AWP2019: Going Long: Editors & Writers of Longform Nonfiction in Conversation

Panel Participants: Jill Christman, Mike Dang, Hattie Fletcher, Anna Leahy, Christopher Schaberg

AWP19ThumbnailDescription: In an era of quick reads and short attention spans, longform nonfiction is enjoying a resurgence. Our panel of editors and essayists discuss possibilities, challenges, and new outlets for this versatile form. What technical concerns must we tackle, and what distinguishes these long true stories—beyond sheer length? Are there particular subjects that merit a deep dive over brevity? Join editors and writers from True Story, Longreads, and Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons for a lively conversation.

Panel moderator, Jill Christman opened the discussion. She said that in an era of quick reads and short attentions spans, longform nonfiction is enjoying a resurgence. She brought together this panel of longform editors and essayists from Creative Nonfiction’s True Story, Longreads, and Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons to consider the possibilities and challenges of this versatile form.

Mike Dang spoke first. Dang met Mark Armstrong, the founder of Longreads, when they worked together at a tech startup. Armstrong created the #longreads hashtag on Twitter in 2009. It became a place for people to share their favorite longform stories. Armstrong then started a site to curate longform stories. Dang came on as a volunteer, pulling in stories from sites like Texas Monthly and The Awl. This volunteer position transitioned to a full-time role when the site was acquired by Automatic, the makers of As Longreads editor-in-chief, Dang receives 50-100 pitches each week. Longreads loosely defines longform nonfiction writing as stories of at least 1,500 words, with most pieces ranging from 3,000-7,000 words.

Anna Leahy followed Dang. Leahy considers longform as writing that comes in over 3,500 words. This, Leahy said, is the kind of length needed to develop trust—and empathy—in readers. She noted that longform nonfiction says, “Trust me. I’ve been thinking a lot about something, and I’d like you to think deeply about it right along with me.” Readers will likely only have patience to keep reading if they trust the narrator. Leahy doesn’t necessarily see longform as a story, perhaps because she can’t make herself care more about plot than other issues of craft. She, instead, believes that length emerges from the need to convey the habits of one’s mind in relation to a particular topic. Because these books allow for both the intellectual depth of scholarship and the emotional depth expected of narrative, they present the opportunity for those inside academia to be less scholarly and those outside academia to be somewhat academic.

Hattie Fletcher, who co-edits Creative Nonfiction’s True Story magazine with Lee Gutkind, followed Leahy. Fletcher said that True Story, which is now entering its third year as a monthly publication, calls for submissions between 5,000-10,000 words. That said, most pieces tend toward the upper limit. Fletcher highlighted three common elements shared by most True Story pieces. First, these stories contain a strong narrative component or source of tension that keeps readers in suspense. Fletcher referenced Sean Madigan Hoen’s True Story, “The Sixteenth Tape,” written about the contents of a videotape found in a basement and later viewed by the narrator. In “The Sixteenth Tape,” Hoen strings the reader along, until—two thirds of the way through the piece—he finally tells the reader what’s on the tape. Likewise, Fletcher refrained from telling us what was on the tape. Instead, she told us copies were for sale at Creative Nonfiction’s book fair booth.

The second common element of True Story pieces is that they contain a significant informational component. For example, while “The Sixteenth Videotape” tells the unique story of the incredible footage found on this videotape, it also provides a sort of meditation on the hours of video footage that people shoot and never watch. The third common element of True Story pieces is that they convey a personal or writerly connection to the informational element or material. While this connection might be subtle, it allows readers to develop trust in the narrator. Here, Fletcher echoed Leahy’s earlier comments about the need for longform writers to gain the trust of their readers.

Christopher Schaberg, series editor of Object Lessons books and essays, said that he was trained to be at MLA, not AWP, and that he was trained to write the kind of monoliths about three people would read. When Schaberg’s attention began turning from traditional scholarly writing to longform prose, he had the idea for Object Lessons: beautiful little books about one thing, a single object. And anything, Schaberg said, is an object.

There are currently 41 books in the Object Lesson series. These books are published by Bloomsbury and range from 25,000 to 30,000 words. Essays, of the same name, run about 1,500 to 2,000 words and are published online by The Atlantic. For those seeking to write Object Lessons, whether essays or books, Schaberg encourages reviewing existing samples to see what these books look like on the page. Before writing, one should consider both the possibilities and constraints of the page or website.

To round out the discussion, Jill Christman returned to the microphone. She informed us that her first experience with longform came when she was forced to perform surgery on her memoir after her agent told her she needed to cut at least 40,000 words. The excised portions of her memoir would form the basis of the 13,000-word short essayistic memoir, Borrowed Babies: Apprenticing for Motherhood, which was published by Shebooks. From writing Borrowed Babies, Christman got the bug for longform and began writing about one 10,000-word, multi-layered essay each year. “I wrote them,” Christman told us, “because that was what I was writing and that is what you need to do.” Not long thereafter, a market began appearing for these longform essays. She instructed the audience, “Don’t write for a market. Write what you need to write and work out the pesky details later.”

Recently, Creative Nonfiction published Christman’s Spinning: Against the Rules of Angels as a True Story. Spinning is set in a cycling class, but veers back and forth in time, while featuring the ghost of Christman’s long-dead fiancé. Hattie Fletcher used Spinning as another example of a True Story that creates tension and keeps readers in suspense.

The Q & A period that followed provided these additional nuggets of advice:

  • Christman advised making liberal use of white space when writing longform because it allows both reader and writer a place to pause for a breath;
  • When one audience member revealed her angst about making genuine connections between herself and the subject matter of the story, Leahy responded with this nicely quotable statement: Serendipity allows you to notice connections you wouldn’t otherwise notice if you weren’t in that particular mindset;
  • Dang advised, “Make sure you have a clear sense of what you’re writing and why you’re writing it. Make sure there is one clear story, not just lots of little stories;”
  • Schaberg offered that when he reviews submissions, he is looking for voice, style, and pacing within the piece. He can spot these elements within just a few minutes of reading;
  • Fletcher rejects pieces that lack an assurance of voice and, she added, True Story submissions should head in a compelling direction right away; and,
  • A few of the panelists remarked that longform narratives would be fact checked by the publication, thus it is useful to keep a record of your research.

Some time (too much time, in fact) after the panel concluded, I sought out Creative Nonfiction at the AWP book fair. By then, they’d sold out of the “The Sixteenth Tape.” Fortunately, True Story magazine can be purchased on Kindle. And now, I too know what was on that videotape. I also have a much deeper understanding of what it takes to write longform nonfiction.

Heidi Fettig Parton received an MFA in creative nonfiction from Bay Path University in 2017. Her writing can be found in many publications, including Angels Flight, literary west (AFLW), Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, The Forge Literary Magazine, and The Rumpus.

Visit Assay’s Spring 2019 issue for more!

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