How I Became a Nonfiction Writer

It’s a little known fact that I have half of a master’s degree in journalism…I left the program before completing it. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t, just for the closure. But.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Jade Park’s recent post about nonfiction and the subsequent discussion has me thinking a lot about the way people see the genre in which I write. I’ve also recently revamped my about page, and in the process of doing that, and of going back over old posts, I realized I haven’t written as much on this topic as I would like to. I’m sure I have about 50 posts worth of blathering about nonfiction stored up in my brain: the odd, grasping need of almost everyone to label it; the fuzzy ethical lines drawn through it; the snobbish reaction it sometimes draws in literary discussions; the short shrift it often gets in MFA programs, lit magazines, contests… I’m also in the process of trying to come up with my own essential nonfiction reading list, one much shorter and less overwhelming than this one … which is soooo much harder than it seems.

But before I get to all of that; it seems for some reason important to describe how I got into writing nonfiction.

So back to the half of a journalism degree. When I was in my mid-20s I applied to journalism schools. I had vague notions that I wanted to write, and I thought that J-school would be the answer. (It never occurred to me that actually doing some writing might be the answer.) I didn’t think I could apply to MFA programs; I wasn’t an English major in college, and my undergraduate institution did not offer creative writing or journalism courses. I didn’t know anyone who wrote. I didn’t know what I wanted to write. My J-school application essay mentioned writing about my experiences in Korea, which seems funny and far away, now that I have finally written about it nearly 10 years later. I never once considered that I might be able to write fiction or poetry. Journalism just seemed the only option available.

So I applied. I ended up being accepted to one of the top J-schools in the country, but I didn’t even know that the school was good until later. It was more of a practical decision: The school was in the town in which I was already living, I could get in-state tuition, and they offered me a fellowship. So I went. I don’t remember disliking journalism school so much as feeling that I was, mostly by virtue of being isolated in a small Midwestern town, disconnected from the “real world.” I had already been feeling that way before I went to J-school, but the feeling intensified once there, because I found myself writing stories for a university newspaper and learning how to work the local police beat and that seemed to matter little in the grand scheme of things.

My second semester at school, I signed up for a course called “Literary Journalism,” and everything changed after that. The professor was wonderful, a sweet, encouraging woman who assigned us a wide selection of readings. Once she invited another professor, a published essayist from the creative writing department, to come and talk to us.

I had, fairly early on in the course, the following thought: “This is what I want to write.

This was essays. Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That,” was the one that brought about this epiphany, but so did “Seeing,” by Annie Dillard (actually an excerpt from her Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek), as well as writing by Diane Ackerman, Jon Hersey, Thomas Keneally, Tom Wolfe, and so on.

Didion’s essay, from her collection Slouching Toward Bethlehem remains one of my all-time favorites. I can quote parts of it, I’ve read it so many times. The language always blows me away, as does the amazing precision of the writing, the perfect variation in lengths of the sentences… It is easily read out loud. (Some enterprising person has put it online, complete with typos, but I find the idea of reading it on my screen almost sacrilegious. This is one that deserves to be read on the page, without spelling errors.)

Anyway, it sounds silly, but the course helped me discover forms of writing that I didn’t know existed. For the most part, I had always read fiction and so had never explored memoir, travel writing, personal essays, and other forms of nonfiction. I was incredibly naïve about the kinds of writing that were out there. My professor, too, was a big reason that I ended up pursuing nonfiction — and I suppose writing in general. I wrote a personal essay for the class that she later told me I should publish. It’s amazing what a little bit of encouragement like that will do.

That course was the best thing about J-school, and ironically, the thing that made me understand that J-school was not what I was looking for. I had found the kind of writing I wanted to do, and outside of that course, it wasn’t there in the journalism program. In the first semester of my second year of school, I left, walking away from a full scholarship. There were other personal reasons behind my leaving, but always that lit journalism class was in the back of my mind. I knew that eventually I would get an MFA in nonfiction, and that I wanted to write personal essays like Joan Didion.

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7 thoughts on “How I Became a Nonfiction Writer

  1. Yes, I read Slouching in college and it was easily my favorite book in my *cough* years as an undergrad. “… it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every word, all of it.”

  2. I think it is probably a book that impacted a lot of people. It’s funny, when I saw Didion read in Boston a year and a half ago, someone asked her about Slouching, and in response she snapped back that once she writes something she never looks at it again, which was her way of dismissing the collection entirely.

    For some reason the phrase “the lambent air” always sticks in my head, as does the last line, “There were years when I called Los Angeles “the coast” but they seem a long time ago.”
    It’s got the feel of a poem.

  3. It’s on the happy side of the line between near-poetry and self parody. She has an emotional vulnerability that can be read as a sort of privileged, Scarlett O’Hara-style, melodramatic self obsession, and in fact I think she caught some flack from some self-proclaimed feminist academics.

    But I don’t buy for a second her thing about never looking at something again. She is such an utterly sentimental person in her writing. Obsessed, almost, with her own personal history. I think it’s the natural insecurity for someone who is, at the moment, most famous for something she wrote 40 years ago. It’s just by a hair, and her other work is well appreciated, but I am sure she’s still sensitive. It’s like a rocker refusing to sing his old hit song at the concert.

  4. I love the dialogue we are having between our blogs these days. In this sense, it has greatened my belief in writing and writing community (Alice Walker and Toni Morrison (am I correct?) also had dialogues between their novels). I hope I inspire you as much as you inspire me!

  5. As someone with two degrees in journalism as well as an MFA, I feel I can say with some credibility that journalism education is . . . problematic. In my defense, I got the undergraduate degree because I didn’t know any better, and a year of it was useful—three or four classes max is all you need, anyway, if that: a good ethics class if you can find it; I suppose media law, but most people forget that; it would be nice to have a good j history class, I suppose. You can learn all this yourself from books, of course. Most writing training in j schools is awful, at least at the undergraduate level. I got a master’s because I won a fellowship and I had to take almost no j classes; instead I read history and philosophy and English and religion. Wonderful year.

    • Yeah, I think probably both J-school and MFA programs are problematic, each in their own ways. They are both schools for something that you essentially learn by doing, and neither provides a realistic setting for that learning by doing. But after leaving journalism school and going to work in journalism, I was grateful for some of what I learned (outside of the lit journalism course) particularly when it came to ethics. I noticed some other journalists who’d fallen into the profession with no related schooling were mystified by what was appropriate ethics-wise, and what was not. And having the courses under my belt gave me the confidence to pursue jobs in journalism, which turned out to be the best jobs I’ve had.

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