Today’s featured writer: Michele Filgate
The featured writing: “Possessed” published at Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts.
I’m thrilled to feature Michele Filgate and her gorgeous essay “Possessed” today. This is a bit of a gamble because Michele’s essay is published in the print edition of the literary journal Gulf Coast out of the University of Houston’s English department. While Gulf Coast does publish online exclusives, the content in their biannual print journal (which features 250+ pages of writing from both emerging and established writers and full-page color artwork) is not normally posted online. But for a limited time, you can read selections from issue 28.1 Winter/Spring 2016 at their website. I don’t know how long or short this limited time will be—thus the gamble on my promoting Michele’s essay via an online link—so hurry and read it while you can; you don’t want to miss this essay. It is nothing short of stunning. But if you miss out on the online posting, you can purchase a print edition at Gulf Coast and enjoy the many quality writers they publish.
“Possessed” is a segmented lyric essay in seven parts about a woman who, with her partner, adopts a sensitive dog from a shelter, in what appears to be a stab at saving their troubled relationship, only she has to leave the dog once the relationship comes to an end. It’s also a meditation on possession. About the things we possess and how those things, accumulated throughout life, possess us. Like anxiety. Or depression. Or the way a dog can possess a person’s heart and how that can lead to gluttonous grief. It is also about a writer trying to make sense of her profound loss and seeking a way to process her experience. In the essay, Michele writes:
How many writers have sliced their hearts into confetti and thrown the pieces into the wind? Never sure of where the bits will fall. Hoping that by deconstructing, one can make some kind of sense out of it.
From interviewing Michele, I get a sense that the above quote reflects her process in the writing of “Possessed.” She sliced open her heart and made an attempt, deconstructing towards some sort of answer or resolution. Yet the final product does not reflect this at all; the essay comes together brilliantly, and rather, it reflects essaying at its very best. In addition, there are so many exquisite phrases and achingly beautiful sections of this essay, I had trouble choosing what to quote. Here is a passage to entice you:
Imagine, if you will, that what you possess, what you used to possess, what you will possess possesses you, and you need some kind of emotional exorcist to release you from the burden of carrying so many things around.
A dog is not a possession. It’s a living thing that snuggles up to you on cold winter nights, curled in a ball underneath the blanket, occasionally licking your shin. It’s a creature that looks at you in a way that says, I know you’re sad. I’m sad, too. Let’s be sad together.
Birdie possesses my heart.
Things that possess us weigh just as heavily as the possessions themselves. The absence of the thing that possesses us replaces the actual possession, and that absence grows and grows until it is lodged and stuck. It’s amazing that we’re not crippled by what we’ve had and lost.
Merely quoting from this essay is insufficient to relay the masterful rendering of the whole, and that’s why I implore you to go now, while you have a chance, and read this essay!
Michele Filgate is a contributing editor at Literary Hub and VP/Awards for the National Book Critics Circle. Her work has appeared in Refinery29, Slice, The Paris Review Daily, Tin House, Gulf Coast, The Rumpus, Salon, Interview Magazine, Buzzfeed, The Barnes & Noble Review, Poets & Writers, The Boston Globe, Fine Books & Collections Magazine, DAME Magazine, Biographile, The Brooklyn Quarterly, Time Out New York, People, The Daily Beast, O, The Oprah Magazine, Men’s Journal, Vulture, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Capital New York, The Star Tribune, Bookslut, The Quarterly Conversation, The Brooklyn Rail, and other publications. For seven years she worked as an events coordinator at several different independent bookstores: first at RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, NH; then at McNally Jackson in Manhattan; and finally at Community Bookstore in Brooklyn. Michele was the producer of a segment for the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric called “Assignment America” and has also produced literary segments for “Word of Mouth” on New Hampshire Public Radio. She teaches creative nonfiction for The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop and Catapult.
A few questions for Michele:
Writing and publishing creative nonfiction that has to do with personal loss can have a two-fold effect. On the one hand, it can be healing, on the other, scary and difficult. The subject matter in “Possessed“—to leave a beloved animal friend behind—is heart wrenching. How difficult was it for you to write this piece? Can you speak about your process in writing this essay?
I’ve tried (and failed) to write about this subject many times before. I think this is the most difficult essay I’ve ever written, to be honest. I didn’t know what I wanted to say until I said it. And that required many revisions and lots of time writing and deleting and writing and deleting. Originally, my friend approached me about writing a piece for Gulf Coast that dealt with women and books. That ended up being part of the essay, but not the entire thing. It went in a completely different direction.
Besides your own essays and articles, you actively publish reviews, interviews, and author profiles, as well as teach, participate in readings, and serve as a contributing editor, among other things. How do you balance and integrate all these literary endeavors with your own writing? Do you find that one takes precedence over others?
Balance? What is that? Ha! I go to yoga twice a week and I run three times a week, and I guess part of the reason I do both is because I’m always seeking those moments of either reflection or the ability to turn my brain off. I am probably the worst person at balancing that I know. I take on tons of projects, am always stressed out, and don’t know how to relax. I watch TV when I should be writing. I chat with friends on Facebook when I should be writing. I clean the dishes when I should be writing. Anxiety and guilt loom large in my life, and I’m constantly fighting both by either blatantly ignoring my to-do list or saying “Fuck it” and sitting down and writing. Once I start, I feel so much better. If only I could bottle that productive feeling up and carry it with me during the other moments in my life.
Even though you make your living from your literary skills, your participation in so many endeavors denotes you are an exemplary literary citizen. Can you speak to the notion of literary citizenship? What does it mean to you? How important of a role does it play in your life?
Being a literary citizen means a different thing when you’re also a writer. I know some exemplary literary citizens who aren’t writers. They are generous, passionate readers who spend a lot of their time promoting the work of others. I think being a literary citizen and a writer means that you value other writers’ work just as much as you value your own. That doesn’t mean you have to like it. You can even give the book a bad review in a newspaper. But it means that you take the work seriously, you do what you can to tell the world about books you love and believe in, and you participate in the literary conversation. You attend author readings and write recommendation letters for friends who are applying for fellowships and do what you can to make the literary world inclusive.
Literary Hub recently announced you will be curating Red Ink, a series on women writers in Brooklyn, New York. Can you tell us more about Red Ink? What is your goal for the series, how did it come about, and will it reach beyond the local vicinity of Brooklyn?
I hope it reaches beyond Brooklyn! That’s why I’ve asked Lit Hub to co-sponsor it. They will publish edited transcripts of the events. I ran events at indie bookstores for seven years before leaving to focus on my writing career. But once an events coordinator, always a coordinator, I suppose. I created Red Ink because I love curating and moderating conversations between smart writers, and also because I wanted to focus on women writers, past and present. The reason I chose BookCourt is because it’s my local indie, and they host a ton of great events. The first one is on May 9th at 7pm: “Finding Solitude in a Noisy World” featuring Katherine Towler (The Penny Poet of Portsmouth), Angela Flournoy (The Turner House), Molly Crabapple (Drawing Blood), Leslie Jamison (The Empathy Exams), and Valeria Luiselli (The Story of My Teeth).
Who are some of your favorite authors who have influenced your work? What impact have they had on your writing?
It’s impossible to list all of them, but some of my very favorite writers include Virginia Woolf, Lidia Yuknavitch, Rebecca Solnit, Cheryl Strayed, Clarice Lispector, Paul Harding, Fernando Pessoa, and George Eliot. I write because their words have helped shape me; they’ve made it possible for me to find my very own shape, if that makes sense.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Don’t compare yourself to others. You’ll paralyze yourself if you do that. You can spend all of your time fretting and finding reasons not to write, or you can get your ass in a chair and open a blank Word document. You can type one word, and then another, and then maybe another. And eventually if you write enough words (and they can be very middling, bad, boring words) something beautiful will emerge in the middle of all of that muck.