T Clutch Fleischmann is a reviews editor at Punctuate, a nonfiction editor at DIAGRAM, a contributing editor at EssayDaily, and a nonfiction professor at Columbia College Chicago.
AYLA MAISEY: As a teacher and a writer, you are living this balance of personal creativity and cultivating the creativity of others. What is the relationship between teaching writing and writing your own work?
T FLEISCHMANN: When I finished my MFA program at the University of Iowa, I left the Academy for five years or so because I knew that, without having a book out, I couldn’t get a teaching job where I would teach classes I really wanted to teach. Most of the jobs that are available after graduation are adjuncting jobs or teaching composition, but my interest is really working with people on the actual writing process, in part because it’s very tied to my own writing practice and my ideas about activism and political engagement. What was most useful for me as a student was some sort of connection between the person teaching the class and how that person was conceiving their own writing in the world and their own writing practice. Here at Columbia, I get to teach classes that are passions and interests of mine and I get to work with students that really want to be in those classes.
I think that teaching and writing practices can be married to each other and can fuel each other. My own work within writing adds a dimension to those classes and allows me to speak as a writer as opposed to just a professor. But I should also say that after grad school, I was doing these informal, mainly queer and trans writing workshops for friends or people in the community. Because I jumped right into that world of getting together people who wanted to work with each other and learn from each other, I’ve had that grounded in how I view teaching.
I try to teach or pitch classes that are connected to my own work and are dealing with the questions that I am dealing with. I feel that, at its best, the classroom becomes a collaborative space, as opposed to a place where I have some information that students are paying to get access to. When the classes are in that generative, collaborative mode, I feel like it fuels my own writing, gives me new ideas, and it’s more active and useful for the students.
What are your views on journaling? Is it a safe space for you to be outside of Teacher T or Writer T?
I love journals and read writers’ journals all the time. The journal is a really great form and in nonfiction, it gets discounted a bit; people think of it as a private thing—which is weird because we’re already dealing with personal essays and this relationship between the private and the public. I don’t really have a journaling practice that I distinguish from my writing practice. I try to write most every day and to write from a very immediate space; whatever enters into my life naturally is what ends up on the page. I’m not necessarily sitting down and saying, “I’m writing today’s journal about such-and-such that happened,” but I am trying to generate new content that is drawn directly from my lived experience, whatever that might be. And it can change really rapidly and I find ways to pull that into the other things that I’m working on. Often I’ll start off writing loosely in connection to things I’m working on and it will find its way into the original project.
How do you take those raw, natural things pulled directly from your lived experience and incorporate them into an essay when you’re writing in a journal-like form? Do they bleed into a bigger project? Do you find that you almost stumble into essays?
This is probably going to make me sound out of my mind. I’m writing a book right now and I had a few different things feeding into it. First, I was trying to write visual descriptions of ice every single day for about two years. It was an obsession with seeing what the language could do and the impossible challenge, because ice is bland and I had to find new ways to describe it every day. I also had my daily writing. From the daily writing, when threads would come up that were related to this broad idea of what I thought the book as being, I would take those threads and develop them into the book project itself.
I would try to write as much as I could without thinking about the final product and see what happened in the writing. I believe that the things that we’re personally obsessed with, whatever our brain is going to every day if we are letting it do what it wants to do naturally, tend to be related to each other. For example, say you’re obsessed with nature and landscape in the Midwest, and you’re also obsessed with space exploration and the history of Chinese imperialism. Regardless of how different those things might seem, if you’re really looking at them consistently through the lens of the self, then you find that they are connected, if only because it’s you that are interested in them. So our private obsessions and interests warrant themselves in the writing eventually.
In nonfiction, your material is your life and, as you said, your obsessions. How much of your nonfiction writing documents your life and how much of it helps you understand your life?
I believe those are twin projects. Documentation is at its core a way of understanding things. It’s impossible to be objective; there is always some sort of feedback to the self in those things, if only in choosing to document. We can’t document everything in the life; the writing could never possibly get everything. So we’re already in this process of selecting certain things to put our attention to and that creates the feedback loop that’s helping me understand my own choices and realizing what has been left out and what has been brought in that surprises me that it got in. I don’t believe that it’s the job of writing or art to solve any problems, but rather to confront and encounter problems or questions, to think in relation to them and try to find new ways to think about what is happening. I don’t set the goal of being like, “Now that I’ve written about X, Y, or Z topic, I understand it and I’m done with it and I’ve moved on from that thing.” I just hope that I’ve complicated it and gotten somewhere new with it.
Is it possible to overcomplicate a moment by writing about it? For example, you have this wonderfully complex essay called “House With Door” about a child who comes up to you and says this lovely, arbitrary thing: “My house has a door!” And you pull in this deeper understanding of the moment and metaphor and finding connections with someone. But do you ever write something about a simple moment and find that that simple moment has evaporated in the writing? Or do you think writing about it helps it come into being?
If I’m drawn to write about something, even if it seems like it’s going to be super boring, I try to trust that I am drawn to it for a reason and that something will be revealed to me by trusting those instincts. When looking at a lot of writers’ subject matter, if you pull back from it, you think, “Well, that’s fairly boring, actually.” But because the writer cares so much about it, it becomes really interesting to them and then hopefully to the reader.
So, with the “House With Door” essay, I had the encounter with the kid and then I wrote about it immediately afterward. And it happens in the essay, where I talk about it with a friend. I’d already been writing about it for a while so I thought I had a sense of what was going on there and then I had this feedback from my friend which was to just take it as what it is, which really changed my understanding. Probably a few months past, I decided I was going to try and make it into its own little essay. So I sat down to start it there and was surprised by the other ways that the essay goes and the other subjects it wanders into. I wasn’t intending to go there; I let the motion of the prose carry itself forward.
These things that I wasn’t expecting to come up—they’re my wheelhouses as a writer, the subjects I tend to write about a lot, like sex and relationships. At that point, the complication felt really natural and appropriate to what I was doing. I got moments where stuff fell flat or it didn’t have the payoff that I was looking for . . . but you can tell when you’re forcing something into an essay. It’s taken me quite a while to get attuned to it, but usually it’s pretty clear if I’m surprising myself by putting something in there, like “Oh, great! Let’s see what this does!” versus if I’m like, “Oh, I need to add something,” and I force it in and it doesn’t work. It has to come in at that level of instinct.
On that line, knowing when you can’t do anything else to serve an essay, at least at that point, there’s a lot of frustration that happens which feeds into this idea of writers’ block. Do you believe in writers’ block?
I don’t think of it the way that people would usually frame that. There are definitely times where I sit down and think, “I don’t know what I’m going to write today.” And there are times where I sit down and I’m really excited and plowing forward. So there are differences in how easily the writing comes, but my writing process is not only when I’m writing, but also my reading process and when I walk to the lake every morning and think about what I’m writing. So for me, I try to look at the writing broadly and to look at it as part of the life. Since I’m drawing from the life, I like to dissolve those things a bit. Maybe I don’t have words coming out every day really quickly, but that’s not going to stress me out because I know I can do my lake walk, go to a museum, read a couple poems, and by the time I’m done with that, I’ll have something that I want to say. It might not be an essay, it might not be something that’s going to be in a book, but I’ll at least have some words that start to come out of me. And if some days they don’t, then that’s fine, too. I don’t think of it as like, “Oh, I’m blocked and it’s not happening.” It’s just happening in different registers and different resonances.
You have a collection of essays called Syzygy, Beauty that was published in 2012, almost five years ago. You’re now in a different part of the cycle of your life; you’ve grown as a person and a teacher and surely as a writer. How do you think your writing has changed since this collection? Do you think that any writing experience or books you’ve read since Syzygy was finished have deepened the writing or the content that was covered in the collection?
I wrote [Syzygy] after I finished grad school from the place of being largely detached from imagined audiences or editors or critics. I allowed myself to write for a while and have fun with it. I think of it as a very fresh, young book that’s very much written from that place of being like, “I’m just going to do what I want to do and try to strike out on my own instead of trying to write something for other people.” And that worked well for me. There are issues that I have with it now looking back on it and there are parts of it that seem a little naïve to me, but I’m happy with how it turned out.
In grad school, I encountered lots of writers who were and are important to me and I learned to situate myself in this contemporary writing world and understand some places that I might inhabit. I was writing from this place of having first encountered these things and starting to chart my place in that way. And now, five years down the line and six years from when I finished writing Syzygy, I’ve read much more broadly and specifically in histories of trans literature and experimental nonfiction. I have a much more sophisticated sense of what my place is than I did in that earlier book. The first book was me putting something out there and wondering what people were going to think about it. And this second book that I’m writing feels more ambitious. I’m wanting to enter into a direct conversation that’s already been going on. I know who I’m speaking to and I know what books I’m in conversation with much more than I did before.
How do you face the idea of revision, both on a small scale and over a body of work? if you were to revise Syzygy, would it be a betrayal of the work and who you were while writing it?
I don’t believe I could return to that place where Syzygy came from. I could sit there and literally change the text, but the differences between who I am and what my writing is from then to now are significant enough that it’s not something that I can access again.
This might give a better answer. There’s that ice thing that I was doing for two years and there’s this essay in verse called Spill, Split about the visual artist Félix González-Torres and the death of his partner, Ross, as well as this person who was my on-again, off-again partner slash best friend. It was going to be a book-length essay in verse about loss and longing. So there were a couple years of writing that and I was getting it to something that was close to being done and then a few things happened. One of those things is that the partner/best friend/person got positive on an HIV test. It was a false positive; it was something wrong with the test, but there were two months where we didn’t know that. Also during that time, one of my closest friends died of AIDS-related complications. Those events made it so that when I returned to write the book, which is so much concerned with Ross’s death, I couldn’t write it in the same place anymore.
I found out through the research I was doing and through Félix González-Torres’s archives that Torres dealt with Ross’s death through his close friendship with this photographer named Roni Horn. Then, when Félix González-Torres died, Horn moved to Iceland as part of her mourning process, and she’s been living there since then and making all this work about ice. Suddenly, things started to click together, so I started writing another book that was addressing what these changes meant and trying to write about time, movement, and movement across land, which the “House With Door” essay ends up as part of. I ended up with these three different books: there’s the descriptions of the ice, there’s the almost finished Félix González-Torres book, and there’s this third book and I’m collaging the three books together. In terms of revision, I’m trying to acknowledge the way that the changes in life affect the changes in text. Instead of trying to make things even or consistent or pretend events didn’t happen, or try to solve something or exclude something, I’m trying to make space within the book for those changes. I’m trying to make space for these things to exist as they actually exist and complicate each other and make each other fail.
All this points to another thing: trust your obsessions. I didn’t know what the hell this ice book was; I just knew that I was writing it for years and eventually it became clear to me what it was for. It’s really me, the self within the writer, that holds all these things together, always. Whatever is in the writing, it’s the writer that holds those things together. And I think that ends up being enough.
I also believe the concept of the writer holding things together can be extended past content and into genre. From what I have read, your particular style of nonfiction is a little mélange of prose poetry and lyric, especially in that piece Spill, Split, which was published in PEN America’s poetry series. Do you consciously blend genres or do you unconsciously inhabit this space that is all and in between and undefinable?
When I was doing my undergrad, I was doing poetry, mainly; I would have called myself a poet. In my senior year of undergrad, I took a nonfiction class taught by Ander Monson. He included some experimental stuff and I was really into it. I had applied to grad schools for poetry and thought I was going to go there, but I ended up deferring the grad schools and applying the next year for nonfiction programs and realizing that that was what I wanted to do. The essay and the nonfiction traditions became important to me and they were how I understood my writing, often through lyric and experimental forms. Even though I was doing experimental stuff within those traditions, I was thinking of those base concerns of the essay, of ways to make them do new things and bring the reader to a new understanding of what essays are. Nowadays, though, I don’t tend to think very much in terms of genre. What’s important to me about what I’m doing is the connection to the life and the factuality of the things, whether it’s looking at the art or documenting things from my own life. I’ve become more interested in questions of form than questions of genre. Genre is a way to categorize things and the categorization eventually felt like it was limiting me. Form is what the writing is actually doing, and I think instead about what the actual form is, what prose actually is, what a fragment actually is, and how those things operate as form.
As a teacher, you meet these young writers, some of whom are very much decided that they are going to Columbia to write one specific genre. For writers still trying to hone their craft, do you encourage writing in hybridity? What advice on hybridity do you have for young writers?
The best thing we can do as writers is to explore broadly and explore our own passions. We need to be looking at as many broad approaches to writing and art as we can. And while we’re doing that, we need to also be pursuing our own passions. For some writers, the passion very well could be a narrative short story or sonnets. For a lot of writers, though, the passions and the interests aren’t so intimately tied to questions of genre and form and hybridity; the question really is more of, you know, what does it mean to be a white person writing in this racially fucked up society that we now have? Or what does it mean to be writing a long project? Or what does it mean to be writing something that blends the personal with cultural criticism? Whatever the questions are that we’re interested in, if we pursue those broadly, then we get more from it. So if you’re thinking about writing about race, and you’re only looking at people writing about race in the genre that you happen to be writing in right now, you’re going to get a very slim slice of things. But if you look at those questions as they are approached in a multitude of genres and different time periods, nationalities, languages, and literary traditions, then you learn a lot more and your writing becomes a lot more exciting.
How has dealing with so many younger writers and artists helped you confront young artist T that entered the Academy and wanted to write Syzygy, Beauty? If you were to have who you were five or ten years ago come into your class, what would be some advice that you would have for your younger self?
When I was younger, I thought that I could go into the classroom and the professor or the books or other students had some knowledge and I could wrap my head around it and that knowledge would be mine and I could get out. I really thought this. Especially when encountering work that seems new or experimental, my impulse was to be like, I need to figure this out, I have to learn how to do this, I have to learn how to read this. And now, I think of it much differently. I believe that we all have a lot of knowledge available to us. We have the knowledge that we’ve accumulated as people living in the world. We also have the knowledge that we acquire by reading and talking to others. I don’t think the goal is so much to figure out a particular thing as it is to encounter a piece of writing—or whatever the case may be—and respond to it as a person and then to learn more about ourselves and about the writing through that process. The goal is to figure out what our responses are—what’s exciting to us, what’s challenging to us, and trusting that we have the skills to engage that. And again, not a literary analysis, but a true engagement with it as we would to another artist or writer. That shift has been really important to me and I hope to be able to offer that to other people.
From the classes I’ve taken with you, I think you do a wonderful job. Thank you so much for your time.
Ayla Maisey is currently a nonfiction student at Columbia College Chicago. Her work has appeared in Brainchild, Habitat, and The Lab Review.