Breaking the Rules with Erik AndersonI got an email yesterday from Will saying,“Hey remember,your day for your Essay Daily article. You up for it?”
And I said, “shit shit shit shit shit,” to myself as I listed the upcoming shit I have to do and the total abandonment of my Essay Daily duties. I’m having a guest writer come stay at my house this weekend. I’m helping host the student graduation and scholarship event. I’m hosting a dinner , talking about ecopoetics on Sunday and hosting the reading with said visiting writer on May 15th. I have grading still to do and my summer class to organize, which also begins on May 15th, and in my head, I was like shit shit shit, who signs up to do stuff in May?
But I said to myself who signs up for stuff in April and I said the same thing to myself in March. I need to get it together, I said. I said, I could write about ecopoetics or visiting writers or the number of creative nonfiction jobs. But then I remembered the words that had been on my chalkboard—the giant to-do list that stares at me through all of February and March and April and May and even June—Erik Anderson’s Estranger.I read Estranger on the way home for the DC AWP. This AWP sticks in my head because of the protest marches and seeing the Trump Tower in person and for the relative chilliness of the air and the mediocre hotel room and the too much wine and it the fact I was in DC during the time of Trump and I couldn’t get into the African American museum so I went to the Holocaust Museum where I waffled back and forth, thinking oh my god, Trump should see this and oh my god, I hope he never sees this—he’ll get even more horrible ideas.Walking around town and looking at so much and talking to some many people felt heightened that weekend and it became a place that formed museum of my mind. In Erik Anderson’s book, he talks to a woman he meets as he hangs out in the museum café. What are museums for? To heighten everything? To arrest everything? To take most things out of context or to give everything some context (Feel free to answer, Erik Anderson)
Erik: The best museums offer agency, I'd say. The worst entrench power. Most museums do both, to varying degrees.
Erik’s book does what I want all books to do which is make me feel less lonely. Here is a guy who is struggling, according to the narrator at least, with being white and being a writer and being a parent. He’s alternately self-absorbed and so overwhelmed by his sheer love of others and empathy for them that I thought, oh. I wished I’d seen you in DC. If he had been there.So I woke up and emailed Erik immediately and said, “Oh please is two days too short to answer questions for my Breaking the Rules column on Essay Daily?”And because he is the kindest and most empathetic person in the world, he said, “Sure. I’m traveling but I’d be happy to answer a few questions.”He’s traveling. I’m cleaning the house, looking for the moleskin with the notes I scribbled in on the way home from DC and over the past few months as the word Estranger beckoned to me from my ever-haunting chalkboard.These notes? They make no sense. But then, if asking questions that make no sense isn’t breaking the rules, then I don’t know what is.So here are the questions, kind Erik Anderson. I won’t blame you if you decided not to talk to me after this.Nicole: One eyed owl, one eyed Naomi, sentences of present now. “Walking through park in the middle of reveries of the past.” How much does walking make writing? How did Naomi help you shape your understanding of the narrator? Is there structure in walking? In visiting Naomi?
E. Movement, rather than walking specifically, makes writing, at least for me. Or makes it possible, even though I also have a penchant for stillness, for narratives that barely move at all. Driving doesn’t make writing for me, but traveling in other ways does, or can. It unsettles, unsticks. Walking does this, too, of course, but on a smaller, more intimate scale than the car or plane and in a way that’s more livable, even if the environments one walks through are not. Whether there’s structure in it, well, there’s structure in everything. And around it. My particular body, and all the structures and systems that accompany being white and straight and male, shapes the situations I move through. Do we, in a sense, walk in or through and sometimes over others, like Naomi, as you suggest, and do these others shape us in turn? Do others provide a landscape through which to move and come to be? I like where those questions lead.
N: Lit Crit—Werner Herzog and Thoreau. Plastic cabins. Capitalism. Fights among poets. Facebook. Dissociation. Rocky up stairs. How many people can one writer be? How does one make oneself more multiple? Does one, in order to be a “success,” need to harass and corral all those multiple selves into one AUTHOR?
E. We are each several, no doubt. Multitudinous even. We have to be in order to navigate our varied social worlds. I don’t think we have to collapse that multiplicity of selves, or personas, into a single author in order for the work to succeed, although that could be one way of framing the arc of Estranger, i.e., toward some kind of solidified presence. There are times, though, when selves war with each other, which is what I was more interested in. Reconciling these selves to each other, which also meant reconciling, say, received forms of masculinity with something that had never really been modeled for me.
N: How does Naomi’s story help the narrator figure out his own?
E. This question made me have a silly thought. If a person breaks his leg in the forest, and no one is around to hear his screams, is he still a person? I mean, yes, of course he’s a person. To himself, anyway. But I’m not such an individualist, actually not much of one at all, that I would argue that in this context his personhood matters outside of his own completely valid experience of it. It’s terrible that he broke his leg, but only, for me, if I can register that he did, that he, like me, is a sentient being, capable of love and pain and much else besides. Can he make that pain walkable for me? Can he draw me toward it? Something like this happens with Naomi.
N: Walking becomes art when we discover who matters. When walking, does one lose the self and gain others?
E. I’m not sure I’d say loss and gain, exactly, but if I were to, I might say that in gaining others, one gains a self greater than the one that’s lost, that losing a self incapable or unwilling to gain others probably isn’t worth holding onto. Walking – in both the physical and interpersonal senses developing here – does expand one’s allegiances, one’s solidarities, and that’s a larger life, not a smaller one. But again, I’m not about to mount a rigorous defense of the self, though there are lovable things about it. I is such handy shorthand, for one thing. But I is also mostly that: the shortest and simplest expression of something far less singular and compact. I doesn’t really walk alone.
N: Are dads today jealous of their own kids’ more-present fathers?
E. Too early to tell? I don’t know what my son will think of me, and my parenting, when he’s my age. Is he going to wish for a different kind of father, less emotional, more distant? I’m not sure we ever get what we want from our fathers, or our mothers for that matter. Either we expect too much of them over time, or they’re not equipped to give the things we need, especially when we become adults. But your question is about me: do I wish my father had been more like I am as a father? In many (but obviously not all) ways he was, and is, that father. That said, there were a lot of things that were difficult for me, and some that remain so, that probably didn’t have to be. He’s not to blame for that, and had I been my own father I’m not sure I could have helped me any better. But the conversation, I think, would have been different.
N: Page 114, you write about distance and Thoreau. How far is Thoreau away, now?
E. I started to respond that the Thoreau who estranges himself from his life is far away, but then I remembered just how far away I am at the moment, in thousands of miles – and with no cell reception – from my daily life. So that notion from page 114 of transgressing one’s limits is still very much with me, but it’s no longer the crisis it once was, that gave rise to Estranger. I don’t, most days, feel the need to dissociate from my life, which is a good thing, because that urge can easily become unhealthy or unsustainable. I still love the Thoreau of the unfathomable pond that he fathoms nonetheless, of the wild woods he settles, and of the imponderable question he still tries to answer. That distance or tension between what we accomplish and what we attempt – that always feels close, and true.
N: Are you still talking to me?
E. Are you still talking to me? Are my answers absurd, or absurdly obvious?
Erik Anderson is the author of a book of lyric essays, THE POETICS OF TRESPASS (Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, 2010). He teaches creative writing at Franklin & Marshall College, where he also directs the annual Emerging Writers Festival. ESTRANGER (2016) is Anderson's second book of nonfiction and the fourth selection in Rescue Press's Open Prose Series.
NICOLE WALKER’s is the author of two forthcoming books Sustainability: A Love Story and Where the Tiny Things Are. Her previous books include Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg. She also edited Bending Genre with Margot Singer. She’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona where it rains like the Pacific Northwest, but only in July.