Red Ink Series: Women Writers on Obsession
Julie Buntin, Vanessa Mártir, Piper Weiss, Jessie Chaffee and DéLana R.A. Dameron
Red Ink is a quarterly series curated and hosted by Michele Filgate at powerHouse Arena, focusing on women writers, past and present. The next conversation, “Denial,” will take place on November 8th at 7 pm, and feature Jennifer Baker (Everyday People), Anna Godbersen (When We Caught Fire), Chaya Bhuvaneswar (White Dancing Elephants), Lilly Dancyger (Narratively), and Alison Kinney (Hood). The following is an edited transcript from May’s panel, “Obsession,” which featured Piper Weiss, Julie Buntin, Jessie Chaffee, Vanessa Mártir, and DéLana R.A. Dameron.
Michele Filgate: DéLana, you wrote a beautiful poem called Cartographer. In a short essay you wrote about the poem, you say: “I am obsessed with maps. Their giving and withholding information. How, if one is to be a cartographer you must be able to say this road is here; this neighborhood is here; this train passes under your feet here. You travel and document. You travel again to confirm.” And your obsession makes me think of a line from Peter Turchi’s Maps of the Imagination: The Writer As Cartographer where he says, “To ask for a map is to say, “Tell me a story.” Have you used some of your obsessions as a map of your own imagination, dictating what you should write about?
DéLana R.A. Dameron: Absolutely. Home is very important to me, as a transplant to the city from South Carolina 11 years ago. Much of the work in Weary Kingdom is about the first 4 1/2 years living in New York City, about homemaking and what it means to sort of leave a place that you call home, just sort of start alone in New York City, another place that you will hopefully call home. So that’s an obsession.
I had a moment in my life around my first book when several people who were dear to me passed away in very quick succession. So I think I became obsessed with this idea of death, what is on the other side of it, sort of in conversation with who I was as a Christian and spiritually.
MF: Piper, in You All Grow Up And Leave Me you write about how you tend to obsess about things and people, including Gary Wilensky, your former tennis instructor who ended up attempting to abduct one of his students. At one point in the book you write: “I am a reporter, I tell myself, because that is better than being a person with an obsession.” But even our dark obsessions can be good if it’s in the name of art, no?
Piper Weiss: Part of this process of this book was trying to find the meaning in these obsessions. I have this history of having these kind of compulsive obsessions on usually dead men. I read all the things about them and see all the pictures. So part of it is also rationalizing something that might be perceived as an illness and trying to delve into it and see if there is meaning or something that I can understand, you know, this line of thinking that is key to occupying me. Wilensky was different because he was someone that I did know. But I think there are similarities in the story and reading about him as an adult and needing to kind of observe it and understand why the hell it mattered to me.“I am a reporter, I tell myself, because that is better than being a person with an obsession.”
MF: Julie, the first line of your debut novel Marlena is “Tell me what you can’t forget, and I’ll tell you who you are.” A lot of writers are obsessed with memory, Proust perhaps most famously, and I’m wondering how memory shaped what you write about.
Julie Buntin: Memory has always been an important source of story for me. In some ways, Marlena started with memory; a friend of mine from adolescence passed away when I was in my early twenties, and I was definitely working through some real feelings of grief when I was writing the book, and thinking about some of our experiences growing up. The story, as I wrote it, took on very different contours from my lived experience, but I hope having drawn from some real emotions gives the novel more urgency. I was also thinking a lot about the relationship between grief and memory—grief often compels us to look back, to revisit moments, impressions, etc. But the act of sharing those moments—of telling them as a story—can change something essential about them, forcing you to fill in details you can’t fact-check or tweak some element of the narrative. Which serves also to remind you of how much you’ve lost. I was interested in that process, and the frustration and pain inherent to it; basically, I couldn’t write a book about loss without also writing a book about the failure and joy of memory.
MF: Vanessa, you wrote a stunning essay for Roxane Gay’s Not That Bad where you talk about your relationship with your mother, which is a topic that you return to again and again in your writing. You say: “I know now that she couldn’t mother me—still can’t—because of what happened to her.” How can writers face sensitive material that they can’t stop thinking about? And what do you tell your students when you are teaching them?
Vanessa Mártir: It took me seven years to write that essay. I saw the initial call from Roxane Gay and I knew that it was that essay I was going to submit, and then I saw that she had a call on Twitter. She tweeted that she needed two essays by writers of color. I brought up the essay on the screen and I sat there, and three hours later it was ready. And I just realized that I finally knew what I wanted to say, and how I wanted to say it. So I think when we are writing about these kinds of stories that are so close to the bone, you have to take care of yourself and take the time that you need. I mean I’ve been working on this memoir for ten years, and I finally feel closer. I’m still not done. Sometimes it’s frustrating. but I’m taking the time that I need. I’m also trying to figure out what story I’m trying to tell. And ultimately it ties to my obsession, which I thought was “Why can’t my mom mother me?” But it’s not that, it’s actually “What happened to my mother that she can’t mother me?” It’s rooted in trauma informed care which asks: “What happened to you?” as opposed to “what’s wrong with you?”
MF: Jessie, in your debut novel Florence in Ecstasy, Hannah is an anorexic woman in Florence obsessively keeping track of the food that she eats, and increasingly interested in the lives of female saints. She feels a kinship with them. What drew you to this particular story?
Jessie Chaffee: As a few people have said, some of it came out of my own questions. I had an experience with an eating disorder that was different than Hannah’s in the book but that left me with a lot of what ifs? What if I hadn’t gotten out of it? What if I had been more alone? So I started the book with those questions, not knowing that the saints were going to be a part of it. But it’s Italy and saints are everywhere! I was writing a scene in Siena where there are frescoes of St. Catherine and I began researching her. And as a writer I became really obsessed with her and other women like her who were writing about ecstasy and love and their connection to pain.
I think the interesting thing about obsession is it always provides material for a writer, but it can also answer a question you didn’t necessarily know you had. So for me, [the obsession with the saints] changed the book because I figured out I wasn’t just writing about a woman trying to escape her body but about somebody searching for meaning and control and expression.
MF: This idea of obsession giving the writer the answer that they need makes me think of a piece that Molly Prentiss wrote for The Center For Fiction called “Say Yes to Obsession,” where she says: “The next time the language in a certain piece is suffering, if it feels bland or overworked or simply tired, try this exercise. Define your character’s obsession.”
DD: So one project [of mine] is about my paternal grandmother’s house in Charleston, South Carolina. Both of my grandparents upon their deaths, the family lost the estates but this one was particularly tragic for me because there was a story when she was alive that she only told me, where she had a dream that a turtle went into the house and it grew so big that it broke the house, and something that she was very invested in was keeping the house for the family. And then I learned later that my father and his little brother had two turtles and one disappeared. They never found it. And later as time passed my uncle adopted twin boys, and upon that adoption documenting stuff there was a whole bunch of politics that resulted in my uncle buying that house from the family and then selling it to pay for the adoption of his boys, and then he passed away very quickly. So my obsession is, really what did my grandmother foresee, right? This loss of her house and what that meant for this family.I think the interesting thing about obsession is it always provides material for a writer, but it can also answer a question you didn’t necessarily know you had.
VM: The first person I thought about when you asked the question was my brother who I lost five years ago after a 15 year heroin addiction. I often think about what his obsessions were and what happened to him. We were raised in the same house. I got out right after he did. I left at 13. I did it the right way, I went to boarding school. I never moved back. He stayed. His obsession was that he was conceived in rape. I am obsessed with trauma, and how we deal with trauma or don’t deal with trauma. What happened that I have been able to make this beautiful life out of my pain and my brother was taken out by his? And I don’t have an answer. It’s more about the question, I guess, but I’m still searching for answers; I want to make sense of it even though I probably never will be able to make sense.
PW: In the final months of Wilensky’s life, he was obsessed with a particular student who had fired him, and he was stalking her regularly. In some ways that was the thing that was reported, we knew who this particular girl, or woman now, was but I really wanted to protect her—not only her privacy but her story—and not tell it and going into his obsession with her inside his mind his obsession with her, because I had respect for her. So I had to find what his larger obsession was, which to me seemed to be about some inadequacies as a man, or perceived inadequacies as a man, as a single man of 56 who did not have children of his own, was not in a relationship with a woman, so his obsession became the idea that this person would fulfill all his needs. My obsession at the time that I knew him at 14 was very much about my own failures as this girl turning into a woman who feels that she wasn’t likable enough or attractive enough towards men or boys turning into men.
JB: So much of writing is about trying to notice things people normally wouldn’t.
JC: Once I began doing research about these women from the past it really changed Italy for me, it changed Florence; it was like looking at it through an entirely different lens. And I think obsession does that too—all of the sudden you’re looking at things through this particular lens, which is powerful because you go really deep into something else through your characters and it takes you further and further outside of yourself, which is exciting.
MF: Susan Sontag once said about being a writer, “It’s lunacy. . . You have to be obsessed. People write me all the time, or get in touch with me about “what should I do if I want to be a writer?” I say well, do you really want to be a writer? It’s not like something you’d want to be—it’s rather something you couldn’t help but be. But you have to be obsessed.” And I really like this quote from Geoff Dyer: “It is difficult to imagine how anyone could write a book about something he or she was not obsessed by.” What happens when you are not feeling obsessed with a project that you are working on? Is that a sign to give up, or not necessarily?
VM : No don’t give up. I’ve been working on this book for ten years. I’ve been plenty obsessed by it, but sometimes it just wasn’t flowing. The book is not fun right now, it’s really hard work because I have all the stories but now I’m distilling them to what I want to say. I think it’s the hardest part so far, but wherever you are is the hardest part.
JB: It’s comforting to hear you say that! I was so obsessed with my first book; I could hardly think about anything else. I needed to write it and I felt I was the only person who could write it. And with my new book, it’s taken a little longer to find the heat. I’m glad to hear you can not be obsessed for a little while and it’s okay.
DD: My obsessions can sort of go any direction; maybe it’s non-fiction, maybe it’s fiction, maybe it’s memoir, maybe it’s something else. So that allows me to always be working without the pressure of this one thing.
JC: I think it’s always important to have a thing that you are interested in because if you aren’t interested, it’s hard for the reader to be. It doesn’t mean it’s always going to be fun.
MF: Let’s talk about obsessive work habits. What do you need to do in order to be able to write?
VM: Be alone. My daughter knows it, too. I’ll admit it, I’m not nice when I’m interrupted.
DD: I have to write it out longhand. When I know I’m ready to get serious about something, I pull out the pen.
PW: I have some addictions. So I smoke a lot of cigarettes. I have a prescription for Adderall and that’s helped me through the years. But I’m just being really honest. I have to read other people’s work for at least an hour to palate cleanse my brain and feel like oh wait, this is how you do it. I literally forget how it’s done until I read again.I think it’s always important to have a thing that you are interested in because if you aren’t interested, it’s hard for the reader to be. It doesn’t mean it’s always going to be fun.
JC: When I wake up. I try to avoid checking email. You wake up with that fresh head space that degenerates over the course of the day with interruptions, so I try to start with that fresh space, when my schedule allows me to do that. And then also reading. I try to read things that are not exactly the thing I want to write but that are in the area.
JB: I have a day job that takes up most of my energy, so when I’m writing it has to be crammed into spaces that aren’t taken up by work. Which often means that I don’t write at all until the weekends, and then on the weekends, if I’m on a roll, I can write for 8 hours without stopping much. Still, it can sometimes take a while to get into it, and sometimes I sit for a couple hours not doing much before it clicks. But once I get started I can write until I am exhausted.
VM: I also need nature. Like I need a park. I used to live near Inwood Hill Park in uptown Manhattan, which is the only natural forest on Manhattan Island. I’ve been going to that park for 20 years, and I found a new path the other day. When I’m on the train I always carry a journal, just in case. Some people have an interesting face, interesting shoes, something, and an idea will come.
DD: I can’t write when I’m by myself, which is really interesting, so I go to places that are bustling. I had a residency years ago where it was four weeks of just being alone, and I got no writing done.
MF: What are some negative obsessive thoughts that you guys fixate on that don’t help you as a writer, and what do you do to calm those obsessive thoughts?
JC: One thing that sometimes helps me is writing late at night. There is something about the world being quiet—nobody else is up and it feels kind of like cheating.
VM: Impostor syndrome. . . that voice is sometimes really loud and sometimes it’s a whisper, but it’s always there. How do I try to counter it? Sometimes I’ll reach out to my partner, sometimes my daughter, talking to her, and she’s an artist too, so. And she’s 13, so she looks at the world in a very different way, she’s not limited by all the shit I have. She’s like, mommy just do it. And I’m like right, I’m going to go work.