Category Archives: Writing

Release The Krake––Er, SURFACE TENSIONS!

not what is actually being released

*not what is actually being released

I am going to interrupt my “Surface Questions” series – which, by the way, could use some more questions, if you’re at all interested in receiving a free copy of Surface Tensions (read the gist in previous posts) – due to a surprise. Namely, at least some distributors (Amazon seems to be out of stock) are releasing Surface Tensions today. If you preordered the thing, it’s either at or on its way to your doorstep right now. I’ll still do the question draw on July 1st, but I’d like to switch gears on this Big Deal Day (BDD, for short).

I’m excited to release this book into the world. I’ve worked harder on Surface Tensions than anything else. I’ve devoted my heart, soul, mind, strength, anxiety, frustration, perfectionisty issues, all that stuff to it. I’ve spent many hours on individual sentences. I’ve edited and edited. I’ve by turns delighted and despaired over it. For an entire summer, it took over my heart and mind like a crazy intractable virus. All of that led to today and to the upcoming months.

I recently listened to Louis C.K. talk about the process of working on his most recent show, Horace and Pete; I’ve heard him breathlessly ramble on about it for a full 90 minutes on WTF. Listening to C.K., I felt an acute sense that, for one who hasn’t worked on a creative project of that sort of scale, effort, heart, and intensity, he must sound like a bit of a loon, maybe even a bit of a narcissist: self-obsessed through creative obsession. (This is why you can sense many creative people squirm when they’re asked about their own projects; they feel the tug of narcissism and shun it.) But I also understood C.K.’s bubbly, breathless intensity: it’s kind of crazy to work on a project of massive, life-changing proportions in secret for many months before sending it out into the world. It’s only sensible to want to ramble on about it. (This blog has been my form of rambling.)

Unfortunately, the press declared that C.K.’s project was a failure. I hope that doesn’t happen with Surface Tensions, but I also acutely understand that, even though I’ve put a lot of effort into the book, that doesn’t mean that it’s automatically great. I get this oh-too-well. I’ve felt the spectre of non-greatness loom throughout the entire creative process. When I started working on what became Surface Tensions, my goal was to simply write a book that wasn’t bad. There were days of badness. I felt them and I took them hard; I sent my editor frazzled emails, full of ideas for editing and further drafts and badness-fixing.

But something happened at some transformative point; I can’t even tell you when, exactly. It was probably less one point than a slow transformation over time. All I can say was that at some moment(s) in time, I stopped feeling bad and started feeling happy about the book. I  felt that Surface Tensions was the book that it needed to be: it took on its own life to the extent that major edits felt somehow disloyal, disfiguring, wrong. And then I felt peace. I’m sure it still has some issues, of course. But I feel in my gut that it reached a point – a  pivot point that perhaps a lot of art reaches? – when complaints and dislikes will have as much to do with personal preference as with the work itself. It’s what it needs to be, and that’s kind of beautiful.[1]

So I hope you dig it. I have a couple (helpful, I hope) reading tips:

  1. For the less academically-minded among you, certain passages might seem complicated or wordy. I encourage you to avoid feeling intimidated or annoyed. Don’t worry too much about that stuff; keep charging through. It all leads back to real life, I promise. Knowing every thinker and theorist and idea isn’t essential to digging the book as a whole; stuff is only there if it helps illuminate and bring us back to things that really matter to all of us.
  1. For the more academically-minded among you, parts of this book might seem weirdly, embarrassingly everyday. I encourage you to stick with it; I’m putting ideas to the test.
  1. For the non-religious, I encourage you to let down your guard a little. I’m not trying to manipulate or convert you by any means, believe me. I’m trying to engage my own life experience as honestly and openly as possible. You don’t have to buy into aspects of my experience at all. I don’t even want that from you! All I want is intellectual and emotional integrity from both of us.
  1. For the religious, I encourage you to let down your guard a little. I’m not trying to demolish the Church with my critique, to get even with people from my past, to do anything brash or manipulative. I’m working through my stuff, clearly, but it’s my stuff and my stuff alone – I have no agenda,beyond the desire to write with loving, self-aware openness regarding my own life and the world in which we live.
  1. If I mention you in the book, even in a buried way, it is not the Ultimate Subtweet. Translation for non-Twitter users: it’s not a passive aggressive way to get back or lash out due to something you did. Like Mary Karr, I only write about people I love. I’ll say it again: I only write about people I love. I wouldn’t take the time to think about you, to even wrestle with your impact on my life, if you didn’t fill a significant, meaningful spot in my heart.

Finally, if you like the book, please tell your friends about it. Please share it. I’m not doing this to make money; I don’t have to worry about finances, fortunately. I merely believe in my heart of hearts that this book can help us bond together in loving unity, that it can help us use media to pull ourselves out of ourselves for the sake of interrelationship. I believe that it can help us think about media in ways that will make the world a legitimately better place.

And I can only do this through you. I once believed, as you might, that publishing a book implies instant cultural credence and popularity, instant opportunity for fame and success. The truth is, there are a lot of books out there, a lot that aren’t good at all, and a lot that go out of print very quickly. My publisher is wonderful, but it doesn’t publish Malcolm Gladwell or Rick Warren: the sort of writers that gain major book tours and rocket themselves to the top of bestseller lists.

This book will only be as successful as you make it. If you read Surface Tensions and enjoy it, if it moves you, if it makes you laugh and think, please tell your friends. Please tweet about it. Please Instagram about it. Please Facebook about it. Use media to allow it to help us grow together in what Stanley Cavell calls the “whirl of organism.”

I can’t wait to hear your thoughts.

Happy reading!

 

[1] I don’t say “it is what it needs to be” as a way to defensively deny its issues, although there were definitely points in the process when I did that as a way to squirm and avoid important edits. There’s a district difference, I’ve found, between saying “don’t challenge the art, bro!” as a way to remain stubbornly ignorant of error, and to acknowledge a legitimate state of peace felt toward a work that’s been thoroughly tinkered with and challenged and worked through.

Surface Question 2: “Most Influential Author?” (Part 2)

In this series, “Surface Questions,” I will address questions related to my forthcoming memoir about media, SURFACE TENSIONS, which will be released on July 1st. To submit a question, comment or email me at nathanroberts@g.harvard.edu; I will draw the name of one question-submitter, who will  then receive a free copy of the book. 

Surface Question 2: When writing this book was there any one author whose works influenced you the most? Also, what are the odds of a lolcat translation of your book being released?

I suppose I have one more short response to this question. There is another Zadie Smith essay in which she says, regarding novel writing:

“Some writers are the kind of solo violinists who need complete silence to tune their instruments. I want to hear every member of the orchestra – I’ll take a cue from a clarinet, from an oboe, even. My writing desk is covered in open novels. I read lines to swim in a certain sensibility, to strike a particular note, to encourage rigor when I’m too sentimental, to bring verbal ease when I’m syntactically uptight. I think of reading like a balanced diet; if my sentences are baggy, too baroque, I cut back on fatty Foster Wallace, say, and pick up Kafka, as roughage. If I’m disappearing up my own aesthete’s arse, I’ll stop worrying so much about what Nabokov would say, and pick up Dostoyevsky, the patron saint of substance over style; a reminder to us all that good writing is more than elegant sentences. The only rule is quality.”

I’m not quite so methodical. But, while writing Surface Tensions, I subscribed to the swimming-in-sensibility routine. I spent half of my average workday reading, not writing, filling my brain with other people’s words and other people’s thoughts. I read Gary Shteyngart and Leslie Jameson and Emily Nussbaum and Phillip Larkin and Lauren Winner and David Foster Wallace. (I even took a class on Infinite Jest at the very end of my undergrad career just so I could swim in Wallace’s massive, churning, crazy great hot tub of a novel right before writing my own book.) I would occasionally pluck particular elements from a particular writer’s sensibility for a particular purpose: an equally silly and useful dash-made neologism straight outta Wallace over here, a bit of Joan Didion’s sentence structure for a descriptive segment on the California desert over there. But more often than not, I would indiscriminately swim in these great writers’ great prose and let it all soak in and sporadically spurt back out when needed. You can probably find bits and pieces of these writers all over my work, if you search hard enough.

And, of course, the great thing about writing a memoir-meets-essay is that I could quote directly from the articles and essays and books I was reading, thinking about, working through. My summer writing diet is imprinted into the book itself.

So although “Generation Why?” quite clearly made a difference on my way of thinking, there wasn’t really one author that made a bigger influence on my writing than others. I tried to inhale the whole chorus and exhale it through my own sensibility – creating, I hope, something inspired by others and unique in its own right.

 

Surface Question 2: “Most Influential Author?” (Part 1)

In this series, “Surface Questions,” I will address questions related to my forthcoming memoir about media, SURFACE TENSIONS, which will be released on July 1st. To submit a question, comment or email me at nathanroberts@g.harvard.edu; I will draw the name of one question-submitter, who will  then receive a free copy of the book. 

Surface Question 2: When writing this book was there any one author whose works influenced you the most? Also, what are the odds of a lolcat translation of your book being released?

book catI’ll tackle the second question first: The lolcat translation is being polished as we speak. The finest translators in the land are squinting through their monocles, smoking their corn cob pipes, and scrupulously parsing page after page of fine-grained papyrus. It’s long, thankless labor, but somebody has to do it.

Now to the first question: the short answer is “no,” but that’s too easy. I suppose that the author who
really inspired this whole shebang, the first to make me want to write about technology and media and selfhood in the first place, was Zadie Smith. I was a second-semester freshman when I read her essay “Generation Why?” in a large, silent Bobst Library reading room, for my Intro to Fiction and Poetry class. I credit this piece with single-handedly turning my attention from criticism to essay. It begins as a review of The Social Network – and it’s a damn fine review, I must add: Smith describes how “muscles seem outlined by a fine pen” and how “water splashes up in individual droplets as if painted by Caravaggio” – before morphing into a broader critique of Facebook, what it’s doing to selfhood, what it’s doing to my generation. What starts as the critique of a specific film blossoms into full-blown cultural critique, grounded in philosophy and literature. But its not just transformation that makes the essay work: ideas weave their way throughout the entire piece like musical motifs. I thought it was magnificent. It is magnificent.

But I instantly knew that it wasn’t sufficient. It introduced the provocative and definitely-true idea that the technological systems we live within form our sense of what a self can be, what a self should be, and therefore shape and even denude ourselves in critical ways. But, as I wrote in my final essay for that writing class in early 2012, “more often than ever before, I see people trying to break through Facebook’s interface in order to start meaningful, nuanced, and thought-provoking discussions… More often than ever, I see people using Facebook to link to interfaces where being ‘liked’ isn’t the epitome of online existence.” I brought up a point that I heard Alissa Wilkinson – who ended up writing the foreword for Surface Tensions – make about idols and icons. I paraphrased:

Idols are mere commodities, things that have no influence beyond their own existence. Icons are things that point to something beyond themselves, things that link to things beyond their own hollow existence. In Wilkinson’s argument, Facebook can be an icon. It serves the function of linking. It links to literal Internet links, it links to actual friendships, and it links to actual forums designed to destroy the idol of merely being liked for simplistic, 2-dimentional reasons…

…People can choose to use Facebook to link to substance and make connections that actually matter. The possibility for devolution and mindlessness will always be available, but society can always have the potential to­­ – like Zadie Smith – see the shallowness of these sort of “connections” and consciously choose to transcend Mark Zuckerberg’s algorithms. Online, with cleverness and popular preferences, it is possible for me to be my own Final Club president; I can be readily liked. As the programmers in The Social Network suggest, there is an “algorithm” for that. But is that really the sort of person I want to choose to be? Can’t I choose to link to something greater? 

The prose looks only okay to me now, formally speaking. (I took a class with Zadie Smith a couple years later. She helped my writing improve significantly.) But this essay is definitely Surface Tensions 1.0. My basic argument (this isn’t a spoiler; I make this point in the Introduction) is all here: modern media can diminish myself, can “curve myself inward,” as Martin Luther would put it, but it can also form a bridge, an intervening substance, between myself and things beyond it, things that matter. The rest of Surface Tensions is a Memory Lab in which I test the contextual viability of this theory. It looks at occasions when meaningful linking did or didn’t occur in my life, though a variety of mediums. It brings this idea down to earth.

To be concluded tomorrow…

Surface Question 1: Why Memoir? (Part 4)

In this series, “Surface Questions,” I will address questions related to my forthcoming memoir about media, SURFACE TENSIONS, which will be released on July 1st. To submit a question, email me at nathanroberts@g.harvard.edu; I will draw the name of one question-submitter, who will  then receive a free copy of the book. 

Surface Question 1: So I guess I’ll take the bait… I know that you’ve written about movies before, and I know that you’ve written articles, but what inspired you to write a memoir? Are there any particular memoirs that inspired you?

(Continued from Part 3) The cornerstone quote shows up halfway through The Situation and The Story, squeezed right between Gornick’s discussions of essay and memoir. It brings it all into focus.

She’s finishing a mediation on “Her and I” by Natalia Ginzburg. “‘Her and I’,” Gornick writes, “is an essay rather than a memoir because the writer is using her persona to explore a subject other than herself: in this case, marriage. If it had been a memoir, the focus would have been reversed. Ginzburg would have been using marriage precisely to explore – illuminate, define – herself. That would have been her intention. Her simple intension, I might add.”

As I read this paragraph on a Manhattan-bound R Train, my heart sunk a little. Ok. Got it. But then Gornick mentions a peculiar exception, one coincidentally – or not so coincidently – written by a pastor’s kid. An exception by a pastor’s kid wrestling with his past, with his church experience, with an unfair and upended world:

“A perfect bridge between the essay and the memoir is James Baldwin’s ‘Notes of a Native Son,’ a piece in which the writer takes a deep breath, inhaling the experience of himself in the world, then expels it through a viewpoint of such complex intentionality that the intersection between the self and the world becomes one of nearly perfect equality: neither being served at the expense of the other so that at one and the same time a subject is explored and self-definition is pursued.”

This hit me like a bolt of lightning. I knew “Notes of A Native Son” pretty well, and I knew that it would take the ego of king to presume that I could write anything nearly as spectacular. But I nevertheless realized, on that R train, that this was the sort of text I needed to write: a deep intake of my self-experience in the world and an exhalation so intentional that the text could form a permeable membrane, a permeable medium, between meditations on my developing self and thoughts about the media-saturated world in which it developed.

It couldn’t be a text in which I merely used the media-saturated world for end of self-exploration. Nor could it be a text in which I used my self for the sake of illuminating the world. It needed to be a perfectly equal intersection: world and self, ideas and experiences, theories and lived realities needed to be so inseparably intertwined, so deeply interconnected, that one would leave the book with both a greater understanding of our mediated world and an intimate knowledge of my own coming-of-age story. These elements needed to be in constant conversation, mutually illuminating and benefiting each other as woven through my linguistic loom.  The book needed to be a bridge between memoir and essay.

I’ll let you decide whether I actually succeeded in this lofty ambition. I will say that it was a riskier one than I anticipated; I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. With any step out of equilibrium between self and world, the whole text threatens to unravel. If the seesaw leans too far in the direction of my self-development, at the expense of the media-saturated world, then it’s just a memoir with a lot of dopey philosophical theoretical essayistic digressions thrown in – wastes of space at the expense of the meat of the matter. If the seesaw leans too far in the direction of ideas about the world, then it can hardly count as a memoir. It becomes either an essay or a textbook with a number of weirdly personal anecdotes wasting space. I now understand why essay and memoir are kept separate so often: the sort of “complex intentionality” that Gornick speaks of is damn hard to muster.

Yet I’ve been relieved by couple responses. I visited the Hendrickson Publishers office about a month ago to film promotional video material. The marketing coordinator asked if I’d describe a memorable story from the book. These stories exist, of course, but Carl and I sat for some time, trying to think of a good little story to extract from the fabric of the text, stumped. “The stories are just so utterly tied to the ideas and analysis and everything else,” Carl eventually said, “that it’s hard to just pull one out.”

I recently asked a beta-reader what she thought of a story that I had added pretty late in the the revision process. Did it add something significant? “Truthfully, I couldn’t imagine this book without every little piece included,” she said.

And then in her foreword, Alissa Wilkinson writes that Surface Tensions “works equally well as a small primer on media and a memoir of growing up in a thoroughly mediated age.” Works equally well. Phew.

This was a long answer to a fairly simple question, I know. But this was a far from simple book to write. Yet if you come out of it thinking and feeling in equal measure, if, while reading, you feel like you’re “having a long, deep, close conversation with a friend” – a conversation about my personal life and the media-saturated world in which we both live – then it was more than worth the effort.

Surface Question 1: Why Memoir? (Part 3)

In this series, “Surface Questions,” I will address questions related to my forthcoming memoir about media, SURFACE TENSIONSwhich will be released on July 1st. To submit a question, email me at nathanroberts@g.harvard.edu; I will draw the name of one question-submitter, who will then receive a free copy of the book. 

Surface Question 1: So I guess I’ll take the bait… I know that you’ve written about movies before, and I know that you’ve written articles, but what inspired you to write a memoir? Are there any particular memoirs that inspired you?

(Continued from Part 2.) Fast forward several months. My book proposal has been submitted and approved. I stare ahead at the 50,000-word mountain that I must summit in ninety days, if all goes well. (The final product ended up containing 60,000 words – something I would not have believed one year ago.) I’m overwhelmed by the prospect of beginning. Beginning is, I think just about any writer will tell you, the absolute worst. You feel the weight of absolute absence. I run all over Prospect Park for inspiration. I go to friends’ graduation parties to drink and stall. I tease out an essayistic meditation on Facebook. I stumble into The Strand and pick up the memoirist and essayist Vivian Gornick’s nonfiction writing guide, The Situation and The Story, for comfort and guidance.

It’s only so comforting. For Gornick, the very uniqueness of the memoir, compared to the essay, is its devotion to the process of self-development rather than interest in the world beyond the self. For Gornick, it’s a matter of priority: the situation (for me, growing up as a pastor’s kid during the technological boom of the 1990s and early 2000s) is the specific circumstance in which the story unfolds. But the story, “the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer,” “is always self-definition,” and if a memoir is worth its salt, the story of self-definition must sit in the driver’s seat:

“From journalism to the essay to the memoir: the trip being taken by a nonfiction persona deepens, and turns ever more inward… The question clearly being asked in an exemplary memoir is ‘Who am I?’ Who exactly is this ‘I’ upon whom turns the significance of this story-taken-directly-from-life? On that question the writer of memoir must deliver. Not with an answer but with depth of inquiry.”

Reading this, I began to fear that by treating my memoir like an extended essay on media, I would pull the memoir away from its true formal calling. I began to fear that I would pull myself away from my role as a memoirist. Not to mention disappointing readers that would pick up my book expecting to be doused with emotional experiences and personal change-over-time. The concept of my memoir-to-be revolved around situation: the media-saturated situation in which we all live. But I began to wonder if the book’s engine really needed to be a story: my bildungsroman, my story of self-growth and self-becoming.

I came to this wondering reluctantly. I knew that if my bildungsroman were to be my train’s engine – rather than the muddy track on which it would roll but ultimately pass, full-steam ahead – my story couldn’t be trite. It would require me to self-examine harder than I had ever self-examined. I would have to wade into my most emotionally fraught experiences: to play in a sandbox mixed with shards of glass. It wouldn’t be easy. It wasn’t easy.

But I don’t wish to be all melodramatic. As Gornick describes it, decent memoirists’ “work records a steadily changing idea of the emergent self. But for each of them a flash of insight illuminating that idea grew out of the struggle to clarify one’s own formative experience; and in each case the strength and beauty of the writing lie in the power of concentration with which this insight is pursued, and made to become the writer’s organizing principle.” I was fortunate enough to discover, as I finished Chapter One, after I finally turned to the difficult job of charting my personal experience, a flash of insight similar to the one Gornick describes: an insight tied to a steadily changing idea of my emergent self.

You can find this right at the end of Chapter One. It’s sitting there in a late paragraph, a blueprint of everything to come. It’s the sort of realization that, if pulled out of the text after the fact, would seem to diminish the complexity of my experience. But as insight realized early into the text, it provided myself (and, as woven into the text, readers) with an organizing principle. Far from diminishing the complexity of my further writing, it gave me a preparatory sketch for the oil painting, an outline I could then fill with colors and chiaroscuro and all of the messy contradictions of life. This insight pulled out a developing self that I could track, that felt – despite its relative simplicity – authentic, or not unfairly distorted, at least. It gave the story a way forward. It provided an engine for the train that would glide upon situational elements. It provided what, I steadily grew to believe, would justify the reader’s investment in 50,000+ words: an honest excavation of my own selfhood, my own life, my own coming-of-age. My plan of attack changed significantly.

Well, I don’t wish to exaggerate here. What changed was not the direction I was walking, exactly, but a shift like a pivot from my heel to the ball of my foot: a crucial shift in my center of gravity, but a subtle one. It’s not like I trashed the meditative philosophical bits entirely. Far from that: I merely realized that they were only valuable insofar as they related to and illuminated my personal experiences. And much to my steadily increasing excitement, through many hours toiling in coffee shops, natural connecting tendrils began to form between the personal and the theoretical, the experiential and the philosophical, the everyday and the academic.

I was helped in this regard by one more Vivian Gornick bit, a quote that formed a central cornerstone for Surface Tensions.

To be concluded tomorrow…

Surface Question 1: Why Memoir? (Part 2)

In this series, “Surface Questions,” I will address questions related to my forthcoming memoir about media, SURFACE TENSIONSwhich will be released on July 1st. To submit a question, email me at nathanroberts@g.harvard.edu; I will draw the name of one question-submitter, who will  then receive a free copy of the book. 

Surface Question 1: So I guess I’ll take the bait… I know that you’ve written about movies before, and I know that you’ve written articles, but what inspired you to write a memoir? Are there any particular memoirs that inspired you?

(Continued From Part 1.) One of my favorite forms of writing is the essay. The essay can get a bad rep because it’s associated with those dreaded things your high school teacher made you write. But that’s a shame. Those are poor, pathetic bastardizations of the essay. The essay, as Vinson Cunningham recently observed in The New Yorker, stems from the sermon. (My dad is a pastor – make the connection yourself.) The essay draws on experience and intellect, thoughts and feelings, narratives and theories. It’s both argumentative and personal, as academic as you want and as intimate as you desire. It draws on prior texts and marshals them for new purposes, situates them in the context of lived experience. It throws a bunch of different elements in a pot and stirs them until readers end up with an unusual, unpredictable stew that helps them taste the world in a new way.

It does this by tracing the thought path of an idiosyncratic, individual mind. If you can see the writer’s mind working on the page, in all of its messy glory, then you’re really reading an essay. One of my favorite things about the essay is its implicit belief that the life of the mind cannot – indeed, should not – separate itself from the rest of life. To split both parts of a person is to end up with an insufficient version of that person. We don’t just think through concepts and we don’t just feel our way through everything around us. We don’t just form opinions and theorize about the world; we live in the world while we think about it.

The memoir, as I imagined it, focused only on lived experience. Carl, my editor-to-be, was quick to point out that this wasn’t always the case. He mentioned Real Sex by Lauren Winner, a book in which Winner thought about sex and then talked to people who made her think new things about sex and then thought about it some more and then talked to more people. I recalled two conceptually-dependent memoirs, The Year of Living Biblically and The Night of the Gun, and I realized that the memoir could be bent in unique directions.

Therefore, feeling experimental, I teased out a possibility that had been swimming around in my mind at some low, deep level: I had read so many strident, idea-driven pieces about the internet and social media, but I had never read any personal pieces about life lived around and through social media. I hadn’t seen the sort of complexity and nuance that I lived through every day shine on the page. I felt like it was missing from public discourse. (This was before Master of None and the TED Radio Hour’s Screen Time, by the way.) Enough with the total naysayers. Enough with the bright and baby-faced Zuckerbergians babbling ebulliently. We needed more… and perhaps I could bring more to the table. That was exciting.

whiteboard

Ye Old Whiteboard. Some of these were crucial. Many were trashed.

As Carl and I brainstormed on Hendrickson’s whiteboard[1], this idea expanded into something more fully formed and flexible: I would think about media in a more general way, about drawing, painting, film, videocassettes, music, and so on. I would situate social media within the broader range of mediums with which I’ve spent my whole life engaged. And I would think about how these mediums helped form my emerging selfhood and shape my relationships with others.

We wrote a basic template for the memoir on that not-too-cold October day.[2] As I sat in a cracked leather seat on the commuter train back to Boston, I was pleased by a couple crucial things: (1) Carl and I seemed like we would get along splendidly. He didn’t want to cram me into some pre-made niche in the “Christian Book marketplace.” He seemed to really get my voice. We agreed that I should deliver something “in between Donald Miller and David Foster Wallace.” I could do that, I thought. I’m nowhere near as brilliant as David Foster Wallace, of course, but I’m more academically oriented than Donald Miller. (2) I could treat the project like a series of essays, strung together by personal anecdotes. I had experience in cultural studies, in theories of the image, in film. Even if my life wasn’t that exciting or moving, the ideas could stand on their own two feet. My life would form a mere structural framework for the ideas. It didn’t have to be a memoir by any traditional standards. I knew, then, that this book could be okay.

That was before I realized that this strategy would not, in fact, be that okay after all.

To be continued tomorrow…

[1] I know, by the way, that this is not how books are usually conceived––but I’d highly recommend this sort of proess. The occasional genius can whip out something phenomenal by her own, lonely self. But most of us could benefit from smart sounding boards like Carl, and I am extremely thankful that I had him.

[2] It’s funny to look at a picture of that whiteboard now: some ideas were totally dropped – several I don’t even remember – and some were are crucial in the final manuscript, but all were morphed into something deeper and richer than anything we could’ve imagined on that day.

Surface Question 1: Why Memoir? (Part 1)

surface tensionsIn this series, “Surface Questions,” I will address questions related to my forthcoming memoir about media, SURFACE TENSIONS, which will be released on July 1st. To submit a question, email me at nathanroberts@g.harvard.edu; I will draw the name of one question-submitter, who will  then receive a free copy of the book. 

Surface Question 1: So I guess I’ll take the bait… I know that you’ve written about movies before, and I know that you’ve written articles, but what inspired you to write a memoir? Are there any particular memoirs that inspired you?

A more-than-fair question! In my fantasy world, I’ve read a ton of memoirs and I’ve taken copious notes while reading them and I’ve determined exactly which writers and styles to emulate. I’ve done this all while watching cigarette smoke swirl around listlessly at my local Parisian café.

Truthfully, I’ve done no such thing. I am not Mary Karr, much to my perpetual shame. I am not a massive memoirphile – not because I have anything against the form, but because, prior to preparing to write this book, I simply didn’t really expose myself to it. Now I’ve read a selection of really great memoirs (please check out Little Failure if you haven’t), but I’m far from an expert. I was even further from an expert when I submitted the Surface Tensions book proposal.

The best comparison I can make here involves opera. I have nothing against opera as a form; I simply haven’t taken the time to really know its ins and outs. But I know musicals and pop music and pop operas like Les Misérables; I’ve had extensive classical vocal training and I’ve sung many oratorios in  several choirs. I’ve been circling around the operatic form for years. In a similar way, I knew fiction, essay, travel writing, criticism. I knew academic writing and popular writing and how to try to split the difference between the both registers. I had been circling around memoir, less like a hawk than a bird looking at everything outside of its self-made circumference. It was only a matter of time before I looked inside the circle.

But just as an opera singer needs a working knowledge of Italian, Spanish, German and a diaphragm like a knot in a tree trunk, so the decent memoir writer needs its own prereqs, I thought: experience, an interesting or traumatic history, distance from said trauma, colorful characters, profound change over time. And this is why, when the beardy editor Carl Nellis mentioned how, after reading several of my pieces online, he had pegged me as a decent fit for memoir, I balked. Well, not exactly – but I did look around at the fluorescently lit bookshelves in the office of Hendrickson Publishers and hesitate a bit. My life has been lovely. It’s been hardly extreme or traumatic. I didn’t grow up in the midst of the Liberian civil war; my mother didn’t die of a mysterious illness before my tenth birthday; I didn’t move to Ghana as a refugee. While I knew that good prose could illuminate the seemingly mundane and reveal wonder imbedded in the everyday – narrative sensationalism doesn’t make great writing, necessarily  – I am not Wendell Berry or Marilynne Robinson. I hadn’t mastered that sort of narrative tai chi, and I didn’t expect slow, deep understanding of my everyday suburban and urban life to suddenly blossom out of depth of my soul.

But after I mentioned my hesitation, we landed on something that truly excited both of us.

Continued tomorrow…