What would you say makes an authentic piece of creative non-fiction?
Authenticity is such a tricky concept, but I would say this: A piece of creative non-fiction works for me when you think, no one else could have written this. The same way you hear a Sharon Jones song and think, that’s got to be Sharon Jones. It could be Rebecca Solnit writing about mansplaining or Jimmy Breslin writing about the guy who dug John F. Kennedy’s grave. It’s Grace Jones’s or Marianne Faithfull’s autobiographies. It’s Samantha Irby writing about The Bachelorette. If someone randomly read you a paragraph and you were blindfolded, you would know the writer immediately.
I am a firm believer that stories can take on various forms or identities. The story will tell you whether it craves the poetic form, essay, short story or a combination of many. What do you say to those who challenge hybridity? Have you read any fabulous hybrid works?
Your own book Dear Current Occupant is the answer to that question! It was one of my absolute favourite recent books, and it so strikingly blended poetry and memoir and visuals (you are not allowed to take this sentence out!) I’m all for hybridization. How could you be against it? I grew up on Classics Illustrated, the gateway drug of high-low mishmashes. Later, I loved books that experimented with form. I remember when I first read Vikram Seth’s novel in verse, Golden Gate, and it blew me away with the originality of its conception.
What was the hardest thing you've had to write and why? What changed (if anything) after you wrote it?
Journalists of my generation are told to be leery about writing about themselves. It’s antiquated advice and thankfully younger writers largely ignore it, but it’s still hard for me to turn the lens inward. I mined my own life for my collection of essays, which proved difficult but also really valuable.
The hardest essay to write was the one called The Story of My Mother, because it is indeed about my relationship with my mother. I adore her, and she inspires me, but there were difficult things about her life and mine that I had to include there, or it wouldn’t have worked. There wouldn’t have been a point to writing it if I’d held back.
I’m fascinated about what we can or can’t write about the people we love – or, more accurately, what we should and shouldn’t write about them. What ethical debt do writers owe the people caught in our webs? My mother hasn’t actually read the essay I wrote about her. She’s a bit of an ostrich; she avoids things that may be painful. It’s how she’s survived all these years. I learned that skill from her. The weird thing was that although that essay was painful, it was also weirdly easy in the sense that it almost wrote itself. Once I turned on the tap, it flowed.
What would you say to new writers out there? Let's keep it real. Warn them about something.
What advice would I give writers? You’re almost certainly going to have to have a side gig. It’s very, very hard to make a living in this country just on the back of writing fiction or non-fiction. The bottom has fallen out of the freelance market. You may have to teach, edit, dog-walk, tend bars, paint houses … that’s not failure. That’s life. Unless you have a trust fund, that is, and I don’t know anyone who does. Pretty much every writer I know has a side hustle. This does not mean you haven’t “made it.” Even the people who have made it have side hustles. It means you’re serious about your art, and you’ll do anything to make it happen.
The other important thing is NOT to get caught up on how other writers do it. I have interviewed hundreds of writers, and each one has a different process (and I suspect each one is worried she’s doing it wrong.) Some write every day. Some leave their work for weeks. Some write at night, some in the morning, some aim for a particular word count, some use lucky pens. There is no right way. There is only your way. Writing is like watching a baby learn to walk – it’s awkward as hell and particular to each baby but it all comes together in the end.
One minute of fame: promote anything you'd like to promote
I’m going to be teaching at the Iceland Writers Retreat in April, which is terrifying and exciting. I can’t wait to see Iceland. And I’m working on a novel that is set in the near future, which (at the moment) has three narrators. It’s crazy and I’m not sure where it’s going to end up and I’m just along for the ride. It’s a bit like childbirth, come to think of it.
Elizabeth Renzetti is the author of Shrewed, a collection of essays, and the novel based on a True Story. She is a columnist and feature writer with the Globe and Mail.