Miranda Mellis is the author of Demystifications (Solid Objects); The Instead, a book-length dialogue with Emily Abendroth (Carville Annex); The Quarry (Trafficker Press); The Spokes (Solid Objects); None of This Is Real (Sidebrow Press); Materialisms (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs); and The Revisionist (Calamari Press). She teaches writing, literature, and ecological humanities at The Evergreen State College.
How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Beginnings can go on for years. Sometimes a beginning gets worked over so much, so hard, that’s all there is. Beginning can feel precarious, so uncertain. A beginning is a kernel, an idea, a resonance of some kind, an attraction, an arrival, a rumor, an invitation. The middle space is more grounded, like when you know love is reciprocal and you can start to count on someone – when, in the story, you’ve got enough material to shape it, to work with. It’s also still indeterminate – how long might this be, or take?
Like starting to ask, in middle age, how long will I live?
Having been so preoccupied with just getting off the ground in the beginning of a story (or a life) one is still working out: what is this? Over time you begin to understand it (which is another beginning, as if every insight is a beginning), to know its shape, to be able to tack more knowingly, more intimately between chance and intentionality.
An edge may start to flicker into view – “the sense of an ending” – a horizon; a cliff; a place beyond which you’ll no longer write (or live); a closure that also opens out. Ending shapes everything that comes before and usually leads to more revisions, as the ending casts its light back; writing an ending is beginning all over again; seeing things anew (re/vision) is playful, rather than goal-oriented. Writing is more like an organism than a machine or tool in that sense. You don’t make it, plug it in, set it going, use it until it breaks. Instead you are created, you create, you change something, it changes you, in a symbiotic enacting, auto-poietic and transformational, of spiraling co-creative cyclicality.
How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I started out writing poetry and couldn’t understand why anyone would write fiction. How would anyone every decide what story to tell, among an infinity of possible narratives? I had a word for this: infinitivity. Fiction-curious, I took a weekend workshop with Rikki Ducornet.
She spoke of seeing an enormous jackrabbit in France, an impossible rabbit the size of a deer, and how that image became emblematic, a point of departure for writing. I wrote a piece in her workshop, as a way of exploring my skepticism about fiction (infinitivity). It was called “Novellas by the Hour.” It took place over 24 hours at 24 different moments: “8:13AM – a squirrel sticks her head out of a gas pipe.” “9: 45PM – a veteran naps on a park bench; has a flying dream”, etc. I found pleasure pursuing these images, figments and fragments of diction, seeing where they might lead, what they might say. I wrote stories from that weekend onward.
Coming from poetry has shaped my approach to fiction. Love of and curiosity about language, about where it leads, interest in metonymy, sound, all that remains. I find writing about culture, writing essays, writing about what other people make and do a welcome respite from vicissitudes of fiction. Poetry is a constant, a way of thinking and being that we could describe, if we imagine it in relation to liberation movements, as a multilinguistic front line where opacity, difference, and multiplicity are at the fore.
How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
The Revisionist (2007) was my first book and it did change my life, or in writing it I was changed. I was writing this strange book in the early 2000s very much in the minor key, taking up the positionality of someone paid to lie about climate change. This narrator was in my head as I tried to imagine the psyche of those who understood the dynamics of global warming and nonetheless lied, Exxon et al. (See Merchants of Doubt by Oreskes and Conway for a precis of the actions of the corporate mafia of the fossil fuel industry and their paid minions, terrorist members of what McKenzie Wark calls the “carbon liberation front.”) Those executive facilitators of our current extinctions should be tried for war crimes. They have waged a war on all species, a war on animals, a war on futurity. My book was a response to the dissemination by the Bush administration of junk science about climate and the refusal of that administration to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol, an existentially disastrous mistake and a cause of despair. The Revisionist was very much a working through of environmental depression. I got revenge on my narrator by causing them to lose the capacity to perceive anything at all by the end, as a result of knowingly lying about climate change. That was almost 20 years ago. Think how different things might be now if the government had not been in bed with big oil, not only lying about climate change with propaganda campaigns, but invading Iraq on false pretenses to control the oil supply.
As for how my recent writing compares or connects, the venality, stupidity, and the infuriating, fatal incompetence of the reactionary capitalist state continues to be a source of inspiration. Ha ha! As we flee fires, floods, and droughts.
My current manuscript is a piece of forest writing that centers on a house sliding down a ravine due to monsoon rains and clear cuts which destroy stabilizing root systems causing mudslides and soil erosion. But it’s different from The Revisionist and other books in offering a vision of a good enough future, and pointing, in homage to The Dispossessed, to an ambivalent utopia.
Where does a work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a “book” from the very beginning?
I’ll start to draft something and often I just abandon it after a few revisions. (What about an anthology of most successful failed beginnings? Call it False Starts.) Other times the whole gesture is there. It’s compressed. One dream; one idea; one move; one scene. Other times something takes hold that’s too complex and indeterminate to sense its duration. It’s not a gesture, it’s a problem, a cluster-fuck, an open-ended question, something you’re going to be wrestling with for a while, that won’t let go of you, maybe for the rest of your life, for example grief.
Those can end up being “books” – I like that you’re putting quotation marks around that word. The quotation marks hold the telos of the “book” in suspense, in a state of potential. It’s fraught to have “book” in the mind, but it can also be generative, whether the imagined book comes to be or not.
Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Especially if sharing from a work in progress, public readings can become part of revision. Hearing the work out loud, anticipating real listeners, this can be clarifying, a tool for editing. You gain extra eyes, extra vision with that sense of address. If the work is complete – in a “book” – there are still questions about which parts you will read, in what order, and why, and you keep learning about how your writing registers in ways that might be surprising and that teaches you about the work itself, about the relationship between techniques and effects, especially comic effects, because you hear the laughter.
There are other things you can sense going on in the intersubjective space of a public reading, absorption, disinterest, identification, empathy, criticality, amusement, surprise, curiosity, judgment, care. You can also sense your own projections, what you imagine is going on; what you hope is going on; your own conflicts and intentions, your own befuddlement and absorption, curiosity and surprise, etc. Feeling into why you might feel drawn to reading one thing and not another at a given time develops sensitivity to what might be uncooked or overcooked in the work in progress.
Parts of your text can feel saturated for you, weighed down in a way that makes it difficult to read from. Conversely, it can be energizing (if also vulnerable and risky) to read something you’re unsure of, or haven’t read aloud before.
As for enjoyment, I’d say I have mixed feelings. You’re dealing with a whole range of things: how much sleep did you get the night before? How many other demands on your time, energy, and emotions were you dealing with that day? What shape are you in? People drink coffee, alcohol, take beta-blockers, find all kinds of ways to try to regulate themselves to be in the right frame of mind for appearing before a public. It can be terribly dysregulating. Readings can evoke a range of feelings, from enjoyment, excitement, curiosity and pleasure, to nerves, dread, shame and resistance. Over time one gets to know what the ride is like, as if a reading is a mind-altering substance: set and setting matter, but there is only so much you can control. After you’ve given a lot of readings over years, you’re not surprised by the feelings associated with the lead up, the range of things that can happen during a reading, and the roller coaster ride that it can sometimes be. You learn to phase shift, to discern, and not to get too caught up in any of it.
Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
The disability and premature death of my mother, who was a communist, an activist, a teacher, an actress and a single mother (so a really complex interesting person who I didn’t get to know for as long as I wish I could have) is what started me writing seriously. Death is still my subject, but presently I am writing about it, in a manuscript called Two Problems in Three Parts, in different contexts: the context of sacrifice in a polarity with tyranny; and the context of ecologic in a polarity with industrialization.
Ecology and sacrifice are interrelated. Some people write (or live) towards an ending. Ending is a death, and deaths happen in a wide variety of ways. Some lives/stories have satisfying conclusions. They end with integration and closure. Others end abruptly, inconclusively, wrongly, unhappily, unfairly, tragically, suddenly, broken off, leaving wounds in their wake, so to speak.
Some endings allow for mourning to change its tenor. Others leave us with interminable, persistent melancholia.
The eco/logical way to think about it is that what dies is recycled, becomes and feeds new life. When we begin a new story, it is as if it begins where something else was left unfinished, as if every beginning points to something left. Something left that is usable is something that, in dying, gives itself to new life. It breaks down, is used, and is changed, rather than breaking and becoming an immutable, problematic object that can’t be used or changed, like tyrants who refuse to step down. Of what use is a tyrant who won’t give up power, to a democracy? Not only are they useless, they are toxic. The difference between squirrel bones or a gun, for example. Or a fallen tree, which feeds millions of microbes and life forms, and a microwave. Or a plastic bag thrown into a river which feeds nothing and no one, and chokes out life. Of what use are guns, microwaves, and plastic bags to the living biosphere? None whatsoever.
For life forms, every ending is a new beginning. For non-regenerative manufactured things, they never begin again, because they can’t rot, so they don’t accommodate change, and that is the true meaning of garbage. Nothing that can rot is truly garbage. Anything that can become something else, that can change, partakes of the genius of the living world and is not garbage. Only things that refuse to rot, to be transformed, to be changed are garbage, and they are filling up the world such that we have two worlds: a living world that self-regenerates, transforms, and symbiotically evolves through reciprocity, and a garbage world of tyrants, objects and toxins that don’t have lifespans but instead death spans: they are forever dead, never coming back to life, never changing. This is reflected in the culture of productivism, supported by necro-political, capitalist formations that require factories, mines, and extractive industries and police violence to enforce exploitation.
The normalization of all this produces people who misconstrue existence. A friend once told me about a neighbor of his who wanted all the trees on their street cut down because she thought of the leaves that fell from the trees, and the soil in which they grew, as garbage. Imagine how she feels about her body, which produces waste every day. But this would be a great person to write a story about, to do a character study of.
What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The writer is in a hard position. The culture doesn’t really support artists, so to be a committed artist is automatically to have to find a way to live against the grain. Artists are set up to compete, the way athletes are. In other professions, you learn your trade and hang a shingle, get a job. U.S. artists are precarious, have trouble getting a salary, getting work, and constantly have to scramble, unless they were born wealthy. That means that automatically privileged people have an advantage: they can make art, write, without worrying about how to make a living. Thus men of leisure with wives, servants, wealth have historically been very productive, and it’s no mystery why. It’s not because of any innate talent, it’s because they were free to do as they liked, supported by armies of working class people, including their wives: wives as servants.
Historically inequality resulted in men with tiny purview and very limited experience of life, having enormous platforms. Still to this day, some writers are rewarded over and over again in huge ways, while most struggle.
So my answer would depend upon the writer’s position. If you are someone who has already been highly rewarded, then stop hoarding awards, opportunities, social capital, prizes, grants, and start finding ways to redistribute the affordances that foster social ecologies in which working class and poor artists can make their work.
Don’t believe that those who are most rewarded are most talented and deserving, it’s simply not true. They are more likely the most well connected and the most economically advantaged. Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young have done great research on the self-licking ice cream cone that is the literary prizes circuit. It’s shocking but not surprising. Coteries, schools and scenes are part of literary world-making. Social capital accrues as people reward each other and cliques build their reputations. It begins as community building rather than careerism. But when and as these scenes become reified, self-enriching, and self-involved, ethical contradictions must be addressed.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Simone Weil: “All true good carries with it conditions which are contradictory and as a consequence is impossible. Who keeps attention really ﬁxed on this impossibility and acts will do what is good.”
What fragrance reminds you of home?
As someone raised in San Francisco it would be fog, nasturtium, eucalyptus, wild fennel, gas fumes, pot smoke. I love this question. Thanks rob!