I Talked to 39 Women Who Write Nonfiction, and Here’s What I’ve Learned
The collected wisdom of the interviewees from my series “Non-Fiction by Non-Men”
Three years ago this spring, I began an interview series on Fiction Advocate called Non-Fiction by Non-Men. Despite the name of the parent site, I started this series with the hope of being an advocate of nonfiction. I was a year out of my M.F.A. program at Columbia University, where I studied creative nonfiction, and as I was cleaning out boxes of old workshop drafts and photocopied syllabi, I was dismayed to realize that I had spent most of the past two years reading work written by writers who were mostly men, mostly white, mostly straight, mostly cis, mostly American or European, and mostly dead, or at least well on their way. I made a New Year’s resolution to spend 2015 only reading books written by women writers, and then I decided I wanted to go one step further: I wanted to talk to these women. I wanted to ask them questions about their experiences as writers, how they approach writing in general and nonfiction specifically, and, most importantly, I wanted their names to be known. I also wanted an excuse to email some incredible women I admire and try to trick them into being my friend under the guise of a professional interview.
I began by talking to the women writers I knew personally, through my M.F.A. program, those who had been my professors and mentors — Patricia O’Toole, Margo Jefferson, Lis Harris, Cris Beam — and, from there, the ripples began. Those women recommended other women for me to talk to, who recommended other women, who recommended even more women. (So far all the interviewees have been women, but I named it “non-men” with the intention to include genderqueer writers as well.) Though men were still dominating the nonfiction bestseller list (and still are: as of the writing of this, only three of the fifteen paperback nonfiction bestsellers this week were written by women), I realized there was a nonfiction mafia of women, looking out for each other, supporting each other, and encouraging each other. And from speaking with them and listening to them, I learned, and continue to learn, so much.
So far I have published 39 Non-Fiction by Non-Men interviews, one a month for over three years, and I have no intentions of stopping any time soon. Most recently I interviewed Morgan Jerkins (author of This Will Be My Undoing, interview to be published in August 2018) and Nicole Chung (author of All You Can Ever Know, interview to be published in September 2018). Being able to talk with these smart, kind, thoughtful writers has been an education in itself — I have learned more from them, dare I say, than I learned in my M.F.A.
Here are just some of the things I have learned from Non-Fiction by Non-Men.
THERE IS NO ONE PATH TO BECOMING A WRITER
Some days I am so jealous of my friends who are lawyers. They knew what they wanted to do, and they followed the path to get there: law school applications, LSAT, three years of law school, studying for the bar, passing the bar, and then, boom, they’re lawyers. The path to becoming a writer, however, has no such checklist. Some get an M.F.A.; others never finish college. Some start as journalists; others start by writing secret blogs. Having no set path can be totally terrifying, but also liberating.
Patricia O’Toole: I went to a Catholic grade school, and in the 1950s it was clear — even to a six-year-old — that priests have much more power and many more privileges than nuns. And that boys had more prerogatives than girls. I didn’t want to be in the girls’ choir. I wanted to be an altar boy. And I didn’t want to try out for the cheerleading squad. I wanted to be on the basketball team. Not possible, and nobody could give you an explanation that made sense, so you’re left with a big “Why?” If your temperament takes you toward writing nonfiction, that “Why?” opens field after field of inquiry. In my case, the questions were about the dynamics of power — between men and women, haves and have-nots, the strong and the weak, the citizen and the state
Cris Beam: I really love learning about different types of people, and I love reporting on them. I started out as a journalist–I’ve always wanted to know how people think, and why they do the things they do. I write to try to understand how people make their decisions, how they live together, how they form communities. You can do that with fiction, you can imagine—but nonfiction allows me to actually spend time with people and ask them questions I might not be able to ask in fiction. Nonfiction allows me to be a kind of spy.
Nonfiction allows me to actually spend time with people and ask them questions I might not be able to ask in fiction. Nonfiction allows me to be a kind of spy.
YOU DON’T CHOOSE NONFICTION; NONFICTION CHOOSES YOU
Almost every writer I have interviewed told me that she first thought she was going to be a novelist; fiction seems to be everyone’s first love. But then some of us realize that the things we make up aren’t nearly as exciting as the things happening in real life, some of us start to get paid to write about the world around us, others fall in love with the form of the essay, some are just really bad liars. No little bookish kid ever seems to think, “When I grow up, I am going to write researched longform essays.” Instead, as you grow as a writer, nonfiction seems to choose you.
Mary Mann: I moved into nonfiction because that’s just how things shook out. I had an internship at The Onion when I first started out. Obviously those stories are not real, but they treat it like journalism — writers spit-balling stuff off each other. I liked that world… I applied to the nonfiction program [at Columbia] because it felt natural… I also just love to read nonfiction. I love essays. And I love Geoff Dyer — for a while I was just reading and rereading his books. He was a big draw to Columbia’s nonfiction program, but he was also how I got into nonfiction in general. Looking at him, I realized you can do all the fun things when writing nonfiction: you can write, you can research, you can travel. You can do that with fiction too, but it made more sense to do that with nonfiction. Maybe it was just the examples I had.
Elizabeth Greenwood: Nonfiction feels like the only genre available to me. I wish it were more of a decision! … The best compliment I ever received was from a professor in college who said she thought I lived equally in my head and as in the world. Writing nonfiction is the best way I’ve encountered to honor that tendency. I’ve gained entrée into places I do not belong, and I have the luxury of following my curiosities… And I probably ask inappropriately personal questions at dinner parties.
FIGURING OUT HOW TO MAKE A CAREER AS A WRITER IS HARD
People don’t like to talk about money, but figuring out how to make money while also giving yourself enough time to write is one of the hardest balancing acts there is. It will take some time for you to find the thing that is right for you, and not everything works for everyone. Some people teach and write, others edit and write, others wait tables and write, others work in advertising and write. And, eventually, maybe, one day, you’ll be able to just write. But it takes time.
Mandy Len Catron: Having the time to really think about a subject and come to a mature, sophisticated perspective feels like a luxury, and a luxury that’s increasingly unattainable. That’s what I love about teaching. It doesn’t pay a lot, but it has a lot of flexibility, and it puts me in this position where my writing doesn’t have to respond to any market pressure. I can take my time thinking about things — but I have less time than I might as a freelance writer. So there are always trade-offs.
Nina MacLaughlin: I wasn’t in a nonfiction-writing mode when I took the carpentry job, and I wasn’t thinking it would be an interesting writing project because I was thinking about short stories and novels. But at the same time, every experience has that possibility. It wasn’t that impulse, though, that drove me to write Hammer Head. Later, I was pretty sensitive about this when the book became a reality — all these gimmicky experiential books like “the year I spent without shoes” or whatever. I really didn’t want to do that. People ask that often, oh, you’re trying carpentry as a woman and writing about it. But it’s been seven years now, so it’s no lark. It wasn’t just a vehicle for a book.
WHEN IT COMES TO WRITING ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE, YOU CAN’T WIN
People get mad if you write about them (“How dare you put my private life on blast?”) and people get mad if you don’t (“What, I’m not important enough to write about?”), so just accept that you can’t make everyone happy. You also can’t predict anyone’s reaction: maybe you think that your aunt is going to take issue with your descriptions of the abuse she suffered as a child; instead, she is pissed you described her hair as “brown” and not “auburn.”
Liz Prince: When I was in my early twenties, a lot of my comics were shorter gag strips about humorous situations my friends and I would get into, so my friends would actively try to make it into my comics. A lot of people assume that my friends would want to avoid being depicted in my work, but it’s actually been the opposite: I had friends who were hurt by the fact that they hadn’t shown up in my comics. They would say, “What, am I not funny enough?” So while I was deciding what I might put in a comic, my friends were trying to guess those situations or manipulate them in some way.
Sarah Perry: I tried to keep myself in the mindset that no one would ever read this thing. Otherwise I knew my tendency would be to self-censor. I would write what I needed to write and cut back later. But there are some family revelations that were really hard things, things that I had heard whispers of, or sideways rumors of as a kid, that only later got confirmed by my one aunt who will talk about these things. There were these big traumatic silences in my family that were, unfortunately, thematically related to Mom’s death. It was really difficult to figure out where my story ended, and what I had the right to say. It’s your story, it’s your life, you have the right to tell that, but you can’t just tell your story alone because everyone’s stories are connected. At some point you have to draw a circle. And I think there are a few things I mention in the book that I arguably don’t have the right to, but I had to make the decision and stand by it.
It’s your story, it’s your life, you have the right to tell that, but you can’t just tell your story alone because everyone’s stories are connected.
ACCEPT THAT YOU ARE GOING TO MAKE MISTAKES
When writing it’s easy to become paralyzed worrying that you are going to get something wrong. You will. Don’t use this as an excuse to be lazy about fact checking or research, but know that you are definitely not going to get everything right. Once you accept that fact, writing becomes a lot easier.
Edwidge Danticat: I am terrified of making mistakes, getting things wrong. Whenever you write nonfiction about anything whatsoever, someone will write to tell you that you maligned them or got something wrong. I like working with fact-checkers. When you work with big publications you get that, but it’s not always a given. Someone will always question your interpretation of things, but I like to get the factual things as right as possible and I feel a bit crushed — and somewhat ashamed — when I don’t. I recently read a profile of a writer who said she cried when she got things wrong and had to have that correction line at the bottom of her piece online. I can totally relate to that.
Daisy Hernández: After [my memoir A Cup of Water Under My Bed] was published, I realized I had never thought to ask [my family’s] permission or engage with them too much, because I felt a lot of ownership of their stories and the stories of our relationships, because my view of them had been so shaped by white America. I never asked my mother if it was okay to disclose that she had been undocumented. The memoir came out and I realized that was wrong, so I asked her after the fact, and she said, okay, why not! I got lucky there. So now I use that to remind my students that when you are going to write about other people, you are going to make mistakes. You cannot possibly see everything and predict everything, so you need to anticipate that you will make mistakes along the road and you will rectify that when the time comes.
TRUST YOUR AUTHORITY
You will often doubt yourself, especially when you are writing on a subject that is in a field you are not an expert in. This is okay. Use your status as an outsider as a way into the material, do your research, and, in the end, trust yourself.
Rebecca Traister: I didn’t come to politics writing as an authority, I came to it through feminism, because there was a woman running for president in 2008, which led to me writing about presidential politics. So it was actually okay with me for a long time that I wasn’t an authority. There was a learning curve for me before I accepted my own authority.
Anya Yurchyshyn: My first draft [of My Dead Parents] was 40,000 words longer than it needed to be. That is not a good thing. That is not what an editor wants. I had a whole chapter on my father’s career, as if anyone reading my book was reading it to learn about merchant banking. But I had known so little about his career and I was afraid of my own authoritative knowledge that I wanted everyone to know everything I had researched, to prove to my readers that I had become an authority. But I wasn’t able to make those decisions while researching, and I was so afraid of leaving something out, which is why I over-researched so much, and then, when I was writing, I wanted credit for doing the work. But your own poor time management is no one else’s fault.
WRITING ABOUT YOUR LIFE HELPS YOU MAKE SENSE OF IT
So many of the writers I have talked with said that they were pulled to nonfiction after years of journaling. Even if you primarily write novels or short stories, journaling about your own real life can help you figure out what you think about the world. It can be a form of therapy.
Jennifer Finney Boylan: Our lives are full of chaos, random and contradictory events that make you feel like you’ve just gone off the big flume at the end of Splash Mountain, leaving you dizzy, confused, and drenched. Finding a narrative for your life brings sense to that chaos. I can say that nothing taught me so much about being a woman as writing. In the same way, the challenge of writing is that, while it can be really great therapy, great therapy is not necessarily good writing.
Melissa Broder: Writing has helped to keep me alive and give me a sense of meaning. It gives me a sense of motion and a feeling of control. If I am in this big moveable world, being moved by forces not my control, writing gives me the illusion of having a little treadmill in the abyss. Through writing I can square off an area, and I can move within that area… My journal is largely a lot of exercises I am doing with myself to keep my mind from consuming itself.
The challenge of writing is that, while it can be really great therapy, great therapy is not necessarily good writing.
GENRE IS TOTAL BULLSHIT
While I focused my series on women who write nonfiction, so many of my interview subjects told me that they don’t primarily identify as “nonfiction writers.” Many started as poets or short story writers; others have written fiction and nonfiction simultaneously. Genre is fluid, and you shouldn’t box yourself in. Sometimes writing fiction can help you figure out how to write better nonfiction, and vice versa.
Eula Biss: As a teacher, I sometimes talk about sub-genres of nonfiction as a pedagogical tool to help students think about certain features of the work we are studying, but I understand sub-genres, like genres, as false categories. There’s long-form journalism, for instance, that looks identical to personal essay. There’s memoir that is also art criticism. There’s literary criticism that is essentially memoir, sometimes unintentionally. I think of lived experience as a form of research, so I don’t treat passages that are drawn from lived experience differently than I treat passages that are drawn from other sorts of research.
Suki Kim: I think what is so unfortunate about genre is that people think about it as so black and white. It’s either reported nonfiction or it’s a memoir. But that’s not true. There is a whole tradition of literary nonfiction that involves blending [genres]. There are the bones of the story, which would be the reporting, but then you try to build the story in a literary way — not just handing over information but handing over ideas. But depending on how the publisher packages the book, people only look at it as one way or another… Perspective changes everything.
THE INTERNET IS THE BEST AND WORST THING TO HAPPEN TO NONFICTION
Many of the writers I interviewed got their start through blogging or writing for online outlets. The Internet is great because it has allowed so many more people — often those who have long been denied a platform, such as women and people of color and LGBTQ folks — to be heard. But, at the same time, there is now much more noise, and, also, sometimes maybe people who don’t deserve a platform have one (i.e. Neo-Nazis). The Internet also allows for writers and readers to interact on a more personal and immediate level — for better and for worse.
Dodai Stewart: It’s exciting, because you can discover writers you never would have been able to find in the past. And for all the bad things about the Internet, it is a meritocracy: if something is good, it gets shared, and you will see it, even if it’s a writer you’ve never heard before or the subject matter is something you wouldn’t have looked into yourself.
Samantha Irby: I say all the time that all I want to do is make a woman laugh. Life is trash and it’s hard, and there will be people who make you think and feel and all that, but if I can make you laugh or bring you delight you in some way, that’s why I do it. So when people reach out to me and say hey, I was having a terrible day and I read this thing you wrote, and I felt better, that makes it worth it to me. And I’ve consistently gotten that feedback. Sometimes I wonder why I’m still doing this, like I think ughhh who still has a blog anymore, but then I’ll get an email from someone saying that a post from two months ago made their day. If someone, somewhere, is still laughing at it — that’s the biggest reward. Knowing that people enjoy it. Especially when it comes to my blog — I do that shit for free. I don’t even have ads on it. It’s just a labor of love. So when I get those messages from people, it makes it all worth it.
WRITE WHAT YOU WANT TO WRITE
Don’t write about something because you think it is trendy or marketable. If you write about the things you really care about, your passion for that subject will come through. Readers respond to that. And don’t let anyone tell you that there are subjects that are off-limits to you because of who you are.
Meghan Daum: I love the personal essay because it can incorporate so many different genres in a single piece of writing. There can be elements of reporting, criticism, memoir, poetry, comedy, and on and on. Certain stand-up comics are essentially essayists in that they’re up on stage reflecting on a set of ideas or observations.
Margo Jefferson: My first official job was at Newsweek in the 1970s. The challenge for a writer of color and for a woman is that it was very easy to get stereotyped as the person who would write exclusively about black literature, women’s literature. I made a very conscious decision to write about both and not to do that exclusively. I would not let myself get pushed off turf, which I was capable of writing about — reviewing European literature, European history, white American male artists. I worked very hard to do all of those things. And I made sure that other people of color, women — I made sure that their work was reviewed by me, because I cared about it — and it was almost never getting reviewed by anybody else… It was my way of asserting two kinds of power and confidence and authority. The power I had as a black person and a woman, and the power I had to look at the world and the larger culture.
LEARN FROM OTHER WRITERS
I asked every writer I interviewed to quote another woman writer of nonfiction that she admires, and the reoccurring problem each writer had was trying to narrow down which quote to choose. Read, read, read. There is no better way to learn how to write.
Ann Friedman: Women writers, or anyone in a competitive, creative field, are bound to feel sometimes that there are limited spaces for success. That if another woman succeeds, there’s no room for them to get great assignments or land a dream job. That’s a fucking lie. Women writers need to recognize that our work is very powerful when read in tandem with other women’s work — and that a success for one of us means opportunities for others, too… I definitely still get jealous. I read things and go, “Oh my god, she’s so good, I’m never writing another word again!” I have to remind myself that our work is different. And try to learn from what makes her stuff so good. And, if I’m in an exceptionally zen mode, send her an email telling her how much I liked her article.
Miranda K. Pennington: In a letter in response to some rough reviews, Charlotte Brontë wrote, “It would take a great deal to crush me.” I want it as a tattoo on my wrist, but I think that would be kind of tempting fate because my wrist would actually be pretty easy to crush.
PEOPLE ARE GOING TO GIVE YOU CRAP
Some people might not like the fact that you are writing. Some people might give you a hard time for who you are. Find the people who support and encourage you, rely on them, and try your best to ignore the rest. They’re jerks.
Scaachi Koul: Ten years ago people started to say oh, women are writing memoirs and essays, how weird, but women were already writing essays and memoirs, it was just then that people started to notice… At the very least the industry is realizing that [nonfiction by women] can be profitable. You’ve got your Roxane Gays, your Lindy Wests, your Jessica Valentis, and your Sam Irbys, who write these really wonderful, interesting books, and they start to make money, and everyone all of a sudden everyone goes what? This is legitimate? And they shit themselves because they never knew it could be possible. I mean, we’re still struggling with people being cool with women writing fiction, so I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. I’ve done interviews with people where they are like oh my god, get a load of you, you’re a girl and you’re funny? Like they don’t understand how it’s possible, and then I’m stuck explaining how I can have a vagina and be funny… I mean, well, my humor does come directly from my ovaries, straight from vulva to mouth.
Lis Harris: I had people say to me, “Oh, you’re a serious writer! But you’re so pretty!” They think they’re being charming, and you want to spit.
Ten years ago people started to say oh, women are writing memoirs and essays, how weird, but women were already writing essays and memoirs, it was just then that people started to notice.
WRITING NONFICTION GIVES YOU POWER
When you write nonfiction, you are in control of the story. So often marginalized groups do not get the power to control their narratives; writing nonfiction changes which voices are being heard. Keep writing, keep pushing, and keep telling the stories that the mainstream isn’t hearing.
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh: I started writing nonfiction as a means of survival. For me, writing was the only space I could squeeze myself into. Chronicling my experiences became a way to make sense of them. It also felt like the only way I could get my voice out there. When I held the pen, I was the one with the mic. It not only empowered me with a platform, it also connected me with my friends and other likeminded people.
Virgie Tovar: I always got the sense that people wanted me to be silent, that I was some kind of inconvenient witness to the culture and the darker side of people. When you’re a fat woman of color, you see a part of humanity that people with privilege don’t see, and the culture wants to silence that… When you’re a woman, your perspective is not the perspective that society is operating within. Women are constantly getting gas-lit by society, but when we write the story we place ourselves as the director of our own interpretation. Our perspective is no longer up for debate. It is simply truth. So when you are a woman writing nonfiction, you are getting to dictate the terms of the world…
NONFICTION BRINGS PEOPLE TOGETHER
Nothing feels quite as good as relating to a piece of writing — either as the writer or the reader. Being a human can be a very lonely experience, but to send something out into the world, or to stumble on something that someone else has created, and to find someone else who relates to your story… that’s what it’s all about.
Michelle Kuo: Writing about people makes you more compassionate about them, and that’s rewarding. It pushes us to be more ethical, alert, active. I went to Arkansas and Mississippi for a book tour, and the reactions to the book there were so different from on the East or West Coast. People there saw Reading with Patrick as a call to action. It inspired them to get into literacy work, or research how to become involved. Writing nonfiction gives you the sense that there are real, pulsing people out there… Nonfiction helps people realize and become more aware of being part of a web of humanity.
MariNaomi: Some of my stories feel so personal and weird, I worry that people won’t relate. That makes it extra special when readers tell me they identify, or that my point of view opened their eyes a little. It’s the reason I do all this.