Ann Friedman is a freelance journalist who writes a weekly column for New York Magazine’s The Cut. She is also a regular contributor to The Los Angeles Times, The Gentlewoman, The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, ELLE, and The Guardian. Friedman has worked as an editor at AlterNet, Feministing, The American Prospect, and GOOD magazine. She is the co-founder of Tomorrow magazine. She co-hosts Call Your Girlfriend, a podcast for long-distance besties everywhere, with her friend, Aminatou Sow. She also sends a weekly email newsletter and makes hand-draws pie charts, which you can find on her website. Friedman lives in Los Angeles.
EB: Let’s start at the beginning. What is your writing-nonfiction origin story?
AF: When I was a kid I would write fiction, but ever since I’ve been old enough to read newspapers and magazines, I’ve been primarily into writing nonfiction. I still love reading fiction and I have boundless respect for its writers. But for me, there is so much weird and wild and important stuff going on in the world—I take my inspiration from it, want to comment on it, want to explore it. Nonfiction is so direct in that way. I love it.
EB: Seriously, why bother making stuff up? The real world is nuts. What is the weirdest, wildest, most important thing you’ve written about lately?
AF: I recently finished a feature about a jetpack pilot. There’s this weird arms race (backs race??) happening right now to build a jetpack that will fly for more than 5 minutes. Of course they’re all semi-crazy dudes who are vying to be the first. It’s fascinating. And sure, you could make them up. But it’s much more fun to interview them IRL. I mean, I got to strap on a jetpack while reporting this article!
EB: Most of the work you do involves reporting, and you describe yourself as a journalist. How do you define “journalism” in comparison to “nonfiction”?
AF: Well, I write some things that verge into the humor or personal essay category. But I think my best work is informed by reporting that I do, which is why I tend to use the word journalist. It also seems weird to describe myself by what I’m not (“not a fiction writer”). But now you’ve got me thinking about it, and maybe “nonfiction” is more expansive and therefore more accurate.
EB: I’ve always liked the term nonfiction exactly because of its expansiveness—it covers everything that isn’t, well, not fiction. So what do you think makes your nonfiction distinctly yours?
AF: Honestly, sometimes I really don’t know. I try to write things that are informed yet personal, emotional yet well-argued. I try to include moments of humor. I think that naming things is very powerful, and so especially when it comes to writing about gender or feminist stuff, I try to put labels on some feelings and problems that might otherwise go unnoticed or be dismissed.
EB: Do you find writing nonfiction at all cathartic?
AF: There’s that famous Didion quote that begins, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking.” I have lots of other motivations, too, but trying to figure out how I feel about often pushes me to write. My best columns, I think, have been born out of personal confusion or feeling conflicted about an issue. Working through that confusion with my words can definitely feel cathartic.
EB: How has writing nonfiction affected your life?
AF: I read the news differently than I would if I weren’t also writing about it. I try to think about how various trends or pop-culture moments or news events connect to each other, or what’s going unsaid. I ask myself questions a lot as I read, and as I go through my life: Why does that make me so mad? What would I like to change about this situation?
EB: I love your podcast Call Your Girlfriend. On the show, you and Amina talk a lot about the internet. Do you think the internet has helped or hurt the writing industry? What about nonfiction specifically? From blogs to Twitter to those super long Facebook status rants, it seems everyone is a nonfiction writer.
AF: It’s true, to a certain extent, that everyone writes nonfiction now. Facebook rants can be circulated as widely as a New York Times op-ed. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I do think it pushes nonfiction writers to differentiate ourselves. And as for the overall effect of the internet, I couldn’t really say. I’ve been writing online for my entire career—I don’t know what it’s like to be a journalist or a writer in the pre-internet era. Although one way you can probably tell that I’ve always written for the internet is that I see time as a writer’s greatest luxury. If you’re a full-time writer, you have to produce a lot. Which means that if you want to take a good chunk of time to edit and revise something, you really need to sacrifice in order to do that. When writing instructors teach the classics of narrative nonfiction written in the pre-internet era—the Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion stuff—I think they should be required to add the caveat that one reason it’s so great is that these writers had the luxury of time and resources. They could spend months on a single piece of writing. No wonder it’s great! That sort of time investment is just not realistic for the vast majority of writers working today, or, I suspect, many writers working back then, either.
EB: That’s such a good point. I had never thought of time as such a crucial factor—I guess I’ve been conditioned read and write at an internet-era-pace. In addition to the time crunch, what else has been challenging for you about writing nonfiction?
AF: I have some weeks when I just don’t feel inspired. I’ve been writing a weekly column for more than three years, which ultimately I think has made me a much better writer but can also feel like drudgery sometimes. And reported pieces are always a challenge—every one is different. It can be difficult as a freelancer because you need to have a strong angle to pitch a reported feature. Sometimes after you do a dozen interviews, that original angle doesn’t hold up. In those cases, you usually uncover something else that’s equally interesting. But then you have to sell your editor on it all over again.
EB: What has been rewarding about writing nonfiction?
AF: Ok, not to be braggy but someone recently tweeted a compliment about my work that said, “every day i wake up and think how am I ever going to thank @annfriedman for always writing what we hadn’t even thought of yet.” Which is honestly so incredible and so flattering. It is so rewarding to hear that my process of trying to figure out the world around me is also helping people who read my words.
EB: Sometimes your work combines your own personal experience with historical, political, and cultural commentary. Do you approach writing personal nonfiction differently than you approach writing reported/researched nonfiction?
AF: It’s pretty rare that I write a personal essay that’s purely about my experience—if I think it’s worth writing about publicly, that’s typically because I think it says something about politics or culture. So I try to make the connection. Research and reporting is often still a part of the process, even if the piece is first and foremost a personal essay.
EB: Speaking of your personal experiences, do you think your gender has had an influence on your experience as a writer in general and as a writer of nonfiction specifically? Do you think identifying as a woman has influenced the subjects you choose to write about?
AF: Yes! I mean, I don’t know what it’s like to be a writer who isn’t a woman. So it’s hard to say exactly what role gender plays in my experience and interests. My life is shaped by my gender, and therefore I’m sure many of my ideas are, too. I’ve encountered some low-level sexism, and especially early in my career I struggled with whether my work was less “important” than that of my male colleagues, in part because most of my writing was so explicitly feminist. But I don’t have those concerns anymore. I just keep writing about what I care about and am interested in, and so far that’s worked out.
EB: I am in support of that! I am also a huge proponent of Shine Theory, the concept you and Amina named and promote on Call Your Girlfriend. [For those of you who haven’t heard, Shine Theory is the idea that women shouldn’t compete with and put down other women, but support and promote each other instead. As Friedman wrote for New York Magazine: “When you meet a woman who is intimidatingly witty, stylish, beautiful, and professionally accomplished, befriend her. Surrounding yourself with the best people doesn’t make you look worse by comparison. It makes you better.”] How can Shine Theory apply to writers and how can women writers support and help each other more?
AF: Women writers, or anyone in a competitive, creative field, are bound to feel sometimes that there are limited spaces for success. That if another woman succeeds, there’s no room for them to get great assignments or land a dream job. That’s a fucking lie. Women writers need to recognize that our work is very powerful when read in tandem with other women’s work—and that a success for one of us means opportunities for others, too, if we’re all practicing Shine Theory and helping each other out. I definitely still get jealous. I read things and go, “Oh my god, she’s so good, I’m never writing another word again!” I have to remind myself that our work is different. And try to learn from what makes her stuff so good. And, if I’m in an exceptionally zen mode, send her an email telling her how much I liked her article.
EB: Well then, let’s put Shine Theory into action. Tell me—what is a favorite passage of nonfiction by a woman writer?
AF: I could never declare a favorite. There’s a 1938 dispatch from the war correspondent Martha Gellhorn that begins, “In Barcelona, it was perfect bombing weather.” It’s so chilling and perfect. I loved every word of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. I underlined half the book.
EB: Ah! Me too! I think my copy weighs more now from all the ink I added to it.
AF: I also have always loved the poet June Jordan’s line, “We are the ones we have been waiting for,” which has been quoted all over the place, including by Alice Walker at Obama’s inauguration. But I find it very motivating. On a semi-related note, the editor Diana Vreeland once said, “Give ‘em what they never knew they wanted.” I hear that and it gives me permission to be my best, weirdest self.
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.