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"Soul-bonded ever since": an interview with Lena Ziegler and Erin Slaughter

This month's featured flash -- "We all want to believe someone, somewhere, would die for us" -- comes from Lena Ziegler. But since this is the Collaborative Folio, there's a little more to the story. The flash is a section from a larger collaborative project with Erin Slaughter, who you may remember from our February issue. Lena and Erin recently took some time to talk about their friendship, their collaborative process, and the freedom they've found in sharing with each other.

Erin Slaughter and Lena Ziegler

First, tell us about you -- your backgrounds, how you met, how you started working together.

E: Lena and I met in the MFA program at Western Kentucky University, where we were both part of the program’s inaugural cohort. I remember the exact moment when I met her, at orientation: I walked into this very fancy, intimidating room with a chandelier and a whole bunch of important-seeming strangers, and the first person I noticed was a well-dressed, smiley woman. I complimented her on her outfit and her necklace (in the shape of a half-devoured apple). We’ve basically been soul-bonded ever since.

L: I remember my first encounter with Erin very well because she had this super outgoing, bubbly personality, immediately complimented my outfit, and recognized the exact store where it came from. I remember it so well because this was probably the first time in my life that I met another woman who I immediately identified with, both physically and personality-wise. About a week later we stood outside of Cherry Hall, the building where WKU’s English Department is housed, and I over-shared so many details about this bizarre relationship I was in with an older man at the time, and she was just so chill about it, and not at all judgmental like I worried anyone else would be. A few weeks later we were working on our first collaborative project together -- a teaching demo for our pedagogy class -- and she very casually mentioned how her dad was murdered right after her sixteenth birthday, then giggled manically. I was shocked and thought to myself “this woman is sort of unhinged and I’m pretty about it.”

E: I actually forgot we did that presentation (although the giggling about trauma is extremely on-brand for me). But throughout grad school, anytime there was a collaborative assignment, it was pretty much assumed we would work together. Lena and I tend to both be fairly driven and responsible people (when it comes to work, at least), and Lena’s relentless work ethic is something I’ve always admired about her, so I always trusted that anything we did together would turn out really cool. As our MFA program was ending, we decided to start a literary magazine, The Hunger (which will celebrate its second birthday and sixth issue this summer!), because we both noticed a lack in the current market for the kind of work we value most -- visceral, strange, and confessionally-leaning writing that also displays a masterful sense of literary craft. It was meaningful to both of us to try to create that space together.

How did this particular project come about?

L: Last summer we both applied and were accepted to the Byrdcliffe Artists-in-Residence program in Woodstock, New York, with the hope of spending time together and potentially working on some kind of collaborative project. What we found (in all of our admitted drama) is that neither of us ‘knew how’ to write creatively anymore. Erin had spent a year working in Nashville with very little time to write and I had just finished my first year of a PhD program in Rhetoric and had almost no time to focus on purely creative writing. We both felt ridiculously self-conscious that everything we had to say was stupid and no one would care. It was comforting that we both felt this way, but we were also sort of freaked out that we had traveled so far to this remote little residency in the woods and had nothing at all to say, and would be wasting everyone’s money and time. We decided that maybe we could get through this by taking the pressure of ‘being good writers’ off the table and just writing whatever we were thinking and feeling. I wrote the first essay in the bunch, which is about when I started to binge-eat as a child during my parents’ divorce. Basically, we used this project as an opportunity to just have a conversation in writing about all of the things we have been too embarrassed to talk to anyone else about.

E: We’re both highly communicative and emotional people, so we share all the gross, sad, weird, intimate details of our lives in hours-long conversations pretty much any time we have a chance to be in the same room together. There are things I’ve shared with her that I’ve never imagined being able to tell anyone, and I think she feels the same. The depth of our conversations and our genuine interest in the small details of each other’s lives makes ours feel like a special and rare relationship, and this project tries to facilitate that kind of relationship between us and the reader, in a way --allowing them to share in the grotesque and silly inner lives of people who, like most people, have heartbreaks and odd stories and family baggage, who worry about our bodies and our bad habits and desiring too much or being desired not enough, and if we’ll ever meet someone magical enough to surpass our teenage crushes on Jack Dawson from Titanic (spoiler: we won’t, because no one can). The freedom we’ve found in sharing with each other is something we hope to invite the reader into, so they can feel more human in their own strange and sad confessions by knowing ours.

L: I do feel the same. About sharing, Jack Dawson, and most other things.

Has your process in collaborating in the writing and revising of this piece differed from working solo?

E: One of the things I love about this project is that it truly feels like I can’t run out of things to write about. There’s always something in Lena’s previous essay that will spark my inspiration in another direction, or that I want to respond to in depth, so it doesn’t feel like starting from a blank canvas the way beginning a piece of writing on my own can often feel. We haven’t extensively started to dive into revisions yet, but we both respect the other’s artistic choices, so we might suggest changes, but also recognize that in the end, the individual piece belongs to the person who wrote it. That will be a shift for me, because my own writing and revision process usually involves overwriting and then slashing the thing to pieces sort of ruthlessly. But I love Lena’s writing and trust her instincts so much, I can’t imagine being less than thrilled at the final result.

L: I have to agree in that my favorite thing about this project is the never-ending pool of raw material. Also, and I think this is important, it is always easier to write when you have a specific audience in mind. When you are writing on your own, your audience is this vague, abstract imagining. But when you are writing to your best friend, who you feel no shame in telling the most intimate, disgusting details of your life to, it’s almost easier. I know that no matter what I write, whether the actual prose is good or bad, that Erin will respond to it, not just as a reader but as a friend who is genuinely invested in the content. That doesn’t mean we can’t and won’t provide critical feedback, because we ultimately want this work to extend far beyond the two of us and feel relatable and important to the people who read it. But we both have such genuine love and respect for each other as writers and people that we can trust each other to always have the best of intentions and provide the most helpful feedback possible.

Loneliness and want run through these sections, which is particularly interesting in a collaboration. It suggests an idea of being alone together. Was it more vulnerable to explore these themes working with someone or did it make it easier?

L: This is such a great question and point. Collaboration, by nature, would suggest a connection that contradicts loneliness, and I would say that in this case that is still completely true. Both of us have spent significant portions of our adult lives feeling deeply alone in the world. Loneliness has penetrated a lot of our lived experiences, especially before we met each other. But sharing this way with Erin makes me feel far less lonely. There is something incredibly special about confessing the grossest, shittiest parts of yourself to another person and having them react with an actual embodied understanding of it. I think the reason we share so much intimate detail with each other is that these are the things you can’t tell the average person, or even the average friend.

E: Even as someone who tends to over-share more than Lena does, I agree that there are some confessions that can only happen, and be met with true understanding, in rare circumstances. It’s rare enough to find a person who genuinely cares about you, and almost miraculous to find someone whose fundamental experience of physical and emotional embodiment allows them to understand the way you move through and react to the world. I feel immensely lucky that Lena and I have similar worldviews and have struggled (and continue to struggle) with similar problems, because it often allows us to figure ourselves out through each other. There are some areas of loneliness we can’t satisfy for each other (unfortunately), so we’re still susceptible to longing and loneliness in the way all humans are, and will always be writing and ruminating on those things. But just the act of having someone to write to suggests that when there’s someone with something to say and someone there to listen, neither party is truly alone.

In addition to loneliness and desire, the body and its visceral physicality and ideas of God and religion recur throughout your collaboration. How did these themes emerge?

L: Before I met Erin, I didn’t know anyone else experienced the world as intensely as I do. Living has always been both beautiful and exhausting, specifically in terms of how I manage (or don’t manage) my desire for food, sex, and love. This constant battle within me was something Erin understood, because she experiences life in a similar way. So much of what we talk about in our daily lives involves this struggle, and our simultaneous howling about everything we crave and can’t have or don’t feel we deserve, that it doesn’t surprise me that this intensity has shown up so frequently in our project. What did surprise me, however, is the consistent reference to God and religion. This is not a theme I ever thought I would address in my writing, because it’s just not that important to me. But what I discovered in these essays is that self-sacrifice, guilt, and shame are regular themes when it comes to how I exist within relationships. Strangely, this also mirrors how I have encountered religion with certain partners, who either used religion as an excuse to shame and abuse me, or projected all kinds of existential, religious guilt onto our relationship, forcing me to navigate through it with them. I’m not sure if these themes would have emerged if I was writing on my own, so I credit the collaborative process for helping me discover this about myself and my life.

E: We both grew up in religious households, so even if we experienced that early exposure to religion in differing ways, it makes sense to me that writing about family, shame, self-worth/worthlessness, guilt, love, fear, fate, martyrdom, etc. would eventually lead back to ingrained ideas about God. I think this is particularly relevant when it comes to the complications of sex and idealization of romantic relationships, which is a lot of what we end up trying to parse out in our essays.

Erin, we published a poem of yours in February, and there are certainly poetic (and memoir-like) influences across this piece. Can you talk about how genre itself can function as a collaboration? How do you work across genres?

E: I love the idea of cross-genre work, or an artist working across genres, as a kind of collaboration. It’s always felt very natural for me to write in all genres, so I’ve always just sort of done that: put the words down and then decide what shape it needs to take as secondary to the writing impulse itself. I’m of the mind that what we call “genre” has more to do with the voice, momentum, and scope of the piece than anything intrinsic to the form; all writing has the potential to be cross-genre, or genre-less, but we put it into the box that seems to be the most comfortable fit for what we’re trying to accomplish. I know a lot of people who disagree with me on this, though, and my ideas about these things are shifting all the time, so in a year it’s possible I might feel differently. But I will say that when something feels urgent or profound to me, I find myself writing about it from a number of different angles and genres. For example, my poem in the February issue, “Notes on Un-Apology,” was written during the same residency where we started this collaborative project, and there are images in there that only emerged because of memories and ideas that were still floating around in my head from writing an essay the day before. So maybe all writing is a collaboration with the writing that has come before it, with our past selves, and with the world as it exists, and as we wish it did.

L: I know this question was directed toward Erin, but I want to just echo what she said about writing being a collaboration within itself. I love this concept and think, in general, knocking down the walls of genre is really helpful when it comes to creating powerful work. We both write fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, as well as hybrid work. I also write cross-genre, interdisciplinary creative work within my scholarly research about sex, gender, and sexual violence. I think for both of us, genre is a vehicle through which we can explore different concepts in different ways, but that it should never be limiting either.

What line from your collaborator struck you the most?

E: It’s hard to pick just one line! So, I’m going to cheat and choose one silly line and one serious line. A favorite serious one: “It’s important to know and remember that there is nothing we can write that will render us unlovable, just as there is nothing we can write to make us invincible to the hearts of men, or women, or whoever else it is we decide to love other than each other.” A favorite silly one: “My clit has the spirit of the gingerbread man. Mischievous, silly, destined to be devoured by no one good.” (Because, obviously.)

L: Oh, I love Erin’s approach. Silly and devastating are basically our two states of being, so I’m going to follow her example. A favorite serious one (of many, many that I love): “Here, you write of sex and I write of poetry, because what other word is there for the thing we’re trying hardest to unearth when we climb inside each other?” Now a favorite silly one: “You don’t deserve a “pizza” my heart if you’re not slobbering over the whole goddamn pie.” Yes. Yes.

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