Today, author and instructor Jennie Nash offers her insight to the Write On! community. She has written three novels: The Last Beach Bungalow, The Only True Genius in the Family, and The Threadbare Heart, due out from Berkley Books in May 2010. Nash also authored three memoirs, including The Victoria’s Secret Catalog Never Stops Coming: and Other Lessons I Learned from Breast Cancer.
Nash will be leading a panel on Memoir Writing at the UCLA Extention Writers Program’s Writers Faire on Sunday, August 30. She’s also speaking on a panel called “Truth and Imagination: Where Fiction and Non-Fiction Meet.” The Writers Faire Program features 24 sessions in creative writing and screenwriting, hosted by fall Writers’ Program instructors, and is a wonderful way to get a taste of other types of writing.
When did you first start writing?
I started writing in fourth grade. We made a book of poems and bound them in a cardboard cover. I loved seeing my name above the words I had written, all in purple mimeographed ink. I never stopped writing—poems, journal entries, essays, stories. I first published one of them when I was a senior in high school, in the alumnae magazine of the college where I was heading.
How did you get your first writing break?
I wrote an essay for New York Woman magazine, where I was an editorial assistant. It was a piece about getting married and it began with one of the best sentences I think I’ve ever written: “I’m about to be married and all I can think about is death.” A literary agent who knew one of our top editors read the piece, and called to ask if I’d thought about writing a book about marriage. I hadn’t. But it only took me about 30 seconds to say, “Why yes, I actually have.”
How do you approach the blank page? What is your process?
There’s nothing magic about it—no ritual, not even a set time every day. I have two teenage girls and our life is busy and chaotic, so I write whenever I can. Some days, that means six hours in front of the computer. Other days, it means scribbling a sentence on a piece of crumpled paper in my purse. I try to keep my mind open all the time to my story—to let things in. That way, when I approach the blank page I have something to say.
For non-fiction, how do you decide what parts of your life to include?
I remember, first and foremost, that I’m telling a story. I’m not telling a life. I suppose if I were Katherine Graham writing my autobiography, it would be different, but I’m hardly Katherine Graham. So I include the parts that serve the point I’m trying to make in my story, and leave out the ones that don’t.
As for the parts of my life that are also about other people’s lives, what I do is this: I make certain that I’m not writing out of anger or vengeance; I write rough drafts that are as honest as possible; and then I go back and tone them down where I think my words might do damage.
How do you stay objective while writing about the personal details of your life? Any recommendations for those who choose to write memoir?
You have to stay objective or die. Well, that’s not entirely true. When you’re writing first drafts, I think it’s best to try not to judge what you’re doing. You have to just do it—to get the words onto the page. But then, you have to stay objective or die. I print out my manuscripts and go sit somewhere away from my desk and try to be as harsh with my own work as I would be with anyone else’s. I also ask trusted readers to go over my work and rip it apart.
I have found that the book The Artful Edit does an excellent job of walking writers through the various stages of self editing. It’s a great resource.
How did you make the switch from non-fiction to novel-writing?
After three memoirs and countless personal essays, I was tired of writing about myself. I was tired of the constraints of what really happened. I had an epiphany on a stage in Anchorage, Alaska, where I was speaking to a ballroom full of breast cancer survivors. I couldn’t figure out why I was the one speaking, why I was the one singled out to tell my story. I realized that it wasn’t because my story was any more special than anyone else’s, but because I was a storyteller. And so I thought—okay, if I am a storyteller, I am going to go back home and write a story. That’s when I started my first novel, The Last Beach Bungalow.
What are the similarities between non-fiction and novel writing? Differences?
There’s a lot that is very similar: you have to sit down at the keyboard, find your voice, shape your story, chose your words, step back and edit for clarity, bring everything around to a satisfying end. In both cases, you have to measure your story against an identifiable truth—for non-fiction, that truth is, Did this happen? For fiction, that truth is, Could this happen? I suppose the biggest difference between the two is that the universe of truth for fiction is much bigger, and the way you access it is to engage your imagination.
In your teaching, what have you found to be some of your students greatest writing challenges? How do you recommend they work through them?
The biggest challenge is self doubt. Students agonize about whether they are good, whether their story is good, whether they are wasting their time, what their mothers will think. It has so little to do, really, with words on the page. The way to work through this challenge? Just keep writing. Make sure you read a lot. Be part of a community of writers, if you can.
Additional advice for writers?
Realize that even the most accomplished writers still feel all of that same self doubt. It doesn’t go away. It just becomes more familiar.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
That the rewards of this work have so little to do with money and fame. I guessed that truth for a long while, but I have only recently really understood it.
Tags: A Genius in the Family Author Q&A Debra Eckerling Fiction Jennie Nash Memoir The Last Beach Bungalow The Victoria Secret Calatog Never Storps Coming and Other Lessons I learned from Breast Cancer UCLA Extension Writers Program Write On! Writers Faire