Women Who Write: Alanna Duncan, Interviewed by Paulina Pinsky

Alanna is seated at a two-person table in the back of the posh and dimly lit wine bar Ardesia in Hell’s Kitchen. She is the only other lady I have spotted in the place, the rest of the clientele are men on Happy Hour dates. Since we are meeting after work, Alanna is buttoned up compared to her usual uniform– white denim, a black tee with rolled up sleeves, with her denim jacket slung on the back of her chair; her tattoos always partially covered as they peak out from her sleeve– a moth and a figure with crossed arms and an animal skull.

There’s a quietness to Alanna, a stillness that makes her intimidating. I met her at orientation, I recognized her from a mutual friend, and so I pointed at her and said, “You look familiar, I think I know you,” to which she said, “Well, I don’t know you!” Pointing is rude, and Alanna suffers no fools.

I almost don’t want to disturb her and the book she is reading. But, of course, I’m here to interview her. She has an air of cool that makes you think she’s unapproachable, but she’s surprisingly playful. She is always down to get down and dance. And so I walk up and squeal, “Hi!”  as I wave from a foot away. She looks relieved, her previous coolness disrupted, her book still open. “This is a face I haven’t seen in so long!” We hug. We catch up. And then, after a glass of wine and a pint of beer, we set out to do what we need to do: found out how Alanna identifies. A writer? An artist? A gay lady who writes?

Where you from? How old are you? What’s your sign– that’s how I start these interviews. Wait, what is your sign?

What do you think it is?

I want to say Taurus.

But you know when my birthday is. But, yes. I’m an Aries-Taurus cusp. But I identify more with being a Taurus.

Well I remember going to your birthday party in the spring because my ex-boyfriend was doing squats in the corner of your roof and not talking to anyone.

I think you guys also fought at my birthday party–

Oh, for sure. We fought for six hours before your birthday party. But anyways! Aries-Taurus makes way more sense then just pure Taurus.

It’s the three best days in a row– you’ll appreciate this. It’s 420, my birthday, and then Earth Day.

I laugh

That makes so much sense to me. Okay, where you from?

I’m form Maine. Brunswick, a small college town. It’s where Bowdoin College is. My dad’s from Kansas and my mom’s from Queens; they met in college and stayed. I very much grew up with a Maine sensibility.

More and more Maine people are filtering into my life, and the mentality of Mainers is so antithetical to how I was raised. Like, it feels much more of a salt of the earth– let’s feed our bodies and move our bodies and breathe fresh air.

I mean, yeah– compared to LA, I would say yes.

She laughs

Siblings?

I have a younger sister who’s the best.

She’s a genius–

Cooler and smarter and more talented than me.

You’re cool and smart and talented–

Yes, but she’s cooler and smarter. She’s an EMT, so she’s saving lives every day. I’m not.

She’s a photographer, right? And so is your dad?

Yeah. She takes beautiful photos.

So what role does art play in your family?

On my dad’s side, there’s a whole line of visual artists– his mother is a painter and multimedia artist. And then, my dad’s dad was an architect and he was old school– never used a computer. Even still, he will draw buildings and floor plans by hand, with a ruler and at a drafting table. As a kid, I always loved working at his desk because he had so many colored pencils.

And then my mom is a linguist.

With nonfiction creative writing, I don’t feel like there’s a lot of people who come in with an artistic sensibility. It’s much more like, “This is my crazy life! And I write about it!” And I feel like you embody that artistic sensibility. Which leads to the main task of this column: do you identify as a writer?

So, my goal going into the MFA was that by the end of the MFA– so for me that’s a little bit over two years– I would not feel weird about saying that I’m a writer. And I’m not quite there yet. But I’m working on it.

I think that one of the things that’s interesting, in terms of the way I operate, is that there are certain situations and moments where I feel very much like I am a writer. And sometimes I’ll even be able to say that. But there are other moments in my life where someone will ask what I do, and I work full time in addition to being in the program, so I’ll be like “I do x, y, and z”, which is my job title. Or I’ll be like “I’m a musician”, I play the tenor sax. It depends–

Do you really?!

Yeah.

I’m sorry, what? I did not know that.

It’s a secret.

The saxophone is the sexiest instrument.

I use it to woo the ladies.

She rolls her eyes.

Honestly, it works. That horn blows.

Something like that. No, but it’s definitely a piece of my identity, but I wouldn’t say that it’s the sole [focus]. I would love for it to be my instinct to say, “I’m a writer, and I also do these things.”

See, that’s so interesting to me because you strike as a writer. Like from the get-go I was like, “Oh, Alanna is a writer.”

She laughs

Thank you. That’s really sweet of you to say.

You’re a very beautiful, lyrical writer, which is something I cannot do. Like I just don’t have that eye. So when I encountered your writing, it reminded me of Annie Dillard because she’s the only lyrical writer I know.

That’s a compliment! I’ll take it!

There’s a movement to it that I admire. You wrote a piece about bed bugs last semester that got published in FIVE:2:ONE that was beautiful. I think specifically with nonfiction writers– which, I haven’t interviewed fiction or poetry writers yet. I plan to interview them, I’m just in closer proximity to nonfiction writers.

I also have a poem coming out in Breadcrumbs next month–

You do! Holy shit, how do you feel confident when writing poetry? I feel like it’s something I’ve been drifting towards, but I feel so illegitimate in the form– but I am into fragmentation.

Paulina, just do it! I find that I write poetry between essays because it’s a break– even though it’s not a break because I’m writing other serious stuff. It’s a break in form that I find really helpful.

I almost feel more like an artist when I engage in other forms. There’s something about non-fiction that feels like I’m cheating, which isn’t true and is not how I actually feel. But a part of me feels that because I’m not making stuff up it’s not art.

Well, I don’t understand why anybody writes fiction when there are so many good stories that actually happened.

I also firmly believe that you have to read a lot to write well– or, particularly the kind of stuff I aspire to write, I feel like the only way you learn to do that is by reading. So I read constantly. And I think that does help.

I wonder how do you come to call yourself a writer but also know that you’re producing work that is good? Or how can you not just be super critical of your own work. I have trouble saying, “This is good” or “This is not” and sitting with that and accept that.

It’s hard! It’s hard calibrating because it’s all vulnerable– especially with nonfiction. It’s literally putting yourself out on the page.

It’s all about taste, too! Because you might love something and the person sitting next to you hates it, but I wrote it. So what do I with that?

So that ties into the next question: Do you see yourself as an artist?

Not really. I guess, I guess yes technically. But I would call myself a writer before I called myself an artist. I don’t know if that’s because I live in Brooklyn– being like “I live in Brooklyn and I’m an artist” is the most annoying possible thing I could say. I’ve thought much more about writer versus not writer than artist versus not artist. Because– I also think– who isn’t an artist? Is that dumb?

I love that!

Like doesn’t everybody have a little bit of creativity whether or not they use it to scam people into earning a lot of money or to make something that hangs in a museum?

Well, I’m totally interested by the dynamic of working full time and also pursuing an MFA. I mostly think that this interview series is important for people who want to get an MFA–

The waiter walks up. Alanna asks, “Can I have a Bell’s Two Hearted?” to which I say, “It’s good.” She says, “I’m going for this– I’m gonna be drunk by the end of this.” I laugh and say, “Hell yeah!”

I work full-time and my job pays for my MFA. The problem is that I want to be doing the MFA full-time and don’t want to be working my job. And I constantly wonder if it’s worth it. It’s really hard for me, as someone who doesn’t come from very much money, to put a monetary value on an experience I’m having. Which I feel like everyone is forced to do because everybody is paying a certain amount of money for this degree. But for me, I would not be there without my job. Like, I went to Sarah Lawrence undergrad, I’ve had an incredible amount of good fortune and incredible experiences already. I don’t know–

It’s complicated. It’s especially hard to talk about money. I think it’s something that’s especially difficult within this program. It’s like the one topic that people don’t know how to broach without being gauche.

Yeah! And that’s the thing! I have trouble with it, too, because people are like, “It’s free for you.” And yes, my bill at the end of the semester is $1,000, but the toll it’s taking on me to work 40+ hours a week, plus going to class, plus writing– it’s hard!

I wish that people talked about the money more. But I think it becomes a difficult situation when people are coming at it from so many different angles– some people are taking out $120,000 in loans and some people’s parents can pay for it (and that’s also a really important thing). And to have the diversity of experience in the classroom is really important, and I wish that there was even more diversity of experience and discussion of it.

I also think it’s representative of the writing that’s done because then no one knows how to discuss money in their writing.

Yeah!

But I think that’s a common theme throughout literature, especially since most literature is written by straight-white-privileged-rich men. They don’t have to think about their economic situation.

But also I remember someone saying to me, “When I didn’t get as much money as I wanted, I called up Philip Lopate and asked for more money.” But, is it that easy just to ask for it?

Who knows, it might be. I think that as women we are conditioned to add words, like “I would really appreciate” instead of saying “I would appreciate.” It softens everything that we say.

But I mean, did you read Anne’s piece in the New York Times? Reading that, I was just like yes! She acknowledges the diversity of experience that she’s bringing in, but she is also so warm to everybody she is in class with. I appreciate that so much, too.

I just wanted to say, I cannot believe that you work 40+ hours a week– I totally admire you. I am barely working part-time, and I’m like, “I can’t get out of bed on time!”

Thank you. But for me, it’s just one of those things– you just fucking do it. I show up, I get it done, and I can only hope that it’s eventually worth it. I mean, I wouldn’t still be doing it if it didn’t feel worth it.

It may not feel emotionally worth it right now.

I think the experience in the program is worth it– the experience and the degree are two different things.

I gasp

That is such an important distinction. The degree versus the experience. People who don’t understand the experience do it for the degree.

Maybe I’m also different in that I have no illusions that I’m gonna make money with my writing. And I’m okay with that. I would love for Nightboat to publish my collection of my essays, like I would die happy if that happened. One collection of essays out there in the world– done. You know? Well, probably not really because I can’t stop writing.

You are a fantastic writer, more than that can happen for you.

Thank you. But, but I think that– I’m totally settled in that I’m not gonna make money. But that’s another thing about the Columbia program, that it’s so anti-industry. I had a workshop the other day– my workshop professor is a big deal editor at FSG. And I feel really lucky to be in his class, to have one-on-one time with him, that his eyes are on my manuscript, like, everything about it. He led a conversation about publishing and publishing articles, and people in the class asked how book advances work, they asked about these very– what I feel like– are basic things that they should have known. The information is out there if you look for it.

I didn’t know until Lis’s workshop last spring.

Yeah, it’s also just–

Oh! My pants just ripped! Mazel!

In the inner thigh area?

Inner thigh! I’ve had these for a while, it was time.

That’s a good spot, you could wear them in the summer. Flirty?

Honestly? Thank you. I will. But anyways, go on.

Well that’s also, weirdly, I’ve always been on the periphery of what I feel like the industry is and it started when I dated someone who was an accomplished writer. So I got this beautiful glimpse of what it would be like to be in the world.

Wow, what a good preview.

Yeah, I know. But I was always “The Girlfriend of”. Another one of my good friends is an agent– so I always feel like the plus one at the event. I’m like the bridesmaid, not the bride at the literary party.

If you are not invited to these party within like a year of your MFA, there’s just no point in living anymore [for me]. If you don’t get it–

I’m just gonna die.

She laughs.

So, you’re my first queer interview candidate.

Fuck it up! I’m ready!

I laugh

Okay, so of course, queerness is of course a form of self-identification, there’s a process to figuring that out–

Alanna looks up, still waiting for her beer and says, “If I don’t get the Happy Hour deal…” to which I say, “Wait, I want another one now.” The waiter walks up, I ask, “May I have another Bell’s?” He looks at Alanna and apologizes for not bringing her first beer.

So I’m interested in how queerness plays into how you identify and your writing.

So we took Queer Form together, which was… an experience. One of the things going into Queer Form is– I’ve never identified as queer. And still don’t. I guess, I technically fall into under that umbrella.

The waiter apologizes as he places the beer in front of Alanna, she says, “No problem. Thank you so much.” I blurt out, “Do these still count as Happy Hour?” to which he says yes. “God bless you, thank you. I need those two dollars.” Alanna agrees and says, “You do! It’s almost a subway ride home.” We cheers.

So, yeah. I identify as gay, so it was weird to be in Queer Form and have all these people be like “I’m queer but I only have straight sex.”

Wait, we’ve never actually sat down and talked about your thoughts on the class– cause I have tons of thoughts, but I was also the token straight girl of Queer Form. I would just raise my hand and be like, “Um. Not everything’s queer! But like, I don’t know. What do I know? I’m not queer!”

I loved the reading list, which is why I took the class ultimately. I crave queer community so badly everywhere I go. Especially at school. I also think that “queer community” is a weird, antiquated thing.

But  I mean, at my very first workshop at Columbia my first semester, there was one line in an essay I wrote having to do with my partner and top surgery. And my white-straight-male-sixty-seventy-year-old professor said, “I don’t understand what this means.” And we ended up spending most of my forty-five minute workshop talking about it. First he said, “So, it’s cosmetic.” And I was like, “No, it has to do with her mental health and body dysmorphia.” And then, he was like, “Okay, so it’s medical. Does this person have cancer?” And I said, “No.” And it was one of these things where it just wasn’t the point of my piece, it had nothing to do with it, frankly. It was just a small detail. He was not my audience.

I really crave spaces where I can write one line like that and it just kinda zips by! And in Queer Form, I felt that was more the temperature of the room.

Yeah, I don’t feel like there’s a lot of gay ladies in our program. Which is antithetical to both of our undergrad experiences.

Totally. I’m used to being in spaces where I’m the only gay woman. At work, I’m not out. Or, I’m out to people I’m friendly with outside of work, but there are only a few of them.

Really? That is so surprising to me. Granted, I know you in a very different setting.

It’s one of those things where nobody needs to know who I’m sleeping with, you know? I’m a very private person and I’ve been out since I was sixteen so it’s not worth mentioning, kind of? But it also does feel like I’m not able to be everything that I am in every setting, which is weird, too, because being gay is so much of how I operate in the world.

Yeah, absolutely. You’re real gay.

I’m really gay.

Not to put words in your mouth, but I can imagine that going into a space every day where you have to– not that I think you’re actively thinking about “how do I appear, gay or not gay?”– think about it is exhausting. Because I think you’re someone who moves through the world so confidently–

She laughs

Thanks! I’m glad it comes off that way!

Yeah, for sure! That’s why it surprises me. Because I cannot handle corporate settings or offices– the lighting is super harsh and I don’t understand how to maintain decorum in those settings, like I just don’t understand. Which is part of the reason why I’m so impressed you’re able to do that for 40+ hours a week.

Yeah, I say I’m an introvert and people respond, “No you’re not!” But the people who know me well, I’ll talk. I prefer to just keep to myself and so it works for me in those moments– we are very different in that way.

She laughs

I’ve been finding that I’m more introverted as I age. I’m starting to see the ways in which my extroversion is like a weird defense weird thing?

Like, “You won’t know the real me if I’m–”

“You won’t see who I really am because I’m loud and broken on the inside!”

Aw.

It’s fine. The memoir will come out, it’ll explain it all. But, also the distinction between introversion and extroversion doesn’t exist on a binary.

Yeah, I totally agree. I mean, you started off by asking me what my sign was and that’s just like the gayest thing ever. Because lesbians are obsessed with astrological signs.

I laugh

I don’t even know what being a Taurus means, except for that I’m stubborn– which I am.

Ask me more gay things. I want this to be gay.

Awesome! Fuck yeah! I love that so much! I can ask you more gay things.

You came out at 16 which is pretty bold, but I remember when I read one of your pieces last spring– Lis Harris comes up in every fucking interview that I’ve done. Probably because I’m interviewing everyone single person that was in that workshop. But I remember I read one of your pieces and wrote in your comments, “What was it like coming out? Was your family accepting? Were they upset?” And you were just like “… that wasn’t even an issue.” That is so interesting to me because, in terms of how I see you, you move through the world very comfortably–

You keep saying that!

I mean, no one is actually entirely comfortable. But I feel like your gayness isn’t something you’re actively dealing with or trying to understand.

No [it’s not]. I mean, we’re always dealing with elements of our identity, right? And like, I’m always– I like, walked into this bar [Ardesia] and it’s a very gay-male bar. And like, are there any gay women in here? Not visibly. And I’m like, okay. That’s the space I occupy. And I think that in New York there are four– three?– two? Very few lesbian specific bars. Cubbyhole, Gingers in Brooklyn, Henrietta Hudson, and then. That’s like it. And then the lesbians have these monthly parties, like Wednesday nights at the Woods in Williamsburg. But the space for us feels smaller and smaller.

I mean, it’s another thing that I navigate on the subway, for example. I see somebody that is very visibly gay, do they see me as someone who is visibly gay? Sometimes yes, sometimes no, it depends on what I’m wearing, it depends on all kinds of things.

The idea that you can pass as straight at work blows my mind.

Yeah. Well, nobody thinks about it– if you’re a straight person going about your day, you’re not thinking, “Who’s gay? Who’s gay? Who’s gay?!” Whereas as a gay person going about my life, that is all I think about.

Someone I know was pitching the idea that everyone had to have a coming out party– like, you have to come out as gay or straight. Which, could be a good solution to the whole coming out problem. But ultimately, we shouldn’t even have to come out. You should be able to do whatever the fug you want to do.

I think about Eve Sedgwick’s “Epistemology of the Closet”–

You are such a Barnard girl!

She laughs

Literally! That was a central theoretical text in my undergraduate thesis. But like, I think that is what noticeable about you in comparison to my other friends who are queer or lesbian or gay, I don’t feel like you embody that closeting.

Yeah, I mean, I was very lucky! Or, strategic. I don’t know. No, but. I mean, when my mom asked me if I liked men and women, I said yes– to soften the blow, sorry mom. I was sixteen, I had a boyfriend, and I kissed a girl while I had a boyfriend, and I was like, “This is it!” He broke up with me– he punched a dent in my car because I kissed a girl. So, I think it became very clear around then.

That is such a testosterone response.

I know! He was mad. He was on his skateboard. I drove away. And then senior year of high school I cut off all my hair into a pixie cut.

I love it!

Nobody asked me questions about it. It was just kind of a thing. And then I took the hottest girl in high school to gay prom. And all the boys were like, “Wow.” And it was done.

We both laugh.

What a beautiful coming out story.

Weirdly, I’m a very firm believer that the internet and Tumblr, specifically, helped form gay identities for people in our generation before anything else. I mean, now we have Instagram and all the things where people can find people who look like them easily.

Remember “Nevada”? That was entirely Tumblr dependent.

Yeah! And so, for me, I was on Tumblr looking for– I was like, “That woman’s hot, that woman’s hot, that woman’s hot.”  I was worried I’d never find anyone to love. Little did I know that Sarah Lawrence was the gayest place ever.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we talk about queerness and how it is almost strictly academic. I think that’s something I tried to broach in Queer Form, but I think I was drunk or something, so I couldn’t get my point across.

We did have beers before most classes.

We were always drunk!

But I’ve been thinking about how institutions form identities and how queerness was validated and almost authorized by academia in the 70’s and 80’s. But I often wonder– well, because I was listening to these people on the train, and they were clearly queer and talking about something like intimacy and boundaries and they were using academic jargon, and I felt like I was reading a Tumblr post as I was eavesdropping.

Ultimately,  I wonder about how academic jargon helps or diminishes queer identity, in that academic jargon is representative or emblematic or the result of academic institutions which are elitist and ungraspable unless you have been a part of those institutions. I worry about academic jargon alienating people on the idea of queerness just based on the words we use to talk about it.

I think weirdly it is either similar to or exactly opposite from nonfiction writing. I feel like I’m talking too much.

This interview is about you– I should be talking not at all.

Okay, but here’s the thing about the word “queer” that we kind of broached in Queer Form–

I tried to broach it!

I know, and I agree with you, this academic elitism being inaccessible to– Maggie Nelson, love her to fucking death. Woman breaks my heart every time I read anything she writes. But “The Argonauts” is not an accessible text. Like, I can read it and understand it because I’m a relatively smart person with a lot of incredible education. And it’s a really important book for everyone who’s gay and everyone who’s not gay– but most people won’t pick it up. Or won’t finish it.

Or even hear of it.

Graywolf is trendy now, it’s getting more mainstream. But I also think that queerness trendy in a lot of ways– and maybe I’m too second wave [feminist].

I’m sorry, we’re on the fourth wave [of feminism] now!

The other day I was at the Brooklyn Museum and we went to see the Dinner Party by Judy Chicago.

I just started reading Judy Chicago’s, “After the Flower”!

Right! It’s so second wave. We walked around and it ends with Georgia O’Keeffe.

I’ve never been. You wanna go? What are you doing Sunday?

Going to the Brooklyn Museum with you.

I really need to drink some water.

But if queer academic jargon or theory or whatever is one thing, then Tumblr is the other. The identity and identification should be accessible to more people because it’s so important. I can only read all of these weird, theoretical texts because Tumblr existed for me.

Woah.

Alanna takes a gulp of water.

Who knows what I’m saying now.

No it’s comprehensible and it’s important.

I think [academic jargon] is totally alienating and you end up splitting people. Because you have the people who are highly educated who identify with and engage in the discourse and then you have people who are like, “That is not my experience.”

My experience is that– the other day I was walking down the street in BedStuy and I was called fag on the street, like. I was walking with a friend.

That’s insane.

Theory doesn’t necessarily say I’m gonna get called fag on the street.

Eve Sedgwick doesn’t talk about that.

It’s my lived experience. Which is what I was saying about nonfiction. In both cases you are telling a story of queerness and existing in the world, and nonfiction is cool because maybe somebody will identify with a piece of it and learn something new. And I haven’t written as much gay stuff in the program as I’ve wanted to because I feel anxious about workshop.

Understandably so.

I recently read Carmen Maria Machado’s, “Her Body And Other Parties”– it’s so good. She’s won a million awards, she’s an incredible writer, I don’t know how she identifies, she has a wife. But that book is becoming mainstream, and every single story is about a woman loving a woman. And I think that if more texts exist in the world that are like that everybody will be better off.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing about my family. And I don’t write my queerness into that experience. But, everything I do every day is– worldview: experience through gay lens.

I just called myself queer.

I laugh

Queer Form got to you.

It did! But yeah, I can’t separate that. And also at times it feels trying to kind of be like, “Reader! Do you see! I’m gay!” How does the fact that I’m gay fit into the story I’m telling? But of course, it is–

Because it’s who you are.

But then am I saying something I don’t want to be saying because I’m drawing attention to the fact that I’m gay, when I’m just a human living this.

Whatever is non-normative about your story can be used against you.

Totally! Yeah!

It’s disgusting. Especially with writing, you never know how your reader is going to take it.

It did just occur to me that I identify more as a reader than a writer.

Oh yeah, that resonates with me.

But also being a writer, you put out into the world what you think you’re putting out into the world. Your reader is going to take whatever  they want from it and read whatever they want into it. And that’s just how it… works. That’s the game.

But that’s the vulnerability of writer, you never know how your reader will respond.

But that’s what’s incredible, right? Like I wouldn’t read a book of an author who knows how I’m going to react– that’s not fun.

So much of the modern audience is about reaction– what will get the like, what will get the retweet. Versus what you actually feel or what you are trying to say. Which is so antithetical to artistic expression.

Do you listen to The Blow at all?

No, what’s Blow?

Blow is something else. But The Blow is a electro-pop duo that’s a gay couple. They’re gay icons.

Is it like Tegan and Sara?

Yes, but older. Gayer?

How is that possible?

She just nods

But I saw them on Sunday, I also saw them ten years ago in Maine. And ten years ago I was sixteen, and there on the stage was this thirty-ish year old woman talking about her wife while stage bantering. And I was like, “Come here. Kiss me.” I was also like that on Sunday because she’s still hot.

But more importantly, she talked a lot about connection. There whole shtick is that they do everything with– they create their beats from scratch. So they take soundwaves and manipulate them, which is way above my head. They have all these plugs that they plug and re-plug and knobs or whatever, they don’t have tracks laid down.

It sounds like chemistry– like sound chemistry.

It is. And there’s a lot of stage banter while  Melissa is turning all the knobs to get prepared for the next song. And Khaela was talking about how all of us crave connection and we can’t find it anymore because we’re all on our fucking phones.

And I also feel like that’s super true. Difficult in terms of writing. And like, I have an essay coming out in Entropy soon and it’s only being published on the internet, so what am I gonna do? I’m gonna tweet about it, I’m gonna post about it on my Facebook, I might text it to people. But that’s how you communicate. When I tweet it, will I hope that people retweet it, will I hope that people give it little hearts– yes. Will I also hope that people also read it? Yeah, but– what am I looking for?

There’s so much that mimics connection that isn’t actually connection.

When you came in here I asked you, “How are you?” And you were like, “I’m alive.” And I feel like, how many times do you walk around and say like, “I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m good. I’m alright!” And I think that if you walked in and you were like, “How’s it going,” and I was like, “I had a fucking horrible day, listen to all this shit that happened.” You’d be like, “Oh, wow!” And I think that’s another thing, it kind of like sterilizes those interactions.

I think there is something to be said for someone who can write nonfiction in a way that engages a reader like fiction does.

I literally got chills down my face because that is exactly what I feel also because fiction is way more digestible.

But why? So like, okay. I read almost exclusively fiction.

Which is counter to my writing. But also I think the distinction is not as great as everybody makes it. And I think there are so many things to be learned from what is done in fiction and we should use it in nonfiction.

So I think that they’re really not that different. But also I came into the program being like “Memoir is a horrible genre, all memoir is bad, why would anyone ever write memoir.” “I’m an essayist because that makes me not a memoirist.” And last semester I ended up writing only family memoir, and I was like, “I hate this, I hate myself.” But then I was like no. It’s all the same. And I think that like there is so much bad memoir out there, but there’s also so much good memoir out there.

Oh yeah. Have you read Mary Karr’s “Lit”?

No.

It’s the best memoir I have ever read, I’ll lend it to you once I’m finished with it. I think the difference between traditional fiction and nonfiction is that fiction takes you in scene, whereas nonfiction just tells you about it.

But why? Why can’t nonfiction take you in scene?

No, I totally agree. I think that’s a way to make nonfiction more tangible and digestible and more interesting.

So one of my favorite writers in the world is Ali Smith, and she wrote this incredible book on craft– which I was introduced to her through someone I met on OKCupid a million years ago. But Ali Smith is Scottish and she’s gay. Her craft book, “Artful,” is incredible. When you’re done with Mary Karr, you should read that.

Okay. I trust you. Remember I asked you for a reading list a million years ago because I was like “you’re a good writer and I need to know what you’re reading.”

Yeah, I do.

But after that I read her short stories and they’re remarkable– she has not gotten enough airtime for them. And then, this fall she published a book called, “Autumn”. And she’s writing a quartet of the seasons. “Autumn” was shortlisted for the Man Booker and possibly won some other awards– it’s big. And I don’t think it’s as good as her other stuff, but it’s weird to think about the moment in which you also put a book out into the world. And I think the world was ready to receive this weird book.

One of the overwhelming moments for me in Autumn is when the main character goes to the passport office and is told that her photos don’t match the dimensions that they need. And it’s one of these things where it’s like fiction– it’s totally fiction– but it’s like, we have all been [there].

Everyone can relate to this experience of this person whose photos are fine, but don’t match the right dimensions. And they have to jump through a million more hoops to get there. So why is that fiction? It’s not. Except that you have a fake person doing those things.

Nonfiction shouldn’t be approached differently.

But then isn’t that the distinction between feeling versus fact? The feeling of being somewhere without the right documents?

Yeah. Right, right. But figuring out how you capture that moment.

I totally agree with you, but I do think those distinctions are between being the writer or being the reader. Like when I sit down and write about my eating disorder, that would require the same emotional space as making up someone else who also deals with wanting to diet. But reading those experiences– like you know that one is fiction and one is fact. Does that make sense?

Totally. But here’s my question–So much is created for marketing, like so much of the genre distinction is created for marketing. What if it was just like, you had an “I” narrator who goes to a restaurant and only drinks beer and then goes home and is like, “Oh I didn’t eat dinner, but nobody knows because I only drank”– whether that narrator has your name or somebody else’s name, why– I don’t know– why does it matter?

I think in some ways, too, that’s the beauty of nonfiction. And why I’m so excited to be writing any nonfiction. It isn’t made up. I’m a real person who did this thing, but also you relate to it and you’re also sad about my experience.

Something I used to worry about with Nonfiction, prior to this program, is that people would read my work and say, “This didn’t happen to me so I can’t believe it.” Now I can see that that’s just an unsophisticated reader.

That’s the blessing of this program. You put your piece in front of somebody and they have to read it. And they might find a new way of relating to the world.

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