Interviewed by Rachel Wild
Read Andrew Bertaina’s nonfiction piece, Rules for Writing an Essay
Rachel: I really like your assertion that writers or aspiring writers love nothing more than reading other writers’ ideas about writing. What inspired this revelation?
Andrew: The short answer is my participation in the writing community at Twitter, which has been very useful, but I’ve also found a lot to love and a lot to question through that engagement. The longer answer, though related, is that the engagement with those writing pieces about writing really took off. I don’t think a lot of people who aren’t writing are avidly consuming literary journals :/.
However, it seems like most people would rather take a Master’s class from a famous writer talking about writing as opposed to reading the work of the writer, dealing with the nuance, the weirdness, the audacity of another human consciousness on the page, which is, in my humble opinion, the more complex and interesting thing.
Oddly, I’m also a sucker for reading other writer’s talking about process. I gobbled up the essay collection by Lydia Davis last year, but I also have a healthy skepticism about it. It seems to me that you can’t have a fully functioning community if we lose interest in the received product that is a novel, a poem. And I think often, in thinking about writing, we miss the strangeness of the thing itself. I teach composition, and I’m always trying to teach students how to break down writing, so we can achieve some of the similar impacts in our own work. I get it. But also, the best writing is often just very idiosyncratic and unable to be understood as a move we can easily emulate. Shit is complicated, but our first tendency is to simplify.
Okay. How can I be Philip Roth? Write from 9a-5p every day in a shed. Got it!
The reason I am more interested in the product as opposed to the process of writing is that I am old fashioned and go to books to help me learn or remind me how to live well. That doesn’t mean they need to be moral. In fact, many books show you the depravity of even the seemingly innocuous human life, and it reminds you to keep that humility or keep meditating or whatever keeps you from being a miserable git to the people closest to you. I don’t get any of that when I read about a writing process.
Why do you think we writers take ourselves so seriously, and what are the pitfalls of doing so?
You know, I was recently listening to an interview taken from On Being, with an Irish poet, who I’d never heard of, Michael Longley. To start with, he’s an incredibly famous poet in Ireland, and I had never heard of him, so perhaps that’s the first lesson about taking ourselves a bit less seriously. However, I think the distinction is important because it’s something he says in the interview, which is that it’s okay to take your work seriously, but not yourself. I think that distinction is really important. My writing is often, not always, some of my best thinking put forth on the page. You bet your ass it’s serious. And yet, I’m a human. I have a bunch of flaws and make mistakes and forget things and know a fraction of what there is to know about the world. Damn.
By example, I saw an essay of mine going around on Tumblr that had appeared in the Chattahoochee Review, and the quotes from the essay on the site had to do with presence, attachment and Buddhism. Anyhow, one of the first comments was about how I’d misunderstood the concept of attachment in Buddhism. My initial response, I’m human after all, is to be defensive, to say that it wasn’t an essay about the religion of Buddhism but a personal meditation on various burial practices. Where the hell did this person get off telling me I was wrong?
Guess what, I probably was. That’s inconvenient. I don’t like saying it. The truth is probably somewhere in between, and they weren’t reading my work generously, but that’s just fact of life. Be more generous is not a sexy answer, but it’s the right one, and I think it cuts both ways. My essay wasn’t perfect. I wish it was.
We all suffer from confirmation bias. It’s biologically useful, but because we’re all suffering from it it’s really hard to see. On my best days, I try to take the advice of Michael Longley, my work and thinking is serious, but I’m incredibly open to being wrong, missing something, not seeing nuance that is there or being willfully arrogant because I like being right. This has now gotten a bit long. My apologies.
The pandemic has been a seismic event throughout the world. What effect has it had on you and your writing?
I had a shit ton of time to spend alone. This was, at least in part, because I had a long-term relationship end the same week as the pandemic and my fortieth birthday. Yay depression!
Thus, I was locked in with my two kids ½ of the time and myself for the rest. I had some time to reflect that I would not have had otherwise, and it has been incredibly useful for me as a person. By the way, John Cotter, had some really interesting things to say about pandemic writing that is worth thinking over: https://electricliterature.com/i-dont-know-how-to-write-about-the-pandemic-but-i-dont-know-how-to-write-about-anything-else/
To be clear, the pandemic has been a simultaneous tragedy that has sharpened the very real disparities in race, socioeconomic status, and public service with very little impetus to change a lot of those things, which is, to be frank, depressing as fuck.
And yet, I have found the enforced solitude useful. I’d say this is a strange paradox, but we’re living all the time with paradoxes of inconvenient truths all the time. The pandemic is just a very clear one made evident to all of us.
Shoot, I’ve digressed again. This is why my essays have bullet points. Anyhow, I don’t know what impacts it has had on my writing. I hope my future writing is more hopeful, more humane, more in touch with what is beautiful and ephemeral about our time here on earth, more generous, more nuanced in its acceptance of happiness, of joy because Lord knows I will always write about sad and lonely people.
I love this line: ‘Sometimes you just need to discipline yourself to listening, to the art of discerning what stories are yours to tell.’ Could you tell me what inspired this thought?
Ha. That’s a different essay. In general, I take the stance that I should generally be the person who comes off the worst in the essay. I know other writers say that people should be nicer if they didn’t want to be memorialized as an asshole in your essay. It’s a rich debate! And I’ve probably violated my own rule before because I’m a human being and therefor a hypocrite, and the biggest one I know. But I’m trying over here.
I think of a quote from Karl Ove Knausgaard who basically said that you just want to make people three dimensional. He said that the people most pissed about their representation in his massive My Struggle series were the ones who felt as though they’d come off as merely one thing. I’m sympathetic and less brave than he is. I tend to stick to myself because I don’t’ want to piss anyone off or misrepresent them. But this isn’t totally because of fear.
I’m in the camp with Marilynne Robinson, when she talks about the incredible beauty and complexity of even a single human being. I have people I think I understand, people I don’t love, people I do love but see as flawed, people I think I know, people I seem sure of. But the reality is that I probably don’t or I only see a fraction. And what business do I have putting a fraction on a page?
I suppose that’s why I’m not always a fan of contemporary discourse, which often has the flavor of flattening complex ideas, making them two dimensional. I could say more! I often do. Some discussions need to be two dimensional because Americans seem willfully blinkered about many obvious things, racial disparities, gun violence, economic disparity etc., but I probably can’t solve that in one short essay answer, but I hope I’d get a 5 on the AP exam if I did.
Again, I also reserve the right to change my mind and write an essay about everyone I’ve ever known.
This last year has meant most people have stayed at home and not been able to travel. If you could get on a plane tomorrow and fly anywhere in the world you wanted to, where would you go to and why?
Well, oddly I was faced with this decision as I’m fully vaccinated. I had planned a trip to Arizona to do some solo hiking when I remembered that I hadn’t seen any of my family in the last year. My parents are now in their seventies, and though I am incredibly prickly about my individuality and time, phew, another essay, it felt like the right thing to do was to go out and see my parents in California. My father took a serious fall and was on the brink last May. It might be time to see him.
So much of life is incredibly complex, and honestly, this decision was too. How do I honor what I need as a person vs. what I owe to a family or the mother who raised me? The difficult answer is that it’s not entirely clear. I just have to choose and hope. We’ve probably been grappling with things like this since the beginning of human history. What should I do and why? To whom do I owe things? Look at Antigone.
Anyway, I’ve wandered astray again. California to see my parents because I’m a good son and fully vaccinated.