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Quick Q&A with “…Inappropriate” author Daniel Nester

dnester

Daniel Nester

I met Daniel Nester last February at an AWP panel we shared on the subject of Web 2.0 for the literary crowd. He’s not only a master of literary Internet integration but a funny guy and great writer. To launch this new monthly feature, Quick Q&A, I open with the author of the very recently launched nonfiction book, How to Be Inappropriate. 

 

[Note to fans, inappropriati, and would-be nuisances: When you buy a copy of HTBI and send this PDF coupon, along with the book, to Daniel Nester’s home, he will not only sign your book and return it to you, but include an official How to Be Inappropriate whoopee cushion in the bargain. That’s right: inflate one of these puppies and let the faux farts fly! While supplies last.  Address: Daniel Nester/HTBI, 170 Adams Street, Delmar, NY 12054]  

QUICK Q&A with Daniel Nester

Writer’s Rainbow:  You reference a good deal of pop culture in your essays. Advice previously given to writers has typically discouraged the mentioning the artifacts of popular culture in their works. Does this “rule” no longer apply? What would you say to writers who want to explore pop culture themes in their own work?

Daniel Nester: Who gives this crappy advice? I have climbed this mountain already. Back in graduate poetry school, my workshop members—not by teachers, mind you, but a good-sized cohort of students—considered allusions or mentions of popular culture as somehow beneath the endeavor of writing a poem. What a lot of us did back then—this is 15 years ago—was to write cross-genre-type pieces that would get us off the poetry hook, what I call the bugaboo of addressing the ages.  I remember one night that I was workshopping a piece that mentions—just mentions—the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album.  And there were people who said the mention “took them out” of the poem, that a poem is meant to be forever, but the Beach Boys is somehow fleeting. Set aside that Pet Sounds is one of the landmark works of art of the 20th Century; this was the mindset.
 
Then the late Williams Matthews, filling in for Galway Kinnell that evening, took a stab at the issue. “What did posterity do for us lately?” It just filled me with joy.  Ever since that night, I didn’t worry about whether a piece of writing was going to be immortal because it mentions power ballads.  So that’s my advice is: Go ahead and talk about your world, continue your “search for local objects” as William Carlos Williams calls it.  And don’t worry about whether your work is above or beneath or highbrow or lowbrow.  That’s for other, far more fastidious and precise people to decide.
 
WR: Of course, there are other rules, about “polite living,” that you also—perhaps wantonly?—violate as the author of How to Be Inappropriate (such as, “Do not discuss body parts in mixed company”). It would be easy for the casual reader to assume that all you really want to do with this book is shock them, with otherwise socially unacceptable content, through the use of humor. Could you explain some of the other impulses that led you to write this book? 

DN: It’s not a primary intention to shock, although I can see that happening and that’s fine. It gets people’s attention.  What I wanted to do with this book, at least in part, is to write honestly about moments that I always talk about: embarrassing moments, human moments, too-much-information moments.  It’s those moments when I feel the most alive, frankly.  They’re pastoral in the sense that everyone has moments when they feel prone or naked or ambiguous.  The essay I wrote on mooning, I think, is a good example of this.  Butts are funny, sure, and showing one’s butt to another person is a ritualized practice that spans millennia. There’s more than meets the eye when we talk about naked assplay. It’s a subject that should be interrogated as seriously as movements of symphonies.
 
WR: You’re an assistant professor of English specializing in creative nonfiction at The College of St. Rose in Albany, NY. Do you teach specific themes in your classes that advocate the kind of risk-taking that regularly inhabits your own writing?
 
DN: Yes and no. Of course, I don’t think it’s necessarily taking risks to write about what most embarrasses you, or makes you feel the most tender, or feels the most wrong or heretical. It’s an avenue that needs to be explored, however, and at least presented as an option. Whether one writes about, say, a sexual proclivity in detailed language is not everyone’s cup of tea, for sure; the challenge, it seems to me, is if a writer wants to write about it one some level without going all brass tacks.  That’s usually the case, actually.
 
And that’s why I use the term T.S. Eliot made famous: objective correlative.  If you have a crush on that dude in the other class, or if you have problems with your girlfriend, and you don’t want to write about it, fine.  But if you do, then you have other options than simply describing the situation.  You can describe the scene, the sky, the weight of your stomach.
 
I’ll tell you a story.  One day we were workshopping a student’s memoir piece.  It was a conversation between she and her boyfriend about moving in together to another town, far from college, to be near his work.  This student had a great ear for dialogue; there was back-and-forth, there was some narration, but it was mostly dialogue.  And we all knew it needed something more.
 
So I asked the student, “Where was this discussion happening?” And she paused to think, and then her cheeks turned read, so I knew something was up.  “It happened in the shower,” she said. And I just so appreciated that moment: they were literally and metaphorically naked while this Big Talk was going down! Her revisions were just awesome.  She’s holding her pink razor while she presented her reservations about moving, there’s water, they hand each other towels.  Tiny moments, intimate moments. 
 
WR: Writers are often fearful that someone will find old drafts of their work and discover they’re not as stellar as, say, their breakout novel suggests. However, at your
website, you happily display all the projects you’d once attempted but never brought to a successful conclusion. Why did you do this, and what can other writers learn from it?
 
DN: I do it because some failures have a certain charm, and sometimes the first idea is the best, or at least the first impulse, or the one people react most to.  I wrote my first book, God Save My Queen, as notes to each song by my favorite rock band, Queen, as I listened to them in chronological order.  I thought I was doing research for some straightforward memoir project, but I found the notes themselves were really the project.  I revised them after that, sure.  But it took me years and years to respect the initial impulses of my writing and then help shepherd it to the final stages. 
 
WR: You not only write creative nonfiction, but poetry and journalism. What would you tell writers who are interested in writing outside their chosen forms?
 
DN: Do it!  Creative nonfiction and journalism have been very, very good to me, as far as publication and teaching opportunities go.  Poetry is my first love, sure; I feel like I am more of a fan now than practitioner.  But I would have never gotten to the kind of writing I do now without writing poetry first. I wish I could say that it’s improved my poems, but I haven’t written one in awhile.  But I am thinking about it. I really am.
 

MORE INFO:
Daniel Nester |
http://www.danielnester.com
Coming this fall: How to Be Inappropriate
http://www.howtobeinappropriate.com
Twitter: @DanielNester
Teaching blog:
http://nestersteaching1.blogspot.com/ 

 

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