Discover more from upward spiral
Nada Alic on creating her own reality
In conversation with Nada Alic, author of Bad Thoughts
Oh hello, it’s me, Tasha. Welcome to upward spiral, a space on the internet where I write about and interview people whose work inspires something rare and precious, in our times of constant overstimulation: genuine, unadulterated enthusiasm.
In the early years of my writing career, I interviewed bands and artists a lot. My favorite parts of the interview rarely if ever made it into print. I’m talking about the meandering, personally significant, amusing musings, niche interests, and oddly specific obsessions that make human beings so fascinating. I’ve always wished for a space to share authentic conversations for their own sake. (Edited, of course — I’m not wholly insane.)
Zero opacity: I decided to call this thing what it’s called because it’s a term that my therapist has used to describe what I’ve been going through in recent years — and because I’m endlessly inspired by others who have been resilient throughout our wobbly times.
It is a Sisyphean task to stay alive and to do it well. It’s not about staying positive, it’s about mastering the skill of stoking your will to live! I want to applaud everyone out there doing their best at living. In the words of one of my favorite artists of recent times, Alabaster DePlume:
I still cower sometimes
But I want to reach to that voice with love
"Fucking let them!"
I have all I need
For the glory of being
I recognise you and celebrate
I am brazen
Like a baby
Like the stupid sun
And I go forward
In the courage
Of my love
It’s so fitting that the first edition of this thing features a conversation with Nada Alic. We’ve been in similar upward spirals since we started hanging out in LA several years ago (the beforetimes!). And, of course, because I’m so excited for the release of her highly anticipated first book, Bad Thoughts, on July 12. Preorder it, watch her brilliant book trailers, and grab one of the It t-shirts of the season. Anyone I encounter in the wild wearing Nada merch will receive their preferred form of physical contact: hug, high five, or socially distanced good-vibe transfer.
Future editions of upward spiral will keep the conversations going with writers, artists, and creatives of all kinds to participate, and I’d love for you readers to participate, as well. Send me a note, slide into my DMs — I’m here for it.
K. Here’s my conversation with Nada.
In conversation with Nada Alic, author of Bad Thoughts
Life is funny, and Nada has a talent for writing stories that let you feel like you’re in on the joke. In her debut collection, Bad Thoughts, we’re immersed in the inner lives of “unlikable” characters, whom Nada treats with generosity, holding containers of space for their unfiltered weirdness to play out on the page.
Several years ago, I met Nada in Los Angeles, where we did a few reading events together; whenever we’d hang out, we were guaranteed to have a good conversation about writing and life. Ahead of the release of her first book of collected fiction, we connected virtually/remotely between my home in Brooklyn and her home in Los Angeles, to talk about rediscovering your true self, finding the humor in our dark parts, and the practices that keep us in touch with reality when we spend too much time alone.
However many times I've heard or read your stories before, they still still light me up every time. Lines like this one, from “My New Life,” are just so impressive to me: "She listened attentively as I told her about my incurable sadness, how it had taken on new gradients this year, with sharper edges that sometimes left me breathless."
Interpreting our emotions as physical, bodily sensations is so interesting to me. It’s amazing how often we carry on totally out of touch with our bodies. Is writing, for you, a way of shaping your reality, or making life feel more real?
I think so much of writing is in creating containers for yourself to exist within. It doesn’t demand the level of physicality that music, dance, or painting requires. Which is why so many writers are like: I must burn this candle and wear this sweater and walk in this loop. Some days I remember thinking, God, I want to just hurl big objects out of a window, spit, scream, kick the air, because the little type type type-y thing does not match the raw, libidinal energy I’m trying to release.
Having any sort of artistic ambition feels so abstract and out of reach most of the time, so these little rituals and routines anchor us. After I quit my job, I had to construct a new reality and adhere to it with total seriousness, years before anyone knew what I was doing. I learned from years of working for other people that if I didn’t shape my own reality, someone else would.
For some writers, academia is a container, doing the workshop/residency/writing group thing is a container, oversharing on Twitter is a container; it really depends on who you are. For me it was: doing the same thing everyday, wearing the same pair of shoes, eating the same breakfast, running the same route, listening to the same songs. I was trying to maintain a near-constant hypnotic state for ideas to flow. It took me a while to realize this was also OCD, but you have to use the tools that God gave you. :)
I remember, a few years ago, when you left your job to go write your book, I was so inspired and proud of you for this bold act of deciding, “I am creating my own reality.” It’s a big moment to decide that you deserve to do what you love, just as much as any other writer.
Yeah, and I can see how attractive that narrative is in hindsight, as if there was this seamless upward trajectory or fated path for me. It feels a little premature to call what I’m doing a success, but at least in terms of setting out to do a thing and doing it, sure. You just have to take the bet on your future self, while your current self doesn’t feel capable or confident at all. It really did feel like, when you and I were hanging out, I was at the beginning of this “dark night of the soul”—and I wasn’t even aware of how dark it was going to get.
I've gone through a few of those too. Then I remember the absurdity of life, and how wonderful an idea it is that we’re creating our own reality. When you bet on yourself and win, it’s exhilarating and changes your whole perspective, and you realize that everyone you've ever admired has gone through the same thing.
When I was starting out, I thought that there was this big secret that everyone else was all in on. I had to figure it out for myself, and I’m so glad I did it that way. I don't know if I would even do well with somebody telling me how this all plays out.
I think you and I probably had to go through a lot of unlearning, that internalized capitalism that keeps us small and fearful. You're constantly in a trust fall with the universe and always wondering, will I be held? The huge bummer about life is that suffering is sort of the only way to grow. I think a lot of people naively take suffering as a sign that they should go back to where it’s safe, when they should see it as growing pains: proof that they’re uplevelling to a bigger version of themselves.
Exactly, you become more resilient through the experience of figuring life out the hard way. Naturally, that experience provides endless material.
I think a big part of what makes your writing so resonant is that you expose the kinds of things everyone thinks in the further reaches of their minds, with a refreshing sense of humor—not, like so much Alt Lit, trying to be provocative or edgy. Is it the byproduct of spending a lot of time alone?
Yeah, I think it’s a few things. I think I’m only realizing now how much growing up Catholic informed a lot of my ideas around morality; even just that idea of seeking absolution for your sins, the ritual of confession and forgiveness. I spent my whole life mired in shame and guilt for being “bad.” Confession didn’t really work on me because I went to a Croatian church, so as a kid I could only say like, three kinds of sins in Croatian. It was always some variation of, “I was mean to my sister.” I think I’ve been seeking absolution in other ways my whole life, especially in my friends. I wanted to capture that in “My New Life.” The friendship between Mona and the protagonist is very much centered around a priest/sinner role play. You know, when you do or think something terrible, you go to your closest friend to seek absolution or recognition. There’s instant relief in hearing, “Oh that’s not so bad, I’ve done that.” Or better yet, “I’ve done worse.”
A lot of the characters in the book aren’t “good” people.I wanted to exaggerate their worst qualities to the point of absurdity, as a way of disarming the reader with humor, so that they had permission to laugh, because all laughter is a form of recognition. You can relate, because these impulses exist within all of us. The inner self is the last vestige of privacy we have left, it’s the only thing we really can’t tame.
I think that’s why reading fiction can be so validating—it reassures us that we are all sharing a human experience here, and that it’s very strange sometimes. Well, it's very strange all of the time.
I was lucky in a way, because I wasn’t raised with religion, and my parents let me be really free—until I had to go to school. As you said, we have to unlearn a lot to reconnect with who you really are. I think that's where good writing or art comes from—you have to allow your inner child to play and embrace a little chaos.
I think the trick is, how does that coexist with the disciplinary inner tyrant that is required for the daily commitment? The ego/inner critic is always bulldozing the inner child, and you're always trying to outsmart it—whether with drugs, or meditation, or trying to write at certain times of the day before you look at your email. I remember the first time I did acid, that was the big takeaway—I finally saw my inner child and I felt like myself for the first time. For a few weeks after, I was euphoric, but then the sludgy ego settled back in again.
It’s a constant process of forgetting and remembering, and falling back into the illusion that any of this matters, and trying to find the joy in any of it again. I think that's why humor is so important to me. It cuts through all of the seriousness. I’m more interested in anyone who is subverting the form and fucking with convention—like performance artists: they’re kind of fucking with you, but they’re letting you in on the joke. I don’t know, maybe I can't handle earnestness or something. I prefer a clown.
Earnestness is tricky. It’s the most raw and vulnerable part of ourselves!
I’m careful with vulnerability because of the ways it can be weaponized or exploited. Some writers take great care with their vulnerability, and it takes a lot of courage, but it’s so hard to pull off elegantly. I’ve always been drawn to stand-up comedy because there’s a lot of generosity in the delivery. Comedians transmute their pain in a way that liberates both you and them in the exchange.
If I can’t laugh at something yet, that means I’m not removed enough from it yet to discuss it or make sense of it. I have to go through many stages to get to compassion and this expanded understanding of how it all is. That’s why Buddhism and nonduality appeals to me, because you can both participate in the drama of life on this human level while also maintaining a safe vantage point where you can watch it all unfold, and that part can laugh at what’s happening.
As humans, we have such a shortsighted view of things. Something bad can happen to you and you are just so devastated by it, but you really don't know how the story is going to play out—and I think that’s my favorite part.
In life and in art, that's amazing advice. I love art that kind of gets into the messy, questionable predicaments of our lives in a raw way without being judgmental or prescriptive about it.
I’m curious about your thoughts on partnership—marriage, in particular—as a writer. Especially as you and your husband Ryan are both artists. What's your experience or maybe your takeaway from that, so far?
It's greatly improved my entire life and way of seeing the world, but there are also challenges. We require so much solitude because we both work from home. Ryan has a little music studio next to the house, but he’ll still come inside to use the kitchen and to say hi—it’s sweet! But these little interruptions can sometimes throw me off. I sometimes miss living alone in my little shitty apartment, but I don’t know if total isolation is good for me, even when I say that’s what I want.
But mostly, he’s just taught me so much about how to live as an artist. He’s been a musician his entire life, so he knows what it takes to live in a sustained creative manner. He’s always working, which creates an environment for me to do the same. We’re not too in each others’ worlds, so we can just be genuinely so supportive and happy for each other.
The best part about being in a secure relationship is that so much mental real estate gets freed up to focus on things outside of yourself. When your brain is hijacked by infatuation, it’s easy to get very myopic and self-absorbed and obsessive. But now I can learn about things and have hobbies without that constant background noise of, Will this person text me back?
Totally. When I was younger, infatuation was a powerful drive for me to write a lot. Now, for me, it’s all about how to have a healthy relationship with myself. But relationships are so important—not only because they’re another realm in which you can create your own reality, in that you’re co creating a reality with someone else, but because you need balance to make the solitude of writing sustainable.
Yeah, I think it’s important because writing is such a lonely endeavor. But, I’m not the type of person to participate in a group thing. I can’t even do yoga. I’ve tried. I seem like the type of person that would be into that, but I can’t handle it.
True, other peoples’ energy can be so imposing, especially when you’re in a room with people who are, like, sweating and groaning. I’ve been practicing yoga for over a decade, but sometimes when I go to a class I have to imagine that I have a force field of energy around me to keep everyone else’s energy out.
Does that help?
I think it helps. It’s like they say, You're not practicing yoga to be better on the mat, you’re practicing to be better at life off the mat.
I think you and I suffer from a similar affliction of being too in our heads. I'm all air signs. I remember a few months ago I had this session with a psychic who asked me if I saw dead people, because I’m “very porous,” and I think what she meant was that my energy can get too leaky from being in the creative space of writing all day, and transitioning into the world of people and events can be a bit disorienting. She told me that I need to create a fortress to protect myself. When I walk into a room I feel like so much is coming at me and it’s exhausting.
I think everyone actually experiences this but not everyone is aware of it. So, everyone has different ways of coping with this constant bombardment from the forces around us. Like that Sarah Manguso quote from 300 Arguments that opens your book: “Instead of pathologizing every human quirk, we should say, By the grace of this behavior, this individual has found it possible to continue.”
Living in a city, especially, our boundaries are under a constant pressure test, and I certainly feel a little too porous at times. But as a fiction writer, I think it’s unfortunately part of the process to be able to hold some of that energy, to pour into the writing.
Even a book as a physical container.
Right, the book is a container, but it too becomes leaky by others’ interpretations!
Yeah, it's sort of like the impossible task of it, because it will never be this perfect thing. It's like the ultimate tragedy: trying to materialize the imagination. But maybe its imperfection is the point!
Through the process of writing a book, you become a better version of yourself in so many ways. It’s like a constant shedding, this spiritual practice of, “I just have to accept that and keep going and move on.” The tricky thing about publishing taking so long is that you are no longer the person who wrote that early draft. But the only reason why you’ve ascended is that process of writing—I don't know if you ever catch up with yourself.
I think I have a hard time even conceptualizing that anybody is ever going to be having a private experience with my books. That feels like none of my business!
This is kind of my ultimate “bad thought”: No matter what anyone says, it can be reduced to the same single grain of truth, which is: I exist. Every story, every meaning, can be reduced to an expression of existence, and how uncomfortable it is to simply exist.
Yeah, you just described social media.
Right. We find so many different vectors and it’s all the same at the root: “I'm here, I'm conscious, I hate this. I have to do something.”
Writers love talking about the muse and about being a vessel. I wish I felt like a vessel, that sounds so romantic. But you're part of a process that is unfolding that you might not even be conscious of. You might have ambitions that are self-serving, but the truth is you might be being used to create something that then awakens someone on the receiving end that you'll never meet. Think about all the books that have touched you. Remember the way art plugged you into something bigger.
The act of writing a book is such a love letter to being alive. You’re translating that sense of aliveness as it’s refracted through your specific consciousness, your unique signature, and someone’s going to see themselves in it.
I love that! A love letter to being alive.
It sounds maybe not like something I would say, I don’t know why. Ha ha!
That's your earnestness coming out!
I’m trying to trust the spontaneity of whatever comes out of my mouth.
Me, too. Thank you for doing a trust fall with the universe with me.
Bad Thoughts is out July 12, 2022. Preorder it (preferably not from an obscenely rich supervillain’s website but you do you)! Get yourself one of her cool t-shirts!
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