Mandy Len Catron is the author of How To Fall In Love With Anyone: A Memoir in Essays. Originally from Appalachian Virginia, Catron now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, Glamour, The Rumpus, and The Walrus, as well as literary journals and anthologies. Her essay for the New York Times Modern Love series (“To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This”) was one of the most popular articles published by the New York Times in 2015. Catron writes about love and love stories at The Love Story Project, and she teaches English and creative writing at the University of British Columbia. You can follow Catron on Twitter (@LenMandy), and on Instagram (@LenMandy) to see her drawings and photos of her dog, Roscoe.
EB: How did you begin writing in general and writing nonfiction specifically?
MLC: When I was in high school I remember a parent-teacher conference where my teacher told my mom that I should be a writer, and I remember being so annoyed by that. No way. I was really into visual art. When I went to college, I studied visual art. But I also slowly started to take some writing classes. I don’t know when my ambitions shifted—it might have been when I realized I was never going to be a great painter or drawer. But for some reason I felt like I could stick with this writing thing. Writing felt like something you could get better at. You didn’t necessarily have to have this innate talent, so I think I developed a willingness to stick with it for that reason.
I thought I would write fiction, because I knew I wanted to write prose. At that time (in the early 2000s) there wasn’t a lot of talk about writing nonfiction. I thought that if you wrote nonfiction you had to be a journalist, and I didn’t want to do that. So I applied to MFA programs in fiction. When I first applied to grad school, in 2002, nonfiction wasn’t really an option. Most programs only offered fiction and poetry. I got into one program of the ten I applied to––and then my last semester of undergrad I took a creative nonfiction workshop and realized that was what I wanted to be doing. And also that most of my fiction was thinly veiled nonfiction. I think what I found so intimidating about fiction was that you could write about anything, and I had no idea how anyone chose what to write about. With nonfiction, I loved the boundaries imposed by the truth. It was much easier for me to be creative within those boundaries than within the infinite capacity of fiction.
So I started a graduate program in fiction knowing that I didn’t want to write fiction. I ended up transferring to a different program the next year.
EB: A nonfiction program?
MLC: I had been at Florida State, and there were a couple nonfiction courses there, but there was no way to do a nonfiction thesis there. I also felt like Florida was not the place for me. So I transferred to American University in DC, where you didn’t have to declare a genre. You just went in and started writing what you wanted to write.
EB: Oh, I love that. I feel like the genre divide in MFA programs is so arbitrary sometimes. Like I have friends from my MFA who studied fiction but are now writing essays, or who studied poetry but are now teaching fiction. I studied nonfiction, but one of the classes that helped me the most as a writer was a poetry lecture about writing at the sentence level. I think that we can all benefit from more genre crossover.
MLC: Yeah, I totally agree! Everyone in my program had to take this course on translation, and a lot of folks hated it, but I thought it was great. I learned so much about language and the choices we make and it forced me to think about precision and word choice in a new way.
EB: That’s awesome. Though, for all my talk, I’ve always been hardcore nonfiction. Like you, when I write “fiction” it’s just nonfiction with the names changed.
MLC: Yeah… I can’t imagine going back and writing fiction now.
EB: Though writing nonfiction has a lot of obstacles. Your book is obviously about a pretty intimate subject—love—and, in it, you write about a lot of people you love or loved. What is challenging about writing nonfiction about people you care about? Is anything rewarding about that experience or is it all just really hard?
MLC: It’s definitely rewarding for me. The challenge of writing about people I’m close to is that I want to remain close to them.
MLC: For me, what that meant was that I gave my mom, my dad, my sister, and my partner Mark full veto power over what I wrote about them in the book. I told them, if you want me to change anything I absolutely will. That was fine with me. I was really nervous about what they’d think.
When I first came up with the idea about writing about love and relationships, I knew I wanted to write about my parents’ divorce—that was the earliest starting point for me. But my parents were so private about their divorce. They didn’t tell anyone about it. They didn’t explain it to me and my sister. They didn’t seem able to explain it. I was very aware of the fact that they felt ashamed. Because I think our culture says that divorce is failure, and they had internalized that idea. So initially I wrote under the name “Mandy Len” because “Mandy Catron” is so Googleable—there aren’t many people with my name. It’s not that I was hiding my identity, but I was trying to create a little bit of distance on the Internet between me and them. Just so if someone from my tiny home town Googled my name that stuff wouldn’t come up. But then, a few years later, I wanted to publish something in the New York Times and, it turns out, the New York Times doesn’t do pseudonyms. Suddenly I was in this position where I had to choose whether to publish this under my own name, and the whole distinction I had made between my private life and my writing life collapsed. I knew it was a trade off I had to make. The New York Times has such high visibility, and I knew that publishing a piece in Modern Love would be significant for my career, but I was also pretty nervous about that exposure.
Luckily, by that point, my parents had also gotten over a lot of their discomfort with their divorce. But to answer your question about what is rewarding, I do feel closer to my parents, in a way, by having written about them and having them read it. There are things in the book that I would never talk to my parents about. It’s not like we talk about these things now, but something shifted where they see me as my own person now and not just their daughter… And they’ve been so supportive. I think my dad just gives out copies of my book now.
The other person I write about a lot is my partner, Mark. He has been really great, and, honestly, I think he is more comfortable with me writing about him than I am, because he such a relaxed, laid-back person and I am… less relaxed. I always try to achieve a balance where we still have a private life. It’s not like our entire romantic life is public, though I think people assume it is. I do make conscious choices, though, about what to reveal and what to keep private.
EB: You mention in your book that Mark is also a writer. Do you think that helps?
MLC: Yes? Though he writes fiction. It’s nice to have another writer in the house, not just because he gets it, but because he can read things and give me feedback.
EB: Well, going off the idea of writing about personal subject matter, I love how your essays blend a highly personal experience with an academic and critical lens. How do you approach writing personal material vs. researched and critical and academic material? Is the process the same for you?
MLC: I don’t write anything that is exclusively academic, and I don’t write anything that is exclusively personal. To me, the personal is only interesting because it’s a really accessible way of getting at bigger ideas. One thing that makes a good memoir is personal drama, like if you look at Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, there’s an inherent drama to his story. Or Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, it’s a woman versus the elements—the narrative tension of pulling off this incredibly difficult hike. And I think of my own life as inherently un-dramatic, which I am quite happy about, I’m not complaining at all. But it’s not like I had these amazing stories to tell. So I think that my own experiences are only interesting insofar as they get at these bigger ideas about love and love stories. Phillip Lopate said the plot of the essay is the writer’s mind at work on a problem. For this, you need to bring in other voices, different ways of thinking about things. That is what I love about the essay. It can contain so much more than just personal reflection. To me, it’s that accumulation of ideas from a bunch of different sources that makes writing exciting.
EB: I actually wanted to ask about the essay, because your book is described as a “memoir in essays.” How did you decide on this structure?
MLC: When I first started working on the book, I didn’t think I was allowed to write essays. Someone told me in grad school, and not wrongly, that no one publishes a collection of essays unless you’re Nora Ephron or Joan Didion. You can only be an essayist if you have a career doing something else. So I never tried. I thought it was out of the question. So I was trying to take all these ideas and make them into a coherent book-length something, and it was kind of a memoir, but it didn’t have a clear through-line and it wasn’t chronological. I had all these ideas and didn’t know what to do with them, so I thought I’ll just keep writing and see what happens. And I ended up with this manuscript that was a huge mess. Then, when I published my essay in Modern Love, I was in the very lucky position to have agents become interested in what I was working on. I had been working on this thing alone for so long, it was really nice to get new perspective on it, and it was my agent, Sam Stoloff, who actually said, do you want to publish this as a collection of essays? And I was like yes! He gave me permission to do the thing that I wanted to do all along. It was such a relief. Sam told me to put together a summary of what each essay would be about. Taking that big, bulky, unwieldy manuscript and sorting it into ten essays was so fast and so easy. I think it took me twenty minutes to make that outline. Intuitively I knew the book had found its form. I could see exactly what the book would look like as soon as someone gave me permission to write essays.
It was my editor who suggested calling it a memoir in essays, because, by the time we finished there was a cohesive narrative arc. My editor really deserves the credit for creating that throughline—suddenly a narrative emerged that I hadn’t been able to see.
EB: Yeah, it’s so helpful to have smart people look at stuff that you’ve been working on alone forever.
MLC: It’s amazing!
EB: Though it’s funny to me that you were hesitant about writing a collection of essays because I feel like essay collections are so in right now. It seems like every new nonfiction book is a collection of essays, and not necessarily by someone who is already established and famous, like a Joan Didion. But maybe that’s just been the past five years or so?
MLC: I think a shift has happened because of the Internet and because of social media. People read essays now. But ten years ago, they didn’t.
EB: What do you find most challenging about writing nonfiction?
MLC: I’m not sure nonfiction comes with any unique challenge that is separate from the challenge of writing itself. I think the biggest challenge is figuring out how to make a career as a writer. It’s something I am still figuring out: trying to balance between writing and all the other things I want to do in my life, like pay my bills. The way that challenge is connected to writing nonfiction in particular is that, in theory, there should be a market for essays because people certainly read them. The internet has spawned this interest in the personal essay, which is great, but because of the way the Internet works, it puts new and emerging writers in this position where they feel like they have to give their writing away for little or no pay, which I think is a bit exploitative. I think it’s problematic in lots of ways.
Young people are encouraged to cannibalize their lives for content. And I think that is a problem, especially for young people of color and for young women—basically for non-white-men—and much of it is in response to this neo-conservative, alt-right movement. There is a demand to hear non-white, non-male voices, but the demand is so powerful that it often takes the form of exploitation. There is an expectation that to establish a career you have to find an audience, and, in order to find an audience, you have to write the sort of material that is predicated on you using your identity and life experiences in a way that makes young writers very vulnerable.
EB: Yeah, I feel like so often I have people tell me that I need to have a blog if I want to be a successful nonfiction writer.
MLC: What? Who even has blogs anymore? I guess I have a blog, but I never post on it.
EB: I guess this was a couple of years ago now, and things do change really quickly, but for so long people kept telling me I wouldn’t get noticed unless I had a blog, and I just kept thinking that I didn’t want to put all this energy into writing stuff that I would be giving away for free that probably no one except my parents would read.
MLC: There is also this demand for content. It has been on my mind a lot lately since publishing my book. When publicizing a book, you do as many interviews as you can, and often they are for these online outlets, which are not necessarily well curated, that often seem to exist just to sell ads. I would find myself doing interviews with people who hadn’t read the book, who had just read the Modern Love article and maybe watched one of my TED talks. To be clear, I appreciated that they were willing to write about the book. But I started noticing all of these different outlets that are racing to produce the most content to get the most clicks to sell the most ads. And I started thinking about the effects of this content-mill culture. One effect is that young writers are expected to write a lot and write frequently and have a lot of output, and the flip side is that so much good, thoughtful writing happens slowly. Having the time to really think about a subject and come to a mature, sophisticated perspective feels like a luxury, and a luxury that’s increasingly unattainable. That’s what I love about teaching. It doesn’t pay a lot, but it has a lot of flexibility, and it puts me in this position where my writing doesn’t have to respond to any market pressure. I can take my time thinking about things—but I have less time than I might as a freelance writer. So there are always trade-offs.
EB: Thanks for bringing that up. Making a living as a writer is something I wish people talked about more, because I feel like so often people see it as a simple if you work really hard at it, you will succeed sort of situation, when, really, you need a flexible job to make it possible, or some sort of financial cushion, and loved ones who are willing to leave you alone for hours and hours at a time… there are a lot of factors involved.
Also, the content thing is so interesting because there is just so much content out there, there is no way you could ever read all of it. I feel like there is a lot of content being produced just for the sake of timeliness over the sake of thoughtfulness. Hot takes over depth of thought. But, then again, the Internet has gotten people into reading essays, so. I don’t know. I feel like the Internet has been nonfiction’s best friend and worst enemy.
MLC: I totally agree.
EB: Well, what do you find most rewarding about writing nonfiction?
MLC: You know, I just really like sitting around and thinking about ideas. I find it such a pleasurable thing to do, and I feel so lucky that I get to do it. It’s inherently rewarding, and even more so than publishing. Publishing is nice because it feels so purposeful, and getting to take this solitary work and put it out in the world and talk to people about your ideas is a great feeling. But the thing I love about writing is just sitting at my dining room table, with my dog snoring behind me, and getting to think things through and getting lost in that thought process for hours. It’s not like it’s always delightful. Sometimes it’s excruciating. But being able to spend some time just contemplating a difficult question… I love it.
EB: Finally, what is a favorite passage of nonfiction by a woman writer?
MLC: I considered about a hundred different passages for this. I finally settled on the last thing I read that really stuck with me, from Durga Chew Bose’s “Heart Museum” in her collection Too Much and Not in the Mood:
It’s imperative that writing consists of not living up to your own tastes. Of leaving the world behind so you can hold fast to what’s strange inside; what’s unlit. A soreness. A neglected joy. The way forward is perhaps not maintaining a standard for accuracy but appraising what naturally heaps.
Writing is losing focus and winning it back, only to lose it once more. Hanging on despite the nausea of producing nothing good by noon, despite the Sisyphean task of arriving at a conclusion that pleases.
The whole essay—which is an audacious 93 pages long—is full of surprising passages (that have not much to do with writing but a lot to do with being a human).
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.