Our Meet the Editors series gets real with the nonfiction/essays department. Constance A. Dunn is crafty yet ethical, Aaron Grierson has front row seats for the battle between fiction and nonfiction, Lilly Brown thinks we’ll never get over “the self”, Gimel Samera cites Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Noah Klein talks about martyrdom and his novel, and Momina Mindeel struggles to find her true self.
Is nonfiction stranger than fiction?
Constance: Depends. In our nonfiction lives there are long periods of banality and waiting. Extraordinary people, events or ideas that break up the monotony force our hands to nonfiction (perhaps the opposite is true of fiction; its genesis may come from boredom), but once these “true” stories are retold on the page there is always an element of fiction about them. Eyewitness accounts never hold up in court.
Aaron: Definitely. Sometimes. The concept of “writing what you know” exists for a reason. It might normally be applied to fiction, once upon a time, but I think it’s an axiom when it comes to nonfiction. And let’s face it: life throws some really strange curveballs our way sometimes. Then of course there are the horrors of reality that turned us to fiction in the first place. I’d rather face a man at spear point than ever have to face down an atomic bomb. So essentially, it comes down to who is writing and what they’ve experienced, or what they would have us believe they’ve experienced.
Lilly: Oh, it totally can be. I think that’s one of the reasons that I love it so much. When something “strange” happens in fiction, the reader can write it off as a hypothetical or impossible situation, whereas nonfiction events tend to stay with people, because they’ve already happened.
Gimel: Oh yeah, it can get pretty weird.
Noah: I had an out of body experience in New Orleans, after I sought out a street psychic in the French Quarter whose name was The Raven. He informed me that I travel to different dimensions in my sleep, and that I, in fact, nearly died while I was asleep in my ex-friends stinky, pigsty apartment on his uncomfortable couch. I didn’t pay this man. We, instead, shared a Marlboro Red cigarette. I then panhandled by reciting poetry on a trolley to get back to my friend’s home. Is this fiction? You be the judge.
Momina: It is actually not. All writers are humans and their writings are eventually influenced by their worldly experiences. While nonfiction is the actual truth, fiction is just the enhanced version of it. That is all.
In your editorial opinion, what’s the main difference between a well-written essay and one not so well-written?
Constance: Craft, which is essentially knowing a language well enough to break rules with intent instead of oversight. If a writer masters craft, then their work must through the filter of a reader’s personal taste. I, for one, like bravery in style and specificity in form, It’s a bit hypocritical for me to say, because I never studied writing as a craft in any institutional setting; I fell into it as a means to an end. The craft I’ve achieved has been through trial and error, in other words — humiliation.
Aaron: There are a few factors. It has a lot to do with style. Style and language control. And paying attention. It astounds me how little attention some people pay when submitting a piece for publication. I mean, even the free word processors have spelling correction functions. But you know that doesn’t stop some people from submitting garbage.
Some people have interesting ideas, but can’t express them clearly. I was, and sometimes still am, one of these people. Over my university career several professors, and even some authors I’ve had a chance to meet with have all said the same thing — reading makes you a better writer. So I think there’s that too. I’ve met people who write, and who want to make a career of writing, but admit they don’t read. It shows. Such was the case with what I call the Worst Novel Ever Written. Not an essay, but it functions on the same principle, and is a long, drawn out torture.
Lilly: While good grammar is certainly an important component of any well-written essay, I think that the main factor that makes an essay “good” is the story behind it. I can tell when a story is actually true and always intend to honour that.
Gimel: It takes as much literary muscle work to write nonfiction as it does to write fiction. A good essay is marked by the author’s skill to write a cohesive piece while keeping his/her readers interested. And to be always wary of how one paragraph flows into the next thought. Poor transitions feel like a dysfunctional family.
Noah: Articles need to be researched. Nonfiction or Creative Nonfiction need to be raw, but tempered: think Japanese Katana.
Momina: It is actually very simple. The well-written essay will be precise and coherent while, the not so well-written essay will (almost always) go on and on about what the topic is all about in an embellished introductory paragraph. Just get directly to the point. That is all, unless you have a word limit to meet. In that case, write everything that you think is even remotely related to the topic.
Why are people’s personal stories so transfixing? Haven’t we had enough of “the self”?
Constance: They transfix because they offer a taste of taboo, or a mirror, or a memory, kinship, romance, a brush with death, or whatever else we’re looking for. There is no other way for us to experience the world other than “the self”, we are trapped by it in many ways. Some writers and artists have spent their entire adult lives attempting to break through the boundaries of a “self”, achieving limited success or destroying themselves in the process. I’ve often thought that the paradox of selfishness is that is has the potential to bring us together, because we have that in common.
Aaron: I think it depends on who you ask. I personally don’t find a lot of nonfiction all that interesting – specifically because it is so mundane and commonplace. There are more captivating selves, typically out there in high quality fiction. Those that are more substantial stories tend to be either extremely tragic, or extremely vindicating in some sense. And as to why such things are so transfixing, well I think that’s simply the human condition; we’re drawn to the sensational. That is, in some cases, what makes us, or at least masochists like me, persevere through the horrendously written – it’s like a train wreck you want to see the end of.
Lilly: I think that we’re inherently selfish beings, so any story that we can relate to, catches our attention and helps us grow. Because of this, I don’t think that the topic of “self” will ever die out.
Gimel: People are fascinating creatures (Google Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster) so I don’t think we’ll ever get tired of “the self”. We’re drawn to stories about people who’ve withstood the harsh storms of life and still live. Even if it makes our blood boil, we still choose to read about people who’ve committed heinous atrocities. Those are just a few examples.
Noah: The “Self” is only interesting in terms of deep moral questions and socio-political context. For instance, I wrote a creative nonfiction piece about my father attempting suicide for the second time and I, once again, was placed into a situation where I had to either save his life… or let him die. There is obviously complex familial historical context, however I boiled it down to very relatable terms: a child, or burgeoning adult, is faced with a decision usually left to what people believe as a higher power, to save a human life. This decision will change his life. He tries to think of his father. He tries to think of his family. The last person he thinks of is himself. He is the martyr. Yet, at the same time, he is only human: a child of the West. The act of “helping” here becomes a prison. The child is caught in a situation where he must make the correct decision, the best version of helping. The truth is he doesn’t know if his decision is right. The truth is he still doesn’t know. “Self” is interesting when it is in a greater context. Don’t spout emotions with no thought.
Momina: Well, I do not think we have had enough of “the self”. I remember taking a writing course, back in my sophomore year that focused on helping us explore ourselves through a number of crafts. The instructor would ask us to write our personal opinions and instances on certain topics related to these crafts, and I would just somehow transform Internet material into my own opinion. I was so scared of finding my inner self. Probably, I was scared of what I had been hiding. What if it was too dark? What if I was not who I thought I was? I never let myself go in that class and I still regret it. If you ask me, this is one of the chief reasons why I find people’s personal stories so transfixing. Maybe there are different ways to be brave, and this is one of them.
Has editing articles made you a different kind of reader? In other words, do you find yourself editing newspaper and magazine articles as you read them?
Constance: All the time.
Aaron: Well, I find a lot of spelling errors. Even in professionally published newspapers and novels. Not that it’s anything new though. I’ve always been a pretty astute reader, even from a young age. If anything, editing has just heightened my sense of humour, primarily, because of some of the errors. But I like to think every day I get a little better, more mature. Like a fine wine being forcibly consumed by an unsuspecting author.
Lilly: While I’m not necessarily copyediting every journal that I read, I’ve found that I naturally search for certain elements in a story, beyond just the beginning, middle, and end.
Gimel: Definitely! I’ve been told that it’s good practice for editors (and writers) to read through newspaper/magazines articles (even books) and re-write them or make corrections.
Noah: I separate my work life from my personal life.
Momina: It has to a certain extent. Whenever I read an article that has been written in a rush with jumbled words and incoherent paragraphs, I unconsciously find myself changing the inappropriately used words into appropriate ones and cutting long sentences into their shorter, well-connected versions. Wait, I just wrote an incredibly long sentence myself. Oh, the irony!!
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.