A Little Bit Like Magic
Visiting Writer Renee Gladman Talks Genre, Drawing, and Revision
The acoustics in Eliot chapel cause spoken words to expand and linger. Last week’s visiting writer, Renee Gladman, filled the space with excerpts from her first published work, Juice, her fiction series of Ravicka novels, and her book Calamities. The space was not only fitting for the sound, but also echoed visual themes from Gladman’s writing.
Architecture is central to Gladman’s work, and the chapel is beautifully constructed with mahogany arches, high ceilings, and paneled windows warmly lined with lights — a fitting setting to talk about constructions. In the Ravicka series, Gladmann constructs a city in which each house has an invisible, related house. Gladman says, “I wanted a city I could build as I was writing,” and she wanted to make sure there was space for everyone.
Gladman interrogates what it means to be located. The protagonist of Ravicka is searching for a lost house, but in the process of writing, Gladman is the one doing the discovering. What comes next when she writes is always a mystery that she does not know. She lets the words emerge in a delicate unfolding process “a little bit like magic.”
Gladman is also a visual artist, and this visual art follows a similar process of emergence. In asking the question, “How do words emerge out of the body?” Gladman turned to art because our imaginations flow in ways that are non linear, unlike the linearity of lines of a book or syntax. Drawing shows the inner energy of a paragraph in just mechanics, not semantics.
Visual arts and architecture are just two of many other disciplines that Gladman delves into, and that consequently influence her writing. She notes the importance of interdisciplinary work, and that “language from other disciplines can explode your own.” Currently, she is creating a textual complement to music, working with avant-garde, classical musicians. Gladman is interested in the idea of crossing boundaries and thresholds, whether it be discipline or identity. Gender is one way she explores this in her work, as the main character in the Ravicka series is gender fluid. Gladman asked, “What would it mean to have [gender] flicker without it being confusing to the character?”
Gladman does not feel compelled to stick to conventions such as gender or genre. For example, the genre of Calamities is somewhat indiscernible, as it could be poetry or prose and does not have clear exposition. Gladman prioritizes tone over anything else when she writes, and she tries to create something that mirrors her feelings. “I would never try to repair my bewilderment because I think it’s a gift. I would like to work myself around it, into a calamity, a frenzy, then just drop it.” In the Poetry Salon before the reading in the chapel, Gladman read aloud a section from Calamities that talked about writing itself, a topic she reflects on often.
Gladman’s thoughts about writing as an event, a process, an origination are central to her work, and they are central to her work as a teacher at Brown University as well. She remarked, “I like to ask poets and people studying poetry: Where is the poem? On the page? In the sound? Is it an energy event that you can’t necessarily point to? Something that is alive and bigger than the shape of its container?”
Like the poem, Gladman has grown beyond the confines of any container. When a student asked Gladman how she is able to do what she does with experimentation, genre, and writing more generally, Gladman responded that she started in philosophy. But when she realized there were no Southern black lesbians in philosophy, she left the discipline and made her own way as a writer.
Gladman does not work alone, however. She often collaborates with her friend Victoria, the voice reader on Microsoft Word that reads the words back to Gladman during her revision process. Gladman, a presence as riveting and undeniably as multiple as her work, says she dislikes the Microsoft Word voice Vicky, preferring her reliable partner Victoria because she tries harder to get through all the pronunciations. Flow and tone are crucial for Gladman’s work, and partnering with an amorphous sonority gives her insight into how the piece sounds when coming from a different voice.
Gladman’s unusual revision process, her play with genre as a conduit for play with identity, and her creative process of letting words emerge organically all suggest ways to reimagine writing and what you can do with it; whether journalistic, creative, or academic. In fact, Gladman believes we are all engaging in acts of fiction regularly. When asked how fictional she felt, Gladman responded, “I feel less fictional [if I just sit] than if I talk. We are creating a thing when we talk supposed to represent thinking in close proximity. A slip, a little bit behind my language, behind my experience. In a way, being a social being, remembering, [these are] acts of fiction. Trying to put an act into language? Forget it. But yet we do it all the time.”
Both Gladman and her work, then, ask her reader to consider how fictional they are, or how nonfictional fiction can be.