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Episode LXIV: "Embrace the lost day for what it is"

Published 2/26/17
In this installment, I speak with Durga Chew-Bose. Topics include This Recording, Woolf, her upcoming collection, lost days and those inspired & more.

Today I’m with Durga Chew-Bose, an essayist with work in Hazlitt, The New Inquiry, The Globe and Mail, and more, with a debut collection of nonfiction, TOO MUCH AND NOT THE MOOD, coming out in April with FSG. I first heard your hard to forget name when I read your hard to forget writing years ago, in This Recording, a website that’s difficult to describe, like your style is. The transient period of my life that I read This Recording religiously, daily, coincided with your tenure writing for it, and so I got to know your writing well back then, which you applied to subjects of family, The Mindy Project, Great American Authors, Woody Allen, LA, Brooklyn—the gamut of high to low brow, of self-aware to heedless. This Recording, I feel, was a great place to start as both a reader and a writer, in that not only did it live stylistically in a wasteland of formalities, but reveled in that freedom of structure—and yet not in the way of ‘experimental’ writing that often fails to do as much as it succeeds in not doing. So with all that, what’s up?

This Recording holds a dear place for me. Alex Carnevale was also so encouraging, not just with my writing, but with my pursuits. If I mentioned a book or hard-to-find film I was curious about, he'd find a way to get it for me. I remember hearing about the documentary Seventeen and while I was emailing with Alex about it, he ordered a copy for me. I received it in the mail, watched it, and knew I just had to write about it. To be clear, this is a 1982 doc made for PBS about high school students in Muncie, Indiana. But Alex didn't mind. At all.

How would you describe This Recording to someone who's never read it?

It sort of feels like a home for writers to find their readers, while also finding what works and what doesn't with their writing. Like an experiment that helps you find your bigger project.

How did it help you find your 'bigger project', or something in the way of voice?

Well, to give you an idea, it was a place that allowed me to write without feeling pressured to have my work pegged to something more current. I fell in love with Barbara Loden's Wanda six years ago. And I knew I needed to write about it, and not just the film, but Loden. And TR was a place where I could do that without having to make some larger comment, for instance, about women filmmakers, or independent film, or stories about runaway wives and mothers, in some larger context. It's a great place to mine what's weird and wonderful about compulsively loving a piece of art.

It seems like writers more and more write to either be current or the opposite, to comment on something now, or to refuse it entirely by pulling up something obscure, but there's something great about refusing both camps. The title of your forthcoming implicates this in some way. Virginia Woolf wrote those words, "too much and not the mood", in reference to satisfying people other than herself, expectations that don't come from her. What explicit pressures have you feel or do you feel to write something other than what you want to?

The title's taken from a line in Woolf's diary, from an entry in 1931, referring to the feeling of having so much to say, but not knowing where to start, but also, feeling fed up from all the work, "the cramming in and the cutting out," she calls it, that is a natural part of the process—of reaching some semblance of meaning, clarity.

There is pressure. Certainly. But it's not explicitly related to wants. More the pressure to make my rent in order to feel freed up in my mind to write something that requires plenty of non-writing time.

The question of writing and rent usually coalesces into the thought that writers should be paid more. Merritt Tierce recently wrote a piece about how, despite writing a critically-acclaimed novel, she struggles to pay her bills. It seems that writers who aren't Jonathan Franzen and aren't writing sponsored content are, for the most part, teaching. When you imagine your continued career as a writer, do you see the freedom from money coming from teaching?

I'm not really sure what teaching jobs you are referring to. But teaching a spring semester writing workshop is not what one does to make enough money to write. Writing, it's likely, could just as easily subsidize the teaching...and not really "easily" either.

TOO MUCH AND NOT THE MOOD has already been heralded by some great names, named as one of the year's most anticipated nonfiction releases. What do you hope the reception will be? What are you most looking forward to once it lands?

I hope the collection finds its readers. That's the only hope one can have, no? I got an email from someone telling me the book was giving her an opportunity to get out of her head. That sounds nice too.

Where did the thought first come from to put the collection together? How much of the writing already existed, and how much was born for the book?

There are some previously published essays that I've edited, but a huge chunk is new. The first essay (new) is nearly half the book's length, whereas there are some essays that run one page, or two or three.

Jonathan Galassi first suggested I collect a book of essays. We talked about what that could look like, though the proposal and the final book are completely different in tone and structure. If anything, the proposed structure, which involved splitting the book up in themes more or less, encouraged me to ditch any perceived structure. There is a feeling to the book though.

What were those originally proposed themes? How long in the process of honing the book did you disregard that structure?

Some of those themes were length related. I had this idea to have an entire section be one page essays. That was foolish. My longest essay was, originally, meant to be in the so-called "one page" section. Funny how things turn out completely different.

What was the breaking point where you said, Why am I doing this?

There wasn't a breaking point, so much as the writing took over. I got swept up in my tendencies and tangents, which I then dealt with in edits. Some essays, for instance, became one essay. It's almost magical how ideas and images twine

How do you mean?

There's this idea Joy Williams talked about in her Paris Review interview. She talks about how writers have to be responsible to signs and dreams. A general receptiveness. Because as Williams puts it, "If you don’t do anything with it, you lose it." I think writing this book was a practice in becoming intensely receptive. In that way, some of my initial structure, the need for it, faded.

What signs came to you that drew your focus? When you say there's a feeling to the book, do you mean that in this way, that what you became receptive to centered it?

There were moments when a memory from childhood would surface, as memories do, totally unprompted, and I don't know how it happens exactly, but the writing would experience a recirculation. Like I'd let a draft in. Like the essay found some purpose or half-conclusion.

As the book came together, the final editing when maybe you could sit back a little and look at it for what it was, did it remind you of any works you were influenced by, or books you found seminal in your education?

I don't think that's where my mind was at that stage, the editing stage. I wasn't thinking about other works. I wasn't thinking about much of anything to be honest. I rarely feel the sensation of "sitting back". There are moments here and there, now, where I'll read something, funnily, for the first time, and feel there is a kinship in the prose. It's so strange how something you haven't yet read can influence you. Or perhaps influence is the wrong word. It's sometimes nice to feel like recycled goods. Like your work is part of some renewable energy. That nothing is new but that things can feel new-new or new-to-me.

What are some examples of works you felt kinship to, even a posteriori?

I was reading this interview with Luc Sante and he talked about never remembering plots. In that same interview, which has great stuff about process, he talks about how writing doesn't simply come from words, how he needs a point of departure or contradiction. So even though it was an interview, it provided comfort, like my plotless tangents were not alone.

What else? The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon. Fanny Howe's The Wedding Dress.

Do you think a point of departure, or a contradiction, or a handful of either, act as fulcrum(s) for TOO MUCH?


Can you put it into words?

Most days, my writing starts with a single image or something that's stopped me in the street, or I don't know, a turn of phrase that I'm unfamiliar with or find for whatever reason, on that day, remarkable. Those all feel like points of departure.

Do some days come uninspired?

Of course!

And what's the plan then?

Read. Re-read. Watch a movie. Do nothing. Embrace the lost day for what it is. Get really down on myself for the lost day and look forward to morning. Make a snack and miss an old friend. Go for a walk.

Then what does your most inspired day feel like?

Having an experience I didn't think was all that spectacular creep into my writing. Or, when I'm on the third edit of an essay and sentences form a natural rhythm. Or when a contraction feels accurate. Or when I can incorporate what I assumed was procrastination into a piece of work. But also, an inspired day can involve zero writing. Just thinking/reading with the right light.

We're out of time, and that's a nice point to depart, I think. Thanks for your words, Durga.

Thanks, Andrew!