The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #116: David Lazar
David Lazar’s third book, I’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays & Aphorisms, is a kaleidoscopic rendering of the nonfiction genre; each essay reflects various facets of the possibilities of voice. In some essays, he meditates on past relationships and childhood memories in a voice that pulls the reader close—whatever mysteries he may have accessed also become our own—whereas in other essays, a voice that is part-playful, part-informative, and part-droll constructs a jukebox of songs that have shaped Lazar over the years.
In addition to writing on memories, Lazar critically examines the essay as the “un-genre” and includes “conversations” with Robert Burton and Montaigne. The book concludes with a collaboration with Heather Frise that explores motherhood through aphorisms and illustrations.
Combining thoughtful essays, imaginative interviews, aphorisms, and more, this book not only gives readers a vibrant and dizzying array of nonfiction forms, but also provides new and exciting ways to view the genre’s possibilities as a whole.
In November, I spoke with Lazar at his home in Chicago. He sat in a movie theater chair in his living room and we talked about voice, pedagogy, and the process of discovery.
The Rumpus: When I was reading I’ll Be Your Mirror, I kept getting the impression of an Art Deco building: the essays employ many different styles; they are highly structured; poetic phrases embellish the paragraphs throughout; and no word or phrase seems out of place. How do you determine and then execute an essay’s structure?
David Lazar: For me, the whole joy in writing essays is about process—about how writing the essay and crafting the sentences leads you to even further discoveries and felicities of language.
When I start writing an essay, I rarely start with a sense of the construction in mind; I usually start in darkness, with just some vague idea of what I want to start thinking about. Once in a blue moon, I do have a sense in toto of what the essay might look like, but frequently it becomes upset during my performance of writing the essay, as it should be.
Rumpus: Do you have any advice for writers who are just starting out or who may feel anxiety over the process? What should writers do when they’re encountering terror as opposed to joy?
Lazar: In cinema, what’s the great scene of a person lost in a forest; what do they start doing? They talk to themselves. So, when you’re lost in an essay, talk yourself out of it: How have I gotten here? What was it that I just said? How do I untangle this thought I’ve just managed to convolute?
I have always thought one of the essay’s greatest elements is its ability to talk to itself. For me, some of the most beautiful moments in the essay are when the essayist stops herself and says, Wait a minute, where am I going?
I love those moments of inscribed confusion. Instead of being terrified—or in addition to being terrified—go with that terror on the page. Let it run.
Rumpus: So, follow your terrors?
Lazar: Yes. In the revision process, that’s where organization and playing with form and finding the possibilities of form all come in. It’s sculpting; you’re turning the raw material of art, which is to say the process of discovery, into something that lasts as an experience, as something experiential to the reader.
But I never begin with a plan, which is why, pedagogically, I get frustrated when a student comes to me and says, “I want to write a braided essay.” It’s not a terrible thing for “trying out one’s wings” as a beginning student, but it doesn’t warm my blood compared to when a student comes to me with an extraordinarily complex idea and says, “I want to think about this because I can’t quite untangle it.” That, for me, is much more exciting.
Rumpus: In your interview with Mary Cappello, you two go in-depth about pedagogy and teaching nonfiction. You mention that it’s important for an essayist to read deeply and to understand the form and its history. How can somebody acquire this history and background?
Lazar: I don’t want to sound like a scold, but it surprises me that many nonfiction writers aren’t taking the time to read the major essayists of the last several centuries. Augustine, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Julian of Norwich, Blaise Pascal are some examples of the most basic and interesting figures, and you can acquire a really good working history of the essay fairly quickly. But you can go beyond that by searching for the obscure essayists of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.
You can go as deep as you want and keep ferreting out obscure essayists; it seems that anyone who is interested in their genre should want to know who was writing what and why. These strange discoveries seem to me something that writers always need; writers have always had pet projects from the past—which is a little Mary Poppins alliteration.
Rumpus: That reminds me how your poetry background is evident in many essays. There are many alliterative lines littered throughout and some of my favorites include “the tincture of taboo hinted at the edges of relation” and “even though it was Bellini and not belittlement at middle C.” Do all your poetic phrases jump out of you or do you write them during revision?
Lazar: It’s both. A lot of them jump out, but the biggest thing for me in revision is the hunt for dead sentences. I came to the essay for the first time in 1984. Until then, I was just writing poetry and my ethos was that I wanted each sentence to be wonderful. Now, of course, not each sentence can be equally wonderful, but I strive to have each sentence do something meaningful or move the essay forward.
Rumpus: A dead sentence is filler that doesn’t move the essay forward?
Lazar: Yeah, or it’s a basic transition that I need to spruce up. But more than anything else, when I go back to an essay, I am working my ear and seeing how the essay sounds on the language level because the language of an essay, how it sounds, and whether it is true to my voice, are terribly important for me.
Rumpus: I’ll Be Your Mirror is divided into three sections. “Brigadoon Bowling” employs more of the personal essay voice, whereas “To the Reader, Sincerely” feels like a literary playground where you present some experimental and critical voices. The last section, “Rock, Paper, Scissors, God: Aphorismics,” includes aphorisms and illustrations. How do these three sections speak to each other?
Lazar: I’ll Be Your Mirror is this big, messy book that practices different kinds of the essay and forms of contemporary, literary nonfiction. I give great, great kudos to the University of Nebraska Press for publishing this book that has no clear theme, in which the writer is performing so many different kinds of nonfiction at once.
There is something very lively in the fact that all these essays live in the same house together and that they don’t have to be segregated into different bungalows, and the reader can find the relationship between them. The sections speak to each other through the possibilities of the nonfiction voice to willy-nilly break in and out of form while still keeping the essential character of voice and style, no matter what form is being practiced.
Whether it is “The Typologies of John Earle,” a literary essay, or an aphorism, I think I am writing very much in voice.
Rumpus: You’ve mentioned that the essay voice is distinctly a performative voice and its performativity is similar to how you perform as a teacher. It made me think about Eve Sedgwick’s idea of “periperformatives,” which are utterances that are “not themselves performatives[;] they are about performatives and, more properly, that they cluster around performatives.”
Do you think the essay voice can be both performative and periperformative?
Lazar: Yeah, what’s interesting about the essay is that it is both performative and periperformative; moving back and forth between those two modes is one of the things I enjoy most about the form.
I think that’s also true about teaching; I am both performative and periperformative. As a teacher, I am demonstrating my authoritative possession of a certain kind of knowledge that I am sharing with the class. But then at times I am also, in a very meta-pedagogical way, self-criticizing where that knowledge might come from and whether or not I’m representing, let’s say, a patriarchal point of view in my presentation of that knowledge.
I think the authority is important and the undermining, and questioning of that authority—the hermeneutics—is also important. It’s extraordinary how that is so connected to the essay. It’s Montaigne’s old credo of Que sais-je, or What do I know? I need to know some things in order to write the essay, but then I also know that I don’t know anything; I need to float between those two poles; I need to tap into what I know and how I know it, but I also need to pull the rug out from under me all the time. My persona adapts as I float between those two modes.
Rumpus: In “Brushes with the Great and Not-So-Great,” you write that “the personae we create (at least partly) and the personae we think we’ve created don’t always match up.” How does your performative essay voice promote and/or hinder your persona, overall?
Lazar: The personae we create are a little bit like those ventriloquist dolls that get out of control and start speaking on their own. What we create is never completely under our control after we create it, so as we create a persona, we are also to some extent affected by that creation. I think writers, especially of nonfiction, are aware that the voices they create are always going to be interpreted in a variety of ways.
As I’ve written more of these essays over the years, I’ve found that the voices I’ve discovered in them have, at times, merged with my human voice. And so it seems to me that, at times, I no doubt speak in those voices as well.
What I’ve written in those essays in those personae are things I no doubt have ever thought before, but I think them now; my essays think through me in ways that I am thinking through them. There is an interplay that I am very grateful for and that I think is very interesting and uncanny. It’s a little Frankenstein-y.
Rumpus: So, one voice doesn’t tend to merge more over the others; instead, it’s like a Frankenstein-y feedback loop.
Can you talk to me about your aphorisms?
Lazar: The aphorisms came out of an issue of Hotel Amerika when we put out a call for them several years ago. I also solicited them by writing to James Richardson, a poet and professor at Princeton who is considered the best American aphorist writing today. He generously sent me a bunch and also gave me names of several American aphorist writers.
Over a period of months, I found out who in the United States was writing aphorisms and they sent me wild and interesting stuff. It was just wonderful discovering this little micro-community of this subgenre and then publishing them in “The Aphorism Issue” of Hotel Amerika.
I’d always thought a lot about the aphorism and its place in the essay. There’s certainly an interesting connection and a slight overlap, in fact, of the aphorism and the one-line poem. So I said to myself, “You know what? I’m going to start writing my own on Twitter for as long as it takes until I have a book worth.”
Rumpus: In an interview with Bookslut, you mentioned how the more exciting essays are being published in the subtrade world of independent presses and university presses, such as Nebraska. Are there any books or presses that are really catching your eye?
Lazar: Crux at the University of Georgia Press is a really nice series; they are publishing really strong nonfiction—not just essay, but also various hybrid forms of nonfiction.
In an utterly self-serving way, I am certainly very pleased with the work Patrick Madden and I are doing in the 21st Century Essays Series with Ohio State University Press. We are putting out some extraordinary essay books, among them Lina Maria Ferreira’s Don’t Come Back and Catherine Taylor’s new book, You, Me, and the Violence.
Rumpus: Could we turn to how the Internet has changed the essay (or not)? There seems to be a longstanding tradition of essayists interrogating public and private space and I was wondering how you think the Internet collapses or contributes to that distinction on space?
Lazar: It’s hard to say, other than the fact that it’s changing; people are putting all kinds of personal information out on Facebook and Twitter and so individuals have become much more comfortable with being in a kind of permanent confessional mode. While the notion of personal space has really eroded, it doesn’t speak to the idea of interrogating the self and knowing the self; you don’t know yourself any better if you put private information out on Facebook.
The question of the self is still there and is still very rich and raw and available to explore, but Facebook doesn’t really hurt it or help it much. I’m quite frankly a believer that Facebook is a factory of anxiety. People are just measuring themselves constantly against what everyone they know is doing or saying.
Rumpus: Back in the day, people would go to the opera to see and be seen and that was the type of public space where you could do that pervasive spying and comparing.
Lazar: But you’d also be seeing the opera.
Rumpus: True. So Facebook is just an opera-less opera. Music features prominently in I’ll Be Your Mirror, especially in “When I’m Awfully Low” and “Lollipop Is Mine.” How does writing about music differ from your approach writing about romantic relationships or childhood memories?
Lazar: I’m pleased with the music sections because they were among the hardest to write. Writing about lyrics is not so hard because you’re essentially writing about literature—you’re in the same medium—but writing about the nature of music itself, especially if you don’t have a formal background in music, means you’re straining the capabilities of your knowledge. You’re trying not to look foolish while educating yourself enough to say something that is both interesting and also technically correct. It’s obviously not enough to not make a mistake, so it’s crucial to say something about the music that you think nobody has ever quite heard before. That’s the hard part, but it’s also the exciting part.
Rumpus: While the focus of “While I’m Awfully Low” is on music, you also write in that essay that there are times that you barely recognize your past self. How was it like writing about someone who is you, but simultaneously feels so foreign to you?
Lazar: That’s always an uncanny experience. I am always trying to decide how real the feelings from the past are. For me, the trick in seeing past selves is to figure out how much to validate and how much to question, which is to say not to be too seduced or go into some swoon by the intensity of my former emotions as I feel them now. But, by the same notion, I can’t resist them so completely that I lose the emotional power of the connection between my past and present selves.
Rumpus: So, the emotional power is what links all of you(s) together?
Lazar: That’s right. There’s an emotional thread connecting all these different selves and, on the one hand, one has to keep questioning, Is what I feel real? It’s been so watered down and distorted over time that you want to ask all those questions about it. On the other hand, there’s the raw truth—there’s the artifact of that emotion—you also want to honor. It’s a balancing act.
Rumpus: Let’s end with an “agree or disagree” question: One is not born, but rather, becomes an essayist.
Lazar: Completely agree. Becoming an essayist has always seemed to me as a bit of a pratfall. Many people I know became an essayist while they were in the process of doing some other work and then discovered the essay. It’s like one of those old silent films where someone falls into a ditch hatless, but then climbs out of that ditch wearing a hat. You’ve had some accident, but it’s not a bad one.