Knowing Alissa Nutting

June 9, 2016
By Alexandria Moore, AW Intern

I don’t remember the first words she said when she stood before my 11th grade class, but only because my first memory of her was shattered by intimidation, the feeling that I was too body-present and hardly thought-present. Here was this writer at the ephemeral point of being published and not yet discovered, standing at the front of my AP Lit class.

But even then, an aura surrounded Alissa Nutting. Maybe it was the vestiges of a hardcore rebellious phase, the cropped-short and died-black hair, or the television quality of her laser-sharp blue eyes that cut across a room. When she read, she sounded like me in that she simply read the thing, without writerly affectation, just a strong language presence. I remember her story was about a date‑-a terrible, visceral first date. It was terrible enough that, much like your own memories of a godawful date, you dismiss the details of the story but still cringe when you get close to remembering.

alissa nuttingAlissa Nutting stood and read for our AP Lit class, and I was nervous with anticipation that come July, she’d be reading my own work in a week-long Young Writer’s Workshop. After that first reading, I was told to introduce myself, to say I would be taking her course, and I learned that when she speaks directly to you, she is all soft language, soft smiling. It wasn’t until later that I learned how she crosscuts that soft language with humor; her style, a mix of derogatory wit and secondhand-embarrassment. It’s a lawful abuse of her softness to speak in vulgarity.

For a week in July in 2012, we Twelve Young Writers sat in a small conference room and gave ourselves over to fiction writing with Alissa. One morning, we did an exercise on the inspiration of physical objects. She brought trinkets from her office, little Buddha and a wooden squirrel, a troll doll, some ceramic cats. It was like she was saying, “here’s me, here are my valuables,” and “do with this knowledge whatever you will.” Halfway through the week, she wore a men’s shirt with a blowup of a guinea pig’s face that covered 85% of her body. Again, her presence offered, do with this knowledge whatever you will.

That first year, she told us about her partner, a writer named Dean, and her dogs, which she said were pretty much her babies, preferred to the real kind. She told us about her favorite Twitter account, called “Florida Man,” which featured headlines of different crazy Floridian news articles, curated to suggest there was a single Florida Man, responsible for everything from steamrolling his ex’s dog to smuggling dead alligators in the innards of his car. She was gleeful about it all, saying “I wake up every day being like, what’s up with Florida Man? What’ll he do next? I don’t know, but every single day I’m excited to find out.”

She was a generous teacher. Generous, in that she was quick to deprecate herself for the sake of a young writer’s self-esteem. When I sat in her office for a consultation (all her trinkets were reintroduced to the natural environment of the off-beat/up-beat space) she asked how many days it had taken me to write the piece in her hands. When I said one, she shook her head and insisted it’s more than she could have done, that it felt like a piece that she could never wrestle out in a single night. It was a two-pager, an over-flowery vignette. I’m sure she was wrong.

alissa nutting close up A year later, when I returned as an alum, she had the same guinea pig shirt, but this time the nose and teeth and beady eyes ballooned way out against her 8-month pregnancy. It was a distortion of rodent and woman alike, an image that burned in a way she must have found utterly satisfying. That’s also the year she shared one of her own pieces, a personal essay about her pregnancy: about the tattoo of a koi across her abdomen, which she got when she believed she would never try for kids; about her koi fish stretching into a “koi whale” when she did in fact get pregnant; about the incredible excitement juxtaposed with the daily internal struggle of being unable to take her antidepressants. We read it in front of her, conscious of her real-time pregnancy. We read it without understanding the intrusiveness of knowing these things as they happened to her.

That was also the year that her novel Tampa was published by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. It was received by critics either with huge accolades as a cutting tragicomedy, or criticism for being unforgivingly dark. I bought a copy, brought it for her to sign and witnessed, for the first time, evidence of Alissa’s embarrassment. Deep, not-kidding-around embarrassment.

“To Alexandria, The Writer. Don’t forget to mention your poor old creative writing teacher when you’re on Oprah talking about your best-selling novel!”

 Then I was deeply embarrassed. To find self-deprecation even there, written in the pages of her published book, was too much. She might have written it because she knew it would make me feel weird, or maybe she’s the kind of teacher who really believes I could be better than her, believes it of all her students. Whether for comic effect or humble sincerity, that’s just who she is, that’s how she inspires people. Do with it whatever you will.

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