Some thoughts on nonfiction plus recommendations of nonfiction + ice cream
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Here are some true things.
This is how my book The Third Rainbow Girl begins, and it’s the way I begin when my world is shaped more like a list than like a story.
So, here are some true things:
It’s been a while since you’ve heard from me. A lot has happened. In the world. In your life and in mine. I stepped down as director of Blue Stoop, the nonprofit writing center I founded in Philadelphia. I started teaching at Wesleyan University in CT. And I had a very nice wedding.
I am writing a novel. Still. Progress has been made and I feel the big truths are in sight. I’m working with a wonderful new editor who really understands the book and is pushing me to really prioritize the reader’s experience, to make sure that in addition to this being a book I want to write, it’s also a book that readers want to read. The novel is about two young queer women in West Philly who are both artists but they are better artists together than they are separately. Why? Neither of them know. They go on a trip across the state of Pennsylvania to find out, and for one of them to make peace with a teacher left her a complicated legacy. What is the reader tracking in each scene? I’ve been asked to consider. How does each scene tighten the future and elevate the stakes for both characters, together and separately? So this is the task I’m working on now.
There is a difference between writing that is for you and writing that is for a reader. What is it? I’ve been talking about this a lot with my students lately too, as they negotiate moving from a first draft to a second, better draft through the magical process we call revision.
The first draft is usually for us, and the final one is for the reader, is what I was taught. But in teaching revision, I ended up drawing a diagram that looks like this:
The idea being, that one side is writing that is 100% for a reader, writing that achieves something within capitalism — love or money or power or status or that job or college degree you want. On the other side is writing that doesn’t function as communication, that conveys nothing outside the context of your singular mind. We don’t want to end up on either side, but somewhere in the middle, and we always have the power to modulate this dial. Different kinds of writing will fall in different places along this spectrum. Writing that experiments dramatically with form, for example, would fall more on the “for you” side, and personal essays designed to promote your novel might fall more on the “for a reader” side.
I’m still ambivalent about the term nonfiction and that it is applied to me, and that to make sense in a publishing landscape, I’ve applied it to myself.
“The challenge of nonfiction is to marry art and truth,” writes the critic and writer Phyllis Rose.
When my students asked, I described creative nonfiction as a broad and flexible medium which includes forms as various as essay, cultural criticism, literary reportage, memoir, history, biography, and more. “What links all these forms,” writes Barrie Jean Borich, “is that the ‘I,’ the literary version of the author, is either explicitly or implicitly present—the author is in the work. This is work that includes the particular sensibility of the author while it is also some sort of report from the world.” The nonfiction I tend to read and for which I have the most respect is nonfiction that explicitly acknowledges the corporeal body and identities of the author and which grapples with that word that Rose uses — truth — aloud and on the page.
In honor of Nonfiction November, here is a list of some nonfiction books, new and old, you can read or listen to that grapple aloud with the idea of nonfiction.
The Invisible Kingdom by Meghan O’Rourke (2022)
Smart excellently-reported book on chronic illness, highly relevant to those with long COVID and all of us.
The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen (2022)
Beautifully-rendered and strange memoir/autobiography of a whole life, from childhood, to youth, to old age/”dependency” from an acclaimed Danish writer
Strangers to Ourselves by Rachel Aviv (2022)
Aviv is a staff writer at the New Yorker, who’s penned such life-changing pieces as that profile of anti-repressed memory expert Elizabeth Loftus and college student Mackenzie Fierceton’s battle with the University of Pennsylvania. This book collects these and new work.
The Lover by Marguerite Duras (1998)
Impossible to describe, tragic to miss out on, this strange, cinematic, and genre-bending book by the bizarre French novelist tells of a young woman’s life in colonial Vietnam and France and her descent into alcoholism.
All That She Carried by Tiya Miles (2022)
Winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction, I also had the honor of getting to pick this book as the winner of the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award. “Historian Tiya Miles carefully traces [enslaved women in 1850s South Carolina]faint presence in archival records, and, where archives fall short, she turns to objects, art, and the environment to write a singular history of the experience of slavery, and the uncertain freedom afterward, in the United States.”
Evidence of Things Not Seen by James Baldwin (1985, reissued 1995)
Possibly Baldwin’s least read book, and his very last before he died, this might be my favorite of his work. It is about the Atlanta Child Murders, but it’s really about whose lives matter in this country and a community in Georgia whose children were abandoned by the law.
One! Hundred! Demons! by Lynda Barry (2017)
An “autobiofictionalography,” cartoonist Lynda Barry “confronts various demons from her life in seventeen full-color vignettes. In Barry's hand, demons are the life moments that haunt you, form you, and stay with you: your worst boyfriend; kickball games on a warm summer night; watching your baby brother dance; the smell of various houses in the neighborhood you grew up in; or the day you realize your childhood is long behind you and you are officially a teenager.”
The Selfishness of Others by Kristin Dombek (2016)
We all have a writer we would follow anywhere, whose books we’ll buy without even knowing what they are about, and Dombek is mine. This slim volume is, on its surface, about the idea of the narcissist and why people are suddenly obsessed with talking about narcissism, but underneath that, it’s a book about how we understand our own minds and if anything at all is all the way true.
The Narrow Door by Paul Lisicky (2016)
A memoir of the friendship between two artists and the love affair between Lisicky and his ex-partner, the poet, Mark Doty, the book is, according to the LA Times, “...a highly engaging mosaic of finely told personal memories, rigorous thought experiments and various moments of cultural reference.”
Sink by Joseph Earl Thomas (coming 2023)
This is Thomas’ memoir of growing up Black and nerdy in Philadelphia, written in the third person. “In a series of exacting and fierce vignettes, Thomas guides readers through the unceasing cruelty that defined his circumstances, laying bare the depths of his loneliness and illuminating the vital reprieve geek culture offered him.”
Upcoming events & resources
Reporting for Creative Writers, November 19, 11-2pm EST, $100, financial aid available (virtual)
My class is back! Except this time I’m teaching it through the Shipman Agency’s The Work Room. If you have a background in fiction or nonfiction but want to learn the fundamentals of reporting (interviewing, researching like a writer, getting ahold of archival documents, police reports or trial transcripts & the ethics of all this), this class may be for you. “Emma’s ‘Reporting for Creative Writers’ class helped remind me that, as a writer, I actually have so many of the skills reporting requires already, and helped break down the steps of what the work can look like--ethical thorniness, FOIA requests, and all.” —Ilana Masad, author of All My Mother’s Lovers (Dutton 2020)
Financial Stability as a Literary Writer, November 15, 7PM, free (virtual)
Outside of academia, how can literary writers make a living? Most fiction and literary nonfiction authors do not earn enough from book sales alone, but the creative economy offers a variety of ways to sustain yourself while still making space for your art.
Ice Cream of the Week
Getting married and seeking the perfect ice cream taught me that many of my favorite places will ship pints or half gallons to your door with dry ice that keeps them frozen rock solid. We went with Penn State Creamery and created our own pack of half gallons. May I humbly recommend PSC’s “Happy Happy Joy Joy,” “sweet, tropical coconut ice cream studded with butter roasted almonds and chocolate chips.”
See you next month. Yours,
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