CNF Conversations: An Interview with William Bradley

WilliamBradley

William Bradley, Fractals. Lavender Ink, 2015. 

William Bradley’s work has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including The Missouri Review, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Fourth Genre, and The Bellevue Literary Review. He regularly writes about popular culture for The Normal School and creative nonfiction for Utne Reader. Formerly of Canton, New York, he lives in Ohio with his wife, the Renaissance scholar and poet Emily Isaacson.

About Fractals: In his seminal book The Fractal Geometry of Nature, Benoit Mandelbrot wrote, “A cauliflower shows how an object can be made of many parts, each of which is like a whole, but smaller. Many plants are like that. A cloud is made of billows upon billows upon billows that look like clouds. As you come closer to a cloud you don’t get something smooth, but irregularities at a smaller scale.” In this collection of linked essays, William Bradley presents us with small glimpses of his larger consciousness, which is somewhat irregular itself. Reflecting on subjects as diverse as soap opera actors, superheroes, mortality, and marriage, these essays endeavor to reveal what we have in common, the connections we share that demonstrate that we are all fractals, in a sense—self-similar component parts of a larger whole.

coverWilliamBradley

Buy the book here. 

Julija Šukys: In Fractals you write of your numerous battles with cancer. It’s about remembering and forgetting; about scars both physical and psychological; about a loss of and then a return to faith (in another form). Finally, this book is also a kind of love letter to the women in your life: to your mother and wife who have sat beside you as you weathered storm after storm.

Thank you for talking to me about your book.

Fractals is a great title for an essay collection. A fractal is, of course, a never-ending pattern that repeats across different scales. Here, we see big and small essays, each of which circles similar but not identical territory to its adjacent texts. The collection has a looping structure or, as Benoit Mandelbrot described it, a cauliflower-like one. Can you talk a bit about how you pulled these pieces together and came to a final form? What was your guiding principle? Did you write any of the essays specifically for the collection? Can you tell us about essays that didn’t make the cut?

William Bradley: I didn’t know about fractals at all for the longest time. I was a very poor math student when I was a kid—it took me five years to get through three years of high school-level math because I kept failing—so I think maybe other people knew this stuff before I did. But once I did read someone referencing fractals, I started reading up on them even more, because I found the idea of the small thing containing the aspects of the larger thing kind of fit in with a belief system I was kind of clumsily assembling for myself—it seemed like it was Montaigne’s idea of each of us carrying the entirety of the human condition expressed in mathematical terms. So I loved that. I also loved the idea of each essay being a fractal, every book being a fractal. Once I started learning about fractals I started seeing them everywhere.

The book itself has taken many forms before I found the one that worked. Once upon a time, it was a much more conventional cancer memoir. I sort of gravitated away from memoir and towards essays in graduate school, though I didn’t realize I should be writing an essay collection and not a memoir for another several years.

I started writing an essay about fractals while also working on the cancer memoir, but it gradually seemed to me that some of the “chapters” in the memoir would work better as distinct essays, and that a lot of the “connective tissue” linking them together was actually pretty bad. So I got rid of that, and suddenly they seemed to have more in common with the essay about fractals—“Self-Similar” in the collection.

I do have other essays that at one point might have been part of the collection, but ultimately didn’t seem to belong. Some of these were more political, or were kind of off-puttingly angry, or just kind of argumentative. I’m working on another essay collection focused on masculinity and violence right now, and some of those seem to fit better with that collection.

In “Nana,” you explore the issue of writing and silence in a really thoughtful way. I’d like to have you share some thoughts on writers’ responsibilities to loved ones and ancestors.

“Nana” starts out:

I had promised my mother I wouldn’t write an essay about her mother until the old lady died. . . . [S]he made me promise that I would not reveal to the world that my grandmother had once, over a breakfast of coffee and English muffins, wished out loud that I would die in order to teach my mother a lesson about grief.

Just as we think you’re going to spill the beans (and you sort of almost do…), this essay ends up being about not writing the threatened piece (except that in not writing it, you’ve also already written it!). Can you talk a bit about negotiating with the dead and how you determine which silences to break, which secrets to keep, and which wounds it’s best to leave undisturbed? Do you have other ground rules for writing about your family, about your wife Emily, for example?

My biggest rule is that my essays are about myself—I don’t usually try to tell other people’s stories. Other people appear in my stories, but the reflection should always be about my relationship with them, my thoughts about them. So I might write about an experience my wife and I share, but I wouldn’t try to write about her relationship with her beloved grandmother, because that’s her story to tell.

But generally, I don’t think I need anyone’s permission to write about my own thoughts. That’s why “Nana” is written the way it is—all these things I don’t really know about my grandmother, but suspect may be true. In fact I recently talked to my mother about this essay and learned that I got most of it right, but some of it wrong—my grandmother did not find her father-in-law’s dead body, the way I thought she had. But her frustration with her husband’s refusal to talk about his suicide was real. But again, the essay really winds up being about my own desire to spare my mom’s feelings rather than the story of this troubled woman who said really mean things to people.

I didn’t actually set out to write an essay about my relationship with my mom when I started writing about what my grandmother said, but I actually learned a lot about myself as I was writing that very short essay.

You use the word “chrononaut” in your collection. I love this word – it suggests an image of writer as time traveler, but also as adventurer. “Cathode,” the essay that felt most like a trip back in time was for me, was amongst the most gutting in the collection (it felt like we were spying on a past version of you). In this piece you look back at a friendship – a not-quite-sincere friendship – with a boy in your youth. So much is intriguing about this text: its lack of resolution, its questioning of memory, and of the facts. The reader gets a sense of how the past versions of ourselves can seem foreign when we look back on them (ourselves). It’s infused with cringe-worthy regret and maybe even shame. Very powerful.

How did the essay come to be so short – was this its original form or did you whittle it down from something larger? Do you think its power comes from its form? (I do…)

Oddly enough, given the essay’s preoccupation with memory, I don’t remember how I went about writing “Cathode.” I think maybe some magazine or journal had a call for essays about memory, and I came up with this idea of my memory being like an old television set where the picture slowly came into view. But I also think I was probably trying to imitate Nabokov, who wrote about memories being projected onto a movie screen.

And yeah. That essay’s really about my own shame at how cruel I could be as a kid, even though I thought I was the hero of the story I was writing for myself. I think most boys are probably similarly cruel—even when we see someone in pain and know we should offer some type of support or comfort, we don’t because we don’t want to become the ones who are picked on or ostracized. Or at least that’s how it felt for me.

It was definitely designed to be short. I don’t think the idea of the television image that sort of bookends the essay would work if I’d put, like, 3,000 words between those sequences. And it’s true that I don’t really remember much of the event—just the image of this sad boy making an obscene gesture at the kids who are supposed to be his friends, and the feeling that I should have been nicer.

Why did you call this text “Cathode”?

I don’t really remember why I titled the essay “Cathode,” but I suspect it was because I liked the idea of my memory working like an old cathode ray tube television set, like the one I’m watching towards the end of the essay. I do remember looking up old television sets and how they worked, and obviously something about the word “cathode” appealed to me. I think because it’s something I associate with a past that I’m sometimes nostalgic for but that I know wasn’t actually better than the present moment (in much the same way that cathode ray televisions are not, in fact, better than the LCD and plasma screen televisions we have today).

Given the book’s obsession with the pop culture I watched on old television sets– soap operas, game shows, horror movies– it seems kind of appropriate for the entire book, too, though I admit that idea just occurred to me because you asked about it.

Continue reading

Share

New Adventures for a New Year

MissouriAutumn

Shana Tova. Yesterday was the start of the Jewish New Year, and for me, this autumn of 2013 marks the beginning of a new stage in my life: new house, new country, new license plates (on my agenda for today) and new job. I’ve just arrived at the University of Missouri, Columbia, with my family in tow to begin my work as Assistant Professor of English, specifically of creative writing. I’m teaching writing workshops in creative nonfiction (memoir, personal essays, lyric essays, biography, and so on) and returned last night from a graduate seminar feeling energized and inspired by the discussion I had with my students.

Our project for this graduate seminar (called “Raw”) is to write from material traces. I’ve asked each student to choose an object and to use it as a starting point for reflection, investigation and creation. Some have chosen family heirlooms or documents; some are using things collected while traveling; others are going to the archives. What a gift to have a group of writers who come to the table with real questions and projects that matter to them, and that I believe will matter to others if they do their jobs well.

Last night, we dove into our first deep discussion with Maggie Nelson’s Jane (A Murder). The book takes a family diary, penned by Nelson’s murdered aunt, as its starting point. It reworks Jane’s journal entries, and treats fragments like poetry. One of my students remarked that by doing so, Nelson has made these fragments whole — I thought it a stroke of brilliance. If you don’t know this book and are interested in archives, personal writings, diaries, trauma, grief, or women’s life-writing, I highly recommend it.

Our Jane discussion led to reflection on the sacred, on the responsibility that we as authors have to the creators or owners of the objects we use in our work, and on who has the right to tell stories. An auspicious start.

Happy autumn. May it be a season of discovery and growth.

[Photo: Thomas Hawk]

Share

2012 Guggenheim Fellows Announced

guggenheim interior 1 by ricoeurian

Ah, the Guggenheims

Other than the MacArthur “genius” grants (which you can’t apply for), these are the most coveted awards among artists, writers, and researchers. Congratulations to this year’s winners, and especially to Ruth Franklin of The New Republic, whose pieces I’ve been reading with great interest ever since we got connected on Facebook.

You can find a complete list of the 2012 fellows here.

[Photo: ricoeurian]

Share

Yad Vashem International Book Prize for Holocaust Research 2012

Margin by Ian Koh

Established in 2011, this prize in memory of Abraham Meir Schwartzbaum, Holocaust Survivor, and his Family who was murdered in the Holocaust is awarded annually in recognition of high scholarly research and writing on the Holocaust.  Last year’s prize was awarded to:  Prof. Christopher R. Browning, for his book Remembering Survival:  Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp, and to Prof. Daniel Blatman, for his book, The Death Marches:  1944-1945.

Only books containing new research on the Holocaust, or its antecedents and aftermath, will be considered. Research accuracy, scholarship, methodology, originality, importance of the research topic, and literary merit are important factors.

Books, either hardcover or original paperback, published between 1 January 2010 and 31 December 2011 are eligible for the prize.

Five copies of the published book together with the application form, a copy of the author’s Curriculum Vitae, and two letters of recommendation should be sent to the International Institute for Holocaust Research, Yad Vashem.  Entries must be received by 1 June 2012.  Entries will not be returned.

In addition to the monetary prize, the recipients will be asked to present a paper at the award ceremony.

This prize is endowed through the generosity of Sabina Schwartzbaum in memory of her father.

The Prize

1. The prize is named in memory of Holocaust survivor Abraham Meir Schwartzbaum, and those of his family who were murdered in the Holocaust.

2.  The Yad Vashem Prize for Holocaust Research is awarded annually.  It recognizes research on the Holocaust published in the two years proceeding the year in which the prize is awarded.

3.  The prize aims to encourage excellent and new research on the Holocaust, or its antecedents and aftermath.

4. Research accuracy, scholarship, methodology, originality, importance of the research topic, and literary merit are important factors.

5. A monetary sum will be awarded to the winner/s.

6.  Recipients from abroad will be invited to Israel to present a paper at the award ceremony. Flights and hotel accommodations will be covered by the Research Institute.

7. A group of Holocaust historians chosen by the International Institute for Holocaust Research make up the panel of judges for the prize.  Judges, including their family members, may not enter the prize in any year in which they judge.

More details here.

Application form here.

[Photo: Margin by Ian Koh]

Share

Packing Up My Library: A Love Story

The books that have surrounded me in this room for six years now go into boxes to make space for our tenants. The books – mine and my husband’s – are all mixed together. Our collection includes books of theory from our student days, Lithuanian novels, linguistic studies of Sanskrit, Chinese literary anthologies, memoirs of Soviet politicians, Latin dictionaries, Greek histories, atlases, grammars, English poetry collections, academic journals, and entire shelves of bound photocopies whereby we reproduced the rare and out-of-print books that our respective research required.

The books are heavy. They are dusty. I’ve only managed to get a third of them packed, and already the hallway is full of boxes. And though I pride myself on my habit of discarding and donating things we no longer need – clothes, dishes, toys – I can’t get rid of books. So far I’ve only put five or six aside to discard, donate, or recycle. As I take our books from their shelves, I note with slight shame how many of them I’ve never read. But even stronger is the pleasure of coming across much-loved yet forgotten books, books that have changed me, and volumes that made me want to be a writer.

These books all around my desk provide a kind of record of my life, and of my husband’s, whom I met in a graduate seminar on the language of poetry. We fell in love in the chaotic, sometimes grungy but wonderful Robarts Library at the University of Toronto. Even now I love that place, with its concrete walls and dim stacks, because it’s where our life together began.

Considering how oppressed and harassed (by bureaucratic tasks, thankless editorial work, and this heavy summer heat) I’ve been feeling lately, I’m surprised to find how much packing books lightens my mood. This dusty and tiring work has reminded me of how much beauty and pleasure words, writers, and quiet hours of reading have given me.

It has also reminded me of love.

At our wedding, my husband said to me, “Julija, you are the book I read, and the light I read by.” I think it’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever said.

I used to have a fat cat, obsessed by food, to whom I would say: “Food is not love. Only love is love.” Packing my library reminds me that, for us, books too are love.

Happy summer reading. If the heat gets to be too much, invite your bookshelves to tell you a love story.

(NB: For a really good essay on packing and unpacking books, of course, see Walter Benjamin’s essay, “Unpacking My Library.”)

[Photo: F.B. (pg 155), No 3061, page 11 Originally uploaded by Digital Sextant]

Share

Back from Washington DC: A Few Thoughts on the AWP Conference

The AWP stands for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. It’s a professional association, much like the MLA (Modern Language Association) or the APA (American Philological Association). These organizations offer a number of services to their members: they publish journals, coordinate job listings, and organize annual conferences.

Though it was my first time at the AWP Conference, I’ve been to a bunch of similar events, normally held in a series of big overheated and overpriced hotels in a big city.

The vibe tends to be a bit hysteric, suspicious and overly competitive. So, I was pleased to discover that the atmosphere at the AWP was far cooler and much friendlier. And this is probably the case because in Washington there were three kinds of conference participants: writing students, writing teachers, and writers, or combination thereof (writers who teach, writers completing degrees, writers who write).

And while at other academic conferences, there’s a lot of anxiety about prestige and success (overwhelmingly measured by the ivy-leagueness of one’s home institution), the same things seem to be measured differently at the AWP.

Writers are interested in writing. They are interested in other writers. And because they spend so much time working in isolation, writers get pretty excited when there are others around who understand the writing process and have something intelligent to say about it.

I, for one, found the experience exhilarating.

I went to a talk on the Essay in the 21st Century, where the room was packed with people who also loved the form and wondered about its unsexy appellation.

Next, I heard a truly fascinating presentation on setting in nonfiction by Kristen Iversen, author of Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Shadow of Rocky Flats. She talked about writing about her home town and childhood spent downstream from a secret factory that built triggers for nuclear bombs, and the environmental devastation that has resulted. Though no visible trace of the factory remains, the land (about to be opened as a park to hikers) is plutonium-riddled.

Finally, the session I went to on Strategies in the New Nonfiction was so packed that I had to sit on the floor. There was talk of technology, imagination and (most interesting to me) narrative tension. Author Stephen Elliot (TheRumpus.net) talked about the economy of narrative, and how backstory “costs” tension. In other words, if you want to veer from your narrative arc, you have to be able to afford it. And to afford it, you have to have earned enough narrative tension. It’s the first time I’ve thought about story-telling in these terms, and I’m not sure I completely understand yet, but I have a feeling that this will prove to be an important lesson.

Writers talking about writing creates a great vibe. There’s a sense of community and of real conversation — surprising at a conference with 6,000 participants. But anxiety creeps in when talk turns to teaching. In some ways, these pedagogical conversations were even more instructive.

There has been a rapid proliferation of writing programs in the US recently, yet the jury is still out on so many aspects of creative writing programs: does the workshop work as a pedagogical form? can writing be taught at all? are such programs doing a disservice to their students in some way by sending them out into the world with dreams but bleak prospects? how should such programs address the crisis in publishing?

The good news is that all of this is on the minds of those who work in the field.

All in all, it was a great experience. If you’re a writer in search of a hit of professionalism or wider context, do check out the AWP.

And now, back to work. Gotta start earning that narrative tension.

[Photo: chavelli]

Share

Announcement: Yad Vashem Book Prize for Holocaust Research

The International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem is pleased to announce the establishment of the Yad Vashem Book Prize for Holocaust Research in recognition of high scholarly research and writing on the Holocaust and invites submissions for consideration. This prize is endowed through the generosity of Sabina Schwartzbaum in memory of her father, Meir Schwartzbaum, whose family was murdered in the Holocaust.

Only books containing new research on the Holocaust, or its antecedents and aftermath, will be considered. Research accuracy, scholarship, methodology, originality, importance of the research topic, and literary merit are important factors.

Books, either hardcover or original paperback, published between 1 January 2009 and 31 December 2010 are eligible for the prize. The prize recipient will be announced in October 2011.

In addition to the monetary prize, the recipients will be asked to present a paper at the award ceremony in December 2011.

The value of each prize is $8,000.

Entry applications must include the following:

  • Three copies of each book submitted (entries will not be returned)
  • A completed entry form (in Hebrew, English, German, or French);
  • A copy of the author’s Curriculum Vitae (in Hebrew, English, German, or French)
  • Two recommendation letters (in Hebrew, English, German, or French) from reputable academics who are familiar with the book’s specific topic

Books submitted must be in the original published language. Translations are not eligible.

Books not published in either Hebrew, English, German, or French must include a 500-word abstract and a translation of the table of contents into one of the four above mentioned languages.

Entries must be received by 1 May 2011.

For questions or concerns, please contact the office of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at 972-2-6443-480 or eliot.nidam@yadvashem.org.il.

Mail submissions to:

Eliot Nidam Orvieto
The International Institute for Holocaust Research
Yad Vashem
P.O. Box 3477 (Mount of Remembrance)
Jerusalem 91034
Israel


[Photo: Werner Kunz (werkunz1)]

Share

On Writing Workshops: What’s the Process? What’s the Point?

I’m a very solitary writer, and don’t generally give my work to anyone to read until I’ve sat with something for a very long time. In part, this is just the craft (we all write alone), but in part, it speaks to a fear (that I suspect we all have) of not living up, of not being as good as I hope I am, and of being rejected.

Nonetheless, some years ago, I decided to be brave and to begin to foster writerly communion in my life. This resolution led me to the world writers’ workshops.

It turned out to be a really interesting journey.

If you’ve never been to a writers’ workshop, you can read a good description of what they’re like at Suite101.com. But here’s what happens, in a nutshell.

1) Participants distribute work to be read by their peers prior to the workshop.

2) The workshop leader sets the ground rules. I went to one recently where only the critic was allowed to speak, while the writer whose work was being critiqued listened silently and took notes. Only requests for clarification were allowed on the writer’s part, and each critic had to wait his or her turn to speak.

3) The workshop leaders usually speaks last, and reflects on whether or not a consensus has been reached among readers, and perhaps offers insight into issues raised.

4) The writer may or may not respond to the critiques, though sometimes it’s best simply to thank your peers, take notes, and give yourself some time to reflect on what’s been said.

Over the past decade, I’ve taken part in workshops offered through writers’ associations, fellowship programs, observed them in an MFA context, and participated in writers’ retreats complete with meditation and dream interpretation.

I’ve observed that the success of a workshop depends both on the talents of its leader and on the quality (in terms of reading skills, ability to analyze narrative structure, and receptiveness to critique) of the participants.

The good news on workshops is that, for a writer, they can be a great way to figure out what’s not working in a text and to get ideas for possible solutions to problems (though often, it’s best to figure out how to fix things on your own).

The bad news about workshops is that they can be stressful for both writers and readers: readers feel pressure to say something intelligent and helpful, and sometimes are left feeling dumb; writers often become defensive and hurt by criticisms or their readers’ confusion. Getting over both these problems takes time, maturity, and humility.

In workshops you sometimes get contradictory advice. Sometimes you get bad advice. Sometimes your readers are mean. Sometimes the leader loses control, and participants are allowed to ramble, taking up valuable time, and boring everyone.

Sometimes there are tears. Sometimes there’s anger. These are the risks of workshopping, and sometimes you just have to ignore all that and listen to your instincts as a writer.

So, what is the point of this complex and emotionally charged exercise?

Workshops teach you, as a reader, to think about the mechanics of writing. Rather then responding to a text simply on an emotional level, the task of critiquing a work-in-progress forces you to analyze how narratives are put together and how storytelling works. In this way, reading the work of others can make you a better writer.

One of the workshop leaders I observed recently put it succinctly: workshops give writers what so many of us lack — readers. Specifically, readers who are not your friends, not your family, not your fans, but others who have though seriously about the craft, struggle with it as you do, and who (if they are good workshop citizens) should be able to offer you a fresh perspective. This is the reward of workshopping.

What are your views on and experiences with  writers’ workshops?

[Photo: Merlin1487]

Share

U of Toronto’s Centre for Comparative Literature saved!

A few months ago, I posted an appeal to write letters in support of keeping the University of Toronto’s Centre for Comparative Literature open. The threat to close the Centre was another in a long series of alarming and depressing attacks on the humanities not only here in Canada, but in the US and the UK as well.

Today, I learned that the letters, petitions, media attention, and general outrage at the plan to shut down such an important institution paid off. The Centre will stay open and is now accepting new students for the fall semester.

Thanks to all who lent their voices to the campaign.

You can read more about it in an article published today in the Globe and Mail.

[Photo: char1iej]

Share

Four Things I Learned from my PhD Supervisor

I defended my PhD thesis at the University of Toronto in August of 2001, under the supervision of a renowned literary scholar and theorist. Linda Hutcheon has written about a dozen books, scores of articles, is respected by her peers, adored by students, and is one of the best examples of a successful writer-teacher you can find.

In the fall of 2000, I was in the fifth year of my doctorate, and there was no end in sight. Even though I was applying for jobs and postdocs, deep down I didn’t really believe I would ever finish my dissertation. Then, in January of 2001, I learned I had won a two-year postdoctoral fellowship, and had twelve weeks to submit a finished thesis, or lose the fellowship.

In those twelve weeks, I learned some of my most important lessons about writing. Four of these came from Linda.

1) It’s not supposed to be easy: One day I showed up at Linda’s door, out of breath and exhausted. “This is hard!” I complained, plopping myself down in a chair opposite her desk. “Julija,” she replied. “It’s a PhD. It’s not supposed to be easy.” Neither is writing books. And it’s worth doing, in part, because it is hard.

2) Enough is enough: The key to finishing my dissertation was to set limits. When I told Linda that I thought I would have to write a whole chapter on the concept of the “other,” she shook her head and told me no. This was beyond the scope of my dissertation, and would only throw me off track. Only once I accepted that there were things that had to fall by the wayside could I actually finish my dissertation. And only once I’d allowed the reality of the text I’d written to replace the fantasy of the text I’d dreamed of could I move on to the next thing.

3) It’s not supposed to be torture: During those twelve weeks of intense writing, I had to read a lot. Some of this was the kind of reading I love (manuscripts, novels), but some of it was reading I felt I had to do. One highly theoretical book defeated and frustrated me to the point of tears. In my next meeting with Linda, I confessed this, and promised to keep trying to work through the text until I got it. She looked at me with a grin, and said, “Julija, if a book makes you cry, put it down, and for goodness sake, read something else!” Writing isn’t supposed to be easy, but it should be rewarding and meaningful. I learned to steer myself in directions that fed me.

4) Onward!: Every time I finished a chapter of the dissertation, I would hand it off to Linda to read. After marking it up and offering suggestions throughout, she would write a single word on the bottom of the last page: “Onward!” The lesson I’ve kept from that word: don’t rest on your laurels, don’t get too self-contented, don’t stop for too long, always look forward and think about what comes next.

[Photo by mlahtinen]

Share