Virginia Woolf took her greatest risks as an artist in 1930. Fresh off the success of Orlando and To The Lighthouse, she embarked on The Waves, a more experimental, more fluid novel than her previous works. (She describes it in her diary triumphantly as “my first book in my own style.”) If The Waves marked an invigorating period of self-expression for Woolf, the process of writing it—and editing it—was nonetheless taxing. (“Never,” she laments, “have I screwed my brain so tight over a book.”) In an entry dated April 11th, 1931, Woolf, who was balancing a few writing projects at the time, complains about revision: “I am so tired of correcting my own writing… And the cramming in and the cutting out… But I have no pen—well, it will just make a mark. And not much to say, or rather too much and not the mood.”
Maggie Nelson is the author of The Argonauts, Bluets, The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial, and several other books of poetry and non-fiction. The Argonauts won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism and was a New York Times bestseller. Nelson has been the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an NEA Fellowship in Poetry.
Colter Ruland: I first read your work in an undergraduate poetry workshop where we were assigned Bluets. It was, without a doubt, the highlight of the reading list. It demonstrated how one can write about complicated ideas and be vulnerable concerning one’s personal narrative. Is writing from the personal a way for you to then engage with broader ideas, or is it the other way around?
Maggie Nelson: Thank you, and I’m glad you read Bluets as an undergrad! You know I don’t think of the personal and “bigger ideas” as opposite or even separate spheres of inquiry, per se. I often conceive of myself as doing the non-genius version of what Wittgenstein was doing when he would ask questions like, Can my right hand give my left hand money? It’s your body and it’s also a complex idea at the same time. As it should be.
CR: In many ways you’re breaking down hierarchies of language and subject matter, eliminating the sort of stuffy question of what can and cannot be put into conversation with one another. In The Argonauts, you write about your pregnancy and your partner Harry Dodge taking T, and it can occupy the same space as your and Harry’s (hilarious, insightful) interpretations of X-Men: First Class. Continue reading
After I read the last page of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, I closed it and put it in my bag. And then I took it back out and read all the praise on the back cover. And then I perused her bio and acknowledgements and all the praise in the first pages. I even read the end page that tells you about cover design and font and whether it is printed on recycled paper. (It is thirty percent post consumer wastepaper. Yes.) I started to read it again. I wanted to wholly absorb it. Study it, like notes for an exam. Make them a part of my brain so I could recollect them easily. Remember the paragraphs like I would remember the chambers of the heart. I needed to repeat each passage immediately.
I wasn’t ready to put it away.
When we were kids, my sister and I loved to watch Bambi—the classic Disney cartoon with the baby deer whose mother gets shot by a hunter, and whose standoffish father, “The Great Prince,” can silence the entire forest with his presence. Continue reading
The courtroom is a place where events recur. In the court, we are presented with recollections, archives, and evidence. In 1995, Americans watched the O.J. Simpson trial; ten years later the miniseries American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson appears in our living rooms. Crimes that were witnessed by many people are particularly suited to this type of recurrence. And the logic of the courtroom privileges the general over the specific, making “points” and “examples” that are cobbled together from crumbs.
The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson: “The Red Parts is a memoir, an account of a trial, and a provocative essay that interrogates the American obsession with violence and missing white women, and that scrupulously explores the nature of grief, justice, and empathy.”
Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings by Stephen O’Connor: “A debut novel about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, in whose story the conflict between the American ideal of equality and the realities of slavery and racism played out in the most tragic of terms.”
The Bed Moved by Rebecca Schiff: “The audacious, savagely funny debut of a writer of razor-sharp wit and surprising tenderness: a collection of stories that gives us a fresh take on adolescence, death, sex; on being Jewish-ish; and on finding one’s way as a young woman in the world.”
Also this month: We’ll interview Meghan Daum and review the Argentine writer Robert Arlt.