Give Us More To See: Elena Passarello and the Creative Process

I once studied with a workshop leader who was (and I imagine still is) adamant that no good writing can come from having “an idea for a story”—that anything compelling had to come from a deeper heart/self/dreamspace. I took issue with this largely for its slippery-slope implications, which were enforced in workshop. Though we were assured of cultish future tiers of dream-ability, as novices we weren’t to write from anything but direct personal experience—which, aside from the creative hobbling of not being able to write characters outside our own bodies and biographies, meant that it was up to our teacher to diagnose, aloud and on the fly, which drafts and characters he felt expressed our “authentic selves” and which did not. (Over the course of the workshop this went badly in a grab-bag of ways, some foreseeable and some surprising; it never went well.)

But at least part of my issue with the system was just semantic—it sometimes seemed that this teacher was just distinguishing between good and bad “ideas,” rather than a material difference between thoughtful composition and dream-stories bubbling up from the unconscious. Given benefit of the doubt, this is an easier argument to swallow—of course there are stories worth writing and those that aren’t, drafts that amount to something meaningful and those that never quite do. Last week I heard Elena Passarello tackle this question in terms more useful and less prescriptive, and allowing space for imaginative and empathetic work rather than just self-description.

Passarello’s new book, Animals Strike Curious Poses, is a collection of essays about animals throughout (pre-)history that have been named and immortalized by humans. It’s an incredible collection, and like her previous book Let Me Clear My Throat it describes a remarkably wide swath of the human experience given its tight theme. During a Q&A at Greenlight Bookstore, Passarello talked about the essayist’s ongoing charge to find what she called a “third layer,” essentially a justification for her work’s existence distinct from her research. She described the need to move beyond the stages of finding first interesting facts, then interesting parallels between facts—beyond the stage of the writing process she summarized as pointing at something cool and saying, “Isn’t this cool?!” (It is cool that we sent a spider to space; it is cool that the public and the astronauts got attached to her; it isn’t essay-worthy until one reads between the lines of the historical record enough to credibly claim (to great effect) that spider and astronaut became more like one another in space, with humans earthbound and orbital each able to relate more easily to Arabella than to one another.) I’m not an essayist, but I write a lot of historical and/or speculative fiction, and I can easily relate to Passarello’s process—and its frustrations, as when you can’t move beyond the “isn’t this cool?!” stage but whatever you’ve found is just so cool. On those occasions, denial can be hard to escape.

This week I saw the Hudson Theater production of Sunday in the Park with George and read Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Both were incredible, and with Passarello’s comments on my mind it occurred to me that it’s possible that neither work would have passed muster in my old teacher's workshop—two high-concept works of fictional biography, distant historical record prodded and expanded into whole-cloth creation through research and riffing and imagining a diversity of experiences. Though I’m sure he’d see the merit in the finished products (I’ll give him that), it’s unlikely that our teacher would have let early drafts out of the gate in workshop—for failing the arbitrary/semantic sniff test of beginning as an “idea” rather than a “dream.” (I know that in both works there’s plenty that could be described as stream-of-consciousness or dreamspace narration. But in neither does an arbitrary partition come down between thought and feeling—the two enrich each other, even/especially by conflict.)

This post itself wouldn’t pass Passarello’s own "third-layer" test, as all I’m really doing here is pointing out how cool it is that, if and when we hit a workshop that doesn't work for us, we aren’t required to buy into its prescriptive process. Any writing process that produces thoughtful, responsible, and meaningful work earns its use. If the third layer is there, it's there.