Featured Friday | Meet Elena Passarello

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Today we feature writer and actress, Elena Passarello. Read more about this dynamic woman below: 

Fem: You seem to write about a huge variety of topics; how do you decide what to write about? How do you decide what’s worth writing about?

Elena Passarello: I suppose I decide to write about things that pique my interest, and I figure out whether or not that thing is worth writing about by putting it through the following long and frustrating process, which I recommend to nobody.

I allow myself a long time to research widely. I’m a firm believer both in research wormholes and in widening the scope of an essay to leave room for surprise. Often, I’ll have sketches for what an essay is going to be and, in the process of preparing the work, I’ll find a much more compelling idea, fact, or story. That, then, becomes the engine of the piece. That labyrinthine process is maddening, and it requires something messier and more uncontrollable than discipline.

I work on these giant sheets of paper that are almost the size of my writing table. I use them to record all the avenues and tangents of thought or research that I move through in search of an essay, and then, once I think I’ve investigated all I need to (or three times what I needed to), those sheets become a map to stitch the essay together. It’s not uncommon for an essay to take a couple months, with 90% of the work on the cutting room floor at the end.

F: Have you always been drawn to nonfiction? What drew you to the genre?

EP: Early on, in high school and stuff, I liked the idea of an essayist’s narrative voice being a thing I could access in a real life person. It’s one thing to have Benjy Compson, fictional character, talk to you on the page, but it’s another thing to read Joan Didion, nonfiction essayist, who I knew was walking around, being Didionic, while I lay in my teenage room reading “On Self Respect.” That realness interests me less now, but that’s where it began.

I think I stick with nonfiction because A) I can’t write anything else and B) I’ve always loved frames and fences. My imagination does well in them. I think it’s one of the things that drew me to the theater, because an actor’s creative product arrives via her ability to make a performance from within the parameters of a script, a director’s vision, and a design concept. Each essay’s relationship to fact is that framework for me when I’m writing. I took a fiction workshop in grad school and I never had any idea what was going to happen next. I kept running to my (playwright) boyfriend and asking how to move the characters I’d invented around the page. With nonfiction, that’s never the case. The framework wakes my imagination up and sets it buzzing in its little cage.

F: How do you balance emotions and logic in your writing, especially when it comes to experiences that are very much steeped in emotion?

EP: Well, I think emotions are a kind of logic. They’re definitely a kind of rhetoric. And I could be wrong, but I don’t think a balance, or even a separation of the two, takes up much brain space when I’m making an essay. I don’t encounter subjects and label them according to their emotional content. Contemporary culture pays too much attention to emotion as a driving force of art-making, in my opinion. Maybe I’m just afraid of feelings, but I’ve never been part of that “I just want to make work that makes people feel” set. Did Emerson say that? Did Baldwin? Is feeling discussed in terms of John Sullivan or Geoff Dyer? I dunno, maybe it is, but it’s not a conscious goal for me. So “Steeped in emotion” is a trope I shy away from, though I do think as a contemporary writer, especially a female one, I am often hustled back toward it.

But I owe you a more constructive answer than that. For me, essaying is more about the research I’ve uncovered, the questions I want to ask, and the best ways to map those things with music and voice. Some pieces just want an anthemic, elegiac engine underneath—like the story of how the cuckoo learns to make his song against all odds—while others want a cobbling together of planks and items in a colder package—like an essay I just finished about man-eating crocodiles.

F: Do you ever run into topics that you want to write about, but don’t feel ready to write about quite yet?

EP: I’ve always wanted to write an essay inspired by Montaigne’s “Apology for Raymond Sebond” (talk about an essay steeped in emotional content!) and by my history of stilted, stunted friendships with women. I think attacking it will require personal clarity, scholarship, and some downright dangerous thinking. About once a year I doodle a little about it, reread the “Apology,” and then think “Hmmm. Maybe next year.”

F: Do you think that your writing is shaped by your identity/identities?

EP: My first languages—the practices that got me looking out and into the world—were music and theater. In high school, I played in orchestras around Georgia and I had this wonderful private teacher (Hi, Mr. Goodwin!) who took me to play with his symphony and gave me CDs and things to listen to, and I think that education has made me a sonic writer. And then acting and performing are very alive in my work. I like to write about the body enacting a performance, and the anxieties of performance, and the lonely spectacle that is putting on a show for a crowd. Performance and sound have also, I think, made me a very loud writer, and perhaps not a very subtle one. I’m usually playing to the rafters, amplifying gestures, opting for the operatic take on a subject.

F: What writers influence your essays?

EP: Classic-style answer: April Freely, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Zach Schomburg, Sarah Ruhl, the Jacobean playwrights.

Cheesy-style answer: The writers in my life. Cheesy but true! I use social media a lot, and my network there is always reading and linking and talking process and celebrating. I get so many ideas from that network of writers, and their enthusiasm just galvanizes my own urge to work. I know a lot of people are down on Twitter and Tumblr, but I consider those sites a blessing. So much talent and generosity and nimble thinking happen on those networks! There’s always someone on there doing something cool, quoting something cool, freaking out, offering support, asking a question that gets my mind going.

And then there are the writers I come across in my in-the-flesh life. I love visiting colleges and writing programs and meeting new-to-me writers—students and faculty both—and talking shop. Meeting them is often a terrific re-set button for me. Usually on the plane ride home, I’m scribbling notes or making plans to edit pieces based on the way the visit has charged me up.

It’s the same with my glorious students at Oregon State, and in the low-res MFA program at Murray State. I get as much juice talking shop with my thesis students as whatever awesome essayist I check out of the library for the purpose of grilling my aesthetic cheese.

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Elena Passarello is an assistant professor of English at Oregon State University. She is a recent recipient of the Whiting Award and her first book of essays, Let Me Clear My Throat, is available now.

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