The Writers’ Roundtable: Fiction vs. Nonfiction

A conversation between writers Eva Holland, Benjamin Percy, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Mary H.K. Choi, and Adam Sternbergh about writing on both sides of the fiction-nonfiction divide.

Eva Holland | Longreads | April 2018 | 23 minutes (5,900 words)

A lifetime ago, it seems, I used to write fiction. I wrote little stories on scraps of paper as a young kid; throughout grade school, I filled my unused notebooks with attempts at novels; I wrote a few short stories in high school and college. But since I started freelancing full-time a decade ago, I haven’t written a single line of fiction.

For a few years now, I’ve been intrigued by the writers who manage to produce both fiction and nonfiction work — the ones who excel on both sides of the divide. How do they do it? Why? Do they prefer one to the other? Does one feed the other? I had so many questions, I finally decided to convene another writers’ roundtable (last time around, we talked freelancing) and I asked a few writers I admire to weigh in.

Benjamin Percy is a Minnesota-based writer of novels (most recently, The Dark Net), comics, and the nonfiction book Thrill Me: Essays On Fiction. His nonfiction stories have also appeared in the likes of GQ, Esquire, Outside, and Men’s Journal. Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a staff writer at the New York Times, a contributor to GQ and many other fine magazines, and the author of a forthcoming novel. Mary H.K. Choi has written for Wired, GQ, The Atlantic, and more. Her first novel, Emergency Contact, recently debuted on March 27. Adam Sternbergh is an editor at New York magazine and the author of the novels The Blinds, Shovel Ready, and Near Enemy.

ORIGIN STORIES

Eva Holland: When I was younger, I admit I barely even understood that nonfiction writing existed, outside of daily hard news reporting. My understanding of “writing” was entirely “fiction writing,” and I only fell in love with magazines and narrative nonfiction much later. So, my first question is: What came first for you as a writer — fiction, or non?

Benjamin Percy: Growing up, my only doses of nonfiction came from The Oregonian, Time, Newsweek, Fangoria, National Geographic, and Archaeology Magazine. Most of my reading was devoted to novels — mass-market paperbacks with embossed titles and dragons on the cover — and that’s what I hoped to become when I stepped into my first creative writing workshop: a genre novelist. The first time I wrote something that resembled “creative nonfiction,” I was in my mid-20s and only attempted it because a magazine approached me about an assignment.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I was absolutely, definitely, without a doubt going to be a fiction writer or a screenwriter. And then I wasn’t! When I left NYU with a BFA in screenwriting, I realized I had zero version of a plan. I didn’t know what to do, so I got a job that was advertised in the New York Times classifieds (a fiction writer might call this foreshadowing). It was to work at a Soap Opera Magazine. I was still writing screenplays, but they weren’t good—they were cynical, in the way that ’90s screenplays were cynical. And I was taught how to write those things so that they would sell, not so they would be meaningful. So I worked at the soap opera stuff, and I wrote profiles of the actors. I was going to get back into fiction…one day. But it was always hovering in the background. It seemed very fancy to me, to write a novel. And very big and out of reach. I became a freelance writer after a time, and realized I couldn’t devote the amount of time to a novel that a novel would need because I couldn’t bet so many working hours on something that wasn’t a sure thing.

Mary H.K. Choi: Magazines had my heart from an early age. When I was super little, there was only National Geographic, Architectural Digest and Reader’s Digest just because these were the magazines my parents subscribed to. Then I discovered Sassy, YM, Just Seventeen (a British fashion magazine for teens) and American Vogue (during the Amber Valetta x Shalom Harlowe heyday) and those blew my young mind. At the time though I thought I was going to become a fashion designer and even then I hedged my bets and figured I’d go into marketing or fashion buying. It never occurred to me that I’d ever write for magazines even by the time I started hoarding back issues of Spy because I’d never met any Asians who wrote for or edited them. I was also a big fan of fiction — all fiction from Christopher Pike to the Babysitters Club, VC Andrews to Amy Tan — but again going from reader to writer never felt like a path that was available to me. Obviously I knew Amy Tan was a big-deal author but she was born in California and was American and her parents probably spoke to her in English and then I discovered at some point that she was in a band with Stephen King so I was like, yeah, she’s Asian but she’s Asian-American so that’s why. Meanwhile I emigrated from Hong Kong to the U.S. just before I turned 14 so I never dreamed I’d ever know people who knew people and that’s the only way I thought anyone could become anything glamorous like a writer.

Adam Sternbergh: My knowledge of writing, by age, went roughly like this:

8-12 years old: Kids Fiction (Judy Blume; Ellen Raskin; Gordon Korman)
12-16 years old: COMIC BOOKS COMIC BOOKS COMIC BOOKS COMIC BOOKS
17-18 years old: Fiction; Spy magazine
19-22 years old: Fiction; Plays

I didn’t have any sense that “nonfiction” even existed until my late teens, I’d say. I’m hard-pressed to think of a nonfiction book I really loved prior to going to college. In college, I definitely read a few books that blew me away, mostly in the course of studying culture and history — Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory; Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb and a bunch of John Kenneth Galbraith — but I thought of those as academic books, written by academics, and I still really thought of being a “writer” as meaning you wrote either novels, plays, or movies. This despite the fact that I worked on my school paper and wrote a bunch of (not particularly good) articles.

I was also aware that there was a kind of performative, funny essayistic writing that I really adored — mostly from reading Spy magazine — and somehow I thought I was going to make that into a career, not realizing that no such career existed, unless you were James Thurber.

It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I read magazine journalism with any sort of eye toward it as a craft; and it wasn’t until I was close to 30 that I wrote a magazine piece that was longer than 1500 words.

I can admit somewhat sheepishly (but not really) (but somewhat) that the single magazine piece that opened my eyes to magazine writing as something worth pursuing was a 1996 article in Harper’s that I only read because I was killing time in an airport in Seattle, titled “Shipping Out,” by some now-forgotten hack named David Foster Wallace.

Taffy: I didn’t like all kinds of fiction like you did, Adam, or you, Mary. I went straight from Babysitters’ Club and Paula Danziger to Philip Roth. My mother, an Israeli immigrant, saw me trying to read a Sweet Valley High book and told me it was smut and took it away. My sister was reading Philip Roth, and the covers looked so fancy that my mother didn’t realize it was smut. Literally I was reading Portnoy’s Complaint because Sweet Valley High #1, which was called Double Love and featured two blonde teenagers smiling into the camera…okay, maybe I can see her side of it. But that’s what I read, and I was so drawn to the outrage of it and the way he, as Nathan Zuckerman, would tell the story of someone else. When I became a journalist later, I realized that’s what I wanted to do: to tell stories like Nathan Zuckerman told. I got my start in nonfiction as a personal essay writer, and as I slowly ran out of angles to examine on my own psyche and body and personality, I realized I needed to start writing about other people. Zuckerman was my guide for that, to apply the same rigor you apply to yourself to others.

But Adam is also reminding me about Spy. Man, did I love Spy. Spy is probably what kept me away from journalism for so long. I never thought I could be smart enough to pull that off.

Eva: I’m so glad I wasn’t the only one who was basically oblivious to magazines as a kid/teen! Somehow I’ve always pictured other writers growing up reading Janet Malcolm in The New Yorker and being extremely cultured while I was spending my allowance on Dragonlance paperbacks.

Mary, how did you wind up seeing your way into the writing world, when it seemed so distant to you at first?

Ben, was it a stretch for you, that first nonfiction assignment? Did it feel weird after your focus on fiction?

Adam and Taffy, out of everyone in the group I’m probably most familiar with your journalism careers. (Back when Adam was still at the Times magazine, I once stood him up for a meeting because my hotel gave me bedbugs, true/sad story.) Were you nursing a fiction habit on the side as you were working your way through the nonfiction world, or was it a matter of getting back to fiction writing after a long pause, years later?

Ben: Esquire, Men’s Journal, and Outside all asked me to start writing nonfiction for them at about the same time. These were short pieces — the 500-worders that are such a staple of the glossies. Book reviews, profiles, think pieces on whiskey and bacon and trucks, etc. I remember my editor at Esquire, Tyler Cabot, telling me (early on), “Stop being so literary.” I was writing too much like a fiction writer, in other words, and he helped tame my voice and make it more digestible for someone who’s killing time in a bathroom or airport. This stylistic shift (paring language, dialing down my show-offness) in turn made me a better novelist and short story writer.

Taffy: I wrote a short story a few years ago when I was asked to participate in a reading. That was my first attempt at fictional prose. The pleasure I felt from the removal of the anxiety inherent to writing about someone else/adhering to facts was physical. The novel I’m publishing next year was the attempt after the next attempt—I wrote half a novel in 2015 but I had an agent who didn’t like it very much. When I then wrote this novel and she didn’t seem to like it, I realized what was going on was that we had different tastes, and I changed agents. So this novel is technically my third attempt at fiction. But in between that, the thing I nursed was a screenwriting career. I continued to try to write screenplays. One of them was an idea that tickled Adam here so much that he asks about it every time we have lunch. I was never able to figure out how to pull it off. Maybe I’ll try again after I hand in my next story.

The pleasure I felt from the removal of the anxiety inherent to writing about someone else/adhering to facts was physical.

Adam: That idea! It’s a great idea!

I never studied fiction in school, beyond English lit classes. (Which are useful!) I lived in Canada, where MFAs are, or were, less of a thing — i.e. not considered essentially requisite to entering the world of fiction. (Eva, back me up here.) At the time, I wasn’t really sure what I would do with fiction if I wrote it, so I wrote plays instead, which at least might see the light of a student stage. And some did, for better or worse.

At the beginning of my journalism career, I was more on an editor’s track, and I stubbornly dabbled in fiction on the side. I went through a Bad Hemingway phase, a Bad Mark Leyner phase (look him up, he is excellent) and a Bad George Saunders phase (which seems fitting since Saunders himself has talked about surviving his own Bad Hemingway phase). I didn’t write any fiction that was any good, or the least bit authentic. So … that was 10 years or so.

Then I spent 10 more years working on a novel, off and on, that is not terrible but is also not something anyone should be asked to read, unless they are getting paid to do it. Somewhere in there I a) moved to New York to work as a journalist and b) landed a literary agent based on some of my non-fiction writing.

I didn’t start writing the novel that became my first published novel until I was over 40, and I had already come about as close to giving up on writing fiction forever as someone can come without actually giving up on writing it forever. The story as to why I didn’t give up on it, and how I came around to writing something I actually liked and which seemed authentic to me, is long and convoluted, and not something anyone should be asked to hear, unless they are getting paid to do it.

Mary: OMG you guys. All of this is such a gut punch.

First of all, HAVE WE ALL MET WITH ADAM? Lol. I remember the first time we met you were eating an energy bar OF WHICH YOU SAVED HALF and I thought we could never be friends because who has that kind of self-control?

Taffy, I’m so glad you 86’d the crummy agent with the bad taste because the same thing happened to me. Just as I wondered if I should leak Emergency Contact on Tumblr or Wattpad because my first agent disliked it so much another one came calling and we sold it a few months later.

My first novel was structurally broken and even though I genuinely believed my second attempt had merit it wasn’t until after I’d accidentally gotten a second opinion that I suspected I had a real book on my hands.

ANYWAY:

The way I got into magazines was a little unorthodox. I’d gotten an internship at Mass Appeal, a graffiti and music magazine that published out of Red Hook, Brooklyn, long before the Ikea and the Fairway existed. Back then the B77 bus ran once or twice an hour so the commute was bonkers. No one else at Time Inc or Condé or Fairchild would have me since I’d graduated with a degree in Textiles and Apparel because until I got to New York I thought for sure I’d go into fashion. They only wanted interns for college credit. From Mass Appeal I started working at XXL even though I knew very little about hip hop but I learned absolutely everything from Elliott Wilson and Noah Callahan-Bever about putting my own magazine together and launched Missbehave, a quarterly lifestyle magazine in my late-twenties. Writing was how I learned how to write in the same way that I learned how to blog from showing up at Choire Sicha’s apartment one day and telling him and Balk that they needed a woman for the Awl. Everyone read the Awl then (RIP) and that’s when I started getting offers for your classic, front-of-book “glitter bomb” voice-driven essays from everyone from GQ to the New York Times opinion page. It took writing a few comics and ghostwriting DJ Khaled’s memoir before it even occurred to me to try and finish a novel for real. I didn’t know that novels existed in the world from people just completing them one day and shopping them around. I thought for sure you had to be picked by someone or anointed or else guided in some way or something but that isn’t at all how it works. You just do it because you’re convinced apropos of nothing beyond blind faith that you’re capable of it and then hopefully someone buys it.

THE AUDACITY OF WRITING FICTION

Taffy: That is a great story, Mary. I like that, that you do it because you have faith that you’re capable of it. I wrote a lot of this novel in breathless bursts of “Am I doing it? Am I really doing it?” and then “Am I actually going to finish it?” In the calendar year in which I wrote it, I published 100,000 nonfiction words in magazines. It was a page on my computer that I never closed. I wrote a sentence, or a page, or decided that this plane ride would be all fiction and not nonfiction. It was an act of audacity for me. Over the course of writing it, I read an advance copy of Matthew Klam’s novel, Who is Rich? And I loved it so much that I contacted him. He knew who I was and was excited for me that I was writing fiction. But he also added something existential to my effort: He said, the thing you are doing is uncalled for. Meaning it’s uncalled for, in that there’s a rudeness to it, but also it’s uncalled for in that literally no one has called for it. No one is asking for it. No one is waiting for it. Not like the nonfiction, they’re not. And it was true. Writing fiction when I was guaranteed to be paid by the word for nonfiction was an act of audacity. It was an act of rudeness (particularly to my wonderful husband, who explained to the children very often that their mother still loves them but she’ll be home late). It was chutzpah.

And it is true that Adam will eat half a salad even while seeing cheeseburger run down your face. It is lucky for him that he makes up for such passive degradation in the conversation department.


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


Mary: Yes! Yes! Oh, that’s exactly right. It DOES feel rude. Utterly uncalled for. It’s what makes the promotion of the book once you’re finished so hideously uncomfortable. It’s all so wildly unsolicited. Plus, it’s not like we don’t know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of press requests and one-sheets so then to be like, Look, yeah, I know… this administration… all this very pressing, very real news IS important and devastating but I made this thing up, it’s hundreds and hundreds of pages and I was wondering if you’d not only sit down and read it (it’s only the length of two trillion tweets) and then either review it OR you could interview me because I’ve unilaterally decided I’m one of THEM now.

My book’s coming out in just under three weeks. I’ve had ARCs out for over a month and I swear half my colleagues are ducking me because they feel as though I’ve assigned them homework and they have to complete it before they talk to me. I’m such an imposition. It’s gross.

It DOES feel rude. Utterly uncalled for. It’s what makes the promotion of the book once you’re finished so hideously uncomfortable. It’s all so wildly unsolicited.

Eva: I love this idea of fiction as uncalled for. One big reason I wanted to do this roundtable is that, for the first time in years, I’ve been toying with the idea of getting back into writing fiction. And I think a big part of the appeal of that idea is that it would be something just for me — not on deadline, not convincing an editor to pick up the pitch, not for a check.

(Don’t get me wrong, I like checks.)

So, eventually you’ve all gotten to a point where you write on both sides of the fence. I guess one of my main questions is, then, how do you choose? Let’s say you’ve got an idea, or a theme you want to explore. How do you decide whether to do that via fiction or nonfiction? For example: I think the first story of Ben’s that I ever read was the GQ feature about him wearing a pregnancy suit. But you could just as easily write a fantastical short story about a man who becomes pregnant and learns to empathize with the women in his life, right? Or, the inverse — you could explore many of the themes of a novel like Red Moon — terrorism, resistance, stigma — through journalism, too.

Throwing that one out to all of you.

Ben: I don’t think of myself as a nonfiction writer. So I almost never pitch. I honestly just want to write my novels and comics and screenplays. But editors approach me with ideas, and if the article sounds like fun, I say yes. This is what happened with the pregnancy suit piece. GQ approached me…I guess because I’m perceived as a hairy-chested mouth-breather; I hesitated to accept the assignment, but ultimately said yes because I thought it would make for good comedy (the whole thing is me making fun of dudes) and would allow me a free trip to Tokyo. I also told them up front that I was going to lie. A lot. That’s the risk you run in hiring a fiction writer to do a journalist’s job.

This has been the case with virtually every article I’ve written. The editors pitch me. That’s a lucky position to be in, I know, but I’m just a grouchy hermit who wants to stay home and play with his imaginary friends.

An exception is “An Orphan’s Odyssey,” which ran last year in Men’s Journal. (As a side note, why do editors always — always, every single time — change the proposed title of an article? I wanted it to be “American Orphan,” and the fuckers cornballed it up with their “Odyssey” bullshit). Anyways. In this case, my friend asked me to write his life story — and as epic and heartbreaking and heroic as it is, I didn’t want to do it. Because it felt like a dangerous and intimidating responsibility. I didn’t want to screw it up, and I didn’t want to play the role of white anthropologist, and I didn’t really know how to tackle a serious investigative piece. But I finally said yes, and we traveled together to Korea to unearth his lost history. And it was a life-changing experience for us both (note: I made myself invisible in the article — the focus is all on him). I’m really proud of the way it turned out, because he’s really happy with the way it turned out. More than any fiction I’ve written, this piece … made me feel like I was earning my oxygen?

So I guess fiction is a selfish act for me. It’s what I want to do with my time. It’s where all my mental energy is focused. If I take on a nonfiction assignment, sometimes it’s only to feed into the fiction. For example, I wanted to write a novel about cybercrime … but I knew nothing about this world. So I buzzed my editor at GQ about doing a tech piece that would ultimately take me to the Google and Apple campus and get me in touch with front-line researchers in digital security. I scammed my way into the article, so that I could get paid to research my novel.

I do think nonfiction is good for me. It’s broccoli for my brain, spinach for my soul, because it gets me away from my desk and out in the world.

Adam: I will confess that as an editor I have changed many a headline from something a writer loved to something they … did not love.

I have also eaten half an energy bar. Half.

This is starting to feel like group therapy. But in a good way!

For me, there’s not much cross-pollination between nonfiction and fiction in terms of which idea goes where — I’m more like Benjamin, in that the nonfiction I’ve written has ended up influencing my fiction in different ways.

For e.g.: My first novel is set in a near-future dystopian version of New York City where almost everyone’s left and the city’s collapsed back into chaos. So: Not very nonfictiony! But: It was 100 percent inspired by reporting I did for years at New York magazine about the ways in which the city had improbably transformed from the near-dystopian ’70s and ’80s to the near-ridiculous luxury brand version of New York I live in now.

Similarly — my latest novel, about an isolated community of criminals, was informed in all kinds of ways by a great nonfiction piece, not by me, that I read in GQ, titled “Pariahville,” about a community in Florida that’s made up entirely of sex offenders. (It’s a sitcom waiting to happen.)

So I think of nonfiction writing now mostly as an excellent way to research for future fiction, both generally and specifically, as well as to get in a lot of doors and talk to a lot of experts who might not open up/meet with you if you just showed up and said, “Hi, I’m a novelist.” Though maybe they would. I’ve never tried that approach.

I think there’s a pitfall with fiction where we get the notion that everything springs from a magical hidden place inside the writer’s head — when in fact so much of it comes from real-life interactions/experiences, which nonfiction writing definitely facilitates.

Also, it gets you out of the house. Sometimes.

Taffy: My novel totally could have gone either way. I started noticing that a lot of my friends were getting divorced, and that many of the divorces had something to do with income disparity of the past — meaning, the women were making more than the men. I thought this was fascinating. If I had been writing for GQ in a prior era, I would have pitched the idea to them: Let’s find a guy in his 40s who has to go back to dating after being married and having kids. Back then, when the magazine was 50 times thicker, they might have said yes. I even floated it by my editor, who confirmed that. So I decided to write it as fiction. I didn’t write about my friends — I wouldn’t do that in fiction or in nonfiction — but I took the basics of what I was hearing and went with it. I extrapolated, I assumed. This is a skill I took from journalism, where I do a lot of celebrity profiles. In those, I have to assume a lot because I’m only given so much information.

In fact, the lateral move between my nonfiction and fiction is that my novel is basically a very long profile of a man. That’s what I have generally written — profiles of men — and that’s how I was able to think about this and see it as fiction. A lot of journalists write first novels about what they do — someone along the way suggested I write an “Almost Famous,” about a journalist alongside a celebrity. But I don’t think of myself as someone who writes about celebrities. I think of myself as someone who writes about people. And this was just the story of a person. It could have for sure gone into a magazine. I still think of doing that story. Maybe if I find the right subject. If you are reading this, and you are a good subject for this story, please do reach out.

THE FEAR FACTOR

Eva: Alright, here’s another one for you all. Like I said, I’ve been toying with the idea of writing fiction again, and one thing I’ve realized is that the idea of having anyone else read my fiction is TERRIFYING/HORRIFYING in a way that none of the journalism or personal essays (some of them very personal!) I’ve written have been. Logically it seems like it should be the inverse — that telling true things about myself should feel more revealing. But somehow fiction feels more intimate, to me. Do you think that’s just a matter of my being out of practice? Or is there something fundamentally different about the two, in terms of what it reveals about us?

Mary, your novel release is looming. Where are you on the terror/horror scale? And Ben, you’re primarily a fiction writer. Maybe it’s flipped for you — maybe nonfiction is scarier to unleash on the world? I’m making wild guesses here!

Ben: I don’t get scared about writing either — sales numbers are the only thing that make me nervous — but it feels like there’s something greater at stake with fiction. Because I’m inventing worlds and conjuring characters, because my reader knows what they’re reading is a fabrication, I have to work that much harder to make them trust me and open themselves up to caring about and believing in what amounts to an epic lie.

If I write a personal essay or an article, the actors are already cast and the plot might need some finessing, but it’s mostly there. The audience doesn’t need to forget their life (and maybe even the rules of reality) to join me on the journey. Falling into nonfiction, trusting in it, is as easy as answering a phone call for a friend or pulling up a stool next to someone at a bar who says, “You want to hear about the worst day of my life?”

So it has nothing to do with vulnerability to me. It has everything to do with plausibility. And the next-level sorcery required of fiction that makes a reader that much more inclined to say, “I don’t care.”

Falling into nonfiction, trusting in it, is as easy as answering a phone call for a friend or pulling up a stool next to someone at a bar who says, ‘You want to hear about the worst day of my life?’

Mary: Oh man. The prospect of my novel coming out this spring is what landed me back in therapy last summer. It is horrifying. It also doesn’t help that for months the book’s half-out and dangling as an ARC to be reviewed by an extremely vocal minority all over social media and goodreads which I shouldn’t check but do. I agree with Ben here, there’s something about wholesale making everything up that makes it feel more personal. I’d be gutted if readers didn’t like the story because it’s so much more a direct rejection of your sentiments and capabilities than your observation or take on a person for a profile in a magazine. This could also have everything to do with how this is my first novel but the intestinal fortitude required to get to the end of an entire book and then start at the beginning all over again and repeat the process several times editing and rewriting is a type of stamina I’ve never had to call upon. The sheer volume of labor is a testament to how dedicated you are—how desperately you care—and to have that risk not pay off would be deeply humiliating. Plus some of the time you can get away with pure voice tricks in personal essays and even the spectacularly personal ones are heavily “curated” to where you can maintain the optimal filter since the sweet spot for word count is typically sub-1,000.

As for the earlier question, I’m white-knuckling onto my newfound status as a novelist so everything’s going in the fiction hopper. Bits of overheard dialogue, sad stuff I see on the street, smells, noises, other people’s anecdotes (modified for plausible deniability or pre-cleared) I need all of it. I’m in the baby vampire stage where I’m a voracious little maniac who’s too superstitious and nervous to change my Head Up Display in case fiction doesn’t let me back in. Hopefully that will change because I miss less terrifying writing. Like, my spine hurts.

Adam: I completely get why writing fiction would feel terrifying in a different way than writing nonfiction. I would compare it, weirdly, to the difference between performing sketch comedy (which I used to do) and doing stand-up (which I also used to do). No matter how hard a sketch bombed (and some bombed spectacularly) we, by which I mean me and the other performers, were protected by the fourth wall. We were insulated from the reaction and could always hustle through to the end and get off stage to the crushing sound of no-laughter. Whereas with stand-up, you’re standing face-out to the audience, nakedly declaring your need. You’re just trotting out one idea after another and displaying them to an audience, and saying, Do you like this? How about this? No? Maybe this?

To me, fiction is more like that. The naked-need-declaring one.

As a journalist, I feel more like a conduit — there’s a story out there, and I’m identifying it and corralling it and picking the best quotes and passing it along. At best, I’m like Rod Serling — your tour guide to the wild and wonderful world. But fiction is coming from somewhere deep inside and nowhere else.

That said, I almost never write personal essays, let alone very personal ones, and I find that daunting and terrifying in a whole different way than fiction, which I think delineates me from 99% of people online, apparently.

Mary: I am learning so much about you Adam. Holy hell. Stand-up? SO SCARY.

Taffy: I just texted him the same thing. In all our half-salads and glasses of wine, I would never have seen this coming.

Adam: Honestly, doing stand-up comedy is the most frightening, anxiety-provoking thing I have ever done and, when it works, the most exhilarating. I would recommend trying it to anyone in the world who has even an inkling that they might enjoy it. You will definitely do terribly and it will in all likelihood deform your personality. But when it works YOU FEEL LIKE A DEITY. IT IS AMAZING.

But when it is bad it is bad in exactly the way you fear it will be, at exactly the magnitude you fear it will be. No one ever walked off stage and said, “Well I bombed but it wasn’t as bad as I feared.” IT’S EXACTLY THAT BAD.

I once walked offstage at a club in Toronto and walked straight out the back door and kept walking all the way home.

I have secrets and they are all coming out.

Taffy: I totally understand the fear. Absent an actual story you were hired to write, everything else is there for some other reason, and that reason is suspect. I get nervous. I wrote a divorce novel, after all (and I am not, and I hope will not be, getting divorced). There are some fucked up thoughts about marriage, about friendship, about gender. But I started out with personal essays, and then moved to profiles, where very much of what I wrote/write in those profiles is as much about me as it is about anyone. Meaning the only reason I ever recognize anything in anyone else is because I relate to it. The thing I’ve learned time and again, though, is that no matter what, when you are blazingly honest and forthright, people will be grateful for it. That helps with the shame and self-consciousness. People may think they know something about you after reading your fiction, but they won’t think about it very long. Mostly they think about themselves. I guess that’s what we all need to do: Write fiction well enough so that nobody is thinking about you, just about themselves.

Eva: I think that’s a good place to wrap things up. Thanks so much to you all for doing this! I learned a lot.

* * *

Eva Holland is a writer and editor based in Canada’s Yukon Territory whose work we’ve featured on Longreads many times in the past. Visit her personal site at evaholland.com.