JoAnna Novak

On Restraint-Based Writing, Setting Rules, How a Mother Should Be, and Her Novel ‘Contradiction Days’

Cover of JoAnna Novak: On Restraint-Based Writing, Setting Rules, How a Mother Should Be, and Her Novel ‘Contradiction Days’

In the spring of 2019, I met with my friend, writer JoAnna Novak, at Los Angeles’ Descanso Gardens on an over-hot day. We searched for shade in a Japanese teahouse. A stream moved below us. JoAnna told me she was going to New Mexico soon for a writing residency, where she was planning to research Abstract Expressionist painter Agnes Martin. In 1967, Martin abruptly left the New York art world and moved to Mesa Portales, New Mexico, where she became something of a recluse. In Mesa Portales, Martin continued to work on her paintings in a simple house with few amenities except a swimming pool she built herself for local children to play in. 

Something drew JoAnna to Martin’s solitude, and to her enigmatic, exacting artworks, with their soft pastel grids meant to capture some undisturbed quality of the natural world. A world “without objects;” a world also without the irritation of other people. As we walked and talked in the gardens that day, I also learned that JoAnna was pregnant. The two things: the Martin project, and the coming baby, were question marks at the center of our day in the garden, where the leaves of the cycads were hot to the touch. 

At that time, I didn’t know that JoAnna was experiencing depression, triggered by her pregnancy. As much as “mental health” has become a buzzword, even among friends it sometimes goes unsaid. I found out later that the doctor she had confided in about her depression had shamed her about it. He told her to take medication for the sake of her unborn child. Accused her of selfishness. This misogynist doctor became part of the impetus for Contradiction Days (Catapult, 2023), a book that could be subtitled after Sheila Heti’s 2010 book: “How Should a Pregnant Person Be?” What is someone “growing a life” allowed to feel about that new life, and about themselves? What are they allowed to consider? Can the pregnant person be an artist, too?

Instead of taking the shitty doctor’s advice, JoAnna wrote a book. Contradiction Days. She wrote it through a constraint-based process. JoAnna decided on the constraints on her way to the residency, hoping they would bring her closer to Martin, who used similar rules in her paintings and in her life. These guidelines included less speaking, less thinking about needing. No email and no phone. JoAnna was hoping that by following the rules, she might gain clarity with her own life, too. She was five months pregnant, and suicidally depressed. Maybe Martin’s rules could help her overcome her depression before the baby came. Maybe they could help her live. 

Contradiction Days is written with crystalline precision, invigorating honesty, and an almost overwhelming embodiedness. I spoke with JoAnna about the book through email.


Kate Durbin: The form of Contradiction Days transformed over time. For your first draft, you wrote in text boxes, modeled after Agnes Martin’s six-by-six canvases. These are mentioned throughout the novel, these ghost forms. Can you talk about how the book’s form evolved?

JoAnna Novak: As soon as I knew I was going to Taos, I froze up. I didn’t know how to begin writing about Agnes Martin, whose life and work, her painting and her writing, was so important to me. I wanted my writing to be in communication with her art, even if I never mustered up the courage to write about her directly, and so I decided I’d draw six-inch-square text blocks in homage to Martin’s canvas size. Six-by-six, for her, was the size a person could imagine stepping into, and I was happily surprised that the six-by-six inch text box also let me step into it. I filled up many, many text boxes and left Taos with what looked like a manuscript of dense prose poems. When I reread the pages, I found there was more narrative and linear sense than I’d expected. And so, in revising, I let the form go. It was exciting to unlock the writing from that size constraint. 

KD: The performance art-like constraints you set up for yourself are inspired by Agnes Martin’s renunciation of the world. They include no phone, no email, no weighing yourself. I know how regularly you write, so these rules in the book feel layed on top of what is already a constraint-based life-writing practice. What draws you to rules in writing, and in life?

JN: I’m tempted to say a basic belief in right and wrong, but it’s not like I believe weighing oneself (or not weighing oneself) is right or isn’t right. 

What I like about rules, in writing and in life, is the limitation of choice. Frankly, I find too many choices overwhelming. Give me a prix fixe menu over an all-you-can-eat buffet any day. I don’t like being in that liminal state of choosing—that was the hell that preceded getting pregnant for me and it was a brutal time. I like when a choice is made, even if it’s made—as in the case of certain writing constraints (I’m looking at you, OULIPO), arbitrarily. 

KD: Contradiction Days has one of the most potent evocations of depression I’ve read—the scene in the hotel in Santa Fe with your husband where you are berating yourself is incredibly painful to read, but also startling, invigorating in its honesty. You’ve never been one to shirk from writing the hard parts of mental illness, whether depression or EDs. Do you find the writing process liberating? Triggering? All of the above?

JN: Writing about depression is never triggering. I think it is liberating, actually, for how it lets me reclaim or interrogate those awful thoughts that seem to possess me. When I’m not depressed or dealing with suicidality, it’s hard for me to access just how totally warping those states can be. There’s something empowering about putting them on the page and forcing them to be rendered into order: words, sentences, pages, scenes. 

Writing about eating disorders is a little different. If I’m writing about a character or a narrator that’s in the throes of anorexia, it’s hard not to be intoxicated by the illness. Writing about recovery, I don’t run into that problem.

KD: I also feel liberated by the way this book pushes against the restrictive standards for how a pregnant person should be. The way pregnancy is commodified in our culture. Even writing about Agnes Martin of all people in a book about pregnancy feels radical somehow. Did it feel like that for you writing it?

JN: Yeah, when I stepped outside the work and thought about writing a pregnancy memoir that would also be a book about Agnes Martin, I found it kind of amusing. Contrarian, maybe. Much of the book’s most intimate content directly pushes against those standards which seem omnipresent and real, even when they’re not codified. Like, obviously no one’s saying it’s wrong for a pregnant person to get obsessed with a famous painter—it’s just that the media usually shows pregnant people getting obsessed with spendy things, like buying nursery decor or baby clothes. I’m very jaded about this.

KD: Speaking of the commodification of pregnancy, social media has really turned being a parent into a kind of competitive sport. You are one of a handful of writers I know who don’t have a social media presence. Were you ever there? If so, what made you leave?

JN: Until 2017 I had an active Twitter account and an active Facebook account. I deleted both toward the end of that year, shortly after I published my first novel and my first essay in The New York Times. Something about those milestones made me think, I don’t need this (the social media presence) anymore. I can be done. I saw writers I admired like Ottessa Moshfegh getting rid of social media, and I respected that tremendously. I disliked so much about using those accounts: not sharing news about my work, sharing news about my work, not posting photos, posting photos, looking at the comments, pretending I wasn’t looking at the comments, keeping track of likes or retweets, pretending I wasn’t keeping track of likes or retweets, the stupid bump my ego would get when Someone said something flattering about my work—it really made me anxious and queasy. And the platforms are addictive, and I hated feeling myself drawn to them. I hated how much time they wasted, how much they eroded my focus. As a parent, I don’t want to be distracted or preoccupied with that realm of stuff. I want to model presence for my son. That said, I did appreciate some of the writing communities that proliferated on these platforms in the 2010s. Those communities got me pitching my work and thinking of myself as someone who was as likely to publish in, say, Runner’s World as a literary magazine.

KD: The online writing communities of the 2010s were so great (even when they weren’t so great). I miss the blogosphere. On another note, Contradiction Days is so embodied. What draws you to writing the body? 

JN: The best writing, I think, captures some profound discomfort—with oneself or one’s circumstances, with the state of the world or the limits of being human. I’ve found a great deal of discomfort in the body, so it seems like a good place from which to write. 

KD: Throughout the book, Agnes Martin is both guide and elusive other. At times you doubt whether you have the right to write about her, or to semi-live like her. And, somehow, you honor her privacy even while making her a focus of the narrative. Why was it important to you to give her some space in the book, and to be open about your doubts about this whole process?

JN: I didn’t want to write a hagiography. Maybe because I do by nature revere the artist, the writer, I get nervous about idolatry. I didn’t want to misrepresent her or misread her. I’m not an art historian, either, so there’s a stay-in-your-lane-type fear at play, as well. 

And I think doubts are honest. They’re honest in any relationship, especially a parasocial relationship bordering on obsession. The object of obsession seems immensely knowable one moment and utterly unreachable the next. 

KD: I read in an interview that you see your prose as quite different from your poetry. But I also see your poetry on these pages in: “razor wire braided into the big sagebrush, teeth glinting in the argent leaves.” For you, what is the relationship between your poetry and your prose? 

JN: I’m sure the borders between my prose and poetry are far softer than I think, especially when it comes to diction, imagery, etc. Mainly, I think my aim or my purpose is different in prose versus poetry. In prose, especially creative nonfiction, I want the reader to make a discovery—about the narrative, about the character, something. In poetry, I want the reader to have an uncommon experience with language and emotion.

KD: New Mexico is such a presence in the book, sometimes to the point of being almost dizzying. Many times I felt your writing has a quality of a painting of that landscape, though not a Martin painting. More of an O’Keefe painting. Many of the stories in your collection Meaningful Work also have vivid landscapes. How do you think about place when you write? Does it feel like a character to you? Or is it some other quality you are after?

JN: Early in my writing life, when I primarily wrote short stories, I realized that place was the spark for me. A park I passed on a routine car ride, a memory of a particular swimming pool, the fog-swathed pier in Venice, an Italian banquet hall—story, story, story, story. Here, too, my attraction to New Mexico led to my interest in Agnes Martin. 

I don’t think of place as a character, so much as a barometer for atmosphere and tone and mood. Place also provides a palette, color-wise, and that leads to the presence of certain words or details. Those words or details determine the material reality of the characters, in a sense, and so I guess this leads us back to the beginning: place provides certain rules for the work.

KD: You have a book of poems coming out, Domestirexia, that was written during lockdown. Did place offer a kind of constraint for you in that project too? Was the lockdown itself a kind of constraint? I love this description of the book: “Quarantined at her in-law’s house during Covid, Novak wrote these poems while watching The Great British Baking Show, reading The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, skimming Grimm Brothers fairy tales, and babysitting an infant.” 

JN: Is the prose poem a place? I think kind of. I wrote the first of the poems in Domestirexia a month before lockdown, when Covid was barely in my consciousness, and I knew I wanted to make small, rectangular, surreal narratives. Pickling that impulse in the early days of quarantine, and inputting also those random reference points, definitely worked some strange magic on the poems. Often during that time, I thought about scrimping, using every single item in the fridge or cupboard before risking a life-threatening grocery store trip. I think the poems in Domestirexia mirror that philosophy: I was using what I had around me. Making do. And less is more. 

KD: One of the things I love most about Contradiction Days is the discovery at the end. I don’t want to give it away, but this is a book about how there is no one right way to be a person, or an artist. This book is hopeful, in how it embraces life in all its porousness.

JN: Yes, discoveries! Thank you—I so appreciate that. The ending is my favorite part of this book. 

KD: How do you arrive at endings in your books? Obviously for this book, pregnancy has a kind of in-built “ending” but at the same time, your ending is surprising, it’s not what the reader expects.

JN: I’d drafted the book four times before I wrote the ending chapter, so I really didn’t know it was coming. But I wrote it holding back tears and feeling total clarity, and that sense of inevitability, emotion, risk, vulnerability, heartbreak—I want that. That pang. I’m so happy it was surprising—it surprised me, too. In putting together a book of poems, I look for that pang, too, but since it’s less tied to narrative, I suppose I find different devices achieve it. An arresting image, a brutal pronouncement, a sudden putting-to-rest of all that’s come.



JoAnna Novak‘s short story collection Meaningful Work won the Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Contest. She is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Domesitrexia, and a novel, I Must Have You. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The New York Times, and other publications.

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