Eula Biss on the Essay’s Amenability to Ambivalence
In Conversation with Jordan Kisner on the Thresholds Podcast
This is Thresholds, a series of conversations with writers about experiences that completely turned them upside down, disoriented them in their lives, changed them, and changed how and why they wanted to write. Hosted by Jordan Kisner, author of the new essay collection, Thin Places, and brought to you by Lit Hub Radio.
Jordan talks to writer Eula Biss about living in the moment of a threshold, buying a house, making a career, and about how too much fertile ground for thought can lead to overload.
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From the episode:
Eula Biss: I was going through a period in my life where I was asking myself really frequently what I want, what I really want. And in order to answer that question, I had to know what the terms I was using meant, at least for my own purposes. So when I was asking myself, what do I want out of work? What do I want out of my work life? I need to know what work means, in what sense am I using that word even. When I say work, do I mean my writing? When I say work, do I mean the teaching that I do for income?
Pretty much everything in this moment—which is, I’m writing through in this book something of a midlife crisis, which is its own threshold, a liminal, transitional, if you’re lucky, transformational place. And in this in this moment of crisis, the ground seems to be shifting under me, and every question I ask seems to involve a quantity that I can’t define. Partly I’m asking myself, what is my relationship to capitalism, and what’s my place in it? But in order to answer that question, I need to know, what is capitalism? What am I talking about here?
The book really circles certain definitions and certain concepts. The three terms that repeat in the headings of the short works that make up this longer work are capitalism, work, and art. And this is me returning again and again to my own questions about what those things are. What is work, what is capitalism, and what is art, to me? And I’m returning again and again because I’m asking myself what do I want these things to be? Am I in a moment in my life where I can invite these things to have a certain kind of presence in my life, or can I reimagine my relationship to these things? I think that’s what’s really going on in this book, is I’m beginning to wonder, can I reimagine my relationship to work? Can I reimagine my relationship to capitalism, to art-making?
As I mentioned to you, I think that I more or less live in a threshold, in that I have a lot of negative capability. I dwell in ambivalence. I am really comfortable in internal contradiction. I spend a lot of time in that psychological space. I think that’s why I’m attracted to the essay as a writer. It’s a genre that’s especially amenable to that mindset. It’s especially fertile for ambivalence, uncertainty, second guessing, the open exploration of questions. That’s my sense of the genre, and it’s also why I’m here as a writer.
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Eula Biss is the author of four books, most recently Having and Being Had. Her book On Immunity was named one of the Ten Best Books of 2014 by the New York Times Book Review, and Notes from No Man’s Land won the National Book Critics Circle award for criticism in 2009. Her work has recently appeared in the Guardian, the Paris Review, Freeman’s, The Believer, and The New Yorker.