I’m Not Judy Garland: Expressing the Self Through the Filter of Culture
A Conversation with Elena Passarello
Elena Passarello is the author of Let Me Clear My Throat (Sarabande 2012), a collection of essays on some unforgettable moments in the history of the human voice. Her writing on music, performance, pop culture, and the natural world has appeared in Slate, Creative Nonfiction, the Normal School, Ninth Letter, the Iowa Review, and the 2012 music writing anthology Pop When the World Falls Apart (Duke University Press 2012). For a decade, Elena worked as an actor and voice-over performer throughout the East Coast and in the Midwest. She originated roles in the world premieres of Christopher Durang’s Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge and David Turkel’s Wild Signs and Holler. A graduate of the writing programs at the University of Pittsburgh (BA) and University of Iowa (MFA), Elena was born in Charleston, South Carolina, and grew up in a town in Georgia called Snellville (official motto: “Where Everybody’s Somebody”). She now lives in Corvallis, Oregon, where she is an Assistant Professor at Oregon State University.
On April 11, 2014, Elena Passarello visited the Writing House to give a reading and Q&A for Interlochen creative writing students. Interlochen Review Fiction Editor Carly Miller and Poetry Editor Will Scarfone sat down with Elena to discuss her debut essay collection on the human voice, Let Me Clear My Throat.
Carly Miller: My first question is what the revision process was like when working with this theme in your book of the human voice? Did you ever write essays intending for them to have a place in Let Me Clear My Throat which didn’t end up fitting in, and thus couldn’t be included?
Elena Passarello: Yes. I wrote the first essay for the book before I knew that I was writing a book—it was just for an assignment. It was the Wilhelm Scream essay, the one about that movie scream, and I had just heard that phrase—the Wilhelm Scream—and thought that it would be a fun way to spend a couple of weeks, to try to write an essay about the Wilhelm Scream, and then when I wrote the essay I was like, “Oh, well this is what I should be writing about. The voice is really the thing that I know about (laughs).” So I started writing and I realized pretty early on that if I wanted to write an entire book about the human voice, I would have to try to contain myself; so I knew I wanted to write about singing, screaming, and I just started writing essays from there, but then the further along I got, I realized that those parameters had to be even more specific, so some of the essays had to go. I wrote this essay about how—I was really interested in this, and still am—about how we learn how to make our voices work, as people, right? Because there are some things that are really unique to us vocally, but there’s a whole bunch of shit that we do that we’ve taught ourselves to do. Like, you know, nobody needs to say achoo when they sneeze; nobody needs to use their voice at all when they sneeze. So I wanted to write an essay about the way that we learn how to speak, and the way that I thought that that would work would be to talk about the way that birds learn how to sing; and, you know, the cuckoo bird learns how to sing whereas a lot of other animals don’t learn how to make noises, and the cuckoo birds are amazing because they never meet their parents, they’re always raised by another bird, so I wrote that essay and I loved it, and I workshopped it and that went great, and then by the time the book came around there was just no place for it because it was just all about birds and it looked like this really terrible sore thumb so that had to go. I got the contract to write the book about four essays in, so then I finished the book and I turned it into my editor and she actually said that the Frank Sinatra essay and the ventriloquist essay had to be cut, and the ventriloquist essay was a completely different thing; it was like a script and she was like, “This makes no sense, please don’t do this,” so then I made a deal with her that if I re-did the ventriloquist essay, and revised the Sinatra one, I could keep the Sinatra one. So, I completely re-wrote—after my first deadline—that last essay in the book. And those were the major revisions, I think. The rest was just editing, making things make more sense, not spazzing out about YouTube clips so much (all laugh).
Will Scarfone: I found it interesting that, while focusing on the wide range of the human voice’s capability, your own voice pushed the constraints of nonfiction writing, both formally and tonally—yesterday we were talking about how it’s been described as “muscular athletic and loud” (all laugh), which, yeah, we talked about the atypicality of those adjectives being used to describe female writers—and, anyway, I guess this is the question part of this question: I’m wondering whether you’ve found that to be the case in essays on other topics as well, or if the voice that we read in LMCMT is a product of its seeking to match the feats of the actual voices explored within the book.
EP: I think that there’s a challenge when you’re writing about sound—especially when it’s an extended book on sound—to keep the reader’s ear alive for 275 pages; the impasse of jumping senses is a problem, as is doing it for an extended period of time. I ended up doing this word-ranking of how many times I used particular words in the book, and I found that I kept on using weird ones like haggard, and wonky, so I had to sort of go back because the brain is going to get tired of doing a certain kind of descriptive work to enliven the ear, so I do think I amplified a lot of syntactical choices in order to keep the ear awake; I was doing more cartwheels than I normally would because of that specific impasse of writing about sound. But, then again, I’m working on a new project and it’s all about animals, and none of the animals speak, I mean they do sort of, but not really, but I’m still finding a real interest in being alive on the page, working with music; I’m trying to do simpler sentences. I do find, though, that I have a natural interest in being very performative and conversational.
CM: Why were you drawn to the human voice, as opposed to any number of other characteristics that reveal identity? You’ve already said that it’s just what you know, but—
EP: (laughs) Yeah, yeah, I just have no visual perception at all (laughs). I’m trying to write about things that can be seen now, and it’s just not working. Sound is a lot easier. I think, too, that the thing that’s cool about the voice in comparison with our sense of sight, or our sense of touch, or our ability to be coordinated as performers is that we know so little about the voice, comparatively. You’re surrounded by performers [at Interlochen] or do all of the performers keep to themselves? (all laugh). So do you ever hear people saying like, I heard when I worked in theatre, “Oh, my voice is just corpsing tonight; I can’t get it to do what I want it to do.” It always surprises me that these people who are conservatory-trained, Juilliard, Yale actors can not have a good day playing Hamlet, because they couldn’t control their voices. And that’s just because we still can’t move it like we can move our muscles. All performers, I think, have those kinds of issues, though. So that’s the thing that I think is also really cool about the voice and identity, is that we are just learning how to fix it, how to operate on it, how to describe it. It’s really hard to make a model of the voice; it’s one of the youngest parts of our bodies. Just one step below us in hominid evolution, they couldn’t do anything with their voices, because their hyoid bones hadn’t dropped into the back of their throats yet, and I think that’s really exciting too. We’ve been yelling for ages, but we’re only just learning how to make things with our voices. You can’t say that about our hands, or our ability to grow body hair: the other things that I know well (all laugh).
WS: One of your strong suits is very clearly working in this performative mode of writing. You often jump between a variety of different structures, etc. I’m wondering how much of this can be attributed to your career as an actor?
EP: I like nonfiction that performs the act of itself on the page. I think that being a performer informs a lot of what I do as a writer, in general, not just in terms of writing, but in terms of reading, and thinking about books, and the business of being a writer. It’s hard to sit through half of the readings that I go to, because I’m like, “project, think about your audience.” I think that the performance on the page is less related; I never think of my reader as that kind of an audience. I think that the formal choices are often a way to create some kind of live action on the page, and I like to see that. Like J.D. Daniels when he actually goes into his own brain and we’re looking at the schematics of that; that kind of performance is very attractive to me. Jenny Boully’s essay The Body is written entirely in footnotes, so the work that the reader does is to sort of imagine the text that’s being performed, and that for me is super hot. I’m not that kind of a writer, I don’t take that kind of large, artistic risk, but I’m interested in filtering information so that they do some kind of that kind of active work, because I think the reader can see the active production of the mind at work.
CM: How has your role as an actress informed who you are as a writer?
EP: The most information that I get is from topic. Actors—research actors too—every six weeks get a new job, and it’s often wildly different from the job they had before, and they have to enter this world, and be palpable representations of this world, and there are lots of different ways that actors do this, but I did it by learning about the world in any way that I could; I loved dramaturge boards, where I could read magazines, try on different clothes, watch a million different movies; and I just loved spazzily diving into a project: “ooh, now we’re in the 1920’s,” and living there, and training myself in whatever way I had to train myself. And then six weeks later I do a show where I have to play a man, and it’s all physical training: I have to train myself to stand differently, and move differently, and it’s vocal work. Each different job was an entirely different task. Never was it like, “now it’s my library time.”
The way that I approach essays is the same: when I’m starting an essay I don’t go, “now I will sit on wikipedia like I did for the last essay. Now I will read these books, and I will get out this notebook.” Every time I go, “how do I get the amo to pass as an active speaker for whatever this project is.” Have you guys ever performed? I get in a lot of trouble when I say this, I get a lot of letters, but I just think that the two are so different. When you are a theatre person, you’re told where to stand, how to dress—or at least in the kind of theatre that I did: straight, regional, non-experimental stuff; I wasn’t in like Sleep No More—where to stand, so that the light hits you right, what to say, how to move, and how to interact with the people around you, and the art, the expression exists within the tight variable amidst that huge list of controls. The only thing that you can do is bring your own energy to this system of controls and make it happen, and it’s gorgeous when it works; you see somebody on stage who can push through all of those, and it’s amazing. I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman in True West once, and I’d seen that play a million times, and this new thing showed up. And you’re developing the process with a group of people, both of those things are so different from writing, where you’re alone, in a room, figuring things out, and everything is a variable; there are absolutely no controls, nobody tells you what to do in any capacity. The things that frustrated me about theatre were about how little control I had and the things that frustrate me about writing are about how I have no idea how to make those decisions. So, really, I feel like two completely different parts of my brain, and then the acting is so physical. I don’t find writing to be physical at all; it’s so schlubby (all laugh), your back and your shoulders go once you hit thirty, look out kids (all laugh).
WS: You started to talk about this earlier, when you made the joke about spazzing out on YouTube clips (laughs), but I guess another point at which you seem to be most “in your element,” so to speak, is when you’re analyzing—in this very idiosyncratic, lyrical, incredibly thorough way—specific moments at which the human voice does something incredible. Where does this sort of hyper-attentive, dissective process of description come from?
EP: I didn’t think about this until we were in class a couple of hours ago, but I think it’s my step 1, in a weird way, after the researching. Like, you know how Dave said that in his first drafts it seems like every sentence starts with I, because he’s just thinking through it personally, before he dives into the next step. I think that that dissective, descriptive, almost ekphrastic work is my “I, I, I” speech. It’s a way that I can get comfortable in the world without having to sort of pour my special sauce over it yet, I mean you do that when you’re describing it in your own unique way, but, like, in describing the Howard Dean clip I started learning what the essay sounded like, and I started learning what the reading I needed to do to get ready sounded like. You’re a poet, right?
EP: I know some poets do this too, they start with an unpacking of an image, and in that sort of intuitive process of unpacking the image in their own way, they learn what the poem is going to be about.
CM: Earlier today, you said that you have a really hard time getting personal in your essays. They tend to take a more outward view, rather than an inward one. Can you talk about why that is, or the factors that help to make that choice? Because it kind of pushes your essays into this place where they’re still personal essays, but they lean more towards analytical, academic, just because of the way you place yourself in culture, but that’s not where you start—which is different than, say, Annie Dillard, or something.
EP: Well, if I could write personal essays like Annie Dillard, I think I’d start personal every time (all laugh). Total Eclipse is a performance. It’s 1980 something, she stands on this hill in Washington, and watches the last real total eclipse, where the whole sky went dark, and that’s that performance thing that I was talking about, where you sort of move through all of that on the page. What was your question? The personal—you answered it really well; like what you said is right. I think they’re still personal, even if I don’t appear in them.
CM: Yeah, no, and I’m wondering too about how you went about making that choice.
EP: Oh, I think opposites exist in the world a lot, like, sometimes the best actors are the most shy people, and sometimes the most kind of personally obsessed people are the people who don’t like to talk about themselves in bars, like they save that energy for their own purposes. I’m a very outward person in real life; I love personal anecdotes, I love telling stories, I love jokes, I love learning about people, I communicate with people by talking about myself, and I think that because opposites exist, when I go to write, the thing that I enjoy most is falling into someone else’s world. Same with theatre, for me, too. It’s wonderful when you’re an intensely present person, to be somebody else, and as a writer I think that closing those doors of the self and expressing the self through the filter of culture is what I’m drawn to do. And you know, I’m writing about myself in all of my essays. The Judy Garland essay is about me: I’m not Judy Garland, my life is nothing like Judy Garland’s, and lord knows I don’t have the talent that Judy Garland has but the idea of being in a body and being born and trying to make an experience that is as alienating as being in the real world resemble what it’s like to be safe, that’s about those feelings that I have—and being more comfortable in a public persona than a private one, I think that’s there too. And what’s the opportunity cost then? And that’s the scary thing then. Do I lose the opportunity to express that to the reader, by veiling it with Judy Garland? That’s the thing that’s kind of worrisome to me, is that maybe not all readers are going to snag that, like you did, and that’s something that I think I have to keep working on, although maybe it’s not that important.
CM: There was one essay about your mother, and I think that was the closest we got to you.
EP: I think that that was the only “personal” essay in the book. It’s infinitely the one most frequently read, referenced, and talked about. The one where it’s like, “my name is Elena, I entered this contest, it made me think of my mother, this is what my mother was like.” And it’s, more than any of the other essays in the book, the one that people want to talk about. I think it’s because we’re people. Interviews go better in person, because we can get to know each other, and books become more readable when the writer can come and spend some time with you in your local library. I believe in that as a process, but yeah, that personal essay was impossible to write. In that first draft I didn’t even write that I had won that screaming contest, and my editor was like, “are you insane?” It just felt so strange to write down that you’d won something, and in the book the only way I could make it work was to talk about this clip that existed on YouTube so I didn’t have to say I won, I could just be like, “there is a clip that says this,” ‘cause it just feels so foreign to say “this is something that happened to me,” unless it’s a joke, unless it’s like, “I fell down a flight of stairs at the Sistine Chapel,” like your friend said, it just feels wrong to me. I love hiding in essays, like the last essay is this personality quiz that I give to a ventriloquist, and I get to tell the audience what I really think about the human voice, and really what I was saying was that I’m so sick of writing this book, please make it be over, god. The voice is going to kill you, its a terrible thing, you’re always going to be its yutz, its dummy, but I didn’t have to say it as myself, I got to say it as a Meyers Briggs personality quiz for a dummy (all laugh), it’s just more safe that way. I’m probably supposed to be spending a lot less time on these questions. Poor transcriptionist. Just write whatever you want (all laugh).
CM: If you could be known for specific characteristics in your writing—like Woolf for her lyricism, Faulkner for his dialogue, and stream of consciousness—what would those be?
EP: I guess the cop out would sort of be good. I’m very interested in the fact that people have been writing about how masculine the book is. That’s shocking to me. I don’t consider myself to be a masculine person, I mean I have masculine shoulders and sometimes a masculine voice, but I like the idea that people say that about the work, and I would like for that conversation to be continued and for it to be considered just a new sort of gear of “feminine” writing. Like, people think that for a lyric essay you have to wrap yourself in a shawl, and go get a cup of tea, and be like Jorie Graham about it, and I like the idea that you could be more trumpety and represent a gender norm or a literary term. I don’t think it’s my responsibility to want that, though. The other answer is just good (all laugh). I do like the idea of writing a book that talks about culture that makes people talk more about culture. I like the idea of someone—and not someone on NPR, like a real person—saying, “I never really thought about Judy Garland that way. Now I’m gonna go listen to Judy Garland, and completely disagree with Elena.” Or like, “I never really thought about Howard Dean like that, now I’m gonna go get on my computer and do my own work with that.” I like that idea.
WS: Well, aside from completely disagreeing with you, that’s pretty much what our class has been doing for the past couple of weeks.
EP: Really!? That’s kind of a problem, right? Because if you want to read a book, it should be a contained act. Some people say that you have to read the book with the laptop open, and it takes away from the experience of reading the book, but I feel like in ten years you could get an Ebook of my piece and hit buttons so that it’d link you to clips, but then I wouldn’t have any work to do.