Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Meredith Jeffers’ nonfiction piece, Crushed
Sommer: This is an incredibly powerful piece. I am in awe of your ability to be so thoughtful and honest about your own part in Ashley’s sad life, and the guilt you feel. How and why did you decide to confront your feelings by writing this essay instead of simply burying it and moving on? And why did you decide not to write it fictionalized?
Meredith: As a starting point, thank you!
I wrote the first draft of this essay maybe a month or two after Ashley was sentenced in 2016, and it was the perfect example of why nonfiction writers often require more temporal distance from their topics. In that iteration of the essay, I excluded most elements of my personal relationship with Ashley and looked at my role in the story not as someone who was mean to her, but as a consumer of true-crime and violent stories more generally. The final product was somewhere between a personal essay and a piece of cultural criticism, but it ultimately didn’t succeed as either.
It took more than a year before I revisited the essay and realized that it would not work until I interrogated why I was so struck by Ashley after all this time, which meant looking more honestly at the small but important ways our lives intersected. This required major reflection (in real life and on the page), and the amount of interiority felt more well-suited to nonfiction since I could keep it controlled and focused without delving too much into exposition.
I really like how you manipulate time in this essay—you start in the past, move into the recent past, then the present, and end in the past with the powerful, “There is more to my story with Ashley.” Thus, we have a creative rendering of actual events. In this respect, what are your thoughts on writing fiction versus nonfiction?
I know it is probably cliché to say, but there is certainly some freedom to fiction that makes it both invigorating and aggravating to write. I love that anything can happen, but I also get bogged down in possibility. With nonfiction, there are more constraints at the beginning in terms of character, setting, and so on, so I find freedom in nonfiction in its structure and form. Whether I’m writing a braided essay or playing with time, like in this essay, I love to explore interesting ways to tell what might otherwise be straightforward stories.
Do you have any advice for writers on handling rejection?
Although the first few sting, rejection emails get easier and easier. I actually keep all of my rejection messages and maintain a color-coded submissions spreadsheet with rejections (standard and tiered), acceptances, and withdrawals. This helps me stay organized, but also gives me a solid data visualization for my next steps. If I see that a piece has been flat-out rejected from multiple journals, that tells me I need to revisit it for possible revisions; if I see a piece has garnered two or three tiered rejections, I hold out a little longer since it might be on the verge of finding the right home. This analytical approach to submitting and tracking rejections keeps me motivated and focused.
What else are you working on these days, and where can we next read some of your work?
The final essay in my Submittable queue was recently accepted by Ninth Letter for its Spring 2019 issue, so I have now turned my attention from submitting back to writing. (I’m not good at multi-tasking and doing both at once.) Right now, I’m trying to write my first novel (think Nancy Drew meets Daria), which is a daunting, terrifying, very fun task.
Thank you for doing this interview with me, and congratulations!