I am so excited to share my interview with Alice. Her debut essay collection “Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession” has been creating quite a buzz with her smart, witty and critical prose on our exploitive fascination with dead girls in movies and tv, as well as her analytical and personal views on gender, culture, and place.
Alice Bolin’s nonfiction has appeared in many publications including Elle, the Awl, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, Vice’s Broadly, the Paris Review Daily, and the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog. She currently teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Memphis.
This month’s Write or Die Tribe theme is vulnerability. As a personal essayist, you have shared intimate parts of your life with the world. Do you find this vulnerability freeing? Have you had trouble being vulnerable in your work thus far?
Vulnerability has always been something I struggle with, which is why I avoided talking about myself directly for a long time in my work. I was very comfortable in the stance of the critic, doing analysis and talking about my personal life only marginally. When I started writing the book, I saw that a lot of what was missing from these essays was my own story, filling in why the books and pop culture I chose to write about were fascinating to me. This was very uncomfortable work, and I’m not really sure that it got easier. All I could really do was write through the discomfort and write about it, acknowledging when it was difficult for me.
When teaching your students, are there any particular exercises you like to assign or questions you like to ask that push them to be more open as non-fiction writers?
One of my favorite exercises is inspired by Elissa Washuta’s great memoir My Body Is a Book of Rules. It is to write a letter about yourself in the voice of an authority figure from your past — for example, a letter home to your parents in the voice of your elementary school principal, or a letter of recommendation from a prickly former mentor. It blurs the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction a little bit, but it can help get to the heart of complicated feelings we hold onto those times in our lives, the ways we were treated, and the people we were.
What is one of the most valuable lessons you have learned from other writers? Who are some writers that you particularly admire or who have influenced your work?
My mind was blown when Melissa Broder said in this New York Times profile that she wrote almost exclusively on her phone! But I tried it and it works — especially to get a first draft down. There are 8 million other things I’ve learned from other writers but that’s the one that comes to mind! The writers who most influenced me to blend memoir and criticism are James Baldwin, Eileen Myles, Maggie Nelson, Joan Didion, Elif Batuman, and Terry Castle.
What did your writing routine look like when you were writing “Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession”? Are you the type of writer that has a strategic routine or a free flow?
It was really all over the place — I lived at at least 4 addresses over the course of writing the book, and my schedule, job, and home situation changed so much, so I wasn’t exactly disciplined throughtout the process. For the final stretch, though, I did have sort of a routine. I would read and do research on the train to my adjuncting job, and then I would write a journal entry summarizing my day of research and the ideas I was mulling over. In the end I used those journal entries as a feeding ground for sentences and ideas.
If you could speak to your younger self, what is some advice or tips about writing you would give?
I wish I had appreciated a good edit earlier. I was so precious about every comma and so frustrated when I received criticism, and now I live for it. I wish I had known earlier how freeing it can be and how much you can learn when you let an editor or collaborator in.