Though Natalie Vestin and I are both from Minnesota, I met her in Vermont at Wildbranch Writing Workshop four years ago. I remember overhearing the faculty buzzing about her work—its lyricism, precision, and material. The chorus of praise has only grown since then. Vestin was the winner of the Loft Literary Center Mentor Series for 2010-2011. She took first prize in both the Sonora Review Essay Contest and Prairie Schooner Creative Nonfiction Contest in 2012, and last year won the Crab Orchard Review John Guyon Literary Nonfiction Prize. When I began my MFA last fall at Western Washington University, I was thrilled to see that our own Bellingham Review would publish Vestin’s essay “It Hates Its Double Bond” in our Fall 2013 online edition. Read it here.
In this interview, Vestin offers insights on everything from the power of long walks and movement to fuel the synthesis of ideas in one’s writing, to writing’s potential to create intimate understanding. We even delve into organic chemistry for some analogies.
ER: You often integrate personal stories with science. In “It Hates Its Double Bond,” you incorporate concepts from chemistry, geology, and the physiology of movement and injury. How do you go about material-collection and research for your work?
NV: I rarely start with an idea for an essay and then perform meticulous research. “It Hates Its Double Bond” was formed from months of “compound observation.” I was struggling with some balance issues in dance and thinking about movement, about how people move, and how bodily movement exists in this funny place between humiliation and wonder. Well, I wasn’t actually thinking about any of that; I was just upset that I couldn’t move the way I wanted to move. If I’m upset about something, I have to understand it at the smallest level, so I started reading more about muscle physiology. I do quite a bit of medical/health writing in my day job, so in some ways, doing this research and writing felt like bringing the body away from pathology, away from a site of risk, and into the wonder of its parts. I think research is just a way of making things right when they’ve been degraded.
I also walk about 50 miles a week. There’s a lot of mulling information and forming ideas that can happen in 50 miles! And my dad’s stories glue this essay together. He’s a physicist, and, in many ways, a walking anecdote. He’s also the best science teacher I know when he’s not aware he’s teaching. The way in which he looks at nature and science, at animal movement and propylene bonds, makes me really excited to live in and learn about such a weird planet.
ER: I like the idea of writing as a way to push on tensions—for you, in this case, a way to respond to what seemed like trouble in the body. Your description of that impulse to learn about what happens on the level of muscle physiology and to turn some of that trouble into wonder makes the process of mulling, “compound observation,” and writing sound almost healing in its potential to reframe tension.
I’m wondering now about your synthesis of all of those pieces. How do you think about balancing and combining story and science as you craft an essay? You approach these complex subjects gracefully in such a small space. I’m wondering what, if any, challenges arise for you when you move to incorporate technical subjects in a lyric essay, and how you work through those challenges?
NV: I do think writing, research, and mulling is a form of salvation. When you aim to hurt or degrade or lessen, you aim at the human body, and I think writers and scientists have the ability to offer something that counters those blows – something that not only heals, but rebuilds.
I have no real formal training in writing, so I often structure an essay intuitively. This essay was written in pieces (and in my head) over several months, so I was treating the various parts with patience and letting connections form before I ever wrote anything down. I like writing this way—in my head, in pieces, letting the pieces join hands over time. Once I’ve written an essay in pieces, I print it, chop it up (literally), and move the bits around on the floor until it works for me.
I love writing about science, and I once had someone tell me I should stop writing about people’s stories alongside science writing, because it was clear where my affections lie! I’m always conscious of the fact that people will turn off in the face of too many technical terms or too much science without a personal face. I try to write about science in a way that incorporates rhythm and beauty and poetry, and frankly, I have to force myself to include actual stories. I just want to write lush descriptions of molecules! For me, more challenges arise when I try to incorporate elements of story in an essay, but hearing from readers who identify with a personal element makes me want to try harder to offer those pieces of my self and my family.
ER: Obviously your intuition for craft works in your favor. For the record, I’ve heard faculty in WWU’s MFA Program advocate the scissors and floor method of revision. Tried and true.
I’m curious about the challenges of story for you. Can I ask the opposite of my last question? Beyond your understandable desire to focus on “lush descriptions of molecules,” what challenges do you face when you offer those especially personal or family stories to your readers?
NV: You know, I think part of it is just that I’m not a narrative person. I like listening to and reading stories, but I’m not a great oral storyteller. I grew up reading a lot of Russian fiction and Norse poetry, so I like a long sentence, and I like meaning conveyed through rhythm, and I guess I’m okay if a story happens at some point.
I really have to make an effort to tell personal stories, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s just work. I’m conscious of trying to maintain the complexity of other people when they’re written down. I also have a belief that if I’m writing about someone in a negative or positive way, I have to give something negative or positive of myself in equal measure. Problems arise with this practice, because I have great affection for the badness and sadness in other people, but very little for these qualities in myself.
In my experience, an especially personal story can be wonderful gift. I wrote an essay a few years ago (now published in Crab Orchard Review) about my mom’s history of self-mutilation, and I had such a wonderful experience talking with her about the essay. Sometimes, the worst thing in the world isn’t to be revealed; it’s to be misunderstood. My mother and I understand each other rarely, so my being able to put a troubling part of her life into words brought us closer.
Compassion and affection are necessary to telling personal stories, but those qualities are difficult to convey in writing about people. If I write about hemoglobin, people might naturally assume I have an affection for hemoglobin, else why write about it? But if I write about my mother, that sustained gaze isn’t enough to convey love. I have to let a little bit of my blood, then mix it into the story, and I think that gets closer to what love looks like on the page.
ER: It’s been far too long since I’ve taken chemistry for me to venture into this analogy, but I’ll attempt it in honor of your love of the subject. You use words like positive and negative to talk about matching your own vulnerability and self-compassion with the compassion and complexity you give to the people you write about. For me, that brings to mind covalent bonds between atoms—the shared electrons, the attraction of those negative charges to both nuclei at once, the strong bond that can create.
What you said about writing as a potential vessel for shared understanding reminds me of a passage in your essay in Bellingham Review. You suggest that movement of the body can also be a movement toward shared understanding. You write, “Consider it—to be understood. To be looked at, gazed at, not just acknowledged, but understood. To have another being or structure hit the nail on the head, grasp the significance, the meaning of you. You don’t even know the meaning of you. So you move.”
You’re a writer and a dancer. What does each art form allow you in that push toward understanding? What are the limits of each? How do these forms and their accompanying allowances and limitations complement or inform each other in your life and your work?
NV: I love that analogy! In addition to creating a strong bond, sharing electrons also helps create new forms—molecules whose structures affect everything we sense. And as any frustrated student of organic chemistry can tell you, molecules can be made up of exactly the same elements in the same quantities, but be completely different because of how they’re bonded. It’s the connections that matter. If you go by what’s on the surface, the sum of parts, you put yourself in pretty great danger. Chemistry talk! You started it!
I struggle with the concept of understanding other people and things and being understood. I think many people walk around feeling like there’s something, big or small, that’s irrevocably wrong with them, that they’re separate from everyone else. I know I feel this way sometimes, and art is the only way to counter it. Both writing and dance work this way for me. I write to be seen, and writing is a fabulous tool for being seen in intimate ways. I couldn’t walk up to someone and start speaking about myself or my family in the way that I’ve written about these things in “It Hates Its Double Bond.” But writing offers a kind of control or a morphing power, a way to show the world in whatever light I’d like. I believe wholeheartedly that writing can change anything for better or worse.
Dance is trickier, but there’s nothing like shared movement and shared touch to understand someone and be understood. Movement—whether it’s watching someone’s hands start shaking after he’s yelled at or watching a dancer channel emotional pain through a Graham contraction—is a blow to the gut, a really effective message about what’s happening inside another person. Dance is also incredibly frustrating for me, because I relearned movement when I was four, and some things got lost. I can’t interpret certain types of movement demonstrated by another dancer, and that loss of shared intimacy in dance can feel devastatingly lonely. I think that’s why I write quite a bit about dance; I like to find the parts that hurt or feel lonely and pick at them. And occasionally, I’ll dance out a piece of text if it’s getting too dense. For whatever reason, moving to words builds space for them.
ER: Thank you so much for your thoughtful responses, Natalie. I’ll close by asking what writing we can look forward to from you—what projects are you working on, what’s forthcoming?
NV: I have an essay called “Unnatural Acts: A Primer” coming out in the fall 2014 issue of The Normal School, and I’ll be reading on The Normal School‘s “Midwestern Essayists” panel at AWP this April. I’ve also been focused on writing text to go along with my “125 hearts” project to possibly create an artist’s book or series of prints.
Read more about Natalie Vestin on her website. Vestin has a forthcoming nonfiction chapbook about astronomy, violence, and dance. Look for it next winter from MIEL Books. The chapbook is tentatively titled When Tides Mean Something Is Given.
ELLIE ROGERS is currently studying poetry in the MFA Creative Writing program at Western Washington University. She is the assistant managing editor of Bellingham Review. Her poems appear in Crab Creek Review, Floating Bridge Review, and Midwestern Gothic. Visit her website at elliearogers.wordpress.com.