- Writers Retreat
- Writers in School
- OUR SUPPORTERS
I first met Stephanie Burt at the 2012 Twin Cities Book Festival when she held a copy of my novel Being Emily to her heart and said, “This is me.” She was moderating the panel I was on and afterward we snuck out to eat fries and talk about comic books—a conversation we’ve continued and expanded since then.
Stephanie is a poet, critic and Harvard professor with several books of criticism and four collections of poems, including Advice from the Lights (2017); she started to publicly come out as trans in 2011 and has been drawn more into trans–and queer-identified writing since. She also wrote the introduction to the new and expanded edition of Being Emily (2018).
Rachel Gold: People don’t know that you helped me a lot with the edits to this new edition of Being Emily. What was that like for you?
Stephanie Burt: It was unlike any other experience of writing or editing that I have ever had, and made me want to work with you on other projects. This is partly because my experience of reading the first edition of Being Emily was so exceptional—here was a book about me, about a part of myself that I had only recently become able to recognize, written by somebody I had not yet met! And Being Emily, unlike a lot of novels, is supposed to work that way: it’s a mirror for trans girls who have never been able to look in the mirror before (you even put a scene early in Being Emily that uses a mirror that way).
Some of the revisions to Being Emily involved making the narrative work better, which meant that I got to see what it’s like for a skillful, experienced novelist to revise a long narrative. And some of the revisions involved putting in more scenes or more dialogue that described more accurately what it’s like to be me, or someone like me. So I feel like I helped!
Gold: You did! You let me send you an immense number of emails with parts of scenes to make sure it all sounded right. I don’t usually do that in my drafting process. You were very fun and easy to go back and forth with, and taught me not just about description but about community and the necessity of other people.
Burt: Being Emily is a novel about finding community, about finding people who can see you in the ways that you want or need to be seen. So the process of revising it with you was sometimes amusingly meta.
Also, Being Emily is a novel that’s full of pointers to other texts and works of art: to books that belong on any trans 101 reading list (Kate Bornstein, for example) but also to other nonrealist modes that can help tell trans stories: video games, and tabletop role playing games, and stories about super-powered mutants, stories that would have been accessible to teens in the years when the novel takes place.
One of the things I love about YA is the way it permits didacticism. How do didactic goals—how to come out as trans in Being Emily; nonbinary and intersex identities and sexualities in Nico & Tucker; mental health in My Year Zero—drive, interact with, or get reconciled with the goals of creating memorable characters and telling compelling stories?
Gold: If I do it well, the didactic goals help create memorable characters. All of us have points of view we’re passionate about, so of course fictional characters have them. One key is to make sure that the goal is coming from the character, rather than the character being a mouthpiece for the author’s goals. I spend time researching and inquiring into the points I make, and caring about different viewpoints, so the finished novel isn’t one right viewpoint being crammed in the reader’s face. Even in Being Emily, you can see two different ways to be a trans girl, through Emily and her friend Natalie, and then more trans viewpoints at the support group they visit.
It’s much more fun to write and read about characters struggling in a rich landscape of ideas rather than a very clear good/bad dichotomy. Of course some ideas are better than others, but I’d rather prove that to the reader than simply tell them.
Burt: How have your goals changed from book to book? Have you been writing different books for different audiences, or for different aspects of yourself?
Rachel: The audience of queer & trans youth is always central to my books. I talk to queer & trans kids whenever I can and ask them what they’re looking for and what they need. But you don’t always know what you need when you’re a kid, because you don’t always know what’s possible, so I think a lot about what my younger self needed and try to provide that. And I have to write what fascinates me or I won’t have the energy to get through a novel draft and all the edits.
You interact with younger selves in your poetry in fascinating (and often fun) ways. I love your teenaged Stephanie poems. We both write what we needed and in some ways rewrite what happened, or write another layer over what happened. How has your writing changed, especially since your beautiful public transition to Stephanie?
Burt: I care a lot more, and more specifically, about queer and trans readers: at least some of my new poems count as trans writing for trans readers For a while, especially in 2017, somebody would come out to me, or ask me about their trans kid, several times a week. That kind of experience, over and over, has to change how you write, and who you write for.
Gold: In sharing our drafts and processes, what are we teaching each other about writing longer or shorter?
Burt: I think you see stories first—sequences of events in which characters grow and make choices and change—and I see static moments, and characters who inhabit those moments first. So I press you for description, and you press me to say what happens next. It’s clearly good for me.
Gold: It’s good for both of us! In lyric poetry, without a narrative, the description has to carry so much weight and attention. You’re showing me new ways to put description to work inside my narratives.
Burt: Also, if you are socialized—as I have been—into fairly traditional ways of reading poetry and fiction, you may well imbibe the idea that tragedy is the highest form of literature, that the greatest and best stories show how we resign ourselves to things we can’t fight or change, or else destroy ourselves in a futile fight.
That’s garbage. Tragedy is a valid kind of plot, and there are some things we can’t ultimately fight (nobody is immortal), but the idea that the best writing valorizes resignation or frustration, that high literary writing means nobody wins, is an idea for which I no longer have any use at all. It’s an idea inextricable from the closet, inextricable from the idea that anything natural is inevitable, from the idea that being trans is a lie or a curse. And working with you—not just reading your work but working with you—has helped me overcome it. You can see the results in what I’m writing now.
Gold: Reading is a more active pursuit than watching TV/movies, and in that sense is more like playing a game, which you make even more game-like in your poetry through your use of layers, references, puzzles—including what gamers call Easter eggs. Are some of your poems or poetry collections also games for readers to play with you and each other?
Burt: All of them are games, though none of them are just games, or only games.
A lot of us who grow up with identities that can’t be made clear to others, or that don’t make sense to ourselves, learn to show what’s in our hearts and souls indirectly, with plausible deniability, in ways that look like we are just playing a game; and by playing that game, or designing that game, we can also see farther into our hearts, and even into the hearts of our readers, if they’re willing to play the same game.
“Easter eggs” is a term from video gaming, but I realize I’ve said something that could apply to tabletop role-playing games, with their collaborative narrative creations (the most famous such game is Dungeons and Dragons). Working with you on Being Emily has felt, in the best sense, like being part of a tabletop role-playing game, where you get to meet the real-life players through interacting with their characters. Outcome: I want very deeply to come back to that game and take part in the next campaign.
About Stephanie Burt:
Stephanie Burt teaches at Harvard University, sharing with students not only her expertise in poetry, but also LGBTQ literature and graphic novels and comics. She is the author of several texts on poetry, including Close Calls With Nonsense: Reading New Poetry (2009), The Forms of Youth: Twentieth-Century Poetry and Adolescence (2007), and The Poem Is You: Sixty Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them (2016). Her essays have been featured in a wide range of publications, including the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Review, and the Times Literary Supplement. She has also published four full-length collections of poetry, among them Belmont (2013), and her latest, Advice from the Lights.
About Rachel Gold:
Raised on world mythology, fantasy novels, comic books and magic, Rachel is well suited for her careers in marketing and writing. She is the author of multiple award-winning queer & trans Young Adult novels, including Being Emily (2012, 2018), Just Girls (2014), My Year Zero (2015), and Nico & Tucker (2017). As a marketing strategist, Rachel gives presentations and trains professionals on topics ranging from branding to search engine optimization. But if that makes her sound too corporate and stuffy, you should know that Rachel is an all around geek and avid gamer. She also teaches at The Loft Literary Center, including a course that is a role-playing game. For more information visit: www.rachelgold.com.