Before finding online success with her Twitter account, @sosadtoday, Melissa Broder had published three well-regarded collections of poetry (Scarecrone, Meat Heart, and When You Say One Thing But Mean Your Mother). In 2016, she published a fourth collection called Last Sext, and the autobiographical book of essays, So Sad Today. Her first novel, The Pisces, was published in May 2018.
What made you decide to write a novel?
I never thought I would write a novel. I never even thought I would write prose. When I lived in New York I wrote poetry on the subway, but when I moved to LA, I started dictating in my car. The line breaks disappeared and the language became more conversational. That’s how So Sad Today came to be. I dictated the whole thing. The geography literally informed the text.
After I finished writing So Sad Today, I still felt compelled to explore the intersection between love and infatuation, and love as a drug. Writers often write about the same things their whole lives and I don’t know if I will ever be done with these questions. I was on the beach in Venice reading a beautiful book called The Professor and The Siren, about a man who had a love affair with a mermaid, and I realized that nothing embodies these intersections like the relationship between human and mermaid. I started thinking about how many men in literature have walked into the ocean and drowned out of infatuation—and the story just kind of came to me. It helps that Venice Beach could be Lesbos or Crete.
I was like, “But I can’t write a novel.” Then I was like, “Why can’t I?” So I decided to just experiment and dictate three paragraphs a day and see what happened. Nine months later I had dictated the whole first draft.
What does your curiosity look like? How do you explore things?
I know that I know nothing. I’m glad I know that. To me, beginner’s mind is the shit. I don’t have much certainty about the world or my opinions. I often see multiple sides of an issue, and I think it’s my best quality. Some say this indicates a weak constitution. That’s cool, because I’m mistrustful of people who are very certain. It may have something to do with a poet’s soul. In poetry, you don’t need to resolve anything. Disparate elements can coexist and create something awesome.
Did you have any special routine or any rituals for writing The Pisces? I keep thinking of someone almost training for writing a novel—like preparing for a marathon.
It’s funny that you say “marathon” because I’ll literally dictate while I’m out for a run, or walking. I dictate in the car a lot. I like to write my first drafts in motion, in unexpected places, because I can trick myself into not being a perfectionist. I don’t re-read any of it until the whole thing is done. No going back! Just spew. Get that clay out, sculpt later. I’m really grateful to have my systems, to know the way I feel most comfortable working.
When I was growing up I was a terrible student. I couldn’t focus. But when I started smoking cigarettes toward the end of high school, that’s when I got my shit together. Something about the amphetamine aspect really focused my mind. I had to stop smoking in my 20s, because like every other delicious substance I engage with, I couldn’t get enough. The world would not conform to my need to smoke all the time. But I’ve been addicted to Nicorette for 14 years and I chew even more of it when I’m writing.
Nicotine, and maybe growing into my mind, helped me to become a very diligent, hard-working person. But I still don’t trust myself to get shit done without a strict structure. I’m obsessive about my writing commitments. If I say I’m going to dictate three paragraphs a day ‘til I’m done, I won’t miss a day. If I say I’m going to edit five pages a day ‘til I’m on draft three, I’ll be editing five pages a day no matter what is going on. I break things up into small chunks that aren’t overwhelming and that I can do every day. That’s also a system that works for me.
You’ve now written a few collections of poetry, a collection of essays, and a novel. What was the most pleasurable to do? The most difficult?
Each process contains pleasure and pain.
How do you edit your own work? What happens after you finish a first draft?
I edit at a laptop, in stillness, the opposite of writing my first draft. My first round of edits is literally just going through the document and fixing all of the words that Siri got completely wrong in dictation. There is always a lot wrong. Whole sentences are fucked. Often I have no idea what I was even saying and I just write something new. This takes a few months. Then I begin my next round of edits, eliminating what sucks, what sounds phony, adding more detail. I’d call these line edits, and I do a number of rounds of those. I usually don’t do major surgery—rearranging the narrative structure, re-ordering the poems—until the manuscript is in the hands of another person. I rely on others for critique on those bigger, overarching rearrangements, because it’s hard for me to see the whole.
The last time we spoke, we talked about the difference, in your writing, between poetry and Twitter. Where do you see novel writing in relation to all of that?
How did you know that the novel was done?
When I read it through for the thousandth time and nothing yelled at me, “I suck, fix me!”
You seem to tweet constantly, and you have all these other projects. How do you avoid burnout?
A junkie always finds time for her addiction.
Is it okay to abandon a project?
What do you consider failure and how can you find success in it?
I’m a tough one to ask, because I have a gift for turning good things into bad things in my mind. So even my successes are harrowing—maybe even more so than my failures. When good things happen to me I have a tendency to feel fraudulent. Or when something good is about to happen it’s almost like I can see through its happening to the other side where it’s already over. This doesn’t mean I don’t try to fill up my spiritual holes with achievement. I may know that external validation is ephemeral but I still fucking want it. There is a little chorus of childhood bullies, lovers who have rejected me, and my mother inside my head at all times. I always think that I can quiet them by being acknowledged in the world. But that always lasts about five minutes. The real peace is inside—independent of all that stuff—but who remembers to go inside? But it’s always there, just occluded by desire, envy, fear, revenge, and fantasy. Those things are fine too. They’re human.
How do you nourish your creative side when you aren’t working?
I’ve had a meditation practice for many years. Over the past few years, I felt like I was hitting a wall with it. So last August, as a present for my birthday, I learned a new modality. Now I’m meditating 20 minutes in the morning and 20 at night. Sometimes I feel like I’m always meditating. Like I can’t believe I’m fucking meditating again. But it’s very rich and often delicious.
I like to read. I like to make playlists and find new music. I like to obsess about things that I think will make me whole, buy them, and sometimes return them. I don’t cook. I kill every plant. I love making fires. I love being in the woods, but not sleeping there. I go to the beach a lot in the spring, summer and early fall. I’ve only fully dunked in the ocean once in four years, but I like going in halfway. I like going to the desert. I like perfumes. I like stickers. There’s a really good store in LA called Sticker Planet.
What’s the one writing habit that you have to fight against and how do you do it?
Ending things too soon. Racing to the end out of fear that I won’t know how to end it so it’s better to end it now. Which is kind of maybe how I feel about my powerlessness over death, too?
What are some of your favorite words?
I noticed that I use the word “eclipse” a lot, not regarding the sky but in terms of something in life or in the mind taking over something else. So I guess I like that one.
What are some of your favorite other ways to communicate besides words?
Kissing my dog on his silken neck.
Melissa Broder recommends:
Five books that inspired The Pisces
The Professor and the Siren by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante
Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho by Sappho and Anne Carson
Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments by Sappho and Aaron Poochigian