How’s the Writing Going, Bernice McFadden?
Fellow Libras Bernice McFadden and Sari Botton talk about the challenges of writing personal narrative, identifying the right nonfiction sub-genre, and writing under pseudonyms.
BERNICE L. MCFADDEN is the author of The Book of Harlan (winner of the 2017 American Book Award and the 2017 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work) in addition to eight other critically acclaimed novels including Sugar, Loving Donovan, Gathering of Waters (a New York Times Editors’ Choice and one of the 100 Notable Books of 2012), and Glorious, which was featured in O, The Oprah Magazine and was a finalist for the NAACP Image Award. She is a four-time Hurston/Wright Legacy Award finalist, as well as the recipient of three awards from the BCALA. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Tulane University.
SARI BOTTON is the author of the memoir in essays, And You May Find Yourself...Confessions of a Late-Blooming Gen-X Weirdo. She is the former Essays Editor for Longreads, and edited the bestselling anthologies Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving NewYork and Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York. She teaches creative nonfiction at Bay Path University and Kingston Writers' Studio, and is the Writer in Residence at SUNY New Paltz for Spring, 2023. She publishes Oldster Magazine, Memoir Monday, and Adventures in Journalism.
This is a column called “How’s the Writing Going?” which I originated at (now sadly defunct) Catapult. (RIP 😢) I’ll continue the series here, in “The Lit Lab,” where matters of craft, publishing strategies, and alternative approaches to publishing are discussed. This first installment will be paywall-free. Future installments of this column will be for paid subscribers only.
It’s the question no writer wants to be asked—but which every writer wants to ask others: “How’s the writing going?” We want to know that other people are struggling the same way we are or to learn other writers’ hacks and antidotes for blocks and other challenges.
Here I chat with Bernice McFadden, author of fifteen books, about the challenges of writing personal narrative, identifying the right memoir sub-genre, and writing under pseudonyms.
Sari Botton: Bernice, when we met up in New Orleans last March, one of the things we talked about was memoir writing. I was a couple of months away from the publication of mine, and I was freaking out. And you were working on yours, and kind of also freaking out.
Bernice McFadden: Yes, I remember!
SB: I saw you recently post on Instagram about how, after finishing the latest draft of that memoir, you are now ripping the whole thing apart—deconstructing it, in a way. And I want to know what that's about. Like, did it not come out the way you wanted it to come out? Did you learn things as you were writing that made you rethink the structure and the meaning you were making of your experiences? And when can we expect to see this memoir out in the world? I know I just threw a lot of questions at you.
BM: I’ll answer the last one first. My memoir was supposed to come out this year, but clearly that’s not happening. Now it’s looking like February or March of 2024. I have not written something of this magnitude in several years. I’ve been writing short stories and essays, and so some part of me forgot my process, because it has been a while. Also: menopause, aging, Covid-19—all kinds of things have had an impact, and the world is now a very different place. I’m very distracted in a way that I wasn't the last time I wrote more than three-hundred pages.
All of those factors played into me coming home to Brooklyn, sitting down with the piece, and asking what is this? Because it wasn’t really making any sense to me. I’d sent my editor about sixty pages back in September, and she was like, “This is wonderful. This is beautiful.” And I thought, You don't know what you're talking about. This is horrible. Of course, we are our own worst critics, and it’s difficult to see the forest for the trees. But what I also realized was that all along I’ve been writing this under the guise of memoir and I don’t think that’s what it is anymore.
SB: So, what is it instead?