Carmen Maria Machado: How I Write

"I find writing nonfiction difficult; it feels like pulling teeth. It’s technically and logistically challenging and emotionally draining, and the whole time you have one hand behind your back. I admire folks who write good nonfiction so much, because I’ve seen firsthand how hard it is to make it work and work well."

In her debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado combined genres to create impressively original, gripping stories. In her acclaimed memoir, In the Dream House, she now brings an innovative approach to nonfiction. Using short chapters driven by a variety of different genres, Machado chronicles the abuse she suffered during a relationship with a fellow female writer, viewing their relationship with a different lens in each chapter. This book is incredibly raw and equally engrossing, with writing that is beautiful and riveting despite its painful subject material.

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Unique memoir structure

When I first tried to write about the events of the memoir, I tried to tell it in a straightforward way. It never quite took – nothing I wrote seemed right or good. At some point, I was teaching at a summer writing camp for teenagers and talking a lot about genre – which is normally how I organize all discussions about writing and craft – and during the conversation, I thought, “Oh, genre might be an interesting avenue into this project.” It ended up becoming the structure for the entire book. After the structure came to me, I knew I’d found the right road into the material.

Deeply personal writing

I was definitely anxious about writing this book. It was very stressful. I thought about quitting many times but ultimately concluded that I should do it; I had to do it. But that didn’t stop me from returning to questions like is it too much, and should I be doing this. And it’s weird to imagine people I know reading it. Strangers, I don’t mind. But the idea of a grade-school teacher or an old classmate or a relative reading it – it’s strange. I don’t love it.

Fiction vs. nonfiction

I find writing fiction to be very pleasurable. It’s generative and creative, and I enjoy it even when I’m writing about sad things. And I don’t find it hard; I’m usually able to write happily and quickly and well. But that’s not true with nonfiction. I find writing nonfiction difficult; it feels like pulling teeth. It’s technically and logistically challenging and emotionally draining, and the whole time you have one hand behind your back. I admire folks who write good nonfiction so much, because I’ve seen firsthand how hard it is to make it work and work well.

Finding a starting place in fiction

I usually start from a concept, an idea, a form, a question, or a (sub)genre. Never a character or a setting. And I don’t write into nothing; I always have somewhere I’m directing my thoughts.

Writing routine

It really depends on what’s going on in my life. If I’m at a residency, I get up very early and write all day, and I have a pretty rigid schedule. A lot of residencies feed you, so I don’t need to worry about cleaning or prepping food or doing the dishes. That’s a real gift, and it gives me time to work and work and work. But when I’m home, living my normal life, there’s other stuff I have to do – doctor’s appointments, the post office, grocery shopping. Making dinner, walking the dog. The day gets interrupted, and it’s much harder to work at home. Luckily, my home office is now clean and organized, and I’m learning to make it a space that is useful and mine.

Allison Futterman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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