You call “To Possess Is to Extinguish” a “Gothic Essay,” which places it under the category of nonfiction. How close to your actual life are the events in the essay? What issues does that raise for you?
Part of the goal of this piece is to raise reader consciousness about how our lived experience is narrated or told. Often times in creative nonfiction we don’t think too critically about the narrator; the discussion tends to circulate around the space between the author who is writing the narrative and the character who surfaces on the page. I wanted to use elements of narration often reserved for fiction, like prolepsis, flash forward, and future tense to talk about my youth in order to ensure readers understood the story delivered was very much mediated by a narrator who may or may not have “gotten it right.”
To answer your question more succinctly, the events relayed are absolutely actual, though they are told through a narrator who is carefully manipulating their presence on the page. This is, for me, the privilege of nonfiction; it’s very designation as “un” fiction—as everything fiction is not—permits quite a bit of artistic freedom.
What does this piece achieve as a nonfiction piece that it couldn’t as a fiction piece?
The attempt here—and I use that word because, of course, to essay means “to try”—is to expose the ways that writing any past (which nonfiction is very much invested in) is always already uncanny. As Fred Botting notes in his book Gothic (recently updated, in fact—do check it out!), “One of the principal horrors lurking throughout Gothic fiction is the sense that there is no exit from the darkly illuminating labyrinth of language.” I would argue not just fiction but any engagement with the written—and therefore the very act of reading itself—is inherently gothic, where readers are strange monsters that enter the psyches of characters in order to consume their tale, while the author hovers outside and above the book, a ghost. While we’ve long known this about fiction, there is an eeriness to recognizing even seemingly objective accounts are delivered through a consciousness, through a narrator who haunts the (hi)story every time it meets a new reader.
In ways “To Possess is To Extinguish” is a kind of collage essay, but it also ventures into the territory of speculative essay, which might be a kind of fiction. I’m interested in disrupting the tension between “fact” and “fiction” and both collage and speculative essay permit this by embracing fracture and possibility. In both of these forms, the reader is an active agent in the meaning making, and I like this idea—that our readers might further write our stories.
Have you ever written something that felt so personal that you didn’t want anyone to read it, or didn’t want certain people to read it? Can writing fiction make you feel as exposed as writing nonfiction? Can fiction be as revealing of the self as nonfiction?
I have written much that I didn’t want others to read, and by “others” I mean even an older me. However! I believe writing is not a translation of thought to the page but thinking itself. In this way, I find that I sometimes must write in order to know. Then I can carefully discard the digital file or sheets of paper.
In some ways, fiction can make us feel more exposed and reveal more than nonfiction, simply because of the inherent guise that all fiction is untrue. It’s easier to hide behind fiction, and therefore, sometimes, it’s easier to be more genuine, more honest, more real.
What do you think of the Denver literary scene?
I am so lucky to be in Denver! It is truly a hub of literary life, with small and micro presses popping up every week, important writers featured at the major universities, bookstores, and reader’s series monthly, and a book arts scene that would put most cities to shame. From Tattered Cover to the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa, from Lighthouse Writers Workshop to Counterpath, from the Boulder Bookstore to the Dikeou Literary Series, this area boasts a rich and varied culture of literary arts—and I mean this in every sense of the word “art,” from limited edition letterpress chapbooks printed on handmade paper to performances that meld digital storytelling with the tenets of the oral tradition. I think it is also safe to say that the Denver-Boulder literary scene has a real investment in promoting marginalized writing and writers—that is, work that contests mainstream notions of literary “success.” (Whatever that actually means! I am still trying to determine what “literary success” looks like—I spend most of my days considering and re-considering if this is a tangible goal or a lovely myth.) We are an unapologetically genre-bending crew, interested in respectfully breaking all the literary rules. As such, it is nice to have a community to collectively engage in such transgression.
What advice do you have for young writers?
Read. Read widely and read deeply and diversely and read to know where you come from as a writer and to whom you are writing. Read until the practice of reading feels like part of the art of writing, until you come to realize that reading is not an act separate from writing, but that they are one in the same.
Then, when you have read until reading feels like writing itself, charged and haunted by the voices that compose the literary archive, write the book you think cannot be written.