Kristen Radtke: “Putting Anything into the World Is Totally Humiliating”
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.
In this episode, Jordan Kisner talks to Kristen Radtke, the author of Seek You, about loneliness, writing, gardening, and mortality.
From the episode:
Kristen Radtke: Going back earlier when you asked about a threshold, one of the thresholds I like to talk about, and I think the one that really did change my creative life, is coming to terms with embarrassment. Or I would say coming to terms with the fact that I will always feel embarrassed all the time with with my work, and just working through that. And I think that’s what I was feeling then with my inability to work. I’d sit down and feel like this is so stupid, this is so embarrassing, I don’t know how to do this. I’m a fraud, I’m a failure, whatever—all of those feelings. I think confronting loneliness is the same way because it can feel like a personal failing, and it’s not. Sometimes it’s a set of circumstances. Sometimes it’s something you’re biologically predisposed to, because everyone has a different threshold for loneliness and for when they experience loneliness; it’s programed into us since birth. And the fact that in America, we’re really set up for isolation. I mean, it’s sort of coded into the American ideology.
Jordan Kisner: I want to first ask you more about the feeling of embarrassment that felt tied to your work. Where did that come from? What did it feel like?
Kristen Radtke: I don’t know where it came from, other than the fact that I think writing is super embarrassing. Putting anything into the world is totally humiliating. Even the act of doing it. I mean, writing a bad sentence makes you feel like an idiot. Not knowing where pieces go together or doing a bunch of research about something you should already know and then preparing to become a pseudo expert so that you can put it out into the world in some way, it all feels kind of icky to me. That was something I realized just wasn’t going to stop. Even when I felt more competent, even if I had a book that got a good review or something like that, part of that is related to a feeling of fraudulence and feeling like we’re all fooling everyone all the time, which I think is normal and I think is something a lot of artists feel.
There’s this David Carr quote that I found. I can see in my notes—I was just searching for it in my notes, and I wrote it out in August 15, 2016. The quote is, “I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve, but we all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful.” And I think that sort of opened something up for me, this idea that I was never going to feel sure of what I was doing, even if there are moments when I’m like, OK, I know I’ve hit something, this is the direction I need to go. I’m never going to feel confident that I’m making the right choice or that I’m the right person to tell a story or that I’m not going to make a complete fool of myself. You just have to work in spite of that.
Kristen Radtke is the author of the graphic nonfiction books Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness (July 2021), for which she received a 2019 Whiting Creative Nonfiction Grant, and Imagine Wanting Only This (2017) as well as the forthcoming graphic novel Terrible Men, all from Pantheon. She is the art director and deputy publisher of The Believer magazine. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, Marie Claire, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Elle, Vogue, NPR.org, and many other places.