Interview with Saeed Jones from BuzzFeed! (Part 2)

One of the most challenging and rewarding responsibilities on our journey as writers is the process of applying for fellowships, residencies, and grants. And a lot of the time, we give up way before we give in. The Buzzfeed Emerging Writers Fellowship is in its second year. Our Blog Editor, Erica Cardwell and Poetry Co-Editor, Elizabeth Sochko, recently caught up with Saeed Jones--poet, founder of the fellowship, and Executive Culture Editor at Buzzfeed. Saeed shared encouraging information for those applying for the fellowship, writing process secrets, and insights into the emotional politics of memoir. Part 1 was posted a little while ago; here's Part 2!

Conversation with Saeed Jones - Part Two

EC: I’m gonna switch gears just a little bit, and I know that your memoir is coming out in 2017, do you want to talk about it at all?

SJ: Sure. What do you want to know? *laughs*

EC: How’s the writing process going? Where are you at in [the process]? Anything that you want to share?

SJ: Sure. How is the writing going? Um. It is hard. It’s hard. In terms of work that I’ve published publicly, until now, it’s been personal essays, cultural criticism, and then obviously I published a poetry collection and all the poems that were a part of that.  There is a nice, safe distance that you have with those forms, whether it’s a poem or a poetry collection or an essay.  Where you have the luxury of containing the experience. Right? Whether you’re able to say well it’s a poem, you know it's not totally non-fiction, and there are metaphors. You can either do that or you can say oh well it’s just one essay. It is a set, a kind of finite, actually relatively very small kind of sampling of my work, of my experience, of my thinking. Psychologically I think that is very important for writers at a certain point. Now working on this memoir, I started on it back in 2011, so I’ve been working on it quietly for a long time, and I would leave it and come back to it, leave it and come back to it, and now obviously since I sold it to Simon & Schuster last Spring, it’s been a more more sustained experience.  I don’t have that escape hatch anymore.  I certainly don’t get to say well it’s all a metaphor. I don’t get to say well it’s a persona poem. I don’t get to focus very intensely on a relatively brief memory or moment or idea.  Instead, I have to live with my past self and selves for years.  The books spans a couple of decades, basically going from literal boyhood, like  twelve/ thirteen, to my mid-twenties.  I’m going through puberty and coming out and first relationships. And really, the arc of the book, which is titled, How Men Fight For Their Lives, is really about finding my way into what it means to be a man, what it is to be myself, and of course that is a project that is lifelong, but for the intensive purposes of this book, it’s a quarter-lifelong.  I enjoy it.  I’ve long been someone, and I think this frustrates people, I talk a lot about how I didn’t get into this aspect of writing to be happy. It isn’t therapy for me.  Writing poems has never made me feel better in the moment, it’s a craft, like any other craft.

EC: That’s right. Yeah.

SJ: And the same is true for writing this memoir.  It is hard, it’s very challenging.  It is certainly the most challenging artistic experience I’ve had thus far, but I savor the difficulty.  It’s proof that I’m able to do it now. I know that I would not have been able to do it had I not had the kind of  goals I’ve had just as a person and a writer and a thinker. But it’s intense. It’s like, whew. God. When people speak admirably or enviously about selling a memoir to a major publisher, I’m like Why? Why would you? *laughs* And I haven’t even finished the book yet, you know.  Further down the line it will be a conversation about what it actually means to have your life story in other people’s hands.  And to own that. So i’m not there yet, but whew!

EC: My thesis is my memoir, my memoir is my thesis. So I know what you’re saying, how you’re living with these previous selves.  I feel similarly.  It’s a certain kind of labor to relive all of the past.

SJ: It is. And it impacts you- there are the obvious ways that you expect it to impact your daily life in that, you know, spending sustained amounts of time with difficult memories, or even just the past, or even just yourself.  There’s a risk of a kind of narcissism, of the kind of just emotional exhaust, my dreams get all crazy depending on what I’m working on in the book. But also a kind of doubt has kind of just settled in, and I’d go so far to say it’s a healthy doubt. But you know, if you’re writing a memoir, part of what you are admitting is that you don’t know your past as well as you pretend, or have pretended, to know your past.  If you did, you know, you wouldn’t need to write a book.  That willingness to question memories and what happened and why I did this and why that person did that obviously that kind of begins to bleeds over into being in life. So for better or worse, I’m a more thoughtful person.  I don’t know if I like being more thoughtful, but I am, as a result of working on the book.  *laughs*

EC: Do you have a question you want to ask Saeed, Elizabeth?

ES (Elizabeth Sochko, Poetry Co-editor): Since you are managing so much in so many different roles as an editor and writer and now with your memoir, I was wondering how you personally compartmentalize everything? How is the process realistically as someone who is busy in many roles? How do you navigate that space?

SJ: That’s a good question.  You’re actually the second person to ask me that in the past twenty-four hours. If you can believe it.  How do I compartmentalize? Because that is important.  I’ll tell you this is what it is: I’ve had to compartmentalize my entire life.  I grew up in the suburbs of north Texas, my mom raised me as a single parent, we practiced Nichiren Buddhism in the middle of the bible belt. The majority of my mom’s extended family is devoutly christian, so different faiths and iterations, and obviously, I’m queer. So i didn’t know it at the time, I was also like thinking about being an artist, which in some way you might as well be queer all over again. *laughs* As long as I can remember, I’ve had to figure out how to leave certain parts of myself outside the room.  And we all do this, we all do this, but I think just by the nature of my identity, it’s been very, very rare that I’ve had experiences where I’ve been like all of myself at once.  And in some ways, in the last few years, that’s why I do feel deeply fortunate now because my work here at Buzzfeed over the last four years and how my career as an artist has taken off.  I don’t have to segment myself in that really negative way, but I think over time you don’t lose those skills.  You know what I mean?

SJ: For me, it is very easy for me to compartmentalize.  It’s like second nature.  In fact, I’ve noticed, at work it will happen very quickly.  I will be talking to someone, we’ll have a conversation, and I don't realize I’m doing it, but the moment my brain thinks we’ve resolved the problem and I move on to something else, and this happened just yesterday, we had one of those moments we resolved, I moved on to something else, I was answering emails, and then someone messaged me again and started talking about what we had just been talking about literally like just two minutes, and I was like What? What are we talking about?  *Laughs*

EC: You had moved on.

SJ: I had totally moved on. I had to reread my notes. I think that was just a really subtle example of how it works.  So you think that, and just pair it with the intensity of working on the memoir.  When I’m at home writing, it’s all I can think about.  It’s all I space in my brain to think about.  I can’t really daydream because it’s like I’m running on all cylinders just by the nature of the project.  And when I’m at work I feel the same way. I’m running on all cylinders. I run a department of around twenty people and they have all kinds of projects that i’m checking in on and meetings that I’m participating in and I have projects on my own that I have to handle, right,  and that I’m accountable for. So when I’m doing that, it’s kind of all in. Really the mystery is how I have time to be on Twitter as much as I do.  I think how I must look publicly and how I am during the day is like a total mystery.  But that’s basically it.  Being able to compartmentalize and being able to say okay this is where I am right now, how or who do I need to be in this moment, to get to the next moment, is really just an essential part of my being.  

ES: Okay, I have one more question. Do you feel a responsibility or do you feel empathy or what is it in you that made you decide you wanted to be this resource and provide these writers with tools? What is it that made you say, I’m going to be the person to provide these writers with these resources?

SJ: Oh goodness. That is a good question.  I think there are a few things.  One thing I really believe in is if not you, then who? I’m well aware of who I am and the industry in which I’m located and the kind of media, artistic landscape which I’m living on.  And I know that there aren’t that many gay, black, southern boys who make it to this point, unfortunately, so I have an opportunity to enact certain decisions. So you know, if I don’t do it, who will? I think that is part of it.  And then in terms of diversity in particular and opportunities, when you’re an editor and you just see so much, and there’s so many things that I can’t change. There’s so many things that are just problems I can’t solve or because the amount of time and resources necessary to change them just really would outlive and overwhelm me, this felt like something tangible.  It felt like something we could do, you know.

EC: That’s right.

SJ: And twelve thousand dollars for each of these writers, that’s no small thing, but I wish we could give people more money.

EC: That’s amazing.

SJ: Thank you. But where Buzzfeed is right now, where I am right now, four months, twelve thousand dollars, and the commitment-- really, in terms of something me and the editors on my team who have worked with the fellows learned-- the real commitment is the time, actually.  In terms of giving these writers the support they need so they’re not just like four writers sitting at a table fending for themselves for four months.  That it’s actually really dynamic.  That’s the real investment.  But I felt it had to be done and if I have learned anything about media and publishing and whatever we call this literary landscape that we live in, there is a lot of mimicry. There’s a lot of repetition.  We follow each other’s lead. When someone is successful or someone cracks the code, it is not unusual to see it replicated.  So my hope is that the things we do here well will be recreated at other institutions.  If anything, 588 people applying for the fellowship is great, but it’s also an indication to me that there is a dearth of similar opportunities. I guess that’s part of why I do it.  I think we are in a moment where if I can pull this off, other people will go oh I can do that too. I hope it becomes like competitive in the way that perhaps applying for college and for graduate programs there is a better sense of competition for really talented students, right, and so once you’re out of academia, and you want to be a cultural critic or writer, the air gets really thin.  I’m grateful that I have a kind of financial career security, but I know that is not true for everyone by any means.  So if I can do that now, it’s worthwhile.  It’s inspiring, too.  It’s really great to see the fellows when i come into the office.  It’s invigorating to work with them.  

EC: Yes definitely. In regards to process and memoir writing, who are some of the writers that you go to when it gets hard? When you’re hitting a wall or when you’re writing about a dark part of your past- who are some of the prominent essayist, etc. ?

SJ: I’ve been in the book for so long at this point it’s not necessarily  hard in terms of subject matter.  It’s usually technical, and it’s often very, very specific.  You would be amazed where it will send you to. For example, this is a pretty intense part of the book, I’ve been working on the book’s narrative climax for the last month or so. The climax of this chapter is new year’s eve, it’s 2008, and I’m a senior in college and I meet a guy at a party and one thing leads to another, I go back to his place and we start having sex, and he has a crisis of masculinity that is where the title comes in. The book’s title works two ways.  Men fight for their lives by essentially fighting themselves and fighting everyone else. And so he essentially tries to kill me. He gives death threats and he says, “you’re already dead. You’re already dead.” So it’s like a real fight and we’re wrestling for hours until he eventually passes out. Obviously I’m still here. We’re okay.

EC: Wow.

SJ: That incident actually opens the book, so readers from the beginning have okay this is where we’re going. How do we get there? And then we move beyond it. But then we’re back in the climax and I decided part of the project of the book, so to speak, is to walk back into that room with the knowledge that we’ve gained over the course of the book.  So it was a very interesting challenge to write about the same night twice.  So that was very hard and I was stumped for a long time, so I had to figure out how to write in a different way.  One thing that helped actually is that I’ve been rereading Norman Mailer’s reporting on Muhammad Ali.

EC: Oh! That’s great.

SJ: Because of the physical detail is so different, it’s so different from a lot of the work I often go to firsthand.  But the physicality- you kind of just have to get out of the way.   I think over the course of working on different books, as an artist you can’t pull the same tricks, so to speak, and you also, unfortunately, can’t go back to the same books.  For example, for Prelude to Bruise Lucie Brock-Broido and Louise Glück and Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison, it was a very feminine book. And obviously as a queer man that was something that was a part of it.  But this book in some ways is a very masculine kind of book because I’m really trying to bite into masculinity in a way that I think American culture usually doesn’t. I think we usually deflect and distract and take short cuts.  So it kind of helped to read broodish work.  And you know it’s crazy because Norman Mailer is both very insightful but whenever he had to describe race, like in terms of physical description, it just like falls apart. You just find the details you need to seize upon. That’s a good example.

EC: Thank you. And my next question ties in. In addition to everything you do, do you compartmentalize time to leisurely read? And set that aside as inspiration? What are you reading now?

SJ: Um. *laughs* Right now, if I’m honest, at the moment, nothing. In terms of “is there a book I’m carrying with me this week,” usually I am. I usually have 2 or 3 or 4, 5 books I’m usually reading at once.  Like I’ve been reading Zadie Smith’s new novel, I’m lucky I’ve been reading Zadie Smith’s forthcoming novel Swing Time, it’s very good. It’s very great. But I haven’t been reading as much lately as I normally would I suppose. I read Colson Whitehead’s new novel. I read that earlier this summer, it’s wonderful.  Brit Bennett’s forthcoming, her debut novel, actually, The Mothers, is one of my favorite books that will be out this year.  Otherwise I try to avoid reading, reading an entire book I guess I should say, because I don’t want to mimic it. I don’t want to inadvertently or accidentally start reading and realize I’m ripping off this other writer’s style.  I’m definitely not reading any memoir, so it’s more like me reading in snatches.  And of course, for work I’m just reading a tremendous amount of work that is published online.  It’s kind of a weird thing, like we don’t even have a vocabulary or a kind of lexicon to describe our lives as readers online because for so long it wasn’t taken seriously.  I can’t even imagine how much I read online. *laughs*