The Necessity of 'Willful Blindness' in Writing

The memoirist Terese Marie Mailhot on how Maggie Nelson’s Bluets taught her to explode the parameters of what a book is supposed to be

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Colum McCann, George Saunders, Emma Donoghue, Michael Chabon, and more.

Doug McLean

There’s nothing conventional about Heart Berries, Terese Marie Mailhot’s debut. A little over 100 pages, it’s far short of the 80,000 words most memoirs need to be deemed viable. There’s barely any exposition: Major characters enter the narrative intimately and without fanfare, almost as though we know them already. A crucial scene might be just three lines of unsparing poetry. In short, the book does everything it technically shouldn’t, brushing off the familiar regimen prescribed by MFA programs, and slipping the strictures of commercial publishing. The thrilling part is, it works. Heart Berries is a reminder that, in the right hands, literature can do anything it wants.

In a conversation for this series, Mailhot discussed a book that gave her the courage to break rules: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, an ode to a mysterious “prince of blue,” written in short, numbered sections, more like a philosophical proof than a traditional love story. In the end, the book afforded both romantic and creative license. As Bluets reminded Mailhot that “you can do anything,” she also found herself falling for the professor who’d assigned it to her—the writer Casey Gray, now her husband. We discussed how love and writing both require adopting a willful blindness to everything we’re “supposed” to do and be.

Heart Berries makes for a slim volume, but it feels as though it weighs a thousand pounds. It turns its gaze on a constellation of fraught subjects: Mailhot’s upbringing on British Columbia’s Seabird Island Indian Reservation; her caring grandmother and abusive father; her teenage marriage, and all the wrong men afterward; her children, one lost in an custody battle; her tumultuous affair with Gray; the pregnancy she carried through both a graduate fellowship and a mental health facility. What brings it all together is the oracular power of Mailhot’s voice, which speaks into the silence: amplifying aspects of experience that have been muted, animating despairs and passions we tend to hide from view. “I can name my pain so well,” she writes, in an indicative line, “that people are afraid of the consequences and power.”

Terese Marie Mailhot graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts with an MFA in fiction; there, she studied with the writer Sherman Alexie, whose mentorship she discussed below. She’s the Saturday editor at The Rumpus and was recently named a Tecumseh Postdoctoral Fellow at Purdue University. We spoke by phone.

Terese Marie Mailhot: I had already read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets twice when I signed up for a nonfiction seminar with Evan Lavender-Smith at New Mexico State University. He was something of a star for being an experimental nonfiction writer, and his reading list was really interesting to me. But he didn’t end up teaching that semester. Instead, the class ended up being taught by my now-husband Casey, who’d been my fiction professor a semester before.

I don’t even think Casey would’ve selected Bluets himself, but he had to teach Evan’s syllabus. The thing that surprised me was that people were so upset about it. They didn’t think it was a real book. Other students in my class, especially men, would say, “Well, I don’t like how she says ‘fuck’ all the time,” or, “I don’t like how she writes explicitly about sex,” or, “Why is she so ambiguous about where they are and who this person is? Why speak so abstractly, and why talk in riddles?”

I could tell Casey admired how much I loved the book, and he allowed me to defend it. To me, Bluets never felt abstract. I thought the way she referred to her lover as “the prince of blue” was oddly specific, a quality you’d give somebody you admire profoundly, who has struck you in a magical, dark sense. The way she wrote was exactly the way I wanted to—which is not immersing the reader in all the details of a location, but placing them in a specific emotional space. That didn’t really seem to work for people. I think they were expecting to read something like Wild, a travel memoir that felt from the top down like a full, linear experience.

Then something happened that surprised me. As we read the book, I noticed I was very struck by Casey. It was so unexpected. We didn’t have a flirtation or anything, and I think he was really clueless about all of it. But during breaks my friend and I would talk about Casey, about my crush on Casey, and about the book itself.

One of the book’s numbered sections sums up really well how it felt:

125. Of course, you could also just take off the blindfold and say, I think this game is stupid, and I’m not playing it anymore. And it must also be admitted that hitting the wall or wandering off in the wrong direction or tearing off the blindfold is as much a part of the game as is pinning the tail on the donkey.

It’s a very abstract idea, but Nelson uses such plain language to talk about it—this concrete image of a familiar childhood game we all know. And though she doesn’t say so explicitly, I think she’s talking about love here. We talk about love like it’s this beautiful thing, a goal to achieve, something we accomplish the same way you can win at a game. But actually, I think, we want the full experience—the dynamic experience, which also requires a lot of patience and wandering off. Pain, too.

There’s an agency in this wandering. The line “Of course, you could also just take off the blindfold” places power in the speaker, shows she’s aware of what she’s doing. She’s chosen to wear this blindfold, has agreed to limit her perceptions in this way. It’s a willful blindness, and I relate to that. A lot of the time, I would involve myself with men that people did not like. I felt my friends did not understand my drive to love certain people, and I wanted to tell them: I’m self-aware enough to know the problems of this relationship, and I’m self-aware enough to know what it’s going to do to me, and I’d like to take the risk right now. I would like to wander off into this experience and find out for myself what it is worth.

I really did not want to seduce Casey. I really didn’t want to like him as much as I did. But observing him and knowing that we had the same artistic aesthetic and we talked about work with the same questions in mind, it felt so inviting. I just wanted to like him, even if I knew that I would never tell him I liked him. Whether or not it was the best idea I’d ever had to have a crush on somebody so completely unavailable to me, it was a thing that I was going to do.

As I was working on my book, I went to the Vermont Studio Center—and at that point I had all of the material to put everything in chronological order and make it a work of fiction. I planned to write a novel with a protagonist that was very similar to me, just way more lecherous and unlikeable. When I went in, I did not have a blindfold on. I was very astute. I knew exactly what I wanted to accomplish—part of which was to complete a work that would make my mentors proud.

But as I started the last two weeks of my residency, I was crying because I hated the book I was writing. I knew I had to change something. And what I did was, I put the blindfold on. I put down the pages I had next to me and just started typing—almost transcribing from them everything that was true, line by line. I didn’t let myself worry about what a mess I was about to make. I just let myself feel around and wrote down only the parts I wanted, and it felt 100 percent completely right.

I didn’t know what was going to happen. I had to actively tune out the inner voice that said, This is not literary, this is not good writing. There was a lot of exposition. I played with sentimentality. I synopsized. I was telling a lot instead of showing. Through it I had to actively tell myself I didn’t care—I was just going to do it anyway. It was the only thing that felt right, and it made the book. It took just two weeks to get the first draft of the book done, and once I was finished, I realized I wasn’t writing a novel at all. I had a memoir.

Originally, it had been a novel about the goings-on of a Native woman who becomes a professor and has a sordid affair. But that fell away—there was no affair in my life, I’ve never really cheated on anyone. There were characters in the book who never existed in real life, and they fell away too. The setting fell away. But the integrity, the heart of the book—that remained the same. Only the result was 100 times better, because it’s not doing all those things my mentors thought were going to make great fiction. I think I wasn’t really writing a book of fiction. I just kind of hid behind it. And ultimately, I chose to fail to fulfill the requirements of the genre.

I committed to failure so much that I started to tell people at Vermont that I was failing, that I was ruining my book. I knew what I was doing was really weird. But by the time I was done, I knew I had done something good. I just didn’t know if anyone else would understand it. I only knew it was exactly what I wanted to do—though I’d had no idea of that objective when I started.

At first, I didn’t have the heart to tell Sherman [Alexie] I had written a memoir. I told him, “I’m done,” and he said, “Send me the manuscript.”  But I knew he would not be prepared for what I sent him. I think it was only 100 pages. I was afraid everyone would tell me, “These are great pages, but can you write 200 more to make it a real thing?” I’m so glad no one told me that, in the end, because I would have fought them—or if someone had offered me some ridiculous amount of money, I might have added 200 perfunctory pages and been really unhappy with myself.

But in the end it all worked out. And it was because—instead of trying to pin the tail on the donkey right away—I let myself wander, I risked running into the wall. I believe that when you are feeling around with the blindfold on, inviting a disturbance into your life could further complicate it, there is a kind of purity to that. That’s when you are able to do something really profound—I really believe that.

I can hear workshop leaders in white graduate programs telling me to slow down—that the setting needs to be described before you jump into dialogue. Or to evenly dispense setting, dialogue, exposition, and description. But I’m not trying to create the perfect thing on the page as much as I want to relate perfectly what I want to express to the reader. Everyone has their own narrative voice—and more than any hard-and-fast rules, they should follow that.

The established MFA aesthetic is essentially white. It’s based on Flannery O’ Connor. It’s based on John Cheever, Raymond Carver, these writers I really like who willfully broke rules themselves—though no one ever wants to examine that as much as they want to teach: Well, this is the formula. The formula works. Do the formula. The formula is show, don’t tell. The formula is don’t be sentimental. The formula is, you can’t just say, “This man broke my heart.”

I’ve read the canon. I love the canon. But I’m suspicious of when we try to compartmentalize the formula for success as an author, instead of just inviting the person to be as weird as they need to be to express something. Let them be the person they’re supposed to be, instead of trying to mold them into the aesthetic of this moment. It’s so difficult and important for teachers to try to bring that weirdness out. Student writers are usually so guarded that the way they write is sometimes only a glimpse of what their potential is.

At the Institute of American Indian Arts, instructors have to teach a certain percentage of books by Native American authors—which I’m really grateful for, because I had only read Sherman Alexie in my classes and only a select few stories that showed drunken Indians, even though a lot of his work is not about that. And the emphasis felt really different. It wasn’t about doing it right. It was about finding your voice.

My workshop with Sherman Alexie was such a crucial step, because he made me feel important as a person. Nobody had ever done that for me in any of my creative writing workshops. The level of investment, and the stakes, felt higher. You had to accept his personality—he could be very blunt. But he wanted us to finish books. In MFA programs, they’re not usually talking to you like, “You need to finish this book and sell it right now.” Sherman was totally like that. He was like: “You have to write this book, because if you don’t there won’t be a book like this for anybody. And if you don’t write this book, I’m going to write it.”

That was such an important shift. There are so few memoirs by Native women about sexual violence, or love, or living on a reservation and being on welfare. I can think of a lot of travel memoirs about finding yourself in India, or something like that. But I want there to be more books that Native women like me could have walked into a library and just found. I think Sherman understood the importance of that, because people are probably telling him all the time—I never read a book about a young Native kid from the reservation until I read your book. When you read a book like that, it makes you feel seen. But it takes a long time to write ourselves into the literary landscape. It’s a slow journey. It’s been a long time since the era when Sherman first came out, and we are long overdue for another boom like that.

I think Maggie Nelson taught me that you can do anything you want with a book. When people enter a classroom, they think the parameters are finite, that when you write a book, it has to be a certain amount of pages and it must accomplish a certain set of things. But this book is so literally small, and it’s only a short, numbered list, with only two characters—the narrator, and her prince—and little outside that. It’s a reminder that, in love and in art, you don’t have to follow the established parameters of the game. There is joy in breaking rules, whether romantic rules or genre rules or just life choices. It’s inevitable that we’re going to get lost, mess up, or pick the wrong person. And we should understand that that’s okay. It’s okay to take detours. We should risk wasting time, because the work we get done when we allow ourselves to get lost for a few minutes really is valuable.