Non-Fiction by Non-Men: Samantha Irby

Samantha Irby is the writer behind the blog bitches gotta eat and the author of Meaty: Essays (Curbside Splendor Publishing, 2013), New Year, Same Trash: Resolutions I Absolutely Did Not Keep (Vintage, 2017), and We Are Never Meeting In Real Life: Essays (Vintage, 2017). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Rumpus, and Jezebel, among others. You can follow Irby on Twitter at @wordscience.

EB: First off, how did you start writing nonfiction? Have you always been a nonfiction person?

SI: When I was in high school I used to write fiction that was either imitating things I was reading at the time or was like fairy tales—well, not really fairy tales in the traditional sense, but thinly veiled fantasies of mine. Things like crushes I had that I wished could become real. I thought I could write them into existence maybe. I wrote fiction for a long time, but, oddly enough, writing fictional characters is more sensitive for me than writing about myself. I get real protective of my fictional people. I just couldn’t do all these things to them.

So then I just didn’t write anything at all for a while. But Chicago has a live lit scene—it’s not spoken word, and it’s not a poetry slam, but it’s people getting up and reading essays and things they’ve written. It’s huge now— there is a different show every night of the week. But back in 2010 I went to show hosted by my friend called the Sunday Night Sex Show. Five or six people read personal stories about sex and sexuality, interspersed with trivia and anonymous sex questions from the audience. I went to the show a couple times—it was in this dank little hipster bar—and I just loved it. I’d gone to high school with one of the hosts, and after a few shows he said you should do this. So I wrote a piece for the show. I already had my blog at that point, but that felt like I was just anonymously putting things out in the world, not reading as myself in front of an audience. So I read this piece about sex and I got a good response, and that was when I really began writing and performing in earnest. The live lit scene combined with my blog was really when I started putting myself out there.

EB: Speaking of your blog, bitches gotta eat, how do you approach writing that you know will be published on the internet vs. writing that will be published in a book? Is the process the same or different for you?

SI: It’s super different. Now I have the dilemma, when something really good and interesting happens, of asking myself: should I waste it on this free blog or save it for a book? For the blog, I try to write about things that have happened but are not going to be interesting in three years when the next book comes out. That’s the first question I ask: is this a thing that will last? That’s how I decide what to write about where. For my process, with the blog, I sit down, bang it out, post it, and never think about it again. For my book, once I got working on it, I had to have my editor confirm that what I was writing about would be interesting. For both the book and the blog, I start with an idea of how I want it to end or what I’m going to say—I still use a hamburger outline. That part is the same. But I want the blog to feel like just your friend telling you some dumb jokes, while the stuff in the book I want to feel like a polished thing. In the book, I am a little more intentional.

EB: I know that some of the essays in your books originated as posts for the blog, but do you find there is a lot of overlap in the material from your blog and your books?

SI: There are universal themes that have stuck with me, and there are things that have shown up in both the blog and the book. Not whole pieces, but paragraphs or sentences. It’s tough! When I go back and look at my blog, it reignites some ideas. But also, rereading, I sometimes think this can’t go to waste on the internet! Then I look for a way to incorporate it.

EB: Both your books and your blog are hilarious. What do you think is the role of humor in nonfiction?

SI: These are words we use all the time and when I find myself using them I get grossed out, but humor has helped me process things that have happened to me. Humor has been the best for me. I think because it comes naturally. I’m a person for whom the funny parts of the awful thing reveal themselves relatively quickly. This is not to say I am a cheerful person all the time, but when something wild happens, I could cry, and sometimes I do, but more often I look at the situation and think well this part was really stupid and laugh about it. The comedic silver lining shows itself. You know, I have a little discomfort with exposing myself, which sounds insane—

EB: Ha! Considering some of the things you write about!

SI: I know, I know, my whole thing is exposing myself, but I couldn’t do it without being funny. I couldn’t do it being super earnest. That doesn’t work for me. I love to read other people’s sensitive self-examinations, but to try that myself never even occurs to me. You know how you talk to yourself when you’re thinking about something you’ve done? My inner voice is never tender. It’s always saying UGH YOU IDIOT and then I’ll laugh about it.

I always want what I write to be useful, and the easiest way to make it useful is to make people laugh. But I don’t discount people who write sincerely. I just read Roxane Gay’s new memoir, Hunger, which is brutal, in a split-open way. I could never write that way. I appreciate people who can do that, but it does not come naturally to me.

EB: That makes sense. A lot of people use nonfiction to figure out their own lives. So if you use humor to figure out your life, of course your writing would be funny.

SI: Some people have a precious approach, kind of like an NPR approach to writing about themselves. I can appreciate it, but, for me, I just want to be blunt, cut to the chase, and humor is the most incisive knife for me. That has been easier for me as a writer than approaching things with care and seriousness.

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

SI: One of the things is making sure my voice feels and sounds consistent. I always want it to sound true to who my audience expects. I don’t want to write a piece and have people who have been reading my work for years think, “Who is she now?” It’s important to me to have that same authenticity. At the same time, everyone changes. I think my work has grown up a bit, but I want it to still sound like me. Also, another thing: I never want to be so navel-gazing that other people can’t relate. I think there is a thin line when you write about yourself. I never want it to be just me shouting up my own asshole. I want to make sure that what I’m writing about are things that other people can relate to, but I think it’s hard not to be super indulgent when writing about yourself. I want to make sure my writing helps people, frees something up in them. I never want to cross the line into it being just me crying over my sad, sad diary. I try to stay really mindful of that when I’m writing—even though it’s about me, making sure it’s useful to other people.

EB: I like that idea—is this interesting to everyone, or is it only interesting to me because it happened to me?

SI: Right! I err on the side of thinking that nothing I do is really that interesting. I mean, some people can make anything they write interesting, and I will read it. For some people, I could read a list of what they bought at Target, but not everyone is into that. But you can’t stray so far into thinking that here’s a dumb thing that should be interesting just because I did it.

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

SI: The response that I get from people—women particularly—who see themselves in something I’ve written. I say all the time that all I want to do is make a woman laugh. Life is trash and it’s hard, and there will be people who make you think and feel and all that, but if I can make you laugh or bring you delight you in some way, that’s why I do it. So when people reach out to me and say hey, I was having a terrible day and I read this thing you wrote, and I felt better, that makes it worth it to me. And I’ve consistently gotten that feedback. Sometimes I wonder why I’m still doing this, like I think ughhh who still has a blog anymore, but then I’ll get an email from someone saying that a post from two months ago made their day. If someone, somewhere, is still laughing at it—that’s the biggest reward. Knowing that people enjoy it. Especially when it comes to my blog—I do that shit for free. I don’t even have ads on it. It’s just a labor of love. So when I get those messages from people, it makes it all worth it.

EB: That might relate to my next question, but how has writing nonfiction affected your life as a writer and also a person?

SI: These are good questions!

EB: [blushing like an idiot] Thank you!

SI: As a person, and this is going to sound awful to say, but I definitely go into situations wondering, can I write about this? I will do this thing that I would never do otherwise because I can write about it later. I’m in Austin right now and my wife is flying down to meet me, and she said there is a nude beach that she wants to explore, and I’m not a nude beach kind of guy, but I think that maybe my experience at a nude beach could be something I could mine for comedy. I try more things [as a result of writing nonfiction], but also when something bad happens, I think this sucks now, but when I write about it eventually, it will be good.

As a writer, I think more about fiction than I used to. I used to read a lot of nonfiction, but now that I write it, all I want to do is escape, so I read way more fiction. As a writer, you want to tell the truth, or as much of the truth as you feel comfortable with, and that has changed how I think about experiences. I try to do justice to everyone in my life that I write about. When I meet new people they’re always like UGH are you going to write about me. Don’t flatter yourself! I don’t write about everybody! But with good friends, I don’t just put everyone’s business out there. I will give them a pseudonym, I’ll send them the piece ahead of time and ask if they think it’s okay. As a writer of nonfiction, I have to establish a super great sense of trust with my friends so they can continue to be who they are around me and not feel like I’m going to exploit something that they’ve done.

EB: That actually was one of my questions. How do you handle writing about people you are close to, especially people who will read what you have written? Some people just say deal with it and won’t let anyone read it until after it’s published.

SI: That’s wild to me, because this all has a shelf life. I don’t know if in five, ten, even two years from now, people will still be interested in reading about what I’m doing and talking about. I would never jeopardize a friendship over something that could be impermanent. If I piss off all my friends for a temporary flash-in-the-pan essay, is it worth it? There’s not enough money in writing, at least not this type of writing, to make it worth it. And if you meet new people and they’ve seen you’ve done your friends foul, they won’t want to be your friends, and I want to have friends!

Take the piece about my old boyfriend, Fred [in We Are Never Meeting In Real Life]. My relationship with him was a big life event and I didn’t want to not talk about it. He and I are in a place now where I care about getting it right and having his approval. I told him I wanted to write about our relationship and asked if it was okay. He said yes, and then I sent him my draft of the piece before I sent it to my editor. I mean, that piece doesn’t just make him look bad, it makes us look equally awful, and I think it does ultimately have a happy ending because we ended up being friends. But when it comes to someone I respect and care about, I would never want to risk alienating them. If I was getting paid million of dollars to write and lived in an ivory tower where I didn’t have to care about human companionship anymore, then sure, but it’s not worth it. And it’s just a nice thing to do that doesn’t hurt me as a writer. If Fred had said no, I would have said to myself that I wrote this, I’m proud of it, but I’ll just tuck it in my digital archive, because I don’t have to do any of this. I could be done doing this tomorrow and then what? I don’t want to disrespect anyone I care about.

But if you do me dirty and we don’t talk anymore, then all bets are off.

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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