New Jersey, the Garden State, has a perpetually abundant crop of writers in every season, and some, like Mimi Schwartz, also write books that other writers in every corner of the country, look to for writing advice. The second edition of Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction (written with co-author Sondra Peel) is now available. I caught up with Mimi a few days before our paths intersected at an essay conference in Manhattan last weekend, and she agreed to answer my questions.
Q. In its first edition, your book is a staple on the shelf of many essayists and memoir writers. Was there anything particularly challenging about creating the second edition? Anything you especially wanted to expand upon or respond to given changes in the literary world since 2006?
A. Lots of interesting things have been happening to creative nonfiction—and our second edition reflects that. We have a new chapter, "Exploring the New Media," that explores the many online possibilities from blogs, to digital storytelling, to graphic memoir. We talk more about up-and-coming forms such as the lyric essay, the braided essay, and the personalized op ed essay you find in the Sunday Review of the New York Times. And we added a section on the role of humor. Part 2, our anthology, keeps the favorites of the first edition—and now includes some promising young writers, some classics by George Orwell and E.B. White, and several essay dealing with timely topics in exciting new formats.
Q. In the preface, you write that nonfiction writers "begin with a question or puzzlement, and with the help of memory, research, reading, interviews, speculation, imagining – whatever it takes – we attempt to capture the complexity of our subject." It's interesting that the list only begins with memory, and then cites other avenues of exploration that sadly it seems many writers skip over.
A. “Research,” if done well, certainly enriches a narrative -- whether writing about a childhood memory from third grade or about what happened yesterday. But so does memory and imagination. That is why we have a chapter on “The Role of Research” – and also have a new essay by Lisa Knopp called “Perhapsing” that shows how speculation, even daydreaming, can legitimately enhance true stories.
Q. You offer several options for gathering information. With information at our fingertips all day long (Google, Wikipedia, websites), have writers paradoxically gotten lazier about the kinds of rich experiential "research" that could make huge contributions to their work – trips out into the physical world to observe, interview, revisit a place, soak up creative energy, information, nuance?
A. Both forms of research—the ones we read and the ones we feel—are essential for the authenticity of an experience. So yes, I agree with you. Check out Google but also get out there and look, listen, smell, taste, and touch.
Q. What advice do you give a writer who, after engaging in research and/or interviews, finds their memory is flawed, either in a significant way, and/or in more minor ways?
A. What to do about discrepancies of memory depends on the story we are telling. Sometimes I let the reader know there’s another point of view, as in “I remember this, but my mother says that….” Sometimes, as in my marriage memoir, Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed, I use dialogue—or a footnote—to let the other person have a say. And sometimes I decide it doesn’t matter. As Geoffrey and Tobias Wolff told their mother when she said both their memoirs were incorrect, “Okay. Then write your own story!” We discuss the struggle and various solutions in Writing True.
Q. Your book offers writing exercises, including some lengthy and multi-step ones that I imagine can catapult a writer to a whole list of possible new pieces. For the writer working on his/her own, how might you suggest incorporating writing exercises into everyday writing practice? And what makes a really good writing exercise?
A. A good writing exercise is one that makes us want to write more. Often we don’t know that right away. It may be a day, a week, a year later, that we have more to say. That’s why we recommend a notebook—either by hand or on a computer—and devote one chapter to “The Power of the Notebook.” We also discuss free online exercises for getting started. Try them all, for our belief is: If you don’t have anything on paper, you have nothing to work with!
Q. I love the chapter "Ten Ways to a Draft," with outside-the-norm ideas for moving toward the writing -- freelisting, map making, time lines, memory chains, clustering, among others. I bet some of these will seem surprising to writers whose inclination is always to go first (or to remain at all times) at the keyboard. How do you see these activities helping writers? Are they mostly intended for those who are stuck? Or do they have value for any writer of nonfiction?
A. I’ve done many of these exercises more than once—and am always surprised by how they trigger new ideas, memories, and details. Clustering, for example, is one I use for new ideas and to help me get unstuck. I put an emotionally loaded word in the middle of the page, free associate as it proscribes, and suddenly there is new energy for writing on.
Q. The chapter, "Workshopping a Draft," is loaded with good advice, and I was especially pleased with the emphasis on the role of listening, both when one's own work is being discussed and when someone else's piece is being reviewed. What is the principle benefit of the workshop, and how can listening skills help a writer got the most out of one?
A. We know stories well in our head, but key details often never reach the page. Workshops, if well run, can help a writer connect the dots between what is intended and what the readers receive. Responses, using our guidelines, lead to discoveries and new insights that make revisions more meaningful.
Q. In the book, you self-identify as an "underwriter" whose first drafts "tend to be skimpy," but get fleshed out once down on paper "following the clues of first words." Can you explain how that works for you? Has your approach changed at all over time, as you've written and published more and more work?
A. My style stays the same. I like to find the story first and then flesh it out—a classic underwriter. What has changed is what I tell myself after I have a draft. I know to coach myself to add detail (and I can cut it back later) and I know to ask at the end “Have a let myself off the hook too easily? Do I need to go deeper?” The answer is almost always, “Yes!”
Q. Your book includes an anthology of excellent published works by an interesting group of CNF writers. I love what you write in the introduction: "We suggest reading a work once for pleasure and once as a writer looking at craft. It helps to star favorite parts, make comments in the margins…and ask the same questions you ask when reading works-in-progress – about theme, characterization, narrative thrust, pacing, scene development, foreshadowing, use of dialogue and so on." This, to me, is the heart of reading as a writer. How would you describe the role of reading for writers? Particularly maybe for the writer who claims that they avoid reading too much in their genre, afraid it will unduly influence their work?
A. Reading others gives you permission to try out new ideas and forms. I found the structure for my book, Good Neighbors, Bad Times, Echoes of My Father’s Village after reading Alison Owings' series of dramatic interviews in Frauen, Women of the Third Reich. Her use of multiple points of view was just what I needed—even though her 30 three-page vignettes became full-length chapters in my book of visits with Christians and Jews from my father’s village, all remembering the past. I do stay away from reading on the same subject before I have my thoughts on paper. I want to know what I think before I learn what others think.
Q. In a chapter new to the second edition, "Exploring New Media," you offer some cool exercises that might help a CNF writer leap to new ways of telling their stories using online tools. Some writers can blog (or maintain an active Tumblr or Twitter feed) and still produce publishable longer work, while others find the more they write online, the less they have to say in longer form essays or memoir. Any advice?
A. It always comes down to what works for you. Jenny Spinner, who has a blog that we discuss in Writing True, found it was a great platform for writing a book. For others, too much online writing can discourage the Muse; it becomes another form of writer procrastination, like cleaning the refrigerator or the closets.
Q. What kind of feedback do you get from readers of Writing True?
A. What makes Writing True the most gratifying is when writers who used it in a class stop me at conferences like AWP and ask me to autograph their copy. A textbook? Sondra Perl, my co-author, and I wanted to write a textbook that wasn’t a textbook, and whenever that happens, I think: We did it!