I Mostly Learn
An Interview with Ariel Lewiton
Whether the subject is photography, corporate collapse, or old houses, Ariel Lewiton’s work explores the ways that space—both external and internal—shapes our lives.
On a cloudy February morning, Ariel and I talked about her motivations, her work style, the magic of saunas, and her haunting essay “Ghost House,” which appears in this issue. In the manner of the deeply inquisitive, she asked me almost as many questions as I asked her (though my much less profound answers have been omitted).
You grew up near Boston. How did the physical and mental spaces you grew up in affect your writing?
When I was growing up, my family spent winter vacations in a little log cabin in southern Maine that belonged to my grandparents. It was on a lake, heated by a wood stove, and my sister and I spent a lot of time playing in the snow and then running back into the warm, cozy little cabin. There wasn’t much to do, and I think I began writing short stories there to entertain myself. My grandparents sold the house around fifteen years ago, but it remains really formative when I think about places that were creatively generative, and spaces that evoke in a particular way.
Thinking about space, were you drawn to writing about this particular house in “Ghost House” for its symbolic resonance, or do you find yourself thinking of the impact of houses, buildings, spaces in other work?
This piece was part of a larger project of interwoven essays, short stories and flash about physical spaces and different ways of occupying them.
It started, really, with a sauna in grad school around 2012. I was working on a thesis and I was not feeling it—my heart wasn’t in it, so I was avoiding it in part by going to my school’s rec center a lot, running on the treadmills and then decompressing in the sauna by the locker rooms.
The sauna was always filled with groups of undergrad boys—I’d call them bros—all sitting around talking about their girlfriends, their hopes, their anxieties. And they would talk like I wasn’t even there, in this deeply intimate way—not what I expected from my preconceived idea of bros. I eavesdropped on them and then rushed home to write little vignettes based on what I heard.
Another thing that came out of these sauna sessions was the idea that different physical environments carry with them different culture rules or attitudes. In a sauna, you are naked, or close to it, and you are in a space where you cede control of your body in close proximity to strangers. If you transposed that into another context, it would be totally inappropriate. I started thinking: are there particular spaces that make me feel a certain kind of way about my body, or that make me feel a certain kind of way in relation to other people?
Ghost House is such a good example of that exploration. But actually, while you give us rich detail about the house itself, you don’t plant it in a location or a time in your life.
The unwritten backstory is that during the time when the essay takes place, I was getting divorced. My husband and I had been in a long-distance relationship for our entire marriage to that point, and he was finally about to come join me in Iowa. I had found this house for us—it was a kind of shitty house, but we’d be together and that’s what mattered. But during all this, our relationship was deteriorating. By the time I moved in, we were separated, so the house became this horrible symbol of all the things that hadn’t come to pass.
But I didn’t want this to be a divorce essay. There are some life events that are so loud you can’t even allude to them without them taking on too much weight. I didn’t want readers to start asking “Where’s the husband?” or “What went wrong?” That wasn’t what I was interested in thinking about. I was interested in thinking about the house as a physical space that impacted my emotional landscape. And about a period of trying to live so lightly that my own life didn’t touch me.
How much do you already tend to know as you are writing and how much do you learn as you go?
I mostly learn. Usually, when I get an idea, it’s just a little sketch of an idea. In this case, I thought: I want to write about that horrible house. And that was about as much as I knew when I sat down to write this piece. I didn’t consider the piano concert or Martha’s Vineyard.
But that conversation I had with Brian always stuck in my mind. It was such an interesting idea he had, about ghosts occupying physical space with this energy. And I’m agnostic in general, but I like the idea of believing in ghosts enough that I will say I believe in them just because I want to. I wanted to write about my house as haunted, but as if I was the one doing the haunting.
My writing process tends to be associative, which may be another way of saying I have a bit of an attention-deficit brain. Think a new thought, think a new thought, oh! Here’s a totally different subject! But I tend to get a little idea, and I mull it over in my mind for a long time. That’s not to say it gets more orderly, but by the time I sit down to write about it, there’s a web of associations already there.
Coming out of that, what does your editing process look like?
I have a lot of frustration in this regard. By profession, I am an editor. It’s hard to turn off editor brain when I write. The people I know who are the most prolific writers are those who can quickly generate a rough draft. It might be terrible. But it’s on the page, and then they go back and edit it. They are working with a complete draft.
I have never been one of those people. I am so embarrassed by the idea of writing a bad sentence—though I do, of course, like everybody. But I can’t even leave it on the page just for my own eyes, I’m embarrassing myself so much.
So, I am a really, really slow writer. I’ll write that sentence and then think: that word is not right. Then I go to thesaurus.com, another ten minutes go by, and I’ve totally forgotten what the next sentence was supposed to be. I really need to let go of stuff sooner.
You work at so many different levels of the literary[JD8] world. Is there a similar tension (like writer/editor) with your other work? How do you think all these different roles influence each other, and your writing?
I keep my marketing brain as far away from my editing or writing brain as possible. If you start thinking about markets and commerce, it really hurts the production of art.
I do several freelance literary projects, too. It’s not all symbiotic. There’s only so much time and energy that anyone has in a day. If one thing gets more attention, something else gets less. I’m glad I’ve had all these jobs, but I can’t say that they all help or improve my writing.
It’s easy to romanticize working in publishing, but the question is really: how does one hold down a job and keep a space for writing?
Yes, so true! And if I could just launch briefly into my favorite tirade about the publishing industry…
Yes, I love a good tirade!
Every few years, Publisher’s Weekly comes out with a breakdown about who works in the industry. And every time it’s something like 88% white women. So, then there’s backlash about needing diversity in publishing, because the books coming out reflect the publishing demographic and its blind spots. Those critiques are entirely necessary and true.
But there never seems to be a class analysis of what’s going on. Across publishing, the salaries are so miserly that without independent wealth, it’s very difficult to make it work. I don’t mean huge wealth, but I will candidly say the only way I was able to live in NYC netting barely $3K per month in my publishing job was because my grandparents paid for my college, so I didn’t have college loans. If I had loans, I could not have had that job. Then let’s think: who has structural wealth and is also willing to put up with being so underpaid? White women.
So, while there is a romantic idea about working in publishing and editors who write, I don’t think a traditional publishing route is necessarily the best answer for somebody who wants to be a writer.
I have a friend publishing a novel this spring. He has been working as a lawyer’s assistant for eight years. Is it a job that requires him to use a great deal of his intelligence? No. But it’s a nine to five with health insurance and a stable salary, and that is how he makes it work to write.
So yeah, the hustle is real.
What are some of the concepts you are currently exploring in your work, or want to explore next?
I’ve branched out from the basic idea of being embodied in space to thinking about different modes of intimacy in space, in environment, in visual art, performance art, and music.
On another note: I am back and forth between Boston and NYC a lot. I usually take the bus, but if I can find a cheap ticket, I’ll take the train. On the Northeast regional Amtrak line, there is a stretch of marshland in Connecticut. For some reason, I always seem to be looking out the window right as the train passes this stretch of marshland with a little island in the middle. One time, I took a picture of it. Then, on the next trip, I took another picture of it. It’s almost an act of devotion for me now—to be on the train and take this picture.
So, I have this project with pictures of this little island from the train in every season. I am kicking around ideas on how to write something about it. I’m thinking a lot about climate change, change in the country, change in my own life and mood. There’s something grounding about whipping by this island somewhere in the marshes of Connecticut and knowing that it’s still there every time we pass it by.
This is the germ of an idea. When you asked what my writing process is: this is the extent that I’ve thought about this. When I actually sit down to write, who knows what will come out?
Here’s another thing I’m curious about. There’s a great line in a piece you wrote for the Paris Review Daily called “Forging Intimacy”: “I never touched anything, except once his phone, to check what time it was and also to see if other women had called him in the night. But mostly to check the time.” I cackled when I read that.
I’m so glad.
I was struck by the radical honesty. When do you deep dive into truth, and when do you withhold it? How do you balance those tensions?
I mine a lot of my personal experience for my writing, but I always feel a wary of type casting myself. I want to write about grief and loss and intimacy and isolation, but I don’t want to be somebody writing Sad Girl essays.
I find it helpful to think of myself as a character. Even when we are writing about our own experience, it is crafted, it is composed. Even if I am the only one who knows it, it’s important for me to remember that this isn’t my diary. I’m crafting a version of myself that’s useful for the ideas I am conveying.
In this example, that essay is about loneliness and craving intimacy, so much that you are sleeping with strangers who don’t care about you. That’s heavy stuff, but I don’t want it to feel heavy. I really am happy that you cackled, because I wanted a funny moment there. A moment of self-deprecation that was kind of embarrassing, to make people understand that I don’t take myself too seriously.
I’m not writing out of sadness, I’m writing out of curiosity.