The nonfiction editors, Rappahannock Review: Your essay is collaged together in nine segments, or sutures as you call them in your title. Could you expand on how this structure came about in shaping your work? Was it a form you’d wanted to work with, or just a natural fit for what you wanted to write on?
Connor O’Neill: The form came late. My mentor talks about writing projects as tunnels, that when we’re writing, all we have are a flashlight and our legs, exploring. The legs–the narrative engine of the project–was the story of my brother and me leaning into each other during a rough patch in our lives. The flashlight in this case was a series of questions I had about what was at stake–physically, morally, psychologically, for me, my brother, and maybe this country–in our obsession with sport. So for most of the writing process, I was formlessly moving through this story, letting this question guide what I found as I went.
It wasn’t until late in the piece that I realized my motivation for telling the story and asking these questions was to remember, to feel closer to my brother and myself. I was also digressing a lot, which meant moving in a few directions at once. So, as I was revising, I needed the form to offer some scaffolding for those departures–thus the sections–and to help convey in its shape some sense of its meaning–thus the ‘sutures’.
RR: You live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where football dominates the social and cultural landscape. How has your time at the University of Alabama shaped the ideas this essay presents about football and injuries?
CO: The biggest thing about living in Alabama has been a reinforced belief in my ability to abide contradiction. Before I moved to Alabama, I watched football for three hollow reasons: fleeting relief from body issues, from mental issues, and from an overwhelming dread about how and why football has such a big audience in this country. Now I live in Alabama and I’m watching football for three hollow reasons: fleeting relief from body issues, from mental issues, and from an overwhelming dread about how and why football has such a big audience in this country.
What’s crazy about the college game is that all the same risks are there, but these college players aren’t compensated for their work. Meanwhile a bunch of old white dudes make billions on the players’ labor and risk (and my compulsive consumption of it.) But I’m a small-headed American boy who has spent most of my life feeling like the most meaningful validation came from achievement in sports. And now that my body and my NCAA eligibility have expired, I’m seeking that validation through the teams I root for. So, even though I know in my head how fucked up the whole system is, there I am, not four months into living in Alabama, crying in a bar when Auburn beat Alabama in the 2013 Iron Bowl.
The pundit James Carville said that everything between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia might as well be Alabama. He’s talking about red-state politics, and while there are tons of differences culturally, economically, historically, between the two, but as it pertains to football, at least from my point of view, there are a lot of people in Pennsylvania who maybe like me watch football to get a little distance from their breaking bodies and heavy heads, and there are a lot of people in Alabama who maybe like me watch football to get a little distance from their breaking bodies and heavy heads. I can’t really explain it, but I’m trying to give texture to the impulse. And that impulse is everywhere.
Also, Roll Tide.
RR: You are active on both Twitter and Facebook. As a writer, what do you enjoy most about this form of outreach and promotion?
CO: I signed up for Twitter on a lark in 2009. At the time I didn’t know what it was, really, or how to use it, other than that it had these little red negative numbers that popped up when I had to stop writing. I liked that. It felt like a writing game and since no one was following me and thus no one reading these things, I started playing with it. Coincidentally, I had just started trying to WRITE some stuff in that self-serious way of young male writers. So my first tweets (after quoting some Bob Dylan lyrics that we’ll not count) were these pretentious little flash pieces. Because they were going into this public but also still-private space, I felt uninhibited and yet safe from judgment, so I ran with it for a bit. I went back and looked at them and some of them are bad/good and some them are bad/bad. There’s one about Kermit eating mushrooms at tea with Miss Piggy while they listen to Bessie Smith. There’s another about Bob Barker yelling “Come on down!” from the bottom of a well. Probably my favorite is about a convent that has a swimming pool and high dive in the back, and a nun intent on mastering the backflip.
This might be counter-productive to the promotional element of your question, but so be it.
More recently, and more to the outreach-and-promotion point, I’ve been trying to get a twitter advice column off the ground. Work is slow but I’m hopeful. So far it’s mostly me tweeting questions at myself to show everyone just how good my advice can be. I did get one from a renter who wanted a dog even though his landlord said no. I counseled him to get a pair of those fake-schnoz glasses for the dog and to tell his landlord that he was out walking another human around the block, casual as can be. It’s unclear to me why my mentions aren’t through the roof.
RR: You previously worked as nonfiction editor for the Black Warrior Review. How has working as an editor inform your own writing practices?
CO: In so many ways it’s informed my writing practices, reading practices, and teaching practices. Going through the submissions, you get a cross-section of what a whole bunch of other essay-writers are up to at the moment. Then you get to pick some essays to bring to a room full of other really smart essay writers and discuss the merits of the pieces. It was incredible. I’m sure I’ve been influenced in a whole bunch of ways that I’m not even able to articulate yet.
As it pertains to this essay, the work for BWR got me thinking a lot about form as part and parcel of an essay’s meaning. We published this incredible essay by Sarah Minor that was part profile of an old family house, part meditation on the poetics of space, part architectural theory, part reportage about “critter gitters.” The essay was told in sections and each section had three parts. The left-hand page of each section was a straight block of text while the right-hand page had two sections: the top section would recede to the right while the bottom section would expand out beneath it. It looks like two triangles wedged together, meant to simulate the limen of a house. It’s a pretty daring formal move, but not at all gratuitous. The top section often dealt with personal memories that would recede away from the page while the bottom section would expand and bring us back into the present space of the house. Ya’ll should read the essay. It’s smart as hell. What it taught me though, was that while formal experimentation can be fun and cheeky, the ones that I found myself responding to most as a reader were the ones where the shape was part of the sense–that the meaning of the piece was shaped by the interaction of the form and the content in ways both subtle and stark.
RR: Has your theory with regard to ‘plumb from a string’ and its relation to trauma shifted at all following this essay?
CO: Not really. I mean, the image of the tangled string came out of the need to visualize the emotional residue of an unaligned self. Now I’ve got a name for it and a way of seeing it, but it’s still there. Naming it doesn’t keep it at bay. What’s changed, though, is that I was able to set it out and show it to my brother. The piece felt hand-wringy until my brother read it, until it could exist in the space between us. I’m still mortgaging a lot of anxiety but at least now I feel a little bit closer to my brother and to my home and to myself. It’s messy and it’s ambivalent and it’s string-tightening, but it’s a little less lonely, now. And that feels important.
Connor O’Neill’s work in Issue 3.1: