Interviewed by John Haggerty

Read Garnett Kilberg Cohen’s nonfiction piece, Lightning


John: Well, you’ve certainly opened up a can of worms here, and I think a lot of writers will recognize the feelings, especially the difficulty—or even impossibility—of writing something really true. The world is often enormously resistant to our efforts to capture it. Is the entire writing enterprise doomed from the start?

Garnett: It depends what one wants to do in her writing whether it is doomed or not. I have come to believe that a sense of authenticity in realistic nonfiction is better than actual realism and that an underlying sense of my emotional truth or some universal truth is better than the actual facts or trying to replicate events precisely. As with my mother’s comment on painting in my essay–it isn’t about getting every detail. That said, I do have to remind myself of this frequently. The other problem (in nonfiction anyways) is that my emotional truth might be very different from how others see the same situation. I wonder a bit about how the people I mention in “Lightning” would feel about my representation of them. But one can’t worry too much when writing nonfiction or one wouldn’t be able to write anything. The important thing is not to have an unkind intention.

You examine both arrogance and doubt here, and I think both of these states pose a problem for the writer. Arrogance can make us blind to the faults in our writing, and doubt can make it impossible to write at all. How do we pick our way between these two extremes? Does a state halfway between them even exist?

I think that balance is always an important element of being a writer. Confidence is good. Arrogance obviously is not. Yet it is difficult to find middle ground. I think if I had to choose between doubt and arrogance, I would lean toward arrogance (though I would rather just be confident) when writing a first draft and be more questioning or doubtful when writing a second or third draft. Too much doubt can prevent one from even getting started. Such a great question. I wish I had a better answer, though part of what I like about being a writer is that one is often figuring out a new way to go about it so shouldn’t always have an answer.

You make an interesting point about observation. Do we, as writers, risk losing something essential in the lived experience by being too writerly about it all? What are we to do about this?

Early in my writing career (grad school and a few years afterward) I freaked a bit because I was unpacking everything I read to such an extent that I was losing the essence and enjoyment of the experience. After a while that went away and I was usually able to do both (unpack and enjoy) at the same time. The better the writing, the less unpacking. Now, if what I am reading is so compelling that I don’t analyze at all, I go back afterwards and try to figure out how the writer did it. I know I have strayed a bit from your question but I think there is a parallel to this with writing. Early in my writing career I looked for material in everything I found of interest. Now, I am usually (big stress on usually) able to be in an experience and see it as material either afterward or see it as potential material only in some distant corner of my mind.   I suspect this is true to some extent with non-writers as well, wondering how they will tell the experience, how they resolve it the next day. When writers exploit experience they are called on it more. But in the best situations, writers of nonfiction are able to get deeper meaning out of their worst experiences and able to revive and relive their best ones. With biographical fiction, writers can give shape to experiences. I do want to emphasize that none of what I say is absolute.  Hopefully, we all continually evolve as writers.