THE TOPICS COVERED in Cheston Knapp’s debut book of essays are wide-ranging — from UFOs to murder to beer pong. Yet each essay is distinctly Knapp-ian, which is to say, playful, probing, and full of imaginative depiction.
Reading Up Up, Down Down feels like reminiscing with an old friend on a quiet night. It has jokes, philosophical digressions, and those sneaky moments of intimacy that dissolve into contemplative silence. Knapp’s candor and vulnerability are inviting, and he humbly submits himself to his own rigorous interrogation. Taken together, these essays form a coming-of-age story about how we grow into ourselves, and how we emerge again and again from the pieces of our pasts. When I spoke to Cheston over the phone for this interview, we talked about what it was like for him, as managing editor of Tin House, to switch into the writer role, his relationship with journaling, and how he manages to inhabit all those people he used to be. It felt like we had known each other for years.
ISAAC LEVY-RUBINETT: In your essay “Learning Curves,” we see you discover journaling in your late teens, and it sounds like you still journal today. What goes in your journal and how does it figure into your writing process?
CHESTON KNAPP: When I started journaling, I was writing more poetry. The very act of writing seemed … not transgressive, but at least weird. The fact I was writing at all, given my background, seemed really strange and kind of punk, in the sense that no one I knew wrote. Now it’s a place where I put regular little observations. I stopped for a while, and then I had a son, and that put me into overdrive. I don’t want anything to slip through, so all the amazing things that he does make it into the journal.
If one of those lines does jump out at me when I’m reading over it, it will probably be cooked over three or four more times before it’s good enough to put into a piece. There is something freeing about a journal. It’s where your writing can just be bad, and uncomplicatedly bad, before you start showing people your work and them saying, “This is no good.”
Maybe criticism can be corrupting; maybe it’s necessary to learn exactly what kind of distancing you need to do in order to make a thing for another person to inhabit. Journaling, for me, is just a nice way to stay in touch with the amateurism — the root of that word being “to love.” Just the love of putting words or story down. You work so hard to make your writing not bad. It’s nice to just have a place where the stakes are really low. You know, just exercising that documentary mumble.
As an editor, you’re usually the one giving feedback to help authors actualize their work. What were some of the biggest surprises, challenges, or rewards of switching roles?
I believe in the editor-writer relationship as much as I believe in anything. By that I mean there is a certain mythical thing that happens when you pay attention to someone else’s work as closely as anyone is going to ever pay attention to it. That’s an act of generosity that I try to do as an editor. Despite how painful it is to submit yourself to the scrutiny of another person, it was nice to feel in good, generous hands with my editor, who wasn’t trying to impose his own vision on it. He saw what the book wanted to be and helped point out places where we could boost a resonance or trim back things.
So, there’s that first humbling step, and then I get this excitement to start working on it again. When I would get notes back, it would be like, “Yes, I have something to do!” Because so much of your time as a writer is spent saying, “What should I work on?” To have deadlines and notes and an idea of where to go — that’s thrilling stuff. It feels like you’re really making moves. You’re at the mixing board, and you’ve already laid down some tracks. That’s the real fun, having that sense that you’ve got this whole world you’ve made, and if you tweak this, all of a sudden something on track eight sounds cooler. I wanted there to be that pattern recognition between the essays that’s so much fun when you’re reading. That was where most of the editing took place.
Because I wanted the essays to feel conversational, I also kept tweaking the language. What sounds good to me right now in a conversation won’t sound as good to me when I’m in a different mood on a different day, when I’ve had a different breakfast. I did a tremendous amount of tinkering with the sentences, and then finally the editor was like, “You’re not actually changing anything.” The changes on the line weren’t even registering with the reader; they were just to fit my mood at the moment I was writing. That’s when I realized I was done.
How do you approach writing about yourself when there are aspects of your past identity that you dislike or don’t recognize? Is it hard to go back to those places and write about them?
Visiting past selves is basically being honest about how embarrassed I am about my frat-boy self, or how tender I feel toward my emo self. These parts that aren’t you anymore but do comprise your past. And so, for me, the challenge is mostly in that candor and honesty. If I’m fully honest and vulnerable and sharing with the page how uncertain I am about who I am, that can lead to a productive conversation in the reader’s mind, too. That opens up the door for some kind of recognition.
In the beginning, when I started this book project, I was operating with a more essentialist view of the self, where there were things that were you, and they were really you. And then there were other things that weren’t you in some way. Writing this book, and doing the tremendous amount of research I had to do to come to terms with certain theories of the self and the way time works, et cetera, I now feel like those past selves are still me in certain ways. I think the process of writing this book really helped me realize that we’re each multiple. That identity is essentially queer. That it’s an odd thing that you can be all these different roles that you have to play in the world. One of the main reasons I ended up writing essay was that it lent itself to this self-investigation.
I’m more open-armed toward my past selves now. Though they do still embarrass me a little bit, and it’s more embarrassing now that the book is published and out there for everyone to see. But I also think that’s freeing. In order to come to terms with all those various me’s, I had to write this book. I’ve learned to nod to them in passing. Joan Didion has that great quote, which I’ll butcher, but the idea is that you have to be on speaking terms with the people you’ve been throughout your life. Otherwise, they come in the middle of the night to haunt you.