Miranda K. Pennington is the author of A Girl Walks into a Book: What the Brontës Taught Me about Life, Love, and Women’s Work (Seal Press, 2017). Her work has appeared on The Toast, The American Scholar online, The Ploughshares blog, and The Catapult Podcast. Pennington received her MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia University, where she also was a University Writing Instructor. In addition, she has taught academic writing at Touro College, SUNY Empire State, and the LEDA Institute, and she has led creative writing workshops for the AmpLit festival and Uptown Stories. This fall, Pennington will join the writing faculty of American University in Washington, D.C.
EB: How did you start writing nonfiction?
MKP: I pretty much always wrote nonfiction. I think I dabbled in stories as a kid like most people do, but I always felt very aware of me controlling everything. It just felt like me in another hat. And as for poetry, I don’t know if I lacked the sincerity or the attention span. But I always wanted to put my own voice on the page, and I enjoyed thinking of an audience and finding a way to communicate with them, just as everything I read communicated with me. I just couldn’t do it as anyone other than myself.
EB: I know A Girl Walks into a Book started off as a long essay. When did you know it would become a book-length project?
MKP: It started as fourteen-page research essay. I thought I had accomplished all of my goals: I talked about each book, I said what each one meant to me, and I was ready to move on. But the great thing about an MFA workshop is people are super nosy, they always want to know more—when did you learn that? and I want to know more about you to care about this—and I kept writing. It hit 35 pages, 60 pages, and then my professor, Patricia O’Toole, said that if I could keep going, this could become a book. So I began to think of each section as a chapter. It took me by surprise that there was enough to sustain a whole book. There was an arc that took place as I wrote it.
EB: I am obsessed with hybrid genre nonfiction books and I love how you blended literary criticism and memoir in your book. How and why did you decide to do that? What was hard about braiding the two narratives together?
MKP: The form was inevitable, because so much has already been written about the Brontës that I knew I had to put myself in it to do something new. And I knew that I didn’t want to have four chapters about the Brontës and then four chapters about me. I also love hybrid nonfiction—I love My Life in Middlemarch, I love H is for Hawk, I love Out of Sheer Rage—because it moves you in and out of all these experiences. You’re permeating through all these walls. One of the first things I did, because I have trouble remembering numbers, was make a long timeline of all the events that happened in the Brontës’ lives. And then I mapped out my own little timeline—and obviously Brontës’ life events were a lot more exciting and cooler-sounding than mine—but it made me realize that there were these moments of resonance, parallel moments, even if they were off by a few years because they grew up a lot faster than I did. I would see these moments, and I had encountered each of their books at crucial moments, and it began to feel like a relationship. And I know, I know, it’s not possible that they were actually communicating with me, but it felt that way.
EB: I think the back-and-forth is really successful. You seamlessly move between your life and the Brontës.
MKP: Thanks. I was very conscious of trying to find the right balance of how much time to spend on each thing, like when I would exhaust the reader’s interest on the minutia of Charlotte’s mail. I could read Charlotte’s letters forever, so I really came to value the input of my editor who said, well, maybe this is enough.
EB: That’s one of the things that I find hardest about writing nonfiction. When I’m doing research, I find every little detail interesting, because of course I do—I’m researching it, I’m obsessed with it, that’s why I’m writing about it. But how much is interesting to the average person?
MKP: And you forget what the average baseline of knowledge is. I chose a reader that had probably read Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights at some point, and I didn’t make any assumptions about how much they liked either of them. Some people don’t know there were three sisters, some people don’t know they had a brother. When I say “Haworth” I assume everyone knows I’m talking about the town where they grew up, but a lot of people think I’m talking about “Hogwarts.” You forget how much people don’t know because you’re immersed in it. You forget what normal is.
EB: Well, I think you do a good job of not assuming your reader knew too much, but you also don’t condescend to your reader. That’s a fine line to walk.
MKP: Thank you!
EB: You are also a very funny writer. What do you think is the role of humor in nonfiction?
MKP: Both personally and literarily, humor is my primary language. It’s definitely a defense mechanism, but I also grew up reading a lot of humorists. I loved Mark Twain—he is so dryly funny. I actually have to work against my instinct always to land on a punch line. I learned a lot from more lyrical writers in my MFA program. They have this beautiful sincerity and they take their time with language, and I have to give myself permission to do that and trust that people will still be interested even if they’re not laughing every minute. I grew up watching Mystery Science Theatre and Whose Line Is It Anyway? I love improv and stand up, and perhaps because I tend toward depression and anxiety, when I can pursue humor, I’m really excited to do so. But the main area where I’ve grown as a writer is not just trying to be funny, not just taking that easier route, but working to get below the surface. I love to read memoirs that are really vulnerable and really honest, but it doesn’t occur to me that people might appreciate that in my work.
EB: What do you find most challenging about writing nonfiction?
MKP: Pacing is always tricky. I try to listen for the cadence that I want. I tend to want to drop huge bombs and then move on right away. But that’s not how you craft narrative personal nonfiction. You really have to make it an experience for the reader rather than just telling them what you want them to know.
EB: And what do you find most rewarding about writing nonfiction?
MKP: That’s such a great question. As someone who finds interpersonal relationships tricky, if I accomplish my goal with a piece of nonfiction, afterwards someone is going to know me in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise. Perhaps they’ll also know a little more about themselves. A lot of self-discovery comes from reading other people’s work—that’s how I learned about myself. I think making those connections is the most exciting thing about nonfiction for me… It makes you feel less alone. It’s not fiction. You don’t have to parse what is real. It’s all real. This is what happened and this is how it felt.
EB: Speaking of other people, what is it like for you writing about people you are close to—in particular, people who will read your work, like your mom? I remember when we had lunch a few months ago you said your mom had your galley, and you were anxious about her reading one specific part.
MKP: I think I came home from lunch and took the galley away from her until the book came out. It’s interesting: my partner at the time read the book as my MFA thesis. And I think it was hard for him to see how I saw things, or reliving things that had been rough on both of us. But I think people who know me are almost as nervous about reading my work as I am about having them read it. There is a sense of vulnerability, of trust that they’ll still love you at the end of it. But I also do a lot of layers of my own sensitivity reading. I’ll write what I really want to say and then I’ll put on goggles of the person I am worried about reading it. I’ll think about the impact of how certain words or phrases will affect them, and if it’s really what I want to say, I’ll stand behind those choices and leave them. But if the points I’m scoring are not the worth the impact they’ll have on somebody, I’ll tone it down, scale it back, try to veil it.
EB: I heard Roxane Gay speak last week in Harvard Square—
MKP: [dreamy sigh]
EB: I know, isn’t she just the best? Someone asked her this same question, and she said that she won’t write anything about anyone that she wouldn’t say to the person’s face. I agree with that, but I also think sometimes it’s easier to speak to someone in writing than to their face.
MKP: Yeah, that’s tricky. One of the great things about writing this book was that while I was writing, I realized just how much I missed my grad school friends, and as I was writing about them, I was thinking that they would see this book and it was a way that I could reach out to them. But with my mom, I handled it very carefully. I took a lot of stuff out, and I went back and forth. In the end I had to make a last-minute decision of what to keep in, and what’s left isn’t even a very long section, but it’s one of my most vulnerable moments in the book. Even if the section is going to make some people uncomfortable to read, I will feel uncomfortable if I hold it back, because I will feel like I’m not being honest.
EB: How has writing nonfiction affected your life, both as a writer and also a person?
MKP: It has made me a constant creator of narratives. No matter what’s happening, I am putting it in a context, and it may be totally different from someone else’s context. Today I was swimming, and the whole time I was swimming I was thinking about how I would write an essay about it—coming up with descriptive words that I like, but then also judging myself, thinking no one wants to read an essay about you in the pool. But it has made me constantly look for patterns and connections between things. And I think writing nonfiction makes you an insightful person, when it doesn’t make you an insufferable person. That’s what I hope anyway. Everything becomes material eventually, even when something terrible happens. It can also dampen the experience of wonderful things because you know there is going to be a third act that is going to put everything in perspective.
EB: That’s a good point. I do that too. I also do that thing, that I think makes me kind of a psychopath, where I think I should do this thing just so I can write about it later.
MKP: I had a roommate who used to say that you’re either going to have a good time or a good story. It can help you get through more difficult times when you know that after it’s all over you can write about the situation in the most scorching prose.
EB: Ha. Yes.
MKP: It shores you up for the harder things.
EB: When you are reading nonfiction, as both a writer and also as a teacher, what do you think makes for really good nonfiction?
MKP: Great nonfiction has a reason for being, outside of the writer just wanting to say something. I actually feel self-conscious about writing memoir, especially in my twenties. A memoir needs to have a greater purpose, even if that greater purpose is just having a unique point of view. Take David Sedaris—nothing momentous happens in a lot of his stories, but it’s his perspective that makes it special, that justifies its reason for being. I think personal essays get a bad rap, but the really meaningful ones actually result in a process of discovery, and you can’t write the ones that discover without writing the ones that don’t. Great nonfiction has a meaningful context, a compelling voice, and it takes you somewhere that you didn’t think you were going.
EB: Finally, what is a favorite passage of nonfiction by a woman writer? I’m guessing something by a Brontë?
MKP: In a letter in response to some rough reviews, Charlotte Brontë wrote, “It would take a great deal to crush me.” I want it as a tattoo on my wrist, but I think that would be kind of tempting fate because my wrist would actually be pretty easy to crush.
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.
Hear more of Miranda Pennington’s thoughts on nonfiction at two upcoming events:
August 15, 7:30pm at Books Are Magic (225 Smith St, Brooklyn, NY 11231), in conversation with Melissa Scholes Young, author of the novel Flood)
August 17, 7pm at One More Page Books (2200 N Westmoreland St, Ste 101, Arlington, VA 22213)