“Most of us do things that defy explanation and logical motivation”: A Conversation with Rebecca van LaerBy Shannon McLeod
October 11, 2022
Last night I discussed the fear of poetry with a group of other prose writers. Poems seem to evoke a more common anxiety than other mediums. Rebecca van Laer is a poet-turned-prose writer, and in her novella How to Adjust to the Dark the reader gets to glimpse inside the mind of a poet. We read through the main character Charlotte’s pursuits and failures in love, alongside the character’s own poems, interwoven with literary self-analysis. How to Adjust to the Dark is compelling in its voice and poetic prose, its painfully-relatable romantic interactions, as well as how it makes transparent a writer’s relationship to her writing. I felt seen by Charlotte’s experiences, in which writing is both a life raft and a burden. I spoke with Rebecca van Laer about her history with writing, form, disappointment, and the process that went into her beautiful debut.
As a prose writer for whom poetry holds a lot of mystery, I felt like How To Adjust to the Dark was a really rich and unique reading experience in that you get to hear the narrator’s analysis and interrogation of her own poetry. I found that really fascinating, like I got these glimpses into the mind of a poet alongside her narrative.
Can you tell me about how you came from a poetry background into becoming a prose writer and how your new novella reflects that journey?
When I took my first creative writing class, I had grand notions of being a writer even though I’d never done more than write in my LiveJournal. As we started to get assignments, I found that writing fiction required a leap of empathy that was quite challenging. Poetry was easier, because I had implicit permission to write from a point of view close to my own. As I began to take more poetry workshops, writing within formal constraints helped me to develop my skills without the complete, billowing freedom of prose. (Within academia, I didn’t have early exposure to either non-lyric poetry or to autofiction, so I didn’t know the full range of possibility in either genre—or in the overlap between them.)
Because of that, it took a while to develop the confidence to try and create my own structure within prose. The novella is in some ways about that—Charlotte looks back on the simultaneous safety and constriction of writing within a received set of assignments and forms, and the book itself shows her (and me) stretching beyond that.
You’ve shifted form, but also the environment in which you write. During the pandemic you moved from Brooklyn to upstate New York. Has your new home affected your writing life?
On the subject of imaginative leaps, I think I’ve wanted to be an environmental writer since around the time I wrapped up the first draft of HTATTD. Some people accomplish that both living in and writing about cities, but in my early attempts, my urbanite characters were tormented by the specter of climate change in an abstract, theoretical way. Moving upstate has changed my daily life pretty significantly; I have chickens and bees and a garden, and I can spend much more time outside. While the existential experience of living with climate change is a rich well to draw on for fiction, my new set of interactions with creatures, plants, and fungi has given me more concrete conduits for writing about the natural world and its demise.
With that, I must ask, what are you working on now? And what are your hopes for future writing?
I’m working on a novel about a narrator who terminates a planned pregnancy and, in the aftermath—including a breakup with her long-term partner and an anxiety spiral of what the future now holds—flees to a commune.
I’d like to see this book reach a wide audience. Beyond that, I hope to continue to grow and to work through my own questions about the world through my writing (and to help readers do the same).
We’ve shared a similar publication path in that both of our books were supposed to be released several years ago with another press, which then folded and basically ghosted us. Did that experience shape this book or the way you went about launching it? Along those lines, do you think that disappointment plays an important role in a writer’s development? Does disappointment or obstacles bear any gifts to an artist?
Whew! Yes. When the book was first accepted by that press, I had the feeling that my life had changed, but it was a passive feeling. I thought that the press’ seal of approval and its marketing efforts would be enough to make it a success (or enough of a success). When we got ghosted, it felt devastating, because I was psychically relying on that external validation.
When I decided to revise the book and submit it to LDP, it was with a very different attitude—I knew I needed to be fully behind the book and do as much as I could myself to raise awareness.
If, after disappointment, you know that you still have more books and writing in you, that is a great gift. There has to be a motivating force beyond external accolades, I think. Because external accolades can never really satisfy you. Just look at Sally Rooney!
Your day job involves writing as well. I’ve always wondered what that would be like to compartmentalize writing for work versus writing for the self. Do you find that writing copy draws from the same well as your fiction writing? Is there anything you do to protect your creative energy or mentally shift gears from writing for work to working on your own writing projects?
When I started writing copy close to three years ago, I sometimes wrote 6,000 words a day of blog content, and this was in a strange way very liberating. Before that, writing 500 or 1000 words towards my own project in a given morning had felt like plenty. Copy came with a lot less pressure, and freed from it, I realized I had many, many more words in me. The well was deeper than I had realized. As I progressed a bit in my career, I learned to dedicate more of those words to my own book and stories.
I usually start the day with my own writing, and I write without thinking too much of my audience. Now, I work for a single company rather than an agency, so I write for one specific audience (very happily, it’s writers!), but the writing is much more dictated by their needs than by my obsessions. So it’s a pretty smooth transition, and in a lot of ways, it helps me remind myself that I can always eek out a few more words (if I want to or need to!).
That’s so encouraging to hear. Can you talk about the ways you continue to learn and grow as a writer? I often read about authors discussing their MFA experiences but for those who never got an MFA or are years past that experience, I’m interested to hear how they continue to sharpen their craft.
Since I spent one year in an MFA program in poetry, I don’t think it helped me much with the craft of fiction! In the past few years, I’ve taken two fiction workshops, both of which were great, but most of my learning comes from reading.
In one of those workshops, Bud Smith told us that if we’re jealous of something—if there’s something we think someone else does well but that we can’t—we should try it! I think that’s great advice.
I try to think about the writers I admire and then channel the specific thing I feel I haven’t mastered or can’t do at all. I just re-read (most of) D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow because the characters’ internal torment, their sense of thwartedness and their inability to fully love those they love are all rendered very beautifully, with almost no dialogue, and from a third person POV. I’m trying to bring more of that into my current project.
What’s something you think writers tend to pay too much attention to? On the flip side, what’s something writers pay too little attention to?
I think writers pay too much attention to developing their character’s backstories for the purpose of “believability” and “motivation.” I think writers spend too little time thinking about what their work is arguing.
This is probably a vastly unpopular opinion, and is deeply shaped by both my scholarly background and wish to find the argument in everything, plus my sense that most of us do things that defy explanation and logical motivation all of the time. (I often think that writing itself is one of those things.)
I love those answers. And yes, choosing to write fiction does seem to defy logic!
I’ve always thought it’d be funny to ask this question and hear a writer’s answer: What’s the least impressive thing about you?
Oh god, where to start? For one, I can’t rollerskate. Also, I am a bad sport—I get very upset and angry when I’m losing at, say, a board game, even if it’s mostly a game of chance.
Click here to purchase a copy of How to Adjust to the Dark.
Rebecca van Laer’s writing appears in TriQuarterly, Joyland, Columbia Journal, The Florida Review, Salamander, Hobart, Monkeybicycle, the Ploughshares blog, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She holds a PhD in English from Brown University, where she studied queer and feminist autobiography. She lives in the Hudson Valley.
Rebecca van Laer is an Assistant Professor at the University of California, Riverside’s Department of Cognitive Science. Her research focuses on how people think about and make sense of the natural world. Here you check this https://www.propainterswhangarei.co.nz/ and get more new things for construction. Her 2015 book “Thinking in Pictures: A New Way of Seeing What You Think” explores our common misunderstanding of why we do things, including why people make choices, act oddly or respond to situations in ways that appear illogical.