Today’s Nonfictionist Q&A is with my friend Kim Hosey. Kim is a reporter, CNF writer, blogger, photographer, wife and mother. I love talking with her about the everyday struggles writers face — you know, that complicated task of being a creative person while still fulfilling all the responsibilities of being a functional human being. You should check out her blog, AZ Writer, to see what she’s up to.
You’ve been a reporter and a creative writer, how do those two things overlap for you in creative nonfiction?
With the unfortunate exceptions of my brief forays into poetry and one suspense story, my creative writing has always been creative nonfiction. I just didn’t know it had its own club until a few years ago. I had completed my journalism degree from Arizona State University and was working as a freelance journalist and magazine writer, but I started to get the sense that I was a slightly different kind of writer, a storyteller. I loved the information-gathering power and skills that journalism had given me. I still use them nearly every day – tape recording interviews, checking up on sources and information, background research. But one thing that bugs me with much of daily journalism is that once a story is established, you can never find the beginning again. You don’t usually — really by the structure of it, can’t — get the whole story. You get little bits here and there, glimpses in overview as the story progresses. One of my favorite articles I wrote – and the writing sucks; I like it for the concept – was a piece I wrote in college about how most college students didn’t understand the any of the background of U.S. relations with Iraq. The facts kept coming at us, but no one, at least at the time, had backed up and told the story to our generation. I’m embarrassed to say I had to look a lot of it up myself. It’s not usually up to daily reporters to tell readers the meaning or structure of a story. They’re not storytellers. They report current stuff as it happens. A crucial position, to be sure, and probably more necessary to society than what I’m moving toward in my writing. But it wasn’t precisely what I wanted to do, though there is much overlap. It’s not what I’m best at, either.
Being a reporter taught me to gather and present information. But that’s not telling the story like I wanted to tell stories. “Creative” writing lets me back up or zoom in as the narrative dictates and tell the whole story or even just select, shining pieces of it, either in installments (as I do on my blog, with vignettes from my family’s life) or in one go, as in a book (which I also hope to do).
I’m sure that’s not everyone’s opinion of journalism, and not everyone’s plan with creative writing or writing a book. But it’s close-ish to what I see my “calling” to be.
How do you make writing about science creative and beautiful, and why?
The short answer to both questions is, it IS beautiful. That’s why I feel compelled to write about it; and that’s how, on the rare and happy occasion it happens, I get to write such nice-sounding stuff. How can you not write pretty when your topic is the first seconds of the universe? But I think the deeper answer is in uncovering unexpected beauty. We all know a sunset is beautiful (and I’ve written on those). But what about the sawing and grinding mouthparts of an insect? What about a mathematical equation? For me, it’s about getting closer, physically or figuratively. When you’re really, really close, the hairs of a fly on a garbage pile can resemble a forest of steel spires. The facets of its eyes are iridescent. Knowing how that stuff works makes it even cooler.
Another thing is the people behind the science. I’m sure there must be some dull scientists out there, but I have yet to meet them. A cosmologist used a soda straw and wall poster to talk to me about the beginning of the universe once. An amateur astronomer described scanning the skies during a viewing marathon: finding a galaxy, just as three neighboring telescopes blinked briefly and whirred while they turned, “as if whispering the secret of it to one another.” My dad used to explain physics principles using salt shakers and Fisher Price people. I love the people behind science.
I love when you write about your son. Does he know you write about him? How does he feel about it?
He’s the easiest person in the world to write about, both because there’s endless inspiration (whether in his awesome essence of kidness, his kindness or in his fascination with all things booby- and butt-related), and because he honestly loves being written about. When I write about anyone else, I worry. What will they think? Will my husband be mad I poked fun at our conversation, or that the world now knows we had a fight on Election Day? It doesn’t even have to be anything bad; just the act of quoting people, saying their names or rendering their experiences in a “writerly” fashion sometimes makes them uncomfortable.
Not my son. He puts it this way: He loves me. He loves bugs, and dirt, and farts and Nickelodeon shows and feeding the geese and a million other things. Why shouldn’t everyone know about these things? I tell him what I’m writing all the time, and he unreservedly approves. He even makes suggestions (though how I’m supposed to make an entertaining blog post about “when Brennan stepped on my toe during line-up time” has yet to come to me). I suspect this happy arrangement won’t last forever, but I’ll take advantage of it while it does.
Your photography is often a big part of your blog. How’d you learn to shoot?
I tell people I’m self-taught. That’s true, in that I have no formal or even informal training. I’ve never taken a photography class or even attended a workshop. But “self-taught” isn’t exactly right. I didn’t figure out anything I do with a camera all by myself. I talk to fellow photographers, both amateur and pro. I read tons about photography. I’ve spent countless hours playing on, er, I mean perusing photography websites, particularly Flickr.com. I learn which styles appeal to me, then try the techniques the photographers used to achieve the effects. Plus, I contribute to the websites. Flickr users are great at offering feedback, which is helpful in the same way that it is with writing. I upload some shots I think are wonderful (Ego? What ego?) and sometimes they get a real ho-hum response. On the other hand, I add some photos almost as an afterthought and get a flood of positive feedback. It helps to learn what works and what doesn’t, and then go back and apply those lessons the next time I shoot (or write). I really have learned photography about 90 percent through feedback. The positive feedback is certainly more fun to receive, but sometimes I suck. Out loud. And I’d like to know about it and fix it.
Honestly, I think the key is to not get too full of oneself. You see it with writers and photographers, across all levels of talent and acclaim. With any creative product, particularly when the artist is trying to capture something meaningful to him or her, the product itself becomes sacred. You can’t mess with it. For the most part, I love when my stuff is chewed up and spit back out in an order I hadn’t considered. I don’t have to take the suggestions, of course, but that feedback is part of the process. I’m putting it out there for others, not for myself. If what I’m doing is truly sacred, I’ll keep it private. But I think writers, photographers, bloggers, anyone who produces for an audience and then cries foul when the audience responds is being disingenuous about motive and missing out on a great learning experience.
What’s your biggest writing challenge, and how do you cope with it?
Focus! I study about a million things. This may sound impressive, but it’s absolutely not. It means I have a hard time getting beyond the “study” phase to the “write something, already” phase. I constantly have towers of open books around me. Piles of notes. Twenty-five tabs open on my Internet browser. And half a page written. (But it’s a great half-page.)
I mostly get around it by imposing deadlines on myself – I’ll have this query sent out by tonight, or two more pages done before I pick up my son, things like that. Also, having an extended community of writers and readers helps keep me accountable. I know I’ll blog regularly and keep trying to get my stuff published because if I don’t, I’ll have bunch of e-mails telling me to get off my lazy butt and get going. And if all that fails, at least my floors get a good scrubbing while I procrastinate.
Anything else you want to share?
My son would like to share something about the toilets in the first-grade boys’ bathroom. But maybe that’ll end up in my blog.