Last December I had a chance to speak with Tatiana Ryckman about her genre-hopping and genre-blending habits, as well as about her recently released book, Twenty-Something. Now, she has a brand new collection of flash nonfiction, VHS and Why It’s Hard to Live, out from Zoo Cake Press. She was kind enough to answer a few follow-up questions about her latest endeavor and we’re pleased to showcase two original pieces of her flash nonfiction.
Front Porch: Your first book is comprised of short stories, mostly flash. Your new chapbook, VHS and Why It’s Hard to Live, is a collection of flash essays. What draws you to writing in the micro form? And why the switch to nonfiction?
Tatiana Ryckman: I have an affinity for writing like everything is a joke. My stories tend to have punchlines for endings. The goal is always to identify the bare elements that imbue seemingly random human experiences with significance–I don’t always get it right, but I think my batting average is improving.
As for the switch to nonfiction, many of these essays came out of a prompt I made up when I was suffering from writer’s block a year or so ago. I wrote short essays based on a letter of the alphabet every day for 26 days. It was arbitrary, but it was something. Some turned out better than others, and the better ones were worked and reworked into something that (I hope) transcends the initial exercise. I’ve also started reading more nonfiction. It seems I’m in a gathering phase, collecting information and looking for connections. Improbable connections excite me, they are what makes life–and writing–interesting.
FP: How did you get involved with Zoo Cake Press? What has your experience been like working with them?
TR: An excellent friend and writer, Elizabeth Schmuhl, put out a book with Zoo Cake last year called Presto Agiato. I was blown away by the consideration the press put into the book as a physical object. It was a beautiful thing to behold. So I sent them a manuscript during their open reading period and they were as excited about me as I was about them. They’ve been amazingly supportive and granted me a shocking amount of latitude in regards to design (the cover is an amalgamation of a few of my favorite Dover Thrift editions, but uses an illustration of a zebra that Kyle Butler, a Buffalo-based artist, made to go with one of these essays when it was first published). I love the way the book turned out and am anxious to hold the real thing in my hands.
FP: What themes can readers expect to see explored in your new collection?
TR: I’ve been “advertising” the collection as a book about childhood disillusionment. Early moments of unveiling–learning that things were not as they seemed–have been monumental in my personal development. But the collection is, in someways a testament to artistic failure. I’ve tried for a long time to write about my very strict religious upbringing, and it’s embarrassingly hard to do without just whining. So in a way these essays are looking just to the side of that experience rather than directly at it. Perhaps the reason I’m interested in writing about religion is that I did not have the freedom to challenge “my” beliefs until I was totally removed from the religious community as an adult. Even if this collection is looking at other experiences, it’s still that desire to question and to see beyond appearances that spurred me to write these essays and to move toward nonfiction in general.
FP: We interviewed you a few months ago. How have you changed since then? Besides the upcoming book, what’s new?
TR: I’m usually pretty good at looking back at myself, say a year–or even 20 minutes–ago, and seeing what an idiot I used to be. I don’t know if I should be relieved that that’s tapered off. Either I’m less of an idiot in general, or my rate of improvement is slowing. Which is to say, I’m not exactly sure how I’ve changed.
As for my writing, I’m less precious and more demanding–with my own work as well as others’. I have a clearer idea of what I want. That doesn’t mean it will work out exactly as I hope, but at least I know I’m working toward something, and that thing is taking shape. In support of that, I’ve taken on longer projects, like a series of linked vignettes and a few long, research-based essays.
I Mean, I Love
Today I saw a sign that asked, “Are you currently in love?”
It was question I’d been asking myself for years with shame and embarrassment. It seemed like something I should already know. But whether or not I was in love suddenly became the sort of question that could be a sign, in public, and maybe it was this ease, this invitation, that made me finally say, Yeah. I am.
But I had also been asking, What is love, really? As if love were a commodity I could have and dole out to those I deem worthy—as if loving were a matter of eating my cake and having it, too. It’s was a stand-in love. An I-want-the-best-for-you love, a pharmacy-ad-for-constipation-medication love. A safe love.
It’s that other kind I can’t look at directly long enough to figure out. The kind that sounds like a promise and admission of defeat all in one, I love you like a failure to control oneself. Perhaps the undertone of shame in asking if I was in love was borne of the question beneath it: Am I capable of love? Each question posturing as something more basic than the one before. Because if I could do it, I might know what it is. It would simply be a matching of the name Love to the face of the Beloved. The question itself demanding a recipient, love being too big to bare alone.
Disarming as the sign was, it also made me worry for love. If the presence or absence of love was something that could be discussed via a photocopied sign stapled to a telephone pole what were my own dark hours of longing worth? If love was something that could be done “currently” and not continually, I was nervous it might disappear as soon as I agreed to be in it. It might be too volatile to name. What does this mean for the past and future tense of love? The illusion and disillusionment. The falling in and out.
I would argue that less than falling into love, it has fallen into me. Like water into the lungs of a drowning woman. It is a trouble of capacity, how much can fit in the vessel. And I have not fallen out of love as much as from it. As from a precipice. As if the love no longer found me a suitable receptacle and left, while I, accustomed to its presence, tried to scale it, to look out at everything from its plateaus, only to find there was nothing to stand on.
In such moments it’s hard not to wonder if it had ever been there at all.
But maybe it’s not a question of whether or not love exists—maybe what becomes of it as it passes from self-to-self is as much a constantly evolving beast as I am.
Only a few hours after admitting to my love, and no less anxious for it, I listened to Maggie Nelson read from The Argonauts: “Whenever the lover utters the phrase ‘I love you,’ its meaning must be renewed by each use, as ‘the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the phrase inflection which will be forever new.’”
And I was relieved, not to have to know everything I mean when I say I love.
What I’m Reading
Today a stranger sent me this message: “They must become dogs.”
Have you ever kicked a dog? There is a way that people feel about people who kick dogs. And if you have kicked a dog, you become a person who kicks dogs. The burden of living being that we know ourselves to be the worst thing we have ever done. David Carr writes in The Night of the Gun, “[the] past is a phantom limb, something [we] feel the presence of but cannot touch.” Have I ever kicked a dog? Ask instead, how many dogs I remember kicking.
In Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, Helen Cixous says we long for avowal—to be witnessed kicking dogs—because when witnessed, our crimes become real, we become real. But this confession leads only to forgiveness that paves the way for greater crimes.
Ben Fama opens his poetry collection, Fantasy, with a quote from Robert Gluck. It reads, “Bruce rarely buys anything, fearing that one purchase will lead to the next and so on—like S/M where you must always raise the ante to achieve the same degree of pleasure until you become a different person and not necessarily the one you intended.” Fama goes on to write, “sometimes you just need to buy something.”
This game of one-up-manship we play with ourselves is why some of us are found naked and blue with belts cinched tightly around our throats. I have been choked too hard, and not hard enough. How many dogs are kicked between us? David Carr writes of himself: “What. An. Asshole.” We are all this asshole. That is why we read the memoir. To learn about the happy, successful person we will become when we give up being the asshole.
And so we witness the crimes of others because we need a surrogate, we need someone to be held responsible for all of these dogs. In Love and Garbage Ivan Klima asserts that religion is the celebration of man’s intellect, a party for the best shit we can come up with. And because I think Klima has said something smart, I believe I am also smart. I wish for the sort of world-wide tragedy that turns a country against its gods. I wish we could all watch our sisters burn in a ditch—because that would really give us something to cry about. I think about all the ways my priorities and character and writing would improve if I were witness to the sorts of crimes that break humanity. I also think of myself: What. An. Asshole.
Because it is the closest thing to an answer I have found, I will repeat what Cixous writes: that great writers work alongside death. Killing themselves on their work, not for it. Klima writes of Kafka, that he knew death so well he held up a mirror to show us. And Carr says, “Everyone did the best they could.” And Fama writes, “It’s sad / to know so little.”
Tatiana Ryckman is the author of Twenty-Something, a chapbook of fiction, and VHS and Why it’s Hard to Live, a collection of flash nonfiction out with Zoo Cake Press. She is Assistant Editor with sunnyoutside press and her work has been published with Tin House, Entropy, and Hobart. More at tatianaryckman.com.