Image: “Several Circles (Einige Kreise),” by Vasily Kandinsky, 1926.
Liz Cettina: How did you begin writing “The Monster Mosh”?
Mara Woods-Robinson: I wrote the piece for Rachel Ellis Neyra’s class “Lyric Poetry & Music.” I took it in the fall of my junior year. It’s funny that I’m talking about this piece because this isn’t what I usually think about when I talk about my writing process, because I guess I think of myself more as a fiction writer. But basically this class looked at a lot of different music movements, and we had a brief section on punk and riot grrrl. And at the end of the class, my professor was like, ‘Okay, we’re going to write a research paper on any subject somewhat related to this class. Go nuts, guys.’ I was at a loss for what to write about, but then I ended up watching this documentary, Penelope Spheeris’s “The Decline of Western Civilization,” which I reference a lot in this essay. I don’t listen to that much early punk, but my dad introduced me to X when I was in high school and I listen to them a lot, so when I was watching this documentary, I was like, ‘Wow, wait, this is them contextualized in this distinctive moment in history.’ And that was cool. Then, it got me thinking about mosh pits and my own personal experiences with them. I always have a lot of fun moshing, but I’ve also faced near death experiences in mosh pits. I think I was 12, and I was at a show in Oakland for this band The Matches who I really liked growing up, they were an arty pop-punk band, a local Bay Area band. At that show, I fell down in the mosh pit and thought I was going to die because I was getting trampled. Someone pulled me up.
Emma Raddatz: Who else were you with?
M: I was with my friend who was also my age and didn’t want to go into the crowd, but I was like, ‘Oh, come on, it’ll be fun!’ So this was the classic paradox of me being like, ‘Oh, it’ll be fun,’ and me almost dying. And in a way it’s fun because of that danger. So that’s the tension I tried to tackle in this essay.
E: You prefaced your essay as an ‘experimental research paper.’ Why did you give it that label?
M: It’s not really that experimental, but for me it is. Also I rarely ever write research papers. This was one of two research papers I wrote in college because I’m an English and Film double major so I only ever write analysis. So I felt like I didn’t approach this like a normal research paper, maybe because I didn’t know what I was doing, maybe because I incorporated a lot more elements of film analysis into it. I framed the piece with two different analyses of these cinematic moments, one in a documentary and one in a music video. My professor really encouraged us to do unconventional stuff like that. One day in class, we did this breathing interaction experiment. We spent 30 or 45 minutes breathing, staring into a partner’s eyes. We were only allowed to say a couple different words, from a Funkadelic song, “The underground, the underground.” It got pretty surreal. So that class was definitely a more experimental academic class, so that’s why I qualified my essay in that way. And in the piece I used a lot of variant sources in it, I cite a scientific study, specific research studies on subcultural scenes, songs.
E: What was the revision process for this piece like?
M: I wrote it during finals week so I don’t really remember. But I do have this weird way of writing academic papers. I do extensive outlining, then I write everything in all caps. I do that as a way to free myself from the academic vernacular so I can just spew everything out. I write in things like, ‘Talk more about this, less about that. No more of that. You’re an idiot.’ I write in a lot of self-hate. Then I go through that and rewrite parts into academic ‘real talk.’ I rewrite from this very rough stream of consciousness. But then it ends up taking a really long time. That’s what I do. I know I’m going to have to rewrite everything because I can’t submit it in all caps. Knowing that gives me a comfort because if I’m like, ‘I know I’ll have to rewrite this,’ I might as well just say whatever I’m thinking right now.
L: How does that compare to your fiction writing?
M: I tend to write fiction without outlining; I get into it and let the story form, which works to varying levels of success. Then I’ll revise. This is basically the opposite because it’s all about the forethought. It’s like I’m using two different sides of my brain, even though I’m doing very similar things, so I’m not sure why I do them in such different ways.
E: Are you reading anything right now?
M: I haven’t really read anything outside of classes for a while because I’ve been doing my thesis. But I like novels, mostly. I like modernists. But I don’t write like that at all.
E: Favorite authors?
M: Virginia Woolf, she has a way of putting thoughts and the way we think into fully formed sentences that is always so incredible.
L: Can you talk about your thesis?
M: I’m done now, but it’s not done. It’s in limbo, because I have to wait for the lab to finish the answer print, and I might not even be done after that if I need to get a second answer print. Anyway, that’s not what my thesis is about. I was originally categorizing my thesis as a ‘Dystopian Dark Comedy,’ but it’s a little less dystopian and a little more alt-universe-y, a slightly off world that isn’t quite our world. It’s set in a suburban world where everyone is addicted to this pharmaceutical program called ‘The Program.’ You take a pill and basically it gives you an emotion; they do that to regulate all their emotions so they only have positive emotions all of the time. So, within that, my thesis tells the story of a family, a mom, a dad, and a teenage girl who stops taking her pills. So it’s an inversion of teenage rebellion through drugs. It’s also supposed to be a metaphor for the experience of feeling alone as a teenager. And it’s satirizing pharmaceutical dependency. I was trying to do a lot of things. It’s just a story though. And it has to be a simple story because you can’t tell more than a simple story in a 12-minute movie.
L: Did you write the script for your film?
M: Yeah, we have to turn in a first draft of the script before the semester starts. Then we revise with our advisors in the fall. Then I shot at the end of fall, and I’ve just been editing since.
E: How does your screen-writing compare to your fiction writing or other writing?
M: Screen-writing is a lot more structured because it has to be, it’s the way we’ve come to understand film stories. That doesn’t really include experimental film, but for the kind of film we study here and films you go to see in the theater, there are basic rules. Not everything has to follow every rule, but there is a specific way of doing it. So in that sense it’s a lot less free. I took a fiction writing class last semester, and everyone would critique my story and say, ‘This is too cinematic,’ and I’d be like, ‘Well, sorry, this is how I think now.’ You have to be very hands-of-god-y in screenwriting in a way that you don’t in fiction writing. Like, if you introduce a motif it has to come up later and it has to have importance in the story. It can’t just be like a mood thing. I mean it can, but it’s less strong for a visual experience. Every story element needs to be tightly interwoven, rigidly orchestrated, with your beginning status quo, rising action, etc. Then you don’t think about it when you’re watching it because it’s a much more experiential thing than reading is. But also it’s different because with film, writing is only the very first step in a much longer process. With prose, what you write is the entire thing, it starts and stops with the words on the paper, so every word needs to be just right because that’s all you have to shape the reader’s experience. But with film you have the camera, images, colors, sound, music, editing. So I think I write for the screen more as a director and less as a writer, at least I have when I’ve written things I’m going to direct. Because it’s a visual, sonic, and temporal medium in addition to a narrative one, it’s more like I’m building the foundation to pile all these other layers on. If I want to tell a story cinematically, it’s because I already have these images in my head, the timing of the delivery of a joke, a certain aesthetic, and I have to leave room for them in the script.
L: What’s your most recent mosh pit experience?
M: It’s been a while, I haven’t been to shows in a while. Actually, The Matches, the band I mentioned earlier, had a reunion concert over winter break. There was a little mild moshing, or maybe it just felt milder because I’m fully grown. It was this weird nostalgic thing because this was a band that was big within the Bay Area in the mid-2000s. They had a very devoted fan base that all knew each other, so we go to this reunion concert, and it’s just a high school reunion because it’s been like 8 years since they broke up. It was a bunch of 30-something dudes yelling, Oh my, God! How’s your life been?’ They were all reconnecting, and I wasn’t really a part of it because I was too young in their heyday, but then there was also a bunch of tweens there because the opener was this big up-and-coming pop rock band who had been fans of The Matches in their day so they were like, ‘Yeah, we want to open for you!’ So it was this weird combination of things. So that’s my most recent moshing experience. I’ve also had a lot of moshing experiences at Wesleyan that feel a lot safer, even though sometimes the same shit still goes on. But it’s different when you’re at a show with 30-year-old crazy bald men on meth, I feel like every mosh pit I’ve experienced in the “real world” has that guy who’s just out to kill everyone. I don’t go near those guys. Especially in festival mosh pits.
L: If you were to add anything to this essay, what sort of material would you add?
M: I sort of alluded to festivals in the piece when I talked about mainstream mosh pits. Woodstock ‘99 is the worst example of that. I didn’t really find that much contemporary writing on mosh pits. I don’t know, maybe it’s taken for granted now. There’s the people who mosh at shows, then everyone else. But festival mosh pits can be seriously dangerous, festivals in general. This wasn’t technically a mosh pit, but I went to Outside Lands the summer after my freshman year, 2013, and I was trying to get near the front for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and this girl just passed out in the middle of the tightest crowd I’ve ever been in. It was so hot you could see the steam rising off the crowd, nobody could move at all. So she passes out because there’s no oxygen and she’s probably super fucked up too. And they crowd surfed her out because there was literally no other way out, but she started to come to mid-air. It was insane. I always wonder what she must have been thinking when she came to on top of the crowd. I haven’t been to a festival since then.
E: Aren’t you in a band?
M: Yes, we have a show on Friday. We’re called Swipe Right. I’m the singer. We’re trying to get an album done before we graduate.
E: What kind of music?
M: Just like rock, variations of rock music. My band is actually recording right now, like right now. Recording is crazy, how meticulous you have to be and how long it takes to produce a recording that feels just like a song it takes 3 minutes to play. It’s a lot like film production. Yesterday, I was in this mix session for my thesis, it was my last day of working on my thesis. I went to this guy who does a lot of sound mixing for Wesleyan theses. I was there for 14 hours. He’s like, ‘We start at 9 am, and we go until we’re done,’ and that was at 11 pm. In order to clean up certain dialogue tracks, he would put them on a loop. There’s a line in my thesis that is just ‘Shit,’ a standalone, ‘Shit.’ So he looped it so it just was like, ‘Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit,’ for maybe 5 minutes straight. It was so bizarre. But when you want to make something seem natural, it has to be so unnaturally made. For film to work it needs to be dissected and perfected in little bits before it can come together as a whole.
L: How did it feel to write about ‘informal’ content with ‘formal’ academic language?
M: It was kind of awkward at the beginning of the class, but by the time I wrote this piece I was used to it, because we read a ton of stuff where people did exactly that. In the class, we read and wrote a lot of critical theory, which was new for me. A lot of it went over my head.
E: How was the class listed?
M: It was way cross-listed: English, music, AMST, AFAM, Sociology. Something like that.
E: Why did you submit this essay for a writing prize?
M: Honestly, the submissions happened when I was trying to raise money for my thesis and not raising enough so I was freaking out. Then I got an email from Liz Tinker about the submission deadline for prizes. So I went through my old stuff and submitted pieces to a couple awards. Then I got an email and I was like, ‘What?’ But in hindsight I’m glad I did it, because this was also an essay I was really proud of when I finished. I had shared it with people before, I would mention it in relevant conversations and people would ask to read it. It was the kind of thing I thought people could get something out of reading.
Check out Wesleyan Connelly prize essay, “The Monster Mosh: Politics of the Punk Boogie,” by Mara Woods-Robinson here.