Mara Naselli is a writer and editor. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fourth Genre, Agni, Ninth Letter, Your Impossible Voice, and elsewhere. She writes about literature for 3 Quarks Daily. Her essay “On Being a Mother” appears in the Summer 2014 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Tell us a little about your KR piece. How was it written? What was the hardest part about writing it?
It was written in a fog. I usually fuss a lot, but this essay was written in a few sittings and spared my obsessive reworkings. It was too painful. The few times I have had to read the piece, I have felt it was written by someone or something else.
At the same time, I couldn’t not write it. Writing was the only way I could train any thought or reflection on this situation that demanded a decision, the only way I could live through it. Publication was unthinkable. I was depressed, ashamed, almost mute—I was writing so I could get my body out of bed. A year later, a few trusted readers urged me to send the piece out. By that time I had a bit of distance. I still fear it might become a political and personal lightning rod.
Your essay in KR, “On Being a Mother,” mentions Martha Nussbaum, Christopher Hitchens, Charles Baxter, and others in the course of a frank and thoughtful discussion of abortion. Can you tell us a little about how you decided which scholarly and literary voices to weave into this very personal story?
This essay is very much a story of consciousness—these were the other voices in my head at the time as I was trying to understand the complexity of what my husband and I were going through as parents and what I was going through as a woman and a mother. Most of the writers I had read years ago—they just came forward.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
I recently finished my MFA at the Bennington Writing Seminars, where I learned far more than I thought I was capable of learning. But if I were to give one concise answer, I would say I have learned writing won’t be forced. It needs nurturing practice, exactitude, and relentless inquiry.
Which nonwriting-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Riding and training my two mares. One is big and muscular—she is built like a medieval warhorse and has a lot of confidence and presence. The other is a more modern, finer type, and a bit nervous and unsure of herself. I’m not a neophyte, but working with them is still a little terrifying simply because horses by nature are big and erratic. I have finally come to understand fear is integral to the work. I need to ask both of us to go a bit beyond our own sense of limits to discover what’s possible—I don’t mean push harder, I mean explore some dimension of the step we haven’t explored yet. When I’m writing, I have a physical corollary of that intense conversational awareness with the subject. It demands everything of me. The horse is only as expressive as my body allows; my job is to invite a greater range of motion than I think possible. Then the horse surprises me. On a good day, I’m able to receive what she’s offered.
Of all the things you could be doing, why do you write?
Writing is the only way I know how to create some provisional coherence.
In the 1950s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by ten leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?
I think reading, writing, and editing are, at their core, acts of generosity. I don’t mean uncritical—I love a good argument and expect a lot of rigor from myself and from others. I mean that when done well, the disposition in reading and writing is in service to a shared inquiry, a shared search. We are doing this together. Reading, writing, meaning making are intersubjective, collaborative endeavors. Somehow we need to take care of each other in the doing. I understood this as an editor, but it wasn’t until I read Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift that I saw it needed to be at the heart of my writing as well. This kind of generosity isn’t easy in a world that has worked itself into a hypercapitalist froth, but it’s all the more crucial.
Could you tell us a little about one of your current or upcoming writing projects?
Right now I’m focused on a collection of essays on power and inversions of power as expressed in representations of the horse in art and culture. The horse is such a historically ubiquitous symbol, especially in visual art, that it has become cliché. I’m trying to unpack it a bit, to wage a new interpretation on an old symbol and investigate the power, privilege, and control horses and horsemanship have come to represent.