Nada Faris in Conversation with Max Stossel

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by Nada Faris

This interview was originally published in Ink & Oil Magazine, issue one.  
Photo credits to Daniel Johnson

I reached out to my American friend, Max Stossel, an award-winning poet and filmmaker,
who was named by Forbes as one of the best storytellers of the year. I was particularly interested in Max’s emphasis on poetry’s audio-visual dimensions. Moreover, I wanted to learn more about the intersection between poetry, technology, and the variety of audiences receiving the work through today’s social media platforms. Max’s poetry relies on narratives, and on communicating messages or values to an audience, and his performances have been described as “mind expanding, profound, emotive, and hilarious.” He is a great example of meaningful work that transcends borders. Winner of multiple film festivals, Max creates work that utilizes technology in a unique way. As a result, his videos have been viewed online over 15 million times, his work has been translated into fourteen languages, and performed across five continents.

I was curious about a few aspects of the writing process as it pertained to Max directly and thought a conversation about the nuts and bolts of his craft would be both inspirational and informative to our own readers, so I sent him a list of general questions and one-word concepts and asked him to free-write his responses. Below is our interview.


Photo credits to Daniel Johnson

Nada: How do you come up with ideas?
Max: I find conversation with deep thinkers and feelers and people-watching are great ways to source ideas. Watch for what sentences in the conversation create a reaction in your body. I
think if we’re able to tap into whatever we’re most deeply feeling at a given moment, there’s something to write about in there.

Nada: I love that line where you emphasize our bodies’ reactions to sentences and words. But what do you use once you’ve written the text. Or rather, how do you evaluate and revise after fleshing out an idea?
Max: If something came out in flow state, I’m very hesitant to ever change it. That place feels higher than myself and I don’t like to mess with it. I have to be certain in my gut that my changes are truly an improvement to the piece. After I’ve performed a piece if I don’t get the desired reaction from an audience or I feel like I’m losing their attention, I’ll sometimes take that as an indication to make some changes. Once something is finished it’s more likely that I’ll cut parts of a poem and shorten than it is that I revise. I try to look at my work as my own harshest critic, pointing out why my words are untrue or flawed from many different perspectives. I think this helps me appeal to a wider audience and I think it gives a more honest look at whether I’ve created quality work.

Nada: It’s interesting how you use the audience as a litmus test, in a way, to tell you where a poem might need more work. But what about other artists or their writings. Do you use comparison as a method of analysis?
Max: Comparison with others is often a recipe for dissatisfaction and frustration. Especially with social media, it’s never been easier to take a look around, see everyone getting more likes or views than us and then feeling crappy about ourselves. This funny thing happens where even if popularity wasn’t our goal, on social media it starts to become our goal and that’s rarely fulfilling. I’m not immune from falling into that trap, but on my better days I try to compare myself with others in order to better understand how I’m different. If I see someone else writing or performing in a style I like, sometimes I’ll try to write in that style, but I aim for comparison as a process of better understanding what I am, by understanding what I’m not. Always remember that no one is as happy or as successful as they’re making it appear on social media.

Nada: Very true, and I think most of us know this, but we fall for it all the same. We know social media is full of lies, and yet it doesn’t hurt any less when we find ourselves comparing our measly accomplishments with others’. Sometimes it’s hard to write after you’ve convinced yourself that you aren’t good enough. This is why I think habits are important. Do you have a writing process you tend to follow?
Max: When I feel inspired to the point of bodily sensations, for me that’s usually a chill up the back of my spine, I stop whatever I’m doing and rush to my phone notepad to try and capture the words coming through me ASAP. There’s something about the speed I can type on my phone notepad that feels naturally rhythmic to me. When I wasn’t a professional poet, I found it easier and more exciting to play freely in flow state and enjoy it. Since my livelihood and identity have become wrapped up in poetry, I put this added pressure on myself to get it right vs. being able to play in flow state. I’m working on returning to a more curious and less anxious relationship with inspiration.

Photo credits to Daniel Johnson

Nada: So the writing process changed once the pressure was raised through turning pro?
Max: I struggle to do this myself, but the more we write the higher the chance we write something we love. I have a calendar reminder on my phone to write every day at 11 AM. I would like to get better at sticking to that appointment. I personally find it’s easier to let myself down than to let down others, I’d like to find greater respect for my internal boss.

Nada: If I’m understanding correctly, it’s easier for you to meet deadlines set by others than to stick to ones you give yourself? Because I think most of us struggle with the same issue.
Max: Discipline is one of my greatest challenges. When I’m writing in flow I feel amazing and I love the process, but most of the time that’s not what writing is. Often it’s sitting down and grinding through work that doesn’t feel good enough, makes me think I suck and question my worth as an artist. If that’s you too, you’re not alone! The book The War of Art by Steven Pressfield helped me reshape my thinking to feel more satisfied at the end of a writing session, regardless of its quality. If I showed up to the page and stuck with it, it means I showed up for work today and that’s something to be proud of.

Nada: What about endings? How and when do you stop writing?
Max: Usually the first half or 3/4 of a poem comes out in one sitting for me and then the endings feel impossible. Endings are lies! Things don’t end, they just change… yet culturally our stories need to have these clean endings, I find that very frustrating. More often than not I find myself getting a piece to an ending that feels “good enough” even though I’m not satisfied with it, and I perform it from there. I don’t have a ritual, but that’s a great idea, I want one!

Nada: You’re absolutely right. Endings are lies. Things simply change. Do you find that this also seeps into the meat of the content as well, not just in the endings? Or put differently, how do you approach each work?
Max: It varies piece by piece. Sometimes I’m writing just for myself to try and figure out something I’m struggling with, though it’s been my experience that if I’m struggling with something others are probably struggling with it too. Sometimes I’m writing for a specific person or group that I’m trying to help see a different perspective, and sometimes I’m writing for a loved one. Stop Making Murderers Famous was written to be shared online and I was really thinking about the video as I was writing, but just about everything else I’ve written has been for the stage. Performing the work is closest to my heart. In general, I find the process of turning a piece into a short film to be extremely stressful. I feel each piece has a soul and I’m fighting with the medium change to not lose that soul in translation. Unfortunately, it’s much easier for me to spread a message to a large number of people via video than in person.

Nada: Yes, I’ve always been jealous of painters, visual artists and filmmakers for that reason. But which do you prefer most?
Max: Writing and performing is first and foremost my art. There’s this common narrative going around of “whatever you love, do that and you can get paid for it!” I’m so grateful to have reached a point now where I do get paid to perform or write, but having other work that supplements that income has been essential for me to maintain my artistic integrity. It would be very challenging for me not to let the thoughts “ok what do I need to do to make money as an artist?” Take over my process if I did not have a supplementary source of income. I recommend trying to figure out how you can make money doing something that leaves you time for your art. In my experience your art thanks you for that with quality.


Photo credits to Daniel Johnson

Nada: Damn. I like the idea of my art thanking me for my effort. What would that look like? What comes to mind is reading extensively and ensuring that you are adding something new and meaningful to the history of the craft. Is that what you mean?
Max: I actually have a bit of a reading disability (form of dyslexia) so reading has always been a struggle for me and I prefer audio books and movies, but to each their own. Social media is absolutely altering the way we think about literature and culture. It’s woven its tentacles into just about every aspect of our lives. For our long-term mental health, it’s important to ask ourselves: “am I writing this because I really want to, or am I writing this because it’s social-media friendly?” Nothing wrong with playing the social media game, but helpful to recognize when we are.

Nada: Speaking of social media, how do you approach collaborations? I usually work alone, but I am more and more discovering the value in networking and creating meaningful art with other like minded folks.
Max: Collaborating with other artists is a great way to get your name out there. From a business perspective, the closer you can get to do the thing you really want to do while working with another artist, the better. Because when collaboration gets a lot of attention, people will come to you looking for more exactly like what you’ve done. I used to be afraid to let my work be shown anywhere but in the exact right context, but I’m learning that’s coming more of a place of insecurity than it is “branding”. The world is big, if someone sees my work out of context and doesn’t like it, that’s ok. If someone sees my work out of context and loves it, that’s great.

Nada: I think you touched on the issue: insecurity. I might have been not only insecure about showing my work in different contexts, but I was also probably inadequate in communicating my art and values to others in a way that was accepting of creative input. So the control was on two levels, which, you’re right, stems from insecurity in both cases.
Max: The world runs on people. Some artists can create in a vacuum and have that feel like enough. Respect… but that’s not for me, I really care about how my art is received. I used to look at networking through the lens of meeting someone and thinking about how they might be able to help me and how I could add value to them, but that was exhausting. It feels much more fulfilling to connect and spend time with people whose work I genuinely appreciate. I think those connections end up being better for my career in the long run anyway.


Photo credits to Daniel Johnson

Learn more about Max Stossel by visiting his
website: www.wordsthatmove.com. You can
find and friend him on Facebook, Instagram,
Twitter and Youtube.


Photo credits to Mohammad Ashkanani

Nada Faris is a Kuwaiti writer and performance poet.
For social media handles and more information
Please visit her website: www.nadafaris.com

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