Interviewer: How did you decide to interview yourself?
Subject: I saw that actor, director, and musician Donald Glover interviewed himself recently, and it reminded me of other times I’d seen people interview themselves. I think the first one I saw was William Hurt’s character in the Big Chill. The lead singer of the Talking Heads, David Byrne, does it as part of Jonathan Demme’s concert film, Stop Making Sense. In preparing for this interview, I learned that a lot of other famous people have done it, too, including Ingmar Bergman, Björk, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth, Ntozake Shange, and Tennessee Williams.
Interviewer: That’s a pretty interesting group of people.
Subject: The interviews are interesting, too. I find it satisfying, as their reader, that they’re performing for me rather than an interviewer. It’s like the difference between a manifesto and a college admission essay. The medium is their foil, not an intermediary.
Interviewer: Any favorites among the interviews?
Subject: I liked all of them. I found others that I didn’t include in my list.
Interviewer: Would you be interested in answering some of the questions they asked themselves?
Subject: Sure. As a librarian, I believe that curation is one of our most meaningful expressions of creativity. I’m interested in finding out which questions you select.
Interviewer (from Joyce Carol Oates): Why do you write?
Subject: Writing feels better than not writing. Like Montaigne, I find that writing focuses my thoughts and helps me challenge my assumptions. I also identify with George Saunders and the writing exercises he uses to understand his favorite stories, as well as the reading exercises that help him become a better writer. Writing also addresses my version of existential isolation. There’s a sense of screwball anarchy inside me that I avoid sharing impulsively, a spiritedness that would rather starve than be misunderstood: “I feel this specific thing. Do you feel it in this way, too?” It’s been there from the beginning. You can see it in the first piece I published, in Baseball Hobby News. It was a lighthearted essay about my love of baseball cards that feature journeymen players and back ups.
Interviewer (from Philip Roth): Did it help and encourage the anarchic spirit to be writing about baseball, morally a “neutral” subject, rather than about Jews, say, or sexual relations?
Subject: I was 12 when it was published, and encouraging my anarchic spirit would have silenced me. I’m not sure I was even capable of acknowledging that, like everyone else, I had opposing forces within me: the need to steward my uniqueness and the need for social connection with others who shared my interests. Well into my twenties, I understood crushes better than I understood kindness or loyalty. That affected my sense of self and family, too, which meant I lacked scale or subtlety in understanding other Jews. I didn’t have the confidence to investigate my understanding of Judaism or make myself vulnerable in public. Whatever I might have written for, say, the Jewish Exponent would have been dull and sophomoric.
Interviewer (from Björk): How vulnerable do you feel one should leave oneself to remain vibrant?
Subject: Your comfort with vulnerability matters. Think about boredom in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. If you know you’re boring, it’s more likely that other people will find you interesting. If you think you’re interesting, anyone with discernment will find you boring. Vulnerability is similar. If you find it difficult to be vulnerable, then forcing yourself to be vulnerable is good for you and the people around you. On the other hand, and at the risk of coming across as unfairly critical, if it’s easy for you to be vulnerable, you might want to make an appointment with a psychiatrist or an editor.
Interviewer (from Donald Glover): What role does criticism play in your life?
Subject: I’ll start with interpersonal criticism and then discuss literary criticism, because they both play important roles in different ways. For most of my life, I was unable to process interpersonal criticism. People could guide me in small ways, especially if I trusted them, as long as they were gentle. Otherwise, I tended to ignore or forget what they said. It wasn’t intentional, and it was immature and made everyone’s life more difficult. When I finally realized what was happening, that was difficult, too. Now that I’m more aware and less defensive, I hope I can finally get better at anticipating what other people need from me.
My primary creative influences seem either to have followed similar trajectories or stopped working or died. The baseball writer Bill James and musician Steve Albini were awful to anyone who challenged their ideas or tried to change their work in any way, and stayed that way well into their forties or fifties before they eventually softened. David Foster Wallace committed suicide before he softened much, and film director Hal Hartley seems to have chosen to stop working.
My sense of literary criticism has been far more helpful than my ability to make use of interpersonal criticism. I think it starts with expecting a narrative work, whether it’s a scholarly essay, a workplace memo, a short story, or a novel, to provide coherent clues about why it exists, both in the world it documents and in its readers’ world. I should be able to figure out who wrote it and why. The words should matter to the writer even more than they matter to me. It should help me see everything a little bit differently and also make me feel that the writer and I understand each other.
Interviewer (from Ntozake Shange): yes, but what do yo believe a poem shd do?
Subject: When I think about the format a work should take, it helps if I start with longer forms and get progressively smaller. A novel should be more than a polemic with a love story tattooed to its arm or, if it’s a bildungsroman, more than a memoir with plausible deniability. It needs to offer insights and experiments with form that you can’t include in a memoir.
A short story or essay shouldn’t feel like a chapter from a book or, worse yet, a compressed book. It should feel like it would be worse if there were more to it, like a meal that would leave you hungry if there were any less of it and nauseated if you had to eat another bite. It should demand that you read it in a single sitting, and reward you for rereading it before you do anything else.
A poem must be more than an inscrutable story or manifesto, more than a narrative with fancy meter and fanciful line breaks. A poem should reveal and complicate a moment or phrase and change how you experience it.
I’ve spent a pretty fair amount of time with novels, short stories, and poems. Probably the closest I’ve ever come to producing anything successful was my unpublished and unpublishable first novel.
Interviewer (from Tennessee Williams): What is the theme?
Subject: Baseball. And sexual relations. I spent two years revising it. The first draft was all right and then it got progressively worse the more I edited it. Eventually I decided to leave it alone for a while and come back to it if it felt like there was anything worth saving.
Interviewer (from Ingmar Bergman): And then what happened?
Subject: Nothing. It’s been almost twenty years and I’ve mostly forgotten about it. I’ve dragged its files from one hard drive to another and I’m pretty sure I still have access to it. I’d like to write more novels. Finishing the first draft of a novel is a wonderful feeling and I want to believe I haven’t experienced it for the last time.