Author Eric Severn spoke with NER Editorial Panel member Rose Whitmore about “A Partial Inventory of Things That Didn’t Work” (NER 37.2). Severn’s oh-so honest essay inspired their conversation about the processes of writing, struggling, and living, and the ultimate goal of getting better at failing.
RW: “A Partial Inventory of Things That Didn’t Work” has a unique structure. It is an inventory, first and foremost, but evolves into an examination of pain and struggle. How did this essay take shape for you? Did it start out as a list or evolve into one?
ES: I don’t know that I would say “A Partial Inventory” started out as a list per se, though the idea did quickly become an important structural factor before I had finished a first draft. And I would also say that once I realized I was working within the confines of a list, the piece became much easier to write, which is often my experience. The quicker I can figure out what kind of formal constraints I’m working with, the quicker a piece of writing feels more manageable. Artists are always saying that constraints help realize creativity. Stravinsky said it well: “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.” My experience writing tends to be in line with this, and it was especially true with “The Inventory.”
What gave the essay momentum for me was the refrain “It didn’t work.” As much as I think about structure while writing, I tend to write from a place of tone. I need to feel right away that something rings true in the tone, that the musicality or rhythm—the cadence—draws me in and makes me want to write more. This is a slight exaggeration, but I sometimes feel that what compels me to stick with a first draft has less to do with the narrative and more to do with where the sound is going. I want to follow the cadence and rhythm to where it ends. Of course, form and content are very difficult to separate, so in the end it’s hard to extract tone from the story told. Tone is the story told. A change in the tonal register will literally change the story, especially when you consider that tone consists of word choice, diction, and the particulars at the level of the sentence.
But in regards to “Inventory,” the refrain “It didn’t work” also opened up the subject matter of my past in an important way. Life, our experiences, moments of pain or joy or suffering, they’re never simple and the idea of something “working” or “not working” is a very reductive and black and white way of thinking. Something about the tension between these opposites—the complexities and nuances of actual experience and the reworking of those experiences into simplistic categories—it allowed me to confront the subject matter more honestly, without all the baggage I’ve brought in the past when trying to write about my childhood. It was an unburdening, to write this way, a license to think about my experiences in their most elemental form. Much like formal constraints, I found the idea of things working or not working, however simplistic, a necessary vehicle to write about the complexities of my experiences.
RW: There is such a beautiful balance between moments of hope and moments of things “not working” in this piece. Through these moments we span a lot of time, from your childhood to your adult life. How hard was it to cover this distance? Was it difficult to find the balance and momentum of the piece?
ES: Surprisingly, the span felt really natural when writing it. I say surprisingly because writing a piece that covers a great deal of time is always hugely challenging for me. I like to write stories and essays that take place in a few hours or a day. I like to feel like the temporal content is straight forward, otherwise I get overwhelmed. For years I had grappled with writing pieces that span a few months, and I think I’ve only pulled one off. But when I started writing “Inventory,” fairly quickly I realized the piece would go into adulthood. As much as I’d like to say this fluency in covering a great temporal distance is indicative of me finally becoming comfortable writing about large swaths of time, I think it has more to do with the events themselves. It just felt natural to follow the narrative into adulthood. I know the story so well. It’s my story. If this were a piece of fiction, if I were making the events up, the distance probably would have felt very unwieldy to me, so much so that I might have avoided writing it. I look at Anthony Doerr, and I’m just blown away by how much time he can cover in a short story. His story “The Deep,” for instance covers, what, thirty-years, more, and he strings the scenes together so naturally. I’m impressed when a writer can cover great swaths of time in a fluid, cohesive way, as he does. Or Jenny Hollowell’s really short piece, “A History of Everything Including You.” That story is just over three pages, and it covers a lifetime. Talk about narrative talent.
As far as balancing the momentum of “Inventory,” it was most difficult when writing about Kaitlin and our cross country relationship. That was such a deeply formative relationship and experience for me, and I really wanted to slow the narrative movement down for it, but not too much. I didn’t want the essay to be about Kaitlin, but I also knew that Kaitlin was the point in the piece that really highlighted some of the narrative synchronicity, the repeating images and rhyming action. I spent a lot of time with those moments, trying to find the exact point of tension. Furthermore, Kaitlin was hard to write because I’m writing about falling in love. There’s nothing harder than writing about falling in love. Except maybe writing about violence.
RW: Aside from the focus on things that didn’t work, there are so many mirrors in this essay; you and your mom, you and Stan, your relationship with your father, your relationship with women and children. Was this mirroring something that you focused on, or did that happen organically?
There’s a great essay by Robert Boswell in his book The Half-Known World called “Narrative Spandrels,” and it deals with the kind of mirroring you’re talking about. Boswell advocates, and I think for good reason, that drawing out these narrative mirrors, or “spandrels,” as he calls them, should be an organic process. Otherwise, you get into all kinds of problems with contrived plots and etc. He also talks about uncovering, refining and sharpening these “spandrels” or mirrors through the revision process, letting them develop, as you say, organically. I think for a lot of writers this idea works. Probably, in fact, for most writers. But I’ll admit, (and I feel a little self-conscious saying this) I don’t really write that way. I’ve always tried to turn my analytic mind off during a first draft to let these kinds of mirrors develop organically, but usually by the time I’ve written a first paragraph I can’t stop thinking about the metaphorical significance of this or that, or the bigger idea, or where some kind of rhyming action might occur later. At best, as I mentioned earlier, I can get myself to focus on the tone of a piece for a while rather than its thematic concerns, but only for a while.
This is something I’m trying to change. I’d like to write those early drafts from a less analytic headspace, but that kind of writing really doesn’t come naturally to me. In order for me to complete a first draft, two things need to be in place: The tone, but I also need to feel that a lot of the narrative nuances, the mirrors, the rhyming action, the metaphorical significance—all that stuff—I need to have a sense that it’s kind of already in place. And to be honest, I don’t really like this about my process. It’s a pain in the ass. If you focus too much on tone and theme, you miss narrative movement. A piece can quickly feel turgid as a result. I’d like to turn my head off more. And yet, with “Inventory,” and maybe this is because I was writing about such intimate content, I found myself writing from an organic, almost subconscious place. But I wonder about this because writing fiction and nonfiction are simply different for me. When I’m writing nonfiction, I know the story. That changes things. It relieves a little bit of the anxiety I tend to feel in the writing process. I know where I’m going, and because of this I sometimes feel like I can play around a little more, and write from a more open place, which is probably counter intuitive. But what isn’t, when it comes to writing.
RW: Although it’s a very serious essay, you use of humor to undercut painful events in a really delicate and effective way. Do you use humor in your other work and if so, how do you manage the balance between humor and pain?
ES: I love this question. Humor is so important to me. Without humor, I’d give up. I’d shut down and call it quits. The writers that I’ve really fallen in love with, Don DeLillo and Barry Hannah and Leonard Michaels, just to name a few, so much of what I love about their work is their humor. But beyond that, it’s their ability to mix heart and pathos with humor, especially Barry Hannah. I am continually floored by the mix of beauty, sorrow, suffering, and humor in his prose. How does he do it? Humor is tricky, and really subjective, but for me it’s oddly linked to honesty. My mom is one of the funniest people I know. She can still make me laugh uncontrollably, but part of what she and I laugh about is how often things don’t work, how hard and full of sorrow and shitty life can feel. If you push the shit far enough, it gets comical. She used to have this blue suitcase, and it was the suitcase I used when traveling back and forth from North Carolina to California, and my mom started calling it the Trauma Case, because every time I packed it, I was going through something traumatic. The T.C., we called it. “Get the T.C. out,” she’d say after I booked another ticket to North Carolina. That was funny, despite how hard it was.
From a craft perspective, part of balancing humor with pain is trying to highlight those moments where pain and suffering approach the comic. In “Inventory” there’s that bit about my mom attacking the neighbor. I know my mom has a great deal of shame around that. And I also know that it wasn’t funny. It was serious and also a really, really difficult period for my mom. And yet, it is funny in a darkly comic way. It’s funny in the same way that if something doesn’t work, and keeps not working, eventually it becomes comic. The balance exists in not trying cover up what is painful with humor, but rather letting humor arise from what is painful.
RW: The ending to this essay is so haunting and yet opens the door in a way for things to start working again. Can you speak about where you are now and what you’re working on?
I wrote “Inventory” during the fall of 2014, and it was a very difficult year. I had just received my MFA. That summer I had gone to Europe and tried to have some kind of grandiose experience. Instead I got homesick, wept in a hostel in Poland and came home. All of 2014 I struggled with what a lot of young writers struggle with, which is trying to justify and believe in the work of writing. Plus, I couldn’t find a job. I was broke, in debt, stuck in a bad relationship, the usual narrative. Just all around feeling lost, so I wrote the piece from a place of things not working. But that’s where stories come from. Stories exist and arise out of the tension of things not working, and change, and the possibility of things working. The beauty and tension of a compelling narrative is that it’s a space in which characters are walked to the limits of what they can handle, and sometimes it’s too much. Sometimes those limits end in tragedy. But often times the possibility of real change, of things working, only exists as the byproduct of tragedy, or loss, or profound suffering.
A few months after I finished “Inventory” my dad died. I had only met him a couple times in my twenties, but his death was pretty complicated, and hit a deep nerve. It confused me, and I’m still confused by it. But I’m writing about it, and that’s part of what I’m working on now. The piece is a massive pain in the ass to write. But what piece isn’t? One of my mentors says every piece of writing is a problem. I think she’s right. So that’s one of my current problems. The other current problem is trying to get a novel going. I’m a slow writer. It’s hard work. And I worry. Christ, how I worry. What did Beckett say? “Fail once, fail better.” Something like that. And so that’s really what I’m working on . . . getting better at failing.