Skull Cathedral: A Vestigial Anatomy, Melissa Wiley
Melissa Wiley is the author of Skull Cathedral, a book interweaving thoughts on the body’s vestigial organs with autobiographical fragments, which won the 2019 Autumn House Press Nonfiction Contest and was judged by Paul Lisicky. She has also published the personal essay collection Antlers in Space and Other Common Phenomena. Were she more coordinated, she would have become a trapeze artist and joined the circus. As it is, she struggles to say what feels true but believes the struggling is what matters. Her work has appeared in DIAGRAM, The Rumpus, Tupelo Quarterly, Waxwing, Nashville Review, American Literary Review, and others.
Here, Melissa Wiley discusses vestigial anatomy, the firehose of language and thought, and her writing routines.
Bina Ruchi Perino: How long did working on Skull Cathedral take, from conception to publication?
Melissa Wiley: All told, it took me almost two years to write. Though I tried to stay focused, I also wanted to approach each essay with as minimal of an agenda as possible, allowing any associations around a given vestigial organ or reflex to coalesce into a narrative without me forcing one into being.
BRP: Where did you get your title inspiration from?
MW: The title comes from the essay concerning the sinuses, though I should probably add that this essay hardly mentions them explicitly, except for a paragraph. As I wrote this particular piece, these cavities were still always there, hovering in the back of my awareness, offering new layers of meaning for the sequence of events at hand. Without some level of consciousness of these hollow spaces, I don’t believe I could have written this essay as it stands, by which I mean I never could have connected certain threads of thought and veins of existence. When choosing a title for the collection as a whole, I realized all of the essays functioned in this way, with the vestigial organ or reflex informing the content rather than serving as the primary content itself. Throughout the book, the vestigial remnants operate much like negative space in a visual work of art, highlighting the subjects in the foreground, bringing them into focus.
But to go back to the sinuses for a moment, I found them particularly emblematic of the underlying meaning that I was trying to convey from so much disparate material. Just as you sometimes hear people say it’s the space in between the notes that creates the music, for me the cavities of the sinuses represented a space through which a sense of sacredness could pervade material reality. Thoughts and memories can elicit so much pain, especially when tied to loss or regret, and a lot of this book is about finding a way out of pain or a better way to live with it. So I found it deeply comforting to realize the source of so much of our capacity for anguish—all the thinking that goes on inside our head—itself houses empty spaces, which is to say breathing room in essence. The title is meant to speak to that potential for respite from a place as crowded our heads can be. Though I’m not religious, I also love the palpable hush that comes with stepping inside of holy spaces, with entering any room that has been designated for the purpose of communing with holiness alone. So the title Skull Cathedral ultimately serves as a way of reminding myself of the fact we contain all of the spiritual wisdom we need inside of our own bodies, however these bodies may appear, whatever their limitations.
BRP: How do you feel about deadlines? Are they a good or bad pressure for you?
MW: I have to impose deadlines on myself in order to feel as if I’m making any progress. This feeling, if not the reality, seems to be key to moving past all the rejection that comes with submitting new material, with not being so weighed down by it. This book, for instance, I completed more than three years ago and submitted for as long, which of course has made its forthcoming publication through Autumn House that more meaningful.
I’ve also been writing for long enough now to appreciate that no project ever adheres to my own timeline, no matter how strictly I might keep to it. Creative flow has its own innate rhythm, though I think it’s important to push this a little, to make yourself write as often as possible, ideally every day. The act of writing even a single sentence works much like a muscle for me; it atrophies without being stretched or pushed toward some exertion.
Setting deadlines is also often the only way to make myself move past the draft stage, to force myself to clean something up, placing myself in the position of a reader rather than a writer. This inevitably leads to excising masses of content, which is never the fun part for me. This purging of excess material amounts to more than half the process, maybe as much as eighty percent. Because I don’t have an agent or anyone else nudging me to keep producing more work, deadlines encourage me to engage with a piece to its finish, completing the cycle. That said, they can also convert what was once a little lighter-hearted affair into something more like a job, with some of its same tedium. So far, though, I see no way around this.
BRP: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate in or feel are important to your writing?
MW: I work as a freelance editor and writer from a home office, so partly because it would be far too easy for me to stay in all day, especially during the Chicago winter, I try to walk five or six miles a day as well as practice some form of meditation, though I’m hardly ever successful with the latter. Any attempt to quiet my mind still seems extremely worthwhile to me. There has never not been a time when too much chatter, internally or externally, has not hindered me in some way, has not left me feeling depleted. So even if I can’t get out and walk as much as I would like on a given day, I try to at least watch my breathing for a few minutes, to take some conscious pauses. It’s not much, but it helps. I wish I could say I also cooked a full and lovely dinner or invited more variety into my life by practicing a craft like sewing or gardening to counteract all the wordplay, but I’m so lazy that way. At the end of a normal day, I usually just want to walk to my nearest falafel place, observing the expressions of all the faces in passing, before settling into a book.
BRP: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?
MW: Five years ago, I attended the Writer’s Hotel in NYC, and Richard Hoffman, who led the nonfiction workshop, likened reading my work to taking a drink from a firehose. In other words, I was overwhelming my potential readers, asking too much of them. I was just starting to write seriously then, and of course I laughed when he said this. All of the rest of the feedback I received in the workshop, though, carried the same message. I was burning to say so much—as I still am—but clearly I needed to learn to control the fire—or the hose, whatever—so people could absorb what I was putting out there without feeling lashed or burned or assaulted in some way. (Gosh, that sounds violent.) Rereading some of the pieces I wrote back then, though, I tend to wince a little, because now I can see what people meant. I like to think I’ve matured as a writer in the years since, that I’ve summoned more power over what used to be too many words attempting to convey too many emotions at once. No one wants to slake their thirst from a firehose, I realize, no matter how parched. I used to feel a little hurt by critique that fell along these lines, but now I get it.
BRP: Do you keep a journal, or do you prefer to write on anything you can find?
MW: I used to keep journals, but they have mostly fallen by the wayside. This has a lot to do with devoting more energy to putting the bulk of my writing into more cohesive shape. When I’m lucky enough to travel, though, I always take a physical journal along, and these can be fun for me to reread. Once in a great while, I will find myself writing on napkins if I’m somewhere (obviously somewhere with food) and a thought really strikes me, if it feels fresh and true, as if it has been waiting for this time and space to surface. I don’t believe every piece of writing needs to amount to a finished product by any means, but a large part of creativity consists in keeping the channels open. So maybe I should start journaling again.
BRP: When and how does inspiration find you? For example, do you go outside to find it in nature, or does it suddenly come to you in the middle of the night?
MW: I wish I had more nature to walk out into, but I live close to downtown Chicago, albeit near the lakefront, and am without a car to easily access more open spaces. That said, environment tends to make less of a difference for me than state of mind. As I was saying or meant to imply before, a quieter mind yields its own peace, and this is where most matters become clearer for me. Any real inspiration I’ve ever experienced has always felt less like inspiration and more like clarity, something along the lines of, “yes, that’s how it is—I can see it now.”
Sometimes that clarity does come at night when I wake and am unable to fall back asleep, so long as my mind doesn’t grow too restive. Several months ago and before the pandemic disrupted so many aspects of our lives, I was walking back from a yoga class when I looked up into a webbing of bare tree limbs and knew all at once what I wanted my next creative project to be. I knew this without having been conscious of searching for a new project to begin with, especially because I’m currently involved with one that should keep me busy for the next year or so. Still I was grateful for the insight or clarity or inspiration, whose arrival I think must have been related to the calm that came with feeling physically tired and energized at the same time. I’ve felt so excited about having the chance to start writing this new book ever since.
BRP: If given the choice to spend 24 hours in a museum creating something, what medium would you prefer?
MW: I would love to be a musician, mostly because music feels so much more visceral to me than writing. Music cuts through so much clutter—and literally moves people—like no other medium. I’ve played different instruments in the past, but none have ever felt like a natural path of expression; I really have to work at it before any smoothness or spontaneity arises. I’m a little better at drawing and painting, though given 24 hours in a museum, what I would really love to do would be to create a sculpture of some kind. I took one sculpture class in college, when we worked mostly in stone—I can only remember making a single, disembodied rib cage and my arm getting tired—so I would love to work with clay, with something softer.
This is probably my naivete at work, but I like to imagine that the conscious mind can interfere less with creative flow when the hands are active, so if given such a limited timeframe to create something new, I would love to trust my hands more than my head, to try the experiment. This is a big part of the challenge with writing for me, keeping the mind alert without allowing it to obscure or override subtleties, without allowing it to shift to more exciting topics or erase contradictions. So I’d love to be able to delve more deeply into the hands’ intelligence, though opportunities for that already abound and I rarely take advantage.
BRP: What are some things you learned from creating Skull Cathedral? How did this experience compare to creating Antlers in Space and Other Common Phenomena?
MW: Though the themes are similar, this one was created much more deliberately, with more focus and discipline. From my experience of writing both these volumes, I’ve learned you have nothing to lose from stating the truth as it reveals itself through your own subjective lens and personal set of experiences, though it’s always wise to be sensitive when writing about people other than yourself. Much is sometimes made of a memoirist’s inherent vulnerability, but I actually see no way in which any of us can escape this, in which we can ever ultimately protect ourselves, no matter what we put out there or keep ourselves from doing. Any sense of protection we may feel strikes me as only an illusion.
Whether we talk about it or not, we are all mortal animals forced to grapple with macrocosmic forces beyond our control as well as potentially thornier psychological ones. So I think we are only ever helped by other people—memoirists being only one example—who acknowledge these realities, who help us step out of our protective armor, who help transform our vulnerability into a source of beauty, maybe even consolation. It’s a lovely paradox that sometimes nothing makes us feel as whole as feeling completely defenseless, which is to say unapologetically human. I have felt this way many times when reading books detailing another person’s experience in such vivid detail that I’m left feeling something close to transcendence.
Because no one is immune to cataclysm or revelation, to tragedy or transformation, I would suggest that any memoirist’s writing process begin with a bold embrace of your humanness, while recognizing that you share this humanness with every other person on the planet who has ever lived and has yet to be born. You can always pull back from there, casting a more clinical eye over what you’ve written. You can always shape your explosively messy material into a form in which more restraint might better serve your readers. But start with some fire, I would say. I guess this is my old firehose at work, unwilling to be vanquished. Personally I would have made a lot more progress in a lot less time if I only had a steadier, gentler flow to begin with. So maybe fire isn’t everything. Maybe it’s just emotional honesty, being who you are at this particular point in time. I don’t really trust much else when it comes down to it.
BRP: If you could describe Skull Cathedral in three words, what would they be? Why?
MW: Useless messes matter. The reason I was attracted to the idea of writing about vestigial organs and reflexes—the reason the idea practically walloped me over the head one day—probably had a lot to do with feeling like a useless human being. Even while serving no real purpose on this planet, none at which I have been able to grasp anyway, I’m still alive and have to reckon with that aliveness. I have long passed the point of needing to find a reason as to why I’m here or why anything happens—so much of it senseless, especially concerning those who suffer and those who seem to get away with so much less of it— meaning I don’t care to fight the uselessness, to cling to a sense of purpose that would only be a personal belief anyway, not empirically valid. So for better or worse, I easily identify with these organs in my body that similarly seem of little to no use, that we have already evolved beyond as a species.
The irony is perhaps that, while writing this book, these vestigial remnants offered real and meaningful import for my life, for how to keep living it without feeling particularly invested in a future, for how to feel more fully alive without the prospect of that life ever amounting to much of anything, without being able to ease much of anyone’s suffering. Through contemplating these few features of our anatomy, I think I came to more peace with the seeming anomie, even brutality, of so much of our existence. Uselessness may not mean anything in the way we might want it to, in the sense that a reason lurks behind it that will come clear at some point—I’m deeply distrustful of all teleological thinking—but for me any real meaning abides in the uncertainty. I have come to feel there is richness in not knowing, in the precariousness of life and its easy slippage into what we suppose to be its opposite. A wonder opens up when no other beliefs, or even hopes, cloud all the contradictions.