A Writer’s Insight: Mairead Small Staid

photo by Chris McCormick

Mairead Small Staid’s essay, “Second Person,” appears in the summer 2017 issue of The Southern Review, and was featured on Lit Hub in July. Read about how Staid researched and organized the essay, as well as her thoughts on parenthetical asides and finding inspiration in bars, below.

Kathleen Boland: The essay includes multiple quotations from other writers—Henry James, Eileen Myles, and Eula Biss, to name a few—why include these? And how’d you come across and decide on these particular writers and quotes?

Mairead Small Staid: I’ve kept notebooks for almost a decade now, and the contents of each tend to be about 50 percent my own writing and 50 percent facts and quotes from whatever I’m reading. So all the quotations in “Second Person” were scavenged from these notebooks, though they often got there through indirect means: I first read the Myles line in Maggie Nelson’s Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions, for example, and I didn’t remember where the James came from until fact-checking time.

In an essay about voice and the often fractured nature of identity, I wanted to present many voices, a kind of fracturing through addition. To be honest, I feel a little shameful, sometimes, about how readily I quote from other writers in my essays—but maybe (I tell myself) that’s not such a terrible thing? I do like the idea of shoving all these voices into conversation with each other and seeing how they get along. And as a reader, I like writing that’s omnivorous, able to devour and digest just about anything and get away with it.

KB: Along with quotation, there is frequent use of parentheses in the essay. Do you believe there’s a connection between parenthetical asides and second person narration?

MSS: That’s lovely; I hadn’t thought of that. I like parentheticals—and em dashes—because I like tangents and amendments—my love of the omnivorous rising again. But those particular punctuation marks also imply a certain amount of doubt, I think, and doubt is something I find necessary and productive and exciting in an essay. (There’s that Montaigne quote: “If I knew my own mind, I would not make essays. I would make decisions.” Or, John Jeremiah Sullivan: “One has doubts about one’s doubts.”) My mind is full of contradictions, constantly poking holes in its own arguments, and I want my sentences and paragraphs to hold both those arguments and those holes, all at once.

The second person point of view, as I’m thinking about it in this essay, is one that permits many (often conflicting) voices: the English “you” can be singular or plural, after all, and can be used to generalize or empathize or condemn. The essay is a reckoning with these many voices, an attempt to pin them to the page, but they’re slippery things. In my mind, honestly, the parentheses are endless. On the page, I’ve tried to contain myself.

KB: At one point the narrator argues: “Never the third person; that would be a lie. You are far too close for that, far too intimately acquainted.” Can you explain what the “lie” of third person is? How does intimacy make second person more honest, at least in your essay?

MSS: What I meant by that sentence was that I never think of myself as “she.” But it’s funny: for a recent project I’ve had to reread some old notebooks from when I was nineteen and twenty. (The horror! So embarrassing.) And there are little third person vignettes in there, scraps of scenes and thoughts rendered from the outside. They were ostensibly fiction—which I have since realized, luckily for all of us, that I’m terrible at—but about an obvious and thinly veiled me. So maybe not thinking of myself in the third person is a recent development, something I’ve grown into? Maybe I’ve gotten so used to myself that I don’t, or can’t, see myself from the outside anymore?

It might be as simple as that. But I’ve been reading John Berger lately, and in his essay on women in art, he says: “She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.” This section just knocked me out, so acutely does it describe how I felt at times, as a teenager and younger woman, the near-constant hyper-self-consciousness, the anxiety-inducing awareness of my body and how it might appear to others. I’m really glad that I’ve managed to shake that feeling, for the most part.

More simply, though, in the construct of the essay, my self and my self (and my self and my self and so on) are in the same room, i.e., my mind. It would be rude to speak about them (me?) as if they (I?) weren’t there.

KB: In the essay, writing in the bar is such a natural ritual, so regular and, almost, easy. I was jealous (and I imagine plenty of other writers may feel the same)! In real life, do you actually write this way, and with what frequency? Does your practice match the description in the essay, and if so, what do you do after these free-write first drafts? Do they grow into stories and essays, switch points of view, or end up in the scrap heap?

MSS: Ha! It’s the dream, I’ll admit. I do write at the bar semiregularly, though it’s a secondary practice to my coffee-fueled, first-thing-in-the-morning habit at home. (Unlike just about everyone else on the planet, I can’t write at coffee shops. I don’t know why! Too many people, maybe. I get itchy just thinking about it.) But I love the white noise and warm tones of just about any bar on a slow afternoon, getting away from my computer and back to notebooks, and the very, very slight pressure of it. I’m less critical, writing longhand (and after a beer or two), and sometimes letting myself go off on some long, slightly messy, possibly sappy tangent helps me figure something out in an otherwise stalled piece. I can then edit (most of) the sap out, and keep the revelation. And yes, the point of view usually gets put back in its proper, first person place—except in the case of this particular essay, of course.

KB: Finally, what’s your favorite bar in the world to write in? Or, if you can’t write in a bar, what’s your second-best option?

MSS: I don’t know if I should give away my favorite bar—what if it gets swarmed with writers and I can’t find a seat?! The emptiness is a big part of its charm, you know. But I can say that I would probably, very grudgingly, trade my decidedly uncool Midwestern sports bar for—oh, I don’t know—anywhere in Florence? On a Greek island? In Iceland in the summer, when it’s light all night? I mean, if I had to. And the second-best spot is my apartment’s balcony, spring or fall, when it’s cool enough that I need socks and hot coffee, and the little birds are going bonkers in the trees nearby.

Mairead Small Staid received her MFA from the University of Michigan, where she won the Hopwood Award in both nonfiction and poetry. Her work has been published in AGNI, The Believer, and Narrative.

Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review.

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