Michael Wheaton

On Nostalgia, Fame in the Age of the Internet, Writing as Montage, and His Nonfiction Debut ‘Home Movies’

Cover of Michael Wheaton: On Nostalgia, Fame in the Age of the Internet, Writing as Montage, and His Nonfiction Debut ‘Home Movies’

“Is nostalgia a symptom of the fear of death?” Michael Wheaton wonders in his new book, Home Movies (BUNNY, 2024). In these pages, Wheaton considers the intersections of nostalgia, technology, and performance through the lens of his own experience as a teacher, parent, and writer. Moments are captured like photos and laid down through language, carefully arranged for the reader to make of them what they will.

Wheaton is the editor-in-chief of the literary journal Autofocus, publisher and editor of the Autofocus Books imprint, and producer and host of The Lives of Writers podcast. Like everything else he’s created, Wheaton’s book is a conceptual playground, an open conversation, and a place for readers to think freely, right alongside the writer. With unique perception and a striking wit, Home Movies offers an insightful meditation on media that belongs on every nostalgist’s shelf.

I spoke with Wheaton over Zoom about writing, fame, and the one-of-a-kind community he credits with bringing Home Movies into the world.


Abigail Oswald: You write about moments from an Intro to Film class you teach in a section of Home Movies called “Early Cinema.” How would you say teaching has changed your relationship to writing and film?

Michael Wheaton: Just having to teach nonfiction writing, just constantly thinking about nonfiction as a form and how to communicate it and talk about it—I think it moved my brain a little bit in a direction away from fiction. Eventually my brain just went so far away from fiction that it went into, well, first poetry for a little bit, and then where I am now with what we’ll call, like, Autofocusy-prose kind of stuff. So in a lot of ways it rewired my brain completely.

As far as movies go… I use a lot of film even in my comp classes, so we do film as literature analysis and stuff like that. Through that job I’ve also learned a lot more or looked more closely at so much film stuff that it’s also kind of rewired my brain in this way where I’m so very interested in movies and film. But part of the reason I’m so interested in them is because I like writing about them—thinking about them through language, crossing the media boundary a little bit. 

So thinking about both of those things in the day-to-day of my job over the last ten years, it’s like, oh, of course I wrote a nonfiction book about movies and my life. Like yeah, that makes sense. 

AO: That’s been my experience too, because when you hop back and forth between mediums or genres, things in one category can unlock things in another in a really cool way. Like when you write about the Kuleshov Effect employed in films like Rear Window, “where the image we see before and after another image manipulates the way we read both images.” Do you feel like you do something similar as a writer, with language?

MW: Yeah, I think a lot of the book in a weird, maybe oblique way, communicates how I feel about writing, or how I put together the writing I do. The Kuleshov effect or montage or film editing is deeply influential to the way I approach nonfiction, because I compose a lot in fragments without really knowing what I’m doing—just focusing on memories or ideas related to certain subjects or themes, and I just kind of riff.

When I’m starting a project, a lot of times I don’t really know what I’m doing; I just know what I want to be writing about, and then I kinda figure it out. And so the whole process is montage or that Kuleshov Effect; I figure out what I’m doing by putting different things next to each other. So I’m constantly shifting around those blocks as I’m writing them, just to see what looks close to each other, and then I might pull three paragraphs out of this document and be like, oh, I can make a piece about this. Some of the pieces in Home Movies—there’s two where you can see those fragments next to each other, just kind of building—that’s kind of how those pieces happen. And the other ones were all composed the same way at first. 

But I do think it’s impossible to separate the way I see from the way movies worked on my brain. Or the way that our brains are shaped by the media we use. I mean, look at people on Twitter, they use Twitter so much they become Twitter. I have in some ways, and I feel terrible. And then you see kind of the extreme way that can go, where your brain gets so ramped up in thinking like that. Like, I’ve consumed so much TV and movies and visual media in my life that my brain just thinks in clips and moves things around.

AO: Social media’s another thing you touch on in Home Movies, like in one section called “Upon Watching an Unboxing Video of a Writer I Don’t Follow on Twitter,” where you unpack the element of performance in a writer’s career. Do you feel like you become a different version of yourself when you post, or when you write? Do you think you understand yourself better through those mediums, or do they create more distance?

MW: I feel that it’s a different version in the sense that I try to make it closer to who I am than not, but highly controlled. I want to have some control over the perception of me because, like, nobody really does. And so I think when you’re sculpting in this kind of autobiographical way—it’s like my control freak impulse pointed, in a way, at others. Like, at the core, I’m very deeply trying to shape how people view me. I hope they know it’s a character, right? I mean, as much as anything is. Or, you know, as much as any piece of nonfiction has to be slightly fictionalized in some way, because you’re turning it into language and resetting things and being certain about things that maybe aren’t possible to being certain about—like certain memories. But yeah, I mean, I think for me that’s a lot of it. As you can tell in the book, my gaze and other people’s gazes take up a lot of my thoughts.

AO: You mentioned that you’ve moved between genres, progressing from fiction to poetry to nonfiction. Is there one that feels more comfortable at this point?

MW: I don’t think that I could write fiction anymore if I tried. My imagination just doesn’t work that way. I think my work is very imaginative, but in ways you wouldn’t realize because you don’t know what I’m drawing from. In many ways, I actually find the work I do now more imaginative than when there were no rules and I could imagine anything in fiction. 

When that kind of broke for me, I went to poetry. And then in poetry, I tried to write poems. I don’t think I wrote very many good ones. I learned a lot from doing it and I read quite a bit of it. But where it ultimately led me was to what we’ll call the essay, or creative nonfiction, or the lyric essay, or anti-memoir—all these various areas I kinda happened into because of being interested in poetry and then coming across prose books like the ones I’m describing here and there, and starting to hear people talk about them. And then when I heard people talk about them and talk about the form, I just became obsessed. Like, it was the only thing I wanted to read. And then after reading a lot of work like this, I wanted to write it.

AO: You’re the editor-in-chief of the literary journal Autofocus, publisher and editor of the Autofocus Books imprint, and producer and host of The Lives of Writers podcast! How have these different roles shaped your journey to Home Movies’ publication?

MW: In a way, I can’t separate working on Autofocus from the book, finding the book that it is. Because working on so many different people’s books and talking to so many different people on the podcast about the kind of work I want to do completely made me better at it. And helping people problem-solve their own work was huge for me to kind of figure out the problems of my own work. Talking to people who could help me solve it, to include those people in my work as well—in community we’re making this into this really great book.

With some of the writers I became friends with, I was like, could you give me feedback on this? And writers I’ve had on the podcast, you know, a few I’ve become friends with, and a couple of Autofocus writers gave me good feedback, and that feedback ultimately turned into what this book’s become. 

Everything about it’s just been reciprocal. The thing this book became, none of it would have happened—the book itself or the conditions for a book to be published, realistically—without Autofocus or the podcast. 

AO: In “Office Hours,” there’s this classroom moment you recount where you asked your students: “Let’s do a poll. How many of you want to be famous one day? Every damn hand in the room shot up. Now keep your hand up if you believe you will become famous. The hands didn’t budge, fingers reaching to the ceiling.” Do you think the nature of fame has shifted? Is it just an old drive taking new forms, or has it morphed into something different?

MW: I think the way I experienced the world in middle school or college has evolved and mutated to a degree today that I can only try to catch up to understanding. But I mean, micro-fame and macro-fame, right? The idea of micro-fame previously wouldn’t have existed—that you could be famous in this really small bubble. I guess all fame is in a way a virtual reality. We can all kinda try to take part in it now. And you can set the parameters, you can Google how you would achieve that, right? And you can read how-tos. It’s very strange. 

I think some people are finding that they only need to feel famous to a thousand people, and other people are finding that nothing will ever be enough. There’s so many more famous people now than there used to be, but our awareness of all these famous people—there’s so much less of it. So I just find it very strange, really, that any one of us could be famous in the eyes of somebody else with an online connection. And there’s so many people who we might call famous, or that other people might call famous, that most people have never heard of—except for, let’s say, Taylor Swift. I feel like there’s just so many fewer cultural icons that everyone has heard of now than there were.

But one thing that hasn’t changed: People will always want to be famous. And people will always think they should be famous. I think people who want that will always try to be. But that pursuit looks very different, because of all the weird pathways. Like, what does fame really mean now? When I was a teenager, fame meant being on TV, being on the radio station every day, having your picture in all these magazines, the newspaper—everything existed to be on TV, that was it. Now everything exists to appear in a social media post or a picture on social media.

AO: You explore the permutations our various internet relationships can take in “Pressing Buttons,” juxtaposing your kid’s present-day video games with your own memories of AIM and dial-up internet as well as possibilities for future connection. I know as a writer especially, I have a lot of complicated feelings about the internet—I grew up on it, made friends on it, but it’s also affected my mental health and eaten up a lot of my time. Do you think the push back toward analog will grow?

MW: Yes and no. I think inevitably it has to. Like, there’s going to be some segment of the population at some point—I can’t say if it’s the next generation or if it’s in two generations—but there’s going to be a segment of young people, in the way young people reject the status quo. Unless media completely sucks them so deeply in—and maybe it is, seemingly. But I think every logical person participating in all the media now can see some of the ramifications that are not that great psychologically. Every single person can see that. We all benefit from it, though—those who continue to use it or are so deeply addicted that we’re just gonna keep using it anyway. 

But at some point there will be teenagers who hate their parents, and when they think about why they hate their parents, they could probably very easily trace it to how they’ve been mediated or how they’ve chosen to mediate themselves. And so there has to be a group at some point who will gain enough traction to just drop out.

But I mean, those people exist now. We just don’t hear them, because they’re not online. It almost feels now that so many people are seeing through whatever veil or screen or weird projection theater social media is. And I think we’re seeing so many people reject it and be fine. And I think society got very complacent on social media being that tool to reach people, that we lost sight of all the other ones that are there, too. And I think people are finding that it is a tool, but it’s not the only one. 

AO: “On Tangibility” is a meditation on music—not just how it’s performed, but also how it’s marketed and consumed. Can you share more about your thoughts on how music reaches people today versus years past? When your kids are discovering music and other kinds of art in the future, what experiences and feelings do you want for them?

MW: It’s so easy to criticize the mediums and the way we use them that a lot of figuring out this project for me was about learning how to accept them—to accept the mediation in my life and to realize that mediation in many ways might impact me negatively, psychologically. But very largely, it has been the only thing that’s ever made life worth living—the art, and the relationships with people. But in a mediated society, all of our relationships with people are based on mediation anyway, right? So our deepest intimate experiences we have with other people are actually mediated experiences. I think I realized that while writing the book I was ultimately able to say something maybe not totally trite. Like, anyone can criticize this shit. We all do. It doesn’t take anyone that smart to think about mediation today.

But to lead into what you’re saying with music, the fact that I can just play it on my phone has made my life so meaningful in many ways and improved so many of my life experiences and the way that I can share with my children. They can hear a song at the store when I’m not there, and then come home and sing the chorus, and Amy and I can figure out what song it is and we can find it in a minute and play it for them. That’s fucking insane. And in many ways, it terrifies me about them. Because they can just do that. They can just have things. 

But you know, that’s the ambiguity around it for me. Like, the most beautiful things I can think about—sharing music with my kids—is the fucking best. On the other side of mediation and that ability is all this other stuff, too. But, you know, when everything looks meaningless because of all the shit I’m consuming on my phone—the news or whatever—what often makes it better is some other media. 

What do I want for my kids with music or movies or books or art? I want it to make them want to  be here. To exist. That the human experience mattered and communicating it mattered. And communicating it with other people made all the other shit worthwhile. 

I find it so complicated, but it’s like, that’s our very life! It’s good and it’s bad. It’s beautiful and it’s ugly. This is our very specific version of it at this time in the world.

AO: In “Upon Watching a Google Photo Montage of Myself on My Wife’s Phone,” you experience the sensation of watching your own funeral slideshow, like a modern-day Mark Twain character. You wonder, “Is nostalgia a symptom of the fear of death?” but land on this idea that it’s actually the fear of life. Would you say nostalgia ultimately helps or hurts you?

MW: Nostalgia can often make something feel like it was worth living through. Or can make something feel like it’s worth living. Like, it’s a lens, right? And it’s a dangerous one, just like mediation—they’re very tied together, too. You know, when we think of nostalgia, it’s usually a sense memory, right? And those sense memories are usually coming from mediation, like recorded sights and sounds. But I don’t know, I think nostalgia can be useful. I don’t necessarily think it’s bad. I just think it’s an illusion. And I think it’s a lot of what the book is about, that all of this is an illusion. Nostalgia most certainly is an illusion. And illusions can be good and illusions can be bad. And that’s largely what I’m exploring—like, none of this is real, but it’s the only thing that’s been real. So what else do I have?


Michael Wheaton is the author of the essay Home Movies (BUNNY, 2024). His writing has appeared previously in Essay Daily, DIAGRAM, Burrow Press Review, HAD, Rejection Letters, and other online journals. He publishes Autofocus Books and produces The Lives of Writers podcast.

Share this