One Must Follow One’s Bliss: Interviewing the Essay with David Lazar

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Born in Brooklyn, David Lazar eventually went on to study poetry and the essay in Syracuse and Houston, working with the likes of Hayden Carruth, Phillip Booth, Raymond Carver, and Phillip Lopate. He’s also responsible for the creation of the Nonfiction Writing programs at Ohio University and Columbia College Chicago, where David and I first met.

In addition to having written numerous collections of essays and poetry (including, but not limited to I’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays and Aphorisms, Occasional Desire: Essays, and Who’s Afraid of Helen of Troy? An Essay on Love) he has edited the anthologies After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover The Essays (co-edited with Patrick Madden), Essaying the Essay, and Truth in Nonfiction.

David and I spoke here about the intricacies of & in essays. Whether these intricacies have been generalized in the context of essays, have appeared in David’s own essays, or have searched for a home in the essays of David’s students, he has remained ever-attentive to the ways in which the essay twists and turns, reveals and conceals, and dances, intimately, both for and with its readers.

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In I’ll Be Your Mirror, you write that “The personae we create (at least partly) and the personae we think we’ve created don’t always match up.” What kind of personae would you say you’ve crafted throughout I’ll Be Your Mirror? Is it any different from the personae in your work before this book?

Writing autobiographically—and let’s say specifically in the essay, since that’s what I write—you’re constantly in the position(s) of both Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster, simultaneously the creator and the created, the product of yourself that isn’t fully controllable, or even understandable. I’m a bit loathe to comment too much (or shall I say in a certain way) about my persona in this interview, because I’d rather have the reader make their determinations of what kind of thing this is without my telling them. Of course I do tell them, in many ways, in the essays themselves. I could tell you obvious things about the persona: he’s funny, he’s neurotic, he’s trying to undermine his defenses, and not have that emerge as just another form of defense, etc. But as to what gives a persona its distinct verve, I wouldn’t dream of offering an opinion. I do believe that my persona is different in these essays than it has been before. For one thing, it, he, is older. (Is a persona a thing, or a person? It’s a voice, of course, but is it an entity?) That means, in this case, that the voice of the essays is darker in some ways, more joyous in others.

With an awareness of this sometimes-darker, sometimes more joyous persona, how do you try to maintain the performativity of the persona, or keep it in check?

Those personae are frequently out together, dancing cheek to cheek. In terms of performance: the essay is always performed, even if its tendrils run deep into life. Checking the performance is just calibration for the most part: what’s building the voice, pushing the tension in whatever the essay is trying to unfold through the self’s written method acting. But there are those times, in fact, when I uncheck the performance for performance sake, thinking it helps the essay in some way (or perhaps even in occasionally blissful disregard), and let myself go into a performative swoon of some sort. These are moments of excess, and they sometimes please and amuse me. Perhaps the reader, too. But who knows? One must follow one’s bliss after all, even occasionally, along with the demands of the art.

In terms of the relationship between obsession and epiphany in the essay, which do you think is more exigent in your own writing?

desire-300x463Obsession, no doubt, since I’m fundamentally suspicious of epiphany. If I had been a Magi, I would have been one dubious Magi. Or, I would have accepted the revelation with a grain of salt. The root of epiphany is in the Greek for manifestation or sudden appearance, things I’m naturally suspicious of. Now, as an overthinking, anxious individual, I find obsession, by which I mean not a clinical form of ideation, but a persistence based on a desire that can’t be shaken, a desire whose existence is an image of where your mind needs to go—a saving grace.

As an essayist, what are you obsessed with these days? 

I’m not sure I obsess as an essayist until I’m in the middle of an essay, at which point my obsessions may be somewhat technical—about transitions and grammatical quirks, leaps of essayistic faith that may be or feel too contrived, not essential to the beating heart of what I’m desiring to get closer to. Most of my obsessions are like the return of the repressed: they’re personal and longstanding. Oh, I could say, “Fred Astaire,” or “John Clare,” or I could talk to you about the bridge between self-possession and weeping—what happens in those moments that move us towards release is such important music. But our real obsessions, if we’re fortunate enough to be on familiar terms with them, or have glimpsed them in shop windows, shouldn’t be brought out to sing at parties. Think Hitchcock.

You mention both “leaps of essayistic faith” and self-doubt: But if there’s so much doubt going on in essays, then what’s there to leap faithfully toward?

Who knows? Sometimes just the idea of the leap itself? But, as always when speaking in these terms, Kierkegaard is useful. I’m a great believer in the essay’s use of the mind’s dialectical momentum, the ability to challenge ourselves to find what we call truths, or meaning, through rational processes of thought. But every artist knows that there comes a point when our depth of need to surpass what we know rationally haunts us, and prods us to find other ways of trying to know the world, ourselves, the questions that haunt us, and it is during those times the metaphorical leap of faith asks us to leave or put aside the rational, the dialectical, and try other ways of knowing. You can tear a word in half, or erase it. Abandon, if only temporarily, your logical exposition, and give way to fantasy, the deep meditation of image. Whatever you need as a writing artist to get to a place that logic may not be sufficient to carry you to.

I say this as someone who deeply invests in the formal processes of classic essayistic exploration. The hinges have come off the doors in our time. And there has to be work that echoes that. So, I think essays that push out the boundaries of the form are wonderful things. My former student Kristen Radtke, for example, in her new book, Imagine Wanting Only This. Lina Ferreira in Don’t Come Back. Anne Boyer in Garments Against Women. Anne Carson. These are all voices that are finding ways of leaping in the essay. Simone Weil writes (in Gravity and Grace), “Every sin is an attempt to fly from emptiness.” We leap even in doubt. Or always in doubt. Of course, as writers, our job is to make that leap compelling: a swan dive.

In the essay “Hydra: I’ll Be Your Mirror” you write that, when teaching the essay, you’ve “always encouraged hybridity, telling [your] students that the essence of the essay is, as [Georg] Lukács and [Theodor] Adorno have remarked, its formal openness . . .” As an essayist, how would you categorize your own deployment of hybridity?

I probably wouldn’t, except to say that I learn by going where I have to go. That I’ve never felt limited by what I might formally do in an essay (break out into “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” deal from the bottom of the deck), nor have I have felt compelled to cleverly search for a form—because a series of paragraphs on a page, with one thought following another, couldn’t serve themselves and the essay perfectly well.

You also write in “Hydra” about Elizabeth Smart, saying she’s “among the few writers I know who appears to risk everything, to be emotionally raw, formally wild and self-aware, yet lucid, lucid.” Although you were focused on Smart, how might you also attach these descriptions to the essay’s relationship to genre more generally?

These are all qualities the essay might have in its different forms, the last two of which I would argue are almost always necessary: lucidity and self-awareness. It’s very difficult to perform the essay without being aware of your performance; the meta-essay is the essay. And I cling to the notion that essays usually exist in some relationship to ideas, to the processing of information, whether it’s about the self, or herrings, or rock formations, or the number of times Schiller uses the letter “b.” So, lucidity. Lucidity.

If you cling to the essay form’s “relationship to ideas, to the processing of information,” then how do you take note of a “processing order”? How do you prioritize?

That’s an excellent question. I’m not sure I’m clinging, though. I’m not a clinging type. This is what I ask for in essays, though I think if you look both at what I’ve published over the years, as well as the variety of what I’ve written, you’d see a catholicity of types of processes. Some do come in series of ordered images and scattered commentaries. Some as more expository forays into expression, direct or indirect. How information is processed, the order of its relative importance, is both intuitive and, one hopes, knowable through seeing through the blinds of associations that create new understanding, insight, or even let one know that nothing new can be known, which is often a very valuable insight to blunder to. My priority is always to reach the sentence that seems so newly minted that it shivers in response to oxygen. Do I ever get there? I desire to, and desire is a holy word; self-judgments are best rendered either quietly, or in the rich atmosphere of essays. 

The essay “Five Autobiographical Fragments, or She May Have Been a Witch” expresses the notion that you hadn’t “reached the age of self-fascination.” You were talking about adolescence, but what about your self-fascination as a (personal) essayist? How would you describe that process of discovery?

Well, let’s be blunt: if you’re going to write autobiographical essays, or familiar essays, you better have a sense that you’re a pretty interesting person. Modesty would be absurd, a mere topos. If you didn’t have a sense that an audience is going to delight (in the largest sense) in listening to you, then you wouldn’t do it. You shouldn’t do it. Which isn’t to say we don’t all have our moments of self-doubt.

Now, discovery and self-fascination or self-knowledge, for that matter, aren’t quite the same thing. You could find yourself fascinating, charming, the life of your party of one . . . all of which means you think your inner life is teeming with exotic fish. You like looking at them. But knowing anything about them, about yourself—about, for example, how your charm may be related to your neuroses, or how your repressed emotions have caused compensations that have saved you or failed you, how your expressive side may be a screen, a façade, a door, a floodgate. This is the work we do (whether we’re the actual subjects of our own work, or are undressing the self as part of a parallel sequence of exploring some idea, some film, some phenomenon, some fish) as we move through the deeper channels of our essays, of essaying. An essayist who doesn’t find herself interesting enough to want to know, “Who are you, really?” and “Why do you do what you do, say what you say?” probably hasn’t probed the self very deeply. I’d say it’s hard to imagine an essayist who hasn’t really done some significant psychological work on the self. I think the stakes are too high, the language of the self too complicated and supple to not. The processes of discovery are what an essay is. We use language to structure ideas and create experience in order to reveal what we hadn’t known.

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You also write a bit about friendliness: In terms of friendliness and the essay, how would you say the two do—or don’t—go hand-in-hand, especially in terms of delivering an essay’s “personal” aspect to the reader?

In life, in my work, I never want to be accused of being excessively friendly. Certainly, there’s an intimacy between writer and reader inscribed in the essay: even when Montaigne tells you not to waste your time reading him, he’s acting as though you’re a familiar. To whom else would one say such a thing? It creates a (false) sense of relationship. I don’t really think about the or a reader very much at all when I’m writing. I’m mostly figuring out if I’m doing something that makes sense to me, that excites me a bit, and most importantly, that doesn’t bore me. The “Dear Reader” moves are very important signals, though, or they can be if they aren’t too cute: they show that you want to involve the reader in the process of the work (which the work itself should be encouraging). It’s a device, after all, a formality. But it does, if used well, create a frisson of recognition—a person experienced this and is speaking to me, even if we both know it’s a gambit. This is nonfiction.

In “Voluptuously, Expansively, Historically, Contradictorily,” you tell Mary Cappello that she and you “both seem to be perennially taken by, and swept up a bit by, intensities of coincidence.” Which coincidences, if any, would you say led you toward I’ll Be Your Mirror?

Without getting into too much detail, I had an accident that scared me mortally a couple of years ago, and it led to one of the most productive writing periods of my life. Part of the accident was akin to slipping on a banana peel, and part of it was much more psychologically legible. And for several months after that, I felt I was writing to preserve myself, to protect myself from some combination of daemons that I didn’t understand. I’ve always prided myself (before a fall on a banana peel?) on wanting to know as much as I could about myself and my motivations. But for those months I was writing deeply, but not directly, about what had happened, as though digging some kind of parallel tunnel, hoping to either get to the surface, or the right depth, depending, of course, on which way you’re going. So, there’s that.

Then there’s the coincidence of Heather Frise and I having gone to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and emerged to see Martin Creed’s large neon MOTHERS sign. We agreed immediately that we needed to collaborate on a project involving mothers because of that accidental intersection.

Coincidences are like charms dangled in front of us. They’re about attention, about what we notice, though we frequently assuage the volition. A given day gifts us with stockings full of coincidences, small and large. But many, we’re too distracted to see or register interestingly enough. Mary Cappello is my coincidence-sister. She spots the meaning in strange convergences, and when we happen to share them, it’s a great delight to me: a way of creating order, of finding patterns in a world that seems to me sometimes one blink away from chaos.

One more question about teaching: You’ve taught in and developed programs in nonfiction over many years, but in I’ll Be Your Mirror you note your unease about how not only is nonfiction pedagogy “completely under-theorized,” but that teachers of nonfiction need more focus on what you call “the psychodynamism of the workshop.” What are you—and what can we—be doing to get nonfiction pedagogy where you think it needs to be? Where do you think it needs to be? 

Well, happily, there are forums on nonfiction pedagogy on Facebook now, which is a good thing. And places like Assay have come along and are publishing good work on the essay and related forms of nonfiction. I just saw a special issue of a magazine called TEXT out of Australia, “Essay Now,” that had a few interesting pieces in it—very indebted to US work on the essay. The Essay Review at Iowa has published some very good work—I’ve been happy to be included there. So: more. And, I’d like to see more attention given to essayists of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. My students seem to find reading the essayists’ frequently wonderful sentences so arduous—at first!—that the more of us who do it, the less torturous this would seem.

As for the psychodynamism of the workshop, it’s just always worried me a bit that we’re handling so much trauma. I’ve been in therapy all of my life. I consult with therapists about workshop issues. But I wonder if we shouldn’t be teaching our teachers more formally, setting up structures that are more specific to the tenderness and intensity of what our students are so frequently writing about. Some of my friends are hardcore about focusing on the art, the structure, etc. I couldn’t be less like that. The shape of the work comes from the shape of the experience, and how it is processed, in an autobiographical essay. (Of course, there are an infinite number of kinds of essays, but autobiographical essays dominate our teaching.) And so, we dive in, and the psychodynamism of the group, the class, the meeting becomes central. And I care very deeply about the hearts as well as the minds and careers of my students, so my own sense of pedagogical decorum must always engage with what I think is demanded of the work. Considering what we talk about in workshop, the subjects we’re asked to mediate, would it be unreasonable to expect that we, and the students we’re training to teach other young autobiographical writers, have some background in the psychoanalytic literature(s)? Had read some Winnicott or Melanie Klein or Lacan? That’s a discussion I’ve always thought nonfiction was light on: our relationship to the traumas brought to us and how we contextualize it within an art-making program. It’s a sometimes-tense interplay. But that’s the role, that’s my vocation as I choose to understand it. And I hope it’s served the art of the essays my students have brought to me, as well as the life of the essayists themselves. But, really, who knows? Another large leap of faith.

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bwimg_7833Micah McCrary is the author of Island in the City (forthcoming, University of Nebraska) and a contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books. His essays, reviews, and translations have also appeared in Essay Daily, Brevity, Third Coast, and Midwestern Gothic, among other publications. He co-edits con•text, is an assistant editor at Hotel Amerika, and a contributing editor at Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. A doctoral candidate in English at Ohio University, he holds an MFA in Nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago.

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