Josh MacIvor-Andersen is an award-winning writer, teacher, and competitive tree climber. He lives in Marquette, Michigan with his family, and teaches at Northern Michigan University.
His essay, "Double Helix," appeared in Issue Forty-Nine of The Collagist.
Here, Josh MacIvor-Andersen talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about how we process loss, internet research, arrivals and endings.
What sparked the idea that made you start writing "Double Helix"?
It really was a triple play of grief. My wife and I lost a baby we very much wanted to have, then my grandfather died, then a student from my small, intimate writing class took her own life. I was upstairs one night trying to grade papers in that dark wake and realized I was feeding on two different strains of background music: one worshipful and hopeful and the other accusatory and violent, surging from the screen in dropped D. That’s when the essaying took hold, or the insistence that, yes, all of these things can start to connect and be in conversation with each other—the processing of loss, the binary of faith and doubt, these two postures toward God. All of it coalesced there and I started pounding keys. Like a baseline in dropped D.
In other words, it’s not that all of these things meant anything, but that night I wanted them to mean something, or needed them to, so I essayed the connections. Or maybe the connections were there and somehow cosmically viable, but I still had to essay them into being. I don’t know. Maybe both are true. Either way, the spark was the juxtaposition of that YouTube feed: Tool clips weaving in with worship clips and my hunger for both.
This, by the way, is exactly where I start feeling excited and pedagogical and want to start riffing on the awesomeness of essays. It’s a sickness. I’ll subdue the urge.
The bookends of this essay feature two singers, Maynard Keenan and Kim Walker-Smith. It can be quite difficult to describe pieces of music in our text-based medium that can't do them justice. How do you rise to this challenge?
The verdict on whether or not I rose to the challenge is perpetually out, I’m afraid. And the idea of doing something “justice” in prose gets us into some complicated theories that I would be in fear and trembling to tackle here.
But it helped that the attempt was based on videos as well as audio. I agree: those whose job it is to review music in fresh and meaningful ways have a hell of a challenge. I mean, how many ways can you actually describe a guitar solo, album after album after album? Crunchy? Fluid? Like seagulls? Like angry sex? I played my hand with “shotgun blast” and “screeching,” both worn enough to make a seasoned music critique wince, I’m sure, although I’m suddenly wondering why I didn’t go with “angry seagull sex,” which works particularly well for Tool.
The videos, though, allowed me to draw from two pools: the visual and auditory. I can’t tell you how many times I watched those videos trying to get the essay right. A hundred times each, easy. So I got a chance to get all meditative about how Maynard Keenan looked—“shocked by a powerful battery,” I wrote—while also trying to get at the quality of his voice which, like much of his art, is strangely beautiful and menacing at the same time. Similarly, it helped to see the crescendo-ing of the Jesus Culture folks over and over again while listening for the musical nuances of climax, which always seem to center on kick drum, crashing cymbals and a catchy refrain.
Anyway, I want to say something here like: all writing involves the same challenge of wrapping language around the ineffable. Trying to write in a fresh way about what it feels like to be in a good mood can be just as challenging as writing about the gravelly quiver in Emmy Lou Harris’s voice. I’m thinking here of Rilke’s attempt to describe the panther, its actual body, but also its imprisonment. Both aspects (the abstract and the concrete) were equally potent in the poem, and I imagine him agonizing similarly over both. In fact, they both gain potency in relationship to the other. It kind of gets us to the very heart of good writing, I guess—the way someone can move us to tears describing the surface of water we’ve seen a hundred thousand times. It’s a never-ending challenge, and one I’m not sure I rose to in this piece, but it was a sincere attempt!
Your musical framing device is made possible by watching online video clips, including what you call "a YouTube moment so intimate it feels like I should give her some privacy." How have the Internet and other recent technological advances changed the content, form, or process of your writing?
For better or worse, the web is central to my process and has been for years. I started writing longhand in a journal while I traveled, but for almost a decade I’ve primarily sat behind a Wi-Fi connected desk with access to everything all the time, which means I can chase every fleeting idea immediately to an internet end. I waste a lot of time falling down unhelpful rabbit holes. Of course I occasionally find the right one, which is super exciting because a whole vascular system of internet marginalia opens up, but I’ve increasingly felt anxious and overwhelmed by that access, and by the resulting acceleration of the writing process. It feels too frenetic. Way back in the day I would try and write entire essays using only the books on my singular bookshelf and a pacing circuit around the room. These days, it feels like I can’t even get started without exhausting an hour or two of internet curiosity, much of which leads nowhere.
I sometimes wonder, though, if internet “abundance,” as Franzen calls it, is more useful for the essayist, forever circling an idea from angle after angle, than for the fiction writer, who creates under “conditions of absorption,” according to Franzen. Yet I find that when I get deep enough into an essay, regardless of subject or how many hours I’ve spent prodding the internet for answers, I, too, need a vacuum of distraction, the discipline to simply not go chase an idea I might have read about once on, say, Slate, and instead stay in whatever that space is I’m trying to create on the page. In the end, absorption is paramount regardless of genre. At least for me.
This piece ends on a quite a meta note, saying of essays (and more, of course) that "you could tinker forever trying to get it perfect. The trick is to know when to simply set it down and let go." Tell us about what it's like to write about writing in your creative works. What are the potential risks and benefits of this decision?
I’m pretty sure a former writing professor told me to never, ever write about my own writing, unless I had a contract to write a book on craft. Somehow that mantra stuck, and generally I’ve stuck to it. I know I preach accordingly at least twice a year when one of my students tries to narrate his or her writer’s block, or otherwise go “meta” on the creative process (“I stare at the blinking cursor and blank page…”) or, god forbid, anthropomorphize a journal or diary.
But as I tried to feel out the ending for this piece, which is about a specific season of grief but also a lifelong wrestling with faith and doubt, I realized that the conversation I had with my student that one day was somehow significant. It was one of those light bulbs. A quickening. The conversation happened a few months before she took her life, and it was difficult to get myself emotionally back into that space but, when I did (having turned off my internet browser), I realized that most of the dialogue was about knowing when to put a piece of writing to rest, which instantly triggered the connection with my waning faith, the baby my wife and I lost, the ways in which we white knuckle so much in life that turns to sand between our fingers. I guess I broke my own rule, but it felt right when it hit the page. It seemed to speak to the handful of threads I had tried to weave and provide the right knot at the end.
It’s tough business, these endings. That final punctuation. In my less than contemplative moments I lean toward exclamation points. I’m trying to learn the simple period. Or even better, the ellipsis…
But to answer your question, finally, I stick with my professor’s advice: avoid going meta on yourself at your writing desk unless Harper Collins has asked for a personal memoir on craft.
What writing projects are you working on now?
Mainly, I’m tethered to a manuscript that has been through so many permutations I want to stab it in the eye. I’ve recently admitted, reluctantly, that it is a spiritual memoir, a story of multiple conversions, but it took a while to land there and I’m not sure it’s ultimately the right form. It could just as easily be (and until recently was) a memoir centered on my years as a professional and competitive tree climber, forever hungry for transcendence: chemical, spiritual, relational, etc.
These things all overlap, of course. And that’s the crux: finding the deepest or most important undercurrent and organizing accordingly.
But I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to arrive, to return, the dynamics of landing or docking or coming to rest. Specifically as they apply to the giant ore ships that float quietly into Upper Harbor here on Lake Superior, having traveled across what can be a very scary body of water. Some, of course, never make it, which leads to a different kind of arrival. I have a feeling I might try and get on one of those ships in order to feel all those thousands of buoyant tons leaning in against the docks. See what starts to connect. I’m still not sure if it might be a book or a long essay, but I like the idea of exhausting the idea creatively.
In the meantime, I plug away on smaller projects (a hybrid fiction/cnf piece about a dream in which I am a heretical youth group leader named Dirk) and blog posts for a great journal called Ruminate.
What did you read in 2013 that you want to recommend to the people?
I enjoyed Tracy Kidder’s recent book on nonfiction craft, “Good Prose,” in which he has a conversation on the page with his long-time editor and friend, Richard Todd. I guess it’s geeky and nostalgic, but ever since I read Steinbeck’s “Journal of a Novel,” I’ve loved the idea of a literary relationship that arcs through one’s creative life. A person who pushes on you both professionally and personally to get the job done, and get it done right.
I’m late to the game on this, but Ann Carson’s “Autobiography of Red” kind of messed me up in a good way. I was going to teach it without having read it for an entry-level mythology class that was cancelled last-minute, so I kept the book in my pocket for a month or two, and it started to feel as if it were something close to scripture, as if I were carrying around one of those old Gideon pocket bibles.
This, too, isn’t new news, but John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Pulphead” is one of the more important releases in creative nonfiction I’ve recently read, and I’ll plug Louise Erdrich’s “Round House” here, too, which was both accessible for students of an entry-level English class but also challenging and ultimately timely, as some of the very issues of jurisdiction and justice at the center of the novel were tackled earlier this year by lawmakers who ended up tweaking the Violence Against Women Act.
I’m currently reading Rachel Kushner’s “The Flamethrowers,” and next on the shelf are Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild,” Bonnie Jo Campbell’s “Once Upon a River,” and Junot Diaz’s “Drown.”
Anyway, cheers, Collagist crew. It’s an honor to be included in the journal, and equally great to be asked for my thoughts. Here’s to 2014!