Even as accomplished a writer as Daniel Nester, the irreverent author of How to Be Inappropriate (love that title!), occasionally hates his manuscript. What follows is my interview with Nester about his writing—when it’s going well and, er . . . not so well.
What are you working on these days?
I feel like I am always working on The Memoir; or, The Story of My Life. I had a draft of it once, got really close to publishing it, and then balked. At the time, the A-storyline was about my wife and I going through two years of IVF and other fertility treatments, which led to the birth of our first daughter, Miriam. I wrote about it for The Daily Beast and subsequently expanded on that.
Since then, our second daughter, Beatrice, was born, which deflated, happily, the narrative tension of that framework.
Plus, the B-storyline, which centers around the relationship with my father, has begged for reexamining/ revisioning/reassessment.
In short, I’m a mess.
How does working on your current project differ from working on How to Be Inappropriate and other projects?
How to Be Inappropriate is more or less a compilation of some of the shorter, funnier pieces I had been writing for some 10 years. It was at once easier and more difficult to work on. Easier because a lot of it was already written; harder because it takes a whole other skill to arrange a collection that makes sense. I already had an essay about farts in poetry, a cultural history of mooning, and memoir pieces that involve me dating crazy women; a lot of it seemed to fit together.
A rather late but fortuitous decision was to include the piece I wrote on leaving the New York Poetry scene and a re-envisioning of the IVF story from the scrapped Memoir (see above). [Note from interviewer: “Goodbye to All Them” is a brilliant essay. Don’t miss it.]
I am proud of the book and I think it’s better than some of the critics have written. Haters gonna hate. Anyway.
Why are you hating your current manuscript?
I think it’s good to hate your manuscript, at least while you’re writing it. You have to be able to embrace the inorganic as well as organic parts of writing, if that makes any sense. I had a horrible Summer of Writer’s Block last year, and now that I am on sabbatical from my teaching job, I have pledged to not let that happen again. I teach my students there is no such thing as a block, blah blah blah; here are some writing prompts for you; go do them. But for the first time last summer I just couldn’t practice what I teach.
I think I hate this manuscript specifically is because writing memoir is freaking hard and I may have to write it another way, but I have to let the process lead me to that decision. I want to tell my story honestly and also compellingly; I know that I have to pick on myself and show my many faults, and that is hard work. It’s not like you can just have a normal day after writing about one’s darkest thoughts. Or at least, I can’t.
And then there’s the whole organizing it as a story business, which I thought I had figured out, but now I am trying to find the story itself as I write. I’m usually more organized and anal-retentive than that. This book requires a different system.
How do you push through the hatred (or dread)?
For me lately, by taking it public. The way I am trying it right now is setting up a performance art installation called The Memoir Office. I sit in a gallery with an office plant, desk, chairs, card files, and write and talk to people. I hold office hours. I have already done a two-week “residency” at The Arts Center for the Capital Region in Troy, New York, where I wrote about writing memoir, why my efforts at writing The Big Memoir have failed, and what I can do next to make it work, to tell a story honestly. I’ll be doing it over the summer and into the fall, so if anyone needs someone to occupy an office for a day or two, I’m their man.
It’s all very meta, I know, but I think it’s providing me with a structure and it’s taken the heat off of writing my own life story to be able to tell it. If that makes any sense.
Anything else you want to say about hating your manuscript?
Right now I want to print everything I have written and spank it with a big cricket paddle. I do not want my manuscript to say, “Thank you sir, may I have another.” What I want the manuscript to do is give up and show me the way.
But I’m too busy spanking it to hear it talk back to me.
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