Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Seth Brady Tucker’s nonfiction piece, The Silences
John: Someone once told me that they thought that attention was very close to love. Do you think this is true, or are there some types of attention that have nothing close to love in them? Is attention the closest that some of us will ever get to love?
Seth: I like the idea of this, but it seems like the kind of attention we get (as well as the intention behind it) is crucial to that equation; I know that I have had relationships where the other party intentionally withheld attention as a way to create insecurities that would ultimately convert my affection into a sense of devotion or obsession, and I have had scores of students who craved any attention whatsoever and they often didn’t differentiate between the negative or positive versions of that attention. So, I would argue that charity (of thought, of action, or intent) is closest to love; much like fear (of pain, of loss, of being found out) is the heart of hate.
Ultimately, as far as writing is concerned, when I consider craft or when I am in the early phase of a piece, I certainly think of the attention I am giving to the work as love. For “The Silences” it actually felt a bit like falling in love again even though the memories were painful as I unpacked them. It is interesting that with creative nonfiction this attention cannot actually tell the whole truth of the experience because of the distance of time; we all grow up and get a better sense of the deep complications swirling in our relationships and we are changed by them discretely or expressly and often it happens without us knowing it. Over time, my family and I have come to some sort of a cease-fire around how I was raised, and I know that the pressures on my mother and father to put food on the table and to keep us safe were extreme and that much of that pressure was too much for them and spilled over into how I was treated. Now I can look back and I see with some empathy that just the effort to do those two things were probably more than they could handle and I feel sorry for them now more than I ever did before. And also, somehow, grateful.
You write “…words were the most fearsome invention of all. Words were the sleeping grizzly, deep and hungry in the mouth of a cave.” At the same time, we live in a society that, to my mind, constantly seeks to devalue and destroy the power of the written word, at least. In a country of YouTube and TikTok, do you still believe in the power of words?
I worry about this all the time and I see it happening in my classes and there has been a ton of research that shows that our attentions spans are narrowing—my students are getting less and less able to devote time to the magic of words and seem less enthused about longer pieces even if those longer pieces may be vastly superior in form and function and power to the shorter pieces I give them—it is interesting how this also connects to your previous question about attention, though. How do we value certain things if some require (what is perceived as) ‘work’ and some require nothing of us and are being used to simply ‘fill time’ as we struggle to find meaning in our day to day lives? My biggest worry is that many of those I love are falling prey to this vice and are just going through the motions now in work and play; finding small entertainments to fill the time between now and the last of their days. And of course this essay is focused on such a tight moment of time in my life, a time where the mystery of words and expression was deeply confounding for me. I was a huge reader as a kid, so I had all the words I needed at my disposal, but often-times words were the things that visited punishment down on me. The way my home worked (to expand on that old saying), children were ‘NOT seen and NOT heard.’ The more visible or loud I was, the more likely it was that there would be retribution of some kind. But again, the power of words (I believe) is still absolute; we may see some funny or awful or just false moments of language or rhetoric happening on those platforms you mention, but ultimately those same people who love 140 characters are often posting personal affirmations or axioms or beliefs in pure and clear language because they cannot communicate as much or as deeply through image and sound only. That is the magic I try to create in my writing, and my students often wonder if I am serious (I am) when I tell them that writing is the only verifiable magic we know of but has just become so normalized that we don’t recognize it as magic anymore. In the end, as writers it is our obligation (and great honor) to present worlds with words and my students know that I believe deeply that through our writing we create incantation and spell… You are inside my head right now, after all, and someday (hopefully far down the road) I will literally create worlds and ideas and scenes for a reader that will come from the grave. Film cannot do that, and nothing in science is capable of that either.
I am often struck by how comfortable the unyielding, silent cruelty that you describe is with certain styles of religious faith. At the same time, I have also met truly wonderful people of faith, people who live lives of honesty and generosity. What do you think the difference is? Why does it often seem so easy to pervert faith into something dark and rigid?
If I knew a good answer to this, we could rid ourselves of most of the violence and bigotry and racism and sexism and (what I see as one of the worst aspects of contemporary culture): the poisonous masculinity we see around the world… That said, I too have wonderful people in my life who have faith or spiritual proclivities and I have had awful people who have worn only the mask of faith in order to get what they want. Truly, some of the most morally bankrupt people I have ever met have presented themselves as faithful and humble servants of a higher spiritual calling, but it doesn’t take long to reveal their true natures. It takes a great deal of discipline to have true faith after all because it (I believe) must be accompanied by the work of charity and giving and love. It also takes scholarship and deep reading and research to unpack the bible and I consider myself both cursed and fortunate to have been forced to memorize and read the bible—those many contradictions forced me to think in terms of the ‘concentration’ of lessons rather than in explicit scripture. After all, one can find certain beliefs supported in one line of scripture and then find one that contradicts that belief somewhere else in the bible very easily (sometimes on the same page!), so you have to pay attention to what Jesus focused on explicitly (if you are a Christian) or it is easy to let the scriptures simply function as a confirmation of bigoted or biased thinking. For instance, I think this is most clear when it comes to the Christian belief that homosexuality is a major sin (yet it is never actually clearly mentioned in the bible as a sin (actually, hardly expressly mentioned at all)). Then the fact that there is more focus on homosexuality as a sin from some of our churches becomes laughable when we consider how Christ spent nearly all his sermons focused on it; he spoke more about the sin of adultery than he did about any other sin, yet divorce for adultery is pretty commonplace (and even granted) in many Christian faiths.
Voltaire said that if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. Is the same thing true of the devil? Are we somehow not whole if we can’t acknowledge both the dark and the light in ourselves?
This is such an interesting question; I think that physicists might argue that chaos is just matter trying to find a balanced space to exist with the least amount of ‘pressure’, but when all matter is doing the same thing (fighting for space (by the way, forgive me for butchering physics)) it appears from the outside to be chaotic and violent and impossible to comprehend. Ideas are different than matter though, and I like to believe that we can always ‘lean’ toward the light. It takes discipline to not be ruled by our emotions though and I don’t know if we are very good at it yet (and back to social media—I think those platforms are teaching us terrible lessons when it comes to intellectual and emotional discipline). I think it is easy to assume that if we have one thing (‘god’ for instance), then we have to have the other thing (‘the devil’) to balance it out. But I’d like to believe that love could exist without hate because we are capable of abstract thought and rational empirical evaluation of the world, and even though we are tied to our emotions, we are also able to master them if we have the discipline to do so. After all, it is fairly easy to look at a person on the street and immediately assume we know that they are homeless because they are lazy, but I would argue that it is much easier (with only a bit of reframing and charity of thought), to see them as deserving of human compassion and to assume that they need your love and help and that we should then behave with charity rather than prejudice. I often wonder if our deep individuality (or belief in it) is the great sin in this country because it sets us up to judge our cousins without ever taking the time to know them.