Have you ever read an article that made you act out on something?
Constance: I’ve read things that make me feel something, or maybe even research something. But I’m inclined to question what I read to the point of making it incapable of being a call to action. Events, long-standing injustices, these kinds of realities are more likely to call me to action.
Aaron: Yes. Usually in rage or frustration because it’s about something stupid. Like Occupy. I wrote about that in my university newspaper, and even on Facebook. And I wrote to vent as it was happening. And then I couldn’t help but point out, how the Occupy movement fell apart and nothing changed. I’m not the type to get physically incensed over something I read, mostly because I try to keep my stress quotient at a minimum, but also because of geographical situating. If there’s something happening in America or across the pond, I’m not about to train my way out to Toronto and picket about that. I’ll write, because there are some days I’m really good with words, and the Internet allows me to transmit my ideas. But if writing isn’t considered acting out, I’ll have to take some mime classes.
Lilly: Certain pieces have made me more aware of different topics and causes, most recently Evan Soltas and Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s ‘The Rise of Hate Search‘ on the statistical correlation between the rise of anti-Muslim Internet searches and anti-Muslim hate crimes.
Gimel: I’m not sure. I know I’ve read articles that have changed or influenced my perspective on certain issues.
Noah: Yesterday, I read Poe Ballantine’s ‘Father Junípero Admonishes a Bird’ in the most recent Pushcart Prize Anthology. I contacted his publisher, a small press in Oregon, and asked for his email to write him a fan letter. In the email I wrote, “Reading it I felt how I imagine a swordfish feels after being gaffed and dragged out of its natural habitat. I was penetrated and jerked from my natural self-destructive search for meaning, chasing the ideology of “The American Dream” habitat into an unclouded vision of a realistic future with a realistic chance at something akin to fulfilment and happiness.”
Momina: Yes, there have been numerous such articles that have inspired and motivated me to just get out of my comfort zone and do something worthwhile. However, the consequences have not always been as rewarding as I expected them to be. Recently, I read an article on helping people suffering from depression with a positively beautiful story in a renowned magazine (I do not want to name it). It made me so overwhelmed that I decided to employ the techniques mentioned in the article in my life, as one of my closest friends was fighting depression. The results turned about to be horrendous. She accused me of pitying her and I had to apologise. God knows, if it was just me (my history with such cases very evidently suggests that I should just do what I do best — keep my mouth shut) or the article was meant for a different kind of person. I still haven’t been able to figure that out.
What are some of the most important ethical issues writers working in nonfiction have to think about?
Constance: The same ethical responsibility that any journalist or magazine editor has. When it comes to reviewing pieces, there is a lot of faith we have to put in the writer and their personal stories. Anything that can be researched, is fact checked as much as possible. If references can’t be found, no matter how compelling the information is, it must be omitted. There is also the editor’s responsibility to be empathic to a writer, but unwavering in their insistence on quality work. We owe something to a writer for choosing us as a home for their babies, and something to the magazine to ensure that the publication as a whole is able to reach a certain standard.
Aaron: Nietzsche. In the sense that writing is amoral in and of itself, and is crafted by the writer, should they choose to moralise. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I just believe that whatever shadows an author chooses to cast shouldn’t just be jammed in between the parts where only good happens. That’s how you wind up with children’s fairy tales. I don’t think that focusing on such an issue is necessary with a good author, because through their writing, any obvious messages, or even moral crises will be part of the story.
Lilly: I value honesty in stories more than anything. I think that it’s often difficult for people to hold themselves to being completely truthful in nonfiction, especially personal pieces, when there’s no way for editors to fact check. However, I think that the truth does come out in the writing, and makes nonfiction more special, because things end up messy, not able to fit in a box, and very human.
Gimel: Personally, it [writing nonfiction] always feels like a daunting task: “I must represent my subject factually without being as boring as the last Hobbit film.” And it depends on what a writer is working on – is it personal or objective? As a nonfiction writer, one of the things to remember is that you have an ethical responsibility to tell the truth. Don’t embellish something just because it’ll make it more dramatic and compelling, which you hope will result in an increase in readership. Memory fades over time so nonfiction writers need to think about how best they can write something from the information that they’ve received.
Noah: Shit, I’m just a lost fiction writer Constance A. Dunn conned into editing articles. I was told if I did it long enough I might get paid at some point…
Momina: For me, there is just one important aspect that (necessarily) needs to be kept in mind while writing non-fiction. If it is about you, and you want to reveal that particular aspect of your personality, go ahead – do it whichever way you like. If it is about someone you know or someone who entrusted you with something that they wanted you to share, just make sure that none of the associated characters (not just your contact) are affected by it for its the people that are important, not the rules.
Do you write fiction? If so, is writing nonfiction a totally different head space?
Constance: I do write fiction. It is a different head space in the sense that the onus is on me in fiction. Fiction is a testament on the limits of my ability to translate my own imagination. The challenge with nonfiction is the burden of expressing the reality of your own values and accepting that they may not align with readers, or, even more of a challenge, to try and be unbiased. There is also the responsibility for truthful reporting. To put it simply: the writing of fiction is lonely, nonfiction is social.
Aaron: There was a time when I only wrote fiction for myself. Well, fiction and poetry. Essays were for class, grades, and ultimately a degree. But that all changed when I was introduced to TMS. Or rather, I subjected TMS to my unique brand of torture. Writing fiction for me, longer fiction especially, is a very nervous headspace. It’s why the second novel has been on hold mostly (read: I pick it up, look at it, think about it and put it down from time to time) for over a year now. Shorter fiction is easier because there’s generally less going on, or at least for a much shorter period of time. And in that way the headspace is the same. But with fiction, it’s all about ideas. You can write a story about the characters, or about the world, or about whatever the plot is. There are different ways to drive a story, which, as the author, is at your mercy. I think, in a way, it’s more fun too. You can be an ideologue, an iconoclast, pariah or a stand in for any crowd. You can have a lot of fun with the character constructions, or the worlds you’re writing, where nonfiction, as I said earlier, is often about something tragic or otherwise major that happens in your life. Essentially, it’s about the freedom, or lack thereof, when dealing with nonfiction. Resulting in a more plot-driven narrative. Unless you’ve met someone like the late Robin Williams. That’d be a character driven story, no matter what.
Lilly: I do write a little bit of fiction, and it’s certainly different than nonfiction. Usually my fiction is inspired by things in real life, but quickly morphs into fiction once I fill in the details. So, I guess I go into both genres in a similar head space, but after that my techniques diverge.
Gimel: Yes, and I think nonfiction is a different ball game. It’s easy to get carried away with the writing, and if it gets too crazy, it starts to read like fiction.
Noah: I am the greatest fiction writer who has never has a piece of fiction published. According to my advisor/mentor, who worked with me while I was completing my first novel, award-winning author Madison Smartt Bell (All Souls’ Rising) I have “the talent, the originality, and the tenacity to make it as a fiction writer.” My accolades include over 100 rejections, and counting. That is one solid paragraph of nonfiction… I couldn’t make that up.
Momina: Unfortunately, I do not. I am an absolute over-thinker. When I lie down to sleep at night, I formulate a gazillion stories in my mind with perfectly ideal situations where I have conquered everything and I am just unstoppable. However, when I attempt to actually jot them down on a piece of paper, I get so lost. It takes me hours to decide on a storyline, and when I am finally done everything seems flawed and distorted. I eventually end up writing almost nothing. Nonfiction, statistics-based papers, opinion pieces, essays etc. on the other hand, have never been difficult for me. I can write a 5,000 word research article in exactly five hours. Sometimes, I feel like I have not allowed myself the luxury to explore my true self. I am just so afraid of revealing too much.
What would you like to see more of in TMS’ nonfiction?
Constance: Well-crafted pieces that don’t neglect the art of writing, even while reporting. Also, writers who pay more attention to editing their own pieces before submitting them. We often get pieces with a lot of basic errors. Read philosophy. Writing about the world, questioning the human condition, doesn’t happen in a vacuum with nonfiction. Even a general knowledge of the dominant philosophies that shape cultures helps a writer evaluate situations with more depth. Oh, and humour: cheeky, ironic, absurd… humour is a mark of intelligence no matter where you are in the world.
Aaron: Cockfights, cheesy pick up lines, dragons, plot twists, bear fights with bare arms, bare fights with bear arms, water off a duck’s back, horseplay, garden gnomes, and lawn flamingos. This and any other cliché or overused narrative device you can stomach!
Lilly: While I love the personal narrative side of nonfiction, I’d really enjoy reading more stories about others. I recently edited a profile for TMS, and thought it was pretty cool to experience such an objective observation about someone else.
Gimel: We’ve got some good work published (diverse too). It’d be great to see more essays/articles that tackle social or cultural issues. Keep it coming, folks!
Noah: Sex. Just kidding. Stories centring on current socio-political issues, confronting fixed ideologies: Marxist Criticism; Feminist Criticism; Cultural Criticism… and nonfiction about sex.
Momina: I want to see intimate pieces of writing that seem to merely talk about the commonalities of everyday life, but are actually focused on revealing a lot more. I wrote one such piece on my left pinky’s fingerprint, which ultimately led me to explore myself in an intricate way. I would love to see more writers doing that.