An Interview with Georgia Cloepfil
By JV Genova
Georgia Cloepfil is a graduate from the University of Idaho, where she earned an MFA in creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of publications, including the New York Times Magazine, Joyland, n+1, and Epiphany. Cloepfil’s essay “Lucky to be Here” won Epiphany’s 2020 Breakout 8 Writers Prize. Her recent essay “Decomposition Notebook” will be published this July in the Summer 2022 issue of Colorado Review.
Associate editor JV Genova got in touch with Georgia Cloepfil to discuss this essay and some of her other work.
JV Genova: You begin “Decomposition Notebook” with the line “The house has good bones.” This juxtaposes beautifully with the ways in which this essay explores the process of undoing, of decomposition. Time is also fundamental to this—the way it “collapses in and breaks apart.” To my mind, this might be related to the process of becoming—not unlike in writing. That is, when we write, time takes on a funky quality, and there is a sense of both becoming and undoing. I know many of us are weary of discussing the pandemic, but I’m wondering if this strange sense of time and of unraveling during the pandemic contributed to your writing this piece.
Georgia Cloepfil: I think you’ve put that really nicely—decomposition, of both time and matter, is a means for becoming. It takes a while, but that is where the essay tries to go. I wrote this throughout the summer of 2021, when COVID was very much still a primary concern and wildfires were burning nearby. All of these things combined to place the concerns of mortality at the very surface of things. Also, the first thread I worked with was the one that centered on the idea of stillness, of my own stillness. And I suppose the project of staying still has very much been a part of my experience of the pandemic—an enforced stillness or pause that has also, in its way, created an expanse of time and attention. But then of course, nothing is really still, certainly not time. Everything around us is wilting, rotting, transforming. Even in the span of a single summer. I do think that the act of physical stillness, which is actually quite radical for me personally, allows for a kind of obsessive and small observation—the kind that makes up the bulk of this essay.
JVG: This essay is written as a braid but is also modular—the various strands stack together to create the whole. Was this form something you set out to do, or did it happen organically as you wrote?
GC: The form developed as I wrote. It was definitely not there for me at the start, though that would have been nice! I was keeping a daybook of sorts last summer, and these patterns of decomposition and decay made themselves apparent through my note-taking. I didn’t know what form the final essay would take, but it was clear that these disparate bodies and objects were developing alongside one another, relationally.
I knew at the beginning of organizing the writing that the mattress scene, which takes place over a single day, was going to be central to this essay. The problem that this presented was that the other writing is composed of documentary observations that span the length of a season rather than a day. So as I arranged the essay, I mostly thought about how I wanted time to work—how could I pass through a whole summer and just a single day at the same time? Giving the sections repetitive titles and a more modular form enabled me to work on these two levels of time at once.
The way the sections stack together hopefully helps the reader get on board with the simultaneous movement forward and back in self-reference.
In a way, I guess this mirrors the themes I am exploring in the essay—our own narrative is linear, leading toward a final ending, which is death. But all around us are cycles of movement and transformation and perpetual change that belie the simplicity of our own life trajectory or eventual “stillness.”
JVG: I appreciate the connections this piece makes between the natural world (and the dead or decomposing) and the built/human-made. Do you often find connections between the natural world and your writing? Does this often inspire your work?
GC: I don’t consider myself to be a nature writer or someone whose work is continually engaged with the natural world or these themes, necessarily. Mostly I just follow a sentence that sounds good to me or an image that I can’t stop thinking about. In the case of this essay, it was really a series of images. But I will say that I am someone who spends a lot of time outside, a lot of time intensely engaged with my body. I’m also the child of an architect, and that might be part of the reason I don’t think of the natural world and the built world as inherently distinct, though they often and unfortunately are. I guess that belief is perhaps not common and definitely underpins this essay and perhaps some other writing as well. I love to read Renee Gladman’s writing about space for the way she complicates and plays with the connections between our bodies and the world around us, built or not. I also think often of a collection by Paul Willem called The Cathedral of Mist, which really profoundly imagines these relationships.
JVG: I’m struck by the narrator’s guilt when disposing of the mattress. There is shame in what remains, for obvious reasons. But the essay also mentions Sally Mann’s photographs and exposes the things we bury. Is this idea of exposure or guilt something you explore in your other writing?
GC: What a lovely and incisive question. I think of exposure as an antidote to guilt. And that’s often the project of writing, I think. To expose the rotting things in our life, the changing things, the confusing things, the shameful things. I love my imagination’s picture of Sally Mann digging through the dirt, sifting through soil to find her dog’s remains. It’s a really noble and curious thing for her to do. Whatever we look at is transformed when we expose it. It goes from something terrifying to something intriguing. Or from something shameful to something funny. I think people are wired to be afraid of change, especially when it comes in the form of death or some other apparently permanent alterations. I do think and write a lot about what it means to upend the idea that endings are separate from change and motion. There is no such thing as an ending, really. Of course it is hard to write without one, but I think it is important to write with the project of having none. I do think that comes across in this essay and in a lot of my other writing.
JVG: In some of your other work (“Beat the Clock,” n+1), you write about rituals found in sports—specifically in women’s soccer. Writers often have rituals, too—I find this fascinating. Do you have any rituals as part of your writing process?
GC: I think the idea of ritual is so appealing because it helps us think that we might have some control over the thing we want to do or the thing that we most want to happen. This is certainly the case in regard to superstition and sport. In my writing life so far, it has been much harder for me to feel like I have control over when, where, how, if I will ever be able to write anything worth anything.
I’m actually writing something about this right now (ha!) and have been thinking a lot about whether we have the power, through ritual or what have you, to avail ourselves of moments of clarity in writing. Or whether inspiration and voice come to us on a mystic whim. I haven’t decided yet—check back when the essay is finished, I guess.
I do think the rigor and ritual of sport have a lot to teach writers about the writing practice, I’m just not sure yet if it is mine. I sometimes lean away from discipline and structure in my writing practice because I want to maintain a sort of mysticism around it, to be surprised and excited when the inspiration and impulse come and be fully prepared to let myself go when they do. And also to keep having fun and enjoying writing.
At the same time, I am sure that repetitions and practices and rituals do something to collaborate with moments of beauty, that it is important to ready the mind and body for something even if we can’t control when or how the bigger, more important moments come. Writing is probably the same. It’s hard to stay alert if we are not preparing ourselves to hear the voice. So in other words I should figure out some more consistent rituals.
JVG: What have you read lately that inspired you or has informed your work?
GC: Man—this is an interminable list. I love books! I don’t know what qualifies as “lately,” but in the past couple of years, I have read a few life-changing books. One of these was The White Dress, by Nathalie Léger, which I read all the way through without moving. I was sitting in a bath that, by the end, was luke-warm. I love the way she breaks apart genre, the way she weaves her life with another and with people in her life in an imagined and ethereal way. I read Pure Colour more than once this spring; I can barely talk about that book. Sheila Heti is a prophet. I also loved Nate Lippens’s My Dead Book, Kate Briggs’s This Little Art, Naja Marie Aidt’s When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back. Now that I think about it, almost all of these books have a sort of self-referential looping happening, a technique that has been very inspiring and important to my writing.
JV Genova is an MFA candidate in nonfiction at Colorado State University and an associate editor for Colorado Review. When she isn’t writing, she dabbles in photography and grows potatoes. She cannot believe she is someone’s mother. She can be found on Twitter @jv_genova and on Instagram @jv_genova