I’m profoundly grateful to open The Mentor Series with this interview between Allie Rowbottom, debut author of the compelling memoir Jell-O Girls and her mentor, Maggie Nelson, author of nonfiction, poetry, memoir, and critical study and MacArthur Grant recipient.
What follows is an important message for writers navigating the world outside our heads and the deceptive nature of success in publishing.
– Monet Patrice Thomas, Interviews Editor
Allie Rowbottom: Maggie, when you and I met at CalArts in 2009, I wasn’t familiar with your work. But when I read it I remember thinking that you were articulating a personal emotional landscape, and its relationship to a collective emotional landscape, in a way I felt innately connected to; it felt ordained that I had arrived in California to work with you. I know you’ve written about your relationship with Christina Crosby, and I remember you speaking about Annie Dillard a lot in the past: what drew you to their work? What did they teach you and do you feel like you’ve had the chance to pass those lessons on?
Maggie Nelson: I feel so grateful and so lucky to have had teachers like Christina and Annie so early on in my life (I met them both when I was about eighteen), and equally grateful and lucky to have them both in my life still over twenty-five years later. It’s hard for me to know where to start in answering this question—I could go on and on, and my answer would likely be very different vis a vis each of them. Annie was a big advice-giver at the time, and while I was determinedly skeptical about most of it, it turns out much of it was fairly spot on. So it goes! But generally speaking, I would say that Christina and Annie taught, as the best teachers do, by example, by just being who they were, with all their deep passion and rigor for what they care about the most. It probably also helped me to have two strong teachers at the same time with distinct, if not to say opposite, relationships to feminism. By which I mean to say, I don’t recall Annie ever having a kind word to say about it, whereas Christina served as a gateway to feminist theory for me, as well as to so much else. Yet both showed me very important things about being a so-called female intellectual in the world.
Rowbottom: It’s interesting how sometimes the best mentors are the writers/scholars whose work is the most different from ours—for instance, Mat Johnson, my mentor at the University of Houston, makes work that feels vastly different from mine. But for that very reason, he helped me immeasurably with narrative drive as I worked on Jell-O Girls.
One thing you and I haven’t spoken about much is publishing. It’s been on my mind a lot this past year—in 2018 my first book came out into the world and I’ve been surprised by how emotionally rough the process is. It’s hard to let go, it’s hard to weather Amazon and Goodreads, it’s hard to avoid feeling like the publishing world is a popularity contest judged by PR departments. It’s hard to focus on the good, even when there is more of it than you had previously dreamed possible. And it’s hard to voice all that, because the prevailing expectation is that debut writers express only their eternal gratitude for having been published at all. But after many long walks and coffee dates with other writers in my general cohort, I know I’m not alone in the sense of displacement and angst that putting a book out can entail.
Of course all this is fed by social media, which you wisely opt out of. But I still wonder if you ever struggled with letting your work out into the world, or perhaps more specifically, feeling “less than” when it came to how your work was received? If so, how did you manage it?
Nelson: Yeah, you gotta find the right friends to complain to! Honestly I can’t remember feeling any big disappointment about any book, probably because I never really had big expectations, which likely had to do with coming from the poetry world. (Not that I don’t know the sting of silence, or the sting of a bad review, of course!) With all my poetry books, I took it upon myself to make book publications a good time—you know, have a good release party with cool friends reading or performing or whatever, collage my own publicity postcards at Kinko’s, travel around on my own dime and meet good people, and so on. I do remember being really emotionally freaked out when Jane: A Murder came out, mostly because of the content. The whole thing felt dangerous. I think it kind of was. No doubt I’ve had all kinds of big, up and down feelings in the wake of every book, many of which I have likely repressed in order to go on. Some books have been a good time, others have been kind of dismal. There’s really no telling. Likely a lot of it has to do with where you’re at in life when a book comes out. In any event, immediate reception has a big emotional and sometimes material impact on a writer, but it’s not a great indicator of the work your books may one day do in the world. So you just have to keep going.
Generally speaking I think there’s a lot more disappointment when you interface with big publishers and big advances, because then even against your better judgment you get more caught up in the whole system of hopes and expectations, even if they’re emanating from your publisher or agent and not from yourself per se. Publishing poetry taught me to want just a fairly good looking physical object which I could be proud of and take on the road. That’s worked out better for me than I ever could have imagined, but also, I never really imagined it leading anywhere. Over the past few years I’ve learned a lot about what it means to have one’s writing reach a different level of visibility—if I’d known what that was all about, maybe I’d have sought it more directly! But I feel grateful to have backed into all that rather than to have desired it head-on.
Maybe I have an overly robust ego, but the bald truth is that I have always believed in my books, so that when no one wants to publish one, I’ve always felt more “your loss” than “I suck.” Eileen Myles used to say they’d never written a bad book and that they were really proud of that (I think they’re right); that always seemed to me the greater goal. Books will be invariably be different from each other, as will their reception. So just try not to write a bad book.
Rowbottom: That actually really clarifies a lot—I think once you’ve sold a book, it can be a challenge not to think about your next thing without the marketplace in mind. But sellability and quality are not always the same thing and at the end of my life, I’d rather have written a cadre of good books than to have made big advances on gimmicky or rushed work. Not that it’s an either/or, but I do find that the more I think about what I can sell, the less I feel like writing anything at all.
Somewhat related, I remember once, after I finished my MFA thesis, you advised I take my time and sit on the project. You said something about not publishing too young, or rushing out of the gate, and I’ve thought about that a lot now that I have published—one of my biggest challenges (or strengths?) as a writer is that I push myself. Now that my first book is out in the world, I feel an urgency to produce more, at the same time I worry that rushing never makes for solid work.
So I’m curious about your thoughts on the differences between pushing oneself and rushing. I’m also wondering if you have any books that didn’t sell to a publisher, or that you were advised not to try to sell, or that you simply decided weren’t worth finishing. I have this sense you are sort of immune to the pressures of the marketplace, but still, I’m curious.
Nelson: For what it’s worth, none of my books have ever had more than one offer at a time. I’ve been lucky in that there’s always been one sucker willing to publish each one. But most of my books had to shop for a home for quite some time; some, like Bluets, were rejected all over town, despite my pleas to the world of mainstream publishing (well, my agent’s pleas) that it was PROSE and that it was GOOD. (Eventually I gave it to Wave, a poetry publisher, who did a perfect, beautiful job with it). Norton, who published The Art of Cruelty, passed on my next book, The Argonauts, so I had to move on from there as well. With the exception of The Red Parts, none of my books have sold for any money that mattered (and then The Red Parts fell quickly out of print, as if in punishment; thankfully Graywolf reprinted it last year).
I tell you all this only because I think younger writers can have a faulty idea that other people, especially more “established” writers, got more offers or attention or money along the way than they did. Certainly it feels good to be wanted, and it can feel maddening or painful when one isn’t. But you can’t internalize rejection, especially not when the arbiters at hand (agents, publishers, etc.) are mostly just concerned about what they can sell. You can think that’s fucked up, and shake your fist at the publishing world as gutless. But it’s probably a waste of time to rage against that machine. You have to remember, always, that what people think will sell is not the same question as whether or not one is writing worthwhile literature.
You’re right that I do feel kind of immune to the pressures of the marketplace, but that’s not because I’m a more ethical, centered person than other writers. It’s just because my work is weird and it always has been and tips toward poetry or scholarship more than mainstream fiction or nonfiction so I’ve never imagined competing, or really wanted to compete, there. Plus I’ve always had a day job, which has been fine with me; I like teaching! That said, the past few years have enabled me to put writing first in a new way for me, even if just conceptually, which has been great.
Rowbottom: For a while I thought it was my use of language that would make me a successful writer. Now, having seen how many amazing sentence makers there are out there, I think that’s nuts and consider my obsessiveness (my tendency to fixate on a project and to work on it like a puzzle) the trait that helps me most on the page. But even that feels in question right now, as I have sometimes pushed to write work that ultimately winds up in a drawer. If you could narrow it down to one big thing that you think contributes to your success as writer (and I mean on the page, not in the marketplace), what would that be?
Nelson: Who are all these amazing sentence writers? I feel starved for good sentences! Putting a book in a drawer doesn’t mean anything about whether you’re a successful writer or not. I would doubt any writer whose work hadn’t spent time in a drawer. The drawer has great virtues, even if it’s just as a purgatory.
I have to say, I feel pretty allergic to the word “success” near the word “writer”; I like it even less when it’s near me. Thoughts like that get in the way of writing, in my opinion.
Rowbottom: Last question—a short one, I promise—what is the piece of writing advice you find yourself giving your students most often? Mine has something to do with “gentle pruning,” particularly at the end of paragraphs or chapters, which, I think now, I got from you!
Nelson: You know, sometimes the usual—turning around passive constructions, avoiding clichéd or jargon-y language, learning the value of understatement, lopping off the overwritten, and so on. But really I spend a lot of time encouraging students to move into the hotter places which, for whatever reason, they’ve deemed off-limits or intolerable. People put so many psychic obstacles in their way, which makes sense. Sometimes the “solution” is to showcase or incorporate those obstacles rather than to dissolve them. But somehow you have to face them down. And now maybe we’ve come full circle to Annie Dillard, one of whose most famous quotes about writing is this:
One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.
Evergreen advice, I’d say.
Featured photograph of Maggie Nelson © John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Want more Mentor Series conversations? Visit the archives here.