Creative Writing

Things We Carry: Elissa Bassist

Things We Carry is a series of short interviews with current students, faculty, and alumni of the Creative Writing Program. These conversations are interested in the tactile elements of writing: what do we hold essential? What tools do we need in order to create? The things we find essential to our writing process reflect our beliefs about craft and process.

This week, we hear from Elissa Bassist, author of Hysterical, New School alumni, and generally hilarious individual.

Where & when are you writing these days?

Hi from my “office” in my apartment in Crown Heights where I write and complain about writing full-time.

“When” I write is a complicated question. My mind doesn’t work in complete sentences before noon, which I used to address in therapy until I surrendered and radically accepted that my mind works when it wants.

“When” also changes for: writing a book, rewriting it, publishing and launching it, self-promoting it, worrying I’ll never write another word again, and outlining a second book.

P.S. I used to think that writing a book would be the hard part; then I realized that selling a book is harder; and now I know that promoting it is the hardest. Because it entails begging and tricking total strangers into spending $30 on a book about me and my ex-boyfriends (and the sexist institutions of medicine, media & entertainment, and publishing).

Do you have any tools or tokens that are essential to your writing? (A particular type of pen, a cup of coffee, a stack of sticky notes, a soundtrack, etc)

No; should I?!? I do like my free mug from The View (I was on The View; thank you).

Pen and paper, laptop and wifi, or a combination?

Everything everywhere all at once. I own infinity pens and notebooks in every possible color, and it’s not enough.

I use pen and paper to reverse-outline what I’ve typed—to clarify what’s convoluted, to explain myself to myself, etc. It’s something I learned in therapy to get unstuck.

We all get stuck differently. I get stuck when there are too many words on the page and I can’t organize them or even see them anymore, and I no longer know what I’m saying or trying to say. “What do you want to say?” my therapist would ask me, and I could tell her. She’d write down what I’d say, and just like that…I had written. But since my therapist doesn’t live with me, I figured out how to have a conversation with myself in a notebook. Alone, I’d read the nonsense I’d typed on the screen, then write in the notebook what I meant to say, and then retype. Somehow I wrote a 244-page book this way.   


I truly, madly, deeply wish I didn’t have WiFi. Once I tried to disconnect my home WiFi to finish writing my book proposal. I called Verizon to suspend my account for one month, but they don’t do that—the only option was to put my account on “vacation mode” for $15, and the WiFi would go dead for 31 days. Except! My WiFi worked per usual. I called Verizon back, a lot, and each representative thought I was lucky that I was getting the same Internet for a fraction of the price. I explained I’d pay double for no Internet. The Internet people didn’t understand “no Internet.” They suggested, “Just unplug the modem and hide it from your kids.” (I’m childless.) Verizon did not grasp my internal landscape and inability to get out of my own way.

My ex had a similar issue. Once he asked his IT department to disable Gchat on his work computer so that he could stop talking to me. He sent me their conversation:


    IT: You really shouldn’t be on chat at work.

    My ex: Yeah, I know. So can you block those ports?

    IT: No…just don’t get on chat. We can’t block the ports.

    My ex: I am asking you to take away my needle. And you are telling me not to do drugs

     IT: Correct. Thank you for contacting IT.    

Do you have any habits or rituals that help you get grounded before you start writing?

I wish I said a prayer like Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art, with the Invocation of the Muse from Homer’s Odyssey. Instead, my ritual is to “dick around.” An actual part of my schedule is “dick around for 1-2 hours before writing.” This way I don’t get mad at myself (getting mad at myself takes up all my energy until I’m too exhausted and enraged to write a word).

Practically, I pregame with reading since reading is the first step to writing. Sometimes I watch good TV until I feel the feelings I need to write (I watch comedies and shows about sports teams—not actual sports—or dance squads or journalists or vampire slayers who fight fights they can’t win but fight anyway). Sometimes I scroll and scroll until I face-plant into the screen and feel so guilty that I can’t not write, to assuage my guilt.

If I had a prayer, it would be, “Just revise yesterday’s paragraph for 25 minutes, and then quit until tomorrow.” Once I get started, I can’t stop since what I needed to write was to get over my anxiety to write.  

You have been given a backpack and are being sent to a desert island for thirty days of uninterrupted writing time. What do you put in the backpack?

Antidepressants, anti-anxiety medication, melatonin, Tylenol PM, all the marijuana. 1,000 5-Hour Energy bottles. One notebook and 6 pens of different colors. My laptop (which is named Fuck the Internet), my iPad (which is named iPadollonia), a solar-powered charging station. My laptop stand, my external mouse and external keyboard. Sunscreen.

Are there any words or quotes that you find essential to your writing practice?

Write like a motherfucker. Also: “Don’t quit before the miracle.” The Post-Its on my desk say:

    “We can show them that they don’t own us.”

    “Work hard. The rest is a mystery.”

    “…of the reasons Dillard is so beloved is that she tried just as hard to make the case that we could all do it, live this way, that all you need to do is work with a demented singularity of purpose.”

    “There’s all the difference in the world between studying oxidation and producing loud noises with gunpowder.”

    “To be creative, you need to be able to respond to pain.”

    “Only she who is really in love, only she is a human being. Only she who can give her love any sort of expression, only she is an artist.”

There’s also a poem on my desk, “Today Is Work” by Ben Purkert:

I’m searching for the right verb

for a dead frog. I want something

large but not so full it floods

my eyes. The verb should stand

on its own without support

from viewers like you & you

really are a viewer, it’s just

I’m concealed by a series of

tall buildings & significant life

events. If I reach you, call it

lifting a finger & driving it

along your skull. I like surgery

to be light. I like a cradle

overflowing with baby gifts &

stuffed-animal aliens, lime-green

to the touch. I’m really happy

for you, for your offscreen

special effects. I want you

exploding like a bridge.

Elissa Bassist is the editor of the “Funny Women” column on The Rumpus and the author of the award-deserving memoir Hysterical (published by Hachette). As a founding contributor to The Rumpus, she’s written cultural and personal criticism since the website launched in 2009. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Marie Claire, Creative Nonfiction, and more.

Elissa teaches annual spring weekend workshops on humor writing at The New School, four-week workshops on funny personal essays at 92NY, a few one-day seminars like How to Be David Sedaris But You and How to Write a Tragicomic Memoir. She is probably her therapist’s favorite.

Things We Carry is an interview series curated by Stuart Pennebaker.

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