This Wednesday, Columbia School of the Arts hosted their first online Nonfiction Dialogue, wherein Writing Program Chair Lis Harris and author Maggie Nelson discussed freedom and criticism, discipline and love.
Although my Wednesdays already consist of three classes and a meeting over Zoom, I knew I couldn’t miss the chance to hear Maggie Nelson speak, and at 7:30 pm on September 30, I sat diligently at my desk and logged into the event, more focused, awake, and attentive than I had been all day.
Nelson’s work, for those who might not recognize her name, consists of combinations of poetry, critical essays, and personal essays that add up to nine complete books. In 2015, she published The Argonauts, a New York Times bestseller and National Book Critics Circle Award winner, which has become one of her most recognizable works.
Nelson has received the Guggenheim Fellowship in Nonfiction, an Arts Writers Fellowship from the Andy Warhol Foundation, and an acclaimed MacArthur “genius” Fellowship. Her pieces are a staple in creative nonfiction workshops and University Writing classes; I’ve been assigned passages from The Argonauts and the entirety of her short novel Bluets twice.
I clicked on the Zoom code only a couple of minutes early, but early enough to witness both Nelson and Harris’ understandable apprehension about a virtual evening. “I can’t watch myself talk,” Nelson admits, and laughs. Harris asks, “Should I wait as more people join? Oh, let’s get started.” After fifteen years of Nonfiction Dialogues, a School of the Arts evening series featuring distinguished nonfiction writers, Harris is eager to remind viewers that this is the first talk conducted virtually; she hopes it goes well!
Nelson, in a bright yellow blouse and bold red lip, begins the evening by reading an excerpt from her forthcoming book, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint, which will be published roughly one year from now. It’s a bonus for us, she says, since this event has to be over Zoom. The book is a cultural criticism that she finished while in quarantine, although she’s been reading and researching for years. Nelson explains that On Freedom will be divided into four chapters: art, sex, drugs, and climate change.
As she began to read, it seemed as though each of the 200 students in the virtual audience leaned forward toward their cameras. Even alone in my bedroom, I felt a specific sense of camaraderie with the fellow attendees; I knew we were experiencing something shared, something special.
Nelson, rather than fitting her writing into the categories of criticism, poetry, memoir, autobiography, or creative nonfiction, insists that she inhabits and explores each of them. When asked whether she believes she mixes the personal and cerebral, she responds that the two exist together. All critical writing benefits from the author’s heat and presence. After all, every writer is, in a sense, a delusional narcissist. Isn’t all writing just talking with yourself in a closed room?
On Structure and Form
Nelson says she believes that there’s a “twinning” of form and content: “Wait to see what you did to see what you did.”
On Writing About Pregnancy and Childbirth
The Argonauts occupies a literary niche; it deals explicitly with Nelson’s body’s transformation during her pregnancy and the birth of her son. Depictions of childbirth in literature are rare, and moderator Harris asks why. When Nelson laughs and admits she doesn’t know, Harris meditates for a moment on her own question and declares, “If men had babies, we’d have lots of representation. It’s misogyny!”
On Writing About What’s Personal
When Nelson was trying to get pregnant, her usually critical writing became increasingly diaristic. She wrote about life with her fluidly-gendered partner, artist Harry Dodge, and, around the same time, began writing various pieces about gender. Nelson admits that occasionally her work can feel too personal, as The Argonauts initially did, “until I acclimate to it, and by the end, it doesn’t feel like an exposure at all.”
On Changing Views
When Harris asks whether Nelson’s views have changed since her early works, Nelson is quick to shake her head. She describes her upbringing in a “spoken-word, punkish, do-it-yourself New York City culture.” She feels absolutely no regret about letting a moment come through her in writing. Nelson explains that she doesn’t view her past books as past selves, but rather as “aesthetic problems she has solved.”
On Art’s Place in the World
Nelson has always had a negative reaction to art doing reparative work. Instead, she explains that art should be a medium for the real and irregular news about how people around you feel.
On Thinking of Oneself as a Writer
When a student questions whether Nelson has always thought of herself as a writer, Nelson laughs, admitting that she felt more like she was just laboring along until the surprise interest in The Argonauts three years ago. Nelson moved to New York City at 21 years old and half-jokingly explains, “I just wanted to see Patti Smith buy her newspaper.” When she first arrived in the city, Nelson worked as a poet and a postmodern dancer but eventually wanted to return to long-form, rigorous work–although she didn’t know in what form or shape. She enrolled in graduate school at CUNY, wrote several books of poetry and her dissertation, and met incredible professors and influences along the way.
On a Partner’s Artistic Influence
Nelson’s partner, Harry, is an artist. Nelson says, “We have a lucky marriage; we talk about art all the time.” What’s most interesting to her is the fine line between garbage and art. Harry works with all sorts of materials that, as Nelson says, he pulls off the street and “schlapps together.” Nelson believes she has learned from Harry’s more innate sense of material belonging. Recently, Nelson has been transfixed by the idea that everything that exists is composed of things we already know about, elements that are documented on the periodic table, no matter how far away in space they may be.
On Practices Outside of Writing
“My therapist told me I need a hobby. Hobby?! I need time to write, think, parent, cook, and clean… but hobby?”
For Nelson, “writing is becoming less and less fun all the time.” Strangely, though, she notes that her commitment to writing is stronger than ever before. She believes that some things in life are surface pleasures and others are deep pleasures. It requires hard work and effort to reach deep pleasures. According to Nelson, they include “having written” and “living a life of thought, articulation, and concentration.” She’s realized, amid the collapse of the childcare system during the COVID crisis, that “it is a form of torture to not be able to ever think.”
On Drafting and Discipline
When she was younger, Nelson could write while drunk or late at night. During the pandemic, she wrote from 4 to 7 am every morning to finish On Freedom, although she is quick to assure the audience that she doesn’t like mornings at all; she simply had to write by any means necessary.
On Research and Critical Writing
Before she began writing On Freedom, Nelson read everything that had anything at all to do with the idea of freedom. As she progresses through the process of reading and research, Nelson reaches a tipping point. She says, “Eventually I make sentences and talk back to everything I’ve read.” One of the best pieces of writing advice she’s received has to do with including quotes in one’s writing. A quote can work well, or it can act as a pillow or a shield. If the quotes you include are pillows or shields, you’re better off taking them out and rewriting them in your own words. Nelson also adds that, in her pieces, she works to write toward assertion and away from polemic.
On Why To Keep Writing
“Because of the agony of not writing.”
–image via Columbia University School of the Arts