On Writing the (Short) Nonfiction Book: A Conversation

Anna Leahy, Kim Adrian, William Germano, Margret Grebowicz, Christopher J. Lee, Matthew Newton, Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow

Object Lessons, a series of short nonfiction books published by Bloomsbury, released its latest batch of titles today. As the publisher states on its website, Object Lessons, which launched in 2015, “is a series of concise, collectable, beautifully designed books about the hidden lives of ordinary things. Each book starts from a specific inspiration—an historical event, a literary passage, a personal narrative, a technological innovation—and from that starting point explores the object of the title, gleaning a singular lesson or multiple lessons along the way. Featuring contributions from writers, artists, scholars, journalists, and others, the emphasis throughout is lucid writing, imagination, and brevity.” We are seven of the eight authors of the new Object Lessons books, and in each of our installments we explored the hidden life of an ordinary object or phenomenon—something that held some kind of personal meaning to us, something we’d been interested for some time in exploring. The result is a series of curious, imaginative, hybrid works that employ various experiments in form and voice.        

Objects Lessons is open to submissions, and while the selection process is competitive, series editors Christopher Schaberg and Ian Bogost encourage nonfiction pitches from a variety of perspectives. Writers can use the brief online form to get started with an idea for a book (or, alternatively, pitch an essay for the Object Lessons essay series at the Atlantic). Some of us wrote an article in addition to our books, but book proposals are considered separately and on their own merit. If the editors are interested in a pitch, they will request a full proposal for the book, each of which run about 25,000 to 30,000 words.

In the following conversation, we discuss the challenges we faced and the fun we had while writing these books. Hopefully our ideas and experiences can help other writers consider their options as they embark on their own nonfiction book projects.

Anna Leahy: Tumor was a challenging book for me to write because I wanted to include the personal (both my parents died of cancer) as well as some recent cancer research. This sort of challenge is why I write creative nonfiction, whether an essay or a book. Weaving together perspectives, techniques, and sometimes disparate information is what creative nonfiction allows—for the writer and also for the reader—in ways nothing else quite does. As a poet, I’ve long been interested in form (the how) as much as—often more than—subject matter (the what). Nonfiction is an excuse to play with form as much as the form is a way to express the content. In other words, as a writer and as a reader, I enjoy and appreciate the ensemble quality of much nonfiction. It’s an orchestration of various instruments to produce the piece itself.

Christopher J. Lee: Jet Lag contains various approaches: some memoir, some journalism (in the vein of John McPhee), and some academic research. It also has over forty illustrations, film and art criticism, literary analysis, political commentary, and attempts at humor. Perhaps this amounts to creative nonfiction, though this expression seems inchoate. All writing involves creativity. And what currently passes for creative nonfiction—personal memoir, essays, and long-form journalism, for example—are very old genres of writing. 

Margret Grebowicz: Whales are so fantastic that, at a certain point, it was no longer clear to me how to define a book about them as nonfiction. As such, Whale Song—which explores among other things the ways whales and humans communicate and connect—incorporates both fact and the fantastic. I recently spoke at a conference where we were asked to include one falsehood in our papers, but I didn’t follow directions and instead confessed to my audience upfront that I had failed at the assignment. Everything I said was true, but no one believed me, and, for the rest of the conference, people tried hard to identify my fiction. Indeed, from the history of animal communication science of the 1960s and 1970s to the Pioneer and Voyager space probes, the science with which I was dealing was the stuff of science fiction. At times, it seemed straight out of Borges. I think Anthropocene subject matter increasingly defies imagination, so nonfiction will have to become more and more creative—or experimental—in order to tell those stories faithfully.

Kim Adrian: I think of Sock as an extended essay. I love working in the essay form because of the way it allows for lateral movement of thought—a kind of wandering. Yet, at the center of every good essay is a still point, and there stands the essayist—or, rather, the essayist’s sensibility. As long as that sensibility is intact, you can work in any mode you like—lyric, memoiristic, journalistic, academic. Like Tumor and Jet Lag, Sock plays with a variety of subgenres.

Matthew Newton: I consider Shopping Mall a balance of memoir and journalism. Finding that balance was more challenging than I thought it would be. I had to write a chapter or two of memoir before weaving in new chapters focused more on the mall’s cultural history. As I worked, it became easier to dovetail the personal narrative with the more journalistic approach, and I better understood how one served the other.

Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow: For Personal Stereo, I did a lot of archival research. I sifted through old newspapers and magazines from the 1980s, which was endlessly amusing and frequently enlightening. I also extensively interviewed a key surviving figure of the Walkman story: Andreas Pavel, a German man who patented the basic idea before Sony marketed its version. And I wrote in a personal way about my own memories. That hybrid of research, journalism, and memoir certainly kept me from getting bored as a writer, and I hope the resulting book does the same for the reader.

William Germano: Unless we accept that everything one writes is a piece of autobiography, I don’t think Eye Chart employs memoir. (Okay, I’ve worn glasses since I was five, so maybe it’s an homage to myopia.) I’d be happy, though, if readers think it reads like good magazine writing, weaving together social history of medicine, history of graphic design, and pop culture. That’s what I’ve tried to do—what we’ve all tried to do, each with a different balance.

Leahy: I wanted to include memoir without the book becoming a memoir. Also, when I pitched the book, I had expected (like Kim) to write the book as a collection of essays, roughly 4,000 words each, with a brief introduction and conclusion. I let go of that thinking because I started to box myself in, thinking chapter one had to be memoir, chapter two had to accomplish a very specific goal, and so on. Instead, I started listing things I wanted to include and challenged myself to squeeze in as much as I could while remaining coherent. So, in the opening chapter, I consciously used my family’s stories to start exploring the statistics and social realities of cancer, and the last chapter connects the story of Jimmy Carter’s cancer risk, eventual diagnosis, and treatment to recent advances in immunotherapy and understandings of cell changes and, ultimately, to poetry. Connection became more important than focus.

Adrian: Exactly. The most challenging part of writing Sock was learning to better trust my own instincts as a thinker. The second chapter, for instance, is about fetishism, desire, the paintings of Egon Schiele, and our bodies’ relationship to gravity. These were subjects I loved researching. In fact, the easiest aspect of writing this book was the research, which was fun and often surprising because I let serendipity take the lead. But, as I moved from researching to drafting, I wasn’t sure all this information belonged in a book about socks, let alone together in that second chapter. When I finally started trusting my own thinking, I was able to write about interconnections and resonances that lit up my subject in unexpected ways.

Tuhus-Dubrow: The easiest aspect for me as well was the research, especially looking at old Walkman ads, including one in which a monkey sports headphones. The most challenging aspect was writing the last section of the book, called “Nostalgia,” in which I compare the Walkman to its descendants, the iPod and the iPhone. (Spoiler alert: the Walkman wins.) I’m a bit of a Luddite, and it was tricky to strike the right tone—to articulate what I believe to be legitimate criticisms of current technology use without sounding like a sanctimonious killjoy. So I had to think a lot about how to put my voice on the page.

Germano: That sounds similar to my experience. Since I like researching new topics, the investigative stage is always the easiest. Getting the voice you want is always harder than simply putting words on the page. 

Newton: I was also very aware of voice. With Shopping Mall, I had to figure out how to strike the right balance between my personal connection to the mall and the larger cultural story that I wanted to tell. I had two phrases written on notecards and tacked up on the wall in my workspace: “Aspirational living” and “The mall as the Internet.” Each spoke thematically to the overall cultural story. Anytime I felt uncertain about the direction of the book, I used these ideas as anchors. And while I wouldn’t say it was the easiest aspect of the book, writing about my personal history with the mall was the most enjoyable.  

Lee: As it was for Rebecca, the most challenging aspect for me was concluding, but for a different reason—I could have said more. The Object Lessons books, like many nonfiction projects, have a specific length imposed, and it can be difficult for writers to shape their ideas and narratives to fit a certain word count. Writing well is never easy, but I did take great delight going in different directions with Jet Lag. I wanted to write an unconventional book on an unconventional topic, and that was a lot of fun. This book was a departure, so to speak, from my other written work, though I think a careful reader will note thematic continuities. Writers can replenish their sense of wonder by trying something new and unexpected.

Grebowicz: Late in the process, I decided to include a chapter on music, something I’d been trying to avoid because I thought it was either too hard (I’m not a philosopher of music), too cheesy (the whales aren’t actually singing), or both. But when it was done I suddenly found myself wanting to write a whole new Object Lessons book: Music

Leahy: Likewise, I could have written more and, based on the process of writing this book, I also have an idea for another book. Writing Tumor felt new to me in a lot of ways and also rather selfish. It’s what I wanted to write. Even the constraints, including the length established by the series, became opportunities to say what I wanted to say in the ways I wanted to say it. That’s probably because I’m a generally curious person; I’ve written about the role of curiosity in the writing life, and I try to foster curiosity in my writing students. As I researched and drafted my book, I felt as if I could let my curiosity run wild. To my surprise, the writing remained focused. It was incredibly demanding work and also a lot of fun. The experience taught me about letting go of plans (or making a plan as a reference point, then letting it go) and allowing my writing mind to meander. I’ve come to admit that a meandering writing mind has always been my default, which may also explain why I often like imposed constraints.

Adrian: Indeed, the unifying theme of the Object Lessons series isn’t microhistory or object-oriented ontology or even things—objects—as much as it is curiosity. I love reading Object Lessons books because any writer who takes on one of these objects (the golf ball, the telephone booth, the bookshelf, et cetera) has to get seriously curious about it. We each had to dive in and keep going—look at the given object from a thousand angles. As a reader, you get to see a mind at work, paying attention, shining the light of curiosity on one tiny part of this complicated world.

Tuhus-Dubrow: The books in the series allow you, as a reader, to immerse yourself in a given subject (that is, object) for an afternoon, or over the course of a few evenings, and emerge with a fresh perspective. For the writer, of course, the immersion lasts much longer. Two of the Object Lessons books I particularly admire are Phone Booth by Ariana Kelly and Questionnaire by Evan Kindley. Questionnaire proceeds chronologically through the evolution of this heretofore under-analyzed form. Phone Booth is more associative, with lyrical meditations on this outmoded object’s various meanings. I’ll never see a phone booth the same way again. (Then again, none of us may ever see a phone booth again, period.) I hope my readers will think differently not only about the Walkman but also about the lineage of personal devices to which it belongs.

Grebowicz: Whale Song is in conversation with both Waste by Brian Thill and Silence by John Biguenet throughout, two Object Lessons books that I read and thought, I wish I’d written that. That connection makes it feel like there is a common intellectual project going on across our books—truly, spontaneously, without anyone asserting it as such or delineating its shape. It’s precisely the kind of effect a series should have, as authors become readers and vice versa.

Germano: One reason to write a book of nonfiction is so readers can encounter another person who’s trying to think attentively—and unsentimentally—about something we don’t usually pause to think about. The whole Who’s idea was that? Where does this come from? approach charms me. The Object Lessons series assumes—I think correctly—that this sort of question charms a lot of readers, and that these questions are at the core of a lot of nonfiction.

Newton: What most appealed to me when I read my first Object Lessons book, Hotel by Joanna Walsh, was how the topic acted as a loose frame for her individual story. As her writing shifted from personal to fictive to critical, it all made sense in the context of her approach. Nobody else could have written that book, which I think is the strength of the series and the hallmark of good creative nonfiction. Working within a particular frame and focus can also embolden nonfiction writers to explore topics in ways that challenge themselves and surprise readers.

Lee: Each writer, of course, needs to figure out what kind of nonfiction book they want to write. With Jet Lag, I knew I didn’t want to write a self-help book—an all-too-common approach for this topic. Though I already had a sense of what I wanted to do, reading other Object Lessons authors provided inspiration. My favorite nonfiction books impart a philosophical point of view by carefully unfolding the layers of something. It is possible to be serious, even academic, and still be clear and compelling. Maybe I did write a self-help book, though of a different sort.

Leahy: As writers, reading is always the frame within which we write. We read before we start drafting—as research, as inspiration, as permission—and, ultimately, we hand over what we’ve written to be read by others. As nonfiction writers, we figure out in between these first and last stages how to employ various approaches—be it memoir, journalism, criticism, even academic writing—and we grapple with voice in relation to subject matter and approach. And throughout the process we keep ourselves going—we keep reading, keep researching, keep wondering—and, in doing so, embed into our books the very process that, hopefully, makes the reader keep reading as well. In the end, in the Object Lessons series as in all great nonfiction, the writer’s attentive thinking urges the reader’s attentive thinking.