John Talbird is an English professor at Queensborough Community College in New York and the author of the thriller fiction novel The World Out There and the chapbook A Modicum of Mankind. John Talbird’s work has been featured in many literary journals, such as Ploughshares, Grain, Juked, The Literary Review, Ambit, and Potomac Review. In addition to being a published fiction and essay writer, John Talbird is also a member of the Editorial Board of Green Hills Literary Lantern and a frequent contributor to Film International. Talbird’s essay, “What Happens Next” was published in issue #66 of the Potomac Review in Spring 2020.
Over the summer of 2020, former Potomac Review intern Alexzander Baetsen spoke with John Talbird about his essay “What Happens Next,” discussing how the piece connects to the larger conversation surrounding mental health and the writing techniques it takes to construct an essay that skilfully bridges the gaps between time frames and emotions. The two also touched on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in relation to writing processes and how profound topics and themes can naturally develop from a small, evocative “kernel of an idea.”
Alexzander Baetsen: I’d like to start by briefly addressing the elephant in everyone’s room right now: the COVID-19 pandemic. How has the pandemic impacted your writing process and your motivation to write? Do you feel that you have more time now to sit down and write, or are your hours more consumed by work, family, and stress?
John Talbird: The world is always conspiring to keep us from writing. I’ve been trying to write daily for about thirty years, so I’ve gotten used to what the world has to throw at me. Still, no one could have been prepared to write under the current conditions of a global pandemic, especially here in New York City where things were pretty scary in the spring. I just tried to do a little writing every day and, as most people would expect, the pandemic started to creep into my work, especially in my nonfiction where I often tend to shift into the present tense at some point.
AB: What drew you to writing non-fiction originally, and is that your preferred genre to write in? Have you always enjoyed non-fiction or was there a particular moment in which you discovered that it suited you?
JT: I’ve been writing fiction since I was a kid and writing it seriously since my mid-twenties. When I was working on my Ph.D. in fiction writing in the early 2000’s, there were a small group of grad students and professors who would share their essays and workshop them. That’s where I wrote the first draft of “What Happens Next.” Originally called “Rage,” it was nearly twice as long and a bit of a mess. I put it away for several years and then came back to it after I had started writing more essays. I significantly rewrote it which, as is usually the case in my process, involved cutting large chunks.
For me, nonfiction always seemed like the kind of writing that you did in school or journalists did, not something that I was interested in doing. I think, as I moved into middle age, I began to see that I had something to say in this genre that I couldn’t say in fiction. There’s a directness to nonfiction that appeals to me at this point in my life.
AB: How would you describe the differences in your writing process when you are writing fiction vs. non-fiction? Which do you feel is more challenging and why: writing in a way that characterizes yourself or a fictional character? Is there anything you would recommend to writers who are coming from other genres and are new to writing non-fiction?
JT: My writing processes for fiction and nonfiction are fairly similar. I generally try to start with an image or the kernel of an idea rather than with the BIG IDEA. So, for instance, in the case of “What Happens Next,” I started with the sensual image of stinky cat litter. The larger ideas of depression and suicidal impulses were already floating out there. They were issues that I knew I wanted to write about and they naturally crept in once I was underway. The first line, “A few days after I decided not to kill myself, my cat, Harold, shat on my bed,” was only written after several drafts.
These days I find nonfiction easier to start, because writing in the genre is still comparatively fresh to me and so it’s very elastic and constantly changing and exciting. This is the main reason that I would recommend writing in genres which aren’t your main, or strong, ones—the freshness will give new energy to your writing and, I think, inevitably help you to see your strong genre(s) in a new light. I would say, though, that once started, fiction is still easier for me to manipulate since I’ve been working in the genre longer and I have more practiced moves. I’m not sure that either genre is inherently more challenging. Both, when they’re successful, involve revealing elements of a writer’s identity and also crafting reality which involves a mix of fictionalizing and truth.
AB: Congratulations on your most recent publication, The World Out There. Although the novel was released rather recently this past July, can you tell us anything about what projects you’re currently working on or have plans for? In regard to “What Happens Next,” are you interested in writing any more non-fiction pieces that discuss mental health?
JT: Thanks! I’m currently working on a second novel as well as a collection of essays. “What Happens Next” is the most directly I’ve examined mental health although it is tangentially addressed in some of my other work. My nonfiction lately is concerned with the autobiographical self—which can include depression and mental health—and how that self is reflected in and created by the larger culture.
AB: How did you decide on the structure of “What Happens Next?” It jumps from quite a few time frames and includes a variety of scenes from your childhood, your first marriage, your current life, and the time at which you were struggling with your mental health. What was your thought process in structuring this story? Do you have any tips for writing in a way that connects these various time frames as seamlessly as possible?
JT: I’m glad that it seems seamless! As I said, the essay was originally quite sprawling. It had section headings with subtitles which were attempts to organize the piece. As I cut the text down, I let go of the headings. I realized what I was really trying to say and I used space breaks—one of the great innovations in the history of prose—to cue changes in setting, subject, or chronology for the reader. As far as tips go, I would just urge writers to let their work sit and germinate. There is a lot of pressure to publish, but it’s the rare text that is ready for publication after the first draft.
AB: You include quite a few “gem” lines in your story, lines that are exceptionally well-written and reveal quite a bit about you as a person, such as “As I rubbed the shampoo into my scalp and it dripped down my forehead and ran across my eyeballs, I didn’t blink,” and “That’s okay, an experience like this deserves a souvenir I can carry in my palm forever.” What do these lines mean to you and what do you think they reveal about you to the reader? As a writer, do you consciously work these types of lines into your stories in order to further characterize yourself, or do they flow naturally?
JT: Thank you. Lines like this always organically arise out of the writing—a gift that comes to you in the process. As you compose them, you realize that they’re both describing action and saying something thematic. They’re about themselves and about other things simultaneously.
AB: As you reflect on this piece and any past stories you’ve worked on, do you ever have a nagging feeling that you should have included a line that you discarded, or wish you had written in another part that would have contributed to the story? Or, conversely, do you find yourself wishing you hadn’t spent so much time on a particular thought?
JT: I try not to regret any writing that I’ve done, or not done. I’ve played drums for many years and, often, when you’re performing live, you’ll mess up. Hopefully, this mistake is brief and you’ve practiced enough to recover from it so that most people don’t notice. Sometimes, you make the mistake a virtue that you didn’t know was possible. I try to trust the editors that publish me. If it’s good enough for their publication, it’s good enough for me. Which doesn’t mean that any work is ever finished. If this essay appears in a book, I’m sure it will see at least one more draft.
AB: In “What Happens Next,” you explore the concept of mental health by recounting some of your personal experiences from a time when you were struggling with suicidal thoughts. How did it feel to discuss these personal experiences, knowing that this story would be publicized? Were you nervous about publishing this piece at all, or afraid of judgment? Do you have any advice for non-fiction writers who also wish to write about their mental health journeys but feel limited by shame or embarrassment?
JT: I think it’s important to only write about things that you’re willing for people—those who know you already and those who don’t—to know about. Not everything is sharable. I teach writing to college students, some of whom want to write about past traumas. When I ask them to expand on something they’ve written and they answer that they’re not comfortable doing so, I’ll usually say that they’re probably not ready to write about this painful experience, but that someday they may be.
AB: You noted yourself that the “strongest feeling swirling around this maelstrom of emotion” was embarrassment- How did you overcome that embarrassment in publishing this piece? Was there a point in which you suddenly felt that you were no longer embarrassed to share your personal experiences?
JT: My embarrassment arose from a question that was plaguing me in these years: “What do you have to complain about?” We hear survival stories—people imprisoned falsely for decades, people surviving horrible traumas—and about how they come back from these events and make something positive out of their lives. When you feel that you have no trauma like that in your life to point to, and yet you still want to kill yourself, it can bring up intense feelings of guilt and embarrassment. Even after all the therapy I’ve been through, all the writing I’ve done about this process, when I sink into a dark place, which has happened as recently as a few years ago, the feelings of shame and embarrassment are pretty intense. I know intellectually that I’ve got a chemical imbalance and that it’s not as simple as “snapping out of it.” If a doctor could take a picture of my brain and point to a lesion and say, “There’s your problem, it’s called _______,” that would, in some ways, be easier. But the mind is a more abstract and slippery term than the brain. Since it’s my mind causing my problems, there’s a part of me that doubts the depression is real.
AB: The topic of mental health, especially suicide, possesses an intense degree of emotions that are unique to every individual who experiences these struggles. How do you best convey such vivid emotions when you write, and what do you do to ensure that your reader is able to emphasize through your words alone? Do you have a specific strategy when writing about more emotion-heavy topics?
JT: I try to write about everything with as much distance and objectivity as possible. Philosophers have been writing about ideas this way for centuries and it seems that emotions can benefit from this treatment, too. I think if writers are honest and still recognize that they’re writing for an audience—people who want to think about issues and ideas, but who also want edification, want to be moved, maybe even entertained—then they’re more likely to be successful in writing about emotions.
AB: Some authors who share deeply personal experience such as these tend to write as though they’re telling their story to those who are in the same position as them. As you were writing this piece, did you have an intended audience in mind? Do you typically have a target audience in mind when you write non-fiction pieces or do you write your pieces for the fulfillment of yourself only?
JT: Everything I write except for writing in my journal is for an audience. I like Nabokov’s statement about audience, that he was writing for a bunch of “little Nabokovs.” I take this, not as narcissism, but as a witty commentary on what many writers who love literature want to achieve. Essentially, they want to write books—and essays and stories and poems—that they would like to read themselves.
AB: I noticed that you included the line “I am not going to say that people shouldn’t kill themselves,” and I was inspired to ask this next question because it seems as though such a statement may ruffle some feathers. When writing about potentially controversial or triggering topics, to what extent do you consider the reaction of your audience to your words? Do you ever find that you change your tone or edit pieces out because you fear some sort of repercussion from your readers? Would you recommend that other writers do the same?
JT: I don’t think it’s okay to write just anything. I think that “freedom of speech” gets trotted out to excuse all manner of reprehensible statements and has helped to make so much of the online world a toxic place. I thought a lot about that quote before I published this essay and, ultimately, decided it was the most honest thing to write. This is not a “you shouldn’t kill yourself” essay. In fact, it’s not an essay that tells anyone how to live or to not and I didn’t want any readers to mistake that. That said, I hope that readers will not come away from the essay with the opposite idea, that I think some people should kill themselves. I believe strongly in our rights to control our bodies as long as our actions don’t harm others. I strongly support doctor-assisted suicide. Those laws are for people with incurable diseases, though, and many mental illnesses are treatable. I think that most people with conditions like mine, if they open up about their problems to their loved ones and pursue medical treatment and counseling, will choose on their own not to kill themselves. The reason I title the essay “What Happens Next” is because when you decide to kill yourself, you’re willing to give up finding out what that is. It’s a daunting, irreversible sacrifice and one that obviously shouldn’t be taken lightly.
AB: More authors in recent years are coming forward to share pieces of their mental health story, as a part of the larger discussion about raising awareness for mental health issues- the most common being depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. What do you personally believe makes a non-fiction piece that discusses these topics stand out from the rest? How do you think writers can contribute a meaningful piece on mental health without echoing what has already been said? Do you think “What Happens Next” does this effectively?
JT: I hope that it does! I think that if any essay is honest, gives specific and compelling details, and tries to tell a story in an original way—which is what I attempted—then I think it’s worth writing. Of course, there are other reasons for writing besides making literature and getting published in a place like Potomac Review. There are journals and online platforms that deal solely with issues of mental health or recovery and feature the personal stories from various types of survivors. When you’re suffering, it can be gratifying just to realize that other people have suffered like you have and have survived and even thrived.
AB: What message did you intend for this piece to send to its reader? As you write, do you actively consider the intention you put into your stories, or does it come as an afterthought? Have you ever tried to write a story with one message in mind, then find that halfway or so through with it, you think another message would suit it better?
JT: Like I indicated earlier, I never set out with a message. I always start with something small, something hopefully evocative, and work outward from there. That said, I don’t live in a bubble. The things that matter to or trouble me—human kindness, the importance of art in the 21st century, the selfishness intrinsic in American-style capitalism, Donald Trump’s election, COVID-19, mental health and suffering, etc.—naturally find their way into my fiction and nonfiction. I didn’t set out to write an essay with a message, but that’s part of the rhetorical work you have to do if you’re going to try to publish: Figure out what you’re really trying to say. I know what I’m trying to say in “What Happens Next,” but I’d rather each reader decide that for themselves.