In the sixth of her series of interviews with women who write nonfiction, E.B. Bartels speaks with bestselling memoirist and opinion writer Jennifer Finney Boylan.
Jennifer Finney Boylan’s memoir, She’s Not There: a Life in Two Genders (Broadway/Doubleday 2003) was the first bestselling work by a transgender American. A novelist, memoirist, short story writer, and an advocate for civil rights, she is the author of thirteen books. Boylan also has been a contributor to the op/ed page of The New York Times since 2007; in 2013 she became Contributing Opinion Writer for the page. She serves as the national co-chair of the Board of Directors of GLAAD, the media advocacy group for LGBT people worldwide, and serves on the Board of Trustees of the Kinsey Institute for Research on Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. Boylan is the inaugural Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence at Barnard College of Columbia University.
EB: Why have you personally been drawn to writing nonfiction?
JFB: I wrote fiction when I was male; I have written nonfiction as female. I am sure there is a PhD thesis for someone in there somewhere. Still, it’s true: when I changed gender, I also changed genre. Maybe it’s that, in living a life that is more authentic, I felt compelled to create work that more closely reflected the truth of my lived experience.
That said, I’d be suspicious of anyone who says nonfiction contains more truth than fiction. For many writers I know, the truth of their hearts is more clearly seen in their novels than in their actual lives.
EB: Do you feel there is fluidity in genre as in gender? Have you ever written something that feels not quite fiction but not nonfiction either?
JFB: My nonfiction books always carry a caveat emptor that notes when certain elements of the story have been invented. This means, variously, conjuring dialogue in good faith when memory fails, which is what it does most of the time; disguising individuals whose privacy I wish to protect; occasionally compressing or expanding the timeline; and other obfuscation that is occasionally necessary to avoid getting sued. As long as you are honest with your reader about your method, I think this can be the strength of literary memoir. It does mean that the work is not photographic truth, if there is such a thing. But it does mean that you are able to tell a story that otherwise might be untellable. As long as we clearly explain what we have done, so that no one feels bamboozled, it’s something nonfiction writers ought to stop apologizing for.
Of course, my short work, especially my columns in The New York Times, have to answer to a completely different standard; the Times doesn’t even allow pseudonyms. Everything I write that appears on the op/ed page gets fact-checked and proofread. But I think that’s just as it should be in a newspaper. It’s a very different kind of writing.
So of course there’s a fluidity of truth in nonfiction—some works being as “photographic” as possible, others being more impressionistic. But this is true in fiction too, isn’t it? You tell me: how much invention do you think Keroauc needed to come up with On the Road?
EB: What do you––as a writer, a person, and a woman––bring to your writing in general and to nonfiction in particular?
JFB: When I first started writing en femme, I really had no idea whether anyone would want to read my work, or whether the narrative of “A Life in Two Genders” (as the subtitle of my memoir, She’s Not There, had it) would make sense anywhere outside of my own head. I wrote it in a summerhouse in winter, throughout a very cold and dark time in Maine. I can still see the snow falling past the window by my desk, the lake beyond frozen solid, as I tried to describe something that in many ways resembled the process of “melting,” as I morphed from male to female at that time.
All I was trying to do was to tell some stories about my experience of gender—I wasn’t thinking of the future life of the book when I wrote it. It is very odd to think of that time now, not only because I was so very, very early in my experience as a woman in the world, but also because writing felt like something so fundamentally private. And yet that private activity created a book that is still being read, going on fifteen years and many printings later.
EB: Do you find the process of writing nonfiction to be different from the process of writing fiction?
JFB: When I first started writing memoir I was really afraid that I didn’t have the right skill set, having been trained, mostly, as a writer of short stories and novels. I was surprised to find that largely the same set of tools—narrative voice, characterization, structuring of dramatic action—were what I needed. It was a surprise, and something of a relief for me. It’s true that in nonfiction you don’t have the luxury of just inventing something out of the blue. But I rather suspect this is true in fiction as well.
EB: How has your life benefitted from writing nonfiction?
JFB: Well, there’s a benefit in writing any genre in that the process can help you make sense of the narrative of your own life. Our lives are full of chaos, random and contradictory events that make you feel like you’ve just gone off the big flume at the end of Splash Mountain, leaving you dizzy, confused, and drenched. Finding a narrative for your life brings sense to that chaos. I can say that nothing taught me so much about being a woman as writing.
EB: I couldn’t agree more. I have learned so much about who I am and my own life by trying to make sense of it by writing about it––though that is never an easy task. What else has been difficult or challenging for you about writing nonfiction?
JFB: In the same way, the challenge of writing is that, while it can be really great therapy, great therapy is not necessarily good writing.
EB: Yes! This is something I learned the hard way in many nonfiction writing workshops. Sometimes something is really important to write out, but then you should just stick it in a drawer and move on.
JFB: It’s very common to run into a young writer who will say, somewhat boastfully, “Well, you know I really only write for myself.” This is well and good, but if you are really writing only for yourself, keep your promise and don’t show it to anyone else. Because once you engage with a reader, you’ll find that a whole different relationship commences, one in which your own joy of expression is less important than the artistic expression of that truth. Was it Stravinsky who complained about Beethoven, “It’s indecent the way he complains—when I hear Beethoven, I just want to say, ‘Hey you, what do I care if you’re deaf?’”
This is a truth that is very hard for young writers—any writers, really—to get their minds around. You pour your whole heart into something, and it helps (on a good day) to bring you insight and release. But your insight and release are not the reader’s concerns. The reader wants to know: Is your prose any good? Are your characters interesting? Do you have something to say? Expressing pain is cathartic for the author, but it can be boring for the reader. John Lennon, going through “Primal Scream Therapy,” yelled his brains out at the end of his song “Mother,” in which he’s lamenting losing Julia Lennon at such an early age. I’m sure that felt clarifying for Lennon. But do you really want to listen to some guy scream at the top of his lungs, over and over? After a while you think, hm, maybe a little Bach might be more pleasant?
That said, I’m sure there are plenty of Bach compositions in which he’s actually screaming about his mommy.
EB: Last, what is a favorite passage of nonfiction by a woman writer?
JFB: No one is as full of truth and blarney as Flannery O’Connor. She struggled with faith, and as a person raised in the same faith, I admire the way she is constantly calling everyone out on their bullshit, and most particularly the bullshit of people who believe without doubt, even though that doubt itself is a constant source of anguish.
She writes, “I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do.”
– E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Toast, The Butter, xoJane, The Rumpus, Ploughshares, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, among others. E.B. has an MFA from Columbia University, and she runs an interview series on Fiction Advocate called “Non-Fiction by Non-Men.” You can visit her website at www.ebbartels.com, see her tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.