The Rumpus Book Club Chat with Maggie Nelson

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The Rumpus Book Club chats with Maggie Nelson about her new book, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint (Graywolf Press, September 2021), getting through a project by any means necessary, keeping an imagined audience outside of the room while writing, and more.

This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Wendy J. Fox, Gene Kwak, Christopher Gonzalez, Gabrielle Civil, Eva Jurczyk, Suzanne Roberts, and more.

This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.

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Marisa: Hi, and welcome to The Rumpus Book Club chat with Maggie Nelson about her new book, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint! Maggie, thanks for taking the time to talk with us today.

Maggie, when did you first conceive of On Freedom, and/or begin to focus in on writing on “freedom” as a concept? What was the road to the book’s publication like?

Maggie Nelson: Hello, Marisa, and anyone else out there! I started this book after I finished The Art of Cruelty, which was published in 2011. The concept of freedom, or the space to move, became salient to me while working on cruelty, which often has an element of claustrophobia in it. When The Art of Cruelty came out I was also pregnant and going through all that, and writing about it along the way, as is my wont, so I had a choice between pursuing two projects —the freedom project, or the one that became The Argonauts. (I chose the latter.) When I finally turned back to the freedom project, it was a very different time—Trump time, etc. Then pandemic time. So, its writing conditions were more pitched, more anxious, more constrained.

Marisa: Yes, I can imagine the writing conditions were quite specific to what’s happening right now—well, not exactly, because I haven’t been able to write much at all through the pandemic, but conceptually. How did this more pitched and anxious and constrained time affect your writing process(es)? Or did it not; do you have a set way you get through a project?

Maggie Nelson: There is no way to get through a project save by any means necessary, I’ve found. What those means are depend on your circumstances at any given period. I was lucky to have had some time off right before the pandemic (the pandemic no one saw coming), so I was able to wrestle hard with the book throughout 2019, and finish a draft that fall. That was good, because when in person school for children died in 2020, finding time got really tough.

Marisa: “By any means necessary” really resonates. And wow, yes, that is fortunate timing! I have a seven-year-old and we white-knuckled it through most of last year (and honestly, we’re still doing so right now). Finding time—all the ideas about managing time I had before—out the window!

Maggie Nelson: I feel you.

Marisa: This is a book that feels urgently necessary right now, when we so need to have conversations about “personal freedom” and what it means to live in community with each other—what are you most hoping readers will come away from the book thinking and talking about? Do you consider audience while you’re wrestling with the book, or is that just you and the book, working it out in the language?

Maggie Nelson: I would say that when I’m writing it’s never about audience; it’s just about me and the ideas. I can’t have an imagined audience in the room as well because there isn’t room. As for community: a book does not, in itself, typically make community with others, at least not in any direct way; it is not lost on me that reading and writing are solitary activities, at least superficially. But while I think it’s foolish to imagine that reading a book will deliver a felt experience of being in community in the way that, say, planting a garden with others might, or being an active part of a political movement might, a relay of ideas exchanged with others—including with dead others, in what some might call the necrosocial—remains a foundational and meaningful aspect for me of being a social human animal. I’d be glad if my book, all my books, were just part of that flow.

Marisa: Oh, so much yes, to all of this.

Your books span a breadth of form and subject matter—I was first introduced to your work by Jeffrey McDaniel when I was an undergrad and The Latest Winter had just come out from Hanging Loose Press—and I wondered if we might speak a bit about “genre” and how you approach, or disregard, the concept of it, and where freedom might come into play, artistically, with regard to genre. (I’ll share up-front that I think “genre” mostly stifles artistic and creative freedom, and my favorite writing tends to push against such notions.)

Maggie Nelson: I never think much about genre save when people ask about it, to be honest.

Marisa: Any specific literary touchstones for you in the writing of On Freedom? What were you reading, listening to, watching while putting the book together? Or, do you turn down the volume on that when completing a new book?

Maggie Nelson: This question is hard to answer since the whole book puts its cards on the table as to what and whom it’s thinking with—there aren’t, like, hidden sources or inspirations. It’s all out there. I guess I’d just say I was inspired by writers like Sontag and Baldwin, who say what they think without all the deference and citation and bending over backwards to cover your ass that characterizes so much academic/scholarly writing, but without a shred of dumbing down.

Marisa: That makes sense; there are so many voices (for lack of a better word) that you’re in conversation with through the book’s four sections. I suppose I was thinking about inspirations more generally. I love that, too, about thinking without all the deference etc. but without dumbing down the thinking at all.

Maggie Nelson: Are there questions from anyone else? I notice there are just five minutes left.

Marisa: A member named Kate, who’d hoped to join us today, wrote in our discussion channel: “I’m intrigued by [Maggie’s] discussion on the role of art and how it doesn’t have the agency to harm or oppress. Though, I don’t think she thinks that is absolute and nor do I. I particularly am entranced by ‘Drug Fugue’ and the discussion on addiction memoirs as white and male and how a woman’s addiction narrative is perceived differently—the woman addict as pathetic and the male addict as a hero’s journey. I also appreciated the way she nails how drug abuse is seen as a rebellion against norms while it actually appears to be more subjugation. I ordered After Claude after reading her critique. I’m considering getting Like Being Killed because of its idea of debasement as liberation (which makes me think of the French horror film Martyrs) but it may be too much for me to handle.”

Not really a question so much as a sharing of ideas, as it were.

Maggie Nelson: Thanks Marisa; thanks Kat. I’m glad you ordered After Claude. It’s a wild ride.

Marisa: I like to end our chats by asking what you are reading now, and/or whether there are any new and forthcoming books you’re especially excited about and want to point readers toward?

Maggie Nelson: I’m teaching Jamaica Kincaid’s My Brother and Hisham Matar’s The Return in the upcoming weeks, so I’m reading them now.

Marisa: Thanks very much, Maggie! As with all of your books, I’ll be working through this one for a while and re-reading. Wishing you a restful upcoming weekend.

Maggie Nelson: Thanks, you guys!

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Photograph of Maggie Nelson by Harry Dodge.


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