Robin Hemley on breaking rules

‘I write what I want to write,’ says Robin Hemley, author of eight books, winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa and Editor of Defunct Magazine. ‘I tend to break the so-called golden rule [of knowing where you’ll pitch a story before you write it] all the time. Sometimes I’ll pitch it to a magazine and they’ll pick it or they won’t. But other times I just write it because it’s just a weird idea,’ says Hemley.


He gets inspiration from all around, and has written on a huge range of subjects from the personal, through the anthropological and even academic (though I hasten to add, he’s not an academic writer). Hemley writes fiction too. His most recent book, ‘Reply All’, is a collection of short stories.

‘What I find is that you write the piece you’re going to write. If it’s any good at all you’ll find a home,’ he says. Hemley gives an example inspired in Prague, ‘One of my friends got pick pocketed on the train right in front of us. I started being interested in the whole notion of pickpockets and the art of pick pocketing,’ Hemley says. This began, ‘The Pickpocket Project,’ an essay that was completely written before being picked up by Jill Talbot in ‘Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction’. More recently Hemley did a reading of it, and another editor expressed interest. ‘[Your good writing] will make its way through the culture in some way or another,’ he says.

Hemley uses social media to help his writing into our culture, ‘A part of me hates it. A part of me likes it,’ he says. ‘Increasingly writers are becoming these “circus barkers” having to draw a crowd to them. That takes up so much of their energy that when you get to the three-ring circus, what’s in the middle? Not much.’ On the other hand Hemley recognises the advantages of social media, ‘You’re able to very quickly make people aware of something you have written,’ he says. And using social media has resulted in increased sales of his recent book of short stories.

New technologies aren’t considered crucial in the Nonfiction Writing Program at Iowa University (where Hemley is Director). Students are given the opportunity to study radio and video essay production, but they aren’t made to learn these skills. ‘It always helps to be conversant in different technologies but when it comes down to it, it’s how good you are as a writer. It’s about content – not ultimately about the presentation alone.’ Hemley says that, ‘the most important thing is to hone one’s skills as a writer, and to have something that's worth writing about.’

What non-fiction writers choose to write has always been a popular subject in writing circles. The definition of truth has been the centre of countless discussions. But the release of a book earlier this year, ‘The Lifespan of Fact,’ by Hemley’s University of Iowa colleague, John D’Agata (co-authored with Jim Dingle) has fuelled the debate. (This review in the New York Times gives an overview). And it’s something that Hemley, Kate Holden, Lee Kofman and Lee Gutkind will be discussing at the Melbourne Writers Festival this weekend.

Gutkind, Editor at Creative Nonfiction magazine, is a big advocate for truth in nonfiction. By contrast, at the Melbourne Writers Festival ‘In Conversation’ session last weekend, Hemley puts forward an alternative perspective. ‘Fabrication and manipulation are a part of any artistic endeavour,’ Hemley says. ‘Lying,’ he says (using air quotes), is a part of the artistic process, ‘The sooner you understand that, the easier it is to write.’

Hemley won’t comment on D’Agata, but does question some of the decisions his colleague made in his original essay (which is the subject of the book). Hemley argues that even if a writer has meticulous notes, there is always some ‘lying’. To illustrate the point, Hemley does an exercise with his students. He makes them close their eyes and describe the room. ‘They always distort, that’s just part of it,’ he says.

The debate at ‘Fact, Fiction, Truth’ will no doubt be a corker. It’s on Saturday 1 September at 2.30pm.

Creative Nonfiction is keeping it real

More and more, writers and publishers are being counseled to go digital: we must learn a broader set of skills (not just writing), we must be able to present to video, edit an audio file, and charm on social media. Serendipity has enabled me to develop most of these skills throughout my career (perhaps not the charm). But here’s the thing: I like to write. To write is what I want to do. There are times when I worry that my future may involve more multimedia than words (such as at the Future of Digital Publishing event I went to last week). These times can create a mirage of doom and gloom for the future of long form narrative writing. But talking to Hattie Fletcher, Managing Editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine (CNF) has settled my anxiety. The magazine keeps it real with a healthy respect for both the power of words, and the benefits new media can bring.

If you don’t know about CNF, then your writing and reading life is about to change. To me it is the Mecca of the best non-fiction reads, and the kind of writing I can only ever aspire to. It celebrates the power of narrative and storytelling. It’s writing that stays with you, that makes your soul sing.

The magazine was originally published in a journal format with a focus on essays. In 2010 it expanded to magazine format and introduced articles on the creative non-fiction genre. It has since embraced some aspects of e-publishing and continues to explore new media. But thanks to a recent reader survey, CNF isn’t going digital anytime soon. ‘We have a lot of readers who are interested in having a really nice physical object that they can hold onto. We don’t think of it as a throwaway magazine. It’s a little bit closer to a book,’ says Fletcher.

Things like video are a long way off. ‘So far there are enough people who do just want [words],’ says Fletcher. She acknowledges that some readers may enjoy more multimedia, and cites a brief foray into podcasts by the magazine. As a reader herself though, Fletcher says she seldom engages with the multimedia extras in digital magazines, ‘I wonder sometimes how many people really do,’ she says. So do I.

CNF’s approach to new technologies is refreshingly pragmatic. ‘We’re a tiny organisation. And so it’s a question for us of what the benefit in doing this is, and what we can actually work into our process,’ says Fletcher. A great access-point for writers is to submit ‘tiny truths’ to CNF’s daily Twitter contest (via #cnftweets). ‘We get a lot of people who come in new to the CNF tweet contest. But there’s a core group of die-hards who’ve been doing it since the start. And they’re looking out for each other,’ she says. Unlike multimedia extras, this kind of engagement in new media has benefits.

‘For us as a publication social networking has been great. It’s really helped us get closer to our readers and the community, and have closer contact with the people who are reading the magazine,’ says Fletcher. Making this direct contact with readers is an asset for publications struggling on small budgets. But Fletcher isn’t certain that it’s a must for writers to join the social media babble.

‘I think it’s something related to a person’s temperament,’ she says cataloguing writers who excel as equally in social media as they do in a room full of people, ‘They’re just intuitive networkers anyway.’ And while social media can be useful for journalists in finding sources Fletcher says, ‘the flip side is that it can be a huge time-suck. There are people who probably Facebook more about writing than they actually write.’ (If you missed it, there’s a great article in the Guardian by Ewan Morrison who, like Fletcher, questions the value of social media to writers).

Hail the voice of reason from Hattie Fletcher - but don’t be quick to label her a Luddite. In fact she sees many opportunities for the future of long form in new media.

‘On the one hand we have the incredible shrinking attention span because everything is quick. [But on the other hand] you see things evolve technologically that have helped. Definitely Byliner, Longform and Longreads [have] all helped provide a better home for long form,’ she says. It could be argued that pieces between 5,000 and 15,000 words fell into an uneasy middle ground during the era of print. But Fletcher says that, ‘in some ways it’s a really good time to be a long form writer because you have more potential ways of reaching an audience.’

Fletcher’s Editor Lee Gutkind is in Melbourne for the Writers Festival and will be presenting a number of sessions from the 31st of August.

Included in these events will be the launch of the latest issue of CNF which is on the theme of Australia (Leah Kaminsky was guest editor).

The magazine will be making announcements soon about its digital future – so follow @cnfonline on Twitter if you’re interested in getting updates.