How well do we really understand ourselves, our motives and actions? And how willing are we to share our true selves with others, to fight through our fear and sense of vulnerability to expose ourselves fully? When Scott Nadelson’s life went off the rails in 2004, he began a two-year process of excavation, scrutinizing his past to understand his present circumstances. He shares that examination with us in his recently published memoir, The Next Scott Nadelson: A Life in Progress, published by Hawthorne Books, a Portland-based independent publisher. In the book, he takes readers on a personal journey that is thoughtful, surprising, occasionally hilarious, and unapologetically human.
Nadelson is the author of three story collections: Aftermath, The Cantor’s Daughter, and Saving Stanley: The Brickman Stories. His stories and essays have been published in a variety of literary journals, and his work has received several literary honors including the Oregon Book Award for Short Fiction for Saving Stanley. In a literary market that increasingly marginalizes the short story, he is proud to call himself a story writer: “the story [should] be considered a different genre entirely than the novel, rather than its undersized cousin.”
Nadelson, who grew up in a Jewish household in suburban New Jersey, has lived in Oregon since 1996. He teaches creative writing at Willamette University in Salem. His driving interest in his fiction is understanding “flawed” characters who “struggle between the competing influences of their fears and desires, sometimes sabotaging their own best interests.” In The Next Scott Nadelson, he turns that eye on himself, seeking to understand his own multifaceted character.
SMc: As you were revising passages in your book, did you ever think “I need to be more honest, more revealing, about this”? Or did you think, “That’s too painful or private to reveal; I need to rein it in”?
SN: When I committed myself to writing a book in which I was the main character—after debating for a while whether I was really up for it—I decided I’d only do it if I went all in, if I wouldn’t let myself hold anything back, and if I’d probe as deeply as possible to make sure I was being honest with myself each step of the way. In part, I’ve always seen the book as a comedy, and the best comedy requires full disclosure; I went out of my way to embarrass myself as much as possible. And as I was writing and revising, the revelations never felt painful. Instead, a kind of giddiness took over, and I’d sometime cackle out loud as I typed away. Only now that the book is out, and other people might read it, am I occasionally horrified to think what I put down on paper.
SMc: Your previous books have all been collections of short fiction (albeit mostly longer length than the typical short story). This is your first nonfiction book. How did the process of writing these two different kinds of narrative differ, especially given that you have said that most of your stories “begin with some nugget of autobiography”?
SN: In a lot of ways, this book arose out of the same impulse that propels my fiction. I set out to write a story, beginning with a moment from my experience. But early on in the drafting process, I decided to give the character my name. It made me more vulnerable as I was writing, which excited me. And then as I continued, rather than improvise and invent, I stuck closely to my experiences, following the internal drama of my thought process rather than try to create an external drama. And doing so opened up new possibilities for me; it loosened up the more restrictive demands of narrative and allowed me to digress, reflect, meditate, even analyze literature and art. I won’t say I had an easier time writing this book than any other, but it came out almost compulsively, in feverish bursts.
By the time I finished it, though, I was tired of hearing my own voice exclusively. I missed the pleasures of slipping into other characters’ minds, imagining and inventing, and now I’m deeply into a novel with a character whose experiences are very different from mine.
SMc: You write that, “Being invisible was the fantasy I indulged most consistently at thirteen.” With the publication of this memoir — and, probably, with the publication of your short stories — you’re no longer invisible. How does that feel?
SN: One of the central tensions of the book is between the desire to be seen, and the fear of exposure. That’s a tension I’m constantly aware of in myself. I’m a very private person in many ways, and yet I must have an exhibitionist streak in order to write a book about my mishaps and then go a step further and stick my name in the title. Wanting to be known comes with all kinds of risk, and overcoming fear is probably the reason I started writing in the first place. So it feels both wonderful and terrifying. I waffle between wanting to read the book out loud on crowded sidewalks and finding a big rock to crawl under.
SMc: Identity and fear, vulnerability and exposure circle through all of your essays. Talk a bit about how these themes fuel your narrative.
SN: If I were to describe the book in one sentence, I’d call it a search for identity in a life too often governed by fear. I didn’t realize this as I began writing, but the book became an attempt to define this creature with the name Scott Nadelson, to think about the ways in which I’ve evolved or created myself, in romantic relationships, in writing, in reading and listening to music and looking at art. And what I discovered along the way is how elusive identity is, how mysterious. The self seems ultimately unfathomable to me. The book was an attempt to construct an identity, but at best language can manage a slippery self-portrait, the image of a person made up by an amalgamation of moments, a collection of sentences.
SMc: You share a birthday with Franz Kafka. What does this mean to you, if anything?
SN: As I write in the book, it means nothing and everything. It’s an absurd coincidence to take pride in, but I take deep pride in it all the same. When I discovered it, I was at a crossroads, uncertain of my dedication to writing, my connection to the world of literature, and finding the date July 3 on a placard at the Kafka museum in Prague gave me a ridiculous charge. I suppose I took it as a sign that it was okay to dedicate myself to something at which I was likely to fail, that there were worse ways to spend one’s life. This summer I’ll be celebrating Kafka’s hundred and thirtieth birthday along with my fortieth.
SMc: How has teaching creative writing at Willamette University influenced your writing?
SN: Being in the classroom has always kept me honest as a writer, making me question my assumptions and work hard to be the most astute reader I can be. In the case of this book especially, teaching had a huge impact. Not only did I write directly about teaching and literature in several of the pieces, but I probably would never have written it if I hadn’t started teaching a creative nonfiction class at Willamette some years ago. I’d written essays from time to time but doubt I would have stayed in the mode of self-scrutiny for so long if I hadn’t been working with my very brave students on their own personal essays. Watching them look inward and push themselves to be as honest as possible made me want to do the same.
SMc: One line from your book that particularly stuck with me was this: “It amazes me to think what we carry with us into the world, the very air around us subject to our states of heart and mind,” so that one’s history and mood and current situation can alter “reality” as we perceive it. You also write, “It had never occurred to me before that an identity was something I could construct for myself.” Talk a bit about how we create both our identity and our reality.
SN: I am definitely fascinated by the subjectivity of perception, which is so heavily influenced by emotion. Whatever we’re feeling affects the way we see, hear, etc. That’s what makes identity so elusive, I think—in any given moment, who we are is dictated by our internal state, and our experience of the world may be completely different depending on what’s going on inside. A day, a week, a month, a year later, and we won’t even recognize the person we were in that moment. It’s also what I love about narrative, which is governed by characters’ perception in a particular moment. A story can capture all the different versions of a person through their sensory reaction to and interaction with the world around them.
SMc: In the book you talk about your appreciation of the music of Townes Van Zandt. A line in one of his songs is “To live is to fly, all low and high.” How does this line factor into your life?
SN: What I love most about Townes is that he never shies away from life. He embraces it, celebrates it, wrestles with it. He immerses himself equally in humor and horror, suffering and contentment. Through the course of a single record he’ll take us “high, low, and in between,” to quote another song. And no matter where he goes, he seems to enjoy the ride more than anything. That’s something I wish I could always say for myself. It’s an aspiration, in any case, and certainly a goal of my writing—I want to delve deeply into the pain as well as the pleasure of living, because our time is short, and every moment might as well count for something.
Along with business partner Roberta Dyer, Sally McPherson is the owner of Broadway Books. The NE Portland independent will be 21 years old in May. As part of that celebration, the store will host 2013 Pacific Northwest Book Award winner Cheryl Strayed, fresh off her national spring book tour, for a May 4 plaque presentation and celebration.