Monday, April 22, 2019

On Collecting: A Conversation with Rachel Z. Arndt

I am a collector: a collector of stones, of Czech-based kitsch. I love the competitiveness that comes with collecting: to have the best, the rarest, the most comprehensive. I’ve written pretty extensively on the subject, but since publishing my book, I’ve started thinking more pointedly about the art of collecting: how collected writing is able to hold a subject, construct narrative, establish theme. The hope for this semi-regular column is to explore the different way writers and artists express themselves through the collection, how these practices might help us in our own artistic pursuits.

I found myself pulled toward the work of Rachel Z Arndt. Her collection of essays, Beyond Measure, is focused not on the collection of objects, but the collection of data: of sleep quality, of weigh-ins at judo competitions, the ideal height for kitchen countertops. Rachel was kind enough to engage in an email conversation on the topic of collecting over the course of the past several months.


David LeGault: In Beyond Measure, it seems like this idea is most directly pursued in the idea of quantification: collecting data on sleep patterns, or exercise & weight, or relationships, or even tracking time itself. Although the essays of the collection focus on this idea of understanding through data, I'm curious how that same approach helps to shape your creative work. For example, are word counts useful as a prompt? does goal setting or structure help you to approach your subjects? Is it different for you when putting together one essay as opposed to the entire book?

Rachel Z. Arndt: Oddly, that approach doesn’t inform my creative work much. I say “oddly” because it seems even to me that it should—that I would benefit in my writing from the structured thinking of my emotional life. Sometimes I think it would be nice—or at least convenient—if I did take a more data-driven, data-collecting approach in my creative work rather than in my daily life. It would be nice to flip things, essentially: to be looser in my day-to-day thinking and more goal-oriented on the page. Wouldn’t I get more done that way? But there you can see the problem; you can see, that is, that I’m returning to this obsessive demand for productivity (which comes from step-trackers and Instagram likes and neoliberalism, among other forces) for everything to make sense and for the evidence to prove it does. So maybe it’s good—or downright miraculous—that I don’t rely on data collection when I write (not to say that I don’t rely on data and facts in writing, just that the act of writing isn’t dependent on measurement). Maybe it’s a relief that I write in search of a feeling rather than a quantifiable thought—though I’m almost loathe to come out in favor of qualitative, subjective, inexact feelings, to say that I write in search of some mushy sense of accomplishment, or really in search of the feeling that comes most often during sports, when I’m not thinking at all about what I’m doing and the sentences are just appearing. It’s become a habit for me to flip back through ink-saturated pages every twenty or thirty minutes when I’m writing, feeling them as if to make what I just did real, because I have no real memory of it. But to admit writing is potentially spiritual? That feels a bit too inexact.

Sometimes I momentarily deceive myself into thinking I can outline an essay before writing it. And I make the outline and I feel good about it—until I start writing, when it all goes out the window because I realize what I always realize: that I usually don’t know what I’m trying to say until I’m saying it.

Which doesn’t mean I’m opposed to structure, though, just that planning an essay—its thesis, its path forward—doesn’t usually work for me. Some structure is actually very helpful, but only when it’s formal structure and not a structure that has to do with narrative or content at all—the actual data that emerge in an essay. So a word count would be helpful on the sentence level but not on the level of the essay and especially not on the level of the book, when it might tempt—God forbid—outlining

Occasionally when I’m stuck, I’ll treat myself to the formal constraint of repetitive sentence structures (see especially my essay “Briefly”). When I do that, structure is actually freeing, helping my writing as strongly as it hinders my enjoyment of daily pursuits like seeing friends or eating.

DL: That is interesting. I like the idea that data collection/organization can function as a means of structuring life, but that having too much order can stifle creativity... almost as if you have to remove that part of your process in order to try and understand it's function: a way of stepping away from yourself.

On the same line of thought, I think it's one of the reasons I found your connection to judo to be so fascinating. From personal experience running track, cross country, and now marathons, I know the appeal of running has always been that quantifiable nature: that I can still tell you my fastest 5k speed and that it will always be a goal for me to chase. I suppose this also fits with a sport like competitive weightlifting where you're essentially competing against yourself. To me, Judo seems like the sort of thing you can train for, but that lacks that same objective level. This could be my ignorance of the sport though. Do you feel like Judo is another form of creative expression for you? That is to say, when there is so much appeal in quantifiable data, why are you equally drawn to things more abstract?

RZA: I will say that judo isn’t completely unquantifiable. There’s match time, scoring, seconds it takes to win by pinning your opponent, &c. There are throws that are as close to perfect that we might as well call them objectively perfect. There are points and national rankings and perhaps the most measured thing of all: weight. But I understand what you mean.

Still, judo by no means occupies the same part of my being that writing does. I have a hard time thinking of sports as creative. I know they can be for other people, but for me, creativity is thinking and sports are pointedly not-thinking. Sports are my body, not my mind.

That doesn’t mean I’m not drawn to the abstract, though—I am. I’m drawn to it because quantifying everything is exhausting. Just as measurements themselves are relative, so is the value of measuring—it is meaningful, that is, relative to what remains (or insists upon remaining) unmeasured. There’s a place and time (ha) for measuring. There’s even value in measuring what’s abstract—in rating restaurants, for instance. But there’s also value in abstracting what might usually be measured—in going “off the grid,” in “living in the moment,” and all those other wishy-washy wellness things that are so often marketing ploys but sometimes really are worthwhile ways of living. I take off my watch sometimes, I cook without recipes. I’m very exciting!

And just as there’s value in abstracting the measurable and measuring the abstract, there’s also value in simply not measuring, in not transforming one into the other. So there’s therefore value in knowing when to measure. I try not to measure my writing too much—or even to plan it out—because I know those measurements will hinder me. I’m drawn to the abstract—to writing in particular—in part because there’s not the pressure of metrics (at least not at first).

But then again, there’s the sometimes unbearable pressure of never knowing, exactly, how well you’ve performed and the unbearable impossibility of recreating the circumstances exactly of when you performed well.

Which is not to say there’s more value in what’s quantified. I just think, because we usually use numbers for value, the value of the quantified is more accessible and more obvious. And it therefore holds greater appeal. But the appeal of the abstract is the very fact that it can’t be quantified. Perhaps it holds meaning only relative to what’s measured, or perhaps there’s inherent meaning. Either way, it’s meaningful, at the very least because it gives us points of comparison. I don’t mean to valorize the off-the-grid ethos that seems mostly an excuse to post on Twitter about going off the grid, only to say that for me, there need to be points of relativity not only within measurement but also around it.

DL: I love this line of thought: that it is the balance between quantification and the abstract--perhaps the pull between these two extremes--that can give conflict to an essay, to the project as a whole.

And I think this gets me to a point where I'd like to shift gears a bit and talk about the collection as a whole: as I've mentioned, the idea behind this series of conversations is to think about this act of collecting, to understand our own work of curating. With that said, how did this project start? Was it a preconceived idea for a collection, or did it come organically (that is, did you write enough essays that you began to see a pattern)? Beyond that, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the arc of this collection: I was really pleased when reading to see the connections forming between so many seemingly disparate essays.

RZA: The project started in a moment and also over years. The idea wasn’t apparent to me at first. I have a good friend to thank for making it so: She noticed I’d been writing a lot about measurement, which made me realize that yes, yes I was. At the time, I’d been trying to write more narrowly about sleep, but I’d been flailing, struggling to turn something that’s boring to watch and unknown in the moment into something compelling.

Once I knew I was writing about measurement, the essays—or at least the ideas for them—felt like a relief. Suddenly I had a word for the thing that had concerned me for so long. My readers—friends, publishing folks, peers—helped me figure out which essays to write and why, and for that I’m deeply grateful; they pointed out holes and redundancies, which became increasingly important to know about as the collection cohered (or, rather, as I began to call the shape it was taking “coherence”).

Arranging the essays was tough. I still don’t know whether I’m happy with the order. I like to think the movement within each essay follows associative logic (versus, say, chronological structure) and that the collection as a whole does the same thing. It was important to me to frame each essay correctly, so the reader would know enough about the narrator (but not too much) at each point along the way. I looked at the beginnings and endings of essays, trying to tie them together thematically, linking them as if with ligatures in typography: One specific letter need not necessarily be next to another specific letter, but when they’re adjacent, their shapes shift slightly to form an appropriate—and satisfying—connection.

I also wanted a balance between literal and metaphorical measurement throughout. And I didn’t want too many fitness essays (who knew I’d written so many!) in a row.

Some books that helped in not only writing the individual essays but in putting the right ones next to each other: “The Empathy Exams,” by Leslie Jamison; “Notes From No Man’s Land,” by Eula Biss; “A Woman of Property,” by Robyn Schiff; “The Folded Clock,” by Heidi Julavits.

Rachel Z. Arndt is a writer and editor. Her debut essay collection, Beyond Measure, came out from Sarabande in 2018. She received MFAs from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program and a BA in creative writing and Spanish from Brown University. She now lives in Chicago.

David LeGault's book of essays, One Million Maniacs, is now available from Outpost19. Other recent works appear or are forthcoming in The Normal School, Hotel Amerika, and Thin Air, among others. Although he calls the Midwest home, he currently resides in Prague, Czech Republic.

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