Monday, April 24, 2017

Chris Wiewiora: My Selected Marginalia, Pulled Quotes, and Underlining from Mary Ruefle's Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures

“[T]he wasting of time is the most personal, most private, most intimate form of conversation with oneself.”


“I think fine poetry in this context means vintage poetry, as in fine wine, poetry of long-established recognition.”

Acceptable/luxurious taste.


Madness, rack, … honey.
            …so sweet.
[V]erse has become honey.


[F]rom the figurative to the literal. Metaphor as event.

Exchange/connection with time.


‘Language is self-awareness.’

I am me.

One understands oneself: not distinct or separate.



Torment, pain, torture…rack.”

On the rack.

Too much to handle; can’t go further.

What “fine” poetry does à want of proper economy or management; waste and destruction [as in rack and ruin]

Circled: “to strain to the utmost”

Gets harder and harder to write.”

Tolerance for pain.


Continuing to attempt, assaying (madness).

And I am wasting your time, and aware that I am wasting it; how could it be otherwise?

Again and again, doing nothing.


Distraction is distracting us from distraction.


“…drifting into the madness…”

or distracted from pain by reaction?


Circled: “in”


“From first to last, there is no evidence that she laid any plans for the course of her life. She seems, above all, to have wished to avoid ‘doing something about’ her life, and when, from time to time, the obligation was put to her, to make some sort of career for herself, and so prepare for her future, she tried to meet these demands, and failed.

—Muriel Spark”

Allowed self to be distracted/wasted time well.


“…had not read a single book in three years.”



Emily Dickinson never lived alone for a single day of her life.


Emily Brontë never lived alone for a single day of her life.

Family and nature are always with us.


…she stayed at home.

Spinster -> busy/homebody, thread/sew, storyteller.

Home = place w/ family (or nature?).


An educated person is one who can be reasonably called upon to draw a conclusion. Alas, the only conclusion Emily and Emily drew from being in school was that they would rather be home.”

Retreat from world to home.

Circled: “conclusion”


Circled: “navigator”

Find a path.


“J.D. Salinger once remarked, ‘A writer, when he’s asked to discuss his craft, ought to get up and call out in a loud voice just the names of the writers he loves,’ and then he listed the names of the authors he would call out, and on the list of sixteen names there is only one woman, and her name is Emily.”

Learn from reading.

Who are my 16?


“[E]very window has two sides.”

Is there a middle to a window? Between out- and inside.


“When Anne Frank was in hiding, one of her favorite activities was to look out the windows at night, which was the only time it was safe to do so. Her diaries record these yearning and rapturous moments, and even if the street was empty it was for her full of remembered life. Every time you so much as glance at the moon, you are looking at the same moon that Anne lingered on with so much heightened emotion.”

Every human shares the sky.


“…through and beyond.


“Is it because I haven’t been outdoors for so long that I’ve become so smitten with nature? I remember a time when a magnificent blue sky, chirping birds, moonlight and budding blossoms wouldn’t have captivated me. Things have changed since I came here.”




…an outside pocket, completely outside.”

A pocket of one’s own.

Envelopes and paper.

Circled: [pocket on ink drawing of dress]


“…she would rather be with her dog than with them.”



Creative writer.

Writing literature (for the ages).


Does a writer have to be from birth an artist?


a swimmer’swater


            polar explorer


sailing              iceberg

Different forms.

                                    Circled: “—”


a fly

            Hope has feathers,
            reason is a plank
            life is a loaded gun


“…we don’t want to take off Toni Morrison’s clothes.”



Rape: to take away by force.


[D]oes not want any of this to be happening—



Collins isn’t even accurate.


[N]othing to join.”


[E]dited out by her father.”


[R]efused all help.”

“Self-consciousness includes the consciousness of self-death.”


[L]iteracy of death.

[A]bsence of consciousness.”



ßDickinson                            Brontëà
back                                         forth


But what of Anne?


Did she still have courage and faith in the end?


More than Love & Death?

Comedy & Tragedy.


I don’t know if there is a connection.”

How does Anne fit?


‘They have no experience of the world.’

Yearn to live!


“A small gargoyle, a rubber heart, an old key, a guitar pick, a sequin, a sprig of heather, and a piece of hair.”

Left at grave.


“A doorknob.”

A key.


“When I was twenty-five I began to keep a monthly list of the books I read.”


I read five books a month, or sixty books a year.

= 1 per week

[I]n high school I was required to read a book a week.”

What high school?

2,400 books in my life.”


“I probably remember two hundred, or 8 percent.”


“When I was forty-five years old…I could no longer read.”

Listing for 20 years.


“…should I read more and more new books, or should I cease with that vain consumption—vain because it is endless—and begin to reread those books that had given me the intenest pleasure in the my past.”

Discover or settle.


Have I changed?

When are we ready to read?


“…afraid to finish…”



“To reread a book is to make a pollard of it.”



“…one day you wake up and realize religion is ridiculous and that you will stick with it anyway.”



“There was one book I read not only at the right age but also on the right afternoon, in the right place, at the right angle. I read The Waves on an island, on a plotless day, when I was twenty-two years old, sitting on a terrace from which I could see in the distance the ocean….”

My read: The Bell Jar during summer with a fever.


I find nothing in my life that I can’t find more of in books. With the exception of walking on the beach, in the snowy woods, and swimming underwater. That is one of the saddest journal entries I ever made when I was young.”

What would I say?


“…my own private journals, which I began writing when I was sixteen and ceased to write when I was forty.


“As is my habit, I was copying selected passages from the Seferis into a notebook. Later that evening I began reading a journal I kept twenty years ago. In it, I was reading the notebooks of the poet George Seferis (1900-1971) and had copied into the journal by hand my favorite passage, which was identical with the passage I had copied earlier in the day, believing completely that I had never encountered it before:

But to say what you want to say, you must create another language and nourish it for years and years with what you have loved, with what you have lost, with what you will never find again.”



“If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place?”

Kafka: axe to ice.


“A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.



“…lost it.

What is a fav book from childhood that I don’t return to?


“For years I planned a theoretical course called Footnotes. In it, the student would read a footnoted edition of a definitive text—I thought it might as well be The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge—and proceed diligently to read every book mentioned in the footnotes (or the books by those authors mentioned) and in turn all those mentioned in the footnotes of the footnoted books, and so on and so on, stopping only when one was led back, by a footnote, to The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.”




“‘I have always kept ducks, even as a child, and the colours of their plumage, in particular the dark green and snow white, seemed to me the only possible answer to the questions that are on my mind.’”

M, R, & H epigraph!

…a path of color on the secondary wings of most ducks.”


“…reading is a great waste of time… a great extension of time,supreme joy?

Reason to read.




“I do not know how many letters I have written or sent by mail in my life, but I know of only two that did not reach their destination.”



“—the dead bodies of soldiers strewn across a battlefield—”

Dead on postcard!

“…I have always thought twice about the fact they ended up in the office of dead letters.”

Dead letter office.

“[T]hat remote and obscure place of absolute silence, which for me is more accurate description of hell than a writhing inferno of animated anguish.”

Being ignored = hell.


“[F]our forces:

1.)    fatelessness     Death of God.
2.)    open uncertaintyleisure time         Reading life.
3.)    travel  … ‘adventures’            Others.
4.)    postal system”             Mail.


“Hence one contender for the first modern British novel is Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, written in 1740 in the form of letters, a book in which a member of the working class marries a member of the ruling class. In its essence then, the English novel as a form originates from a sense of uncertainty: what will happen to these characters?”

Epistolary / class divide.


In what form will the novel survive….”

“How does the e-mail travel through cyberspace to its destination? How can I hold something in my hand and hear a voice halfways around the world?”

Is it more or less awesome?

“It has been argued that the rise of e-mail is a revival of literate communication.”

What about texts?

“I am fascinated by the new set of signs and symbols e-mailers employ to denote emotional resonance in their clickings: I am told there is a symbol that lets the reader know the communication is ironic.”



Emily Dickinson.”

Dickinson’s letters housed nests of language eggs that hatched as poems and flew.


[P]rayers are lettersurgency.”

Three prayers: Help, Thanks, Awesome.



All letters are gossip!


“On September 11, 2001, when the two towers of the World Trade Center collapsed, many people were haunted by the last-minute cell phone calls made by those about to perish.”

Voicemails of the dead.


“Nothing I understand haunts me. Only the things I do not understand have that power over me.”

Knowledge is control. Ignorance is submission.


I get so very tired of having to talk about literature.

Ha! Yeah right.


“…made friends with the dead…”

Do we write because we figure we could be read? We write because we read, because language communicates our value.


“[B]y bringing her hand a little way in one direction, she left a mark upon the paper. ‘That’s all there is to it,’ she said, ‘but it’s a miracle. Once there was nothing, and now there’s a mark.’”

Creation is effort.


“Sad to me is the demise of the telegram, because even if the message was utterly mundane, it always seemed urgent….”

Text as telegram

“…horrific flow from which there is no escape.


“…our prayers are denied sent back….”


“Once I saw a man beating his mailbox with his bare hands.”



“There is’nt room enough; not half enough, to hold what I was going to say. Wont you tell the man who makes sheets of paper, that I hav’nt the slightest respect for him!”


Always write as a writer (delightfully).



—[Sir] Master—




to Amherst—

Dickinson’s letter.



Irreverence and sincerity are not opposed.”

Irreverence: a word/act that strips dignity.




People don’t want to take the time to write (read) poetry.


Isn’t all art irreverent?


“When Borges, visiting the Sahara, picked up a little bit of sand, carried it in his hand and let it fall someplace else, he said, ‘I am modifying the Sahara.’”

Writing = modifying.


“The poem, more than any other art form in existence, is the perfect vehicle for the direct expression of personal love.”

The best use of poetry is writing/reading about love.


[D]eclarative sentences are not important.”


Instead command, question, gloom/exclaim.


“I offer my dinner guest, after dinner, the choice between regular and decaf coffee, when in fact I don’t have any decaf in the house. I am so sincere in my effort to be a good host that I lie; I think this probably happens all the time in poetry.”

Death to decaf!


“You hear so much talk about risk-taking in poetry. Lying is a form of risk-taking, but no one talks about that.”

Lying is risky.


“Nothing would make me happier than to see an international ban on fact-checking.”



“‘There is such a thing as sincerity. It is hard to define but it is probably nothing but your highest liveliness escaping from a succession of dead selves.’”

Sincerity is highest liveliness. —Frost


“To those who think poetry is dependent on the past: it isn’t. It is dependent on the present, the moment of the poem’s making, the mysterious presence of its absence…”

A poem becomes poetry.


I remember when I realized there were still authors writing new books. All the books weren’t written yet.


[T]he cracked earth is a map.”


“I remember sending my poems to Little, Brown and Company, and suggesting they titled the collection ‘The Little Golden Book of Verse’… I was in the fourth grade.”


They were the publishers of my favorite author.”

Little House on the Prairie.

Pa was dead.


“‘I remember, I remember, / The house where I was born.’”

The title!


The [insert Little] Golden Treasury of Poetry.

“I remember (later) thinking it was a curious thing, that there were so many famous poems by not-so-famous poets.”

Better to be a famous poet or write a famous (read: still read) poem?


I was jealous of her strangeness.”

Who is your nemesis? Why? Where did they go?


“[I]t seemed forbidden in some way I couldn’t figure out; art was scary, strange, forbidden and the really confusing part was I wanted it and needed it.”

Yearning for art.


“I remember one afternoon my friend and I were in the studio and all the clay figures on pedestals were draped with white sheets and my friend told me her mother did that when she didn’t want to look at them anymore and I was totally confused.”

I can’t go on; I must go on.


“I remember standing in a field in Switzerland at dusk, surrounded by cows with bells around their necks, and reading John Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ out loud from an open book I was holding in my hands, and I started to weep—weep is a better word for it than cry—and I remember the tears slowly streaming down my face, it was that beautiful to me, and I loved poetry that much. I was eighteen.”

Remember when art affected you. Create that art.


“…a book of poems by the British Romantics, and the only other thing I can remember is that my life changed that summer.

Q. What book changed my life (as an essayist)?
A. Boys of My Youth


“…when a distracted classmate I did not know very well leaned over my book and write in it with her ballpoint pen: I’m so bored!!!

I remember trembling and soaring with anger, and I remember the weekend after the unfortunate incident took place, sitting for hours and hours in my room with a new book, trying to cope, copying by hand everything I had ever written in the old book.”

Re-write is less compelling than interruption.



Name drop.

He said that it was a lot like watching TV.”

Poetry is not TV.


“I remember the year after college I was broke, and Bernard Malamud, who had been a teacher of mind, sent me a check for $25 and told me to buy food with it, and I went downtown and bought The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats.”

Poetry fills.


“I remember sending my first short story out to a national magazine the summer after I graduated college, and receiving the reply, 'We are terribly sorry, but we don’t publish poetry.' I remember never looking back.”

Stick to genre.


“I remember reading John Berryman’s Dream Song #14 in my twenties, with its famous opening words, ‘Life, friends, is boring.’”

Living is thrilling!


“I remember rereading the poem, not for the second time, some thirty years later, and being struck by its excruciating pain.”


“I remember that I did not always know authors were ordinary people living ordinary lives, and that an ordinary life was an obscure life, if we can extend the meaning of obscure to mean covered up by dailiness, glorious dailiness, shameful dailiness, dailiness that is difficult to figure out, that is not always clear until a long time afterward.”

Routine livelihood.


“I remember the night I decided I would call myself a poet.

Can you call yourself a poet?

‘If you call yourself a poet then you cannot possibly be one.’



“I remember ‘remember’ means to put the arms and legs back on, and sometimes the head.”

Remember = re-live, embody.


“English is spoken by only 5 percent of the world’s population.”

Not more?


“One of the greatest stories ever written is the story of a man who wakes to find himself transformed into a giant beetle.”



“Socrates said the only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing.”

Que Sçais—Je?

“Now I have told you something about Socrates, and I suspect I have made you very happy, for a moment ago you knew nothing, and now you know something.”

Is Ruefle wiser than Socrates?!


“I never believed, for a moment, that anyone ever learned a single thing about poetry from hearing a lecture. Don’t misunderstand me; lectures are important insofar as they teach us how to talk about poems, but never do they teach us how to write them. Nothing does. Except, sometimes, the dead.”

Every song is a love song, even a requiem—a love song of life.

Song = poem.

“I think it’s because the minute they are dead all of their poems about death become poems about being alive.

Poets are dead people talking about being alive.


“Cries and whisper. A bang or a whimper. Whatever the case, if we want to be heard, we must raise our voice, or lower it.”

The whirlwind, the whisper.


[Y]ou will not want what you haven’t got.”



“When students are searching for their voice, they are searching for poetry. When they find their voice, they will have found poetry. When they find poetry, they will live to regret it.”

A voice needs to speak.


“I asked my friend the translator, What was the first known act of translation in the history of mankind? His answer was, Probably something into or out of Egyptian. I thought about this for a while and ventured a certainty: No, I said, it was when a mother heard her baby babble or cry, and had to decide in an instant what it meant.”

In the beginning the Word was God.

What was the word?


I could kill someone by writing a poem.


“After all that endless folding came a time when the brain had to keep growing without there being any more space inside the skull: thus writing and reading evolved.”

Thinking outside the brain.


“Research on the human brain continues to be a ‘last frontier’ of exploration.”

You are stardust.


“Ramakrishna said: Given a choice between going to heaven and hearing a lecture on heaven, people would choose a lecture.”

Rather talk about poetry than write/read poetry.


“A craft is a boat, ship, or airplane; the most primitive craft is a raft, whose very word is embedded in the word craft.

Great skill is involved in building a craft, for it is far from easy to make things that float or fly.”

We can only float on.

“Craft: skill in evasion or deception.”



“There are many reasons I don’t want to give any of these lectures, and you should probably know it made me angry and sad to have to string together these negations at all.”

I, too, dislike it.


“Lectures, for me, are bad dreams.”

Is workshop a nightmare?


I love pretension.



“You can imagine my horror when I wanted to give a lecture on this lecture, which would produce nothing but more language on language on language.”


“Fate gives us dying as a gift.”

Life as a burden.


“The skeletons retain gender in the width of the hip bones, yes, I don’t deny that the difference is still there in the bones, but what of the mind that has vanished?”

Is the mind gendered?


[M]y writing is the struggle between mind and what is without mind.


“Some poets can fly but they don’t have wings and they are the worse.”

Are poets dodos?


“[T]he young critic/admirer is not looking at the thing at all, he is looking at Beckett and Giacometti.”

The poet is not poetry.


“I have always believed I became a writer because in the fifth grade I had a pencil fight with a classmate and a piece of graphite has been lodged in my palm ever since.”

Three pieces in my hand.


Poetry is an asylum to me. Insanity is ‘doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.’

“According to the research of Arnold Ludwig, among all persons of all professions mental disorders appear most among artists. Among all artists, mental disorders appear most among writers. Among all writers, mental disorders appear most among poets.”

Poets are crazy!


After Chris Wiewiora wrote, As a poet..., in an essay for his undergraduate poetry thesis at the University of Central Florida, his committee chair told him, "You can't call yourself a poet!" At Iowa State University's MFA in Creative Writing and Environment he attempted to write a memoir focusing on the same content from his poetry, but despite earning his graduate degree he believed he had failed since it turned out he could only write essays. So, he writes essays which have been published on The Awl, The Billfold, The Good Men Project, The Lit Pub, The Hairpin, The Rumpus, and many other publications that begin with the definite article 'the.' His essays have also been anthologized in Best American Sports Writing 2016, Best Food Writing 2013, MAKE X, and The Norton Reader. Now, he is writing essays about reading books. Read more at

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A Close Reading of an Essayist Under Self-Imposed Duress

The multi-talented Elena Passarello was in Tucson for a few days last week, and I saw her at what feels like at least a half dozen or so different literary events (a reading with the inestimable David Shields, a reading for the Essay Daily anthology book launch, some craft talks, a Friday afternoon happy hour (the authorial happy hour is, in some ways, perhaps the most sacrosanct of all possible literary events), and some other events I am probably forgetting).  I then spent a good chunk of this past weekend thinking about her excellent March Fadness (i.e., the latest incarnation of Ander Monson's obsessive-yet-compelling literary community/pop culture bracketology experimentation) video essay set on Mark Morrison's "Return of the Mack" (which, coincidentally, knocked my own beloved Semisonic out of the tournament, alas).  I'm interested here in March Fadness & Passarello's video essay not so much in pop culture/cultural crit terms (though that's undoubtedly an important and interesting way of thinking about both these projects) but rather because of what they might reveal about the way we essayists conceive of and engage with persona and performance.

Although our discipline is self-consciously intellectual and often overtly concerned with epistemological limits, there are some ways in which our practice seems, well...odd in a theoretical sense (if not naive or even retrograde) to other artists and scholars.  To put it rather bluntly: essayists often have an uncommon amount of faith in the capacity of an I to constitute or articulate or represent (at least partially) a stable, coherent self.  I don't mean to suggest here that the essay is an area where 19th-Century notions of authorial intent live on.  Both New Criticism and Roland Barthes have rendered those easy, determinative notions of intent-as-meaning impossible, incomprehensible.  And I don't know of any essayist who thinks that their person can be easily slipped en tout into the page.  There's always elision, construction, subtraction, a certain amount of squeezing and trimming, and so on and so forth.  There's never quite going to be total agreement as to what forms of alteration are/aren't acceptable (e.g., we will never live in a world free from think-pieces about D'Agata's projects), but there's a general consensus that what an essayist ends up offering the world is a contingent persona (a representative aspect or set of aspects of the self) rather than the self per se (as if one could even get at such a thing directly).  What's distinctive about the essayistic use of persona, as compared to the way it's used in say, poetry, is the implicit expectation of partial correspondence with authorial self.

It might be helpful to think about some of this in light of Ander's conversation with Yiyun Li earlier this month, particularly in light of the distinction between self-as-subject and self-as-instrument.  Self-as-subject can be a rather boring thing to encounter.  But self-as-instrument?  Self-as-instrument (i.e., applied persona) offers something rather unique: a chance to partially invite the reader into the unspooling mind of the essayist, a sort of performance of intimacy, connection, empathy.

Passarello's March Fadness video essay is absolutely fantastic at this sort of connection-making, which is why I'm going to proceed here by offering a short reading of each video segment, in an effort to articulate some hopefully useful/steal-able craft moves.

[The Stage is Set; Rules are Introduced; And So We Begin]

This first video does much of the necessary expository work with regards to the essay's conceit: the essayist will listen to "Return of the Mack" on repeat for 24 consecutive hours.  This is, obviously, a sort of performative set-up, and an excellent example of what Ander calls the Bad Idea Essay. One is struck by two competing sentiments: "oh God, Elena, please don't do this to yourself" and "oh God, Elena, please continue with this terrible idea so that we can see how it goes".  But the stakes go beyond just the stunt quality of the conceit: the persona on display here has a real question (i.e., why they like this song, and whether or not their attraction to it is ironic, sincere, "feigned ardor", some combination, or something else entirely) and tacitly invites the reader/viewer to connect themselves to that investigation.

[Regret Sets In; Admissions of Fallibility; an Anecdote of Youth; the Cat is Disinterested]

Immediately the essayist confesses that this entire project is "a little harder than I thought it was going to be," i.e., the nature of the Bad Idea Essay is made explicit.  But again, the piece offers us more than just the amusing spectacle of a witnessing a person survive the experience of a '90s 1-hit wonder on endless, droning repeat.  The reader gets a relatable anecdote (who hasn't at some point been in a crappy job or gig where the playlist was an easy way to mark time?).  And there's a sort of intimacy-building confession: "my journey involves a lot of misinformation" with regards to the lyrics of "Return of the Mack" (which means that the essayist is going to be working through this reprocessing for the benefit of the reader/viewer).

[Encounter with a Senator; Identification with the Lyrics; the Essayist Explicitly Acknowledges that in Other Contexts this Project would Constitute Literal Torture; Significant Lip Syncing]

Another appealing aspect of this essay is the everyday ordinariness of the setting.  Yes, the conceit of listening to a song on repeat over 24 hours is ambitious and extraordinary, but in other regards this video essay gives us a sort of fly-on-the-wall observational window into the familiar: we're situated in an ordinary home, listening to a person talk about familiar stuff: errands and politics.  We also get a long, rambling, things-are-starting-to-unhinge-a-little-bit-maybe digression that nonetheless ends at a moment of real insight about what the repetitiveness of this song must mean in Mark Morrison's life.  Are the digressions offered by this essaying persona practiced?  Mostly impromptu?  Kind of extemporaneous?  Carefully rehearsed?  Totally off the cuff?  Does it matter? (No, it does not: the experience of connection works the same either way).

[A Brief Silence is Enjoyed; a Lively Karaoke Performance Occurs]

A different, more self-explanatory form of skillful performance.

[The Woman is Considered; an Unknown Cocktail is Consumed; Comparisons to Writing Exercises; Was that a Skype Noise?]

The conversational working-through of the song's significance continues here, marked again by expressions of intimate ordinariness, e.g., the essayist drinks....something(?) and there is a background noise that is possibly from Skype(?), serving as a reminder that a real life is continuing in and around the moments of this experiment selected and performed for us, the readers/viewers.

[Obvious Exhaustion; a Spoken Recitation]

The grinding forces of seventeen hours of consecutive repetition continue their erosive motion.  The only possible response is Chekhovian: immense sympathy tinged with morbid amusement.

[The Essayist Considers Vanna White; the Rise of the Machines; an Expression of Concern]

This check-in is very similar in structure to that of hour eight in that we get to see the action of a digressive (perhaps even now somewhat unmoored) mind working through its own ruminations, this time by centering on Vanna White as a sort of metaphor or representative figure for machine automation as a segue to a frank consideration of human agency (i.e., "the Vanna-ness of Vanna") and doubt.  The editing deliberately refuses to show us a neat resolution to this thread of thought, thus formally enacting the same murky ambiguity experienced in real time by the essaying persona.

[A Dream is Recounted; the Essayist is not a Poet; a Momentary Headphone Lapse]

Another uncertain confession: "I feel like I'm not really learning anything" (but we, the readers/viewers, certainly are).

[Oral Care]

How else could all this end if not with flossing?

Will Slattery helps curate things here at Essay Daily.  He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery.

Monday, April 3, 2017

A Conversation with Yiyun Li

Ever since reading Yiyun Li's essay, "Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life," an essay originally published in A Public Space a couple years back (it's also one of the essays ably essayed by V. V. Ganeshananthan in our new anthology out from Coffee House), it's really stuck with me. When I found out that Random House would publish a collection with the same title last month, I emailed her in the spirit of writing from one life to another, to ask her some questions about the book, and she was gracious enough to have a conversation about it. And now, of course, if you haven't, you really ought to buy this remarkable book. —Ander Monson


Ander Monson:
In the last decade or so, I've been thinking about what I value most as a reader in a work of literature, and I think for me the primary thing is that I want to have an intimate experience with a text. One of the things I loved most about Dear Friend (the title essay and the book as a whole) is how intimate this experience is, and I'm sure I'm not alone in that. That's in part because you're often enough speaking with the dead, which, as you point out can be a bit of an easy out: that's not a conversation that we're having exactly, when we're speaking to the dead. And as you put it, "When a book takes on a life for a reader it is already dead for the writer," so in a sense conversations with books are always conversations with ghosts. I wonder what sort of intimacies those ghost-conversations allow for that our conversations with the living might be capable of only rarely, if at all.
     I think this experience for me—which is a very powerful one, almost an ASMR experience--has to do with loneliness, or maybe I mean aloneness, as you put it: if this is not a lonely book, it is certainly a book of aloneness and its interruptions. It values (and performs, in its thinking) the time it spends alone—alone with a book or with a writer's work, which isn't quite the same thing. 
     Do you think of reading as aloneness or togetherness or some space between the two? Are you of multiple minds about this?

Yiyun Li:
Once at a reading, someone asked if writing was a lonely activity. I was a little surprised, as I had not thought of writing as a lonely pursuit. Writing can be frustrating or exciting but it’s never lonely. When one writes fiction, there are all those characters as companions of one's mind; with essays, one has to follow the inner logic of a thought or an argument until arriving at a place unknown to one beforehand. If loneliness is a state in which one longs to make a connection yet is unable to, writing, at least to me, is the least lonely activity. 
     Reading, on the other hand, is an experience that constantly reminds me of some kind of limit. If I’m reading Kierkegaard while waiting in the car to pick up my children, I really can’t—when I see something brilliant or interesting or hilarious—exit the car and show the passage to another parent. I have often heard of parents reading to children or lovers reading to each other. There is something lovely about it, but the best reading—that almost ASMR state as you call it—often happens when one is alone, and it is often as an out-of-time, out-of-place experience. Of course we long to share the experience with another person, but it is nearly impossible, as it is intensely personal. Intensely lonely too, in a good way.
     The conversation with a book is indeed a ghost conversation. It’s a compromise, of course. But there is something in that exchange that defines the limit of physical space and temporal space: the dead are always here, their words are permanent, and one has the luxury of not having to make small talk or having to be restrained by good manners. The intimacies in these ghost conversations are really the intimacies with one’s own mind. Can we have the same conversations with the living? Rarely, I suppose—I say rarely rather than never. It would be wonderful if that could happen more often, all the time, but I have to borrow Hemingway’s words, the last line of The Sun Also Rises: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

The multiple minds of the book create much of the tension for me (this is a very essayistic tension, as you allude to later). Often enough Dear Friend seems to be you arguing with yourself (are you are both the I and the Dear Friend at times, I wonder?) and giving yourself the space to contain and try to corral, or at least put into conversation, a set of contradictions. Some of these relate to the inherent tension that you talk about in writing autobiographically: you're drawn to these writers who do and yet you seem to eschew autobiographical writing. You're envious of those who seem to never make that turn, and yet here you are making the turn toward the autobiographical. You gloss this nicely in the section talking about your dislike of the English word I. If autobiographical writing is a burden, and it seems like it sometimes (always?) is, what sorts of freedom come with that?

I was having a difficult time for two years, which I now think of as an autoimmune disease of the mind, meaning that my mind targeted itself as though it were targeting a non-self. Writing the book was in a way to accept that condition and to make use of it as much as I could. You are right. It’s a book written to argue against myself, to dissect myself—logic and illogic, rational thoughts and irrational feelings. It’s interesting that you ask if I am both I and the Dear Friend.
     For the most part of the book (or the writing of the book) I was my own enemy, and I was aware of that (“One always knows how best to sabotage one’s own life.”). But I also knew I had to maintain the conflicts and tensions to be able to do what I needed to do. (“Evasiveness rarely leads to joy, and there is, one must admit, a sense of joy if one can dissect something, oneself included, with precision.”) Only when I reached the last line of the book did I realize that I was becoming my own friend. (“I want one day to be able to say to myself: dear friend, we have waited this out.”)
     My discomfort of autobiographical writing and my discomfort with the pronoun “I”—I think it’s especially a burden or a struggle to me. Perhaps the best explanation is that it’s as innate as one’s hair color or eye color. But reading other autobiographical writers, especially John McGahern, I understood another way to look at autobiographical writing. (“No one’s vulnerability is more devastating than the next person’s, no one’s joy more deserving. What happens to McGahern is only life, which happens to us all.”) Without that understanding, more than half of the places where the pronoun “I” is used in this book would still have said “one” (English language does offer us one way out, to say one instead of I). I think honesty—honesty to the point of cruelty and ruthlessness, though this honesty is different than exposure or confession—is the freedom that comes with autobiographical writing. I can hide myself in all sorts of ways behind characters when writing fiction, but I cannot hide myself in the essays.  

Yeah: I think what a lot of people miss when we read I in essay or memoir that, as Patricia Hampl says, the self is the instrument, not the subject. So when I used to be revolted by the idea of writing about the self (how self-serving and somehow American, I thought, to write about it), I underestimated, as Sarah Manguso says, "the dimensions of the self." So when I was younger, I think when I saw memoirs or essays fail, they were failures of the instrument, not the subject. I misunderstood the nature of autobiographical writing.      So here's this line from Dear Friend: " Some people, knowing the boundaries of their selves, choose to disregard what is beyond as inconsequential." I wanted to put that in conversation with the full Manguso quotation: "Those who claim to write about something larger and more significant than the self sometimes fail to comprehend the dimensions of the self."      Is the difference between these two thoughts primarily "some people"'s faulty knowing or underestimation, or are you driving at something else?

This answer risks being ignorant, as I don’t know the exact context of Sarah Manguso’s quote. I would agree with Sarah, if my understanding is right that she is speaking from a writer’s point of view: a writer who doesn’t understand the limitlessness of the self may have a limited understanding of the world. [yeah, that’s what she’s talking about]
     What you quoted from Dear Friend is from another angle. I was looking at how “some people” can live without knowing the boundaries of their selves—specifically about the characters in Elizabeth Bowen’s novel The Death of the Heart. But we can also say it is a thought about readers more than writers, as Dear Friend is a book about reading, and I equate reading to living.
     When I first came to America, I was surprised—and I must say I’m still surprised every time I see such a standard applied to literature—that it’s good or great or even imperative that a reader should identify with a character; the complaint from a reader that he or she “can’t relate to a character” does sound to me as though what is beyond the reader’s self is inconsequential. I recently received a well-intentioned email: “It there’s anyone who can understand you it’s me.” The statement would be similar to a statement if you or I or any author would say to a reader: “If there’s one book that can speak truly to your experience it’s mine.” What imperviousness, what preposterousness, what arrogance! 
     So I wonder if you put Sarah’s quote and mine in a direct conversation, it might become a discussion of acknowledging the limit of our knowing and understanding, and how to expand a mind and connect with another mind with that innate limit.  

So when you tell us early that "I am not an autobiographical writer—one cannot be without a solid and explicable self," it helps to direct me from the expectations of autobiography into more interesting territory, which is where the thinking drives us. And as you read more and more explicitly in these pages, I find that you also draw yourself out. So I appreciated that when I read your I, I understand it not as an assertion of that self so much as an identification of a target or a question.
     And part of the heat of that question does have to do with that unwillingness (or inability, I suppose, but plenty of essayists find ways to hide themselves) to hide in here. So that feeling of danger--of the novelist working without the cover of fiction--just ups the possibilities for intimacy. 

In the earlier drafts of the book, in many places I avoided using the word “I” and always opted for “one.” But as most of the essays were written and rewritten over months and sometimes a year or two, I did eventually revise a fair number of “one”s to “I”s, so it’s an astute observation that you said I was drawing myself out. And what was drawn out was not I with an autobiographical narrative, but I which was to be questioned, as you pointed out. 
     Not offering a continuous narrative in a memoir (as the book is called) may strike people as evasive, but any narrative, at least in my experience, is about concealing as much as revealing, if not more. By choosing some detail and omitting others, we create a narrative full of corners and nooks for hiding. By not committed to a narrative, however, one has to constantly confront almost everything so as to make sense of it. I was unwilling to hide in this book. It seemed to me a pointless pursuit if I still hid—I might as well stay in writing fiction, where it’s easier to hide! 

You also pose this question, which it's hard not to read as a challenge for the reader, on 74-75: "What do we gain from wanting to know a stranger’s life?" We are, after all, reading this, some aspect of a stranger's life, and perhaps at this point we wonder just what is in it for us. Then later, on 127, we're at this idea that I found very pleasurable to consider: "To say we know a person is to write that person off." This seems both true and necessary to do in order to live a life, but also counter to the fiction of reading, which I I feel like I do to approach knowing (even knowing actual knowing is unreachable, still I yearn that way). I suppose that gestures at the paradox of literature, that in order to have an emotional or intellectual experience, I read something you wrote on the page that in some way both performs and documents some experience or idea of yours. The thing that happens in me isn't the same—almost certainly—as the thing that happened in you (much less what happens on the page), but one hopes that the three things are in a functioning relationship. 

A writer’s private words—journals, diaries, correspondence, notebooks, written for a specific reader or him/herself—reflect the messiness of life that can’t always be instilled into his/her poetry or essays or fiction. I prefer reading them to reading biographies, partly because a biography is always an effort to explicate and to give a narrative, while those private records don’t bear such a burden. What do we gain from wanting to know a stranger’s life, then? For myself, perhaps it’s the notion that time is democratic in its public measure but it is also unpredictable or unknowable in each individual’s private experience, and I want to know how another person experiences time and lives through time or even endures time. When people read my book, do they know some aspect of my life? Yes, but possibly in the same way—a reader would know more about my thoughts than a concrete narrative. 
     To say we know a person is to write that person off—I often think it is the saddest and most dangerous thing for anyone to say he or she knows someone, or anyone to be known that way. Knowing is unreachable, but we mortals (I borrow this phrase from George Eliot and include myself) would be more willing to say we know a person to write him/her off than to admit that we fail in our effort to know more or know better. Someone asked me an event if I did make it clear in my book about the narrative of the suicidal depression and find an explanation for it, and I thought that was exactly the danger of wanting to know at a surface level. Many things are inexplicable but it’s the inexplicable that often resonates between a writer and a reader. I imagine my job is to find the words to describe the indescribable—to get as close as possible—because as a reader, I’m drawn to the writing that is trying to describe the indescribable rather than the describable. Is that what you mean a functioning relationship?

Exactly! The best art to me allows the irreducibility or undigestability of real things to persist (and to become more singular and powerful by virtue of the rendering). Stories and novels and poems and essays and memoirs ought not to be problems to solve: they’re more like questions to artfully pose and work on, and that work is the best part. If we can too easily resolve things, we forget them. They don’t stay with us, do they? What we want is for things to stay with us. (And your book does.) 
     You said before that “Not offering a continuous narrative in a memoir (as the book is called) may strike people as evasive.” To me this doesn’t feels evasive at all: it feels honest: I’m suspicious of fitting the demands of narrative (which are the demands of story) to the facts of lives and the strangeness of our lived experience (at least I hope our lives are strange). Even as I acknowledge that we are wired to experience our lives narratively, I wonder about the effects of that pressure to fit everything in narrative. That same statement above also hints at a tension I felt in the book: it’s sold as a memoir, I guess, which is the way that I’m sure everyone wants to package it. Do you resist that term? It sure feels like essays—or maybe one big, long interconnected and interweaving essay—to me. 

Are we wired to experience our lives narratively? This is a new idea—I must admit it has never occurred to me! I wonder if it’s easier or more sensible to experience things narratively: time moves in one direction, and if we can have a narrative, with a beginning and a middle and an end, that goes to the same direction, at least it is attached to something…perhaps? The reason I’m puzzled is that I can’t say for certain that I experience things narratively. I don’t connect time with narrative. I wonder if there are two elements in any given experience—the part that can fit into a narrative, and the part that defies a narrative. It’s often the latter part that interests me most, in both reading and writing, this desire to experience something that is clearly attached to time but can be experienced separate from time. But I may be going to a place that needs clearer definitions of many things before discussion can continue!
     Do I resist the term memoir? I do. I was asked at a reading what advice to give to someone who wants to write a memoir, where to start, how to start, et cetera. The only answer I could come up with—despite my unwillingness to go back to my mother tongue—was to use the Chinese word for of “memoir” which, if translated literarily into English, is “memory-record.” So I said perhaps he could start to make some sort of record of his memories instead of finding a place to start.
   As for this book, I’ve always thought of it as a collection of essays, or, one long essay—essay is still one of my most favorite literary format—one long letter, and an ongoing conversation with Brigid Hughes, who’s been my first reader for my entire writing career and who worked closely with me on this book. It is a memory-record but also more than that. A thought-record, that is closer to how I think of it. 


Yiyun Li is the author of four works of fiction: Kinder Than Solitude, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, The Vagrants, and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. A native of Beijing and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she is the recipient of many awards, including a PEN/Hemingway Award and a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, and was named by The New Yorker as one of the “20 Under 40” fiction writers to watch. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, A Public Space, The Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories, among other publications. She teaches writing at the University of California, Davis, and lives in Oakland, California, with her husband and their two sons.

Ander Monson is one of the curators of this site and coeditor, with Craig Reinbold, of How We Speak to One Another: an Essay Daily Reader.