A Portrait of the Writing Process: Durga Chew-Bose’s Too Much and Not the Mood

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The title of Durga Chew-Bose’s first collection of essays comes from an entry Virginia Woolf penned into her diary on April 11, 1931—“ I am so tired of correcting my own writing… And the cramming in and the cutting out… And not much to say, or rather too much and not the mood”—a nod to how Woolf might have felt tired of pleasing readers, doubting her talents and vision.

It’s both heartening and sad to imagine Woolf, one of the greats, jotting this down, after already having published six novels, including To The Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, and in the same year she published The Waves, my personal favorite, a masterpiece she described as a “playpoem.”

This kind of self-doubt from a writer at the top of her game, or frustration with not being able to fully balance one’s self and vision with the demands of readers and editors, is a guiding light for Chew-Bose’s collection of essays which also reads like a “playpoem” of sorts—loose prose studded with poetic phrasings, from a writer whose unique vision and talent should wipe away any hesitation she might have.

Too Much and Not The Mood comes as a welcome reprieve at a moment when personal essays are often cloyingly concrete. Chew-Bose offers something looser, more abstract, a window into process, almost as if we are walking inside of the body of the writer as she thinks through things, doubles back on her ideas, and leaves some of them unfinished. To be thought through again later. I’m sure this approach could and will frustrate many readers who desire answers and pointed points, but for many, this book will provide a refreshing antidote to the tidy amuse bouche conclusions so often trotted out. Instead, Chew-Bose’s writing complicates and unravels takeaways.

Too Much and Not the Mood is a collection of fourteen essays, the first—“Heart Museum”—takes up almost the entire first half of the entire book. While I like this inversion of expectations, putting the longest first, the ninety-page essay, as delightful as its ingredients are, is hard to maintain, and Chew-Bose’s poet’s eye and gift for distilling details is overshadowed by the more dominant urge to include it all. I think her brilliant gift for gathering things makes it difficult, understandably to snip the darlings. You try going through this book and cutting out lines.

Who among us could possibly cut such brilliant observations descriptions as these: describing how Sarah Vaughan’s voice “elegantly ladles the words,” her grandmother as “the sort of woman who is so obstinate that even the knot in her silk scarf looks stubborn, like a bulb unwilling to blossom,” chipped nail polish like “shrinking enamel continents,” a boy’s flushed face “blotchy like deli meat” or something so simple, yet so surprising as “blue like a green lozenge.” While I never mark up books, this advanced review copy was littered with “!!!”’s. It’s only her mastery with language that lets her get away with certain elements of staying too long. Her eye is what intrigues me and Chew-Bose strikes me as someone who could have easily been a photographer or filmmaker. The pictures of light she creates just happen to be made out of words.

Despite the playfulness of the language, Chew-Bose’s essays are often formal in some hard-to-pinpoint way, like oversized tailored coats on thin bodies with loose threads of prose poetry unweaving themselves at the hems. The writing, while concise, is beautiful. Chew-Bose approaches the word essay less as a noun and more as a verb. She essays along the world, almost like a ballet dancer sashaying, swishing here to there, gathering things but in a quiet, voyeuristic fashion. There is an endearing anxiety to her collecting—a neurotic wish for nothing you love to ever get away. At times, this hoarding can push the limits of exhaustion (as in the 90-page first essay), but I felt willing to continue because of the heart within.

The book reads as a portrait of the writing process—a collection of notes and feelings that so accurately, and acutely describe the reach, the longing, the missing, the second-guessing, the misremembering, the inventions that define the life of a writer.  She writes: “Writing is losing focus and winning it back, only to lose it once more. Hanging on despite the nausea of producing nothing good by noon, despite the Sisyphean task of arriving at a conclusion that pleases.” She adds that writing will be never be as satisfying as things such as “the pop! I anticipate when twisting open a Martinelli’s apple juice or when I pour hot coffee over ice come summer or lace up skates in the winter—the firm tug of hooking the top part of the boot. Writing is a closed pistachio shell.” God, what a line. That perfect little nut, with its horizon line slit, a difficult little promise that you have to risk breaking your teeth to get open.

So much of writing is thinking, a fact that often is sorely under-appreciated by the reader. It’s apparent that the hours in which Chew-Bose has been wandering her life, essaying its streets, paying attention, is what allows her to make such deft descriptions, and to be so “on point” even though she’s not making very many points. Chew-Bose is skilled at and drawn to writing about the moments between moments, the in-between states, the time spent waiting, and this is its own act of defiance against writing’s typical pressure to draw conclusions, have grand moments, and force character into binary identity.  “I’m fairly confident my compulsion for stockpiling has kept me at a distance from possessing answers to my own questions. I suspend them—the questions that is—in my writing.”

Yet she doesn’t suspend the question as much when writing about being first generation in America, observing, “To be first-generation means acquiescing to a lasting state of restlessness.” And when she writes about being the brown teenager amongst cliques of white girls, Chew-Bose notes, “Older girls, like babysitters or a friend’s sister in high school, were pedestaled beings with perfect jean jackets. They were white girls mostly. Close-talkers with side-swept bangs who never appeared too wowed by anything, because they had yet to and might never encounter what it means to be denied…How exquisite I thought it would be to not care.”

She also experiences white women commenting on her hair and skin, lauding it, envying it. “…it was as if my white friends were wearing their tanned skin—bathing in it—as opposed to living in it.”

And it is here that Chew-Bose, doesn’t just suspend, but engages with the questions of body and identity, through scene and force of language. In the essay “D As In”, Chew-Bose writes about her first name.

Durgan. Jerga. Durva. Derika. Durgid. These are just some of the names people have misheard when I introduce myself. I rarely correct them, having long been convinced it’s easier this way. Easier in the totally yielding sense of the word, as if being impartial about and casually erasing my most essential self—my name—complies with an imaginary code I’ve lived by: that establishing room for everyone else is the quickest route to assimilation.

It’s in essays like this where Chew-Bose is able to both untangle a problem, make a point, and make it well. “The act of mishearing is not benign but ultimately silencing,” she writes. “A quash so subtle that—and here’s what I’m still working out—it develops into a feeling of invalidation.”

But Chew-Bose quickly retreats from these personal revelations. In fact, she is so reluctant to expose herself that her delivery of falling thirty feet to the ground after stepping on a rotten wooden plank while crossing a rope bridge in Mexico’s Copper Canyon, is delivered with such remove to the point where she cannot embody the experience except from a distance. Additionally, she writes, of lying on the ground, bloody, likely missing teeth, with faces peering down at her, “I really did and still do hate being the center of attention.”

Despite her reluctance toward revelation, Chew-Bose’s writing feels intimate. She describes herself as her own understudy, and what a beautiful way to portray the relationship of the writer to herself. Her interests are catholic but all bend toward elegant, simple things: ballet videos, Allen Iverson, museums, palm trees, puppies asleep on their sides, lattice piecrusts, women in perfectly tailored pantsuits, and young Al Pacino, who can turn the author into a giddy schoolgirl with just a look.

It’s this sweetness to her writing, the cool exterior with the soft inside that makes her soul worth accompanying. “It’s those of us with soft, pudding hearts who feel most encased in stone,” she writes, and it’s true. There is something almost refreshingly mannered and measured about Chew-Bose: elegant, refined, private, intimate. I felt, as a reader, like I had a seat alongside her solitude, tucked inside her purse with a ripped movie stub, hanging out next to the penny inside a jar of wilting tulips, lingering in the margin of her notebook. She’s a voyeur with an organic sensibility to both see clearly and then second-guess and doubt herself. Shy yet sharp. Inaccessible but begging to be accessed.

Chew-Bose also devotes space here to writing about the significance of artistic friendships with other women. She spends time with other writers and artists in New York and writes about these creative women who are carving out space for themselves in a tiring city, searching for that glorious slice of anonymity: “We are happy for the person who is indulging in her space, and how she might merely be spending the weekend unescorted by anything except her work, which could also mean: she is in no rush to complete much. She is tinkering.” In fact much of this book is about the value of  cultivating the self.

Yet, with so much intimacy in the essays, her deflection of attention is often a source of frustration, not that frustration is a bad thing.  She writes, “All I wanted was some remove. On most days, that’s still what I want.” Yet in a book of personal essays this can be a challenge for a reader who wants the writer to step forward a bit more.

One of Chew-Bose’s favorite paintings is “Leftovers” by the Swedish painter Mamma Andersson, which shows a woman living in her apartment, acting out all the various permutations of living. This book reads to me like a literary equivalent of that spare but full painting, rich with solitude, evenings out chosen wisely and judiciously. Chew-Bose’s essays are about trying to reexamine her contextual self, that of daughter, friend, ex-girlfriend. To see what kind of woman and writer she might be, now that she has distance, time on her hands, and a room of her own. It is an ode to women about untangling ourselves from definitions and striking out in creating new ones.

In the essay “Heart Museum,” Chew-Bose writes, “There should be a word for the first listen of a new album that is perhaps not great, but good”, an album that “upon first listen, discovers a new, hallucinatory wilderness… or conversely, an album that singes your periphery… your frame of reference is shot and you are temporarily the most suggestible person alive.”

I too, would like to know this word, for it comes close to describing this collection, a gathering that left me permeable with a little bit of that good heartache. It is nice to see a writer who loves the periphery come to the center. Chew-Bose is a writer who will last, because she has the interior reserve, the collected goods, she has spent the time and filled the well, a well that she can draw from, for as long as she feels so the mood.

Anisse Gross is a writer, editor, artist and question asker living in San Francisco. Her work has been featured in The New Yorker, The Believer, Lucky Peach, Buzzfeed, Brooklyn Quarterly, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She openly welcomes correspondence, friendship, surprises and paid work. More from this author →