Live at the Red Ink Series: On Avoidance
Featuring Sarah Thankam Mathews, Elissa Bassist, Melissa Lozada-Oliva, Sari Botton, and Kayla Maiuri
Red Ink is a quarterly series curated and hosted by Michele Filgate at Books are Magic, and co-sponsored by Literary Hub. The November panel is presented in collaboration with LIBER: A Feminist Review. The next discussion, “Feminist Publishing,” will take place on November 17 at 7 pm EST in-person at Wild East Brewing Co. and on YouTube Live, featuring Jamia Wilson (Random House and This Book Is Feminist), Sarah Leonard (Lux), Bridgett M. Davis (The World According to Fannie Davis), and Debbie Stoller (BUSTand the Stitch ‘n Bitch series). The panel will be moderated by Jennifer Baumgardner (Dottir Press, LIBER: A Feminist Review, Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future). RSVP here.
The following is an edited transcript from September’s offsite panel, “Avoidance,” which took place at Wild East Brewing Co. and featured Sarah Thankam Mathews, Elissa Bassist, Melissa Lozada-Oliva, Sari Botton, and Kayla Maiuri. For this panel, writer Hannah Bae was the guest moderator.
Hannah Bae: Tonight’s topic is all about avoidance, so I wanted to hear from all of the authors about what that word means for you as a writer and what that means for your own work.
Elissa Bassist: I’ll do it—I won’t avoid it. I was diagnosed with OCD, and part of having OCD is avoiding things like your life depends on it because your fear system believes that you’re in danger if you don’t. I wrote about it in my book Hysterical. And I wrote how I manage it through Exposure and Response Prevention therapy, which also cured my writer’s block. Because writing is the most important thing we should avoid and do avoid. Exposure therapy, if you’re lucky enough to ever get to do it, is doing the thing you don’t want to do and doing it on purpose in order to stop fearing and avoiding it. That impossible treatment not only helped my writer’s block, but also relieved some of my chronic pain.
Sari Botton: I need to get that therapy, right now. I somewhat famously have avoided completing my memoir for decades? Finally I did it. I was mostly afraid of exposing the people in my life, my family. I had written things in the past that had upset them, and it took me a really long time to figure out what was the right balance of blurring people and removing details.
But I was so caught up with fear for so long that I found every way to not write my book, or write only little bits of it here and there. Melissa Febos’ Body Work helped me a lot. Although I really want to get some exposure therapy. I remember in my early 30s, if a tooth hurt I would put it off, and I’d wait until a cavity turned into a root canal. Then you don’t really have a choice anymore. And I try to use that metaphor in my life. When I find myself avoiding things, especially things that are painful or I think are going to be painful, I say to myself, okay, it’s a cavity now, it could become a root canal, which is a lot more painful and expensive.“Making the task of writing small and “unholy” and insignificant is the only way I can get anything done.”
Sarah Thankam Mathews: My first acquaintance with the concept of avoidance was in some internet quiz about attachment styles that I probably took at 1:30 in the morning. In my first novel, avoidance plays a major role because it lives so profoundly and rootedly in my main character. And the kind of avoidance that I’m most interested in is avoidance of pain, which is a very deeply human thing. For many people in the world but also in the fictional world, you enter into this really difficult paradox where honesty or intimacy early in your life has been woven through with pain and punishment.
We are built as human beings to try and avoid replicating the most painful past experiences of our life, and so you have an avoidant person like my main character, who goes out of her way again and again to avoid intimacy, to avoid honesty, while also deeply desiring to be known and to be loved. I think that’s a really interesting conundrum, and one of the questions that sustained me through writing a 300 page book.
Melissa Lozada-Oliva: I went to the dentist once, and she said, dentistry isn’t expensive but negligence is. But then I was like, what if you don’t know how to take care of your teeth? Another thing, I also have OCD- brag. And I also did exposure therapy which is really torturous, the whole thing was like, I was afraid that food was poisoned so I wouldn’t eat it, so I had to eat things that looked like they were tampered with in front of my therapist.
It was very strange, but she said that the thing with OCD is the more you avoid your fear, the bigger it gets, so you have to just look at it and even interact with it and then it gets smaller and smaller. The last thing I’ll say is my professor, Terrance Hayes, once said, “Melissa, you’re very fucking funny, but so is Louis C.K.- what are you hiding?” And so in my writing, I guess I was making too many jokes and not really getting to the more serious complex things that I wanted to.
Kayla Maiuri: I went to my MFA program right out of college at 22. I was very young and definitely avoided writing the book I wanted to write. I went in with this grandiose novel that I thought was what we look at being the American novel, written from a male perspective. It was just terrible and so detached from me.
In my second semester, I had this brilliant professor, Elissa Schappell, who said she was only interested in writers who left part of themselves on the page, leaving their bloody fingerprints on the page, meaning writers who’d exposed themselves in some way. I was really afraid of exposing people I love, but you know, if you’re not making yourself a victim, I think it’s okay to do that. I avoided it for years, but eventually dove right into it, and it ended up being my novel.
HB: Another question that Michele came up with ties with the Viriginia Woolf quote that inspired the Red Ink series title. “You cannot find peace by avoiding life.” Michele actually has this hanging on her office wall, and she only recently found out that this quote had been misattributed to Virginia Woolf. It was in the film adaptation of The Hours, and it was something the fictional Virginia Woolf said. But I thought this quote was really good inspiration for this question: what are some ways that you’ve learned to confront avoidance or just deal with it?
SB: I’ve come to a place where I kind of acknowledge that I’m avoiding and I give myself a time limit, and then I make a list. Lists are my life. I had this viral tweet where I said that sometimes when I complete a task that wasn’t on my to do list, I add it and check it off for the dopamine boost. There’s something about making a list and breaking down into small steps the thing you are avoiding.
I do Pomodoro also, but I don’t only do 25 minutes, I start with 5. After I do that 5 minutes then I’m like okay, I did this, I can do 10 minutes now.
STM: I have a particular relationship to the avoidance of tasks. Particularly when it comes to writing and its attendant labors, which are many. It’s not just about sitting at the typewriter and opening up a vein, right? There’s invoices, there’s forms to be filled. I try to accept in honesty who I am: a little anxious, a little bit of a procrastinator, and to internalize the reality of compound interest a little bit. I tell myself often, if you don’t do this now, it will be worse three days from now. You will have to do more work, you will piss off somebody who is patiently emailing you.
KM: So, when it comes to writing, I try to just be nice to myself. I don’t have a word count that I have to meet every day or a certain amount of time spent at the laptop. All I have to do is open up the document and take a peek, make contact with it, and think about it. Because that’s half of the process—thinking and talking, taking notes and reading.
MLO: Yeah, so much of writing isn’t writing, either. It’s planning, and being in the world, observing, and like living a life, and then writing later.
STM: I feel this very strongly; I feel like a lot of my most punishing years as a young writer were just treating writing as this holy professional endeavor, which I did out of stress and various kinds of imposter syndrome, and being the immigrant daughter of immigrants. And then at some point I was like, bitch, we are all out here trying to make art, and sometimes thinking is writing, crying is writing- that is a quote from C Pam Zhang, who is a brilliant writer and a dear friend.
And so much of writing well comes from living fully and openly and not shielding yourself emotionally from life; allowing yourself to fully immerse yourself in the world you are in and saturate yourself like a sponge in the world you are in. One day you’re ready, you go over to the page, and then it’s like: squeeze.
EB: I agree that doing nothing is very important. For years I did a lot of nothing because I’d expected writing to be easy and I’d expected to become a celebrity, and the pressure was so paralyzing that I avoided the task that would lead to finding out I’m not going to be a celebrity. I had to radically alter and lower my expectations to the lowest possible, to “show up and sit down in a chair, and type for one Pomodoro.”
That helped me stop avoiding so much. Making the task of writing small and “unholy” and insignificant is the only way I can get anything done. That’s how I started writing, dating, living, loving, breathing. I find that the thing I want to avoid is the thing I must do right now so that I don’t let the anxiety build. Like, I’m avoiding the anxiety that I’m only building by avoiding. Usually I enjoy the thing that I don’t want to do.
HB: Sarah, in All This Could Be Different Sneha is ashamed of her personal history. “Despite some degree of aversion to self-pity, I had longed, walking across the blue-carpeted airport, watching hordes of cheerful-seeming people greeting loved ones with unfeigned warmth, to have been born a slightly different person. Subtract my uncle from my life. Subtract my father’s deportation.
Subtract the coldness and dislocation that appeared to run through my personality like electric wiring ran through a house. All this, the very facts of who I was, could be different. I could be a person refigured: warm, charming, loving, loved.” Why does Sneha want to avoid her past?
STM: Because her past is very painful. I’m not really super interested right at this very moment in laying out a laundry list of causal psychological motivations for the way she is. Partly because I don’t believe that things are that one to one for any of us. I think Sneha is a young person who is experiencing multiple traumatic events, as have many of us. She also has a whole self that is in conversation with both the past trauma, but also the present moment of her life. She wants to be different. She wants to change her life. And I think of that as something that I was more interested in.
The question of the future rather than the question of the past. I think the past in so many ways serves as prologue, it helps us understand, it helps us situate. The novel is also invested in politics in various ways and so a large chunk of it is interested in a sort of prologue of the present moment- it’s set in 2013. Finally, there is also this sort of craft-based usage of avoidance that happens with the main character where, from the first page I think there’s this gesture she makes to the readers, where she offers up a little bit and then pulls it back, and then she offers up a little bit and pulls it back, and that sort of movement, the music and propulsion and seduction of it is what I was much more interested in than bare facts of trauma.
That’s how I thought about it really, this usage of shame that signals possibility and a chance of escape, a chance of transcendence of self, and frankly, a reconfiguration of the relational bonds that we form as people, the bonds that ultimately create society
HB: Sari, in And You May Find Yourself… Confessions of a Late-Blooming Gen-X Weirdo, in an essay called “Mean Girls” you write: “In the end—after spending too much of my life pretending in order to please people—I’d rather be honest and suffer the consequences than act fake to get along. If that makes people think I’m weird and ostracize me, so be it. In my late fifties, I can take it.” What did it take to get you to that point to really be more fully yourself? Because I really admire that.
SB: Well, I’m talking a good game there. It still hurts when people think I’m weird or that I’ve said the wrong thing. But I definitely have suffered enough from not speaking up, from trying to go along and get along. I’ve had enough bad experiences from making myself small, that I just couldn’t take it anymore. I also realized a lot of the people who were judging me, rejecting me, weren’t really people I admired. I guess it was a bit of maturity on my part. It’s comical the way I used to contort myself, and that’s the funny part of my book.
But you reach a point where you can’t do that anymore. Self-abandonment just starts to feel impossible if you do it enough. Earlier we were talking about a misattributed quote; I have a misattributed quote on my arm. Everybody thinks it’s Anaïs Nin: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom,” which is really what you’re talking about, what my life is about, what my life has become about, which is having the courage to be real and fully myself, instead of shrinking myself. But it turned out to actually be a quote from a woman who was a publicist for an adult-ed college in California in the 70s, and I have a story in the book about that, too. But anyway, you reach a point after you’ve been diminishing yourself for so long where you just can’t do that to yourself anymore.
HB: Kayla, in Mother in the Dark the main character, Anna, grapples with her mother’s mental illness. You write: “All around us, the blackened windows reflected the lighted rooms of our house, eclipsing the outside world. I avoided our reflections; the distorted, faceless figures seated at the table, disturbed by the way we morphed into sameness. I didn’t want to be related to this creature, this imposter who’d come to stay.” Why is avoidance a coping mechanism for Anna?
KM: A big part of the novel is that Anna’s sister calls saying that something has happened, she needs to return home, and Anna won’t return that call because she knows it’s about their mother. She’s afraid of confronting the fact that she left her family in a really abrupt, not so nice way. She feels so much shame. She sees herself as an extension of her mother, and with all of these unlikable parts she sees in herself reminding her of her mother, it’s just easier to be in New York, away from home.
The irony is, the more she avoids her mother, the more this specter of her mother haunts her on the streets and in cafes. In this avoidance she’s also repeating her mother’s behavior, wallowing in self-pity and being really self-sabotaging, so she’s trying to make it work as a coping mechanism but it’s of course, not working.
HB: Melissa, in “Who’s That Girl” in “Dreaming of You,” you write: “One morning I look up at the mirror from washing my face and it’s like my face is scrolling upward, like someone else’s thumb is pushing it there. I try to hold it down.” That poem captures what it’s like to not feel seen by others or by yourself. But in an interview with The Creative Independent, you say of being an artist: “It’s like this weird double entendre because it’s like, I really want to be seen. But what happens if someone’s looking too closely?” Do you think there’s an aspect of avoidance in performance?
MLO: Oh yeah, definitely. I think there are a lot of people that only feel themselves when they are performing but it’s also this fabricated you can only feel yourself if you’re being seen. And I think I’ve definitely felt that way before. And was trying to tap into that with “Dreaming of You,” what it means to have fandom and what it means to love a celebrity so much, even though you’ve never met this celebrity before, and all these things that you’re flinging at somebody who you simply don’t know.
A lot of the book is based on this conceit that someone told me once that was if you don’t raise your kids with religion they will find it in a person or a band. And I think that’s really funny, and I think like people, for whatever reason, need something to like, worship, and feel, people need to feel very, very small, like “I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean.” I think whatever feeling that invokes is really human.
HB: Elissa, in Hysterical you write in the introduction: “…my silence hurt me more than anything I could ever say. And it wasn’t only that I thought I was going to die when I was sick (I was pretty sure I was going to die), but that I thought I was going to die with so much unsaid.” How is silence one of the most pervasive and toxic forms of avoidance?
EB: Speaking of long periods of avoidance and how that’s bad: in my memoir I wrote about years of my life when I just stopped. I stopping performing, which I love, but I didn’t like what I did to myself after, which was mentally review every single thing I said, judge it on a scale of one to ten, and it was always minus ten, and beat myself up for every imperfection. To stop doing that to myself, I stopped putting myself out there, thinking that’s how I would find peace. And I did find peace, but I also found every other feeling and made myself sick from my silence.
It’s so easy to say and do nothing when that’s what the world wants from [women] and when you’re rewarded for making yourself small. There are studies that women who repress end up getting and dying from cancer more than women who express their anger.
I couldn’t say no to men because that’s such an unattractive word. And [as I lost my voice] I [lost] my health and my safety, even though it felt safe to be silent. Everything that feels good about being alive, I gave up so I wouldn’t come off as rude, impolite, aggressive, mean, stupid, and every other word applied to women just for being women. So yeah, silence sucks, don’t do it.