Melissa Broder is a poet, essayist, and the writer behind the Twitter account @sosadtoday. She has written an essay collection of the same name, So Sad Today (Grand Central, 2016), and four books of poetry: Last Sext (Tin House, 2016), Scarecrone (Publishing Genius Press, 2014), Meat Heart (Publishing Genius Press, 2012), and When You Say One Thing But Mean Your Mother (Ampersand Books, 2010). Her first novel, The Pisces, will be published by Hogarth/Crown in 2018. You can read a selection of her poetry here. Broder received her BA from Tufts University and her MFA from City College of New York. By day, she is Director of Media and Special Projects at NewHive. She lives in Venice, California.
EB: How did you begin writing nonfiction? What attracted you to the genre?
MB: When I lived in New York I used to write poetry a lot on the subway. When I moved to Los Angeles three years ago, I started to dictate a lot in the car—stream of consciousness style—and the pieces started getting longer. I think that’s how I started doing these longer, essay-type pieces.
EB: Were the pieces longer just because you were spending more time in the car than on the subway?
MB: Yeah. Exactly. I’m one of those people that’s not good at sitting still or relaxing.
EB: Me too, it’s fine.
MB: It takes effort to relax. But that’s how the essays began.
EB: So in addition to the essays, you’ve written four books of poetry. Do you identify as a poet or an essayist? How is writing poetry different than writing essays for you?
MB: I still identify as a poet, a poet and writer. I feel like I write poetry and prose from somewhat different places. When I write poetry, it comes from a place that is not ego or my linear mind. I want to just channel and receive, and not control as much. But when I’m writing prose, I feel like there is more of an element of ego and control. I was actually at a meeting that was at an elementary school the other day, and there was a quote in the kids’ poetry section that sums up how I feel about poetry. It was something like: “We don’t write poetry to necessarily figure things out but to ask the question.” Poetry dwells in the realm of mystery. You’re not trying to figure shit out and answer all the questions.
Though essays do leave a lot of questions too. I’m not one to wrap it all up in a bow––life is not like that. There is such a weave at play of different sectors, and that’s how I see the world. There are a lot of questions.
EB: There are obviously many types of nonfiction within the nonfiction genre—personal essay, narrative nonfiction, reported journalism. Would you consider poetry a type nonfiction as well?
MB: There will be times when I’m writing nonfiction when I feel like it’s writing me. That’s how I feel when a good poem gets written—like the poem is writing me. There are times when I am writing nonfiction that it feels like poetry, but with nonfiction I’m setting out to accomplish something or explore a certain area, while with poetry I have much less of an agenda.
EB: I loved your book So Sad Today, which is a collection of extremely personal personal essays. I often use writing to figure out how what I am thinking and feeling—through journals and essays. Do you use writing, and nonfiction in particular, as a form of self-medication or therapy?
MB: I was just at my therapist’s yesterday, and I felt like why am I still going to therapy, and then I go, and, every time, I realize that’s why I go. A good therapist helps you figure out what you’re thinking. But how do I use my therapist versus how do I use writing? Writing has helped to keep me alive and give me a sense of meaning. It gives me a sense of motion and a feeling of control. If I am in this big moveable world, being moved by forces not my control, writing gives me the illusion of having a little treadmill in the abyss. Through writing I can square off an area, and I can move within that area. I guess there is a therapeutic element to it, but I wouldn’t say it is the same. My journal is largely a lot of exercises I am doing with myself to keep my mind from consuming itself. The journaling that I used to do when I was younger was more like the nonfiction I write right now, but it’s only therapeutic in the place that it gives me a place to control the narrative of my life.
EB: In my interview with Virgie Tovar, she said nonfiction is powerful because it gives women the chance to be in control of their own narratives. There is so much in the world completely out of women’s—really, everyone’s—control, that writing is comforting as one thing that is completely in your power.
EB: So Sad Today grew out of your Twitter account of the same name. Are tweets another form of nonfiction for you? What is the role, do you think, of social media and the Internet in your nonfiction, and in the greater world of writing?
MB: I think tweeting is good for my writing because, in general, I am not a big cultural commentator. I am an introverted person. “Introverted” is a nice way of saying self-centered. I do more gazing in than out—I’m not into cultural trends because I’m more into myself. Twitter is good because it keeps the faucet on for me. But Twitter is also a lot of cheap shots because your audience is right there. I never would have been able to write the So Sad Today book if I knew the audience. I had to write it like no one would read it, and I had to publish it like I hadn’t written it. I published it, and then I didn’t think any more about what was in it. It had to be two separate components. But with Twitter there are not two separate processes. I guess you can forget you have an audience on Twitter and go nuts… but in some ways I feel like @sosadtoday is still an anonymous Twitter account. I feel like I can say whatever I want there, more so than an account with my name and face.
EB: So then what is the connection between the @sosadtoday Twitter account and the So Sad Today book? Is all that they share the name?
MB: We all wear these masks. I felt like I wasn’t able to be free and be truly honest, and the only way to do that was to be anonymous. I needed that refuge. I have good friends, I have therapy, but I still felt like I wouldn’t be okay without telling people what is really going on. The anonymous Twitter account gave me the confidence to realize that it might be okay to talk about these things. And then I started writing these essays and they were about the same stuff [as the tweets], but I thought about them like no one would ever attach them me.
EB: When did you reveal that you were the author of the @sosadtoday tweets?
MB: Well, I wanted to do the So Sad Today book anonymously, but my publisher said you have to do it as you. But I waited as long as possible to reveal myself, and finally they were going to be announcing the book and I freaked out, and I decided to tell the fans myself.
EB: In general, when writing personal essays and nonfiction, what has been challenging for you?
MB: Whenever I am writing prose, I keep thinking: why do I have to say this in so many words? The poem is such a short, terse amount of space. Does this really require so many words? Is this really necessary?
EB: Ha! And what has been rewarding about writing nonfiction?
MB: As a poet, I think I had some prejudice against nonfiction and fiction writers. Poets don’t make money; we don’t have agents usually (only some very special dead ones or near-dead ones do). It’s a different life. You do everything yourself. That has been a big change for me with writing nonfiction—not doing everything for myself. It’s been different trusting an agent to do something or a publicist to do something. Poets are not doing it for the money. You’re writing poetry because you like writing poetry. It’s not for the fame or the money. It’s for the poetry. So I had this prejudice: Fuck big writers! Fuck people who are making money from writing nonfiction and fiction! And maybe this is cognitive dissonance, but as I was writing it I realized, oh, you can write nonfiction with integrity and make it an art form.
EB: What do you think you personally bring to your nonfiction? What makes something Melissa Broder nonfiction, as opposed to Eula Biss nonfiction or Meghan Daum nonfiction?
MB: I don’t know! I can tell you what is not a Melissa Broder essay. Not fucking click-bait headline titles. There has to be wit in the title and some level of craft to it. “Ten Things I Learned About My Asshole” is not going to work. Because then I feel like I am abandoning everything I believe in. The self is usually in there somehow. I can usually relate things back to me. When I said that I am introverted and self-facing, I’m not taking other people’s inventory. Judgment of others is not where my interest lies. I am not a critic. I am a self-critic, but not a critic. If I don’t like a book, I just won’t review it. I will only review a book if I like it.
Scratch all this! The main thing is I am usually involved somehow. There is always a component that has to do with me, for better or for worse.
EB: Me too. Even when I am writing a book review, I always find a way to get myself and my own story in there. My life always affects my nonfiction. How does writing nonfiction affect your life? Has writing nonfiction changed you at all?
MB: I think I am pretty much still the same. I am still searching. I am still not rendered whole.
EB: Finally, what is a favorite passage of nonfiction by a woman writer?
MB: I wouldn’t call this my favorite quote, as there are so many favorites, but one I like is from Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey:
Short Lecture on Your Own Happiness
You know how to write poetry, it is all you need to be happy, but you will not be happy, you will be miserable, thinking you need so many other things, and in years and years of misery, you have only one thing, as poets, to look forward to, the day you will not want what you haven’t got, the thing you have got is poetry, let nothing cheat, steal or deflect you from it, even poetry itself.
E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Toast, The Butter, xoJane, Ploughshares online, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, among others. E.B. has an MFA from Columbia University, and she runs an interview series on Fiction Advocate called “Non-Fiction by Non-Men.” You can visit her website at www.ebbartels.com, see her tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.