Author Archives

Sarah Menkedick
Sarah Menkedick is the author of Ordinary Insanity: Fear and the Silent Crisis of Motherhood in America, out from Pantheon this April. Her first book, Homing Instincts, (Pantheon, 2017), was long listed for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. Her work has been featured in Harper's, Pacific Standard, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Guernica, Oxford American, The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere. She was a 2015-2016 Fulbright fellow in Oaxaca, Mexico, and a 2019 Creative Nonfiction Writing Fellow. Follow her on Instagram @familiasantiago. Visit her website at www.sarahmenkedick.com.

And Then We Grew Up

Getty / Illustration by Longreads

Sarah Menkedick | Longreads | May 2020 | 11 minutes (3,116 words)

“I envy you,” my cousin told me once, as we were sitting on the front porch of a log cabin in the Ohio woods, eating peach pie. “You have a word.” That word was WRITER. My cousin, who’d bounced around jobs in her twenties and thirties, envied the way my word so neatly answered the questions of career and identity, the way it brought me into focus. I may not have had any money. I may not have had any idea if the project I was working on would ever actually be seen by someone other than myself, but I had a word.

Every once in a while, I go through a spell of applying for jobs. Teaching jobs. Tech jobs. Utterly random jobs. I google “how to write a cover letter.” I fantasize with both fascination and horror about showing up at an office and chatting about The Handmaid’s Tale over tepid coffee in a communal space. Then inevitably I imagine that moment when a stranger asks me what I do and I can no longer supply my word as an answer. It is incredibly disarming, even just in my interior dreamscape, not to have that word. It has been an anchor for my personal sense of validation, my identity, my way of relating to the world for so long. What would it mean to give it up? To hand over all my art monster ambitions and renounce the often cruel bargain of personal stability for creative nobility?

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American Dirt: A Bridge to Nowhere

Flatiron Books / Illustration by Katie Kosma

Sarah Menkedick | Longreads | February 2020 | 20 minutes (5,591 words)

I first heard about American Dirt from Myriam Gurba’s scathing critique of the novel on Tropics of Meta. Her take immediately made sense, and it jolted me. Back in graduate school, I — a white, American woman — had written a novel about Mexico. I had lived there with my husband, Jorge, who is from Oaxaca, for five years. Many of our friends are Mexican; my extended family is Mexican. I speak fluent Spanish. I normally write nonfiction, and this was the only piece of fiction I had ever felt pulled to write. It was about a pregnant 17-year-old Oaxacan woman who adopts a dog. Yes. Really. I very briefly flirted with the idea of trying to publish it and was told that no one would want to read a novel that featured a Mexican protagonist — could I find a way to make the main character American?

Later, as I worked on a nonfiction book about return migration to Oaxaca, I received the same response: Could I make an American — myself, possibly, or a “young girl” living in Mexico — the main character, instead of this 35-year-old indigenous man who’d moved from L.A. back to his tiny village in the Sierra? That book didn’t sell. I was too scared to send out the novel, and I still am. As a nonfiction writer I can position myself, inquire about the limits of my understanding, push on them by asking questions. Writing fiction, one is fully laying claim to a world.

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Telling Stories In Order to Live: On Writing and Money

Sarah Menkedick | Longreads | January 2020 | 14 minutes (3,866 words)

I made the decision to write full time in the summer of 2008. I was leaving a teaching position in Beijing, and moving back to Oaxaca, Mexico, my husband’s hometown. I said I was going to “live from writing.” I had no idea what that really meant, but it was a leap I wanted to take.

We lived in a $150-a-month apartment in a scruffy colonia on the outskirts of the city. The financial bar I had set for myself was around $500 a month. I met this at first by grading practice TESOL exams online. This meant hours upon hours of listening to nervous Koreans analyze Harry Potter or explain worm digestion. I was so bored I pulled out enough of my own hair to give myself a bald spot.

From here, I moved on to writing practice TESOL exams, then practice SAT exams for a Korean contractor who worked for the Princeton Review in Asia. This took less time and paid more, leaving hours of the day free for me to write overwrought and purplish essays about my travel experiences. Nights, Jorge and I ate tlayudas in a nearby señora’s garage and drank forties of Corona. A few months into my full-time writing life, I got a gig as a blogger and editor at a travel site. I learned WordPress and basic HTML and got to publish my overwrought and purplish essays on a platform for an actual audience. In the meantime, I started my second personal blog, named for — cringe with me here — a Julio Cortázar short story. My blog allowed me to publish experimental essays in Spanglish and wax philosophical about the old man at the market who carved wooden airplanes. It allowed me, in other words, to suck.

My writing sucked for a long time in diverse ways, with the occasional sentence or paragraph or maybe even mini-essay that was half decent and resonant with the promise of the actually good. In late 2009, I went to a goat slaughter at an old hacienda in Huajuapan de Léon, a dry and dusty city a few hours from Oaxaca. The slaughter was an annual event in which local herders brought their goats to be killed en masse, their meat and skin and blood and bones all put immediately to use.

It allowed me, in other words, to suck.

The scene at the hacienda seemed straight out of the 1700s. The killing was more humane than I’d expected; one swift knife in the throat and the animal died instantly. Hundreds of goats were killed simultaneously so that none had to anticipate suffering. In courtyards around the hacienda, women carved the skin from the bones and hung it like underwear to dry, men etched out internal organs and tossed them in blue buckets. Kids raced around playing tag in bloody huaraches. I took notes nonstop in my little notebook. We returned to the city late at night, and the next morning I woke up at six and started writing.

It took me three days to complete a narrative of the experience. I wrote with a concentration, intensity, and focus I’d never had before, but for which all the sucky writing of the past year (and the previous decade, in bits and pieces) had prepared me. On a whim, I applied to six MFA programs and submitted the goat essay as my writing sample. One by one the rejections rolled in, until only one school was left. I not only had to get in, I had to get funding, which wasn’t guaranteed, so I figured it was probably all over. Then one day I returned from my run and opened my email and there was an acceptance from the University of Pittsburgh, guaranteeing me full funding for the duration of the three-year program. I screamed. I jumped around the apartment screaming. I dragged Jorge out of bed and we ran down the street to our friends’ apartment and we all drank shots of mezcal at nine in the morning. I would have three years to write, full-time, funded.

In 2010 Jorge and I moved back to the U.S. for my program. The following year, I got an internship at Harper’s Magazine and started Vela, my own magazine of nonfiction writing by women. The idea of the magazine was to counter some of the frustration I’d felt in New York at the narrowness of what might be called the legacy literary world, its white, male Ivy-Leagueness. I invited five women writers I knew and respected to participate, and the concept was for us to have a collective portfolio of our skills. I was idealistic in the way of the clueless outsider. I just wanted our small group of women to show that we could write. We published stories about abusive relationships. About the Zapatistas. About stepparenting. About chronic illness. About gold mines in Peru and gangs in Ecuador and the lingering impacts of genocide in Cambodia. None of our work was paid. Our crew put in hours and hours of writing, of editing each other’s work, of copyediting and designing and promoting and participating in epic rambly email threads. All of us had day jobs: grad school, teaching, editing. We wanted to prove to ourselves and the gatekeepers that we could do it. And we did.

One by one, we grew more successful: We published in major magazines. We won grants. Some of us went on to write books, others got teaching jobs. Meanwhile we opened the magazine up for submissions. Had we been a standard literary journal, pay would’ve been a nonissue. Literary journals rarely pay and if they do, they pay enough to subsidize, say, a new pair of jeans. But we operated in a liminal zone — most of us didn’t consider ourselves journalists and we didn’t define our magazine or its mission as journalism, but most of our work wasn’t in the more academic or highly “literary” essayistic style either. We were somewhere between literary journalism and travel writing and essay writing and narrative, and this ambiguity of genre had been part of the point in the first place: to push on the boundaries of those categories. It seemed clear that journalism had to be funded and well-compensated. Literary writing, less so, although why wasn’t exactly clear. I got hundreds of emails after we’d opened to submissions from writers who demanded to know how much we paid. Many of these emails consisted of semi-belligerent offers to write “guest posts” about personal travel experiences for a certain fee. When I said we didn’t pay, I often got angry rants in response, once from a woman who had no significant bylines or books, but who charged upward of $2,000 for her writing workshops. She called our magazine a scam. Meanwhile, I read the explosion of think and opinion pieces on paying writers. I was about to graduate from my MFA program and become a full-time freelancer. By this point, five years into “living from writing,” I wanted to be paid for my creative work. I knew I wouldn’t write for my own magazine if it didn’t pay. And so we ran a Kickstarter exclusively with the point of paying writers, and we raised $28,000. With that money we were able to publish some extraordinary work from writers we might not have gotten otherwise: two essays led to major book deals, others led to grants and to longer, more in-depth journalistic stories with bigger magazines.

Ultimately, our biggest mistake was not budgeting any money for ourselves: We’d been bombarded with commentary about the importance of paying writers, but not editors. The latter worked for a paltry stipend or no salary at all. None of us had the time or the desire to take on a full-time business role. Instead, we put the magazine on hiatus while we tried to figure out future funding and plans. In the meantime, dozens of other magazines sprouted up, all in that space between journalism and the literary essay. Most of these advertised boldly and proudly that they paid — but upon investigation, the pay was $50. Maybe $100 or $200 for a long-form piece. The conversation about “writing for free” continued, now focused on the insult of being asked to write “for exposure,” with the usual rants on Twitter and think pieces making the rounds. The idea of an experienced writer being asked to do her professional work for a major media corporation for “exposure” is ludicrous and insulting. But all the bombast and pressure and rhetoric around writing “for free” ignores a few key realities: Many professional and experienced writers are being asked to write for very little, which is somehow celebrated as “payment” but is in fact nowhere near a functional wage; and many inexperienced and early-career writers might not be doing work that merits payment. The latter is a reality not many people want to discuss. My early work sucked. No one would have paid for it, and I wouldn’t blame them. I wrote hundreds of thousands of pages that would, were I to print them out, fill an entire room of my house. Little snippets of them ended up published. The 70,000-word book I wrote for my MFA thesis ended up as a 7,000-word Harper’s Magazine story. Bits and pieces of work I’d written about Spanglish and Mexico and my marriage ended up as an Oxford American essay. But most of this work was compost — stinky, rotting, coffee-ground and broken-egg essays feeding richer work down the line. It wasn’t simply that it sucked. It was also that I wrote it for myself: to find out how I saw, what I cared about, how I strung my ideas and scenes together. I wrote it for the basic purpose of trying to figure out what mattered and how to convey that it mattered on the page.

But most of this work was compost — stinky, rotting, coffee-ground and broken-egg essays feeding richer work down the line.

I believe — I stake my existence on believing — that art should be compensated, and compensated with a living wage. This is not a given, which is why I live in Pittsburgh, why I have a part-time job that miraculously provides health insurance. I no longer write “for free.” I have started, in fact, demanding more pay for almost every piece, knowing that as a woman I’ll likely be offered less, and knowing that if I don’t ask I surely won’t get it. At the same time, writing with money as the end goal and predominant measure of value changes the nature of the game. Maybe this isn’t always negative; commercial pressure can work as a valuable creative restraint, forcing writers out of solipsistic indulgences. But thinking only of where a piece will sell, what I can write to make the money I need — urgently need, right now — to pay for our roof, also makes me wonder why I am still doing this. Why live this life of a writer, so poorly compensated in money and acclaim, so uncertain, so competitive, so crazy-making, if I’m not even doing it because I believe in it? If I’m not doing it because I’m writing something I have to write to figure out what it means to be human? Why do it if it’s just a job?

And yet at the same time, of course it’s just a job — this is the secret I didn’t know when I began. It requires the same grind and tedium as a job. The same negotiations for pay and promotion. The same boredom and frustration. But sometimes I need to remember that if it is just this, the meaning can bottom out — then I wonder, why do it at all. There has to be some risk, some leap that may not necessarily be compensated. That is uncertain and scary. Writing that matters is often risky — its saleability may not be immediately obvious, its style may be unconventional, it may break with standard forms and narratives. It does what it has to do to figure itself out. Certainly, there is phenomenal writing that doesn’t necessarily follow these rules, that may pop up within very familiar genres and categories. There is also plenty of writing that flaunts convention and fails to achieve anything of importance. Yet writing for a living often means writing, ultimately, what the market will bear. It means internalizing the stylistic and rhetorical and intellectual underpinnings of the literary behemoths, then shaping one’s work in their image. It means putting the cart of audience — and the style of “high magazine-ese” — before the horse of the idea, of the struggle to make sense of the intractable. It can shrink the work into manageable and predictable frames, and this can explain why so much of what is published and shared feels so familiar, and fails to generate that feeling of the whole world having been rattled and made new.

The other day, I went to a talk by a well-known writer who has become a guru on the business of writing, and she talked quite a bit about audience: She hinted that writers who don’t consider their audience aren’t savvy enough businesspeople, and maybe even self-centered or obsessed with prestige. But I wondered how it is possible to create authentic work, with that essential spark of the urgent and the curious, that is centered first and foremost on an audience’s imagined desires. Trying to derive a work from the question Who’s the audience for x and what will they like? instead of from a thorny idea, or an overpowering emotion, or a story that feels vital seems to me to quash the work’s life and purpose. It becomes purely commercial.

Trying to derive a work from the question Who’s the audience for x and what will they like? instead of from a thorny idea, or an overpowering emotion, or a story that feels vital seems to me to quash the work’s life and purpose. It becomes purely commercial.

I Skyped the other day with my little brother, a fellow artist who lives in Sweden and works as a barista and reaps all the benefits of the Scandanavian welfare state while flailing around trying to make a career out of music. “I know it’s bad when you’re Skypeing me at 1:30 p.m.,” he told me, meaning productivity, career-obsessed me, normally squeezing every last drop of potential wordage and progress out of the day, must be having a crisis if I am sitting in slippers in my backyard at 1 p.m. talking to him. He grinned through a mouthful of frozen pizza. I went on one of the flights of what-is-this-life fancy I can only indulge with him. I talked about Richard Powers’s The Overstory, and how after I read it I had that uncanny feeling of both how limited my work and life are and how profound and big the true mission and scope of art can be. It simultaneously made me want to give up — if I can never do that, why bother? and to forget all my woes and keep going, with a realigned compass focused not on publication but on that feeling I had each night I put The Overstory down. Why live this life, why embark on this madness of writing full-time, constant rejection, constant financial stress, the constant tug of pettiness and ego, if I’m not doing it because I’m trying to get at that essence of connection or meaning or mystery that makes a reader put down a book and just sit for a while and stare, or cry, or call her mother? Why do it if not for that? That, at the end of the day, has very little to do with money.

At the same time, when I have finished a piece of writing now, I am fully aware of the skill and the expertise required to create it — I cannot imagine publishing it for free. It is my livelihood. I need it to be recognized with adequate pay. I need the pay to fund my existence. The pay becomes the recognition and validation that reinforces the meaning of the work. The job and the passion blur in confusing ways, helixed so tightly it’s hard to unwind them. The irony is that the further I get into my career and the more I really need and demand money, the more I come to question what this means for my writing, what I believe and care about as a writer, what I am exchanging for what. It becomes harder and harder to write in that pure void of ideas and perseverance without knowing when the money will come and from where, trusting that eventually, if the work is good enough, it will come. Trusting that if and when it does, it means I’m doing it right. That it’s “worth it.” Eventually, the money has always come, but it has always not been enough, and I have always kept at it anyway believing eventually it will be, and on and on.

Recently, I started a newsletter. I did it in part because of all the pressure to kick off the promotion process for my second book, but also because for years now I’ve been wanting to write the kinds of essays I used to write: introspective, heartfelt, unabashedly Midwestern in spirit, with guest appearances by my dad and Annie Dillard. I didn’t write them and didn’t start the newsletter for years because I wouldn’t be paid, and I thought I should be concentrating only on what I could sell. Yet in starting the newsletter I rediscovered the joy of writing as a fundamental way of being in and moving through the world. It felt so unexpectedly good. I wrote what I wanted, what came from the gut, without any nagging train of thought in the head about who would read and where that would position me and how that would advance my career and what opportunity would open up. I just wrote for the joy of paying attention to my everyday life, thinking about what matters.

No professional writer or artist should be working for free. But neither should they be writing for $50 or $150 or $200, or for a paltry monthly stipend. Instead of painting a stark dichotomy between paid and unpaid work, I wonder if we could think of artistic careers as moving along a spectrum or timeline, from early work that might be funded by other means — MFAs, day jobs — to beginning work that might be paid a small amount, to professional work that should be paid a living wage. A publication offering $50 for an essay can’t announce “We pay!” as a sort of uniform accomplishment; the mere act of paying doesn’t necessarily make the work more valid nor does it properly compensate the work. When the focus becomes so much on the act of payment as a type of validation, not only do other metrics of value get lost — creative freedom and exploration and support — but what it means to pay meaningfully and fairly gets lost as well.

I wrote what I wanted, what came from the gut, without any nagging train of thought in the head about who would read and where that would position me and how that would advance my career and what opportunity would open up. I just wrote for the joy of paying attention to my everyday life, thinking about what matters.

I don’t regret writing for free all those years when I was figuring out how to write. But I have more complicated feelings about writing full-time now for what amounts to barely a living wage. I find it much harder in the early middle of my career to sustain and justify this work — I’m not a 28-year-old graduate student who can live on the same pizza for a week anymore. I have a child. I have a freaking mortgage. I went out for a beer the other night with a friend, also about 10 years into her writing and editing career, very accomplished and very financially unstable, and she said, “We’re too far in now to back out!” It’s true. It feels like we can’t give up. But the path forward is so uncertain — success looks so distinct for each particular artist and may not have any correlation with money. I was whining and moaning with my husband the other night about my career and when I would “make it” and he said, “Maybe you have made it,” and I realized that yes, maybe I have. Had anyone told me in graduate school I’d be writing for the magazines I write for and publishing my second book, I’d have let my head fill with self-congratulatory fantasies of greatness. Now, I spend most mornings writing at a plastic table on our front porch with a fitted sheet as a tablecloth. I am constantly hustling. Sometimes I am fulfilled in the way people can be fulfilled by a single word: writer. Often I am keening anxiously toward the future. This is an object lesson in the human condition of forever wanting more and never being aware of what is going on right here right now, but it’s also a lesson in the improbability and uncertainty of “living from writing” or from any art, of how really going at it with passion and dedication offers no guarantees or certainty or promise of stability. Yes, many artists and writers accept this as common knowledge — perhaps even as a badge of honor — starting out, but there is a very big difference between knowing it at an idealistic 28 and knowing it at 36 with a child, uncertain health insurance, and a house. I am fully aware now of the precise contours, dimensions, nooks, crannies of the gap between my ideals and financial and commercial realities. Much time is spent navigating that gap, possibly as much time as I spend writing.

Writing for free, or for very little, is something I would not and cannot do now — and yet at the same time, I long for the inhibition of that time when my writing wasn’t so hitched to my ability to pay for childcare or buy groceries. I have found it the most difficult to sustain my belief in the larger purpose of what I am doing when I am also desperately trying to get it to pay me and pay me enough. Yet at the same time, I do see progress: I am making a living. I am living from writing, my writing, still the writing I want to do and also writing I sell. But the balance is delicate and fragile. It is not so much between writing for free and writing for pay: it is between writing that makes the act of writing worthwhile, that feels somehow essential to deeper human understanding, and receiving sufficient money for this writing — between the very solitary act of making something I need to make out of a personal urgency and the needs and desires and economic whims of thousands of other people. This is the cost and the meaning of “living from writing.” I keep doing it, because I don’t know what else to do, because I am not qualified to do anything else, because I have come this far and I don’t want to give up now. I keep doing it in the hopes that someday that elusive balance will be struck between financial stability and creative freedom. In the meantime, I try to keep my compass as finely tuned to the north of what troubles me, moves me, confuses me, even as I draw up Google spreadsheets, as I write the tentative notes to editors asking for just a little more, as I cling to that ledge of living from writing and keep trying to peek over the top.

* * *

Sarah Menkedick is the author of Ordinary Insanity: Fear and the Silent Crisis of Motherhood in America, forthcoming from Pantheon in April 2020. Her first book, Homing Instincts, (Pantheon, 2017), was long listed for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. Her work has been featured in Harper’s, Pacific Standard, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Guernica, Oxford American, The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere. She was a 2015-2016 Fulbright Fellow in Oaxaca, Mexico, and a 2019 Creative Nonfiction Writing Fellow. Follow her on Instagram @familiasantiago. Visit her website at http://www.sarahmenkedick.com.

Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Jacob Gross

The First Book

Sarah Menkedick | Longreads | July 2019 | 38 minutes (10,294 words)

For me the low point came two months after publication, at a playground a few blocks from my house. I sobbed on the phone with my sister, eking out incomprehensible sentences about my career this, my life expectations that, writing this, the publishing industry that, until finally my sister said, “Maybe you should look for a different job?” and I realized the jig was up — I was doomed to keep doing this ridiculous and often seemingly pointless thing.

A few weeks before this, I’d received my first letters from readers telling me how much they’d loved and needed the book, and I’d had another sister-to-sister phone call — just as wrought with emotion — in which I raved about all the deeper meaning and purpose of this milestone and how it wasn’t about the sales and the metrics but about what mattered blah blah blah. I ping-ponged like this for awhile, alternately aglow and despondent, hopeful and wretched, until finally I just started writing again and got on with it.

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Behind the Writing: On Research

Type by Katie Kosma

Sarah Menkedick | Longreads | February 2019 | 29 minutes (7,983 words)

In December, I turned in the first draft of my second book. I assumed that when I finished it, I would stand up and scream. Actually scream “YES!” followed by a stream of sundry obscenities, then collapse on the floor and make my husband take a picture for Instagram.

Instead, I was in a quiet back room of Hillman Library, on the University of Pittsburgh campus, drinking a 99¢ mug of coffee, googling Erich Fromm quotes, when I suddenly realized I was done, and I just sat there mildly stupefied, then caught the bus and went home. It was an appropriate end to a writing process that felt a lot less like glorious creation and a lot more like survival and persistence: just getting through one day, one page to the next, trying to keep the pyramid of information, ideas, and sentences from collapsing into a wet heap. It sucked, but in the way most serious creative endeavors suck, with a lining of deep gratification that afterward allows one to pretend that it was all in the service of a mystical something and not really, at base, insane.

It was an appropriate end to a writing process that felt a lot less like glorious creation and a lot more like survival and persistence: just getting through one day, one page to the next, trying to keep the pyramid of information, ideas, and sentences from collapsing into a wet heap.

What made this second book so difficult was research: not the process of doing it, not compiling and organizing it, but the quandary of how to make it creative. How to write a book that felt like it spoke to huge questions — the meaning of life, what matters and why, all the things one gets misty-eyed about around a bonfire — via gobs of information.

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Behind The Writing: On Interviewing

Sarah Menkedick | Longreads | July 2018 | 18 minutes (4,817 words)

I am slightly embarrassed to admit that for a long time I thought of writing in its strictest, most cinematic sense: as the act of sitting before the proverbial blank screen and conjuring meaning word by word, occasionally pounding a fist on the desk for emphasis or stretching to pet the cat. In grad school, I took the maxim that She Who Wrote the Most Became the Best Writer very literally, churning out pages upon pages that yellowed and blew around my apartment. I remember sitting down with one of my advisors for a thesis meeting and expressing some frustration about how research or the logic puzzle of structuring was eating into my writing time. He looked at me a little like how everyone in the Amelia Bedelia books always looked at Amelia. “But that is writing,” he said. I was flummoxed. “It is?” That seemed like cheating. Writing in my mind was only a mystical, pure struggle of sentence-conjuring; everything else was superfluous, a stretch before the race.

As my career has advanced and I’ve published an actual book and written for various magazines and cobbled together a living as a freelancer, my notion of writing has finally expanded to encompass my professor’s definition. In nonfiction, I’ve come to see writing as the whole process of bringing a piece to life and all of its component parts: the interview preparation, the interviews themselves, the transcriptions, the reinterviews, the careful chiseling and combining and rearranging of all this material. Writing is the broad research and the winnowing of broad research into narrower channels and tangents; the notes scribbled in reporting; the random quotes encountered in poetry or everyday life; the highlighting and mapping and organizing; then, finally, the actual word-by-word construction of sentences into story, which is more akin to building a nest from a thousand disparate twigs than conjuring a vision straight from one’s genius literary brain. It is all, in summary, much more humbling than it seemed at the outset.

Last year, I embarked on a project of new depth and scope: a book which entails a great deal of research and interviewing, and whose backbone is reconstructed narrative. As I delved full-time into the work, I realized I was as interested in the particular skills and techniques required to get and shape the material as I was in the material itself. I had focused for so long on the importance of the meaning of the sentence that I hadn’t thought about the art behind the rest of nonfiction writing. Part of the goal of this column, then, is to shine a light on some of those aspects of writing — interviewing, research, structuring, and more — that could be defined as “craft” and are often hidden behind the actual prose.

To tackle this column, I took the standard approach I’ve developed over my early career as a writer: look to the women. Women writers still face entrenched stereotypes and biases, underrepresentation in reviews, and a significant byline gap in publishing. I have found that one silver lining to this discrimination can be women writers’ commitment to helping one another out, supporting one another’s work, and navigating what often feels like an inscrutable insiders’ network together. With that spirit in mind, for this first column on the subject of interviewing, I looked to three women writers whose work I deeply admire: Lauren Markham, Sarah Smarsh, and Jennifer Percy. I read and reread their remarkable books, then spoke with each of them about the skill, art, and technique of the interview.


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One reason I chose these three women’s work was because each of their books leans heavily on reconstructed narrative: scenes from characters’ pasts that the writer didn’t witness and that need to be put together in vivid detail from interviews. Much of my work as a journalist has relied on reconstructed narrative, and I am fascinated by the puzzle of interviewing the same subject over and over again in order to flesh out the shape and texture of their life. It is not a linear process. It does not proceed like: Tell me about the day you did X. How did that feel? What did it look like? What happened next? Now tell me about the day you did Y. For me, it often involves getting a big gush of information in the first interview, then going through it to highlight areas of particular interest or ambiguity, then going back and asking more about those areas, then repeating this process ad infinitum until the information becomes a story.

Lauren Markham spent two years reporting The Far Away Brothers, a beautiful, devastating nonfiction epic that follows twin brothers Ernesto and Raul Flores (not their real names: Markham used pseudonyms to protect their identities) from El Salvador as they embark on a perilous journey across Central America and Mexico to the United States, fight their way through immigration limbo, and struggle to build a new life for themselves so far from home. Markham described her interviewing process as “entering through the side door.” She gave an example from the powerful opening scene in her book: her main characters, the young Salvadoran twin brothers, are in a car en route to a court appointment in downtown San Francisco. They are late, and they are stressed: If they miss this court date they could ultimately be deported. They are driving around in circles with their older brother. First Markham got the information about the times, the streets, the weather, the basics of how they were feeling. But the details that give the scene the poignancy necessary to open a book about American immigration came through the side door: Long after her initial interviews for the car scene, she and the twins were chatting about something else when one mentioned casually that he’d always thought of the United States as a land of skyscrapers, these big beautiful buildings, but once he was here, he realized it wasn’t really like that. Markham asked him how he felt under the skyscrapers in San Francisco that morning, and out of that conversation arose this passage:

At seventeen, the twins have never been to a city before — unless you count San Salvador, which they’d been to only a few times to visit relatives, or Mexico City, where they were practically shackled to their coyote, hunkered down in the spectral underbelly of the pass-throughs. San Francisco looms like no other place they’ve ever seen. Raul used to picture these buildings in the quiet night back home, rising upward like ladders, like possibilities. But now that he’s under them, they’re just endless, indistinguishable boxes. They make him feel, as most things in the United States of America so far do, small and out of place.

These moments, Markham suggests, are not ones you can necessarily ask about directly. “If you say to any of us,” she told me, “‘What are some of the most foundational memories from your childhood?’ we’re like, ‘wahhhhh?’” But if you’re willing to make the investment of time, you eventually find a way in through the side door.

Another day, Markham went on a bike ride with the twins and they told her a story about how when they were little in El Salvador they’d stolen corn and used it to buy a bike; it was such a perfect memory to encapsulate their childhood. To elicit this type of early experience in particular, Markham relied much more on the coefficient of time spent with her subjects than on the expertly crafted interview question. She told me, “I think building real, honest, genuine relationships from your heart with whomever you’re interviewing makes for better journalism and more humane journalism. And of course there have to be boundaries and there has to be the clarity of OK we’re not friends and I’m still a journalist, but you can still be operating from a place of deep compassion and connection with someone.”

Writing about immigrants who attended the high school where Markham works in Oakland, California, posed an ethical dilemma that terrified her initially. She did not want the twins to feel obligated to participate in her project; she did not want to seem like she was taking advantage of her position; she didn’t want to blend her role coordinating services and programs at the school with her role as a journalist. She agonized over this with her boss at work until finally she told her, “Listen, we let journalists in here all the time to connect with immigrant communities, and we are constantly making a calculation of do we feel this person is trustworthy and do we feel that we trust them enough to connect them with students or families. Of all the people I’d want to write this story, it’d be you.” Markham was still uncertain about putting an undue burden on the twins until finally, she told me, she realized, “I was so freaked out about these young people’s ‘inability’ to make a decision and understand the kind of nuances of my dual role, that in fact I was infantilizing them. They walked from El Salvador to the United States, and I was sort of projecting on them this inability for them to understand or to make a decision on their own.” She sat down with them, explained her project, and told them they didn’t have to make a decision right away. By this point, they were no longer students and were 18 years old. She was surprised when they immediately agreed. They wanted to tell their stories. They wanted to be heard.

Throughout the entire writing process Markham was hyper-aware of the clichés inherent in writing about immigrants: painting them as the perfect, sad heroes, as one-dimensional victims. She wanted to include all the complications of their lives, their shitty decisions, their adolescence. They were teenagers, after all, living by themselves in a foreign country. “Showing them in their roundness was a way to crack open the trope of immigration,” she told me.

Her commitment to showing her characters’ full, complex humanity comes through in so many details of daily life and personality: the way the twins’ faces form “matching masks of dread” when they are late for an appointment; the bright red the Mexican snack food Takis stains their lips; the comfort they feel as they cuddle in a pilled blanket with their brother’s girlfriend’s chihuahua; the movies they watch (Finding Nemo) contrasted with their Facebook posts (tough-guy proclamations and shirtless pics); the way each holds a baby (Ernesto, “cautiously, like a bowl filled with water,” and Raul comfortably, “his face soften[ing] into an old expression something like innocence or wonder”). The most potent information, Markham said, came from just talking to and observing them, but it should also be said that her interview process was extensive and methodical. She had a regular interview schedule with the twins and over the course of years developed a “crazy mosaic” of information: details related to the car and the court date, to the journey northward from El Salvador, to the desert, to their time in an immigrant detention center. She knew that the power of the narrative would ride on detail, and whatever she didn’t glean from observation over time, she tried to ask about: What color was the sofa? What about so-and-so’s shirt? Maybe they didn’t remember the sofa or the shirt, but they did recall the wallpaper, and she’d write that down.

The technique Markham relied on most was asking the same question over and over: Tell me again about this.

The technique Markham relied on most was asking the same question over and over: Tell me again about this. “We already told you!” the twins would say, but they would tell it again, and when a detail changed she’d ask about it. She learned this in a workshop with Rebecca Skloot, who said that if you only have the testimony of one person and can’t corroborate, interview that person over and over and see where there are discrepancies. These discrepancies, Markham told me, are often “portals into more complex questions and realities of the story.”

Jennifer Percy also relied on this technique during the three years she spent reporting and writing Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism, the harrowing story of a soldier who, after a traumatic event in Afghanistan that resulted in the death of his best friend, returns home to the United States with PTSD and attempts to cure himself and other suffering vets using exorcism in small town Georgia. Percy found herself asking for the same story over and over, trying to break down the heroic version she initially heard. She needed to get through that stiffness of the rehearsed narrative to something rougher and more authentic. She was not after the same kind of authenticity as Markham; where Markham wanted to convey in precise detail the nature of her subjects’ journey northward, Percy wanted to illustrate the emotional and psychological power of war stories, the way they are constructed, the way they can be unreliable, the complex questions that unreliability poses.

Percy was heavily influenced by James Agee’s Let Us All Praise Famous Men and by the notion that nonfiction will always operate with limitations and will never be able to represent the world as it is. These limitations are some of the central tensions of her book; she portrays herself as the writer, the interviewer, struggling to understand across a gulf that is also the gulf between the average American and the soldier returning from war with PTSD. In the parts of the book in which she herself is present as a character, actually depicted interviewing on the page, the reader interviews through her in a way, struggling to make sense of experiences that in the end are impossible to untangle by everyday reasoning. “I asked him all those questions you’re not supposed to ask, about how many you killed, and death and destruction, and I asked him about morals,” she writes. The sense of the terrifying foreignness of both the questions and the answers is palpable. Percy is not acting here as the hidden expert deciphering this world for us, but instead as a novice we can identify with and relate to the characters through. “It didn’t really feel like I was trying to be an expert on the subject,” she told me, “but rather going into it as a question, with questions. That was what was driving the book.” Here the awkwardness of the interview is the story itself: How does someone who has never been to war understand war, and how does someone who has been to war make it comprehensible?

Percy is not acting here as the hidden expert deciphering this world for us, but instead as a novice we can identify with and relate to the characters through.

Percy obtained many concrete details — the height the aircraft at the heart of the narrative was flying when it crashed, its position, its specs — from sources other than her main subject, Caleb. With him, she focused predominantly on how he was struggling to make sense of an extremely traumatic experience.

This meant learning when to stay silent and when to push back. At first, she told me, her tendency was to react to these stories of trauma in the way she would react to a friend who was grieving: to respond empathetically, to ask sensitive questions, to tread very carefully, until she realized that this wasn’t actually what her subjects needed. They wanted her to listen, so she grew quiet and listened.

She eventually became less nervous about asking difficult questions, and as her relationship with Caleb evolved over years and he increasingly insisted on bringing her in line with his vision of the world, she pushed back a little harder against it. This delicate line in interviewing between privileging a subject’s view of the world, trying to comprehend it with as much nuance as possible, and challenging some of the improbable or biased or ethically dubious aspects of that view is one that Percy navigates masterfully. The narrative is tense with interactions like the following, in which Percy gestures to the gulf between her experience and her narrator’s, and to her own doubt, and at the same time gives credence to the necessity and fullness of his convictions. In this scene, she challenges Caleb and he challenges her back, and in the interplay between them lies the trauma.

“I tell him gently how sometimes when people convert to new religions they project their faith backward, using religion to explain difficult situations.”

“That’s all very interesting,” Caleb says,” but I have no doubt that this thing has been after me my whole life. I know you think this all sounds crazy, and don’t get me wrong, so do I.”

He crosses his arms and presses his lips together like a beak.

“What exactly would be the point of me going through deliverance?” I ask. He keeps telling me to consider it.

“Let’s say you did. What do you think it might have?”

I don’t say anything.

Then a few breaths later in that same scene, Percy asks:

“Did you feel anything after deliverance?”

“White noise,” he says. “All this white noise. I didn’t even know it was there and suddenly it was gone.”

In the first third of Demon Camp, which is written like fiction — a lyrical, haunting story of a vet growing up, going to war, and experiencing its horrors — Percy wanted to convey Caleb’s point of view. She taped many conversations and appropriated his language and rhythms directly from those transcripts. She also prepared him for interviews by saying, “I’m going to ask a lot of questions that seem really irrelevant. Can you spend a lot more time talking about this random object in the corner of the room?” She would tell him, “Slow time down to where you’re going to take me an hour to describe ten minutes.” What emerges from this is an almost embodied nonfiction, where Percy is in a way channeling her character. Of the night Caleb lost his virginity, Percy writes, “She showed him what to do in the way a mother might show her child how to fold a napkin.” Of his eagerness to believe in deliverance at a conference in Rhode Island where people came to be rid of PTSD, she writes, “He was born into a family who spoke of God at warm meals.” Percy gives me faith that, with enough time and observation, it is possible to use powerful, lyric prose to convey the experience of another person. She does, however, attribute the particularly lyric style of Demon Camp to the fact that it was her first experience of reporting, and she came into it “without any baggage in that realm.” I, too, feel that I now have too much baggage as a reporter to write as freely as I want, and I find Demon Camp exciting in how it breaks convention with much of standard literary journalism. It illustrates the possibility of being rigorous with interviewing and reporting while still writing a haunting, transporting work, harking back to the writing of earlier literary journalists like Didion and Wolfe.

Percy gives me faith that, with enough time and observation, it is possible to use powerful, lyric prose to convey the experience of another person.

In her highly anticipated debut, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, Sarah Smarsh also wanted to illustrate the imperfections and limitations of nonfiction, and the fact that the stories she is telling are not the ultimate, absolute truth but rather the subjective recollections of individual human beings. She wanted to emphasize the wit, insight, and personality of her characters — her family, blue collar workers who have so often been depicted mainly in demeaning stereotypes, or denied a voice at all in American culture. At first, Smarsh intended to immerse the reader in a narrative that read like fiction, a seamless recounting that made her interviewing invisible. But then, she told me, she realized that “for me, the family members who I was interviewing, who are dynamic characters in the book, are so original and funny and vibrant in their own words that I found however much I honed a narrative based on the things they told me, it was leaving one of the greatest strengths of the story on the table if I didn’t let them do some speaking for themselves.” This was also, she explained, “a subtle way of reminding the reader … (a) I’m not making this shit up, and (b) it’s not all about me. I’m building this from hopefully empathic conversations with people whose stories go back further from my own.” This tactic of forgoing the unbroken enchantment of a narrative that reads like fiction for a sense of real people telling stories allows Smarsh to pull off a remarkable feat: Although her book is a memoir, her voice and presence feel secondary to that of her family, and her consciousness, though it is actually writing and constructing the story, does not feel as though it is what drives the book.

Take, for example, Smarsh’s description of her grandmother Betty’s move from Wichita to Smarsh’s grandfather Arnie’s wheat farm:

Betty peeled untold pounds of potatoes, baked pies, fried meat, and stewed vegetables that grew outside the front door. She learned the isolation of rural life through a batch of cookies — she had everything she needed but the brown sugar. What was she supposed to do, drive ten miles west to Kingman just to get one damn ingredient?

“It wasn’t like when you lived in town, you’d bebop down to the QuikTrip,” she told me years later.

She learned to keep the basement overstocked with discount canned food, the deep-freeze packed with every cut of meat, the cupboards filled with double-coupon deals.

Heartland is driven by Smarsh’s memories and framed by her childhood, but in the end the book is not really so much about her — that is, her interior self and struggle — nor is it propelled by her voice in the MFA-ish sense of “voice.” I was amazed by this when I read the book, and it speaks in large part to the power of her interviewing. In an author’s note that prefaces the book, Smarsh notes that she researched and wrote the book over the course of 15 years, conducting “uncounted hours of interviews.” The resulting narrative demonstrates not only the extent of these interviews, but also Smarsh’s particular understanding of this world and these people and the empathy she has for them. While much of the uniqueness and insight of Percy’s book came from positioning herself as an outsider, trying to figure this world out — she told me that she doesn’t think the book would have had the same resonance had she come into it as a seasoned war reporter — Smarsh’s book derives its empathetic power from her belonging, her intuitive sense of this place. Much of the narrative, and of the conversations in the book, revolve around the tangibles of places, houses, jobs: the emotion is implied and pulses subtly and largely unstated beneath these facts. She was not asking her grandmother, “What did you feel? What did you think?”

Smarsh’s book derives its empathetic power from her belonging, her intuitive sense of this place.

When your own society hasn’t cared about you for decades, she told me, “those truths are experienced at some strata that is below words and articulation.” The lack of articulation of these truths in fact drove her to become a journalist in an attempt to articulate them. What makes her book so singular is the fact that she is able to convey this repressed or buried emotion in the language and the worldview of her characters. She doesn’t try to speak for them in what she calls “fancy English.” (She told me she speaks two forms of English: country and fancy.) She uses her understanding of this place and this worldview not to translate it but to convey it, with the skills and ethics of what she describes as “an old-fashioned hard-ass twentieth-century newspaper training.” We chatted briefly about Katherine Boo, whose work shares much in common with hers, and she remarked that Boo’s writing is exceptional because Boo doesn’t impose “her own inevitably socialized way of seeing reality” onto the people she’s writing about. The same could be said of Smarsh.

Like Percy, Smarsh emphasized the importance of being comfortable with silence. She described the interview as a forced, staged, artificial reproduction of what we do every day: talk to people and elicit interesting stories and information. “It’s sort of like if someone is just naturally hilarious and whenever you sit around and drink beers they crack everybody up, but if you put a microphone in front of that person and you’re like, ‘Be funny!’ they kind of shut down,” she said. This is the awkwardness the interview can generate for writers.

Smarsh told me she hates awkwardness and she has a “crushingly high empathy default setting,” but she’s learned to pause, to leave space for her subject to fill in. The most powerful and true answer might need that space, even if it makes the interviewer squirm.

I asked Smarsh about how interviewing family differed for her from interviewing strangers and if she employed any unique techniques. Her response was that actually approaching family interviews as a journalist — a professional working in a field with specific demands and protocols — made it easier for them to tell her their stories. This approach, she told me, “allowed my family to say, This is just work. I’m a journalist, I’m just doing my job, and if there’s anything my family respects, it’s someone just doing their damn work.” The interviews were not a touchy-feely let’s-all-understand-one-another session or, as Smarsh put it, her family saying in gushing tones, “Let’s support darling Sarah’s work!” Rather, she said, they were “basically the writing version of sharpening some tools in the shed.”

Smarsh told me she hates awkwardness and she has a “crushingly high empathy default setting,” but she’s learned to pause, to leave space for her subject to fill in. The most powerful and true answer might need that space, even if it makes the interviewer squirm.

I, too, have played this I’m-the-journalist role with my family: in particular, with my younger brother, when he went on a soul-searching road trip one summer and I begged to accompany him, as if he were the budding musician and I the rookie reporter for Rolling Stone. I have found it fascinating how much I could not know — and could come to understand — about someone I’ve known my whole life. The space that opens up between family members with that journalistic distance, with the curiosity and novelty of that role, can reveal objects hidden in plain sight. Smarsh describes writing about her family in this way, as a journalist, as “the most transformative process I’ve had as a human being”; in understanding the social, cultural, ground-level factors that made her mother in particular who she was, Smarsh was able to forgive her.

Smarsh described herself at one point as a “journalist of everyday life,” a phrase that seems at once intuitive and uncanny. I’ve come to latch onto it as a guiding principle; I love both its sweep and its specificity. In many ways, the art of interviewing, and of reconstructing the narratives of “regular” people — that is, not celebrities or public figures — is the art of making everyday life exceptional and fascinating, of seeing what we either take for granted, miss, or cast only a passing glance at in our narrow worlds. In the case of all three of these writers, everyday life contained significant traumas that would be foreign to many readers, but it also contained infinite small moments of tenderness, heartbreak, and connection, and the brilliance of their work is the ability to convey both: to map out the forces that shape a life and also all the quirks of individual strength and personality that define it.

The interview can feel like an act of transgression or, at worst, of violation, and at the same time like the ultimate veneration, a low bow before the infinitely layered experience of another human being. It is a unique intimacy, uncomfortable and pleasurable, awkward and at times transcendent, a spark of meaning that flashes between two often very different people. As Smarsh put it, “You are being given a gift.” And as with any gift, the giving and the receiving are complicated: How to reciprocate? How to honor? How to achieve balance? And is that even possible, or the point?

To look at the interview is to understand writing not as the solitary endeavor of the genius performing her sorcery but as relationship, as negotiation, in which a writer is trying to simultaneously remove herself entirely from a story — to in fact scribble out her assumptions and readings — and to purposefully tell that story with all her skill, will, and vision. The interview acts as a prism illuming the ultimate goal of any writing: to use one’s language and self and brain as a way of getting beyond self and language and brain into a larger realm, a shared one, a more universal one built of the most microscopic blocks: And what did the river feel like? Tell me about the wallpaper.

* * *

Sarah Menkedick is the author of Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm (Pantheon, 2017), which was longlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. Her second book, about an epidemic of anxiety in American motherhood, is forthcoming from Pantheon. Her work has been featured or is forthcoming in Harper’s, Pacific Standard, Oxford American, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere.

Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Jacob Gross
Fact checker: Matt Giles

Between Mom and Stepmom

Illustration by Giselle Potter

Sarah Menkedick | Longreads | May 2017 | 15 minutes (3,743 words)

 

Meg first appeared to me as a nimbus of curly red hair, looming above my top bunk late at night. The hair, backlit and aglow, was so remarkable that I reached up and patted it as though it were a rare creature. Meg offered the nervous, extra-buoyant “hi” of the girlfriend meeting the boyfriend’s kid for the first time. In reply, I stroked the hair.

I was five; she was 25. Just a few weeks before, she had met my dad at an art opening. He was up-front about the fact that he was 37, divorced, with a 15-year-old and a five-year-old. She was working the second shift at a hospital, reading dense Buddhist texts, hanging out with a band of artists whose blue velvet berets and psychedelic hand-stenciled trunks would later color our house. They met in February and married in October. The ceremony was in the backyard of our old brick house near downtown Cincinnati. There was carrot cake, a smoldering fall sunset, an exchange of vows inspired by a California guru. Meg walked down the aisle to the Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place.” In November of the following year, my brother Jackson was born.
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