In the March 25 issue of The New Yorker, Giles Harvey wrote A Critic at Large piece called “Cry Me a River: The rise of the failure memoir” in which he says, “The formula is simple: when all else fails write about your failure.” He then proceeded along in a fine rant against several books by men who apparently have little insight into the reasons they might have failed.
I found it amusing to read this article just after I’d finished reading The Next Scott Nadelson: A Life in Progress for the second time. Scott’s book, which consists of fifteen pieces clustered in five sections that explore distinct times in his life and places where he lived, is hardly about failure, though the chances that it will end up that way might seem touch-and-go in the early sections. Most of the work was previously published in prestigious journals and I can imagine the editors at Post Road and Iron Horse Literary Review, assuming they are men, clapping their hands as they read his submissions, saying, “Wow, read this. Fascinating. I’m damn glad it happened to him, not me.”
It’s obvious that Scott Nadelson was always a decent fellow, perhaps too decent and more than a bit naïve, before his fiancé ran off with Donny Manicotti just after the wedding invitations had been mailed, while his cat was dying and the brakes on his car were failing. The telling of these circumstances, their effect on his psyche and his hard work in extricating himself, make up the bulk of the first two sections of the book and are the flashy incidents that might well have intrigued those journal editors. However, interwoven in all this, there is a fascinating dip into Scott’s first full-time job with an organization that promotes readings for authors. He neatly captures the chilly attitude toward these human commodities that many of the staff display, along with his insights about Stephen Jay Gould, Edward Albee and Edna O’Brien as he shepherded them around before and after their performances.
“The Two Lances; Or, Self-Portrait with Flames” takes place in a “Jewish sleep-away camp in the Poconos” and fully exposes the young Scott’s embarrassment over his lacks and wants and, to my mind, creates a hero through his observations about two fellow campers: Lance Engleberg’s ability to dismiss the inventive, relentless, bullying by Lance Berman.
Scott Nadelson writes well and he’s genuinely funny as well as sensitive. It seems rare to read about anyone, especially a man, who has so much trouble becoming angry and who automatically puts all the blame for mishaps upon himself. This quality makes reading this book inherently refreshing.
Full disclosure is that years ago I lived near his now-wife before she returned to the West Coast, and I would be to happy to live near both of them today, especially if I could hear what the real Scott Nadelson is thinking about and how his students are doing.
MS: I’m rarely interested in writing techniques, but since many chapters of The Real Scott Nadelson have been published as discrete pieces in a variety of journals, I am curious about how you decided on this strategy? Was it useful in getting the memoir published? For the most part, I find your writing fluid and calm, allowing me to relax into it, as if I am listening to a nice guy talking about how he bumbled along, ignoring evidence that he was making some pretty poor choices. Would you write a bit about constructing/developing this style?
SN: I’ve always found short-form writing—the short story and the essay—most natural to my material. Trying to fit my experience of the world into a long narrative arc always feels forced or artificial. I haven’t had a terribly dramatic life, but I’ve gone through plenty of weird moments that make for interesting (I hope) briefer narratives. I started this book the way I usually start, without much idea of where it was going; I didn’t really know I was writing a book until I’d written three or four pieces that spoke to each other thematically, particularly about the slipperiness of identity and the tension between fear and desire. And then I just kept trying to recall other moments in my life that resonated, and wrote each piece on its own terms, at the same time thinking about how it would add a new element to the whole. Then, when I had about twenty essays, I began arranging them until a larger arc did emerge—a retreat from the world and a re-emergence—though maybe not the kind of arc you see in many memoirs with a clear beginning, middle, and end.
I can’t say working in this way necessarily helped get the book published, though it was gratifying to have the individual pieces first appear in journals I admire. When I began testing out the waters to get the book published, sending it first to a few literary agents, the response wasn’t terribly enthusiastic: agents wanted to see a single narrative line, with a clear arc, something readers expect, maybe, or something with distinct resolution. What they didn’t want was something that looked like an essay collection, because essay collections don’t sell. But I have been very fortunate to be working with the same small press—Hawthorne Books—for ten years now, and they very enthusiastically took the book and have been promoting it like crazy.
I’m glad to hear that you found the voice a disarming one. That was certainly something I was aiming for as I wrote, a voice that was conversational and companionable, that allows a reader to feel close to the narrator even as he dramatizes his various blunders and blindnesses. I think that voice was necessary for the comedy in the book as well as for creating intimacy. Storytelling is a kind of seduction, and for different stories we need different kinds of voices to seduce us; sometimes we want a voice that challenges us, and sometimes we want one that whispers in our ear. In this case, I felt that a chummy voice was the most appropriate, one that offers a wink and says, Come with me, and let’s have some fun at my expense.
MS: I grew up in a time when the boundaries of gender were less fluid, or at least not displayed as such so readily. It’s been fascinating to watch the change—the frail young student who was a woman a few years earlier, before surgery, or the teacher who had been female, and now identified as male. You write so easily about being a man in his thirties with friends and lovers who were bisexual or lesbians. I imagine editors were particularly interested in your pieces because of this, though I could be wrong. Do you imagine that your relaxed attitude will slowly spread across this country? Do you have a lot of friends or acquaintances who share your perceptions? And writers?
SN: It really is amazing how much has changed over the past twenty years. Certainly when I was in college in the early nineties—my first experience having queer friends—things were a lot different: people had to be careful about who they outed themselves to and often kept a closed circle out of fear of straight people’s reactions and attitudes. Now, especially in urban centers—and maybe especially on the West Coast—it seems that most people have become not only more open-minded but generally less interested in broad categorization than in dealing with individuals on their own terms. And given how much support there has been for same-sex marriage across the country over the past few years, I am quite sure that attitudes really are relaxing. I’m guessing that our understanding of gender will become based increasingly less on expectations that are imposed on us than on what we experience around us.
MS: You also wrote about dickness and the role your penis played in pulling you out of a deep depression. This concept of maleness is familiar to many readers, though you handle it very differently from the old guys. I imagine that this is partly a philosophical decision, but also due to your inherent nature. I’m curious about the comments you might have received about your vulnerable persona and your ability to write with so little conventional bravado.
SN: I’ve always had a slightly ambivalent relationship to masculinity, particularly in its more aggressive and macho forms, though I have to say I have also always been unambiguously straight. This hasn’t always been the most comfortable thing for me personally, but as a writer it provided an exciting tension—being driven by but also being somewhat ashamed of male desire and sexual appetite. The vulnerability that came with writing about these things made me both nervous and giddy as I wrote, especially as I imagined putting this stuff out into the world. I knew pretty early on that I was going for humor, and sometimes outright comedy, and those things require full disclosure, as well as a willingness to embarrass yourself as much as possible. That’s what I love about a comedian like Louis C.K.
I also think self-deprecation comes naturally to me. It’s a part of Jewish culture, of course, and a part of my family’s culture especially; my father has always joked about how many Nadelson men it takes to change a light bulb. So when I found myself writing about being left for a woman who dresses up as a man far manlier than I am, I knew I had to explore my own masculinity, my simultaneous embrace of and discomfort with it.
MS: I was genuinely pleased to read that you actually had a therapist who suggested that there were less expensive ways of expressing anger than kicking a hole in the bathroom door. As someone who has chronically buried anger and had a shitload of therapy, I’m fascinating by both of these topics. Would you please write about them?
SN: Anger has always been the most difficult emotion for me, both expressing it and being on the receiving end of it. It really terrifies me, maybe because it’s such a powerful emotion, one that feels so out of control. My instinct is always to suppress it, which of course is terribly unhealthy, especially when it’s justified. And that was the thing therapy helped me with above all else. I haven’t had a lot of therapy, but the one therapist I did work with was wonderful. She cut straight though all my attempts at evasion and self-delusion. After this break-up I kept blaming myself, telling her all the things I did wrong, and she’d give me this skeptical look and say, “Aren’t you pissed off? Didn’t your fiancée just leave you for someone else a month before your wedding? Isn’t that something to be angry about, no matter what you did wrong?” And when I released the anger I’d been burying, it was excruciating but also exhilarating—I could finally breathe after suffocating for months. And because it’s not an emotion I like to live with, it didn’t last terribly long. Before I knew it, anger was behind me, and I was free to go on with my life.
I wish I could say that I now deal with anger directly whenever it comes up, but it’s still a struggle for me, and I still have to trick myself into expressing it.
MS: We’d like to include the names of the authors and the titles of memoir books that have been meaningful to you. Also, you could write a little bit about why they matter, if you’d like to do that.
SN: Beryl Markham’s West With the Night: sentence for sentence, is simply one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. It’s lyrical, structurally inventive, mysterious, haunting. It also demonstrates how flexible the form can be, how it can accommodate the author/narrator’s imagination: one section is narrated entirely from the perspective of a horse.
The Mystery Guest by Gregoire Bouillier: this one was a direct influence on me as I was writing The Next Scott Nadelson. Bouillier turns a simple experience into a mythic journey, and it’s funny as hell.
The Coldest Winter by Paula Fox: Fox is one of my favorite novelists as well, and this book stands with her best work. It’s spare but penetrating, capturing a particular moment and place—Europe immediately after WWII—and illuminating it from both the view of a young woman in its midst and an old woman trying to understand its place in her life.
MS: Do you have any advice for readers about getting memoirs published? Suggestions? Hints?
SN: I wish I had useful advice. Publishing for me has almost always been a matter of being in the right place at the right time. The best advice I can give is this: work hard, get lucky.