This is no. 80 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
When I was a writing student, a professor once commented to me that my writing was a little intense. I don’t remember exactly what he said, and he wasn’t unkind, but it was something like “Your writing is always at eleven,” or “Your writing is always just so hot-blooded.”
This comment elicited a mixed reaction at the time. I wasn’t proud. I didn’t sense that this was a compliment. He was giving me a note: Learn to tone it down sometimes. It felt respectful in its way, as if he were saying, “Okay, you can write like your hair is on fire, but make sure that’s not the only thing you can do.” Which is a good and teacherly thing to do, to discourage a student from leaning too heavily on the thing that feels good, to point out tics and habits. But as a young writer—a female writer, a queer writer—to hear an older male professor note that your work is unrelentingly intense can set off a clamor of questions, insecurities, suspicions, irritations, doubts, shames. This is maybe especially the case when the young writer is writing (as I was) about her own life and self, the source of this overmuchness.
So I was a little embarrassed, concerned that “intense” was code for melodramatic, maudlin, tacky, purple. Childish. Overfeminine. Hysterical. But also, I wanted to be an intense writer. What was the point of writing if it wasn’t vivid and compelling, if it wasn’t transporting, if it didn’t make you rock back in your seat? I wrote then, and write now, I suppose, to express an intensity to the condition of being, an aliveness that feels full and bewildering.
After that, though, I spent several years trying to write in a way that was hot-blooded, or full of feeling, but also somehow cool. Writing that was fierce and ardent while being unimpeachably in control of itself. I’ve tried a few ways to do this over the years. The first, maybe, we’ll call The Didion method: Bury feeling in a near-hysterical radiance of detail or texture when describing absolutely mundane things like sock brands; directly reference imminent emotional breakdown (or past breakdown) in prose so deadpan and commanding it seems like possibly a complex joke. Then there is what we might call The Nelson: Go straight to eleven, get poetic and hot about sex, love, heartbreak, pain, and then stave off accusations of mawkishness with theory and academically rigorous discussions of the sex.
I love both these methods—and Joan Didion and Maggie Nelson—but lately I’ve been thinking about what you lose when you insist on cooling down your prose. Early this summer I had a conversation with Ocean Vuong on my Thresholds podcast during which he spoke about his reclamation of prose that some might dismiss as purple. “I am interested in using a style that a lot of men have deemed too prissy for them to use in the present,” he told me. “It feels like drag to me—to be extra! There’s too much glitter because we want to be blindingly present and seen.” He was speaking about the historical moment when emotional and beautiful writing was deemed feminine and therefore less worthy, and the way that as a [queer] man he might begin to excavate and subvert that. He reminded me, also, that you can find fun and even joy in just going ahead and writing at eleven, writing hot, writing like your hair is on fire—to be blindingly present and seen.
Jordan Kisner is the author of the essay collection Thin Places (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020). Her writing has also appeared in the Atlantic, the Believer, the Guardian, n+1, the New York Times Magazine, and the Paris Review Daily. The recipient of fellowships from Pioneer Works, the Millay Colony for the Arts, and Art Omi, she is currently a fellow at the Black Mountain Institute in Las Vegas.Thumbnail: Dmitry Bayer