Anne Fadiman is an award-winning essayist, reporter, and editor. She has won a National Book Critics’ Circle Award for her book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, a work of narrative nonfiction about a cross-cultural impasse between a refugee Hmong family and American doctors. The book remains widely assigned in medical schools and in university classes in social work, anthropology, journalism, and other fields. Fadiman has also written two essay collections, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader and At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays. As the Francis Writer in Residence at Yale University, she teaches nonfiction writing to undergraduates and serves as a mentor to students who consider careers in writing.
When she visited Pittsburgh in April, Fadiman graciously agreed to sit down with Hot Metal Bridge to discuss her love of essay writing, thoughts on writing process, and her joy of teaching.
HMB (Tim Maddocks): I’ve recently re-read your introduction to The Best American Essays 2003, and I’d forgotten how much I’d liked that. In it, I was surprised to find that you’d come into essay writing later in life.
Anne Fadiman: Yes, I started writing essays when I was forty. The short version is that I had to spend a problem pregnancy in bed and I couldn’t do any reporting, only essays.
HMB: I love your characterization of essay writing as though you’re in a lucid dream state, where you can linger on ideas longer than you might otherwise…
AF: That’s one reason I really like writing essays. I particularly like a genre that’s sort of a subset of the personal essay – the familiar essay. That’s a misleading name because it sounds like an essay you’ve already read in the sixth grade. Nobody has ever read any of my essays in the sixth grade. [Laughs]
The familiar essay had its heyday in the early nineteenth century, when a bunch of my favorite Brits, including Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt, started writing about familiar subjects using familiar, informal voices. They used their own experience to frame essays that were not just about them but about a subject. That’s why a lot of their essays began with the word “on” – on going to the theater, on drinking, on difficult relatives, and so forth.
Not all my essays are in the familiar genre, but many are. I like doing research. Also, I start to feel a little naked if every single sentence in the entire essay has “I” in it. The perpendicular pronoun has its virtues, but if I start getting tired of it, I worry that the reader may already be tired of it. So the familiar essay is perfect for me. For instance, there’s an essay called “Coffee” in At Large and At Small. I really like drinking coffee. [Laughs] So I had plenty of coffee-related experiences to write about, but I also wanted an excuse to do some research into the history of coffee, the effect of the English coffeehouse on literature, and so on.
When I start a familiar essay, I love the phase when I’m deciding what books I want to read. I write all over my books, so I have to buy them – always secondhand, usually from Amazon. That’s the one way that Amazon is actually saving independent booksellers instead of ruining them. Amazon sells used books from tiny booksellers all over the country. And because many of the books that I want are obscure and unpopular, they often cost a penny plus shipping, and they come in from little bookstores in Nebraska and Alabama.
After the books arrive, I line them up on my desk and start reading. That never feels like work, always like pleasure. It’s very different from writing a completely personal essay, which is more like writing fiction: you have a blank screen and an empty desk and maybe your thesaurus and that’s it.
HMB: In regards to the research part of the process, at what point do you know when to leave the library?
AF: I don’t go to the library. My study becomes a library. If you visited me, you would see that there’s essentially no horizontal space or wall space left. The walls are covered with built-in bookcases and the surfaces are covered with stacks of books. It actually looks like a library, if a really messy one. [Laughs]
So when am I ready to write? Well, when I finish reading all the books on my desk. Of course, I do some Internet research, too – and sometimes some interviews. I’ll make a choice early on about which books I want to read, and I’ll get ideas for a few more from the bibliographies in the first set. Any topic has a few obvious sources. For example, there are about eight really good books on coffee, and that’s it. I make very long notes and outlines for each essay, so long they get their own little three-ring binder with a table of contents at the beginning.
I suppose you could say all that preparation is a form of procrastination. But what happens is that I’ve already worked out a lot of the essay unconsciously in my head before I start to write. This minimizes that agonizing period before you start to write, when you’re not reading and you’re not outlining, but you’re not writing either – when all you’re doing is worrying. That’s the worst part. It’s much more fun to do all that worrying unconsciously while you’re reading and making notes.
HMB: So what happens if there’s a subject that doesn’t have a finite amount of research, and you get into that black hole where the research goes on and on and on?
AF: I try to pick the most useful books and articles. I could have read about coffee for several years if I wanted, but there are some classic histories, so I stuck with them. Because I’d chosen to concentrate on history, I knew early on that I wasn’t going to talk about how coffee is grown or about the economics of modern fair trade coffee and so on, so I could skip those books.
But I have had black holes. Well, not exactly infinite black holes. Finite black holes, if such a thing exists. My research for my first book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, was a finite black hole. I read absolutely everything on Hmong culture that was available at the time. If I were to try that now, it would be an infinite black hole, and I simply couldn’t do the book. But back then – around 1990 – I could.
HMB: Is that because there’s much more access to research these days, especially with the internet?
AF: Partly, but it’s mostly that so much more has been written. At that time Hmong refugees had not been in the United States very long, so there was a finite amount written about them. Hmong-American writers had not yet started writing about themselves, though there are some very good ones now. It took me about two years to do all the reading – every book, article, and doctoral dissertation I could find. That was lunatic. But I felt that because I had no training as an anthropologist or an ethnographer, the least I could do was read everything that everybody else had written.
HMB: This reminds me, I was wondering about process, and whether you had any advice for writers about work schedules. When do you read? When do you write? Do you have a schedule you adhere to?
AF: When I’m writing an essay, it takes over my life. I have always admired writing teachers who somehow manage to sneak in an hour here and an hour there of writing. But I just can’t do it. I can work piecemeal on a lecture or something small like that, but I can work on an essay only when I have an unbroken stretch of time.
The essays in my first collection, Ex Libris, started as columns in a now-defunct magazine called Civilization. I was still working on The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down when I started working on Ex Libris. I’d work for six weeks on Spirit and then take two weeks off to write one of those essays. I agreed to write the column because I needed the money, but it turned out to be tremendously fun. I wrote the first one during the pregnancy that I mentioned earlier. And even when I was vertical again – after my son was born and he was fine and I could have gone back to reporting – I had fallen so thoroughly in love with essays that I didn’t want to leave them.
When I’m writing an essay, I still generally clear out everything else in my life and work obsessively for a few weeks. The reading doesn’t have to be done during that period – that can be done now and then in little interstices beforehand. But the actual writing needs a clear space.
My brother has a nice mechanical analogy for two types of writers: what he calls heavy and light flywheels. A heavy flywheel is really hard to get started, but once it gets going there’s a lot of momentum and it’s hard to stop. That’s me. I can stay at my desk for twelve hours. But it’s hard to get me started. A light flywheel doesn’t have any difficulty getting going, but he’s more easily distracted. If he has a free hour, he’s not like a dog that has to turn around three times before it can settle down. He can just sit down and write. But that light flywheel can’t work for eight or ten hours in a row.
HMB: And because you’re teaching now, do you attack your essays in the summer?
AF: Yes, only in the summer. Emotionally and financially, one book at a time is all my family can afford. I’m married to a writer, so one of us writes a book and the other one has a regular job with health insurance. Right now I’m the breadwinner. I teach the rest of the year and write in the summer.
I love teaching. I find it as creative as writing, and even more fun, so I’m hardly complaining. Everyone assumes that when I’m teaching I’m sitting on the edge of my chair, just chafing to get back to my real identity as a Writer with a capital “W.” But that’s not how I feel at all. When I write, I can still have a steep learning curve with the topic I’m writing about, and that’s exciting. But I don’t feel that my writing itself is still on a learning curve. My teaching is, and that’s a thrill.
HMB: And so are you still teaching your class, “Writing about Oneself”?
AF: Yes. It’s one of two classes I teach. The other one is a reportorial class called Advanced Nonfiction: At Home in America. We read modern American literary journalism centered on the theme of place. The students write about place, culminating in an assignment called the “Yellow Pages piece.” One of our seminal texts is the Greater New Haven Yellow Pages – a hard copy, which the students have never read before, because they’re used to looking up stuff online. It’s more than 600 pages. They learn about occupations they never knew existed, and they write a profile of someone they find there. It’s a great way of kicking them off campus.
HMB: That’s incredible. Those Yellow Pages will become archaic artifacts before long enough, too.
AF: Oh, they almost are already! There’s a giant tussle with the phone company every year – or at least there used to be before Yale started providing me with a stack. I used to have long conversations with customer service representatives from AT&T every summer [Laughs], trying to explain why I needed thirteen copies of the Greater New Haven Yellow Pages. I was always worried that they wouldn’t arrive. I couldn’t teach the class without them.
I teach Advanced Nonfiction in the fall and Writing about Oneself in the spring. But I should explain that my classes are unusual in that each one takes a little more time than two normal classes. Each week we meet for a seminar of just under three hours, and I also usually have six hours of individual conferences – one with each of my twelve students every other week. It’s a sort of heavy flywheel set-up, you could say, of intense involvement each term with a small number of students.
When we meet for a conference, we put the piece up on my computer and we sit together and start at the first sentence and I read it aloud. Is there anything we can do to make that sentence better? We see how far we get in an hour. Sometimes we get through just one paragraph. I used to give written comments and mark up pages, the way normal, sane teachers do. That was a sort of light flywheel activity. I could do it on the train coming home from New Haven. The problem was that the students would look at the marked-up copy once and then put it away. If they wanted to publish the piece in a campus periodical it was useful to have it all fixed up for them, but it didn’t necessarily help them write the next piece better. Their writing wasn’t improving as fast as I hoped. I decided the only way to make that happen was with one-on-one editing, because the students can’t put the piece in a drawer. They have to listen.
We always stop five minutes before the end of the hour, and I make them look at the changes that we’ve made and make a list of personal pitfalls. Like: I don’t always end sentences on a strong word. Or, I have too many long strings of prepositional phrases. That sort of thing. Then they make a master list of pitfalls at the end of the term that they have to turn in with their final piece. The lists are often very funny. They can keep that list on their computer or pin it above their desk or whatever in the future. I’m less interested in how they write during my class than in how they write five years later.
Another oddity of my classes is that I encourage the students to take them pass/fail. Most writing teachers at my school frown on that, but I encourage it. Our classes are so difficult to get into that everybody who makes it is an exceptional writer and really motivated. I had 126 applications for twelve places this spring. And that’s not just me. Many writing teachers at Yale get a ton of applications. I think that grades reduce risk-taking. That is, the students continue to write whatever has gotten them an “A” before. I want them to try new things, so I tell them that if they do insist on taking the class for a grade, I’ll grade each piece as if it were an Olympic dive: difficulty multiplied by execution. So they shouldn’t worry if the execution isn’t perfect, if it’s a really hard dive that they’re doing for the first time and it sort of ends “kersplat” in the pool.
HMB: Yeah, you’re looking for improvement…
AF: Yeah! If they write a complete piece of crap for their first essay, it could really lower their overall grade, which is one reason I hate grades. What I care about is their last essay. If they have risen by the end, that’s all that matters.
HMB: So many essays don’t look very good on their first go-around.
AF: You’re exactly right. At the beginning of the term, the students aren’t used to writing at that particular word length, which is 1,000 words. I don’t let them write 1,001 words. There’s some benefit to having to think to yourself, oh damn, it’s 1,128 words; I have to cut out 128 words. Sweating out those 128 words teaches useful lessons about priorities – which ideas are important, which words are important.
HMB: Concision is an incredibly difficult thing to learn.
AF: It really is, yeah. But they learn it. By the end of the term, they’ve become masters of the 1,000-word essay.
HMB: Do you have any tips or exercises for teaching concision besides an assignment like that?
AF: Well, sure. I don’t ask my students to conform to any particular style, so our reading represents a wide, wide variety of styles. Some of the writers on our syllabus are wordy. But some not only write concisely but preach concision. For instance, William Zinsser, who used to teach a course at Yale something like the one I teach. We read a book of his called Writing About Yourself, in which Zinsser talks about what he calls “making narrowing decisions.” He points out that Melville didn’t write a book about whaling; he wrote a book about one whale.
In a reported piece, writers will sometimes include a quote even though they just used another quote that made exactly the same point. Or they might put in a character who doesn’t really belong. It’s usually for one of two reasons: either they worked so damn hard to get that interview, or they don’t want to hurt that person’s feelings. Neither is a good reason. In a personal essay, they’ll often put in a nicely written sentence or paragraph even if it doesn’t further the theme.
Concision usually refers to the sentence level, and we work on that in our conferences, trying to sweat out all the extraneous words we can. But concision also exists on a larger level. When you reread your essay, you may realize that something actually belongs in another essay altogether. In order to make it a little easier to get rid of those beautiful paragraphs that don’t quite belong, I encourage them to append at the end of their piece something I call a cemetery of cut phrases and paragraphs. A place for all the stuff that they really, really liked but ending up cutting.
HMB: It’s so hard sometimes when you have to lose some of your most serviceable writing.
AF: Exactly. But it makes it easier if they know their classmates will read that stuff. We walk through the cemetery; we take our hats off; we have a moment of silence for the paragraph that got cut. And sometimes we’ll say, God, you know that third thing in the cemetery was really good. When you do a revision of this piece you should put it back in! The 1,000-word limit is only for the first draft. When they revise their pieces they can make them any length they want, and sometimes I’ll encourage them to exhume something from the cemetery.
HMB: Absolutely. I’ve heard it called scrap heaps, too, but I like the “cemetery.” It gives it more of a romantic or hopeful notion. So, we have time for one more question. We talked about your students taking risks. In your transition to personal essay from more reportorial writing like The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, I was wondering whether it took a certain amount of courage to delve into the more personal?
AF: No. I was just forced to do it because I was lying in bed during that pregnancy, and I figured there were two genres I could write – book reviews or personal essays. I’d already written some book reviews, so I thought essays might be more exciting. The first essay I wrote, “Marrying Libraries,” which became the opening essay in Ex Libris, is about how my husband and I merged our libraries and threw away the duplicates. It came really easily. It was as if my pregnancy gave me permission for the self-indulgence I wouldn’t have allowed myself otherwise. Before that, I thought I had to write about other people.
HMB: Do you think that it’s important for young writers to refrain from that self-indulgence?
AF: Oh, God, no! If I did, why would I teach a class called Writing about Oneself? No, young people are natural narcissists. Why not channel that impulse into work that other people might actually want to read?
The problem is that because the formerly private journal has become the public blog, young people are pouring out unedited, unthought-out, not-very-well-written avalanches of verbiage about themselves and expecting that others will want to read them. To be able to harness that confessional urge and discipline it and learn how to write about yourself really interestingly – what could be better? And I love learning about my students’ lives. They’ve had fascinating lives. However, I don’t necessarily choose the students who have led the most interesting lives – the ones who have “something to write about.” I choose the ones who are the best writers. Even if they’ve grown up in a New Jersey suburb, if they’re really good writers, they will always have something to say.