On Wednesday, Maggie Nelson — New York Times bestselling author of 10 books of poetry and prose — read from her latest book, “On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint.” She discussed how we “think, experience and talk about freedom” for an audience at the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, according to the event page.
The event was part of the annual series Nonfiction@Brown hosted by the English department to celebrate “the diverse voices that define this ever-more-popular and relevant genre,” according to the event page. The series is organized by Michael Stewart MA’07 and Elizabeth Rush, professors of nonfiction writing.
Nelson looked forward to “feeling that barometer of whether people feel upset, if they feel excited or if they feel bewildered,” she said in an interview with The Herald before the event. This was especially due to her long break from in-person events in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, she added.
The event began with Nelson reading select excerpts from “On Freedom” before joining Rush and Stewart in a conversation about her work and writing process. She tends towards the “overexposure” technique while working on a book, she said at the event. “I like to read everything and look at everything. I can’t stop.”
After researching and absorbing information, Nelson will reach a “tipping point” where her brain begins to form a sentence, she said. This serves as her indication that it’s time for her to start her own writing instead of just “taking in material.”
“You don’t always have to look for ideas — sometimes they come from other works” or the research that went into other works, Nelson said, explaining that the idea for “On Freedom” grew out of her previous works, including “The Art of Cruelty” and “The Argonauts.”
“On Freedom” presents freedom not as “something achieved” in the past but as a “patient labor in the present tense,” Rush explained during the discussion.
Freedom is the process in which you make yourself “unavailable to servitude,” Nelson said, recalling the words of James Baldwin: “I have met only a very few people — and most of these were not Americans — who had any real desire to be free. Freedom is hard to bear.”
The book contains four distinct sections that consider the complexities of freedom through the lenses of art, sex, drugs and climate.
Nelson connects climate to the conversation on freedom by posing as the “dummy everyman” to explore the lack of individual freedoms afforded to people amid the climate crisis. She considers the idea of “restraint as a choice,” alluding to the fact that she flew to Providence on a plane and was drinking out of a plastic water bottle. None of us want to consume these things, she explained, but we aren’t always able to make our own choices.
She also referred to the tensions between individual and collective freedoms, or “the dance between the self and other.”
“It’s not like you obliterate the self when you begin to navigate being in communion,” she said. Instead, the self is a constant negotiation through people’s lives.
Nelson’s fascination with the idea of freedom also stems from the fluidity of the word’s usage and meaning, she told The Herald. When people talk about freedom, they’re “not always talking about the same thing,” she explained.
She was particularly conscious of this flexibility due to the political climate she grew up in, with “very activated discourses about the word (freedom) all the time.” She was born in 1973, she told The Herald, “a couple years after the Summer of Love, … growing up right after something big like a liberation.”
In her book’s chapter on drugs, she investigates “people who are seen in the culture as drug heroes” who testify to their “experiences of addiction that are defined by feeling dominated by that addiction” and are subjected to an “imperial substance,” she said.
Her exploration of the dynamics of freedom in sex stemmed from an interest in “the variety of impulses that make an interaction or a desire,” she said. “There’s a lot in a person that doesn’t necessarily yearn for only freedom.”
Nelson also spoke to The Herald about her creative process and sources of inspiration. She “spent many years working at a place called St. Mark's Poetry Project,” a New York City venue committed to supporting experimental writing and art.
“The world of scholarship or academia is a big part of me,” she said, and the creative scene in downtown New York was “as influential to me as academic training.”
Nelson’s work defies categorization, the event page reads. She experiments with varying literary, narrative and academic writing methods “based on what the project is and what it wants or needs,” she explained. “Writing, making books and fulfilling long projects entails being able to withstand a lot of frustration.”
She added that her experience as a professor at the University of Southern California has also heavily influenced her writing. “I love being a professor” and “staying in active dialogue with interesting, smart people,” she said. “There is value in learning how to be in conversation with each other in a classroom space.”
Through her work, Nelson places contemporary ideas in conversation with historical and literary connections. “You can’t worry about making something contemporary because that will date it, and you can’t try and make it timeless because that will make it cheesy, so you have to write what you feel needs to be said and trust that time will do its thing,” she said. “If you’re around for long enough, what might seem dated now becomes a time capsule.”
She described the difficulty of writing “On Freedom” over a five-year period, especially the climate segment of the book — a crisis challenged by time. “I think we all suffer from this conviction that we’re living in accelerated times” and cultivate the mindset of “hurtling toward an Armageddon Day,” she said.
Looking toward the future, Nelson is working on a collection of essays she began in 2006 “that’ll be out in 2024,” she told The Herald.
Additional reporting by Aalia Jagwani.