Tuesday, April 8, 2014

1/2 Dozen for Rachel Zucker

I love listening to Rachel Zucker think, aloud, on the page. No writer, to my mind, is writing more honestly and thoughtfully and ferociously about the complexities of contemporary relationships -- being writer, mother, wife, daughter, poet, teacher... 

In this interview alone, you will receive permissions and warnings and interesting ideas on reframing, on language, on living.

Settle in here. Rethink your life a little.  

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

I'll start with “otherwise.”

I have two new books out: MOTHERs (a memoir) and The Pedestrians (a double collection of poetry and short prose). There has been a lot of work having to do with the production and publication of these books and, as always, the responsibilities of my family life expand to fill whatever time there is (if I allow that to happen), but I have not been able to write new work for what feels to me like a very long time. Reading is also a problem. Shortly after my mother passed away (15 months ago) it became difficult for me to see. I'd always had excellent vision and suddenly my eyes failed. Even with glasses, reading is hard work and not as pleasurable as it once was.

So, I run. I'm training for a half marathon. I don't actually like running that much and don't think it's so great for my body, but I'm not teaching this semester and not writing and needed a clear goal and clear structure. Two mornings a week I wake up before 6 am, and my friend and I run in the dark in Central Park. I come home and make breakfast and take my youngest to school. On the weekends my friend and I do our long run together—around and around the park. At night I sit with my youngest son as he falls asleep and read online advice about what one should eat before or during a long run. I carefully update my training schedule, marking off the miles I've gone. When I'm done with this race, I won't do another. I'll go back to exercising in a regular but more relaxed way. But for now I need this one thing in my life that is clear, doable, set.

I keep asking myself why writing can't work the way this training does. I set myself a goal and researched how to achieve that goal. There's some variation but not very much. I know I need to run 3-4 times a week, increasing my distance until I reach my goal. Barring injury or illness, I can and will achieve it. Why can't I decide to write a novel this way? Or a book of essays? A bunch of poems? I don't believe in divine inspiration or even banal inspiration. I believe in hard work and perseverance, and yet... I can't seem to do in writing what I can clearly do in so many other parts of my life.

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

Ha! I just said I don't believe in inspiration before I saw this question! The very word “inspiration” feels inaccurate to me and rather masculine. A kind of breathing into—reminds me of conception. On the other hand, I've never written anything that was un-influenced or that didn't have other books, people, experiences breathing all over it. There are many contagions for each book of mine. Maybe, a slightly less viral way of describing this is that each of my books talk to other texts, people, and experiences.
My memoir MOTHERs began as an attempt to answer the question of why I was so devastated when a friend/mother-figure died. I'd also recently told my students to write what they were most afraid to write. I was most afraid to write about my mother. Once I realized that I felt compelled to do it.

There were several contagions for The Pedestrians. I wanted to write something “happy” and “fun.” I'd just read Destroyer & Preserver by Matthew Rohrer and I wanted to write a book that wasn't on the verge of complete despair all the time (as my other books had felt to me). Also, I was sick of poetry and anything I thought of as “poetic” and wanted to write pieces of prose as straight forward and descriptive and honest as possible. Also, I was a finalist for a job at the University of Idaho. I'd decided that I would take the job if I got it. I remember lying awake all night in the motel room in Moscow, Idaho, thinking “I must take this job, but if I do I will die.” That sounds ridiculously melodramatic, but that's how it felt. I've lived in New York my whole life (except for six consecutive years of college and graduate school) and had often wanted to leave New York. But, when faced with the real possibility of leaving, it seemed to me that I would not know how to function, that I would never feel at home for the rest of my life if I left. I wondered how anyone ever moved from one place to another. The whole “crisis” seemed deranged but fascinating. When I didn't get the job and we stayed in New York I wanted to write poems that were more explicitly about and of New York.

I think my work often starts this way: I have a very strong, extreme emotion—one that embarrasses or confounds me—and I write into or out of that. The writing is not so much an attempt to express the emotion as much as an attempt to figure it out.

There were many other things/people/texts I was talking to while writing these two books. Here are some of them: Arielle Greenberg's new poems (not yet in books), Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections (co-edited with Arielle), Home/birth: a poemic (co-written with Arielle), Carmen Gimenez-Smith's Bring Down the Little Birds, Michael Kimball's Us, Abigail Thomas's Safekeeping, the form and history of the fable, being away from my kids for three weeks while I taught in Paris, having whooping cough for three months, Wayne Koestenbaum's work (all of it and there's a lot), Craig Morgan Teicher's To Keep Love Blurry, Sheila Heti's How Should A Person Be, Darin Strauss's Half a Life, Juliana Baggott’s Pure, conversations with Laurel Snyder about audience and prose v. poetry, teaching a class on the very long and very short poem…

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

I used to use addiction as a metaphor to describe my writing process. I used to say that writing was the only place where my mind worked without self-judgment, without pervasive noise, and that this mental state was something I needed and craved. It wasn't that I liked writing—in fact I'd describe my feelings as closer to hatred—but not-writing was worse than writing. Only writing provided me with the “fix” of un-self-judgment. At some point I began to compare writing to exercise instead of drugs. I really don't like to exercise, but when I don't do it I feel worse; so I do it. This is pretty much how I felt about writing and how I described it for fifteen years.

Then, about eight years ago I became frustrated and embarrassed by this construction. I don't remember what triggered the epiphany, but I remember sitting alone in a field in Lakewood, Colorado (a suburb of Denver). I'd been staying with my husband's family and feeling sorry for myself about a lot of things including the hard work of raising two kids, the physical and emotional fallout from a recent miscarriage, my frustration with my husband's frustration with not having a career (he was writing novels at the time). We were spending a few weeks with my in-laws and, as always, it was difficult to explain wanting time to “work” when writing was unpaid. It was hard to claim any time away from my kids. Even harder when writing didn't even feel like something I wanted to do or something I liked doing. I felt pretty similarly about my kids. I loved them but I didn't really like being with them (at least not for weeks on end with nothing to do while staying in someone else's home). I had all the things I thought I wanted: a caring husband, wonderful children, several books published, good health... but I felt as if I was constantly complaining about my life and feeling sorry for myself.

“What if I rename the story?” was how the epiphany sounded in my head. “Look,” I said to myself, “You are an able-bodied adult with a lot of privilege and agency. You spend most of your time with your children and a lot of time writing or at least trying to write. You've been doing this for years. So, this must mean, since that's what you're doing, that you are doing it because you love it. Why don't you try saying I love it? Act like you love it. Take responsibility for your choices and find a way to write out of peacefulness and happiness and joyfulness. Go to your writing like you'd go to a lover you craved, like a favorite food. Be that mother. Be that writer.”

So, I'm working on it. Working on being that writer. Once the thought occurred to me, I feel in love with it intellectually. I'm totally committed to it as a philosophy. Unfortunately, I can't say I really feel this way all the time. I have not yet been converted on an emotional level. So, for now I guess I'll say that I aspire to be a writer who loves to write.

What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer?
The same as my advice to someone who has fallen in love with anyone: welcome to a world of pain, the only world worth living in.

Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?

No. I have not. For years I have tried and it feels impossible for many different reasons. Today I thought maybe instead of banging my head against this particular wall—the wall of trying to achieve a balance—maybe I should rethink the whole goal. Maybe I choose this life because balance wasn’t my priority. Language is so powerful. A few years ago I started saying (often with snide sarcasm) “my life is really full” at times when what I wanted to say was “this is total chaos and I live in a loony bin!” or “this is impossible and terrible!” A “full” life sounds good, no? And when you retrain yourself to (even jokingly) rename the things in your life, it has an emotional impact. The other day—after weeks my own illness and weeks of caring for two of my kids who had been sick—my son (who had not been sick) and I were riding the subway home from a special evening out together. He did not look right and said he was going to throw up. I suggested we get off the train at 72nd street, but he said no. As the doors closed he said, very quietly, and without any trace of human color in his face, “That was a mistake.” As we hurtled toward 79th street (at what felt like a snail’s pace) I thought, “Well, this is exciting!” There were a whole lot of other adjectives I could have used but that one helped me through what happened next.
The truth is that I would like to find greater balance in my life in the sense that I would like to be calmer and more patient and have greater equanimity. But maybe the balance of my writing and “the rest” isn’t even something I should strive for. Maybe trying to balance the two is making me crazy and unbalanced. What if I said, I’m interested in the collision or, better yet, the shifting and dynamic relationship between all the parts of my life. Each part is each the most important part, just as each child is the most important child—there is no balance, only a dance and swirl and shifting puzzle. No, not puzzle. That’s not right. A puzzle is something you solve. A shifting… well, the words matter.

Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?

One of the things I love about writing poetry is that it connects me to place. In graduate school someone told me in order to write great fiction you need to learn how to shut out the world but in order to write great poetry you need to open yourself to the world. I've thought about that a lot even though I'm not sure it's true.

I've often written drafts of what turned out to be important poems while traveling. Writing poetry requires me and reminds me to pay attention and when I'm writing regularly, I feel much more connected to the world around me. But it wasn't until writing the poems for The Pedestrians that I really felt that I was explicitly writing about place, in this case my New York City, as if place were a character. I don’t know what I’m going to do next—how ‘exciting’! I say with a forced smile—I think perhaps I would like to write about placelessness. I have no idea what I mean by that.

Rachel Zucker is the author of nine books, most recently, MOTHERs and The Pedestrians. Her book Museum of Accidents was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She lives in New York with her husband and their three sons. She teaches at New York University and is currently a National Endowment for the Arts fellow.