Nonfiction reader Coty Poynter recently had this exchange with Issue #48 featured nonfiction writer Joanna Greenberg. Here’s what Joanna had to say about the tightrope between fact and fiction, the challenge of writing about memory, how pursuing an MFA opened opportunities, and more.
This essay is deeply intimate, filled with moments of self-reflection that most of us often turn away from or deny. It’s difficult to talk about, let alone admit to, what you write with clarity and precision. What compelled you to write this particular essay?
When I think about all of my favorite nonfiction — and really, all of my favorite writing across genre — what I tend to find the most powerful and impactful is work that is unrelenting in its honesty. It’s a bit cliché, but the reason I put my work out into the world is in the hope that it makes others feel somehow seen, or understood, and, most importantly, less alone.
For this essay in particular, I was thinking about the dissonance between the conversations we have with ourselves and what we say and do out in the world. There is truth in both, and often contradictory truth. The first draft of this essay had much to do with truth and lies, but had very little to do with my divorce. Eventually I realized that it was the divorce itself that had sparked that fascination with how we define what is true and what is a lie for ourselves, and that set me off down the path.
Often the line between fact and fiction is a tightrope when it comes to creative nonfiction. When focusing on such intimate subjects, it can be easier, at times, to turn towards fiction, or at the least an unwhole truth. What’s your perspective on this topic? How did you navigate revealing these intimate moments of your own life?
Well, one of the first things I tell my nonfiction students is that all dialogue is necessarily a lie — we aren’t nor should we be walking around with tape recorders, as that would lead to very boring dialogue on the page. I will confess to taking quite a bit of liberty in this vein. I frequently write about my best friend, John, and one of our running jokes is that we wish we could be as funny as we are in my essays!
More seriously, I think that the task of creative nonfiction is to tell the story in a way that is as true as possible to your experience of it. I like your phrasing, “an unwhole truth.” I think you can tell when a piece of creative nonfiction has avoided telling us the whole truth, and the writing suffers for it. This includes intentional fabrications to say, make the story told more dramatic, or keep up a motif — the great fun of creative nonfiction is putting together a puzzle from the events of your life in a way that creates a beautiful whole.
This essay seems to take a braided approach — that is, you thread past and present narrative lines into a cohesive whole. What draws you to this choice? And how did this essay evolve as you worked on it?
The braided approach chose itself on this one. An early draft moved more chronologically, but the more I wrote it the more I realized that time itself plays a big role in how we understand and experience events, particularly in terms of what is true or known versus what may not be true but only believed. My favorite part of the essay’s evolution was printing it out, cutting up all of the vignettes separately, and then taping them up on my wall so I could see them all together and physically moving them around.
What are the complications of writing about memories? Memories, over time, can become hazy or incomplete. Even the most impactful moments of our lives can become points of confusion, riddled with gaps and lapses. Do you have any methods you use to access or flesh out these memories?
I’m constantly writing about things as they happen, most often as short notes in my phone or on scraps of paper I then have to dig out from various corners of my car and apartment. These help me to reconstruct the events as I knew them when they happened. Something I’ve realized over the course of my MFA is that writing a proper essay or book chapter too close to when the events described happened never works out; I need the distance that time gives to be able to write meaningfully about things. I think the slipperiness of memory provides opportunity in creative nonfiction: what do the different versions of our memories have to tell us about the meaning of those events, and how can we incorporate that into the writing itself?
How long did it take you to write this essay, and how many drafts did go through?
So many drafts! This essay is a result of an amazing course on revision that I took my first year in graduate school. Our professor, the novelist Goldberry Long, taught us a number of revision strategies that completely changed the way I write. Often, revision can feel like a huge chore, but this class taught me to really embrace the process, and now I think it’s where the true art of writing comes in. The first draft of this essay bears almost no resemblance to the final. It was also in second person, but addressed to my depression, and that is where the similarities end. After I realized what the essay really wanted to be about, it took about four more drafts to complete. All in all, from first draft to final, it took two years, though of course it isn’t the only thing I was working on during that time.
You’re an MFA candidate at University of California, Riverside, and the editor-in-chief at Santa Ana River Review. How has being in that position, as a member of the editorial team and in an MFA program, influenced how you approach your work?
I love editing, and in many ways find it much easier than generating my own work. I like the ability to work with another writer and help their work find its way into the world; so often writing is a lonely act, and any chance to instead make it collaborative is a gift. Working as an editor has definitely made me a better writer as well; I’m more able to look at my work from a distance and with objectivity.
I will be graduating from my MFA program here at UC Riverside in June, and it will be hard to say goodbye to the community of writers and friends I’ve gotten to be a part of over these last three years. Besides the development of your writing, I think that’s the real gift of the MFA — getting to be in a space with other writers and have your endeavors understood, taken seriously, and celebrated.
What are your thoughts on whether or not a writer should pursue an MFA degree?
I think it’s entirely dependent on the writer. Certainly an MFA is not a requirement to write or to write well and beautifully, and it’s absolutely not a requirement to be published. That being said, I am the kind of writer who absolutely needed an MFA to advance in my writing career. While I was a creative writing major during my undergrad, I quickly fell away from it afterwards and got distracted by my strange but surprisingly fun detour into the corporate workforce (my favorite moment of packing up to move to California was donating all of my business formal wardrobe to Goodwill). I felt — and still feel — that my MFA was a gift to myself: the gift of time to focus on nothing but my writing, and to take it seriously. I had been writing in my free time for about three years prior to starting the MFA, but there was only so much progress I could make with those stolen hours.
My writing is leaps and bounds better than it was before the MFA; the guidance from my professors and fellow students has been invaluable. I think having some kind of writing group is important to becoming a better writer, but I don’t think it has to be within the structure of a formal MFA program.
Could you describe your writing process? Do you have a specific routine, time, or place where you write? Do you rely more on inspiration or steady work? What is revision like for you? How do you know when a piece is finished?
I don’t have a specific routine, and I think the idea that real writers sit down to write at the same time every day is a myth. I envy writers who can do that, but I am not one of them. One of my not-so-great qualities is a tendency to want to break rules, even ones I’ve imposed upon myself. So, I write when I feel like it, more or less. Usually two to three times a week, for anywhere from four to six hours at a go. When I’m not writing, I’m always thinking about writing in some way or another.
Something else that we talked about a lot in that revision class was how many different things can count as writing, in that they are essential to your process. For me, writing is also reading, walking, and, now that I’m in California, driving. My best ideas tend to come to me when I’m in some kind of motion, so I’m always frantically writing things down at red lights, or running into people as I try to write and walk at the same time.
Revision is my favorite part of the process these days. I’m a very word-level focused writer, and I spend a lot of time trying to nail that down. I think every writer has to figure out what their weaknesses are and/or what revision strategies most improve their work, and for me that always involves seeing how much I can cut out and condense. I write overly long, and revise towards clarity and concision.
I know a piece is finished when it’s accepted for publication — otherwise, I’m prone to keep fiddling with it forever.
What topics or themes do you find you’re most interested in exploring through your work?
I’m not sure how to put this… I find I’m at my best when I’m writing about my own life, but have something outside myself to engage with. For example, in this essay, I had the writing of Adrienne Rich and Sarah Kane to spin into my own story, as well as the Jewish idea of belief vs. knowing. So, I suppose you could say I’m interested in searching for the root of things and use different lenses as my guides.
What are your thoughts on writers using social media as a platform for engaging and cultivating an audience?
I think it can be very effective and successful, and I’m jealous of writers who are good at it. I am not; social media is just not my thing, even on a personal level. Everyone in my life knows that if they want me to be up to date on their life, they have to tell me personally because I will almost certainly miss it on social media. I’ve never felt compelled to try to change this; I think if it comes naturally, that’s great, but for writers like me for whom it would feel like a performative chore, the best bet is to instead focus on your work and craft, and let that speak for you.
What are you reading now? Is it inspiring or affecting your writing?
I’m re-reading my favorite book of creative nonfiction, Pentimento by Lillian Hellman. It’s a collection of essays about the people in her life, and it’s also the book that I read that made me think: Huh, I think I’ll try writing nonfiction. I’m in the process of finishing and editing my own memoir, and Hellman’s prose is the best example of what I aspire to for my own; sparse yet generous, beautiful and singular in voice, and impossible to turn away from. I think all writers are necessarily thieves to some extent; we learn to write by imitating what we like from the work we read.
What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?
At the end of every writing class I teach, I read this passage from Roger Rosenblatt’s wonderful craft book Unless it Moves the Human Heart to my students. It’s the best advice I’ve encountered on writing, and on living:
“For all of its frailty and bitterness, the human heart is worthy of your love. Love it. Have faith in it. Both you and the human heart are full of sorrow. But only one of you can speak for that sorrow and ease its burdens and make it sing — word after word after word.”