Everyone is capable of being an artist. What separates those who are capable from those who are successful, though, is their willingness to put the uncomfortable truth into their art. Rachel Nagelberg is no stranger to this discomfort. In fact, it is something she has embraced and even drawn inspiration from for her writing.
Rachel is a 2009 graduate from the University of Pittsburgh’s English Writing program. She later received an MFA in Creative writing from the University of San Francisco and now creates art – in all forms – in Los Angeles.
Rachel’s ability to sculpt characters and weave storylines is a reflection of her training, but it also stems from her recognition of the pain and beauty of not only writing but also life. Her accomplishments are a result of her passion for creativity, her awareness of the interaction between the human body and its environment, and her appreciation for the vulnerability that comes with writing.
“Creating art with written language pushed me to think and feel so much more than making visual art and music ever did—they are all soul work, of course, but writing was/is work of very, very deep processing for me,” Rachel said. “And it’s the hardest for me to do, even still. But I know I have to do it. I know it’s what I’m here to do.”
Creating art, though, is something Rachel has always been doing. Even when she was young, she knew she was artist. Her mother enrolled her in art classes as a child, which led her to take enroll in studio art classes while she was in school. Rachel also developed as a musical artist. She began with playing the piano, then moved onto the guitar and later the mandolin.
This interest led to the formation of the all-girl rock band, The Curves. Rachel and her four best friends created the band and performed around town. It was her musical background that helped her write the music for the band. She even tried her hand at writing the lyrics sometimes.
In high school, Rachel’s interest in writing grew stronger and stronger. She fed off of the books her teachers had the class read and hungered for more. Then, as a high school senior, she realized what writing could do for her.
“It showed me that there was an art that existed that could combine my love for and constant desire to analyze the world around me with my inner emotional states, and how this could be the most daring, dangerous, radical, playful, intense, magical, constantly-challenging, meaningful act, this art of telling stories,” Rachel said.
As she grew up she continued writing and recording her own music, drawing inspiration from whatever was going on in her life at the time. Rachel even took any illness she encountered and made it into something she could write about. After being diagnosed with Guillain Barre Syndrome right before she was to move to Pittsburgh for school, she recorded an album while doing outpatient physical therapy.
“Writing music – like, really interesting, innovative, emotionally charged music – after my paralysis also proved to me that I could make art from some very powerful depths, and that I could use my sickness as fuel – that my ‘sickness’ was the fuel from the beginning,” Rachel said.
While she has fought many illnesses, each one has given her a chance to earn something new about her body, life, strength, and even language.
“Battling sickness has connected me with my body in ways I could have never even imagined growing up—and I’m still learning, still suffering often, but growing so much mentally, physically, spiritually,” Rachel said. “I’ve developed a language of healing that incorporates so many healing modalities I’ve tried and accumulated—knowledge that I’m constantly sharing with and offering to others.”
This connection to sickness and the body is especially evidenced in her debut novel, The Fifth Wall, published in May 2017 by Black Sparrow Books. The story follows the narrator, Sheila, as she works through personal trauma and destruction while learning to confront the changing world around her. The book creates an intimate relationship between the reader and the speaker as both experience memories, passion, and devastation together.
In the book, everything becomes a living organism, capable of feeling and causing pain. But that also means everything is constantly changing because living things grow and fall apart and become something similar, yet new. This is even true for Sheila.
The way Rachel created Sheila shapes the way the story is interpreted. Everything is seen through her eyes but left for the reader to understand, thus making the reader participate in what they are reading. In this way, the reader also gets a sense of who Rachel is as a creator.
“There is a desperate, obsessive yearning for truth in Sheila’s character, and in my self—a deep desire to really understand her(my)self, this bizarre comingling of the corporeal and incorporeal—something that language can only attempt to explore, but which comes the closest out of all the arts,” Rachel said.
Through creating – with writing, drawing, or music – Rachel has developed an honesty that makes her want to continue making art and makes her audience want to continue experiencing her art.
In her debut novel, Rachel Nagelberg offers a story about the complexity of life as it relates to art, and explores how delicate that relationship is when considering all of the factors working against it.
In The Fifth Wall (Black Sparrow Books, 2017) Nagelberg invites the reader into Sheila Ackerman’s living and simultaneously decaying world. The reader experiences the heartbreak, devastation, and confusion Sheila experiences as she comes to terms with her mother’s suicide. The writing is both haunting and beautiful, with vivid descriptions that pull the reader into each moment.
The story unfolds with Sheila’s voice guiding the reader, but later becomes an experience that the reader and Sheila seem to experience together. From the beginning of the novel, Nagelberg sets the reader up to understand how everything can relate to the way the body functions or is forced to function. There is a life in everything, but this life can be taken away.
Nagelberg dives deeper into this idea as she writes:
A house has eyes all over its body -- its whole body is a face. A house watches us, is witness to our lives. Its facade is a wall of protection, an armor that will last much longer than us. You can bolt the locks, seal the windows, set up a complex security system to prevent intrusion—and yet, like in a horror film, the killer always gets inside.
A house will shelter you from everything but yourself.
As the story opens, Nagelberg intertwines the delicate process of surgery and the mundane process of demolition. Immediately, there is something surgical and intellectual about the way the speaker views what is happening around her. Nagelberg creates a character that is involved yet removed who functions as an interpreter for the reader. The story continuously builds in complexity as Sheila unravels her tangle of confusion and struggles, but Nagelberg manages to keep the world from looking as dismal as it could be. Her descriptions of the human interactions Sheila has with her friends, lover, family, and coworkers give the reader realistic and relatable occurrences to hold on to while they are immersed in the unavoidable destruction.