The Art of Blogging No. 1: An Interview with Max Lindenman

Max Lindenman was born in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, and grew up in Manhattan. He’s spent significant time in China and Russia, as a teacher and student, respectively, and presently resides in Arizona. He is the author of the Patheos web log, “Diary of a Wimpy Catholic,” on the Catholic Channel.

This interview took place on Facebook, over three sessions of online chatting that included a fourth, brief exchange where he almost gave up on the whole thing. A shy, insecure, and oddly wimpy (he is a health nut and hardly cuts the prototype of the average wimp), Mr. Lindenman produced a nearly flawless transcript of prose. His only significant editing requests were driven by his concern for how he would represent himself, not by composition. He’s a natural, gifted writer.

Fitting in is important to Mr. Lindenman, in a very careful and cautious sort of way. Reactionary, too, sometimes. Perhaps that is what “A Hedonist Contemplates Heaven,” the subtitle to his blog, is all about. On a more personal note, Mr. Lindenman has become my writing coach, a mentor and a friend to me. We chat about ideas and writing knick-knacks and what we think of each other’s work. We rant, too, occasionally. We came up with this interviewing idea together. This series, then, is as much the product of our digital relationship as it is an unapologetic copycat of the Paris Review interviews. I am grateful to him for his time, seriousness, and dedication to whatever it is we are doing here.

—Sam Rocha

INTERVIEWER

     How do you feel about free association?

MAX LINDENMAN

     My dad was a Freudian psychoanalyst.  It’s like home cooking to me.

INTERVIEWER

     Great. Let’s dine: “Writing.”

MAX LINDENMAN

     Hard.

INTERVIEWER

     “Blog.”

MAX LINDENMAN

     Blob.

INTERVIEWER

     “Mind.”

MAX LINDENMAN

     Bend.

INTERVIEWER

     “Church.”

MAX LINDENMAN

     Chicken.

INTERVIEWER

     “Ascent.”

MAX LINDENMAN

     Accent.

INTERVIEWER

     “Friendship.”

MAX LINDENMAN

     Movable.

INTERVIEWER

     “Prose.”

MAX LINDENMAN

     Posey.

INTERVIEWER

     “Paragraph.”

MAX LINDENMAN

     Block.

INTERVIEWER

     “Sentence.”

MAX LINDENMAN

     Jury.

INTERVIEWER

     “Book.”

MAX LINDENMAN

     Shelf.

INTERVIEWER

     “Comma”

MAX LINDENMAN

     Karma.

INTERVIEWER

     Let’s move on.

MAX LINDENMAN

     Fair enough…

INTERVIEWER

     So how does writing “happen” for/to you?

MAX LINDENMAN

     Most of the time it doesn’t. I’m not one of these people who can just sit down and compose. I have to think things through in my head, if not all the way, at least in outline. Most of the time, when I get an idea and start trying to think it through, I hit a brick wall. But once in a while, I realize I’ve got something worth keeping.

INTERVIEWER

     How do you “know” that you have something? How does that happen?

MAX LINDENMAN

     When things fit together logically. When there are no yawning gaps in my arguments, representing objections I just can’t answer. Or, better, when I realize I’m saying something real, rather than concocting an alibi for my actual position, which is too silly or untenable for me to cop to.

INTERVIEWER

     You tend to write through a very internal, personal-level lens of perception. You often appear to write from your eyes and memory more than anything else. You also get criticized for that sometimes. What do you think about that?

MAX LINDENMAN

     You work with what you’ve got. Unfortunately, for the moment, my perceptions and memories are the materials to which I have readiest access.  I’ve done a fair amount of reading in my time, but I did it as a curious civilian, not as a specialist in any given field. For that reason, and because I don’t have the relevant works open on my lap at the moment, I don’t trust myself to extract an author’s point from memory. Given those weaknesses, knowing I can’t produce anything fit for peer review, I make my chief goal producing something readable.

INTERVIEWER

     You seem to make this out to be a liability or a limit. I see it as a powerful phenomenology of sorts, a reliance on description in bare, and even humorous, terms.

MAX LINDENMAN

     It would be very helpful in fiction. In personal essays, where the objects of those descriptions are alive to complain, it has its drawbacks.

INTERVIEWER

     Could you say more about those drawbacks?

MAX LINDENMAN

     This past winter, I wrote about attending a special Mass for Legatus, a society made up of Catholic business leaders and their wives. I played it like Nick Carraway, describing people from a distance — their clothes, their general manner. Some of my descriptions contained touches I expected people to recognize as fanciful. Some readers did appreciate the piece, but others thought I was wrong not to approach it as a more conventional journalistic assignment, i.e., by introducing myself as a member of the press and conducting interviews. In fact, I considered this — I brought a pad, though no recording device. But in the end, I couldn’t imagine any of the guests taking kindly to being buttonholed during a Mass. I was afraid of being shown the door.  Still, I saw the critics’ point.

INTERVIEWER

     This seems to be a reoccurring struggle in blogging: the (perhaps unnecessary?) tension between the essay and journalism. Is this a distinction that makes a difference for you?

MAX LINDENMAN

     I’d say relatively little blogging is straight news writing. Interviews, like the one you’re conducting with me now, are a notable and fairly frequent exception.  Opinion writing is much more common; in fact, I’d call it the norm.  That means that bloggers, no less than New York Times columnists, are responsible for keeping their facts straight. An essay is something different. It’s less polemical, geared less toward making a particular case (or shooting down another). The great thing about essays is that the conventions governing them are so loose.  They can dissect a particular experience or a category of experience. They can dissect a problem from a number of angles. I prefer them to straight op-ed writing because they lull the reader into a receptive state. He doesn’t perceive the author’s point of view as a threat to his own.

INTERVIEWER

     I agree! But I often feel insecure about the demands of composition. How much does composition figure into your writing? By ‘composition’ I mean the construction work as opposed to the conceptual thoughts, if that binary can help to make sense of what writing is about.

MAX LINDENMAN

     Oh, lots. Without real authority or expertise, I’m stuck getting by on my charm, so to speak. Squeezing, say, three quotable lines into a 1,000-word piece can gain me the edge I need.

INTERVIEWER

     This quotability seems to be a feature aspect of your writing. Turning phrases. Imagery.  Your posts are very reliable sources of one-liners and paragraphs that romp and verve. But I’m more interested to hear about how your life intersects with your writing. On the one hand it seems too obvious. But on the other, going back to our free association, it doesn’t add up. What can you say about this?

MAX LINDENMAN

     Here’s my big conflict: I love to turn myself into a character, but I’m afraid of turning myself into a sociological or psychological case study. That means I tend to shy away from sharing those experiences of mine that touch too directly on hot (read: polarizing) topics — I would never, for example, do the Salon thing by writing about my sex life.  Actually, I did do that a few times, but I always ended up feeling like a prize schmuck.

INTERVIEWER

     I sense, actually, that writing from a first-person gaze is actually a way to not write about one’s self — or at least to do it in a very particular, not “wide open,” way.

MAX LINDENMAN

     The writer Jonathan Ames, who’s influenced me a great deal, calls himself a coy exhibitionist. That’s the paradox I try to pull off.

INTERVIEWER

     Do you ever worry, as I do, that that nuance gets lost? I mean, and I don’t want to sound like the asshole that I am, sometimes it feels like today’s blog readership is not looking for this sort of fare — like they’d prefer Newsweek to the Paris Review, prescription not paradox.

MAX LINDENMAN

     To answer your first question, as long as you retain final creative control, nuance can’t get lost. There is, however, always the temptation not to worry so much about capturing it but to wing it and be satisfied with the result, half-assed though it might be. I’m guilty of that a thousand times over, mainly because I let time constraints get to me. As for the audience, one thing I’ve found is that if you’re serious enough about what you do — that is, if you’re willing to do it over and over again — there is an audience out there for you. It might not be very big, though. Of course sensationalism sells — it always has. But quality and dedication win respect.

INTERVIEWER

     Dedication. That is something I think writing over and over again and facing the tiny world of the interwebs shows. But why? Where does this dedication come from for you?

MAX LINDENMAN

     I came up from the very dregs of the finance industry. From cold-calling people for a debt-consolidation firm, I moved into mortgages — first as a loan officer, then as a loss mitigations agent, finally as a fraud investigator. In other words, for a decade, I communicated in a stew of jargons. It was awful, and it drove me very close to despair. Using language imaginatively, drawing on the bits of history and lit-crit and philosophy and law I managed to pick up feels like heaven in comparison. My problem is I sometimes forget where I came from. Instead of bitching about the vastness and the high quality of the competition, and about the impossibility of making real money at blogging, I should think to myself, “You could be reading a sales script to some cranky lady whose contact information your boss bought from the crook who sells Thighmasters on TV.” That would keep things in perspective.

INTERVIEWER

     Why is that most obvious and helpful fact so hard for you to see sometimes?

MAX LINDENMAN

     Rising expectations. It’s natural. A by-product of optimism. We should all be a little more pessimistic.

INTERVIEWER

     Perhaps in someway connected to pessimism is the aspect of randomness or chance or something very hard to put into language, maybe whimsy or just plain luck, that has something to do, I think, with writing. Do have anything to say about that?

MAX LINDENMAN

     Oh, God, yeah. I obsess over chance and luck. My dad died of a severe allergic reaction to a bee sting. He was stung while working in his garden. I always ask myself, “What if I’d called him (as I often did at that time on Sunday)? Would that have brought him inside. What if the paramedics had arrived a little earlier?” My thinking is never far from a for-want-of-a-nail story.

INTERVIEWER

     I see that in your stories, which is something we haven’t mentioned yet: story. There is something uniquely and irreducibly religious about story to me. How about you?

MAX LINDENMAN

     I’m not sure whether stories have more potential for expressing religious feeling than, say, art or sculpture, and I’d say music’s ahead of it by at least a nose. But stories are great for capturing those mystical moments when you sense the presence of the Divine. Just this morning, I read James Joyce’s “Araby,” where the hero invests his infatuation for this girl with religious intensity… and then, when he fails to keep a promise to her, castigates himself with religious intensity. The thing runs maybe five pages. Not a word wasted. I wish I could do that.

INTERVIEWER

     Me too. And I agree that story, if confined to the written word, has no religious priority. But I also see story in the other fine arts, especially music. Melody, for me, is all about story telling, and then there is country music. I’m not sure if I’m disagreeing with you, but I’d like to see if your stories have any of those transcendent aspirations or motivations, too, alongside the more internal, psychoanalytic ones.

MAX LINDENMAN

     Funny you should mention country. I’ve always loved ballads — everything from Johnny Cash to those 17th-century Scots songs about young men who die of venereal disease. As for transcendence, I don’t know. It’s entirely possible that I misunderstand the whole notion, but it’s always seemed cruel to me. Why not focus on us? We’re the ones in pain, the ones who have to pay the rent.

INTERVIEWER

     I can see that, I think, and I certainly don’t imagine that this is a one-way road — externalism vs. interiority. I guess the religious sense of the Blues, rooted in the Gospel tradition, is something like a pragmatic sort of transcendence. It is consolation music, reaching out, through the guts and the heart, in hope of something or someone who will suffer and understand. In Mexican culture this song, the corrido, also sometimes tells big stories and myths of heroes and battles and lovers. But I think there is melancholy in your sense of humor and it made me pursue this idea a little more…

MAX LINDENMAN

     I know corridos. Those are the songs about people getting killed in car crashes and drug deals, right? Back when I had a car, I would listen to them on Radio Tricolor. I could make out just enough of the words to get the gist. I guess I’d love to compose something like that someday, or rather, 5,000 words of prose that touches people in the same way.

INTERVIEWER

     I think that was what I was trying to ask. Speaking of that, it strikes me that sometimes essays, and especially blog posts, are about asking questions more than they are about giving tips or how-to advice or even telling a story. What sorts of questions, if any, do you find yourself returning to?

MAX LINDENMAN

     ”Where do I fit in?” Remember, I’m a guy who makes very little money, has managed to acquire no particularly marketable skills, and is therefore unmarriageable. I’m also an introvert. How, then, am I to make myself useful in the Catholic Church, which puts a high premium on community — specifically, on the type of community in which strict behavioral standards are enforced?

INTERVIEWER

     I am not entirely clear about the link you see between utility, Catholicism, and this particular sort of community you have in mind. Care to say more?

MAX LINDENMAN

     ”Where do I fit in?” That’s been my big question from the beginning, and I think it has everything to do with my rotten sense of timing. I chose to join the Church at a time when the Church was starting to feel profoundly imperiled, both from the general culture, and from the policies of President Obama, indeed, from the Democratic Party in general. For that reason, so much of the punditry I see, and which both reflects and shapes the sensus fidelium, takes a sharp and militant tone. Last summer, the “Fortnight for Freedom” coincided with the release of For Greater Glory, and it became very fashionable to compare the situation of American Catholics today to that of Mexican Catholics under Plutarco Calles & Co. The Church wants Cristeros — in the voting booth, if not on actual barricades. And because the Church finds its last, best hope in the GOP, it seems, consciously or not, to promote an image of itself as middle-class — makers, not takers, remember — and conventional in ways traditionally associated with the middle class. For reasons I can’t see as wholly unrelated, it’s plugging a very Victorian model of marriage, by which I mean it’s encouraging people to marry as young as possible, and to strike the entire question of emotional satisfaction entirely off the board. In an atmosphere like this, folks like me would do well to keep our heads down. Unfortunately, this new, intrusive, coercive model of community being proposed gives us no room to.  Essentially, I’m looking for a niche, in this huge Church, and in this growing world of Catholic letters, where I can work out my salvation in fear and trembling of the Lord, but not of the mob.

INTERVIEWER

     So you’re a weirdo and not sure if there is room in the universal tent, as it presently exists in this time and space, for misfits and odd ducks? If that’s the case, then, I really do understand that — and think that might be the answer I’ve been trying to find and think about. Let me follow that up with what is, to me, a possible implication of this answer — after all, today (July 18, 2013) Hunter S. Thompson would have been 76. Do you write out of fear and trembling of the Lord or loathing of the mob (or both/neither)?

MAX LINDENMAN

     Actually, when I stop writing it’s usually because I’m overwhelmed with fear and loathing of the mob. Those feelings inhibit me for several reasons. First, I’m convinced there’s too much bomb-throwing in the blogosphere as it is. I don’t read angry blogs; they give me a headache; and I wouldn’t want to subject anyone else to the same thing. Second, I’m acutely aware that there’s so much in the Catholic canon I don’t yet know, or know only in the most superficial way. Every time I aim a broadside at someone, the process of researching and fact-checking tends to dampen my powder, by which I mean it tires me out physically and leaves me in doubt whether I’ve learned my stuff well enough to engage. The last thing I want to do is hurt my own case by giving myself away as an ignoramus. So, when the fear and loathing hits, I wait till it passes, or I look for a subject that’s unquestionably in my depth.

INTERVIEWER

     What do you have in your pockets?

MAX LINDENMAN

     Wallet and keys, with an LA Fitness tab.

  • joannemcportland

    Eavesdropping on a conversation between two of my favorite writers: priceless!

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    I probably disagree politically with Max on everything, but I love Max’s writing! He may be the only person on Patheos Catholic that understands what a personal essay is. It’s easy to slap out a political or news or issue of the day type of blog, but a personal essay has to take the reader on a journey, a personal journey. Max gets that. I really became endeared to his writng when he sat in for Anchoress a while back. Not only was he entertaining but he did it with class given the disagreeing folks who don’t warm up to him. Thanks for a great interview.


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