Non-Fiction by Non-Men: Mary Mann

Mary Mann is the author of Yawn: Adventures in Boredom. Her essays and criticism have appeared in Smithsonian, The New York Times, The Believer, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications, and she holds an MFA from Columbia University’s writing program. Mann is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Fellowship and a 2015 CATWALK Art Residency, and she is the associate editor of the New York Times bestselling collection Women in Clothes. She is currently employed as a writing associate at The Cooper Union. Mann lives in New York with her fiancé, Grant, and dog, Maya.

EB: How did you start writing nonfiction?

MM: I moved to New York because I wanted to do some writing for somebody somewhere. I loved to read. If I wasn’t writing, I wanted to be editing something—I wanted to be involved with words. I wanted to be in that world. And I moved into nonfiction because that’s just how things shook out. I had an internship at The Onion when I first started out. Obviously those stories are not real, but they treat it like journalism—writers spit-balling stuff off each other. I liked that world. I got a copyediting job after that. I wasn’t crazy about it, and that’s when I applied to Columbia, because that was when I decided I wanted to do something different. I applied to the nonfiction program because it felt natural. I feel like I don’t have a good answer.

EB: I get that. I feel like I ended up in nonfiction because it was my only choice. When I applied to MFA programs, I didn’t even consider fiction or poetry. I just knew it had to be nonfiction.

MM: Yeah! It’s just where I fell into it. I also just love to read nonfiction. I love essays. And I love Geoff Dyer—for a while I was just reading and rereading his books. He was a big draw to Columbia’s nonfiction program, but he was also how I got into nonfiction in general. Looking at him, I realized you can do all the fun things when writing nonfiction: you can write, you can research, you can travel. You can do that with fiction too, but it made more sense to do that with nonfiction. Maybe it was just the examples I had.

EB: What do you find most challenging about writing nonfiction? And what do you find most rewarding?

MM: This is also going to be a weird answer.

EB: That’s okay! Nonfiction is weird.

MM: I feel both ways about all the parts. There are days when I don’t want to write, and that’s a research day. And there are days when I don’t want to read stuff, and that’s a perfect writing day. It’s nice that I can flip from one thing to the other, when I’m not in the mood for one of them. And both of them feel like work, so I’m not shirking them if I’m doing one and not the other.

EB: I like that. I often beat myself up for not actually writing as often as I should be, and then I have to remind myself that when I’m reading a book or watching a movie for research, that’s part of writing too.

MM: A good research day is such a good day. You get to be all over—going to the library, being on the Internet, doing interviews. Talking to people for interviews is really fun, especially when I get cranky about working by myself.

EB: Your book, Yawn: Adventures in Boredom, covers an expansive history of the concept of boredom. What was challenging, specifically, about writing about something so abstract as boredom?

MM: So, I actually think the [book] proposal process is a smart one, even if there are parts of it that are annoying. It forces you to outline what you would do. And even though it changed a lot as I worked and my editor was okay with that, it helped me see from the beginning that I was dealing with this big, nebulous topic, and the original proposal helped me figure out how to pin it down in various spots to make it feel to more manageable for both me and the reader. I started breaking things into different categories—for example, I wanted to learn why sometimes people do violent things out of boredom, and I thought, okay, how can I go about this—I’ll talk to the soldiers who write about boredom, and a guy who is in solitary confinement. I think the interviews helped the most with nailing down stuff. Because it’s so specific to another person’s experience.

EB: Were there things that you liked about writing about such a big, nebulous subject?

MM: Yeah! One of the really cool things [about boredom] is that it is in everything. There are sex researchers who research boredom, there are politics people who talk about it, and there are workplace studies on it. I could dip my toe into all these different worlds. I never really felt hemmed in by the topic, which felt really—well, you know, I don’t know. I’ve never done another book, so I don’t know what it’s like, but I think about people who write about the history of the spoon, and wouldn’t you feel really tired of spoons by the end? But maybe that too opens itself up to a lot of stuff, which I wouldn’t know, because I’ve never written about the history of the spoon. But [writing about boredom] was really fun, and I am prone to restlessness, so I could jump from one topic to another when I got bored.

EB: In Yawn you talk a lot about your own boredom and restlessness, weaving your personal story in with your research. Why did you decide to make that choice, and what do you see as the role of the writer in narrative nonfiction?

MM: That’s a good question. One thing I was attracted to [about boredom] is that there is a lot of judgment around the topic. I wanted to know where that came from, because it’s not hurting someone else for you to be bored. I was interested in that, and I was aware of that. So when I was thinking about the book, I thought that I didn’t want to just be interviewing other people about feeling this way. I need to put myself in there too for empathy’s sake—to make it clear that this is sympathetic to the bored people of the world, because I am one of them.

As for the second part, I think that the role of the author in nonfiction depends on the author. Some people you can tell when they put themselves in that they are uncomfortable with being in it and you think: someone told them they had to do this. You don’t have to be in the book. And you don’t have to not be in the book. I guess it just depends on what feels right.

EB: Going back to what you were saying about judgment, how do you handle interviewing people who are worried about being judged? How do you get people to open up to you?

MM: That’s also a great question. It took a lot more cajoling in the earlier days. Maybe I got more comfortable broaching the topic. I got more comfortable talking about my own feelings about it, and so that helped me. I also did present information, especially when approaching someone I didn’t know, in an [initial inquiry] email with some stuff from my book research—not necessarily quotes, but a couple facts, a couple things I’d run across, stuff to suggest it was something I was really interested in and sympathetic to, and that I knew it was really common. And the interviewing process was really cool, because there are so many people who were like it’s so nice to talk about this, especially people with boring jobs. There are a lot of people who get bored at work but are embarrassed to talk about it with their friends, because so much of how we identify ourselves is through our jobs, and people are worried that if their job is boring then they are boring.

EB: Do you think writing about boredom, or just writing nonfiction in general, has changed your life in any way? How does writing nonfiction affect you as a writer and also a person?

MM: I do think that it has changed my life. I think that especially when you are putting yourself in a thing—to write a character that represents yourself that isn’t super hate-able, you have to be self-aware. I’m thinking of Elif Batuman, Leslie Jamison, Margo Jefferson. I think you can tell when an author is self-aware, and that means not just recognizing the pretty parts of yourself that would make a character look good, but also the other parts. Readers are not dumb. They’ll read something and think well, this narrator is fucking perfect, I hate them, because that character is not a real person. I guess I feel like I’m more self-aware, but that feels dumb to say, because how do I really know if that’s true?

EB: I guess you’re self-aware that you might not be completely self-aware?

MM: Ha, now I’m feeling weird about it. But I’m also just happier than I used to be when I was copyrighting. And, man, it makes such a difference when you’re happy with what you’re doing. It makes such a difference! I hadn’t even realized it! I saw some friends the other day and they were all complaining about office politics and terrible bosses and I realized, wow, I’d almost forgotten how that feels. I’ve come over a hump or something, and I think a lot of that has to do with writing nonfiction. Committing to [writing] even when I felt weird about it. And it makes me nicer to other people! It’s totally a privilege to be able to be happy at work, but it feels like a radiating privilege. Don’t feel bad about it, if you have that privilege, because it makes you better for everyone else around you.

EB: Finally, what is a favorite passage of nonfiction by a woman writer?

MM: This is a picture of the Mary Ruefle passage that hangs above my desk. It gives me great relief and perspective and also a giggle sometimes.

E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Toast, The Butter, xoJane, Ploughshares online, 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.

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