We Demand to Amuse You

In early February, I tracked down writer and editor, Elissa Bassist of The Rumpus, to discuss the craft of writing and her work to publish funny women writers.

If you’re Elissa Bassist, good fodder for some future story might include your apartment building catching on fire, being on Vicodin for a month (due to a back injury that was incurred after attempting a back flip “like the one Robyn does in the “Call Your Girlfriend” video), and sequestering yourself away from contact with the outside world through the Internet while revising your first book.

When we spoke on the phone in early February, Elissa discussed the process of revising her collection of essays.

“It’s so hard because the feelings are no longer fresh and there’s no longer this urgency. It’s like you’re shaping it. And shaping is so much different than getting it down originally when you have all the emotion and fire inside of you.”

But Elissa doesn’t let herself wiggle out of the revision process. “The only way to learn how to write a book is just by writing it,” she said. “Every step of the way, I don’t know what I’m doing at all.”

Elissa’s writing, in case you haven’t read it somewhere yet, is delightful nonfiction from the heart: deeply touching, humorous, and perceptive. My two favorite pieces by her were published on The Rumpus, where Elissa is the editor of the “Funny Women” column, which she created for the literary website, and in The New York Times. The former piece was an epistle that was posted in the “Dear Sugar” column that Wild author—and Portland resident—Cheryl Strayed responded to with an irresistible tag line. The latter piece was an odd, tender nonfiction piece about the end of a long-term relationship with a distant lover. Both are gut-wrenchingly honest.

Advice to Elissa Bassist from Cheryl Strayed.
Advice to Elissa Bassist from Cheryl Strayed.

The book that Elissa is now revising is a nonfiction collection of thirteen “linked personal essays.” Elissa said that the revision process includes “working on the structure, figuring out how to connect all the pieces, get them to talk to each other, and not repeat each other.”

A refreshing quality about Elissa is her honesty about her struggles with writing (this was the subject of her letter to Sugar) and I asked her whether she felt more confident in her writing these days.

“I feel like I keep reaching a new level where I see how inadequate I was and I have to keep reminding myself, ‘Keep the faith, have the patience, do the work, trust yourself, and you’ll just have to keep getting to the new level.’ If you sit down at your desk, turn off the Internet and you don’t let yourself leave, and you don’t let yourself totally panic and have a melt-down, you’ll get something done. You’ll figure something out. You’ll write one good sentence. You’ll have one connecting idea.”

While we talked on about her writing process and revisions, Elissa mentioned several different inspirations, from Sara Levine to Jane Smiley to George Saunders, an author I wrote about recently and whom Elissa half-jokingly thinks of as her grandfather mentor.

(For more from our discussion of great authors, check out the extended interview.)

The MFA program at the New School that Elissa recently graduated from, she said, was a “good way to help you with your self-esteem problem.”

Despite the confused responses that many men in her writing classes have had to Elissa’s writing, which is about women and women’s issues, Elissa said, “it was great that they pissed me off early because now I know how to avoid it. I can anticipate what guys will say and I can subvert this in a different way.”

“When we write these deeply personal stories, it is in one sense therapeutic for the writer, but we need to reach the reader on a much higher level than within my personal story. I need to connect it with what is happening culturally and in everyone’s environment and within what everyone consumes.”

Upon Elissa’s meeting with Stephen Elliott, the creator of The Rumpus, at the end of 2008, he suggested she contribute to the site by writing a book review about her feelings of inadequacies over reading Infinite Jest.

“I basically published a few things that I was obsessed with. I started to get really into “Shouts & Murmurs,” in The New Yorker. I loved humor columns. I always have. And so I wanted to do a “Best of” list of the previous year in humor columns. . .So I published this list and it was pretty popular. And I noticed I didn’t include any women! And I was like, ‘Wait. That’s fucked up! How could I not include any women?’ Then, I looked back over the past year. I didn’t include women because there were barely any women included in “Shouts & Murmurs” over the previous year.”

This discovery led Elissa to researching funny women writers, and to her subsequent discovery of the unfortunate Christopher Hitchens proclamation on the subject.

“I was like, ‘This is a thing that people write about, and claim that women aren’t funny.’ And I’m sure that [the Hitchens article] is contributing to the idea.”

Elissa began to collect humorous pieces by women for what would be a one-time post on The Rumpus, but then decided, with Stephen Elliott, to expand the concept into the weekly column that is on the website today.

“Every time I connect with women. . .we’re very encouraging and supportive. We’re writing about things that influence each other and the landscape of women writers, and all women everywhere. We’re doing such important work.”

She spoke of her admiration for Cheryl Strayed’s generosity toward other writers. “I love that there’s this female icon. I know that there are so many other women writers like her. [On The Rumpus], we’re publishing a lot of personal essays by women and it feels like we’re all becoming friends.” Friends, Elissa added, who support each other’s ambitions.

“We’re creating this community. I know when I worked in publishing, I was one of the few female editors. I didn’t really have any female friends in that community. It felt very male-dominated. It was very difficult to find work by women. I remember, I told my boss, Dave Eggers: ‘No vagina left behind in 2008!’ [for The Best American Nonrequired Reading].”

Elissa said that much more could be happening right now between women writers and recommended WAM, Women Action Media, and She Writes (“Facebook for women writers”) as ways for women to reach out to each other.

More women need to submit their writing, Elissa added. “It’s important to also review women’s writing.”

“There’s a lot going on,” Elissa said. “There just needs to be a lot more going on.”

To find more of Elissa Bassist’s writing, visit the Funny Women column at The Rumpus. She has also been published in The New York Times, the Paris Review Daily, Creative Nonfiction, and in NY Magazine. Stay tuned for her forthcoming collection of nonfiction essays.

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