Success Is Part Talent & Part Perseverance
An interview with Maggie Messitt
Success Is Part Talent & Part Perseverance
Maggie Messitt is the author of The Rainy Season, a work of narrative and immersion journalism set in post-apartheid South Africa, recently longlisted for the 2016 Sunday Times Alan Paton Award. Her essays and reportage have been published in Creative Nonfiction, Mother Jones, The Rumpus, and the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance magazine, among others. Editor of Proximity, a quarterly collection of true stories, Messitt earned her MFA from Goucher College. She is currently working to complete her next book, a hybrid of investigation and memoir, the story of her aunt, an artist, missing since 2009.
At the upcoming 2016 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference, Maggie will be teaching the small-group master class, “Interview Techniques,” and she will be speaking on the “Better Writing Through Research” panel. In anticipation of the conference, Creative Nonfiction’s Rachel Ann Brickner spoke with Maggie about the work of reporting and memoir; the writing process; and graduate school and publishing.
CNF: When did you first begin to work on projects that include extensive reporting and personal narrative? What are the challenges of doing this kind of work?
MESSITT: Until recently, my work was exclusively reportage. Personal essays were what other people wrote. I preferred observing and immersing myself inside people’s lives. As a kid, I read my way through every biography in my small school library and was drawn to true stories in any form. As a teenager, I was interested in writing documentaries on paper, but I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant. And, as an adult, I grew obsessed with serial narratives, longform reportage, and investigative work. This was the direction I went and stayed for a decade, until I found myself on the flipside of a personal and traumatic crossroads—we all end up there eventually. Escaping life, I started my PhD. (When you see a doctorate as your calmest option, you know life has been twisty.) Throughout the first year, I wrote from 4:00am to 7:30am each morning—so early, it almost felt like a secret. I poured everything that kept me up at night onto the page. After 9 months, I had the first draft of a memoir—eight years in South Africa, a story of love, loss, and the conflict of history and place—which I promptly tucked in a digital drawer, possibly never to be retrieved. This was my first personal writing experience.
That summer, just three years ago, I took on what is likely to be the most difficult book I will ever write—the story of my aunt, an artist, missing since 2009. A hybrid of investigation and memoir, this book combines the reportage with which I am most comfortable and the personal narrative and essai with which I am least. That memoir, however, had opened a new door for me. Every day is a tug of war. I run away from myself through fieldwork, library research, and interviews. On courageous days, I crack myself open on the page. And, for the first time, I have had to trick myself into writing.
CNF: How has your reporting experience informed your personal essays and vice versa?
MESSITT: All of my writing (whether it’s memoir, essays, or narrative reportage) is shaped by interviews, fieldwork, and general research. I believe in deep-dive reporting whether I’m a character within the story or not. Observation and interviews (for narrative reconstruction, corroboration, expert opinion, cultural brokerage, historical context) are critical tools to writing any true story. When I’m writing memoir, I have to figure out how to interview myself, as well as others. I am looking for stories that rise above the main character—narratives that speak to something larger than an individual. When I’m reporting, however, I now realize that I am a character, a status that necessitates a whole new level of information gathering.
CNF: You’ve published many essays and a book of narrative nonfiction, The Rainy Season. What was your writing process like for the shorter pieces and the book-length work—from early drafting stages, to revision, to sending the pieces out for publication?
MESSITT: I have an unusual process for book-length work. While reporting for The Rainy Season, I started writing “note drafts,” low-stakes writing at the end of each day. I wasn’t ready to write the book—I was still waiting for each narrative to emerge—but I was desperate to be writing something. These pages were like a documentary filmmaker’s raw footage. When I completed my reporting, I sat down with nearly 1000 pages of “note drafts” (along with audio transcripts, notebooks, and images) and started writing page one. Some of that prose could be lifted and directly inserted into the manuscript’s first draft, but collectively they served as the material with which I began to write. I would review a section, storyboard a chapter with that content in mind, and then write (often) from scratch. My process between “note draft” and first draft is fast. What follows? Revision. Re-envisioning. Additional research. And likely some more revision. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. This process has stayed with me, shape-shifting from project to project.
Rejection will always be there, at every level. Put your head down and stay the course.
CNF: The Rainy Season follows the lives of three generations of the Rainbow Nation in South Africa. You say that this book resulted from ten months of immersion and six years of reporting. How did you first begin such an extensive project and what sustained you?
MESSITT: I’m intensely aware that I could never have written this book without my long-term investment in the village of Acornhoek. The six years referenced here reflect my foundational knowledge (acquired through reporting and editing in the region) necessary to take on such an intimate work of immersion. Not only did I need to know how to socially and culturally navigate a rural community in post-apartheid South Africa, but I needed a few community members to allow me inside their lives. This kind of access only comes with trust, and trust comes with time. This required a lot of “hanging out” before I could get to full-time immersion. Once I did, I spent (on average) 70% of my waking hours for ten months alongside Regina, Thoko, and Dankie—The Rainy Season’s main characters—and their families.
What sustained me? I don’t know how to quit.
CNF: When it comes to pitching pieces to editors, do you have any words of wisdom for those who are just starting out?
MESSITT: I believe in quality over quantity—one outstanding pitch will get you farther than five fast pitches. Be sure to do some basic research before you pitch, considering both narrative and the underlying conflict/issue. Most importantly, study the business of writing: query letters, book proposals, and the lexis of publishing. Be professional and don’t be afraid. The worst thing that can happen: an editor says no.
I spent a good five years focusing on what I wanted to write and how I wanted to write it. Who I published with at the time mattered less to me. I was focused on developing as a writer, a reporter, and a thinker, while also building a portfolio that reflected the immersion reportage and narrative storytelling that interested me most. Today, I almost exclusively pitch before I research and write.
CNF: How do you know or decide when a piece is ready to be sent out for potential publication?
MESSITT: Other than a deadline, I think it’s difficult to always know. I’m more likely to recognize a sense of completion when I’m writing narrative journalism. I storyboard on a wall or in a sketchbook before I write, often returning and reshaping throughout the writing process. This process helps me “see” things more clearly. Personal essays, however, blind me. When in doubt, I have two readers in my life who will tell me the truth.
CNF: What have you learned about rejection in your years of writing and publishing thus far?
MESSITT: Rejection will always be there, at every level. Put your head down and stay the course. Success in any art is part talent and part perseverance.
CNF: You’ve completed an MFA in Creative Nonfiction, and you’re currently finishing your doctorate. How has graduate school aided you as a writer? What are the challenges?
MESSITT: I learned how to write a book in my MFA. I gained confidence, a network of writers with whom I still collaborate ten years later, and a deeper understanding of both professional and academic conversations taking place inside the world of creative nonfiction. As a low-residency graduate student, I also figured out how to manage life’s obligations with my graduate work—I was writing/editing/teaching full-time while also working on The Rainy Season and studying full-time.
My PhD program has been the gift of time to slow down after ten fast-paced years of freelance writing and editing, and years of running a writing school and several publications. My doctoral work has been focused on pushing boundaries and experimenting, writing personal essays for the first time in my life (in my mid-30s), and rebooting the vision I have for my professional life. It has allowed me time to be selfish: to read, to write, to think, to tackle a book far outside of my comfort zone.
The challenges? School is school and the financial implications of higher education—even with an outstanding fellowship—are always stressful.
CNF: What keeps you writing?
MESSITT: Genuine curiosity and an urgent need to tell important stories.
Rachel Ann Brickner
Rachel Ann Brickner is the first Writing Pittsburgh Fellow for Creative Nonfiction. Currently, she's an MFA candidate in fiction at the... read more
A conversation with Callie Garnett
Callie Garnett is an assistant editor at Bloomsbury, where her projects include High Notes, the selected writings of Gay Talese (with an... read more