Writer Jordan Kisner follows your curiosity – The Creative Independent
Writer Jordan Kisner explains how embracing creative struggles, revising your writing schedule, and following your natural curiosities can inspire your projects.
You wear a lot of different hats, could you talk about all your roles and projects you work on?
I write books and essays, as well as profiles, reports and reviews for different magazines. I’m primarily a contributing writer for The New York Times magazine and Atlantic. I also write elsewhere when I have the opportunity. I host and produce the podcasts Thresholds, which is a series of interviews with writers and artists. I also help with the organization Table of Contents and teach creative writing at Columbia University.
That’s a lot of hats.
I like having lots of different things to do. I had a production company called The Bellwether. We have produced work in all disciplines, and I miss live events and curation. So, in a way, I feel like I have fewer hats than before. The podcast is newer to me.
Hearing you talk about all your different roles reminds me of your essay in Thin places about the clone tree [“A Theory of Immortality”] and how they all come from the same thing. Often when people are involved in multiple projects there is something in common. Do you feel like your projects are connected?
They all feel like natural extensions of my own curiosities. All my projects stem from constant interests: the collision between art, science, community and the divine… or magic. I always look at the ways human beings try to connect with each other, or with a higher reality. Often my life as a writer is like different trees that spring from this basic curiosity and they can take different forms in terms of subject matter, but they’re all grounded in the same thing. When you teach creative writing, people bring in work they care about, and your job is to ask them questions to help them refine what they’re trying to do. I like to ask questions and I like to get to the heart of what interests them.
I worked as a teacher, so it’s interesting to hear you talk about the similarities between interviewing and teaching. It sounds like a very generous way to think about being in a classroom, especially when it comes to other people’s creative projects. Do you feel like you have that same kind of generosity and tenderness towards yourself as a writer?
I wish it was as easy to be patient with myself as it is for the other writers, artists, and students I talk to. For this reason, I find teaching can be really helpful because I often repeat encouragement to frustrated students that I really need to hear. It’s too easy to leave the classroom and beat my own writing just to realize: That thing I said to a student really applies here, so I can leave myself a little slack. It’s okay if it’s not easy.
There’s a certain type of personality (which I’m a part of) that tends to feel like if something is difficult, if it feels messy, if it doesn’t go right the first, second or third time , there’s something fundamentally wrong with you or with the idea or with – I don’t know – every life choice you’ve made [laughs]. I had to learn over time that it’s hard because it’s hard. Writing is difficult. Thinking is difficult. Trying to communicate a complex thought clearly is difficult. It’s not a bad sign if something seems difficult to me. It’s just part of the process, and so what I need to do is be patient with myself as much as possible and also try to stay focused on the problem that needs to be solved in front of me, instead of wringing my hand on the situation as a whole. . It’s just a distraction from the hard thing, like, I can’t figure out how to write an intro for this essay that isn’t rubbish. If I accept that it’s good that it’s difficult, it keeps me focused on solving the challenge.
When I read your essays, I feel like I’m exploring and discovering with you. I think a lot of that comes from your genuine curiosity about your subjects. I wonder how you choose them?
I feel like it’s just the law of attraction. When I hear something interesting, I have a crush on that idea. For example, before writing the essay you referred to, I heard of Pando [the clone tree] and I immediately wanted to see the tree, I wanted to be near it and learn about it. I just had a creative crush on the tree. This is also true for profiling people…not that I have crushes, just that I get curious about them. We all have people whose work sparks something in us. That’s really what it means to engage in a project: I’m going to devote time and mental space to thinking about this thing, this person or this event. Choosing a topic is like choosing a friend, you want to spend months or even years of your life with that topic.
I like this. It is a romantic view.
There’s this Jesuit idea – and I’m not a Jesuit – that God tells you your calling by desire. Your attraction is actually a direction towards what you are meant to engage with. This idea seems true to me. Often I am drawn to something and I don’t understand why. Like why I want to write about something – a tree, a festival, an orange. If I just follow that desire to spend time with that idea, something really fantastic usually happens. There’s actually something going on that makes this project interesting. It’s not necessarily my job to know why in advance. It’s just worth taking it as a signal.
I wonder if there were any specific early moments in your professional or personal life that felt like a desire or a call to write, to interview, to teach?
I’ve always loved writing, but it wasn’t something I seriously thought about until I finished college. A moment when I realized that this could be a calling for me happened in a documentary theater class at university, which I wrote about at the beginning of Thin places [the essay “Attunement”]. Our job was to conduct interviews with people on either side of the cultural divide between conservative Christians and secular liberals. We then helped playwrights design a documentary theater piece based on our findings. I was an actor at the time and I was also a student of religion, so I was like “this is exactly what I’m supposed to do”. But what seemed telling about this process was the interview. It was the first time I went out into the world with a tape recorder and asked people questions about what interested them. I was part of a team that had the responsibility to do something good with this time and the confidence that people gave us. I was on fire during this process. I was so excited and so moved. He felt life changing to engage with strangers and ideas in this way. I didn’t know what to do with this feeling. For a while I thought maybe I would be a documentary dramaturge. I had no idea how to deploy it at all. I just fell in love with it.
You are using yourself as a vehicle to portray someone else’s lived experience. Since you wear all of these hats: book author, essayist, teacher, interviewer, magazine writer, how do you manage your creative time? How to avoid burnout?
I’m fascinated by other writers’ schedules because I struggled to create one. I had a terrible burnout last year and I felt like I had no words in my head. I had no limits, I constantly worked long hours and changed tasks. I couldn’t do anything for months. Which was terrible and terrifying and I’m so glad I don’t feel that way anymore. I’m currently in the exploratory process of trying to overhaul my workflow so that I can’t do it anymore. I monitor how much time and in what order I spend on different types of work, such as book work, magazine work, and podcast work. I’ve noticed that I do best when I start the day by writing by hand in an undirected way. It’s not a new thing, it just came out of The artist’s path by Julia Cameron. I also keep a complex multi-part to-do list organized by job. Due to the nature of my work, it is very easy to spend all my time on freelance and administrative tasks, and not spend time writing my book. But I get really grumpy if I can’t get to that type of writing. The goal is to dedicate two to three hours a day to writing books.
Jordan Kisner recommends:
Building a nervous system by Margo Jefferson (pre-order here)
moisturizing (I’m usually dehydrated; I’m working on it myself)
Subscribe to at least one purely playful/aesthetic publication (for me, Apartment)
Learn the names of the flowers and trees you see on your daily routes (I was inspired to do this by Aimee Nezhukumatathil)>
Obtain a dog