Our editor-in-chief Lauren Bender recently had this exchange with Abi Newhouse, our Issue #30 featured nonfiction author. Here’s what she had to say about her inspirations, the challenges and rewards of writing about family, and her experiences in writing courses and workshops.
What compelled you to write this essay?
This essay originated in an undergraduate course revolving around the braided essay form, which consists of three narrative lines or strands. I was set on writing about black holes for the research strand and worms for the site visit, but when it came to the personal strand I was lost. I remember my professor, Jennifer Sinor, saying something like, “Write about what keeps you up at night.” And of course, at that time, all I could think about was my sister’s antics. I didn’t want to write about her, because writing about family can be tricky. But it felt so necessary, and we’ve actually seen a lot of positive results from going through with it.
There is such an interesting mix of elements in the essay. You have the scenes with your family interspersed with talk of worms interspersed with talk of space, sound, and black holes. You also delve into history and memory a little and how both can be rewritten. How did all these elements come together in your mind as related? Was their connection clear to you from the beginning, or did this evolve as you were writing and revising?
Part of the class was learning to find the connections between the random things we chose. It was a great exercise in writing to discover, and then to work to bring the strands together after that discovery. I slowly started seeing connections in secrets: opening and closing, hiding, and what that hiding can do to relationships in people, nature, and the universe. But the original idea was completely different, so different that honestly, I can’t even really remember it. I discovered connections in the original draft and really pulled them together during revision. Even now I look back and think of more ways I could have opened up those ideas throughout the piece. Writing is a never-ending process!
Many writers who draw on their life experiences have to face the challenge of the response from family members or other people in your life. Can you talk about what navigating that response has been like? Is this a concern for you? How do you handle their reactions and/or feedback?
Oh, I was so scared to show this essay to family, but of course, most afraid to show my sister. My mom kept telling me I needed to get my sister to read it, but it never felt like the right time. She had been married for about eight months, and we were on a family vacation when I finally showed her. I had to keep telling her, “This is my perspective. My experience.” But that sentiment can never fully soften the blow. She took it really well, however. She apologized to all of us, called it a “wake up call,” and actually left her husband (due to some other issues she had never told any of us). Things have never been better, and I do not regret writing the essay, even though it was so hard at the time. I think this experience is the outlier, though. I would still advise a certain amount of caution when writing about family.
Did you learn anything about yourself or your family from the process of writing this essay?
So many things. There are good secrets (like surprise parties) and bad secrets (things your boyfriend does in his spare time…), and we need to listen to those around us who can see our situations from a different perspective. I learned that communication is so important. Sometimes only the writing can say what I need to say best. I learned balance. Most of all, we all need each other, and we need to accept that.
“Dark Bodies” contains a fair amount of dialogue. How do you reflect what was actually said when you write your essays? Is it an approximation, or do you find yourself recording dialogue to remember (such as in a journal)?
I think it depends on the section. Any dialogue from the worms section came from a recording I used the entire interview. The transcribing process took so long, but it was so worth it to get the quotes. I have a teacher now in my MFA program that says, “Sometimes you have to read a whole book to get one line for your paper.” And I think that applies to interviews as well. The line “Their reality is completely different from ours” is exactly what I needed to understand the connection between the worms and the other strands, particularly the personal strand. When it came to the personal strand, the dialogue mostly came from memory—but they were the types of memories that I replayed throughout my life, so I consider them accurate. The black hole section came either from imagination or the book I mentioned in the endnotes. I think there’s usually going to be a mixture of verbatim and approximation in nonfiction, but I’m of the opinion that I’m writing from my reality, so while memories aren’t necessarily always reliable, they are real to me.
In your bio you mentioned you are working on an MFA in nonfiction. How has this experience affected your writing?
It has affected me in the most positive ways. I have learned so much more about research, as well as writing in different forms. I spent a lot of my undergrad career working in the lyric form, writing by association like you see in “Dark Bodies.” I’m learning to write chronologically, personally, and, like I mentioned, work based in research. I think when I finally feel like the pieces I’m working on are “done,” they will look a lot different from my previous work. I will, however, always love the lyric form and come back to it at any time possible. The lyric form feels more real to me—bouncing around consciousness, stitching thoughts together.
What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?
Honestly, probably what I mentioned earlier: “Write what keeps you up at night.” Every time I feel stuck when it comes to ideas and new projects, I think of the things I can’t let go. Those are the things I need to use the essay to figure out, the things I need to use to get my thoughts on the page. It helps me find answers and hopefully helps connect me to others with the same questions.
What author most inspires you? Who do you go back to again and again?
Eula Biss—though it changes monthly, she is a constant. I bought every one of her books. I love how she ties in research seamlessly. She takes one idea and flips it around, and for me, that reinforces the idea of writing to discover.
What are you working on now?
Right now, I’m working on a series of essays that involve objectification—the first involving Tiffany’s “Everyday Objects” product line. It will all tie into a larger theme of women being objectified, but we’ll see what happens. As we are aware, my ideas can (and most likely will) change at any point while writing.
Since we’ve grown out of a writers’ workshop, we like to ask: could you share a best—or worst—workshop experience?
Sadly, my worst workshop experience was my fault—I got mad at a boy who had written (unintentionally, as a result of not thinking it all the way through) a piece that was sexist. I wish I had let him know a little more gently. I did apologize to him later that semester, but it’s one of those memories that makes me physically cringe. Hopefully acknowledging it publicly will make the memory stop haunting me! On a positive note, my best experience was actually just yesterday when we had a visiting writer, Jeannie Vanasco, come and workshop with some nonfiction students. She is an inspired writer and mentor—she was the one who gave me the ideas for my new projects I mentioned earlier. There were only seven of us in the room. I loved the small and focused group setting that number provided.