Finding the Balance Between Perfectionism & Pragmatism

"No one's life operates in a vacuum, and to try to write dimensionally requires an understanding of context."

Lise Funderburg is the author of the bestselling memoir Pig Candy: Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home, as well as the oral history Black, White, Other: Biracial Americans Talk About Race and Identity. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine; O, The Oprah Magazine; MORE; the Nation; Prevention; the Chattahoochee Review; and many other publications. Topics include race, community, health, end-of-life care, trash-picking, and food. Lise has worked as an editor for Garden Design, Vogue, and Mademoiselle, and teaches creative nonfiction at The Paris American Academy and the University of Pennsylvania.

At the upcoming 2016 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference, Lise will teach a master class entitled “Beyond the ‘Me’ in Memoir” and give a presentation: “Your Book, Chapter by Chapter.” In anticipation of the conference, Creative Nonfiction’s Rachel Ann Brickner spoke with Lise about longform v. short form; pitching editors; and when to let go of a project.

CNF: You describe your book Pig Candy: Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home as part narrative nonfiction, memoir, travelogue, and biography. When did you first begin to work on projects that cross genre lines like this? What are the challenges of doing this kind of work?

FUNDERBURG: Doesn't most great writing—whether it's what we admire or what we aspire to—resist such singular categorizations? I think of CNF as a very big and welcoming umbrella, under which narrative nonfiction, memoir, travelogue, and biography all fit comfortably and all share some core tenets, such as that they are truthful (ie, don't make s**t up), that they're fueled by a curiosity and passion for the world we live in, and that the writers who work within them seek to elevate and transcend immediate experience through language, style, and analysis. A simpler answer is that no one's life (in Pig Candy's case, my father's) operates in a vacuum, and to try to write about him dimensionally required understanding his context, which brought in American history (agricultural, social, and political), race and racism, personal geography, and—thanks to his capacious appetite for it—Southern cuisine. So it was the story I wanted to tell that dictated the form, and the labels were more a product of marketing choices and setting reader expectations than a preference on my part.

CNF: In addition to Pig Candy, you’ve published many essays and a collection of oral histories, Black, White, Other: Biracial Americans Talk about Race and Identity. What is your writing process like for shorter pieces versus a book-length work—from early drafting stages, to revision, to sending the pieces out for publication?

FUNDERBURG: That's a ginormous question, so I'll have at just one or two aspects of it. As the great writing teacher William Zinsser said, all writing is about solving a problem. But of course a shorter piece is materially easier to manage, easier to flip between the micro and macro during the revision process. All writing involves a lot of digression and spinning off as we look for the right words or try to clarify our thoughts or revisit our mission or theme, but with books that can be on a pretty grand scale—days, weeks, months spent on some trajectory of research and writing up, still facing the possibility that, in the end, this side path will never fit in, never work with the main project, no matter how much you love it. So the disappointment can be proportional, and the resultant need for self-soothing similarly proportional. A beloved paragraph excised out of an essay? An unbridled plunge into a bag of Barbara's Original Cheese Puffs. That never-to-be-seen Pig Candy chapter on overnight cruise ships crossing the Great Lakes during World War II? An unbridled foray onto the Zappos website.

As for sending pieces out, I don't have any hard and fast rules about whether to write on commission or on spec. I've been doing this long enough that most of my work is commissioned/contracted before I do it, but when I am writing my way into understanding the topic, propelled enough by curiosity to undertake the work, but unsure of where it will all land, it can be less constricting to write first and send out later.

With Black, White, Other, the book of oral histories, I had a publishing contract before I started work on it. That was really useful in terms of underwriting the extensive travel and reporting the book needed, as well as lightening my freelance load enough to work continuously (if not always full-time) on it. With Pig Candy, I tried to do the same, but no one bit at the proposal my agent circulated. Maybe this had to do with its multi-genre nature…it was hard for editors to see how the whole thing would work. We were also at a point in the world of books where faked and exaggerated memoirs were being exposed every other day, and also when the amount of press a memoir got seemed directly correlated to the amount of trauma experienced by the author. My book wasn't going to be that. I wanted to figure out who my father was, separate from being my father, but also acknowledge my daughterly bias in the telling. It was a tricky stance and tone I was going for, and in some ways easier for me to do on my own. As soon as the book was completed, my agent took it out and sold it.

No one's life operates in a vacuum, and to try to write dimensionally requires an understanding of context.

CNF: When it comes to pitching pieces to editors, do you have any words of wisdom for those who are just starting out?

FUNDERBURG: Study up on their publication (to be sure that your work is a good fit for them and also not a repeat of something they've just recently published); be succinct and professional in all dealings; work hard to infect them with the same enthusiasm you have for the work/topic; and spell their names right.

CNF: How do you know or decide when a piece is ready to be sent out for potential publication?

FUNDERBURG: That's a tough one, since most of us feel like nothing is ever perfect…and we're probably right. So it's more like you have to find the balance point between perfectionism and pragmatism. You should feel like every single word has earned its place on the page. Every single word. This is usually the result of many revisions, of feedback from people you respect, and of the critical distance that magically comes when you spend some chunk of time away from the work (even 15 minutes can add perspective).

At the same time, there are probably other things you want to write about in the course of your life,  so you do have to move on. With essays, if I feel confident that I've gotten a few things really, really right, then I feel okay about sending out the work.

CNF: Have you ever stopped working on a project after spending a lot of time bringing it to life? If so, why did you make the decision to move on from it? If not, do you have any advice for sticking with a project until it feels complete, no matter how long it takes?

FUNDERBURG: It's SO hard to let go of a project you love. I've had a couple of book ideas that didn't sell, and I came to accept that market forces weren't in tune with the brilliance of my ideas. I still think they were good ideas, but I wasn't prepared to go out and do them without the financial support and publishing commitment (as I was with Pig Candy). Also, there was one book idea that required interviewing families on both sides of a murder from many decades ago, but I got far enough into the project to see that no one, absolutely no one, from either side wanted to talk about it, and I'm not the kind of journalist who is comfortable pushing at such gaping wounds. That would have been such a cool book, though. I still sigh when I think about it….

So for me, some projects have been abandoned for outside, pragmatic reasons, and sometimes it's because it's not the right fit for my skill set, and once in awhile, it's been because I've had a crisis of confidence about whether I could do the book the way I thought others wanted me to do it (instead of how I wanted to do it). The last, of course, is a great topic for the therapy couch.

Instead of sitting down to write a book, try to get one thing right. Just one thing. 

CNF: What is your biggest challenge as a writer, either personally or craft-wise?

FUNDERBURG: Personally, I have the problem of being an amazingly productive procrastinator, which makes it easier for me to convince myself that the time spent away from my desk has its merits. And yes, the sweaters knit, stone walls built, cakes baked and gardens planted are all quality of life enhancers, but until the 36-hour day is invented, there isn't time for it all. Craft-wise, I'd have to say it's facing the blank page, as in getting started on a new piece or book. Once I'm into it, the temptations of procrastination actually melt away and I'm off to the races, but whenever it's time for me to start something new, the voices of insecurity and self-doubt get stirred up and I have to work through all that noise. Anne Lamott has this great image in Bird By Bird of seeing all those critical voices as little mice, then picking them up by their tales and dropping them into a jar, then screwing the jar lid on tight. I like that image because it's just menacing enough to give me great comfort.

CNF: For beginning writers who have a story they are passionate about telling, but aren’t sure how to begin, what advice do you have for them?

FUNDERBURG: Bite off a smaller chunk: instead of sitting down to write a book, try to get one thing right. Just one thing. Join or form a group to create an atmosphere of accountability. Attack the topic from as many directions as possible, including free writes and writing about the writing that you want to do.

CNF: Are there specific traits that you think make the reporters and writers you know particularly successful, including yourself? 

FUNDERBURG: Aside from talent: Curiosity, integrity, stubbornness, compassion.

CNF: What excites you most about the kind of work you do and why?

FUNDERBURG: My work makes my life richer. I feel like I am more connected to the world through my efforts to capture it and make sense of it on the page.

CNF: What is your biggest dream or goal as a writer right now?

FUNDERBURG: To have the proposal that my agent is about to circulate snapped up by a great publisher.

About the Author

Rachel Ann Brickner

Rachel Ann Brickner was the first Writing Pittsburgh Fellow for Creative Nonfiction. Currently, she's an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Pittsburgh where she also teaches composition. In a previous life, Rachel lived in New York City and San Francisco where she worked in textbook publishing.

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