Durga Chew-Bose is an essayist whose wide-ranging interests and intellectual curiosity have made her thoughts and words beloved in formats both short and long. Her first book, Too Much and Not the Mood, was published by FSG this month, and it’s a deep meditation on interiority, selfhood, and how one learns to fully inhabit oneself. I caught up with Durga so that we could chat about the writing process, finding your voice, and the fear of giving too much away.
Tell me a little bit about what sparked the writing that became this book, and what the experience of writing it was like.
There’s a freedom in writing for a book in that you can work on something and not feel like it needs to have a quick turnover. It’s a really funny place to put your thoughts when it’s just you and your project, and you don’t really have much of an audience. It’s very different than writing online.
Did you go into it with an idea of what you wanted the collection to be about?
I didn’t set out a list of topics I wanted to hit or anything. It was a very natural process for me to explore anything from art to stories about my family that I had carried for a long time but I had never found a place for, and writing this book was sort of like finding a home for [them].
The publicity copy describes the book as “a portrait of a young writer shutting out the din in order to find her own voice.” What is the din?
Working on the book was a good opportunity to turn inward in a very active way. When you’re writing one-off pieces with a deadline that need to be pegged as something relevant, you don’t always get to mine parts of your past or unknown territory. So that’s part of it, shutting out the noise of feeling like I need to produce, or the noise that I need to be relevant. It was an exercise in just writing me and writing what I know, and especially what I don’t know—and learning that there’s value in that as well.
And what do you think is difficult about finding one’s own voice? Why is that always talked about as a big challenge for writers?
I think it’s because writers let in other people’s voices a little too much, try to meet other people’s expectations and wants, and allow their anonymous audience to take over, and that can breed a lot of insecurity or a lot of doubt. Finding one’s own voice requires some trust in those gut moments that we tend to ignore. For me, finding my voice was learning to trust that anything that bubbles up inside of me was worth an extra look, and a vague faith that some connections are just going to form naturally. Writing the book was a time for me to take certain chances.
What writers have been inspiring or influential for you?
It’s so hard to say which individual writers were impactful. Even now, I want to say, “but it was only a sentence!” or “that was seven years ago, but for seven years I’ve thought about this one paragraph.” I was, of course, reading Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary, which is where I got the title for my book. I read that regularly.
While I was writing I tried to surround myself by things that mean a lot to me. I tried to turn off my brain for a moment and just experience life through other parts. I was reading a lot of Rachel Cusk at the time, and I was reading Jamaica Kincaid’s Talk Stories, and I was reading a lot of May Sarton. I love Annie Baker’s plays, so I was reading [them]. Poetry is always really helpful, I find, because getting the whiplash from poems can really encourage you to write. Frank O’Hara, Rita Dove, Ocean Vuong. I was reading Claire Louise Bennett’s Pond, and that was really meditative.
I felt like writing opened me up in some ways even more to reading. Maybe because while I was working on my own stuff, words felt really tangled, and so much of the writing process is untangling even more than writing. Like after you spend three hours untangling a gold chain, you place the gold chain down and never want to touch it again. I kind of needed to look at writing that felt near perfect to me and that just circulated the air, I guess.
Some of your writing touches on the role of the self and the fear of giving too much away. You said at one point, “If you share too much of yourself, you risk growing into someone who has nothing unacknowledged.” How do you grapple with that in writing?
There are enormous amounts to gain from keeping things to yourself, because that leaves you the room to figure out why anything means anything to you. The moment you say something, I think a little meaning gets lost. Maybe that’s too precious, but sometimes when I say something out loud, it feels like a false start. Or when I write something down I would sometimes worry, what if I had kept that a bit longer and then actually figured out the grain of it?
But I also think you should feel free to share everything. Don’t hoard your ideas. There’s a really great Annie Dillard quote where she’s telling writers, spend what you have, be a breathless writer, don’t feel like you have to save everything for that next big book or that next big piece. Just use it, use it, you are a well, you have more. These ideas are going to keep coming to you, these images are replenishing.
I enjoyed the passages in the book where you were describing New York and I was wondering what effect New York has had on you, as a person and as a writer?
Well, I moved back to Montreal last spring; I’m only in New York right now because I’m teaching. All my closest friends live here and [those relationships have] clearly affected my writing, how I see and think and argue and feel. I definitely wanted to leave New York, because I wanted to experience my family, which I hadn’t had the chance to do as an adult. Some people really feel like the city is a person in their life, and I didn’t have that experience of living in New York.
You wrote about how important the experience of living alone was for you to fully inhabit yourself, but most people here can’t afford to live alone, and having that space and time is such a privilege. How can people find that space and time to be alone? What is the role of that for a writer if it’s not necessarily feasible to set aside that time or space in a big way?
There are many ways to make space for yourself that aren’t as obvious as living by yourself. That depends on the person, like if you go to the movies by yourself, or you need to constantly be around people, or if you can’t process your ideas unless you’re having a conversation, and that’s completely different than someone who feels more able to navigate the turns their life is taking if they stay in their heads longer. I don’t think there’s a blueprint for that type of living. But writing and reading are things that you do by yourself, and because those are the two things I probably do the most, I am by myself a lot.