Beneath the Surface:An Interview with Jessie Roth

by Akosua

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 6.12.50 PM Jessie’s Flickr

A few days ago I was listening to episode #293 of This American Life, in which the overall theme was about having little pieces of knowledge; knowing only a bit about something, but acting as if you have an expert opinon. I often like to collect little pieces of knowledge, and attempt to get to an expert level, or at least act like it. A lot of time I’m influenced by blogs I read–or even Twitter–and one of those blogs is paradoxicalsentiments, written by twenty-year-old full-time college student Jessie Roth. Apart from taking fantastic photographs, Jessie keeps her blog updated with musings on her daily goings and the films she watches. Everything she says gets me interested in the world, from vegan ice cream appreciation to paragraphs on her recent trip to a yoga retreat. I had the greatest urge to interview Jessie and though I wasn’t sure what I would ask her, I knew I had to try. I asked her really basic questions, but I got the most interesting answers.

Introduce Jessie
I’m a twenty-year-old full-time college student and part-time hostess extraordinaire at a vegetarian restaurant. I like avoiding picking a career path, baked oatmeal and coffee, bad cheesy humor, the bass line in any song with a really good strong bass line, and listening to people talk about what they like. I also really like being a student and working in a restaurant, which is definitely convenient. At least for another year, until I have to do something different.

When did you start writing?
I’ve been writing since I was super little, if metered Dr.Seuss-inspired rhyme poems about various dog breeds count. And the first poem I ever wrote, to my knowledge anyway, was about an argument between the moon and the sun. I was five and very original! Obviously I have been writing all my life since then, mostly for school, but I try to maintain a creative writing habit because it is one of the rare interests that has sustained me as I’ve gotten older.

What is your favourite kind of writing to read as well as write?

My favourite kind of writing changes, and depends on my mood. Right now, I’m really into writing long-form creative nonfiction “article” pieces about topics I’m exploring on the side, like a movie director or artist profile. I took a class on literary magazine writing last semester and it influenced me a lot. I enjoy writing fiction and poems, but I struggle with the commitment required for the former and the eloquence for the latter. I love reading poetry though, if only because poetry is just an essence, so it can be anything in a way that other kinds of writing with form and content restrictions can’t. Plus, poetry is made of the stuff that makes good writing. Every time I read a Charles Simic poem fraught with imagery and metaphor, and wonder “why can’t I write like [that]” and channel [my] frustration into a renewed effort. I have the same commitment issue when it comes to reading full-length novels, so I tend to stick to short stories. It’s really cool to see how a writer goes about telling a complete story in limited number of pages.

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Jessie’s Writing

When writing, is the result or the process most important? 
The product of what I am writing is usually more important than the process, in varying degrees depending on what exactly the writing is. One of the biggest reasons I write is out of frustration, to externalize an idea that I can’t verbalize with spoken language or to remember what happened and how before I forget, so the satisfaction doesn’t arrive until the words are on a page. I’m much more articulate when I write than when I talk. Of course catharsis is a huge benefit of writing, especially personal pieces, but the process itself is usually fraught with the anxiety of trying to finish.

How does your writing change when you’re writing for others as opposed to yourself?
I’d like to think it doesn’t change that much, since I try to keep the same sense of candour and honesty [used in my journal writing] present in the work I share with an audience. The biggest difference is that my private, personal writing references more specific details about people I know and things I’ve thought than I would care to share with others. For example, a first draft of a poem in my journal might have names in it. Theoretically, the subject of the poem and a good number of people would know immediately who I was talking about. The edited, final version would be vague, opaque, potentially about anyone. Most of the time, I don’t want anyone to be sure, immediately or ever, who or what I’m writing about. That’s for my own security! And it’s more universal that way, too.

“Everything’s far away. Everything’s a copy of a copy of a copy”–Fight Club

You’re also involved in photography, what sparked that interest?
I started taking pictures the way every teenage girl started taking pictures: I took a digital photography class in high school! I took so many macro shots of flowers and black and white park benches! But I believe the interest was actually sparked by a collection of photostreams on Flickr belonging to a group of young photographers around my age. I really and truly got into photography because I wanted to be as good as them.

Was it difficult for you at first? Did you feel any pressure to do well from the get go? How did you deal with any challenges you faced?
Taking a “technically good” picture” isn’t too difficult, especially if you’ve taken a class like the ones I took in elementary basics that teach you about composition and framing. But the challenge has never been to be “good,” but to be “different.” Being different was hard for me. I got very caught up in this community of photographers on Flickr where we were all trying the same things at the same time. For awhile Flickr was a very constructive space for me that provided endless stream of inspiration and ideas, and also enabled me to meet likeminded people with a shared passion. But we all copied each other! You know in Fight Club when Edward Norton says, “everything’s a copy of a copy of a copy?” That’s 99% of Flickr. After a few years, the website became a semi-toxic environment for me and I had to pull away to understand why I was drawn to photography in the first place. I definitely felt pressure to do well when I started, and I still do, as is true for any hobby. A lot of my friends are pursuing photography professionally, and feeling inferior or less legitimate terrifies me. But I know perfectionism and competition are the mortal enemies of creativity. I guess I dealt with these challenges by stepping away from photography for a few years. I still haven’t figured it out.

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Self-Portait

Self-Portait

What do you think makes a good photograph?

I don’t know if there’s a formula for a truly good photograph, objectively speaking. I have trouble labelling any art as “good” or “bad,” partially because I am far from an authority on the subject and also because art is subjective by nature. Successful images are successful when they show the viewer something in a way they never would have looked at it before. Technique and emotion are both factors playing into every image, but intent is more important. I care about the motivation, what made the photographer press down on the shutter. In other words, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a “pretty” picture that doesn’t contain a poignant emotion. There is, however, something wrong with an “empty” picture. There is also something wrong with “pretty” picture with a corrupted, selfish agenda. A good photograph is taken for a reason. A good photograph has a purpose, and a constructive one. For example, I indulgently photograph almost all of the food that I eat and, while I wouldn’t argue that my cell phone pictures are high works of art, I don’t see them as “bad” either. I took them because food is an integral part of my life and routine. I took them for the same reason I take most of the rest of my pictures: to remember.

Favourite photographers?
My very favourite photographer is probably William Eggleston. First of all, his contributions to the role and use of colour in photography are undeniable. His innovation with colour still cannot be matched today. And Eggleston’s pictures feel like they live in a Raymond Carver story. Both of these guys are interested in making the mundane worth observing, delving deep beneath a surface stoicism to find more interesting material. The tones and themes recall those of Lynch as well, but without the perversion or darkness. I also love Vivian Maier. I find her photographs, as well as the entire story surrounding her work, fascinating. My other favorites include: Helen Levitt, Sally Mann, and Garry Winogrand. Director Stanley Kubrick also shot some really incredible pictures when he worked for LOOK magazine.

This is the first part of Jessie’s interview. More coming soon.

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