The Essential Not-Writing: Interview with Rebekah Bergman
Rebekah Bergman writes fiction and poetry. She is a recent recipient of a fellowship from Tent and a residency at Art Farm in Marquette, Nebraska. She is pursuing an MFA in fiction at The New School and works as an editorial intern at Tin House. Her work is published or forthcoming form Spittoon and Banango Street.
Maria Anderson: What objects are central to your process? I've been lighting a candle while I write lately to try to create a sense of festivity. Do you do these types of things?
Rebekah Bergman: Does peanut butter count as an object? I sit down to write most mornings with a peanut butter and banana sandwich. I've conditioned myself at this point to associate the taste and smell of chunky peanut butter with my writing process.
MA: Do you have certain writing rituals or superstitions that you adhere to?
RB: Something new I've been trying is to go for a run when I stop being productive at my desk. I'm not much of a runner, but it helps to get my body outside and moving through space and then to sit it back down with new energy and try again.
Also, I never thought of this as related before, but I have been taking really long showers where I think and plan out revisions and writing lately too.
MA: Who have you been reading lately?
MA: I'm reading Amy Hempel at the moment too. I find her first sentences so good.
RB: "Tell me things I won't mind forgetting," she said. "Make it useless stuff or skip it."
The year I began to say vahz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me.
"Bye-bye," the baby said, his voice a little bell. "Bye-bye," he waved, as we arrived for the party at the lake.
After the dog's cremation, I lie in my husband's bed and watch the Academy Awards for animals.
MA: What about these draws you in? What do you think is interesting about them? What kind of a contract do you think she makes with the reader?
RB: I read a review of Hempel's work once where she was insultingly called a "writer's writer." I found this just completely off base. To me, she is far more of a "reader's writer." Almost all of the pleasures and delights I can get through reading, I experience while reading her work. Hempel's stories do not play out like movies for readers to just sit back and enjoy. They demand attention and action and they reward re-reading (which is why I feel I am forever re-reading her). In terms of contract with the reader, she maybe takes for granted that readers are willing to do that, but why shouldn't she? I find her writing surprising on a sentence and on a plot-level. And she is a master at saying the un-sayable. She has this tiny, maybe 300-word story called San Francisco that breaks my heart in the way it deals with loss—that is, by never fully dealing with it. A reader has to be willing to discover what is not being said and what becomes more powerful in the silences to fully appreciate that kind of writing.
Hempel's stories do not play out like movies for readers to just sit back and enjoy. They demand attention and action and they reward re-reading (which is why I feel I am forever re-reading her). In terms of contract with the reader, she maybe takes for granted that readers are willing to do that, but why shouldn't she?
MA: Is this contract similar to what you see in Gary Lutz's writing? Who do you think crafts stronger stories?
RB: Similar but different in significant ways. Lutz also demands attention and re-reading (and re-re-reading infinitely). If pushed to pick a winner, Lutz wins in sentences but Hempel takes the prize in stories. I think he promises more delight in the language and less in the narrative. Some might say that makes him a "writer's writer," but everyone uses language so that's not a great title for him either.
MA: Is what Kevin Sampsell calls "The Lutz Sentence Test," where you pick any sentence at random and it is amazing, something you think about in your writing?
RB: I do think my experience reading these two writers, among many others like them, has shaped my attention to sentences, rhythm, and sound. Sometimes my writing blurs the line between what some would call prose poetry and others would call flash fiction. The distinction doesn't matter to me but I think poetry is a label often ascribed to writing that is concerned with language as much as (or more than) plot. Gary Lutz definitely disrupts that definition though. He clearly writes prose but is very concerned with language at the same time. As an aside, on The Believer's website you can read a lecture Lutz gave at Columbia in 2008. It's called The Sentence Is a Lonely Place, and I strongly recommend all writers read it.
The distinction [between poetry and prose] doesn't matter to me but I think poetry is a label often ascribed to writing that is concerned with language as much as (or more than) plot.
MA: What are you working on right now?
RB: I am just starting a new project. I had been working on a bunch of disjointed flash fiction pieces when a professor suggested that these pieces might all interconnect if I let them. So now I am writing more of them, revising them, and trying to craft a whole that might be larger than the sum of its parts. Really, I'm just beginning this endeavor so I am not at all sure what will come of it, but it's a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle—challenging and fun until it gets completely frustrating and I want to throw a tantrum.
MA: Can you talk about the work you've done with Tin House? How would you characterize the magazine as a publication?
RB: I think Tin House strives to showcase a diversity of voices. I am always bragging about their longstanding VIDA count numbers, which measure gender representation on the page. In terms of literary aesthetics as well, they don't privilege any one type of writing over any another. In my experience, the editors are most concerned with authorial control. They are on the lookout for a writer who knows what s/he wants to do to a reader and does it with precision and power. Those are the writers you will find in the magazine.
Tin House is a bicoastal publication with the majority of the staff based in Portland. In Brooklyn there are two editors and an intern (me!). As part of such a small staff, my work is pretty varied. It does include a lot of treasure hunting through the slush pile, though.
…it's a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle—challenging and fun until it gets completely frustrating and I want to throw a tantrum.
MA: Which literary magazines do you read regularly? What about other publications? Nonfiction? How has working at Tin House changed how you read?
RB: Electric Literature's Recommended Reading has been my most consistent source for amazing new fiction finds. Full disclosure, I used to be a reader for them. But I came to them because I loved the site already. They invite guest editors from other publications to recommend works they've recently published. It's given me exposure to a whole slew of literary magazines I never knew of or had heard of but never read myself. Also, every month, Electric Literature's own staff chooses an original piece to showcase so it's a great way to find and enjoy new voices as well.
Embarrassingly, I do not read nearly as much nonfiction as I know I should. I try to keep up with poetry to some extent because I do write poetry myself and because poetry helps in my fiction writing. I find I have little time in my reading life for nonfiction after that though. It's something I should definitely work on.
After a day spent reading submissions, most of the time I go home eager to start working on my own writing.
As for the last part of that question, I was slightly worried initially that after reading through submissions for Tin House, I'd have little energy to read or work on my own writing. But it has definitely had the opposite effect on my work. After a day spent reading submissions, most of the time I go home eager to start working on my own writing. In terms of its impact on my reading, it's made me slow down a lot. I try to see the potential in every story to be great. After all, sometimes all it takes is one more revision. Finding how to unlock the story to crack it open is a skill that takes patience and time. I'd like to think being there has made me a more careful reader of other writers' work.
MA: Where do you think you are on the spectrum of productivity in grad school, the lowest point being writing nothing at all, and the highest being pulling fever-dream all-nighters?
RB: Ugh. I hate this question for forcing some honest self-assessment. My knee jerk answer is NOTHING AT ALL. I'M A FRAUD! but that's not true; I am writing. But not all of what I'm writing feels good enough or done enough to count. Let's be real though, does any writer ever feel like s/he has enough of anything in the writing process—time, pages, stamina? We could all be writing more right?
A professor recently taught me to think about all the not-writing we do as essential to the writing we will eventually do. This is something I try to keep in mind whenever I feel guilty about not writing. The true answer to your question is that I write and when I'm not writing, I am aware of my writing in a way I was not before starting grad school. On some level, I am conscious of how whatever not-writing I'm engaged in might serve the writing later on if I let it (and if there's peanut butter left in the jar).
Not all of what I'm writing feels good enough or done enough to count.
MA: What single activity/thing do you spend the most time on outside of writing?
RB: Probably reading followed by watching episodes of Broad City and/or aimlessly loitering around the internet.