Maggie Nelson is an American poet, art critic, lyric essayist and nonfiction author of the books Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions,The Red Parts: A Memoir, The Art of Cruelty, Something Bright, The Argonauts, The Latest Winter, Shiner, and Bluets.
“Writing as Performance,” an Interview with Maggie Nelson
This interview was conducted in person at the NonfictionNow conference in Flagstaff, Arizona by Interview Editor Leah Newsom. Of the process she said, “It was such an incredible privilege to interview Maggie Nelson. For days after, pieces of our conversation were swimming around in my mind, resurfacing at unexpected moments. Every time I watched the recording while transcribing, I discovered some new train of thought I hadn’t sat with previously, and I would have to stop and take a note. This was the same reaction I had to reading The Argonauts, so I shouldn’t have expected anything different.” In this interview, Maggie discusses the role of other people in her writing, the need to make space, and what it means to burn out a problem. You can view the video of the interview here.
Superstition Review: I want to ask you about the title, the idea of the Argo, that “its parts may be replaced over time but it is still called the Argo.” I’m wondering at what point in the process of writing you came across this idea, or did you have it already? When did the title start to emerge?
Maggie Nelson: The book Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes is a book I read a lot while writing this. I love Roland Barthes, and I’ve read a lot of him. I’ve read those descriptions about the Argo many times over the last twenty years, so it wasn’t something I discovered while writing. This book had a lot of titles along the way. When I’m not happy with any of the working titles I have, often I’ll re-read my book looking for a title within its pages that seems like it would work. You always run the risk of really underscoring one particular theme. But what I liked about this title was that A. it was kind of catchy, and B. it was the name of people, with a plural. So, it was a tribe, but it also referred to a foundational metaphor in the book. I won’t go into what the other ones were, but The Argonauts is a lot better than those.
SR: You talked about the embedded quotations a little bit last night in your keynote, but I’m curious if this research is material that you were planning on for a memoir, that you were reading all of these authors with the intention of putting something together, or were they things that as you were writing you thought, “oh, this very much reminds me of this?”
MN: I feel like reading and research is a river flowing beside me in life. Especially in this book, because a lot of the books and theorists I’m talking about are people I started reading in the early nineties, so they’re a long time coming. There was no real focused “here are these things I’m researching for this book." This book in particular is a dramatization of how everyday life is related to ideas you read about. So, there was a very natural weave. There may have been five or six pieces that I’m quoting that I explicitly sought out. At a certain point I thought, “I need to read more about sodomitical maternity.” There was no there-there I was researching. That has never happened to me. I feel like a subject chooses me, probably based out of reading and life, both, and then eventually if there are gaps or leads that seem hot, trails that seem like I want to follow, then I research those. I think sometimes there’s this idea that there are all these waiting books and topics that you pick out of the sky and research, as if your teacher gave you a list like, “Here are ten books that you can write a book report on.” I think it’s so much more of an organic process than that.
SR: I read a review of The Argonauts in n+1 in which Moira Donegan writes, “The Argonauts is a project about queer family-making twice over: literally, as it tells the story of Nelson, Harry, and their children, and literarily, in its composition.” Everyone that you quoted and embedded into your book creates some sort of familial enterprise. Do you feel similarly, that you were creating a literary family?
MN: I think that comment is very astute, in that it was the guiding principal of the book. I’ve never really liked the word family or enterprise. Even before this book, it was not a word I would use, even in the sense of queer family, which many queers use really loosely as a means of recognizing each other. It was not my word. I’m lessening the bristle around it, but I think that the one way I could write about something you could call a literal family-making, in a reproductive logic, or in an adoption logic, was if it was paired with different forms of kinship. Most of my books of nonfiction feel like parties to me, where I’m inviting certain players at a round table. The cast of characters has similarities from book to book, but different main characters at the table. That’s part of the fun to me—bringing all these different people together.
SR: In the second half of The Argonauts you write, “I don’t want to represent anything… At the same time, every word that I write could be read as some kind of defense, or assertion of value, of whatever it is that I am, whatever viewpoint it is that I ostensibly have to offer, whatever I’ve lived… That’s part of the horror of speaking, of writing. There is nowhere to hide.” Since the release of this book, have you noticed people categorizing you as a representative of something? What is problematic about that?
MN: I think I’m kind of a hard writer to do that with. If you don’t know my other books, you might read this book and say that. It’s part of my personality structure, that whenever I do one thing, even as I’m doing it, there’s another part of me that’s slithering out of it, wanting to do the next thing that doesn’t resemble the thing I was just doing. I talked about it a little bit in the book, about my totem animal being an otter trying to skip away. Someone once said to me, “I don’t get it! Your book on the color blue—I thought you were obsessed with the sexual murder of your aunt,” as if you can’t perform different obsessions in different books. The books are meant to perform an obsession, or a way of thinking about a particular topic. In that same review that you’re talking about from n+1, I think she said something like, “It’s hard to imagine how she could ever write another book again, as it seems like the culmination of whatever,” and that seemed very humorous to me. I like this book; I think it’s a good book, and it does feel cumulative of my thinking about these issues at this moment in time, but there’s so many other things I have on my mind. Gender and sexuality, family-making, care, interdependence, they’re through-lines that appear in all my books, but the particular autobiographical, theoretical exercise of this was just a moment.
This was an interesting spring because of the marriage decision from the Supreme Court, and because of a lot of trans visibility campaigns. It, in part, explains some of the interest in this book, which is a good thing, because that means your writing is coinciding with something that is timely on people’s minds. I think the Argonauts, not the book, but the tribe, shows that people have been thinking about these things for a really long time, so it’s kind of an accident if the mainstream culture is like, “Let’s do a trans visibility campaign!” It’s not like that invented the existence in history of non-normatively gendered people. So, I think there’s always something quizzical about something being timely.
I think I’ve made it really clear both in the book and in interviews that, I don’t want this to sound too pretentious, the role of an intellectual thinking out loud is typically to provide nuance, not soundbites. So, I think if anyone came to me this spring, or later, looking for a kind of spokesperson for things that could be reduced in a way that the mainstream media likes, then the book would only disappoint. However, I’ve heard from a lot of people who were feeling uncomfortable with the reduction of some very complex issues in the media who were glad this book came out at the same time, because it felt like a richer representation of some complicated issues that were in danger of being misunderstood and compacted in ways that felt anywhere from disgruntling to violent.
SR: At one point in The Argonauts you write, “That’s what we both hate about fiction, or at least crappy fiction--it purports to provide occasions for thinking through complex issues, but really it has predetermined the positions....” In what ways does nonfiction avoid this imposition?
MN: I’m sure that it doesn’t. I’ve said in a different interview that so many people have asked me about that, fiction writers especially. I don’t think it does, because in the creation of any work you’re not going to be able to get out of the fact that you’re constructing a world with either/ors or with choices. There’s certainly a lot of fiction writers, the great moral nuancers like George Eliot or Henry James, who do not create worlds that create a binary of choices. The nonfiction or the fiction that I like the most leaves spaces within the universe it’s creating, instead of making you feel like the X-Men, that things are boiling down to a choice.
Part of why I hate kaffeeklatsch style post-theater conversation like, “What did you think of the play?” is that so often, without your knowledge, you embodied the rules that it was laying out to you about its world. When you enter into those conversations like, “do you think that he was morally right to have done this or that in the play,” no one is standing back and saying a playwright constructed this play, and made these issues, and these people acted them out. This is kind of Brechtian, but no one is getting the distance from the production at hand. I think it probably has something to do with the seductiveness of fictive universes.
In nonfiction, people often worry about painting other people in a negative light. One thing I’ve noticed a lot is that when you paint somebody negatively, the reader knows it’s a real person, and they have a kind of natural sympathy, which makes them think, “Wow, I wonder what the mother thinks of this. Now I know what the child thought, but what was going on for her?” It’s very rare that somebody says, “I bet this writer got it exactly right, and that person was really an asshole.” In nonfiction you naturally know the world that was created in a book, that the actual thing exceeds the writing. I like work that explicitly or implicitly reminds you of that space.
SR: Or at least acknowledges the space existing.
MN: What you do think?
SR: I think some nonfiction can go the same way as fiction. But like you said, it is a real world, and people often feel compelled to think about someone else’s perspective, just because it’s not made up. So, I agree. Though, I think some nonfiction might try to guide you in certain directions.
MN: It’s a spacious comment in its way in the book, because, as we’re deciding here, some nonfiction makes worlds that are more porous than others, and some fiction makes worlds that are more porous than others. Sometimes it just comes down to good, bad, or mediocre writing. I think that you can try to make all the space that you want in your fiction or nonfiction, but there’s a quality about doing it. A lot of people set out with the intent of leaving gaps and holes, but it’s not rendered well. It’s a very evanescent quality of what makes something work in that porous fashion, and what makes it feel closed down. It probably has a lot to do with talent and also where the writer is at as a person.
When I’m writing, there is this ongoing question of whether or not you can write yourself into more knowledge, understanding, or insight than you actually have. Can writing deliver those things unto you, or is it a kind of chicken/egg thing, that you need to have them before? And nonfictional, autobiographical writing has that chicken/egg question of how a self gets made, moves, or gets constructed. It’s always an issue for me. I’m always interested in if my writing has changed. You sit down to write for the day, and you always end up somewhere a little different. Did something happen to me? Did I write through my rage or is it still there? I said in my book Bluets that writing doesn’t really change anything, but I think it’s only in retrospect that you can see how a book changed someone or their thinking. That’s very interesting to me.
SR: Do you think anything about The Argonauts changed you?
MN: I have said that writing it helped me burn out a problem. I think some people have taken that to mean I’m giving up, that it’s kind of an easy way out. I feel like burning through a problem is not an easy way out, because when I burn out problems that were bothering me about normativity and queerness, something has happened. I burn it out such that I found a new doorway. I didn’t solve the problem, but I thought it through enough that it didn’t need to be thought any more. I think that makes space, which I guess is a big thing for me, finding new windows and doors to open in a room.
Wittgenstein, who is probably my favorite philosopher, talked about philosophy as showing a fly the way out of a bottle when it has been trapped. He talked about finding your way out of a mental cul de sac. He was the one who I was quoting in Bluets who said, “Philosophy doesn’t change anything, it leaves everything as it is.” If the fly is out of the bottle, or you’re out of the cul de sac, not everything is exactly as it was because something has been clarified.
SR: That’s interesting. I like the fly analogy.
MN: Me too.
SR: Toward the middle of the book, you discuss your writing process. You say, “My writing is riddled with such tics of uncertainty. I have no excuse or solution, save to allow myself the tremblings, then go back in later and slash them out. In this way I edit myself into a boldness that is neither native nor foreign to me.” I’m really interested in the idea of editing out one’s own uncertainty. Could you talk a bit more about your revision process?
MN: I love that Barthes quote where he says, “writing itself is assertive, you can’t hide out from the assertive properties of language.” There’s some kind of writing you can do where you say, “I think this, but I could be wrong,” or “correct me if I’m wrong.” When you first write them out, it feels good because you feel like you’re writing in a way that’s making space for doubt or self-scrutiny, possibilities of error, or just acknowledging that you don’t have a totalizing view. Even when you say very bold things that you might not want to stand behind in the morning, the writing itself can still be a performance with uncertainty woven into it because it’s a performative gesture. You’re not chiseling something into stone that’s going to be a commandment. Each scene of writing is a scene of performance. I think of it very much in a dance sense, because I used to do a lot of improvisatory dance. You enter the space, and you see the moves that you might want to make in that space, and then you go and try and make them.
Given that there’s so much uncertainty in that process, it kind of matters if you say “I think this,” before you say the thing, or whether you just say the thing, but I don’t know if it matters as much as we might be taught to think. I think it could be academic, it could be female, it could be a lot of things. It could be that I value a kind of jittery thinking all the way around an issue, but I also really love bombastic writing. I love Artaud, I love Susan Sontag, and I love people who are like, “The whole history of art boils down to two facts.” On a kind of undergraduate level, people respond like, “This writer is so bossy! Gertrude Stein says sugar’s not a vegetable! How does she know?” People get really reactive, but I think part of growing up is realizing you don’t have to feel bossed around by somebody else’s bombasticness, that you can just hear it as a mode of expression.
So, in my own writing I just kind of play with these poles of strong assertion and jitteriness. I think that some people might write a lot of bombast first, but I tend to write a lot of equivocating, and I have to find the sentence in the heart of the paragraph of equivocations that was the one I wanted to write. So, that’s what I was describing there. When I say “a boldness that is neither native nor foreign to me,” I mean it’s not native to me because equivocation is equally native to me, but on the other hand, I think I’m known as someone who says what she thinks boldly. So, it’s kind of a weird mix. As the cliché goes, you get to know who you are through writing and you make of these things, your flaws and your virtues.
It’s not for everybody, and that’s fine with me. In particular, when I’m writing, not so much with autobiography, but something that’s coded more as cultural criticism, people are often hungrier for pronouncements. “But what did you really think?” They’re frustrated with statements that seem like they contradict each other. People talk about that a lot with Susan Sontag. I have such an appetite for contradiction that that has never bothered me, and I don’t often go to writing for a streamlined argument. There are plenty of mainstream nonfiction books that you can go to for that, but that’s not really what I go for, because contradiction seems to me like a lifeblood of thinking.
SR: Right. I think that’s something that works thematically throughout the whole book too. I don’t know if you’d call it comfort in ambiguity, but the idea that we don’t have to have an answer to everything, or an argument for it.
MN: I think it’s foundational, too, in questions about gender and people being very bedeviled by this notion in feminism of “how can we deconstruct the category of woman, in such a way that we’ll have nothing to stand on? The sands will be shifting forever, and yet how can we also feel ourselves to be women?” I can see why, for some, it can cause a kind of cognitive dissonance that they find horrifying, but I like what Denise Riley says, “such are the shifting sands upon which feminism must sway.” That is the situation. The category of woman must always be problematized and destabilized. We also don’t need to put the category in the nearest trash bin, either. I think about the prominent debates the past year or so between cisgendered feminists and trans women: it seems as though there might not need to be such horror at meeting a contradiction if some of those shifting sands could be accepted.
SR: So, I think that we’ve gone into just about everything that I wanted to ask you. We do have one traditional question that we ask everybody.
MN: Oh no. Okay.
SR: We just ask what your writing space looks like.
MN: That’s funny. What does my writing space look like? I have a blind spot. I have no idea where writing ever happens. There’s no specific site, but if no one’s home I prefer to work at the kitchen table. If everyone is home, then I have a Tuff Shed, which is out of desperation. You can call 1-800-TUFF-SHED and they’ll deliver a tool shed kind of thing. So, I have a Tuff Shed in my backyard. If I can’t work at the kitchen table, I work out there. It’s a nice space. It’s small, 8x10. My old writing teacher, Annie Dillard, turned me onto the pre-fab cabin. So, all you need is a little bit of space to have one, and a little bit of money to have it delivered, and then you, too, can have a room of one’s own.