While walking along a path in Italy that brought him joy, Ross Gay suddenly thought that it would be a fun intellectual experiment to write a short essay about a pleasant experience every day for one year, beginning with his birthday. By the time he had turned a year older, Gay wrote essays about receiving high fives from strangers, ambiguous signage, flowers in the hands of statues, nicknames, and more.
These essays became The Book of Delights (February 2019, Algonquin Books), the follow-up to his poetry collection Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, which won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award. Gay sat down with WD while promoting The Book of Delights to talk about what inspired his book, following the movement of thought in drafts, and writing with a sense of optimism.
How does poetry influence your essay writing?
I spent a lot of time thinking about the sentences in the way that I think about the lines in poems, so there’s a kind of pressure on the language that I enjoy, and getting real down into the arrangement of the words in the way that I also tend to my poems.
There’s something that I’m learning about mystery from writing the poems that I want the essays to engage in. Often the poems have a different relationship to mystery, but there is some sort of relationship to mystery that the poems teach me about how to write essays.
Are you referring to the sense that writing a poem is like discovering a mystery that you’re trying to figure out?
Or something like that. It might be illuminating a question. It’s possible that there’s an answer that arrives after the process of writing a poem—some kind transformation. Often the questions that I’m writing in a poem I don’t have the very beginnings of knowing what they are until deep into the process of writing. With these essays, I felt like because they were occasional, I knew what I was going to be thinking about. Because the constraint of the book was that I would write about something that delighted me, it gave me the jumping-off point.
Why did you decide to turn to nonfiction for your next book?
I’ve been working on nonfiction for a little while—essays and this book I’m working on about my relationship to the land. I turned to essays [for The Book of Delights] because I can’t write poems daily. It just came into my head, You should write an essay every day for a year!
What advice do you have for other writers who are looking to complete projects that require writing every day?
It wasn’t like, Ugh, gotta go sit down and spend a half hour thinking about delight. It was like, Let me go get my little delight in! as opposed to if I was writing about misery. That would be a bummer! So that’s all to say I would be very conscientious about what that person is writing about. I might also be forgiving if you don’t write every day. I drafted these essays in half an hour. There was something very pleasant about that—to have a little exercise. It’s not like you’re trying to write the best thing in the world.
This book covers a variety of personal details. What is your process like of finding the courage to put it all on the page?
Part of those things feels very funny, and there is pleasure in being someone who allows some of those embarrassing/intimate details to be public as a way of being like, Yeah, that happens. I get a kick out of some of that. When it’s not funny but very personal … I have models. I just follow in the footsteps of people that do it.
Who are your models?
While I was writing this book, I was re-reading Bluets [by Maggie Nelson] and Margo Jefferson and Hilton Als and a lot of people who have shown me how to think publicly and a kind of public/private thinking.
In the book, it seemed like extraordinary and dreamlike things occur frequently in your life. What tips do you have for conjuring the ethereal when writing about real life?
What is the practice of looking slowly and intensely at our lives? What we often will find is that there’s tons of remarkable stuff happening in our midst, and if we look up from whatever it is that’s distracting us, which sometimes is inside our heads, then it’s everywhere. In a certain way, it’s just describing what I see.
In finding a delight to write about every day, it was a stretch to perceive some of those topics as a “delight.” How can a sense of optimism improve writing?
If you engage your writing with a sense of possibility, like, Something might come of this, this is a useful exercise or experiment, that’s a fun way to approach writing. Something might happen, but I have no idea what might happen. Wonder and curiosity are a pretty fun place to be. A lot of people want to know just what’s going to happen and when and how in their work. Not knowing is satisfying, because I have a hunch that something is going to happen.
Your books are written in a stream of consciousness tone, but each poem or essay comes to insightful observations by the end. In the revision process, how do you decide what material to leave in the draft?
Particularly in this book of essays where I was drafting these things very quickly, part of the pleasure and interest to me is there was movement of the mind that was rapid and surprised me. That was partly because I was just like, Let me travel through this thought about this thing that delights me. Let me think about this experience. I would regularly be surprised in the process.
The revision to make it feel as though it’s an accurate representation of thinking is intense, because to follow the process of thinking would be [makes whooshing sound]. It would be fairly inarticulate and wouldn’t be fun to read. So the exercise when I’m trying to do a real speaking and thinking voice is to get really precise about how to sound like the movement of thought without sounding like the actual movement of thought. It takes a while to get it, because most of these things when I first wrote them were a mess.
What is your revision process like?
The biggest thing that I’m doing is trying to figure out how whatever I’m writing can be the truest thing that it’s trying to be. That can require pushing—on the sentences, the syntax, the diction—all of those things, to the end of pushing on the thinking that makes the journey or the series of questions or the meandering as true to itself that it can be.
To follow this meandering, do you have to know what your work is trying to say?
You have to figure it out, and that’s what is so fun about revising. It’s maybe even more fun than the writing process. It’s neat because you can start something and it’s not until I’m revising for the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh time that I’m like, Oh! This is what the thing is! I’m working on this long poem that’s about Dr. J and I’ve been working on it for a few years. I’m finding these things and feel that this poem is showing itself to me, but I still have to write another 10 pages before it does.
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