From Maggie Nelson’s “A Sort of Leaning Against” (Writer’s Notebook II)

Maggie Nelson

For a long time, I worried there was something wrong with me as a writer, because I leaned so heavily on the thinking and writing of others. And further, that instead of wanting to hide that leaning, my impulse has often been to showcase it, to make this thinking-with-others, this weaving of mine and others’ words, part of the texture of my writing.

The flip side of this “leaning against” has been well put by Emerson, that sage of self-reliance, who famously said: “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.” This is also good advice. “Leaning against” can’t be an excuse that saves one from doing the real thinking and writing. I still struggle with this balance. I’m not saying I always get it right. What I’m saying is that it can be a worthwhile and generative place in which to experiment, stumble around, live, and create.


Maggie Nelson’s books of nonfiction include The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, Bluets, and The Red Parts: A Memoir. Recent books of poetry include Something Bright, Then Holes , and Jane: A Murder, a finalist, the PEN/ Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir. She is the recipient of a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship in Nonfiction, and a 2011 NEA grant in poetry. Since 2005, she has taught on the faculty of the School of Critical Studies at CalArts.

Writer’s Notebook II