know what to do for each other early in the process, so we rarely do hard critique early in the process. It’s all about possibility, where your ideas are interesting, where could this go, where you might take this, what I already love. And this would seem like a really softball workshop, but that’s what’s useful to me early on. And then, later in the process, I do show the work to different people, like my husband, who’s incredibly critical and has a kind of eagle eye for logical problems. I show work to him fairly late in the process. And usually when I’m ready for it to be torn down is when I show it to him. And that’s what happens, and he shows me all the problems. But I’m at a point with the work, usually, by the time I show it to him, where I can handle that. And I’m confident enough in what I’m trying to do that I can say, Ok, ok, you’re right. Those are all problems. I will go back and fix them. But I try not to do that at a point when I think it’s going to kill the essay, if that makes sense.
AUD: What do you struggle with most as a writer, and what do you dislike most about it?
EB: Those are hard questions to answer. What do I struggle with most? The whole act of writing, for me, is struggle, so it’s hard to separate out what’s hardest.
AUD: So, I guess, why do you choose to continue the struggle? [Laughter.]
EB: Good question. This is in Anne Lamott’s book, and I forget who said this, but somebody said that writers are people for whom writing is more difficult than other people, and that’s definitely true for me. I labor over emails of two lines. That is very hard for me. And I’m moving commas around in emails. Why do I choose to do it? It’s an incredibly generative struggle for me, so I think I clarify my thinking in many, many areas through writing, and I think that I grow as a person a lot. I clarify both my thinking and my moral sensibilities. And, for me, a lot of my work is thinking about what it means to live among other people in a way that is humane. So struggling through those questions, which is really, really difficult, is also a profound experience for me as a human being. That’s what makes it worth it. And there was a second part to your question…
AUD: What do you dislike most?
EB: What do I dislike most? I think everything that I dislike, I like too. Writing is very solitary, and I both love and dislike that. There are long stretches of time where I feel like I’m locked into a conversation with myself, but then the writing is published and I get to have conversations with other people, and so there’s another end of that. Almost anything I could tell you I dislike there is a silver lining to for me. I guess that’s why this is my calling, or career. But it is difficult, too, now that I’m a mother to a young child. My work demands a lot of time sitting alone at a desk. I would love to have work where I could have my kid on my lap while I do it, or be wearing him on my back or kind of half-talking to him while I’m doing my work. It does not allow for that, so that’s been a struggle. That’s actually probably the thing at the moment that’s hardest for me, is that the way that I do my work doesn’t allow me to split my attention very easily. So it definitely means my full attention is removed from my child when I’m doing it.
Thank you all so much for coming out and being such a wonderful audience!
Transcribed by Nikki Carroll, Amanda Giracca, and Tim Maddocks