Be Mindful & Observant

An Interview with Matthew Sherling, Author of Maybe We’re Here To Talk To Each Other

Matthew Sherling and I conversed online or something then we were at a reading in Georgia and then he moved to California, super jealous. He lives in LA and teaches writing to people. His newest poetry / short prose book is called Maybe We’re Here To Talk To Each Other which he mailed to me after I sent him some money.

How does teaching writing affect your actual writing?

In the past I’ve taught a handful of Intro to Creative Writing classes, which definitely made me reevaluate what I love most about writing: avoiding clichés, cultivating surprise, honesty, risk taking, humor/playfulness, challenging expectations, etc.

I mainly teach essay-writing though, which makes me doubly obsessed with trying to be concise & catchy. It also reminds me what I find effective or stuffy about academic writing that I want to integrate or avoid in my poetry & stories. It’s cool to get students to realize how their use of language has/can/will impact their worldviews. As Terence McKenna said, “We can move no faster than the evolution of our language.”

On Instagram, I remember awhile ago, you took a whole bunch of pictures of nature, etc. Do you feel like that impacts your writing or am I making stuff up?

Ha! Does the taking of these pictures impact my writing? Or does nature itself impact my writing? I’m sure there’s a correlation between the things I take pictures of & the things I write about. I like taking pictures of things that seem odd or surprisingly beautiful or overlooked in public mundane spaces. I write about similar stuff. As far as nature goes, I get super consumed by wild landscape, trees/plants/flowers, expansive views, animals (including not only their ingenuity but also their inherent violence — shout out to Planet Earth). I don’t write about this kind of nature a whole lot, but it definitely crops up, especially in juxtaposition with hyper-modern imagery & themes like the internet & digital technology. I like to be mindful & observant, & nature usually puts me in that mindstate more than the internet & digital technology does.

In your book, there seems to be a lot of focus on small moments, like the guy who always keeps the wrong receipts at restaurants…Why is that interesting to you?

You’re right, & that’s a good question. I guess the genesis of this book was in 2013 when I challenged myself to write a Facebook status every day. Usually these would consist of small moments or dialogues or things I overheard that day. Anything that happened that seemed intriguing or relatable in a fresh way would make it into the status update. I like zooming in on specific moments rather than vague spans of time, & I’d argue that most people feel the same way.

This Facebook practice trained me to be more alert to my environment & to be kind of on the hunt for interesting &/or funny content. Beyond Facebook, this is the ideal approach for a writer, in my opinion. I was/am drawn to simple yet surprising moments that make me (& by extension, the reader) wonder why or how the hell it happened the way it did. What it uncovers about people’s tendencies.

The absurdity of the guy putting a receipt he’s just signed in his pocket is funny because it’s ridiculous, but I think I was also drawn to it because it highlights how mindless so many of our lives are these days.

Really like that you found included an anecdote about a broken stapler as a sign for modernism.

Yeah! The tools we used before modernism to make sense of the world & to ward off chaos started to break down culturally. The staplers that brought order had lost their springs.

This seems to be really different from your last book…less poetic and more status update. Would you agree?

Yeah, for sure. Before this I had mainly been interested in what I would categorically call poetry (though it wasn’t traditional). With that kind of writing, I feel more willing to & excited about strategic linebreaks, non-linear movement/mobility, & collecting ~non-sequitur lines that can be grouped together like a pointillist painting or something. With this book, I wanted each piece to be a micronarrative with no linebreaks. I think it’s more accessible than my straight-up poetry.

Do you feel like a “real” writer? Why or why not?

This is a good question. I think about these distinctions a lot, & for some reason I am often hesitant to consider myself a “real” writer, mainly to others, but ultimately yes, I guess I consider myself one. I think about writing a lot. Periodically, I have a disciplined writing practice. A disciplined writing practice always makes me feel more content in all parts of my life.

I generally write very short pieces of content, which is part of the reason I think sometimes it’s hard for me to view myself as a “real” writer, because I’ve been conditioned to think of “real” writers as writing long intricate books. But poetry helped me find a medium that encouraged brevity. Writers like Lydia Davis “gave me the permission” to work in short bursts like I enjoy doing. Young writers on the internet “gave me the permission” to write more similarly to how we talk.

Do you ever feel conflicted about how to promote your writing? Like, are you like I need to blog more or take pictures of my writing for Instagram or something?

Yes! I feel conflicted about this all the time. I admire writers online who can market their stuff in fresh ways that don’t make me cringe. I interviewed Spencer Madsen a few years ago about running his own press (Sorry House), & this is what he said: “The way to sell books through Twitter isn’t to tell people to buy your book. It’s to say something funny or interesting or profound or whatever. If people like the content you put out they’ll look for themselves for more. They aren’t going to drop twelve bucks because you asked them to. They’re going to do it because they want to, and if they want to its because they like your tweets or poems or [other free content].” I agree with this, though I rarely use Twitter. I use Facebook & Instagram & my new website to market my work. For people I know online-only, I want them to buy my book because they like my social media content already.

But yeah, overall there’s a battle in me between explicitly trying to promote my book & feeling self-absorbed for doing so. At the end of the day I do want people to read my book, & depending on who that person is, I generally believe they will enjoy reading it (that’s probably the biggest reason I wrote it). So for this book I walked around my neighborhood asking strangers to read pieces out loud from the book as I video’d them. That became the trailer:

What type of reader do you feel like would understand your writing the best?

A reader who has a short attention span & a dry sense of humor.

What books are you recommending to people right now?

Here are my 4 favorite books I’ve read this year: Hera Lindsay Bird by Hera Lindsay Bird, The Sarah Book by Scott McClanahan, Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles, & What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly.

I’m Josh Spilker, a writer and author. I blog about the writing process at Create, Make, Write and write creative essays at Vaguely Feel. My new novel is called Taco Jehovah.