HFR welcomes Noemi Press Editor Emily Alex to the Dock this week as our guest. Alex talked with Jessica Anne about her book, A Manual for Nothing, the challenges of school, owning a feminist identity, and more.
EA: I’d like, first, to talk about the book’s form: inherent in the manual format is the extended use of second-person address and the imperative mood. In conjunction with the text’s auto-fictional nature, this formal conceit suggests a certain measure of dissociation, a split subjectivity in dialogue with its various conflicting parts. What inspired you to present this highly personal account in this way, as a conversation between various I’s and various you’s?
JA: It all started with Lorrie Moore and Self-Help. When I started my MFA I was so hung up on the difference between fiction and nonfiction, and what was true and what wasn’t true, and what truly happened, and what if none of it happened but all of it’s true? If it’s true once is it true always? If it’s true for me, is it true for everybody? What is true nowadays, now that the television’s always on? What is memory? Is it still a memory when you can’t quite remember it? Can I write my origin stories in my voice, but also just a little to the left of my voice?
Before discovering Moore, I was writing about sexuality, femininity, and identity. But because I didn’t have a clear voice, I wasn’t having any fun. And because I wasn’t having fun, I didn’t really have a book. But, then I read How to Become a Writer in a fiction class and my mind was blown. I was like, this is fiction? It sounds so real.
EA: Why do you think you were drawn in particular to the form of an instructional guide?
JA: I was hooked on the power of the command. Presenting the story in the second person gave me the control and distance I needed to delve into some of the more traumatic memories. And it also made the lighter moments absurd, and a blast to work on. I really recommend writing in the second person. It’s like instant voice. Powerful voice.
EA: So was your voice something that emerged in working on this book?
JA: In performance, as a server, as a telemarketer, in waiting rooms, everywhere I go people mention my voice—the speaking voice that comes out of my throat. It’s high pitched and nasal, and people always ask me if it’s real. In theatre school I was even written up in “considerable vocal crisis.” I had one semester to lower my ball, and if my ball didn’t drop they were going to remove me from the program. I had to prove my ball had dropped by reciting from memory the entirety of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in Dr. King’s range and register, in front of a panel of scholars. My ball was low enough to progress to the next level. But, I most certainly was not having fun.
So, years later getting to read distinct, hilarious, whip smart, female voices like Moore’s was most refreshing. I know now that Moore is a household name in households of writers with writing backgrounds. But, she had never come up in any of my theatre training. When we were finally introduced I was like, what is this Kool Aid? I never want to stop drinking. I liked how it was classified as fiction, but something in there had to be true. It was all true for me! Like a myth! And I liked how comfortable and familiar the voice sounded in my head, the tone. The attitude. The second person. Reading it sounded like myself when I talk to myself. Reading it felt like writing it! I was so excited I had to try it.
In theatre school, I got in so much trouble for being too funny, too quirky, too unique. The goal was to strip all that away and become neutral. A boring vanilla base ready and able to absorb another’s voice. But, in workshop, nobody seemed to mind my voices (once I finally committed to them). And since you can’t talk in workshop, nobody asked me if they were real.
EA: What do you see as the seams along which the subjectivity of the manual’s narrator is split? Are they temporal, spatial, affective?
JA: All three. I think the you and the I are separated by the time it takes the girl to realize who she is, the miles between Chicago and London, and performance art and writing life, and the task of welding her neglect and abuse into bootstraps strong enough to pull herself up.
EA: To what extent is this dissociation the result of the writer’s presence within the text? In other words, do you see the second-person as a means of approaching memoir like writing in situations where the experiencing person and the narrating person seem to be distinct?
JA: Yes. I think it’s a miracle anybody ever survives childhood. And by the time you’re ready to confess the horrors of your childhood, you’re such a different person that you might as well be another person. So, I find it helpful to slice the whole thing right down the middle, right between the experience and the recovery. I sometimes think of it as one of those horrible acting exercises where your act-three character has to come into the room and lecture your act-one character, has to warn, caution and protect her/you. And you are playing your act-three character in full period dress, while your act-one character is played by a straw stuffed ragdoll on a tall black stool. Or, one of those fun writing exercises where you go into the woods and find your second person, and kill her, and zip yourself up in the skin of her. It’s a way of acknowledging the teeth-melting pain of your past while also expressing the joy of writing.
EA: The list form is widely and variously used throughout the book, occasionally functioning in the way we expect a list to: as a catalogue of discrete items or associative clusters or as an ordered set of steps. And at other times the list form is setting a dynamic rhythm to what might ordinarily be a series of prosaic sentences or paragraphs. What can you tell us about your relationship with lists—in this book, and in your daily life?
JA: I have to admit, some of the list sections in the book were originally intended to be outlines, things I needed to remember to write about. But, then I’d get into the music of the list and decide that the list was the writing.
Lists were definitely a big part of my neo-futurist life. It was so daunting to have to come up with new plays every single week, that I would always start my writing day with the numbers one through eight. And then I would write eight titles. The hope was that out of eight titles, at least four plays would emerge, somehow. The ritual rule of eight became a fun way to begin each week’s impossible task, and it would also trick me into thinking I had great ideas.
I’ve also had fun making long lists at my telemarketing job. Yesterday, I noticed that the guy behind me, Mark, every time someone on the other line asks him how he was doing he would say, “I’m truly blessed and highly favored, thank you for asking.” Last week someone said they won’t be subscribing this year because “the gratuitous use of fog does not meet my standards for quality theatre.” It’s so soothing to take note of these charged pedestrian quips. I’m working on a new manuscript about my brother who died of an overdose, and obviously that is heavy and dark. But, having this list from life alongside the manuscript helps ground the writing, also helps to lift the writing. Like the ohm’s at the end of yoga class.
EA: One of my favorite chapters is “How to Write All the Time and with Confidence,” because it gives us this backstage peek at the writing process: everything, all the steps, that must be in place before writing can happen. The instructional quality of this chapter and others, evokes the importance of ritual, and I wonder if you could say more about this. How can rituals move us toward accomplishing what we set out to do? Or, on the other hand, how can rituals become limiting, supplanting the performance of the activity itself with the preparation for that activity?
JA: As a Jesus freak and a theatre person, I definitely believe in the power of ritual. Lately I’ve been burning sage every time I sit down to write. Isn’t that ridiculous? But, yes. There’s something about dressing the table, dressing the desk the same way you would dress the table for communion. Especially when you’re at the beginning of a project, or when you have a really hard assignment that you’re scared to start. It’s like you have to take it to that quiet sacred place. You have to imagine yourself writing, imagine your arms on the wings of your chair in billowing clouds of sage. I think maybe cleansing the surface and gathering the nuts is just a fancy way of focusing. For me, most of the sparks do begin in a quiet place. But, then once I get rolling, I’ll totally take it to the loudest coffee shop or bar I can find, I’m all over the place! The other side of the ritual coin is also true. It’s like come on, you can’t live in a writing retreat. Sometimes you have to write on a plane in between two toddlers cutting teeth, and watch, that’s going to be the poem you get in the Paris Review.
EA: The sentences in this book are a delight because they are often unpredictable in their syntax and in their movement, fractaling out by way of association, repetition and reconfiguration of sounds, or wordplay. I am curious about your composition and revision process: Was it additive, involving enrichment and complication on a line basis, or subtractive, involving a shearing away?
JA: I didn’t work for those word plays. That whimsy pretty much bubbled out as is. But there was some absurd word play that took the game too far and made no sense whatsoever, and then I’d have to do some chiseling. Overall, I probably delete as much as I create.
EA: The central plot of this book seems to be the creation of the book itself—the writer figuring out how to get her story onto the page, all of the experiences that prepare her to do so, and the artistic rituals and mantras that allow her to produce this work from “the dust of her bones,” along with the dread and anxiety surrounding its eventual reception. As such, many of the book’s instructions are addressed to the “you” as writer or artist, and there are manifold references to the manual itself within the text, and to the author’s relationship to her audience: “You’ll never know how exactly he’s reading this. You’ll never know if this is good, or good to him … It’s like talking to a wall.” How, and at what point in your writing process, did this metafictional aspect emerge?
JA: The meta references addressing the “you” artist, and “you” writer happened pretty early on because the backbones of the book were always the “How to Be a Performance Artist” and “Become a Writer-Artist” sections. But, the sections that reference the creation of the actual manual, the “talking to a wall,” those came at the very end, after the first round of edits with Emily Kiernan.
“The wall,” that’s everybody’s favorite thesis advisor, Christian TeBordo. It took the thesis becoming a book for me to have enough distance to reflect on the whole process from thesis to publication, and to get the process into the finished product. Plus, I wasn’t brave enough to call him an “amazing wall” before he approved my thesis.
EA: Regarding process, there’s this problem I’ve been puzzling with in relation to metafiction, and I think you might be able to help: When you write about writing what you’re writing, how do you ever stop? How do you put a period on the present tense?
JA: I think you have to have the story first, and you have to write a triumphant ending to the story. And then look at it. And then go back in and add the meta layers. And the rule of three is a good rule to follow/break. That’s what I learned from my clown friends. If you have a tangled mass of meta, just divide it into three clean breaks. In. And out. If it’s working, add three more sections. Six total. But, not seven. And definitely not four.
EA: Another of the book’s central concerns is how being a “performance artist” is similar to or different from being a writer. In what ways is writing performative? For instance, in contrast to theatre performance—with which you have years of personal experience, as a neo-futurist alum—we often think of writing as static, the criticism coming in well after the pages are bound. But, as the repeated presence of your thesis advisor suggests, writers can be performing for an audience just as much as actors are. Can you talk about how important the presence of an audience, real or imagined, has been to you?
JA: For all I knew, Christian was the only one who would ever read the manuscript, I had to talk to him. He was the audience, I couldn’t pretend he wasn’t there. And it was really helpful to have someone to write to. That’s what really made it feel like I was making a book as opposed to a piece of theatre. I suppose I could have picked any real person in my life to write to, but since I come from a background of non illusory theatre I chose the thesis advisor. It’s like the girl in the shed was one audience, the army of women marching the streets was another audience, and then the man with the really biblical name was another audience. But, he was the only one listening at the time. Because he was the only real person. There’s something to that, waffling between addressing mountaintops of imagined armies, and real people that you see all the time in life/school. It’s like the contrast between the real people I call every night, interrupt their dinner and take their money, versus the mythology that’s left of my brother’s life.
EA: May I ask how this manuscript was received by your peers in your master’s thesis workshop?
JA: I just cleared my workshop letters off of my desk. I put them in the trunk with my wedding dress and copy of Free to Be You and Me. For the most part, I remember them saying, you’re really good at rhythm and syntax, but sometimes it’s hard to grasp what exactly is happening. That was a big hurdle when moving from stage to page. On stage I got a lot of, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, but I get it, I feel it.” When I first started workshopping the manual, I got a lot of, “What’s the deal with the shoes?” By the end, my mates said they were starting to understand the shoes. I sometimes wonder if I should have added an overt “How to Keep Your Shoes On” section. Too late now!
EA: In “Cleopatra, Act II,” you parody the destructive self-policing of contemporary left-wing discourse surrounding feminism, saying, “Someday feminist will simply be synonym for really good person who believes in equal rights for equal everybodies. Someday.” Can you say more about the state of feminism today, and why we are all “still yelling at each other”?
JA: I love the church ladies that took me in and raised me. They taught me a lot about goodness and giving, and sharing and caring. But, I never heard them refer to anything as feminist. If anything, they began their sentences with I’m not a feminist, but …
If I had a child, I would make sure to call them a feminist whenever they were doing something feminist. If they said, “Hey, that’s not fair,” or, “I can do that, listen to me.” I’d say, “That’s feminism. You’re a feminist.” I would add it to the bag of graces and virtues. Same way the church ladies would say good, that’s love honey, good job. I would say, “Nice feminism today child, good job.”
I am a huge feminist, but I had to kick and scream my way to calling myself a feminist. Maybe, ultimately, that was a good thing. I read a lot of books. I called a lot of senators. Roxane Gay’s essay collection was immensely helpful. I think we all love each other and we want to smash the same mother fucking ceiling. But, while we’re raising up our hammers, please, when I say something stupid, don’t swing that hammer back around to me. I’m important. I got your back. Please, clutch me to your bosom like a church lady and teach me.
We did a show at The Neo-Futurists called The Miss Neo Pageant (created by Megan Mercier), it was a group of five of us neo women all about 30 years old at the time, exploring feminism and female rivalry. And we lost a board member because of it. The wife of a board member attended the show on opening night and she was not happy, she said it wasn’t feminist. So, her husband quit the board. They both left. That made me sad. Still does. You know, we have work to do. Don’t walk away from me.
Jessica Anne is the author of A Manual For Nothing (Noemi Press, 2017), and the writer and performer of her one-woman show, Mike Mother. She's an alumna of the Neo-Futurist ensemble (2006-2012) and a co-producer of Lit Crawl Chicago. She is also the Nonfiction editor of MAKE, and she holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Roosevelt University.
Emily Alex is a Noemi Press editor and the Prose Editor at Puerto del Sol. She teaches composition and creative writing at New Mexico State University, where she is pursuing an MFA in fiction. You can find her work in The Offing.