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Ross Gay on How We Can Change, Sentence By Sentence

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Alex Chambers: A while back, Ross Gay was trying to write a book that was going to make him an expert. It was a book that would, as he put it, get him on the shows. He wasn't having much fun. And then he read, How Literature Saved My Life where David Shields wonders about himself and literature through a lot of short playful entries. Reading that book gave Ross permission--

Ross Gay: To be writing stuff that felt fascinating. Not only because it was like, interesting so called subject matter, but because it was like, the unfolding understanding of who I might be.

Alex Chambers: This week on Inner States, Ross Gay and I talk about his latest book, The Book of (More) Delights. It drops on Tuesday about his relationship to that most basic unit of writing, the sentence. About digression and about how part of being an adult is accepting that people do things for reasons they don't always understand. Ourselves included.

Alex Chambers: But first, as you know, this is a public radio show. Not only that, it's a local public radio show, handcrafted in the studios of WFIU Bloomington. And we also use local ingredients. Ross Gay maybe a nationally known writer, but he's also a local. As are Honey Hodges, Todd Burkhardt and Joyce Jeffries, just about everyone I've spoken with has some insight into Southern Indiana.

Alex Chambers: So much of our media is national, but you can't get an in-depth understanding of your community that way. That's what we do here on Inner States and your support makes that happen. If it matters to you to be able to listen to thoughtful conversation and stories about life in Indiana, support our work. Call 800-662-3311 or go to and thanks.

Alex Chambers: Okay, let's get to it. In Annie Dillard's book, The Writing Life, she tells us this story about a famous writer visiting a college campus. A college student came up to him and asked, "Do you think I could be a writer?" The famous writer responded, "Well, do you like sentences?"

Alex Chambers: Dillard goes on, if he had liked sentences of course he could begin. Like a joyful painter I know. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, "I liked the smell of paint."

Alex Chambers: I thought of this story because a few weeks ago I was chatting with Ross. If you listen to the show often, you probably know him. He's been on a good bit. And if you don't listen to this show but you read books, you also have a good chance of knowing him, since he's written a bunch of them including Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, The Book of Delights, Inciting Joy.

Alex Chambers: Anyway, Ross and I were chatting, and he asked if I'd read any good sentences lately. It was not a surprising question coming from Ross. As a writer, Ross seems especially interested in the sentence as a form. I would think most writers would be. Remember what Annie Dillard said a second ago. But Ross especially. Along with very digressive sentences in his essays, he's got a book length poem, Beholding, that consists of one long one that actually never ends. I used to love writing long sentences, but I don't do it so much anymore, because these days when I'mwriting, I'm usually writing for you, dear listener and long convoluted or just digressive sentences are harder to follow. Which is to say, it might have been envy that made me wanna talk about long convoluted sentences and short ones too with Ross.

Alex Chambers: So, I just wonder how you're thinking about sentences these days?

Ross Gay: It's such a great question and I do think audience is a big thing about it. In a way it doesn't have to do anything with the audience's desire or anything or relationship to the sentence. It more has to do with sort of the way that they're taking the sentence in, I guess. I learned that so acutely this year when I was reading The Delights for the audio book. I have all of these parenthetical, sometimes long parenthetical things and you might call them mini digressions. But on the page, they're just fine. [LAUGHS] And when I'm reading them out loud, I realize like, oh, these are not that easy to read, to communicate. I'll kind of introduce in the middle of a sentence an idea and then the sentence goes on and on and on. And that idea, because it was a parenthetical, it sort of jets through. It's hard and so, that made me think and I changed some of them for the audio book. I kind of revised them a little bit. So, that's one thing that I want to say. The context is sort of significant, like, where the sentences exist.

Ross Gay: That being said, I'm really interested in the ways that our thinking is documented, and I think sentences can do that. You know, I think a sentence can kind of be like the artifact. Artifact's not exactly the right word, but it's the evidence of the transformation that the thinking makes happen. For me and I think probably for a lot of people, that is not like a straight shot. That's often kind of digressive and wandering and you know, you've got to go over here to get over here. I'm really interested in that, and I'm interested in it for a lot of reasons. One of the reasons being is that I'm interested in how people change and I'm interested in watching people change, you know? Myself included. Even from the beginning of a sentence to the end of a sentence, that's fascinating to me. Like, damn, you used to think that, you know, 48 words ago. [LAUGHS]

Alex Chambers: Back at the capital letter.

Ross Gay: Yes. [LAUGHS]

Alex Chambers: I feel like you're pushing out against like what we want to expect from the focused clarity of a sentence and I was kind of wondering if that has anything to do with how you feel about institutions? [LAUGHS]

Ross Gay: Well, it's so funny that a sentence is called a sentence.

Alex Chambers: Yes, that's true.

Ross Gay: You know that you mentioned the book, Beholding, which is a book length poem about where I sort of ruminate on and digress from this move of Dr. Jay's from the 1980 NBA Finals. It was actually in a class with J. Kameron Carter, this theologian writer, beautiful writer and thinker, where I can't remember what he said, but he was sort of talking about, I don't know, he was talking about grammar. I don't know, he was talking about something about language. [LAUGHS] But I think it was in that class where I was like, "Oh, this book." Which I had been thinking of as a one sentence book. I had to take the period off the end, because I wanted to un-sentence the thinking, you know? And I was thinking very much of it, like, to take it out of a confinement, you know? I thinking you're noting something that, yes, I do, whether or not I'm always thinking about it. Sometimes I'm just like having fun, you know, just plainly just like having fun. But sometimes I'm for sure, trying to figure out ways probably inside of what you might call the institution of the sentence, that are in your head. [LAUGHS] It's kind of like that, it's pretty good.

Ross Gay: How you can kind of twist it all up so that maybe it doesn't even look like what it is, you know? Yes, and also another thing I was thinking about when you were asking the question and thinking about audience is that I relate to my work so much as someone who reads his work. So, I'm always in my head, prepared to have my body there to kind of mediate what's hard to get without me there. So, there is something also about the body and I don't know exactly what it is, but there is some sense of like, I'm always imagining myself there being like, just hold that and then let's go over here for a while. [LAUGHS] And you can do that real good with your hands. You can like touch someone on the elbow and be like, "Hang on, hang og, you got that?" That could be a little trickier on a page or in an audio book, but it's still fun to try.

Alex Chambers: [LAUGHS] It's still worth trying.

Ross Gay: Yes, that's right.

Alex Chambers: It's just like one more example of how much bodies are important and like, touching or communicating with our hands, you know, gestures or eyes. You know, even if you're on stage and you can't literally touch the shoulder of everyone in the audience. Although, I wouldn't put it past you though. [LAUGHS] He'll do that.

Ross Gay: The question is, like 'are there ways inside of the language that we're using or inside of the forms that we're using that are inside of the methods that we're using that you can kind of almost do that?' Is there a way that an address in a sentence can approach, can be almost like having your hand on someone's shoulder? I also think it's interesting too that we're talking about this because we both come out of this sort of, whatever you would call them, more bodily practices. Like, theater, poetry stuff like that where you're very infrequently not thinking about your body and space and people regarding your body.

Alex Chambers: Which I think is not how a lot of people think about writing books.

Ross Gay: Totally, at all. [LAUGHS] Yes, I think it often is like, a particular sort of solitude that isn't imagining itself beyond the page, like getting it on a stage say and sharing the work or whatever. But yes, what do you think about that?

Alex Chambers: Well, where my mind went honestly, was when you said a particular kind of solitude, I was thinking about how this book, really, I think the first Book of Delights, all your recent books are so much in conversation with so many other people. Like, you can see in the books you like, talk about writing The Delights, you know, out in a café or whatever. But it's just so clear how much all the people you're connected with become part of the writing and maybe you're sometimes alone when you're writing but it's so easy to picture you just like, it feels like a conversation so much with other people.

Ross Gay: Yes and I mean it to be that way. Yes, and I feel like when it's most interesting to me, the writing, is when I'm having a conversation with myself. But myself is made up of a lot of people. [LAUGHS] So, it's very fun. Sometimes when I would be reading one of these essays, as I was tightening them up with Stephanie my partner and I would say something and she would say, "Wait a second, what about blah blah blah blah? " And I would be like, "Hang on." Because in a way, I would've been anticipating the conversation. And then the next sentence would answer thequestion that she had. [LAUGHS] Because you know, I think of it as a kind of dialogic thinking that I'm doing all the time. That's how I write what I think, when I'm at my most interesting. I'm sort of having a conversation with myself and again, you're one of my selves. You know, all of these people whose questions, ideas, stuff is in my head, you know?

Alex Chambers: Let's take a quick break. When we come back, we'll hear about Ross's discovery that writing can be, maybe should be kind of fun. Stick around. 

Alex Chambers: Welcome back to Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers.

Alex Chambers: Plenty of writers see what they do as a kind of conversation and, you know, talking with people is pretty fun, right? That's not how a lot of people see the process of writing, though. In one of the delights in the new book, Ross talks encountering David Shields' book, How Literature Saved my Life, and how it kind of saved his writing life.

Ross Gay: It's so interesting. I feel like I was introduced to this book. I found this book shortly after I can remember reading a little bit of a book that I was working on to you and maybe Dave, was there, I can't remember. And then I was going back east for a while on a fellowship, and I was going to be working on a book about my relationship to the land, ostensibly, but I had this idea that it was going to be a really authoritative book about black farming, history, et cetera.

Alex Chambers: And it was going to make you an expert?

Ross Gay: It was going to make me an expert and then here I say it and I actually mean it. It was going to get me invited onto the shows [LAUGHS].

Ross Gay: I don't know what I was thinking. I'd love to talk to that person. But it sucked. It was so instructive and interesting but in terms of the writing process, it was so uninteresting. I was just trying to become a master. It wasn't the only book that I encountered but I did encounter this book by David Shields called How Literature Saved my Life. It's about his relationship to books and it's weird and digressive. Mostly short little entries and very literary. It's bouncing around all kinds of books but it's also very personal little stories about this and that and it feels in retrospect like he was having such a good time writing it. It felt like he was so fascinating to himself.

Ross Gay: I shouldn't have to say this, but not in a navel-gazing way. In a way of what is this person I call myself? So interesting, as he talks about his childhood or the books that he loves or his family. And I think without me knowing it at the time, I did get a kind of permission to be writing stuff that felt fascinating, not only because it was interesting so-called subject matter, but because it was like the unfolding understanding of who I might be. It rooted in me. Going back, I think I had other models for that, but there was something about that one that just kind of clicked with me.

Alex Chambers: I think part of what you are interested in, in that delight, is that interest in who you might be but one of the things I've noticed that you talked about was that it can also be uncomfortable. I feel like we have this desire to know ourselves and to figure out who we are and then be that person in the world. And there's some comfort in accepting who you are. Accepting this is what I'm going to do. But then you talk about how it can be scary to un-know yourself.

Ross Gay: First of all, my experience is that it's not infrequently I'm reminded I don't know a goddamn thing about myself.

Alex Chambers: Yeah, right.

Ross Gay: You know, oh I didn't know that [LAUGHS]. And to me that feels like part of being an adult. And part of being an adult is realizing that we don't understand ourselves, we don't understand our motivations, or sometimes even our desires. We probably understand plenty of them but to imagine that we're completely known to ourselves. Also, to have that as an aspiration to get to the end of oneself or something like that. I don't know about that either, but in terms of how we are then required and encouraged to project that self-knowledge and self-mastery, whether it be because you're a personality in some kind of way or because you're in school and you're getting graded on being complete in a certain kind of way. I feel like that's lonely and sad, and it feels like fun and curious and terrifying and unnerving when you think these things that I know about myself or imagine I know about myself are actually less stable than I think. And furthermore, the amount of things that I don't know about myself probably greatly outnumber it. [LAUGHS]

Ross Gay: What I do know, and a lot of the **** that I don't know about myself is not the sweetest things [LAUGHS].

Alex Chambers: Right.

Ross Gay: And that's part of the thing. It's so fun to me to be around adults. And when I say adults, I don't care how old they are but people who say yeah, aren't we complicated? [LAUGHS]

Ross Gay: People who laugh at the idea of purity.

Alex Chambers: Right. I feel like you don't talk explicitly about purity much, but it's really there throughout. This idea of needing to be something cleanly and clearly and all these desires that we might have that are messed up in one way or another. We're just going to get rid of those, we're gonna tamp those down. I'm thinking back to a conversation I had a few months ago with Hannah Zeavin who runs Parapraxis Magazine about Freudian psychoanalysis, that we can never really fully know who we are and a lot that we might not notice about who we are is probably stuff we're trying not to notice.

Ross Gay: Absolutely. And I think it's really important to think oh right, I'm a really complicated person. Of course, if we acknowledge that to ourselves, I think it permits a kind of understanding of other people that again, to me, feels like a more satisfying way of being alive, as opposed to the alternative, which is let me not notice what about myself is unpleasant. [LAUGHS]

Ross Gay: And as I don't do that, then I can be a cop to everyone else [LAUGHS] because they slipped. They let their little part out. But the other thing that I think is really important about this too is that we don't seem to like to acknowledge our ******ness, which constitutes to me a kind of frailty. And when I say ******ness I don't mean that in an evaluative way. I mean it as we're people, we're changing. But another one of those things it seems to me is often, and sadly suppressed or repressed is our heartbrokenness and that feels to me like just another very significant way that we withhold ourselves from each other. So our capacity to be gentle, tender and curious about each other seems to be withheld when we're not saying, oh yeah the other thing is that I'm actually very heartbroken.

Alex Chambers: Always.

Ross Gay: Always. And I have enough experience to imagine that you are too. [LAUGHS]

Alex Chambers: So that was where the pleasure came from in the writing. Getting to allow yourself to un-know yourself, explore who you were and what you were interested in in the world too. Not just in a navel-gazing sort of way.

Ross Gay: Yes, for sure. And to be very brass tacks, I would think, oh today is the day that I write about this thing. I know that this part of the essay that I need to get to today, I'm going to be thinking about this experience of my life and to come to a place in my writing where I wonder what happened. It's my history, I lived through it. But to be thinking oh, I've already slotted into a thing, probably walking around with the thing as I know what happened. But to have a relationship to my writing to think, man I can't wait to find out all about that thing that I lived through. And I've been thinking about it this way for 35 years. That's going to be interesting.

Alex Chambers: I'm curious how it was moving from the longer essays in the Joy book, back to The Delights.

Ross Gay: Well, two things are going on here. One is that I was writing them at the same time, half of the Delights I was writing as I was writing Inciting Joy. And a couple of the Delights became parts of Inciting Joy, which was interesting. That form is I write them by hand, I write them daily and I write them in 30 minutes or less. It's really fun, as practice, just to sit down, you know it's not going to take a long time. You have a question, something delighted you, you took a walk, your friend gave you pawpaws, what is that about? To me, that is very satisfying.

Ross Gay: And it's four years since I finished the first book to get back to this form. It just felt like oh, this is fun and also curious too. I wonder what it was going to be like this time around. I don't think I felt like I had it down. I definitely felt like I was relearning the process, but it remained weird to me, in a certain kind of way. I didn't nail it and one of the things that I resist in this is that because you do it every day and because it is a practice, you could do it without doing the things that I like to do in writing which is un-know myself and it kept on allowing me to un-know myself.

Alex Chambers: I remember as you were writing these at one point, you said to me something about anger. There being more anger is this set of Delights. And I wonder if we could talk about one of them. I don't know if beautiful is the right word, but there's a formal thing going on in the minor cordiality and also there's anger and there's also this grace at the same time.

Alex Chambers: The reason Ross didn't know what I meant is that I had read a review copy of the Book of More Delights before the interview and this is why review copies say check with the publisher before quoting from this because sometimes revisions aren't finished yet. I reminded Ross which essay it was and he gave me some news that kind of threw off my interviewing plans.

Ross Gay: That changed.

Alex Chambers: It changed?

Ross Gay: Yeah, that came out.

Alex Chambers: Oh, it came out?

Ross Gay: I mean that essay is in there, but that section of it changed.

Alex Chambers: Oh really?

Ross Gay: Yes. I should read it and then we could talk about it on the fly. And this is actually a really good example of how the form remains strange to me because these versions are different enough that you can see that the form didn't confine the amount of revision that could happen. These are, in a way, the beginnings of these longer meditations or more difficult meditations or often meditations that I don't yet even know how to do. This one is called the minor cordiality.

Ross Gay: There is a species of human I so adore, I realized, I felt, as I drove today by an old farmhouse on the corner of the bottom of a big hill and the species of human in this case was in the shape of a big burly fella in overalls with long, stringy hair and a bountiful beard, who, leaning forward on his rocking chair, tossed a wave at me in the shape of a peace sign, along with a little butterfly of a smile. It might be this minor cordiality waving from the porch at, I'm presuming, whoever goes by. I'm telling you, the ease and skill with which he dispatched his wares made me feel like it was his vocation, his calling. It so warms my heart today, in part, because just a few days ago, not a hundred yards away on this very road, heading to the same place, I passed someone who seemed like a volunteer fireman. Pickup truck with magnet light on top flashing meant, I would learn, to dissuade anyone from continuing. Though since he was parked on the side of the road, I thought it meant caution, not stop.

Ross Gay: I kept going until I heard him start yelling and saw him in my rear view waving me back and when I got back to him he leaned in my window, his Kids R Us badge dangling from his lanyard and he asked me, sort of excited, imitating the questions cops love to ask when they pull you over. Cops love our documents and although the synergism might not exactly hold, I'll offer it anyway. If we give a **** about documents, we too are cops. Where I was going in such a hurry. By the fourth time he asked, smiling now as he was titillated, it seemed at this meager scrap of power. Though I didn't see it with my own eyes, I wouldn't have been surprised if he had an erection. A chubby at least. "Where are you going in such a hurry?" Which seemed irrelevant to his duty of alerting people to the accident ahead and that we'd have to go another way.

Ross Gay: I do not have to tell you and I'm not the first one to say so, but a badge will **** you up. Whether it's this guy's plastic one or someone else's aluminum one or the color of our skin or our testicles or how much money we make or the language we speak or our citizenship of a given, duh, this country. Our badges **** us up royally. I don't care who we think we are. #unbadge.

Ross Gay: Anyhow, after I grumbled, "I'm going to the supermarket", I spent the next two hours fantasizing that I'd said, "None of your goddamn business", or "eat me" or "your mama's" and because I didn't say any of those things I was stuck also fantasizing about mauling this dude who, from this angle, looked to me like the second string center on my 1990 JV football team. Yanking his badge from his milky neck, slinging him to the ground, stomping him a little bit. I don't actually know if you can stomp a little bit. And as he's crawling away like a cherry on top out of a Cormack McCarthy novel, asking him where he's going so fast.

Ross Gay: Friends, here's the thing. I spent a good while, not inordinate but far more than the alloted 30 minutes in which I try to corral these thoughts. First draft, yes. Trying to get my head around this not quite blow-offable rage. So fully formed, so embodied. Hair trigger you might say. Even if the trigger is on a raise that stays most often pointed inward.

Ross Gay: That it seems to come from the long memory. Epigenetic again seems the right word, of badged mother****ers telling my folks where they can be and where they can't. What they can do and what they can't. This neighborhood, this pool, this sidewalk, this restaurant, this water fountain, this college, this church, this movie theater. This basketball court, this job, this stage, this hospital. This relationship, this land, this life. All of which seems useful rage to contemplate, critical rage I've heard it called. Though needful rage I might say too, particularly as it helps us imagine abolishing the conditions by which the rage came to pass, rather than take ownership of the conditions and inflicting them on someone else.

Ross Gay: Particularly if the rage did not become the ground of our gathering and our imagining and our dreaming as it has threatened to do here. If the rage is not its own objective, by which I mean, if the rage is a bridge to love. There is a reason an alternative title for this book is The Book of Despites.

Ross Gay: In addition to the porch wavers and their ilk. The hat tippers, the head nodders, the thumbs uppers and fist pumpers, are whoever makes it their business often, but by no means only, people working in diners, post offices, laundromats, cafes, supermarkets, bookstores, bakeries, train stations, et cetera to call us baby, or babe, or honey, or sweetheart, or love. There are angels in this world who call people they don't know love. Some of them, and this makes my heart a flock of giraffes, a gaggle of manatees, are like 20 years old. Sugar sometimes too, people say, along with pa,l or cousin, or brother, or young blood or, here in Indiana, and this I had to check wasn't fighting words for I'm really not from here, bub. Bub means pal. It means friend or what's good? Which might be one of the subtitles of this book of despites and who, in the busy café, or bakery, or Vietnamese joint, or pizzeria, or library, seeing you seeing there are no more seats, invites you to sit at their table simply by pointing or moving their stuff or pushing the chair out with their foot. And probably smiling.

Ross Gay: Who smiles at you and who lets you merge when you're driving and who holds the door at the elevator. Who asks, could you use this. And who stays with you when they see you need help. And who tracks you down to give you the wallet you left on the train. And who helps when your doggy takes off. And who swipes you in when they see your ticket's not working. And who stops when you blow a tire or the radiator's shot. And who gives directions when you ask. And who walks you there.

Alex Chambers: It both goes bigger and more specific in terms of what the rage is about. But then it also doesn't go into this other story.

Ross Gay: Yes, which feels like another kind of writing thing. That's a story that's so interesting to me, the part that got cut out. And basically, my friend Brooke, who is a director; she was putting on a show at La Mamma in New York and I had been helping them load in the set all day. As I was getting ready to go in, the dude taking tickets, under his breath, said something like, these people are always trying to get in for free [LAUGHS]. I lost my mind. There's been a handful of times where I was close to strangling a stranger [LAUGHS] and that was one of them. It pushed a button so hard. And I feel like I got closer to articulating what that button might actually be. It's not just like someone hurt my feelings.

Ross Gay: It's almost damn, the way that that triggered something for you. In this new version of the essay, I explain how that's not just about you. When I bring up this epigenetic. Oh yeah, bummer, he was a dick to you but...

Alex Chambers: It's time for another break. When we come back, you'll hear me telling Ross why I thought his earlier version was better. Stick around.

Alex Chambers: Inner States. Alex Chambers. I'm talking with Ross Gay about his new book, The Book of (More) Delights. It comes out on Tuesday. To prep for this interview, I read the advance readers copy, and I wanted to remind Ross how his minor cordiality essay ended in the version I had. He said, "My pointing finger too was very close to his face. I remember him wincing a little and looking into the sky and blowing his smoke out the side of his mouth away from me. 'Mother****er, you'd better,' I was glaring. In fact, he was leaning away from me, a little braced for what might be about to come, for what was oncoming. And God, I bet you he just wanted to be left alone." You know that feeling?

Ross Gay: [LAUGHS] It's really good.

Alex Chambers: It's a good ending. [LAUGHS]

Ross Gay: It's really good. Yeah.

Ross Gay: And, I mean personally, I actually think that ending still gets at that bigger thing.

Ross Gay: Yeah.

Alex Chambers: I mean, clearly it's about a bigger thing than just him being a dick to you and you reacting.

Ross Gay: Yeah.

Alex Chambers: I don't know? I think what I liked about the original, and I don't know as an interviewer if it's, like, I'm allowed to critique your change. [LAUGHS]

Ross Gay: Oh, please do. [LAUGHS] Please do. You probably won't have a lot of chance to do that, you know?

Alex Chambers: No, it's true. It's true. Yeah. What I liked about the original was that, I feel like I've seen you talk about fantasies of doing something rageful. This was an actual moment where we heard an anecdote of you just about actually physically doing something.

Ross Gay: Yeah.

Alex Chambers: And then it turns at the last second. It turns to what that guy's experience was also, and is also reflecting and reverberating with this bigger idea throughout the book too about how we're all complicated and, like, we all mess up.

Ross Gay: Yeah.

Alex Chambers: And yeah, I mean, he was channeling something that is cause for legitimate abiogenetic rage and also, he was a person.

Ross Gay: Yeah, totally. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

Alex Chambers: So, that's why I like the original ending.

Ross Gay: Yeah. This is a good, like, writerly thing too, which is that that wasn't the original either by far.

Alex Chambers: That makes sense.

Ross Gay: Like trying to figure out where it was getting to, I brought the whole thing about the theater in. So that was a way to kind of, like, in a way, unknow the experience, you know? I just had the delightful experience, then it sort of led me to be like, well, why is this so delightful? And then it led me to this story with Brooke. But it took me a while, actually, to try to figure out like, oh, what's a good example of the opposite of that minor cordiality, like the minor ******ness. [LAUGHS] And that, as you know, it's a good example. And the way you point it out makes me think, yeah, it's a better example than I thought too, because it puts the guy on the hook, but yeah, it just shows the thing of like man, a little bit everyone wants to be left alone.

Alex Chambers: Yeah. I feel like it puts the guy on the hook. It puts you a little bit on the hook too. And then shows this kind of parallel experience, even if at the same time there's still the history of brutality you've folded into all that.

Ross Gay: Yeah, sure.

Alex Chambers: In another delight called, "The Complimentary Style," a server at a café compliments him on his style and at first you're like, ah hey. And then you kind of notice that she's complimenting everyone and you're like, "Is this just kind of a thing?" And with, at least in the draft that I have, the version I have, you end with your massage therapist saying to you, "You're always smiling, aren't you? Always have that big smile. I wonder what's behind that?"

Ross Gay: Well, I think that's such a great question in part because it feels to me, like a really useful question for a number of reasons. One, it feels like it's useful to be like, are you in fact always smiling? And why? Are you always happy? I'm not always happy. I think I'm probably not always smiling too. But in that context, I was just like beaming. [LAUGHS] And, you know, Iike, I don't know what else was going on, but it feels like a really interesting conclusion to an essay in which I'm sort of wondering about the kind of utility, and maybe like a little bit, like, the manipulativeness maybe, and also the survival, the need to sort of appeal in a certain kind of way.

Ross Gay: And this is a book called The Book of Delights, and what I think is very interesting about this book called The Book of (More) Delights is that they're often not delightful. They're threaded through with things that are undelightful. At the same time it's so interesting to me, there's a certain kind of sometimes response to those essays, and we talked about this, that you would think that they're just delightful. Like, even as I'm reading, you know, some reviews for this book that's about to come out, I'm like, damn, I wonder if they read past like number 13? [LAUGHS] And, of course, always there are very good readers and interesting reviews and commentaries on the book.

Ross Gay: But there is something about that, and I don't know what it is, but it felt like that thing of like, "Oh, you're always smiling. I wonder what's behind that?" It has some kind of vibration against the idea of The Book of Delights. And maybe implied is like, yeah, there's something behind that.

Alex Chambers: One of the complications that I think comes up a lot when you're using your own life as material, writing about yourself, and writing in the kind of very personal voice that Ross does, as you heard, one of the complications is that people get a sense that who you are on the page is who you are. Which is not to say that the narrator is a complete fiction or lie, but that the Ross on the page is one that he's constructed.

Ross Gay: I've had this experience where people haven't seen me for a little while, they've read the book and then they see me and they look at me like they know me differently, or they don't know me because they've been so with me but they haven't seen me. And that's a feature, I think, that in fact it is so diaristic, chronological, the voice, the sort of--

Alex Chambers: Very personal.

Ross Gay: The very personal voice, like all of those things we're talking about, kind of like trying to be in conversation with you while I'm on the page. But there is this other thing which I cherish and it's called privacy. [LAUGHS] And I feel like the older I get the more I cherish it. And it might be the more that I witness its obliteration, [LAUGHS] the more I cherish it. Anyway, so that's absolutely the case. Like, whenever I'm writing quote unquote, "personal essays," probably built into them is going to be, like, tremendous privacy. I think that's probably the case.

Alex Chambers: I did want to just talk a little bit more about Susan Sontag and Paul Goodman. Her elegy for Goodman. Can you just talk about what you got from reading that?

Ross Gay: Yeah. Susan Sontag has this beautiful elegy for the writer Paul Goodman. And it's in her book, "Under the Sign of Saturn." I think what's so moving to me about it, I think early on the essay she's away, she's maybe in, like, France or something and she's writing and she has very few books. She's sort of like intentionally having very few books as I recall. But one of the books she always has, she always has, like, a Goodman book, I'm pretty sure. I don't know if it's "Growing Up Absurd," but some Paul Goodman book. And by the end of the essay we learn that she considers him the most important American writer.

Ross Gay: But early on she also says that the first couple of times that they met he was a dick. And she kind of suspects that he just wasn't taking her serious because she was a young woman. And she doesn't get out of thinking that. She's not like, "No, that wasn't it." She's kind of like, "Yeah, I think..." As I recall in the essay she was kind of like, "Yeah." And then she goes on to sort of laud his writing and what he meant to her as a public intellectual and a figure, you know, and there are all of these things. And among those things is that he was openly gay, or bisexual in the '50s or something.

Ross Gay: He was a writer who did not quote unquote "stay in his lane." He wrote about like, psychology. He wrote about pedagogy. He wrote about social culture and stuff. He wrote poems, politics. Such an interesting figure. And to me, it is so moving because she is able to sort of regard this person as a complicated person. It's like this person being like, "Oh, yeah. I didn't like this part about him." And then all of this other stuff is, "Wow! Amazing!" [LAUGHS] you know? Which I think is sometimes difficult these days to come back to that, that desire for purity, you know?

Alex Chambers: Right.

Alex Chambers: And it is that thing about being an adult too.

Ross Gay: Yeah. It feels really refreshing to me to witness, I think grown. I think people are grown, who are able to witness that not everything about everyone is something that you're going to admire. [LAUGHS]

Alex Chambers: Yeah. And the problem too with the obverse of the kind of canceling of people, or like saying, "Oh, this person's completely horrible," is the other side of it is like, "Oh, this person's just great."

Ross Gay: Yeah.

Alex Chambers: "And doesn't have any problems."

Ross Gay: Yeah. Which is also like, to me, a kind of an ungrown way of imagining creatures. [LAUGHS]

Alex Chambers: Creatures. That's true.

Ross Gay: Yeah. It just doesn't make any sense. It doesn't make any sense. I mean, it makes perfect sense that we might aspire to present that way, but it makes no sense in terms of knowing ourselves or each other, or just like, yeah, being a person.

Alex Chambers: Yeah.

Ross Gay: Knowing the many things that I have been in the course of this last month. [LAUGHS] Not all of themgreat. [LAUGHS] Not all of them great. I'll tell you what. So, yeah, it's a beautiful elegy and not only for that reason, but also because she does say this thing about Paul Goodman which is like, he was sort of in and out of favor as a public intellectual too, because he wasn't like towing a line it seems like. He sort of had these ideas and he was what I think of like a proper public intellectual. He was thinking. And he wasn't like, "Oh, shoot. I'd better not say this because I'm not going to get on MSNBC anymore. [LAUGHS] He was like, "No, these are the ideas I'm having. This is what I'm seeing."

Alex Chambers: Right.

Ross Gay: Yeah.

Alex Chambers: Yeah. Not trying to be liked.

Ross Gay: Not trying to be liked. Yeah. In some way that like thing, and I don't know what it is, it's another show. It'll take a longer conversation. But that liked thing and that privacy thing overlap too.

Alex Chambers: Absolutely. I was thinking the same thing. When you just said there's a bunch of stuff you've been in in the past month.

Ross Gay: Yeah.

Alex Chambers: And I was thinking, that's not exactly what the privacy is about.

Ross Gay: No.

Alex Chambers: It's not about hiding all the ways we mess up.

Ross Gay: No.

Alex Chambers: That's a messed up kind of privacy.

Ross Gay: Yeah. Yeah, it's great. And that's right. How is it different actually?

Alex Chambers: Well, I think it's different...

Ross Gay: I do too, for the record.

Alex Chambers: ...because [LAUGHS] the way I see it is, when you just said there are all these different ways like I've maybe messed up, or been someone who's not a person I might be proud of showing to the world in the past month, I'm not trying to say that what it should be is just putting all those out there.

Ross Gay: Yeah.

Alex Chambers: But the privacy you're talking about, isn't about hiding all the ways we mess up.

Ross Gay: I know. And to some extent it's like the part of this thing, because we do think of privacy, it's like, it would be nice not to have all kinds of corporations have information about what you look at on the Internet, to be guiding what you might want to buy.

Alex Chambers: Sure.

Ross Gay: That'd be really nice. So, in some way, part of the privacy is like, no, you don't get to come into my house so that you can manipulate me. You don't get to determine my choices. You don't get to know how I make my supper. If I want you to you can.

Ross Gay: There used to be all of these-- [LAUGHS] Used to be. Even as I say, "Used to be," I also want to acknowledge, I think maybe, or maybe not, but like the idea of the sanctity of one's interiority. Not to mention like, what I'm going to do. Like, you know, it's none of your business. That whole thing, like, none of your business.

Alex Chambers: "The sanctity of one's interiority." That phrase got me thinking. When we're constantly scrolling and liking content, we're not just supplying corporations with ever more complex ways to sell us stuff. We're also not giving ourselves the space to have an interior life, which involves noticing the world around you. You can remedy that by writing for half an hour about what delights you in the midst of the myriad exploitations that populate the world. You can draw. You can just pay attention.

Alex Chambers: The other evening I was walking the dog, coming home toward the blue sky just beginning to darken. And I saw a man sitting in the grass by the street. His head was on his knees. I wondered if he was okay. Now, he wasn't, that was clear. And I told myself I should go ask how he was doing. And then I thought about how worn out I was by my various responsibilities, and who knew what it would turn into. Driving him somewhere, inviting him in. And I decided to walk on. I was glad to get home. And I wonder now if he was okay and why he was out alone and whether it might help if there was more housing in our city, maybe more community. And later I sat down and wrote about it for a few minutes. And I found myself wondering too, whether I could become the kind of person who stops to help.

Alex Chambers: Look, the fact that I sat down and wrote some sentences didn't help the guy. But I might not have given it any thought at all if I hadn't sat down to wonder about who I was and who I might become, and what the world could become too.

Alex Chambers: You've been listening to Inner States from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. If you liked what you heard, I've got a couple requests. Drop a few dollars our way. Maybe $10 a month. You'll be supporting this show, local news and all kinds of other great local programming. You can do that at, or by calling (800)662-3311.

Alex Chambers: Also, if you think it was a good show, and you have a friend who's been listening to a lot of podcasts that maybe aren't so good, and they're feeling kind of sad lately, tell them about this one. You'll feel good and hopefully, they will too.

Alex Chambers: All right, we've got you a quick moment of slow radio coming up, but first, the credits. Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers, with support from Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Jillian Blackburn, Mark Chilla, Avi Forrest, LuAnn Johnson, Sam Schemenauer, Jay Upshaw, Payton Whaley and Kayte Young. Our Executive Producer is Eric Bolstridge. Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music. Special thanks this week to Ross Gay.

Alex Chambers: All right, it's time for some found sound.

Alex Chambers: That was one a.m. on the hottest night of the year, recorded by Patsy Rahn. Thanks Patsy. Until next week, I'm Alex Chambers. Thanks, as always, for listening.



Ross Gay in a pink shirt

Ross Gay (Natasha Komoda)

This episode was originally released on September 15, 2023.

A while back, Ross Gay was trying to write a book that was going to make him an expert. It was a book that would, as he put it, “get him on the shows.” It wasn’t very fun. And then he read David Shields’ How Literature Saved My Life, where Shields wonders about himself and literature through short, playful entries. Reading that book gave Ross permission “to be writing stuff that felt fascinating not only because it was interesting subject matter, but because it was the unfolding understanding of who I might be” (and, by extension, who any of us might be.

This week on Inner States, Ross Gay and I talk about his latest book, The Book of (More) Delights – it drops on Tuesday! – about his relationship to that most basic unit of writing – the sentence – about digression, and how part of being an adult is accepting that people don’t always understand why they do things. Ourselves included.

Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers, with support from Eoban Binder, Jillian Blackburn, Mark Chilla, Avi Forrest, LuAnn Johnson, Sam Schemenauer, Payton Whaley, and Kayte Young. Our Executive Producer is Eric Bolstridge.

Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music.

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About Inner States