Jason Schwartzman Believes Everyone Has a Piece of Flash Nonfiction In Them
10 questions about writing with author and Catapult instructor Jason Schwartzman
In our series “Can Writing Be Taught?”, we partner with Catapult to ask their course instructors all our burning questions about the process of teaching writing. This month, we’re featuring Jason Schwartzman, an essayist, and fiction writer, and author of the memoir No One You Know: Strangers and the Stories We Tell. Check out the 4-week online non-fiction seminar Schwartzman is teaching about wielding the power of brevity and crafting nonfiction that continues to surprise from beginning to end. We talked to him about observation and the value of a good notebook, the intimacy of ping pong, and the enormously delicious Torres Black Truffle Chips.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student?
A while back, I signed up for a Memoir workshop mainly because my life was feeling vacant and I needed a jolt. When we had to turn something in, I was insecure because I didn’t have a Very Big Thing that all memoirs seemed to be made out of. What I had were all these random, surreal-ish, sometimes-poetic encounters with strangers that were filling in the space where my life used to be. When the piece got workshopped, the big-time enthusiasm I received was a shock, especially since I’d been so down. The exact best thing was a phrase someone said. They said they didn’t really know what it was they were looking at but they “would read a whole book of this.” On the walk home, my body was a riot of endorphins and purpose. I created a playlist called “a whole book of this” and then I spent a year writing the whole book. That’s how No One You Know happened.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student?
In a fiction workshop, one dude HATED a story I wrote about a celebrity profile gone wrong. This dude took real glee in trying to tear the story down, which felt like the unforgivable sin (rather than how deeply he’d misunderstood it, which happens!). At one point I remember he said something like “The only interesting thing in the entire story is this one line,” which was just a description of a shower drain. It got to the point that the instructor felt a need to step in and defend it (which helped). While the dude was talking, I wrote a free-form haiku, which I also remember:
“Bludgeoned by a buffoon
The whacks are hard
But do not hurt.”
I was lying though. It did hurt!
What is the lesson or piece of writing advice you return to most as an instructor?
For nonfiction writers, my bedrock advice is what the tour guide and poet Speed Levitch once called “taking notes on the present tense.” The idea is to raise your alertness by keeping some kind of field notebook (pocket, digital, mind palace, whatever works) for observing, remembering, and riffing. I think it works like writing down your dreams: the more you do it, the more you remember. The more you write in your notebook, the more you’ll observe.
Recent gleanings from mine: (1) when I asked someone how they were doing, they responded: “I’m rusting” (2) the mystery of how solitary wasps seem to be spontaneously generating in our apartment, each living the exact same life over and over (3) meeting a man who carries around some kind of lube to maintain his ping pong paddle.
Many of the gleanings might not amount to anything bigger, but some will. Even for the ones that don’t, there’s often a joy in rediscovering them later.
Does everyone “have a novel in them”?
I’ll let the novelists duke that one out. Everyone definitely has a piece of flash nonfiction in them, though! A single uncanny moment or anecdote or observation or idea is enough to get going. While brevity comes with its own challenges, on the whole, short nonfiction is a highly accessible form to try out. It’s practical (takes less time) and can be a productive distraction from longer projects while still being extremely powerful in its own right. I enjoy sending flash pieces I love to my friends who “aren’t readers” because even they can be seduced by something that’s just a page or a few.
Would you ever encourage a student to give up writing? Under what circumstances?
No. That doesn’t feel right to me.
This is very different, but I do think it’s helpful sometimes to remind students (and myself) that there are so many other worthy, wonderful goals besides, beyond, or in addition to a White Whale they’re chasing. I’ll mention small presses, which cracked open a whole world for me, self-publishing, lit journals, open mics, and the oft-forgotten but pure delight of sharing something you wrote with a friend, reading it out loud, and them hearing it.
What’s more valuable in a workshop, praise or criticism?
A fruitful workshop combines a mix of what’s working and what’s not, always with a spirit of kindness. It’s really hard to choose because I think they need each other, but gun to my head, I’d say praise!
Should students write with publication in mind? Why or why not?
I like a hybrid approach. I tend to do my best work in the darkness of the cave, without any expectation and just seeing what happens. That takes the pressure off. But sometimes when I’m in a rut or not writing or I’m worried I’ve got the yips, a journal’s submission window opens up, catches my eye, and becomes a prompt in itself. Writing with an outcome in mind lights the match once again.
In one or two sentences, what’s your opinion of these writing maxims?
- Kill your darlings: Hilariously macabre. I do think it’s a good idea to ask yourself whether a particular piece of a story is distracting or serving the whole, but I also advocate “preserving your darlings” in a dump doc.
- Show don’t tell: Showing is artful and great and often recommended, but telling gets a bad rap and deserves its day in the sun. This is especially true in flash nonfiction when you frequently need to condense or abbreviate in the name of focusing the camera on something else.
- Write what you know: Generally sound advice, though I’ve found George Saunders’ comments on disentangling writing from Big Personal Experience liberating and useful.
- Character is plot: This one feels less relevant in my corner of essayistic nonfiction, but I did just watch a roundtable interview with the writers of “Breaking Bad” and they swore by this maxim. Whenever they were lost, they’d come back to the question: “Where’s Walt/Jesse/Skyler’s head at?”
What’s the best hobby for writers?
I would recommend hobbies that get you away from your screen, out of your house, and out of your head. Long gallopy walks in stimulus-rich urban areas have always been my warhorse, though maybe that doesn’t quite rise to the level of “hobby.” Ping-pong works well for me. It’s social, intimate (due to the small table), conversational, and time and again steers me toward new friends.
What’s the best workshop snack?
Anything someone’s willing to share, because that subtly primes and reminds everyone that the workshop is a community and we’re in it together and here to help each other. If we’re talking specifics, Torres Black Truffle chips are the way to my heart.