Steve Fellner's 'Eating Lightbulbs and Other Essays'

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday March 29, 2022
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author Steve Fellner
author Steve Fellner

At the hands of queer male writers such as David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs, and the late David Rakoff, the world of modern creative non-fiction has been forever changed. For proof of that, readers need look no further than Eating Lightbulbs and Other Essays (Mad Creek Books/Ohio State University Press, 2021) by gay writer and educator Steve Fellner.

Published as part of the Joy Castro-curated Machete series, Fellner's book is at turns hysterically funny and cause for hysteria. Fellner is relentlessly open in the way he details his struggles with mental illness that is alternately clinical and casual. It helps that he writes his observations, on subjects that also include familial relationships, coming out and being gay, life with his husband Phil, teaching, poetry, and his obsession with film, with great wit and without pretense.

Gregg Shapiro: Steve, because you are both a poet and prose writer, reading your new essay collection Eating Lightbulbs made me wonder if any of the essays began as poems?

Steve Fellner: Most anything I write comes from a dream. My dreams run the gamut, anything from the autobiographical to the surreal to embodiments of newspaper headlines: missing umbilical cords; a gay man self-immolating in a public park; books being thrown off the top of a building; Mister Magoo; the AIDS quilt; etc. These images provoke me to write something down. I don't know what until my fingers hit the keyboard, but something.

That's what happened with the essay "How to Survive a Baby Shower." Suddenly, a number of my friends were having babies. I was jealous. For some reason, I started to dream about all the bundles of thank you notes my friends would have to write. It was their punishment for having children. The image of the notes began the essay.

Two of the essays in the book are abecedarians. What do you like best about that form?

My husband was the one who thought of the abecedarians. He also thought of the central premise encapsulated in the title "Self-Portrait as a 1970s Cineplex Movie Theatre." He knew I was struggling. He said write an abecedarian. For each letter of the alphabet, we came up with a title of a movie from the '70s. Movies that ranged from "Ben," which is about giant killer rats, to "Love Story," the weepie of all weepies. The challenge: for each letter of the alphabet, I would have to tie together the letter, a corresponding movie, and a bit of memoir in a neat package. It was fun [laughs]! That's why I ended up writing a sequel to that essay: "Self-Portrait as a 1980s Cineplex Movie Theatre."

But perhaps even more than abecedarians, I love lists. Perhaps that's why so many of my essays consist of numbered sections, incorporating a lot of different themes, images, tones. Like "Ten Anecdotes about the Destruction of Books." It talks about a lot of different things from inflicting paper cuts on myself to throwing out a lover's books in the garbage after they broke up with me. Too bad they wanted to get back together. I had to confess. You can imagine how that went [laughs].

Very near the end of the book of essays, you include a long poem "My mother is suffering from uterine cancer and all I can think about is the '80s," which follows an essay with a funny quote by your mother, "No one reads poetry. How am I supposed to become famous? Respect your mother. Turn me into prose. You owe me that." Was the placement of the poem deliberate?

You're more observant than me [laughs]. I wish I could say it was deliberate. This essay collection took about 20 years to write and find a publisher for. So, the essays form a weird chronology of my life.

Before and after I had a breakdown which led to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Before and after my mother was diagnosed with uterine cancer. Before and after I married my husband Phil. I didn't arrange the essays. For me, arrangement is making sure all the different essays end up on the same Microsoft Word document, which is a huge feat for me [laughs]! My editor Kristen Elias Rowley did it all. And I have no doubt it was hard.

The essays deal with a variety of serious subjects, including mental health, AIDS, cancer, gay-bashing, and family. But early on you make use of humor — I'm thinking about the scene involving the cupcakes at the sexual abuse survivors' meeting.

I find myself to be a ridiculous person. I grew up in a trailer park; I educated myself for quite some time reading stolen library books. There is something ridiculous about me then thinking I should write essays about the experiences. What right do I have?

To put a book out in the world means that I feel somehow I deserve taking up someone's time reading my essays. People are dealing with their own parents dying, their own abuse, their own problems, yet I have this strong hope that these same people will notice me. It's sort of gross, and ridiculous.

And because I want that attention, and because my life experiences aren't anything special, it means that I have to find a way to make sure everyone feels like it's worth it. And that's through humor. If you're laughing, you're not going to notice (at least not as much) that you are letting a stranger take up your time.

Religion also comes up a few times in the book, including the way that God and punishment are linked.

My mother was a trampoline champion. She once told me that her goal was always to bounce so high that she reached the heavens. She didn't say it jokingly; she meant it.

Another time she told me that she bounced high enough to catch a bird and hold it in her hands. I asked her what it was like. She said it was like touching God. She said this with no sarcasm or humor. That's what I think of when I think of religion: my mother holding a bird, and not letting go.

As a Professor of Creative Writing at SUNY Brockport, you write extensively about teaching and your students. Do you have any concerns about your students reading the book?

I'm afraid that my students will think I don't like teaching. Unlike a lot of creative writing teachers, I love it. In fact, if I was forced to choose either teaching or writing, I'd always choose the former.

At the same time, I'm not going to be the kind of writer who says: "I learn as much from my students as, hopefully, they do from me." I'm the teacher. They are paying a lot of money for their tuition. I better teach them something. Anything I get is incidental.

In addition to writing about your 2009 memoir All Screwed Up in the "On Significance" essay, you also say, "One of my most significant flaws as an essayist: If I'm not careful, I transform real-life people into caricatures of themselves."

If you choose to write personal essays, you have one main job: to not be mean. Or at least not too mean. Or if you're going to be mean, make sure you insult the person with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Sometimes people say, "I didn't mean to hurt so and so's feeling." I call bullshit. You knew then. You know now. Own it.

Is the Phil in the "Inspiration" essay the same Phil who is your husband?

Yes. Before I started writing the essays, I never expected to have a boyfriend, let alone a husband. It is sort of weird when I look back on the essays how much he has become a part of them; not only "behind the scenes" with the editing and advice and ideas he gives me, but an actual character in them.

He's the guy who was always sure to bring Crime and Punishment when he drove me to the psych ER so he'd have something to do while he waited. (It was the only time he read it; he wanted to savor the words.) He's the guy who fought me about the importance of Steven Seagal in the history of the action picture. He's the guy who I ran to WalMart with when it became official gays could get married and we needed a pair of rings;�fast and cheap.

Have you started working on or thinking about your next book project?

No. All I do is watch movies and TV. I recommend the new season of Dexter. The initial series finale was horrible, one of the worst in the history of TV. So, I guess they're trying to redeem themselves by creating this unexpected new installment, which is a good thing. I don't believe one can really be redeemed, but it's sure fun watching someone try.

Do you believe in ghosts?

Yes. When you are adopted, as I am, you're always missing your biological mother, especially if you never met her. I've never met mine. She is an essence, a ghost. For all I know, she's dead. I think that's why I became a writer. I've hoped that if I arrange the right words in the right way, her spirit, if not her entire being, will find me and somehow save me.

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