Q&A with Nonfiction Contributor Elizabeth Cook

Elizabeth Kaye Cook is a graduate of the MFA program at Eastern Washington University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ruminate, Lilac City Fairy Tales, and Willow Springs. Her essay "The Rug Doctor" is featured in the Winter 2017 Premium Edition of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by Sunday, January 22, for special savings and discounts.

We chose "The Rug Doctor" because it effortlessly accomplishes something I love in writing: a heightened sense of the mundane. I have always loved nonfiction that fixates on the simple aspects of life that so many people can relate to, yet at the same time turns that aspect into something deeply felt. It's hard to accomplish that deep feeling unless a writer is willing to throw their inner self into the spotlight. In Liz's piece, it's clear she is fully aware of her predicament, and still she is willing to let others under the shelter where she is grappling with it.

- Nonfiction Editor Cameron Maynard


"The Rug Doctor" is a refreshingly honest and somewhat bizarre dive into your obsession with cleanliness. When did you first realize you might have the makings of a nonfiction essay on your hands?

“Somewhat bizarre” is going in my obituary. I accumulate bizarre the way shipwrecks accumulate barnacles: constantly. When I started “The Rug Doctor,” I’d become legitimately alarmed at my growing persnickity-ness. I kept remembering one of my high school librarians: a clever and fascinating woman who had lived alone for many years. Once I borrowed the library stapler and when I returned it to its place — backward — this librarian yelled at me until I cried. (I was, and still am, rather sensitive, but even now the cardinal direction of a stapler strikes me as relatively unimportant.) 

When I found myself crawling around my carpet on my hands and knees, smelling its corners, I would remember this librarian.  Pre-stapler, the librarian and I had a good relationship; she told me stories about living abroad and recommended I read her favorite books. The similarities between my mania for clean carpets and her mania for well-ordered office supplies struck me as both hilarious and worrying. How close was I to this particular brand of madness? Most people who live alone are not in danger of this, but I realized that I am particularly susceptible.  
I spent a long time thinking about this essay before I actually began writing it. When I started drafting, I hadn’t written creative nonfiction before, so I wrote mostly to please myself. Happily, I had the encouragement of thoughtful friends, and they helped me believe that I could extend myself into a new genre.

It can be hard to grapple with more of an abstract essay such as this, especially in terms of narrative structure. How did you follow through with the essay's execution?

Typically, I struggle to write linearly, so I end up cutting larger works into pieces and arranging a new structure on my floor. Writing “The Rug Doctor” came together much more fluidly and quickly than is usual for me, probably because I had a few long-suffering friends who let me talk out my philosophy on flooring beforehand. 

I wrote “The Rug Doctor” during the winter, and my dog, La Bamba, likes to sandwich herself between my laptop and my lap when it’s cold. It turns out I can write for a rather long time when my movements are impeded by a small, sleepy animal. I can’t recall much else about revising and polishing this piece — probably because I was also finishing my MFA thesis, applying to jobs, and salting my coffee with tears.

You incorporate a nice reference to Google and how it tries to tell us who we are. At the same time, you, in the essay, are trying to work out why you have this "obsessive" proclivity with something so mundane and traditional as a carpet. When I think of the two playing fields we live on — one being physical, the other being technological — I often think of the word bandwidth and its meanings. Are you normally trying to grapple with both of these playing fields in your writing, or was this simply appropriate for this essay?

I think all writers fear dying young and traumatizing our moms with our Google history. (Mom, I promise it’s all for material, and that’s doubly-true for anything about cannibalism.) I am fascinated by people who can write about the Internet or cellphones in a way that isn’t dull. (Though we all fall short of the brilliant Stephenie Meyer scene when Bella’s frantic googling reveals Edward’s true nature. Stephenie Meyer is to the internet what Flannery O’Connor is to the bus.)

Although it’s unusual for me to write about Google or computers, I’m extremely concerned with the mystical and its relationship to the material world. I write, and on the molecular level, my pencil shakes in my hand — and likewise, the whole of me shakes and shivers. The reality I perceive does not align with the reality of atoms and particles. 

In this essay, my limited understanding of the internet means that Google becomes the mystical made prosaic. I don’t understand Google, and maybe I fear it, but the search engine is like an external self or a communal self without a body. It’s like mysticism, but scarier for its ubiquity. In my fiction, I constantly search for the seams between the body, the soul, and the self... Behind all the auto-filled Google searches are individuals, picking at their computer keys and incarnating collective thought in an anxious portrait. So I suppose this essay fits my broader interest in the visible and invisible worlds, but I’ve never before used Google metaphorically. 

What was the last piece of impressionable nonfiction you read and why? 

I’m eagerly anticipating some nonfiction that I’ve only been able to enjoy in part — Alexandra Barylski’s chapbook, Imprecise Perishing, from the Finishing Line Press series on women’s voices, and Joy Beth Smith’s memoir, tentatively titled Don’t Wait for Marriage. I love Smith’s writing on faith and singleness (and the way she sends misogynists into a frothing rage). Barylski’s work, in particular, strikes a chord with me. Her writing considers the relationship between the body’s breaking and the self’s becoming, a theme that I fret over in my own work. 
Lastly, and in quasi-obedience to the question’s original limitations, I would say that Simone Weil’s collected letters and essays, Waiting for God, enacted a sea-change in me. My thoughts return again and again to her vision of the individual in relationship to communal faith. When I write, I often feel as though I’m only skimming the surface; re-reading Weil helps me plunge a little deeper than I might otherwise be able.