Marya Hornbacher is an award-winning essayist, journalist, novelist, poet, and the New York Times bestselling author of five books. Her sixth, a work of long-form journalism on psychiatry, neuroscience, and the future of mental health, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2020; she is currently at work on a collection of essays. She is the recipient of the Annie Dillard Award for Nonfiction, a Logan Nonfiction Fellowship, the White Award for Magazine Journalism, the ASCAP Award for Music Journalism, the Fountain House Humanitarian Award, and other distinctions. Her writing has appeared in publications including the New York Times, Boston Globe, Smithsonian Magazine, Crazyhorse, AGNI, Gulf Coast, The Normal School, Fourth Genre, DIAGRAM, and many others. She is a professor in the graduate writing programs at the University of Nebraska and Augsburg University.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Marya who gave some really outstanding writing advice for aspiring memoirists and writers alike. She also discusses writing a memoir on anorexia and bulimia in a time where memoirs and memoirs by women were being questioned, her writing process and how memoirs aren’t necessarily all about healing for the author.
It’s been 20 years since “Wasted” was published and it is still finding its way into readers hands, which is so telling of the beauty and quality of this memoir. How do you feel about the memoir now? How did your life change after publishing something so vulnerable and personal?
I think a lot of writers might share my feeling, in looking back on an older book, that mostly what one is aware of is the vast amount one didn't know—not just about writing, though certainly that applies, but also about change. The world has changed incomprehensibly since that book appeared, as, I expect, have I; while the world and I are both better and worse for the wear, a book is always locked in its cultural moment. It only knows as much as it knows, and it is limited by its author's limitations. Gore Vidal wrote a wonderful essay about Tennessee Williams that speaks to this aspect of memoir, captured by its title: "Some Memories of the Glorious Bird and an Earlier Self." So to me, that book seems like an artifact of an earlier era, and an earlier self.
What drew you to tell your story through the lens of memoir instead of, say, autobiographical fiction? What is it about this genre that captivated you?
You have to remember that the genre of memoir—at least as we know memoir now—was, at that time, very new, and hotly contested, and people were terribly worried that the nascent memoir boom would be the death of real literature, especially memoirs by women. So in fact I was not drawn to write it as memoir, initially; the book I pitched and sold, was a work of academic criticism about eating disorders and popular culture. It transformed in the editorial process into something radically different.
Why was it so important for you to tell your story? Did it help you heal and process what you and your body had gone through?
It was not particularly important for me to tell my story; what seemed important was to contribute a first-person perspective to the literature in the field, which at that time was entirely ruled by the narratives of medical experts who knew, I felt, very little about the actual experience of the millions of women and men they purported to write about. So the desire was not to tell my own story but to tell a very common story; I wanted readers to feel their story was in some way represented in the world. My least favorite idea about memoir is that it can, or should, function as a means of therapy, as an exercise in healing for the author. Books are not for their authors; while their authors may get a lot (or lose a lot) by writing them, books are ultimately for their readers. As writers, we exist at the whim and goodwill of our readers; we are always, always, always in our reader's service, and we would do well to keep that in mind.
You are also a poet and a journalist. Do you feel that these two genres influence your personal essays and nonfiction? Are you generally drawn to one or the other, or does it depend on your mood?
Both poetry and journalism (reading these things as much as writing them) influence my nonfiction and fiction; I find it impossible to really compartmentalize the genres and their various forms in terms of their mutual influence, especially in this particular literary era, when genre is becoming so bendy anyway. However, I am, at my core, a very narrative thinker, so even my poetry tends to be narrative; by the same token, though, I am fascinated by and madly in love with the musicality of language, the lyric and the rhythmic in writing, which may be the influence of poetry, I can't say. What I do know is that if I am able to write effectively in any genre at all, it is due, first and foremost, to having gotten to know that genre deeply as a reader first.
Do you have a writing routine? What does your process look like?
Some people have very complicated routines, but mine is pretty straightforward, and driven largely by necessity. I try to be at my desk by 8 a.m., and for the first few hours, I write "my" stuff--I freewrite, work on projects that aren't due yet, try to get the more wiggly (or simply less focused) writing energy out of my system. Then I move on to writing that is due--right now, a book that entails a lot of research--and I work for most of the day on that. By evening, I'm sick of my own words and very happy to switch over to editing projects, student writing, and my own reading. Wash, rinse, repeat, every day.
What advice do you have for aspiring memoirists, particularly if they are seeking to write about a very raw, taboo or painful subject?
The first rule in writing memoir is to remember that you are not writing your life story; you are finding the thread in your life that is meaningful—not just to you, but to the reader, to the larger world—and writing that story. Life has no structure, no plot, and no takeaway, but your memoir must; that narrative shape, and that sense of resolution are things you will have to impose upon the work. For writers seeking to explore "difficult material," a good rule of thumb is that of emotional thermodynamics: for very "hot" material, keep your language, your narration, very cool. In writing about painful subjects, your task is not to recreate the pain, either in your reader or for yourself on the page; your task is to shape the material into something that did not exist before, something artful, something utterly new.
Can you tell us some of your favorite memoirs or essays that have inspired your work, or that you keep coming back to over the years?
I don't read memoirs very often, but a few I love are Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss, Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face, a wonderful first person narrative by Ali Smith called Artful, the brilliant memoir/cultural critique Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and a very new book by Matt Young called Eat the Apple.