On Writing and Anger: Laura Bogart
August 6, 2013 § 5 Comments
I am a HUGE Laura Bogart fangirl and have been for a while. But when her essay “I choose to be fat” appeared in Salon two weeks ago, I stopped being a silent fangirl and wrote to tell her how much I admire her work in both craft and content. What impresses me most about Bogart’s work is her ability to speak with a very focused and productive anger about her own life and experiences. Often, we as essayists and memoirists get the advice not to write about something until we are past our anger, and her work made me think of how much we could never write about if we took that advice… and how much we would lose if we never heard people speaking that anger. I wanted to understand how she was able to put that emotion on the page in such a reasoned and well-spoken way without losing any of its immediacy… so I used my Magic Brevity Get To Talk To Writers I Admire card and finagled this interview. I hope you find it as useful and enlightening as I do. ~ Sarah Einstein, Managing Editor
SE: In both your fiction and nonfiction, there is often a strong insistence on the value of anger as a necessary, even generative, component to survival in a violent and difficult life. It strikes me that this is a very considered anger, and I’m wondering how writing about it has shaped the way you experience it now?
LB: In some ways, anger has been my saving grace. The ability to get good and pissed-off at the ways I’ve been mistreated—and not just by my family—is life affirming. The whisper of my roiling blood tells me that I matter, that I don’t deserve what I’m getting (or not getting). My current therapist actually has made a very potent distinction between anger and rage. Anger, she says, is that affirming force. Rage, she says, is a kicked dog that bites the first person that tries to pet her. My work in nonfiction and fiction examines the often hairline difference between the two, which has made me very aware of whether what I’m experiencing is anger or rage. That is to say, whether what I’m feeling is a legitimate reaction to a genuine slight, or just an excuse to bare my teeth.
A perfect example: So, I’ve moved below a woman with a teenage son, and on occasion, they can get a little loud. I’m a quiet-loving introvert who, if I had my preferences, would live inside a hermetically sealed bubble. My initial reaction to the first bit of dubstep (and why is it that the people with the worst tastes always blare it the loudest?) was to become a human volcano. How dare they intrude on my solitude? Don’t they know I need quiet to write? So I got out my broomstick (if I’d had curlers in my hair and pink fuzzy slippers, my transformation into cranky hausfrau would have been complete) and I banged on the ceiling like I was trying out for a job as a sound effects specialist in the new Thor movie. The woman came down, immediately apologetic, almost tearfully apologetic, and told me that her son was just sharing his new favorite song with her. That’s when I what our lady of Oprah would call a “light bulb” moment: The music hadn’t rattled the cupboards; it had only lasted a moment; and, oh yes, other people have a right to enjoy life in their apartments.
I realized then that this playing music wasn’t something they were doing to me; it was something they were doing for themselves. This was right around the time I was working on a section of the novel that is narrated by the father character, who is sort of a manifestation (and exaggeration) of my own issues with rage; as I was skimming those pages, I saw that he has a profoundly antagonistic approach to all of his encounters with other people. Everyone is out to get him. And I saw that in my own reaction to my neighbors, and, frankly, I didn’t like it. The more I process on the page, the more I’m willing and—most importantly—able to let go of that unproductive rage.
SE: There are moments—particularly the moment when you told your father that you would kill him if he ever hit you, your mother, or your brother again—that recur in your essays. I find it really lovely that this recurrence works to establish a kind of intimacy with the reader as they experience your body of work; we start to know some things about you the way we know our friends’ most important stories. Each time I encounter this moment in your work, it retains its power and its meaningfulness because of the artfulness with which you write it into each new piece. Can you tell us a little bit about the craft of having such “touchstone” moments in the body of your work, and how having written about this moment in the past informs how you write about it in ongoing projects?
LB: Thank you so much. That moment is unquestionably the hardest moment of my life, and the most difficult memory I’ve ever set down in words. It’s the moment I’d written in and out of so many different essays until I finally accepted that this moment was, for better or worse, my great origin story.
I remember Dear Sugar’s letter to Johnny, the man who asked her “what’s this love thing all about?” She told Johnny that her mother’s last word was “love” and that this single word, and everything residing inside it, was her “genesis.” That word, genesis, has haunted me ever since. More than the word—the idea, the truth, that there are core moments and events that have defined the course of our lives and who we’ve become.
I’ve included that moment when I feel that I need to convey how extreme the abuse had gotten, and when I need to conjure the full weight of what it took to make it stop. In many ways, violence was the language my father and I shared; it was the way we understood each other. I’m careful to only bring out that touchstone moment (such a great term for it, by the way) when I feel I need to crystallize that truth for my readers.
I also include that moment because I think it says a great deal about my father. He is a grown man, a man who’d boxed and played football. I was a teenage girl. He could have obliterated me in that moment. He chose not to. He couldn’t bear to. He was able to see, in that moment, how desperate I’d become, and it stirred something in him.
That moment is the great knot of my life, really; as I undo it, I find more strands than I’d ever considered. One of the first occasions that I really described it, graphically, was in my essay about why the Hunger Games trilogy was so resonant for me. As I read the part when Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place in the reaping, I was overcome with everything I’d experienced when I’d intervene on behalf of my mother and brother. And for the first time, really, I was able to see something heroic in it (I’d been ashamed of it for a long time. After all, who the hell threatens to kill their own father?). But in Rage, I wanted to explore the more blunt, desperate side of that threat. I’m contemplating an essay just about that moment, and how I’ve unpacked it over the years.
SE: So, my mother is fabulous. When I publish something new, I tell her whether or not I think she’d be happy to have read it, and she only reads the pieces that I tell her won’t make her unhappy. I mean, she doesn’t just pretend not to read the ones that I tell her not to read, she genuinely doesn’t read them. It’s kind of a miracle, and it has allowed me to write things I would never otherwise make public. What are your personal guidelines about what you will and won’t disclose in your non-fiction writing? Do you talk to your family about your writing?
LB: One of the best—and most ruthless—pieces of advice I’d ever gotten about writing from life came from a former professor of mine. He told me to approach it as if the people I’m writing about are dead. That was incredibly freeing. The things I’ve experienced are mine. I get to decide how and where I filter them—within reason. Above and beyond all else, I try to be fair, to be balanced. I try to show the moments of goodness and tenderness and strength in my family. I’ll never give names or detailed physical descriptions. I won’t say what they do for their livings. I try to disguise just enough so that someone who had a passing acquaintance with anyone in my family couldn’t read my pieces without context and go, “ah, that must be ::insert Laura’s father’s name here::”
I won’t lie and say that I haven’t had a lot of angst and a certain degree of guilt about being so candid with my family story. Especially since I don’t feel close enough with them to share anything (writing-wise or otherwise). They have a dim, inchoate awareness that I’m a writer, but that’s really about it. And I’m quite fine with that. One of the best—and most sage—pieces of advice I’d ever gotten about writing from life came from a dear friend. She reminded me that there’s a lovely (and terrifying) thing out there called Google, and that if my family wanted to know what I was writing about, they can find it easily enough.
SE: I know you are working on a novel. Can you tell us something about it, and about the difference between working on something book-length and working in short form?
LB: The novel, which is tentatively titled Your Name is No, focuses on Angelina, a young artist estranged from her parents—especially her tempestuous (to put it mildly) father—but must move back in with them after a car accident renders her unable to find work. And just as her broken bones knit together, however painfully, Angelina comes to understand (and even appreciate) the things she’d most hated about her father and mother.
I’ve always thought of working in short form as constructing a framework for a small house. It has to be sturdy, but it’s truncated. Working in a book-length format is more like erecting a scaffold for a skyscraper. It still has to be sturdy, but the height and breadth of what it has to support is so much more formidable. So, I’m approaching it floor-by-floor—or, chapter-by-chapter, section-by-section—knowing that there’s a peak I have to hit.
Generally, I’ll leave notes for myself (usually in all caps) as guideposts, or places to hold particular thoughts, when I’m writing a short story or an essay. I don’t generally outline them. I like to muscle through them intuitively.
However, I did draft a very broad outline for the novel, so that way I’m aware of certain events and moments I have to build toward. I also had some godsends of friends review the outline to make sure that the nuts and bolts seemed to fit together plausibly. And I try to keep these events in mind as I write, and I try to be mindful that everything I’m putting down—whether it’s a shade of characterization or a line of dialogue—are the hammer-strikes that raise the scaffold.