I wanted to interview writer (and fellow Grinnellian) Sarah Aswell on my blog. When I proposed it to her, she said, Why don't we have a conversation? That might be interesting.
So we did. And it was. In fact, it was so interesting that we decided to create a weekly feature: Bittersweet Brood. Each week you'll find half the conversation here, and half on Sarah's site. Enjoy!
Bittersweet Brood: On Writing
Sarah, you recently started a blog, BROOD, which, with its recipes, Cat on a Diet feature, book, music, and film reviews, and Sarah v. Spears Success Tracker, defies easy categorization. How have you navigated the strange territory between the public and private spheres? How do you write about your personal life for public consumption?
Sarah: In graduate school, I experimented a lot with non-fiction genre-bending. This was after reading Geoff Dyer's undefinable Out of Sheer Rage, a book about a book he never wrote about D.H. Lawrence. Around this time, I was very torn about which genre I belonged in -- did I like personal essays or the bigger, more universal issues? And Dyer's book was a wake-up call: writing an honest, interesting non-fiction article without the personal stuff is near impossible. There will always be personal bias, so why not share it with your audience and have fun with it? If I'm in a bad mood when I review an album, you'll hear about it. If I post a recipe, it won't just be how to make something -- there will be history and anecdote (and mistakes) mixed in.
So -- I try to swirl public issues and my private life all the time. Sure, you read over and over again not to write about your cat or your boyfriend. But my cat Ripley helps me write about pet health, and my boyfriend helps me write about love and relationships. The mistake is in not making your personal experience universal or current. I hesitated a bit before posting Kinds of Missing because it was so personal, but the email response I got was huge and very touching -- since the idea of what it means to miss someone was central and everyone has experienced that feeling, the essay had legs.
I also find that using traditional fiction writing techniques makes personal non-fiction a lot more interesting to read. Molly -- you also write both fiction and non-fiction. How are these processes different for you and how are they the same? Does one affect the other?
Molly: For me, fiction and non-fiction overlap a great deal. Like you, I find it both uninteresting and nearly impossible to write straight, unbiased non-fiction, and over the years I’ve been encouraged not to. Jackie Stolze, the editor at Grinnell Magazine, would tell me, “Don’t write an article about graduation, write me about Molly Backes at graduation.” And then she’d pay me to do it.
Of course, as any writer knows, the second you commit something to the page, it becomes a sort of fiction, regardless of how hard you try to stay true to what really happened. You have personal bias, discrepancies in memory and perception, and as a story teller you’re always making choices about what to include or not include, what to emphasize and what to ignore. As a fiction writer, I think I’m more guilty of this than most, because I tend to believe that sometimes fiction tells the truth in a way that non-fiction can’t. And I’m generally willing to exaggerate and withhold for the sake of the story. I call it “fictional license,” my dad calls it “the gift of Blarney,” and my best friend calls it “lying.”
On the other hand, I think the best fiction contains a large amount of truth. As a writer, you’re trying to capture some essential truth about what it means to be a human, even if you have to tell a story about robots and moon rockets to do so. One of the most gratifying responses to a story is: “Yes, that’s exactly how it is!”
Read Part Two