Naomi Washer MFA Nonfiction ’15 Publishes First Novel Subjects We Left Out
Naomi Washer MFA Nonfiction ’15 has always been a wallflower. She’s preferred to view the world once removed so that she could represent life in art. And art has always been a central focus to Washer’s life. Washer studied acting and dance at Bennington before realizing that she prefers the quieter life of a writer. In 2012, Washer joined Columbia’s MFA Nonfiction program to help her achieve her goals.
Here, Washer discusses how her experience at Columbia helped her publish her first novel and her advice for aspiring writers.
I’d like to characterize you in this story, can you give me background on you, your story and what drove you to this point in your life? When did you know you wanted to become a writer?
I think I always knew on some level that I wanted to be a writer, because I was always a wallflower: I’ve always had a sense that I was experiencing life once-removed, and that I wanted to experience life this way so I could represent it in art. Growing up, I always felt there was a screen between myself and the world—like a scrim on the stage. A scrim is made of thin fabric which renders the actors semi-invisible to the audience except in certain lights. It creates a soft, diffuse image of the scene. I’ve always been drawn to that in-between space—first as an actor and dancer, and then as a writer. I was an actor and a dancer before I committed to writing. I grew up in a family of theatre people; my first memory of waking life was of performing with my family in a play. I studied dance and theatre all the way through college at Bennington, at which point I realized that I much prefer the quieter writing life. But life and art have always been intertwined for me. I’m very fortunate to have grown up in a family that prioritized art-making and carving out your own authentic path. I never even considered making a life that wasn’t centered around art and books and writing in some way.
Can you share the title of the book and a brief synopsis?
Subjects We Left Out.
In Naomi Washer's novel Subjects We Left Out, a young American writer begins translating the work of a French poet whose book bears striking parallels to her own life. Diffident despite her talent and thoughtfulness, she struggles to understand and speak to the people closest to her, especially Alex: an exchange student from Florence, whom she feels intimately connected to despite his elusive, almost aloof disposition. As she travels through Paris and rural northeast France to meet with the poet and pursue an idea for her own book, she reckons with the distance between herself and Alex and begins to speak of the life she wants for herself. A meditation on what is often said and unsaid between people—in silence, translation, interpretation, and miscommunication—and an account of an artist coming into her own, Subjects We Left Out is a novel that sees the reader as correspondent, inviting us to hear and be heard, see and be seen, and summon the courage to speak clearly.
When was the book published? How did you get it published?
The book is scheduled to be published in March 2021, though it is currently available for pre-order: https://veliz-books.square.site/product/-presale-subjects-we-left-out-by-naomi-washer/34?cs=true
I completed the first draft of the novel in December 2019 and spent the next few months revising and polishing until it felt ready to submit to publishers. The novel is slightly experimental in form and content, so I knew that it would be a better fit for small press publishers. I wanted to find a publisher that would understand the focus and goals of the book, and who I could work with closely on its development. In July of 2020, I received an acceptance from Veliz Books, a small press publisher focused on literature in translation and translation-minded literature—a perfect fit for this book. They’ve been wonderful to work with, and they even allowed me to secure an illustration for the cover from one of my favorite French artists, Laurence Briat, which felt like the perfect correspondence to frame this story for readers.
What inspired you to write this book, is this topic personal for you?
With this novel, I wanted to investigate questions about intimacy and distance, miscommunication, translatability, and what becomes lost in the spaces between. These issues are very relatable, I think—we’ve all experienced feeling misunderstood or unable to say what you want to say. I was interested in literary translation as a focal point for the narrative as well as a metaphor for the way we long to bridge the gaps and reach across the distance, though we know we may never be able to accomplish that completely.
How did your experience at Columbia help you write and finish your book? Are there any Columbia faculty that helped you throughout the writing process? If so, how?
I started writing this particular book several years after I graduated from Columbia, but my time at Columbia taught me how to write a book. Through writing long-form projects in many of my courses and spending my third and final year in the program exclusively writing my thesis (I finished my coursework early) I learned how to envision a book-length project and map out the process of writing, revising, and polishing. I have been very lucky to have the support of Columbia faculty ever since I graduated. Jenny Boully was my thesis advisor and provided one of the blurbs for the novel. Aviya Kushner provided another blurb, and it was she who encouraged me to pursue the conditions that effectively support the writing life: she inspired me to take flexible jobs that would support my writing, instead of trying to squeeze in writing time around a 9-5 job, which I found did not work for me at all. She also encouraged me to apply to residencies where I could take a break from work to fully immerse myself in the writing process. I applied and got into Vermont Studio Center as well as Studio Faire and Chateau Orquevaux, which are both in France where the novel is set. I completed all three residencies in 2019. I don’t think I would have been able to finish the novel as quickly as I did without these residencies. My time at Columbia also inspired some of the content in the novel: I studied literary translation at Columbia, which gave me the foundational knowledge I needed to imagine this story about the interior life of a literary translator.
How did your time at Columbia College help you become a better writer?
When I came to Columbia, I had a passion for writing and a commitment to becoming a writer, but I lacked some polish and finesse. I also lacked a formal academic background in literature, since I’d studied theatre and dance, though I’d read extensively across genre and centuries on my own. The Nonfiction program at Columbia welcomed my enthusiasm while providing me with a solid grounding in the history of the essay. The faculty encouraged me to pursue an experimental practice while challenging me to develop grounding frameworks and forms to help the reader enter into the spaces I was trying to create. The rigorous coursework helped me develop the themes and forms that captivated me, and the feedback from faculty and peers helped me improve the stronger aspects of my writing while eliminating the bad habits.
What was your major and when did you graduate? How did you decide on this major?
Nonfiction MFA, 2012 – 2015.
I discovered the Nonfiction MFA program at Columbia during my senior year of undergrad at Bennington. I was studying the lyric essay while working as the Senior Nonfiction Editor of plain china, an anthology of the best undergraduate writing. I struck up a correspondence with one of my writers, Zach Green, who had been in the BA Poetry program at Columbia and who I later founded Ghost Proposal with, a literary journal and chapbook press I now run with Patrick Thornton, who was in my cohort in the Nonfiction MFA program. Talking to Zach led me to find out more about Columbia. When I found out that Jenny Boully was the director of the program at the time, I decided to apply. I had just read her book The Body and it had transformed the way I thought about writing. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it validated everything I thought about writing: the book is performative in the way it investigates form and persona, and I was interested in bringing that performative approach from my theatre work into my writing. I hadn’t seen anyone do that before I read Jenny’s book; it awakened me to many possibilities I was able to pursue during my time at Columbia.
Would you advise a prospective student to attend Columbia College, and if so, why?
Columbia’s Nonfiction program was the perfect program for me; I would advise prospective students to find the perfect program for them. Columbia ticked all my boxes: I wanted to be in an affordable city where there was a lot going on with theatre and literature; the core faculty in the Nonfiction program were perfect for the kind of nonfiction I wanted to practice and learn more about; the department had a rigorous teaching program for graduate students, which I loved during my time there and which gave me a leg up when securing teaching positions after I graduated; and the program had a lot of crossover with the Poetry program at the time, which allowed me to immerse myself in a very supportive and inspiring community. I hadn’t planned on applying to graduate school before I learned about the program at Columbia; it was the only program I applied to, and the one that I knew would be perfect for me. Long story short, I would advise prospective students to find the program that ticks all their boxes and where they feel they will really grow and thrive. For me, that place was Columbia.
What advice do you have for current students?
My advice is to go beyond the minimum of the grad school experience. My time at Columbia was enriched by teaching and connecting with the community as much as it was through my daily coursework. I gave my all to the experience, and that was rewarded; I gained knowledge about the academic job market, how to apply to residencies, how to start and grow a small press, and how to sustain your writing life once school is over. All of this happened outside the classroom as much as it did inside it. Even during the pandemic, there are ways to reach out and connect with your cohort and your professors. We can now virtually attend readings all over the country, which is a great way to connect with your favorite writers at a distance. At the end of the day, remember that grad school provides the gift of time and resources that allow you to focus on honing your craft and becoming the writer/artist you want to be.
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