Tell me a little bit about the kinds of writing you do on a regular basis.
Right now I’m responding to my agent’s edits on my novel manuscript, so that’s my main focus. I’m the new advice columnist (“Aunt Acid”) for Lilith Magazine, which is a hoot, and I write regularly for the Hairpin, mostly about literature from a feminist perspective. My latest “Read This with That” piece for the Toast is coming out soon, as is my first book review for the KGB Bar Literary Magazine. Is that it?
Somehow it always feels like I can and should be doing more. Like a weedy, overgrown English garden, my ambition will feed on anything and wants to go in all directions at once.
How does fiction writing compare to nonfiction writing for you? What differs for you in the impulses that drive them, how you prepare for them, the external pressures surrounding them?
This summer, at a writing program in Lithuania run by Summer Literary Seminars, I took a Fiction class in the mornings and a Non-Fiction class in the afternoons. It was delightfully schizophrenic, and kind of delightful in general. Being able to pivot from Fiction to Non-Fiction is my preferred state. I’ve written poetry too — I won my college poetry prize back in the day — and my thesis was a screenplay. It’s all about shaping stories, whether by finding what’s universal about a lived experience or what’s recognizable about a character in an imagined scenario.
It’s liberating to dabble in different modes because you can try to let content dictate form rather than the other way around. My screenplay, for example, was about the amazing true story of Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for President, and the enmity that developed between her and Harriet Beecher Stowe. To me, it just felt like a film. There is a 99.4% chance it will never get made, and only a handful of people have read it or probably ever will, but I loved writing it. Sometimes that’s enough.
The difference for me is primarily about length. In terms of reading and writing, I like my Non-Fiction short and to the point, and I like my Fiction to go on as long as possible. Luckily, the realities of the marketplace seem to support those preferences. If I were trying to sell short stories, I would be shit out of luck, whereas it is relatively easy to place essays.
I do believe strongly though that Fiction should be Fiction and not lightly veiled memoir. If you want to write about your life, great! Have the courage of your convictions. Sign your name. Don’t go all “Fear of Flying” and pretend you made it up.
You contribute to a pretty diverse array of publications—The Billfold, The Morning News, Slate. What are your favorite nonfiction venues to write for? Why?
For a while I published NF pieces on Thought Catalog because it was easy: write it, send it, see it online immediately, bask in the social media response. Then one day someone in the comments section said something like, “This is really good. This could be in a real magazine.” It kicked my ass in a good way. Since then, I’ve tried not to succumb to the instant gratification impulse, and to realize instead that if I want to be taken seriously, I have to take myself seriously. That means aiming high, getting disappointed sometimes, having pitches rejected, or going weeks without a piece appearing anywhere. That also means acknowledging that sometimes I have to say “no,” or at least “I can’t write for free.” (Except for good friends or good causes.)
Slate was a really fun venue because that piece got attention from people I never thought would read something of mine: Daniel Mendelsohn, Andrew Sullivan. The commenters weren’t as bad as I expected, either, though perhaps I only think that because I was baptized in the fire that is Salon.com. I’ll never forget how excited I was when Salon published an early essay of mine, which was this really earnest, honest piece about my dad dying. The very first comment said, “Go kill yourself.” So, that was a learning experience.
The Hairpin attracts a more diverse readership than you might expect, and its commenters are some of the most clever people on the Internet. It’s always fun to spark discussion there. Publishing on Nerve was exciting, even when someone forwarded my pieces to my mother. A few crazy comments aside, every publication experience has been positive.
You used to work at the Foundation for Jewish Culture, which has recently folded. Talk to me a little bit about your experience as a writer working for a cultural nonprofit. Did your coworkers know you as a fiction writer? Or did you keep those parts of your life separate? What did grant writing do to your idea of yourself as a writer?
Writing grants can be grueling, because you can — in fact, regularly, you will — put together an excellent proposal and still fail. You can also bring in lots of grant money and your organization can still fail, as mine did (although not until after I left). If you believe in what you’re doing, though, and you manage to bring in vital funds to help support it, even for a while, that’s a great feeling. Grant-writing also hones your story-telling skills. You have to grab someone’s attention right away and tell them what they want to hear while remaining faithful to your idea. You have to be efficient and compelling, project confidence, and talk comfortably about money. All useful abilities for literary writers.
Everyone knew I wrote and everyone was supportive. My boss let me go on two-week writers’ residencies. When I got interviewed by Geraldo during the workday over the phone, everyone crowded into the office next door to listen to the radio. I heard them shrieking through the wall. One of my coworkers was also a writer and a writing teacher; he became a sort of mentor. Another was a visual artist. We commiserated a lot about finding time to do our work. It wasn’t the Gary Shteyngart kind of office job where you shut the door and work on your novel all day (http://www.thedaysofyore.com/gary_shteyngart/); I think it was better.
You’ve written elsewhere about leaving your job to focus on writing. Has that experience been what you expected? How has leaving behind a day job changed your fiction writing?
Quitting was hard, in part because I liked the people so much and having a job pleased my inner Lisa Simpson — you know, “Grade me! Evaluate and rank me!” . It’s also been an important part of my identity since college to be financially independent. But quitting was also a no brainer. My husband had a job that could support us. I had a project that deserved time and focus. We had produced an adorable little girl who drooled on all of the non-work hours I used to put towards writing. Either I had to scale back my literary ambitions or I had to give in and really try to actualize them. So that’s what I did.
Putting a time-frame on it was helpful too. I didn’t tell myself I was leaving the workforce indefinitely; I said, “I’m taking a year.” That has been good in terms of keeping my anxiety in check. Anxiety is the real monster. It is more exhausting, more depleting, than the baby is, and at least the baby goes to sleep at night. But I’m dealing with it — going to the gym, going to therapy, telling my internal mean voice to fuck off, whatever it takes. If this is my best chance, I do not want to let anxiety get in my way.
Oh yes. Connections! Credentials! I think people with MFAs have it all, whereas I’m stuck with hot flashes of jealousy and cold panics of insecurity, especially around graduation time when everyone posts on Facebook. But I made my choice straight out of college: turned down the MFA program in Boston for what turned out to be a series of comically awful jobs in New York. On the plus side, I got lots to write about, and I learned that I will write no matter what.
An MFA, to me, feels like the equivalent of Glenda the Good Witch’s kiss on Dorothy’s forehead. But I gather that some MFA-ed folks feel less kissed and more screwed.
Try Development! The non-profit world always needs people who can string words together.
My tactic when bowing out was to give lots and lots of notice, the idea being that my boss would be so grateful she would forget to be upset. That worked fairly well. If you can’t bow out entirely, though, there are other options — a four-day week, perhaps, so that you can spend one day focused on your writing. If you’re due for a raise, ask your boss to consider an altered schedule instead. If they value you, they will want to keep you and will work with you to make that happen. (Coincidentally, bringing in money is a very straightforward way to make your value clear.)
The key is to figure out what you want and then help them give it to you. As my older brother once told me, You never know what people are willing to do until you ask.
Ester Bloom’s features, essays, and stories have appeared in Slate, Salon, Bite: An Anthology of Flash Fiction, Creative Non-Fiction, the Hairpin, the Toast, the Morning News, Nerve, PANK, and numerous other venues. In a moment of glory, she was interviewed by Geraldo about “mommy porn,” but she is not actually an expert. Follow her @shorterstory.