Josh MacIvor-Andersen is author of 'Flexing, Texting, Flying', winner of the 2011 Ruminate Nonfiction Prize featured in Issue 20: Feasting. He lives in an old house in Wilmington, North Carolina with his wife, a cat named Baby Kitty, and a brand new baby human. He is an award winning writer, teacher and tree climber.
He's joined us to chat about hubris, obsession, and the messy business of life. The 2014 Vandermey Nonfiction Prize has just opened - join Josh & share your creative nonfiction with us!
RM: Congratulations on winning the 2011 Nonfiction Prize! You ask your students to "figure out their obsessions, those things that haunt them, that won't go away, and start writing." Nonfiction has given you an exceptional venue to tackle questions of life, faith, and meaning - what drew you to this genre?
JMA: It started with journaling! I was twenty-two and had worked myself raw doing tree work to buy a one-way ticket to Europe so I could go explore, which seemed the only proper response after reading a bunch of Hemingway. There’s this funny thing that happens to North American kids when we first see all those cobblestones and cathedrals––kind of like taking a drug––and many of us mistakenly say: Oh, of course, I’m a writer! We start jotting down all the little specks of beauty and ugliness, drink strong espresso in the mornings and strong wine at night, get all hubris-filled and write bad poetry. I was horrible. The worst writer ever. But it sparked in me the excitement of scrawling real life onto a page and then struggling to translate it into something like art, a poem, an essay. That’s how nonfiction got rooted in me; an attempt to capture, organize, and interpret real life. For better or worse, I was hooked.
RM: You've said "I could start writing about a horse race and it would likely find a way to arc back into the divine."
JMA: So many of my obsessions are tied up with faith, my family, with things falling apart and centers ceasing to hold. These are the things that permeate every season and incarnation of my life. As much as I might want to, I can’t get away from them. As you mentioned above, I have my students jot down a list of things that obsess them (Klezmer bands, 30 Rock, badminton), the life questions that have burned most severely in them (What will happen when I die? How will I know when I’ve met The One?), and, finally, to write down a secret they’ve never told anyone. They then fold up the pages, which become a kind of suitcase for potential nonfiction. I’ve been pulling out the same stuff from the same suitcase for years. A good example of this is Rebecca Skloot, who recently wrote a fantastic book called, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. An important book; on the Times bestseller list for a kajillion months. But the whole thing started with an obsession, the discovery of this remarkable and tragic woman, Henrietta, when Skloot was sixteen-years-old. It took her over a decade to get the story down and get it right, but it’s a great model of surrendering to an obsession and working doggedly to tell a story that haunts. I guess you could say my Henrietta Lacks is Jesus, my parents’ divorce, longing for God in the midst of suffering. They are life-long preoccupations.
RM: Al Haley, the 2011 Nonfiction Prize final judge, says of the journey you undertake in 'Flexing, Texting, Flying" that the sights encountered..."are fraught with life and death meaning." And "At the same time I was made to understand the burden of not knowing if God is present in any of this." This tension is central to a lot of your writing.
JMA: I’m thirty-five, and for most of those years I’ve lived out this wild pendulum swing, arcing into faith, into agnosticism, back and forth and back and forth. As many times as I’ve wanted to give up on Christ, I seem to white-knuckle the hem of his garment. I’m too invested in the concept of a carpenter-king who reigns over an upside-down kingdom where the first are last and the meek inherit the earth. The tension that frequently comes up in my writing is my role in that kingdom, how I’m supposed to participate as a doubting, backsliding dude who has seen enough first-hand war and poverty to have an incurable faith-concussion. I’ve written at least half a dozen pieces of nonfiction where I, the narrator, turn to God and ask: Where were you? only to have the question turned back on myself. Such is life. And here we are, smack in the messy middle of it, asking the same questions and receiving the same answers. But journals like yours give me hope. The fact that my baby sister, Pip, is alive and doing much better gives me hope. My newborn boy, Levin, gives me hope. And the chance to translate all of it into narrative gives me hope. Stories matter! We live and die by them. My ongoing desire is to write stories of struggle that might somehow still be life-giving.
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I must change my life, I thought. Is this what Rilke meant? That I should “get healthy?” I should eat better, drink better? I jumped to this conclusion in the aisle at my grocery store.
I've had climate change anxiety since college, but bringing a baby into the universe intensifies it. My anxiety no longer only extends the length of my lifespan. I tell my husband Taylor I regret having a child because I can't stand the thought of Jackson in pain. He holds up our son’s wiggly, plump body. "You really wish he didn't exist?"