“I just want to be in love with everything.”

Blog Editor Claire Harlan Orsi interviews CNF Contest Winner Natalie Vestin on her essay, “How To Own a Building”

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Natalie Vestin, a writer and health researcher based in St. Paul, won Prairie Schooner‘s first Creative Nonfiction Contest. We’re releasing this interview as a preview to her essay, which will appear in the Spring 2013 Issue of Prairie Schooner.

This essay goes so many different places, literally and metaphorically: Minnesota, Hiroshima, Hamburg, New York City; anecdotes and abstract reflections, past and present meditations. I’m curious about your composition process. Did you know you were going to bring together these disparate elements in the way you did? From where did the form of the essay emerge?

My composition process (like this essay) was all over the map. I started with an idea–the predicament of being in love with something that isn’t human. I had read an interview with Philippe Petit, who walked on tightrope between the Twin Towers in 1974, in which he recalled sobbing at their loss in 2001. The buildings were his, in a way that they didn’t belong to anyone else. It’s hard to read that without some distaste for a man who mourned architecture when so many human lives were lost. I wanted to explore that distaste, pick at why it’s sometimes so shameful for us to admit strong connections to non-human things when they’re harmed.

This essay started (and finished, actually) as a way for me to play with language. I’m not sure I’m even able to write in a linear or narrative fashion; I know I don’t like to write that way. I’d much rather let the music, the rhythm of the sentences and words, tell the story and convey the emotion. So I picked a topic I love–architecture–and an idea that had been worrying me, and just decided to have fun with how I could approach the information. Fun with architectural theory! I wrote most of this essay in discrete chunks, thinking about the buildings that have affected me strongly, that have formed so much of how I think about safety and ownership and home and loss. The essay travels so much, because to relate to architecture in a profound way, I had to be home and in love with my buildings, but I also had to be away and hyperaware and lost and awkward and foreign and scared.

I did everything possible to keep from starting and ending this essay with an image of September 11th, 2001, and the Twin Towers. Again, it’s that shame that something is still affecting me, when there’s so much rhetoric, invocation, information, image, stuff surrounding it. How can there be anything more? But it had to happen. That connection many people still feel, had to bookend the piece. The essay–those chunks of personal experience and theory about why we feel the way we do in relationship to buildings–formed around a progression of ideas: love, fear, danger, loss (and being lost), memory. These ideas are too big, so I think we build structures to talk to ourselves about them, and we grieve much more than the loss of wood and steel and shape when they’re gone.

You write that, “Buildings are perhaps not so much divisions between safe spaces (inside) and scary, harmful spaces (outside) as they are about spaces you own and spaces you don’t.” I’m curious about this idea of owning a space and wonder (in light of your memory of kindergarten building blocks) about how our ownership of space changes as we move from childhood to adulthood–thoughts?

I think one of the major differences is the freedom, or perhaps the inevitability, of becoming lost as an adult. Being lost forces you to define who and what you are in relationship to your surroundings, makes you pay attention to conversations that are happening between your body and the built world. I grew up in a pretty rural area, and as a kid, I got lost in the woods and the fields, but I never had to navigate a city. And kids aren’t really supposed to get lost anyway. I “owned” the buildings I knew as a child–the barn, the chicken coop, my family’s house and church–because I knew them well, I knew where I was, and I was safe in that knowledge.

But yes, the bricks. My mom introduced my sister and me to Edgar Allen Poe when we were children, so we read the short stories and watched those old, awful Vincent Price movies–The
Pit and the Pendulum
, The Raven. I think the bricks got lodged in my subconscious pretty early on after seeing all those poor wives interred alive. And no one knew how to make a building a thing of terror, a reflection of what was in someone’s heart, like Poe. As a child with an imagination living in an old farmhouse in the middle of the woods, I had a field day imagining the kinds of stories that our buildings could harbor.

Adulthood is the first time for many people when they have to get comfortable having no idea where they are. I get lost constantly, probably more than most people. I have absolutely no idea how to conceptualize a city or navigate directions. While this is incredibly frustrating, it’s also a good way to learn about a place (a reflection I have after I figure out where I am, not while I’m sobbing in my car). Getting lost isn’t just not knowing where you are. It’s an affront to a basic identity; somehow, if I don’t know where I am, I don’t know who I am. I am my childhood barn, I am the Minneapolis skyline, I own these places. But lost, when that identity’s in question, I can be Mohammed Atta staring at the burned Hamburg skyline for years, I can absorb the disturbing newness of Hiroshima. As a child, ownership is a gift, but as an adult, it’s something to be earned by blurring your own borders, creating some space where you survive by having an ongoing conversation–listening and sharing information–with the environment.

As Prairie Schooner’s first Creative Nonfiction Contest winner, what excites you about the genre of literary nonfiction?

I write primarily about science and the human body, so I love how literary nonfiction opens doors to different ways of expressing ideas that are scary, boring, or abstract. There are endless opportunities to view the world differently if it can be written down in a particular way. To be able to use writing as a way to express the beauty of the body’s mistakes, the eroticism of chemistry and physics, the conversations we unknowingly have with architecture–this is how nonfiction makes us want to be alive. That’s no small thing. For me, writing nonfiction is a way to sit down and force myself to fall in love with an idea that’s upset me or made me uncomfortable. And I can fall in love with anything if I can write about it and see it in a certain way. I’m not crazy for catharsis or confession; I don’t really even care so much about expressing myself or an idea. I just want to be in love with everything.