Maggie Nelson at City Arts and Lectures by Solange Baker

The Nourse Theater is huge. It seats 1689 people, plus added seats in the orchestra pit. Opening in 1927, the theater began as a the in-house theater for Commerce High School, later becoming a public performing arts space. A recent addition to the theater’s shows, are the City Arts and Lectures. Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts, Bluets, and The Art of Cruelty, was this night’s lecture guest. The stage was set with a carpet, two chairs, and a small table with water glasses between Nelson and the interviewer. I had never been to a City Arts and Lecture and did not know what to expect but hoped to leave with insight into the professional world of writing.

Giving an interesting interview is a skill. Being an engaging interviewer is a skill. It became apparent that the woman interviewing Nelson, Julia Bryan-Wilson, had an agenda in mind. She continuously asked Nelson about her love live, changing the topic away from her writing to more personal subjects. “Does having an attraction to butch lesbian woman change the way you write about lust?” Wilson asked in reference to Nelson’s husband. Nelson was clearly uncomfortable. Her spouse is in fact not a “butch lesbian”, but gender fluid (going by “he/him” pronouns). Although their relationship together is central to The Argonauts, Nelson’s most recent release, Wilson seemed to have little interest in the non-romantic content of the book. Despite her visible discomfort, Nelson handled the situation with grace. She told Wilson she didn’t want to talk about the subject and segwayed into discussing the deeper messages in her autobiography. It’s a lesson to be learned for all, whether interviewer or interviewee— don’t press a topic your subject does not want to talk about, and if you are pushed to talk about a topic you don’t want to talk about, politely decline to discuss the subject and offer an alternate topic.

Nelson has identified herself as anti labels both in her love-life and work. Her writing breaks and blurs genre boundaries. It reminds me of an essay we read at the beginning of our speculative fiction unit called “Genre: A Word Only A Frenchman Could Love” by Ursula Le Guin about the boundaries genre creates. While I don’t think genre should be abolished, I do agree that it can be limiting. I’m used to working within limitations, partly because most of my writing is done for school. Something that I’ve found from being at SOTA is that it’s difficult to not slip into feeling like writing is nothing more than another homework assignment. And like Le Guin said, to write outside of genre to create new ideas, Nelson has her own strategies for authors plagued with writer’s block. Nelson talked about switching where she writes to continue the creative flow. She said she lays out her pages to organize them and takes inspiration from her own life. I tend to sit at my desk every time I write and don’t take much inspiration from my own life. If I do so, I find it difficult to remove myself from the piece and I take it more personally when I get edits. But maybe looking at my own life and taking not direct chunks, but inspiration and ideas from my experiences would benefit my writing. I am always open to trying new things to boost my creativity and get myself out of a stupor, and trying out other writer’s strategies is always a good place to start— especially when they’re as well known as Maggie Nelson.

I had not read any of Nelson’s work prior to the lecture except for select excerpts. After hearing her speak and gaining perspective into her character, I am more inclined to read her work. It is inspiring to see a successful author in a day and age in which people say the book industry is dead. Although I do not intend to pursue a career in novels, it did show me that there is still some of that “old world” left.

Solange Baker, class of 2019

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