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Women Who Write: Catherine Northington, Interviewed by Paulina Pinsky

Catherine and I are standing on the train platform waiting for the one train. We’re both bitching about things we hate, so I decide this is the perfect time to conduct an interview. She is bundled, wearing a large puff coat and  a beanie, her large frames sit on her angular face. When in her presence, you can tell that her brain is ticking, ticking ticking. There are things going on behind those frames, when you look into her eyes you can see something akin to panic— but then she speaks, and you realize that you never want her to stop. But she isn’t one to talk aimlessly. We have just left a lecture, and under her layers she is wearing workout clothes to class, to which she said, “I don’t know why I’m wearing this, it’s not like I work out.”

When I met Catherine, I felt relief for the first time since I entered the MFA. Catherine’s wit, both on and off the page, is sharp, cutting, and curmudgeonly; her tone is akin to Philip Roth or Larry David— that is, like a fifty year old Jewish man. Learning alongside Catherine helped me realize that literary writing can be funny. That having an MFA is not antithetical to having a sense of humor. And that panic is something to commiserate over.

I want to see how Catherine identifies: a writer? An artist? A person who writes? A nervous-wreck?

Catherine, (There is a Downtown, One Train,) tell me about your background, (to South Ferry approaching the platform) where you’re from, where you were born, your sign. (please stand away from the platform edge.)

I’m a Gemini.

That makes no sense!

Really?

Geminis tend to be really complicated— well, I guess you’re complicated— two faced, really good in bed.

Nice. I’m definitely volatile, does that count? I’m definitely that.

I’m from outside Philadelphia— the suburbs. I don’t know if anyone cares what suburb. But…

The train screeches to a halt in front of us— we can’t hear each other, so we laugh.

This is a perfect time for an interview.

Listen, I like doing interviews at inconvenient times. You know, art can be made anywhere, and that’s why this is happening. So, keep talking.

We enter the train.

Now that everyone can hear.

Please. Divulge your personal information in a public place!

The doors close. People are staring.

What else do I need to tell you?

You’re from Philly, great. How many siblings do you have?

I’m the third of four siblings. Girl, boy, girl boy. I don’t know how much—I feel like when I start to talk about myself, I immediately dive into a therapy session.

That’s what I’m looking for here.

Cool. I just always felt like a little bit of an outlier. My family was super Catholic, and that didn’t work for me. I couldn’t figure out where I fit.

Like in what ways? Was it because you weren’t explicitly digging the Catholic stuff?

That was a huge part of it. And issues with depression and anxiety—those started pretty early. I started to look for ways to channel my frustrations and feelings, because people weren’t always available to hear me out. I was told I was good at writing, so I was like “I’m just gonna keep trying this.”

But then basically all of college and high school was me trying to find more lucrative ways to live based on what other people wanted for me. “I’ll be a doctor, I’ll be a neurosurgeon!” I was in pre-med for like one week. I kept trying to make it stick.

I could see you as a doctor in your white coat, gripping your clipboard.

I wanted to be a doctor purely for the esteem. Purely.

I would trust you.

Thank you.

You have a open face— it’s easy to trust you.

Aw, thanks.

Now I kind of miss learning facts, don’t you? Everything is so abstract and subjective in writing. Even though writing is the thing I’ve always done and loved and been good at, I never feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. Part of me is still like, “Maybe I should go to nursing school…?”

Yeah, but also you have to work stand on your feet and work a million hours.

Yeah. There are a lot of nurses in my family. I’m not sure I have the patience.

I have so much respect for nurses. It’s such a thankless job. The doctors get to waltz in and say “What’s wrong?” But the nurses come in when you’re pissing and shitting and vomiting.

Yeah, I definitely respect it.

I read somewhere recently that artists always feel like outliers, like that’s a common trait.

Well, I do feel like that. And if it sounds douchey, that’s not the way I mean it. The “paranoid outsider” mentality has persisted throughout my life. I embrace it because I don’t feel like I have a choice. A long time ago I was like “I need to put this somewhere,” so I ended up putting it on the page.

Well that slides nicely into the main task of this column. I’m interested in the ways that women writers identify or don’t identify—essentially, is calling yourself a writer an easy thing you can do—

No.

Or is calling yourself a writer something you can’t do?

I just say I write. I never call myself a writer.

That is so funny. Well, not funny—

I have a hard time saying that I write. Do I write enough?

What would have to happen for you to call yourself a writer?

I guess I’d have to be making a living [as a writer]. For some reason that’s my rule. But even then…

That seems to be a common theme.

Really? I’m excited to read these interviews. But yeah, it’s a confidence thing. If I make “writer” my identity, then I feel like I have to back that up somehow. Under that label I’m held more…accountable. I’m afraid I’ll be taken to task if I write something that I don’t like, or that other people don’t like.

Catherine is looking at a 2 train across the 96th platform.

Wait, do you want to transfer?

Yeah. I have to get off.

I’ll go with you.

Wait, where are you going?

I’m going to Gilda’s Club to teach.

Oh right!

We run across the platform. Two seats are empty. We sit.

Well then, tell me what you write. This is going to be like a Cash Cab— Answer these questions, go!

I write short essays. (Bing bong— the doors close) I try to be conversational, I try to be funny?

You are very funny.

Oh, thank you! So are you.

See, that’s what I respect about people who are actually funny— they never think that they’re funny. Which maybe is sort of like the same thing as identifying as a writer.

No, it is! I think that’s true. And actually— we have talked about this— I just like to write stuff without all the bullshit. I mean, I try to keep it smart and thoughtful, but also to do away with the posturing. …when I say words like “posturing”, I feel like I’m posturing.

I laugh

So Nabokov is not your favorite writer?

No. Though I did really like the passages in that [“Speak, Memory”, which we read in the lecture we have together].

I think that the reason I have so much trouble identifying as a writer is because identifying as one invites a new kind of scrutiny to what I produce. …Wait, what was the question again? What do I write?

We laugh

Shouldn’t that question be easy?

Catherine’s tone has been lovingly summarized by one of our professors, Lis Harris, who we both love more than we can put into words. Catherine is a curmudgeon. She has the soul of a forty-five year old caught in blonde girl in her twenties. She loves the Beatles—

I love old things, I love quiet things. Everything goes too fast. I write about anxiety and how I see the world through that lens. Michael Greenberg told me I am “chronically ambivalent,” which feels on the mark. My pieces are mini-tours of my mind, on all kinds of topics. Nail salon visits, social media, old people music…

Catherine also writes a column for the Columbia Journal called “Hell of a Town”—

It’s about day-to-day life in New York, sources of anxiety here. There’s a lot of material.

We laugh.

She got published in The Fix.

Yes. They’ve published Chloe Caldwell, one of my favorite essayists. I’m excited to have my byline anywhere hers has been.

So Catherine is a writer. And I’ll say it. Catherine is a writer.

Thank you.

You look embarrassed.

That might be the first time that someone’s said it like that—when it wasn’t me looking Lis in the face, pleading: “Lis, please say it! Please say it!”

Oh you are for sure a writer, through and through. But that’s so interesting because same thing happened with Taleen. She also said, “I write.”

I can’t even put it on my Instagram profile—

I accidentally punch someone

Oh I am so sorry! I am so sorry.

Catherine laughs, so does the stranger.

Sorry, you were saying?

On my Instagram profile, I had a fart emoji. But I added, “I write” to it, eventually. I’ll never put writer.

See, I put writer on my Tinder profile, but I put “Words” on Instagram.

I actually did the same thing with my Hinge profile when I had it. I was like, I guess I have to put a career, so I’ll put “writer”. I actually was being paid to write at that time, but it was awful clickbait shit. Calling myself a writer felt like such a sham.

Right. It’s like if your hand is forced to decide what you are in what word, the last resort is, “Fine. I’ll say it. I’m a writer.”

It’s true.

Believing it is such a different thing.

It sounds so self-assured, to the point where it almost feels like a lie. But this is the anxiety and ambivalence speaking.

Someone in one of my workshops was like “I feel like the narrator is really anxious, and she could discuss that more.” I have a hard time directly writing on the topic of anxiety, because it feels like what I write is already loaded with it. I don’t want to be redundant or come on too strong. But it is a thread in every piece, no matter what I’m writing about. I think the voice [her voice] is what unifies a lot of what comes out [ in her writing].

Oh, for sure. Your voice— I’ve never read anyone, like a contemporary of mine, which I can’t believe I just said a “contemporary of mine”—

So fancy!

“Oh, my MFA! Me and my contemporaries!” But, your voice is very distinct in a way that I don’t think I have ever read? Not that your voice is masculine (which would not be a bad thing), but I think that your work reminds me of tired old jews?

That’s interesting. That’s an honor because with Larry David, especially, I feel a kinship. And I’m like, why? Where does this come from? But it fits. I love his work.

So that leads to my second question: Do you think of yourself as an artist?

No! That feels too fancy. And we talked about the “No bullshit” thing. It just feels so elevated to call myself an artist. There’s a disconnect in my brain—I can see, logically, that I am in a fine arts program. But “artist” sounds so serious.

I’m trying not to sound like a douche talking about it.

You can be a douche, if you want to.

I don’t wanna be a douche! But then it’s [everything she’s saying] also true.

I like that saying “I write” focuses everything on a verb, rather than saying “writer”, which is a noun. So there’s something more active in it—

True.

And it’s less stable. So the action of writing is necessary in order to identify with it.

Yeah, and I don’t feel like I’ve ever totally been stable in one thing. I’m in a constant state of flux, so that does feel more applicable to me.

That is so interesting to me… This is just making me want to interview every femme identifying writer in our program. Because throughout Taleen’s interview, dudes kept walking into the Writing Office and interrupting our interview. And I asked one of them, “Do you think you’re a writer?” And he immediately said, “Yeah, I’m a writer.”

That is interesting.

It was easy for him.

Oh my god. Yeah, and I envy that. I kinda see that with my boyfriend—he’s a writer, and I know he has a lot of the same struggles I do. But he’s able to project an air of “This is what I do. I need to do this.” He tackles writing head-on. Meanwhile I’m spinning around in circles like, “What am I doing?!? I’m not gonna write today! Why am I trying?”

I’m still convincing myself I deserve to be doing this, and that my “art” is worth something to other people. I have talented peers and professors telling me I’m doing good work, and there’s a large part of me that believes it—or else I wouldn’t be here trying. I want to share this stuff.

So, do you write every day?

No!

We laugh.

Nooo! I tried— I talk about and think about writing every day. I’ll wake up every morning and say, “I need to write today,” but I’m very avoidant. I’m improving a lot now that I’ve gotten over the initial hurdle of “I’m good enough at this, I’m confident enough in this.” You’d think I would have been there when I got to this program, but I just wasn’t.

I was not either.

I’m writing most days. Because the pieces I write are so short, it’s hard to focus sometimes. There’s a constant flurry of ideas.

That’s something I admire about your pieces, they feel like blurts of energy— and that very much is a product of your brains— it mimics the way that thought works. I always think about your work of your work as the grand tour of Catherine’s brain, which is so fascinating to me because I love your voice.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with not writing every day or having a cohesive project.

Yeah, it’s hard because you talk to people and hear about people who have very structured systems in place. I’m striving to be more like that.

What were you just say about what I write? You had a good description that made me think of something.

Blurts of energy? Your brain?

I forget now. See?

If you think about it later, you can send it to me.

Okay. Well…I try to translate the way I think about the world into something that is fun to read. Being “fun to read” is a big priority for me, maybe because I’m so into comedy. I want people to laugh with me. Or at me, I don’t care.

I don’t think fun, funny writing always gets its due. Some people look down on it. But a piece with comedic elements can be as thoughtful, intelligent, and well-crafted as its super-serious counterpart.

I’m realizing I don’t talk about this, ever. To try form words about it not on the page is really weird.

I think it’s ironic that you can only talk about how you write if you’re writing. The fact of vocalizing it—

I don’t vocalize! I don’t vocalize!

That just proves to me more and more that you’re a writer. You have to write things to verbalize things.

That’s true, yeah.

Also your writing is so much fun to read, and I miss having you in workshop.

I know, it sucks! I miss reading yours.

A Tumi backpack hits Catherine in the face, we laugh.

Any last comments?

A woman sitting across from us tells the dude with the Tumi backpack, “Your backpack is in her face”, while pointing at Catherine. Catherine says “thank you!” Our train rolls up to the 14th Street platform. The doors open

Catherine, she writes, she lives in Brooklyn—

And I’m nervous!

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