Learning How to Become a Stranger to Yourself

Saeed Jones on on the similarities between nonfiction and poetry, the beauty and treachery of social media, and the importance of making space for diverse vantage points

Saeed Jones is the author of the memoir How We Fight for Our Lives, winner of the 2019 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction and the poetry collection Prelude to Bruise, winner for the 2015 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, New York Times, and GQ among other publications. At the time of this interview, Jones was  s BuzzFeed’s newly appointed Literary Editor and was in the process of launching BuzzFeed’s Emerging Writers Fellowship.

[Editor’s Note: This interview was originally published in March 2015, prior to the 2015 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference. The introduction has been updated for accuracy and clarity; the interview has not.]

CNF: You’re a poet, but you also write nonfiction. Do you think the two genres have any common threads?

JONES: I think they do. In my own work, and in the work of a lot of poets I admire, memoir is absolutely a part of poetry. Oftentimes a personal experience is the inspiration for a poem. The very natural gesture of using poetry to look back and reflect and meditate on a specific moment in your life … is the same thing we do with memoir and nonfiction.

It’s all the same act of leaning in and exploring facts and memory. … I think there’s a really clear relationship there. I’m often going back and forth between [the two.] For me it’s seamless.

CNF: What led you to being an editor at BuzzFeed?

JONES: Before BuzzFeed I was teaching English and freelance writing personal essays for outlets like LAMBDA Literary, Ebony, and Guernica. I was really trying to develop a portfolio of writing that could demonstrate my capacity beyond poetry.

One of the things poets have to deal with is the way that poetry, culturally, is very siloed—people tend to think of poets as incredibly distant. Like we’re all walking through the woods, daydreaming [laughs] … you know, we’re not people who are paying taxes or participating in the more day to day cultural conversations. So one way we can break that barrier is through cultural criticism, through creative nonfiction, through personal essays … and so that’s what I was really trying to do as a writer, personally.

In late 2012 I started interviewing with someone who was looking to launch an LGBT vertical at BuzzFeed, and two years plus six or seven writers [added to the team], here we are.

CNF: You mentioned writing in the first person. For BuzzFeed and for other narrative writing you do, how do you determine whether a nonfiction piece you’re writing will be in first or third person?

JONES: Ooh, that’s a good question. Well, sometimes the distinction is something I understand from the beginning. Sometimes it happens earlier in the drafting process. But in both cases it’s a matter of figuring out, would the “I” get in the way? Would it be unnecessary for my personal identity to interact with the subject matter—would it just be a hurdle? Or, conversely, do I have something to add to this narrative by putting myself in?

And I think sometimes the process might be very straightforward … It might be apparent early on that your experience, your thoughts, your feelings are relevant to the subject matter. But sometimes I’ve started working on a piece and get a couple of drafts in and I can’t figure out why [it’s not working], and then I realize that I literally am the problem. [Laughs]

CNF: We’ve noticed a sea change with regard to news stories being written in the first person—it mostly used to be reserved for op-eds and “literary nonfiction,” but now major media outlets publish news stories written in the first person all the time. Do you find that you gravitate toward first person narratives as a reader?

JONES: I guess in relation to the question you just asked, it’s the same thing. It depends on the subject matter.

I was recently reading a very well-reported essay by Hilton Als about Prince. It’s a meditation on Prince’s career and persona, and on the intersection of music and gender and gender fluidity, and because that also aligns with Hilton Als’s own life as a gay black man, and [because he’s] someone who grew up obsessed with the idea of Prince … that makes for an incredibly powerful piece.

I find that if I’m reading cultural writing—especially about art—if the subject matter aligns in some way with the writer’s  identity and I can see their preoccupations at work, I love that.

On the other hand, I find that when those stars aren’t aligned, it’s a disaster. You can have issues where the writer is an outsider of the culture they’re writing about, and trying to weigh in on the subject matter in a way that’s not only not productive, but is actually disruptive. If you do that you risk losing the reader’s trust. But I think more generally speaking, in reporting as a whole, if I’m editing a piece about violence against transgendered women, for example, I’m usually not interested in the reporter’s take, or the reporter’s personal “I” in that narrative, because it’s not about them.

Illustration by Anna Hall

CNF: How do you get readers to care about your stories when they’re written in the first person? Or in other words, how do you make your personal universal?

JONES: That’s such a great question. I was just reading an interview Toni Morrison did … where she was talking about teaching writing at Princeton, and she felt like so many of her students were writing, you know, kind of selfish stories.

They weren’t writing about death, they were writing about their feelings about death; they weren’t writing about love, they were writing about their feelings about love …That sort of self-centered thing that you tend to see often in the work of young writers. So she talked about the importance of learning how to become a stranger to yourself, even if you’re writing about yourself. If you can look at your own work with that distance …your writing will be richer, and you’ll create a powerful connection with a reader.

So I don’t think much about how to make my stories universal or connect with a reader, but I do think about that—I’m always trying to look at myself with just as much distance as I might look at the other characters involved in a personal essay in memoir I’m working on. I find that that, combined with taking readers seriously and really thinking about a diverse readership, is part of what has to happen.

As a writer, when you take yourself or your audience for granted, you begin to miss a lot of opportunities for connection.

CNF: To what extent do you incorporate research into your first person narratives?

JONES: In my personal essays about my upbringing or college years, I tend to do very cursory research. I don’t go interviewing family members of people from my past. I try to be clear in my writing that this work is a product of memory … that I’m not an objective narrator, but that these are my memories, and that memory is a construct.

I think that should be part of the art—the knowledge that this narrator is trying to negotiate doubt, looking at their own memories and trying to make meaning. But sometimes, depending on the subject matter—certainly if I’m writing about culture, about a film or an artist—I’ll research that person’s work.

As a writer, when you take yourself or your audience for granted, you begin to miss a lot of opportunities for connection.

I may write it in the first person, but I still want to have a real depth of knowledge about that person’s work and their life. You need to be aware of the community in which your work is now going to exist. My work isn’t deeply research-heavy right now, but that might change with future projects.

CNF: What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned about publishing your work? What about as an editor, publishing other people’s work?

JONES: I think it’s the idea that the draft, the word choice, is not precious. Is not sacred. We really have to be realistic about our work. When you’re realistic you open yourself up to the freedom of revision, which I think is a glorious part of the writing process. Who would want to close themselves off to the possibility of great revision except someone who thinks their work is somehow sacred?

I have found once you open yourself up and say, this draft is not sacred, anything could be better, anything could change, you really open yourself up to the opportunity for your work to become so much better. And hopefully you get the opportunity to work with an editor who you have the kind of relationship with that allows you to really craft the pieces [together]. The worst thing that can happen is for someone to take your work as it is and just publish it and put it out into the world with no real dialogue, which I think happens far more than it should because of time and resources.

Nothing is perfect. I don’t care how great or esteemed the writer is, when that draft comes in, it’s coming in raw form and needs to be treated that way.

CNF: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made either as an emerging writer or as an editor? What advice would you give yourself at the start of your career?

JONES: Wow. I think I’ve probably made a lot. [Laughs] The biggest one, probably, was a private mistake—private in that it wasn’t something readers would see, but was a mistake I made for myself.

The next book I’m working on, I started in 2012, and I’m about to dive back into it now. In its early iterations I thought it was so, so important for me to finish the book as soon as possible. At the time my mother had recently passed away and I really dove into this book. I think writing is where I most feel like I’m in control—it’s where all my skills and passions and values are brought to to life. When you’re in grief, everything feels out of control.

A book is better for every year it takes to come into fruition. I really have a hard time seeing how a book or an essay or a poem could ever be damaged by one more day of thoughtful effort.

I was so desperate to make this book happen, even though realistically, books take years. It’s a marathon. I was unrealistic. I felt I should have finished the book in six months from start to finish. So I was miserable. I was so unhappy during that time period. I would take all feedback—anytime a mentor would tell me, ‘You’re not ready, why are you pursuing an agent now?’—as a slap in the face, like I was being told that there was no hope and no potential, when they were really saying ‘Take your time, take your time.’

I think that was a really huge mistake, and I think it’s one we all make in different ways, and you don’t really understand it until you have more experience under your belt. But what I learned with with my poetry collection, Prelude to a Bruise, which was published last fall, is that that a book is better for every year it takes to come into fruition.

I really have a hard time seeing how a book or an essay or a poem could ever be damaged by one more day of thoughtful effort.

CNF: As someone who is incredibly impatient to finish writing a memoir, that’s both difficult and encouraging to hear.

JONES: Hang in there! [Laughs] Hang in there.

CNF: How have you had to handle rejection as writer? What about as an editor?

JONES: I read something a few years ago that said a poet can’t afford to have a bad poem published, and a magazine editor can’t afford to publish that bad poem. It’s disastrous for everyone involved.

Now when you get the rejection letter, it doesn’t feel that way! [Laughs] But I think as an editor, one of the things I’m doing when I’m rejecting a pitch—or even in the rare instances where I’ve actually had to kill a story—is trying to protect the writer. Especially when you’re working with freelancers, you begin to see when a story just would not fly. Sometimes the story just would not be doable in the amount of time that’s available in terms of the writers’ revisions, or in terms of me helping them with revision—sometimes the payoff just wouldn’t be there. Or … maybe [I’m considering] the potential for blowback or outrage.

Regardless, it’s often a matter of—you as a writer are being protected. That’s how I feel as an editor. And as an editor at a media organization, you know, I’m also protecting the mission and the ethos of my platform.

The work we do about LGBT news and culture is important, and so everything we do has to in some way help people take a step forward. If I’m rejecting something, it’s because that’s not happening. It’s not personal; it’s never because I don’t like the writer. I reject pitches from people I admire and adore all the time. Hopefully their next pitch lands perfectly and then I’m just so excited. I know that in the moment [rejection is] not a great feeling. But you have to go take your walk, or talk to that one friend who is always there to cheer you on, and then you have to get back to it the next day.

CNF: What role does social media play in your career as a writer? Do you have an online persona that differs from your more intimate personal interactions online?

JONES: I wish I did have a persona! [Laughs] I created @TheFerocity, my twitter account, in maybe 2010. I had just started teaching high school, and as you might imagine, when you’re teaching 9th and 10th grade English, the last thing you want is your students following you [online] and picking everything you say apart. I think for anyone teaching in the 21st century, there’s no getting away from it—you can create pseudonyms, lock your profiles, try to hide things, but it’s inescapable. The game changes so quickly it’s just a bit hopeless. But I decided to create that separate account and a persona to pursue a specific idea: that black gay men exist in popular culture as a kind of “magical negro”—as a minstrel figure that appears to dispense sassiness, really good punchlines, and fashion advice, and then disappears.

You don’t get to see examples of vulnerability, of real humanity, of people having cultural conversations and talking about current events in that construction of the black gay archetype, so I decided that would be what @TheFerocity would do—to find a way to do it all. To talk about Paris is Burning and vogueing, but also to talk about Ferguson or Eric Garner, and be able to say, “What did The Economist just write?” or “Look at this beautiful essay in Guernica.”

As a young writer in my mid-20s I was still trying to get a sense of what it meant to be writing and publishing work in public spaces. And for whoever made the awful mistake of deciding to follow me on Twitter [Laughs], it just kind of took off. I feel like how I am on Twitter now is actually much less of a persona. It’s much more consistent with how I actually am. So as you gain a larger platform, I guess you also become a bit more conservative.

Twitter used to feel different … I used to joke that Twitter was a 24/7 dinner party, and everyone you’re following, everyone who’s following you has the invitation, and it’s always going on and you can just dip in and out of the room when you wanted to. But now Twitter feels more like a basketball stadium. Or like a Super Bowl halftime—so many people. And you see people misreading that new relationship—you can just throw off a cursory remark on Twitter now and make, at a minimum, a really miserable day for yourself, if not actually damage your career. We’ve seen these things happen.

That said, as a writer on social media you can become accessible to readers in a whole new way. When … Prelude to a Bruise came out, I was so stunned at the ability readers had to be able to tell me [on social media], “I’m reading page 14 of your book and this sentence has been on my mind all day.” People would take a picture of themselves reading my book in their living room where I could see, you know, a coffee cup, and a cat. It was this startlingly intimate interaction. I think it’s culturally a pretty new phenomenon for people to be able to reach out or ask questions like “When are you reading in Chicago or Los Angeles—I’d love to see you read here.” I just think that’s so special. Because the writer’s life can be a very lonely one.

You know, isolation is a necessity for us. And so when you’ve done all of that work—like you, with your book, you’ve been doing that work alone for years—I think something in you would hope to have the opportunity to connect with your mysterious readers who are out there in the world, and social media has allowed that to happen much more effortlessly. It can be stressful—even harrowing [laughs], depending on what is going on—but otherwise, I think mostly it’s a real delight to have that level of interaction with your readers.

CNF: It’s really great to hear such a positive perspective on this. I’ve primarily been writing about social justice issues for MTV and have just recently had my first taste of some really nasty comments being directed my way on Twitter. The positive ones definitely outweigh the negative, but it can all be very intense.

JONES: Yes, whether it’s positive or negative, it is very intense. And I do think that [although] lots of writers are very wisely recognizing the importance of social media in terms of promoting our work and being public figures, this is not only intense, but is also unprecedented—you know, we can’t really go to our mentors. Anyone who was publishing work even just five or six years ago can’t really give you much guidance about negotiating this new terrain. You have all this evidence available [on social media] that can make you think that whatever everyone is saying about you or your work on this one platform during this one time period is what everyone everywhere is thinking. So when it’s good, it’s really good, and when it’s bad it can be really devastating. I think that’s also why I’ve become more conservative about what I want to talk about [on social media]. I also used to be able to ask my Twitter followers for, like, you know, cooking recipes. Now I have like 20,000 Twitter followers, so I just ask my friends instead, because do I really want that kind of feedback from 20,000 people? [Laughs]

CNF: I guess crowd-sourcing becomes a bit unwieldy at that volume.

JONES: Yes, you have to just go back to emailing your friends!

CNF: Any final words of advice for emerging writers?

JONES: You should read five pages of work by other writers for every page that you write. I think that’s a mistake we all make … It’s one that I’m always making and correcting on a daily basis. Correcting that ratio. Am I reading more than I’m writing? Am I reading work beyond what was published this week? This year? This decade? We all need to be reading more, and reading from more diverse writers and perspectives. We should all be doing that. We should all remember to keep looking outward.

About the Author

Kristina Marusic

Kristina Marusic works as a writer for MTV News’s social justice vertical, “Issues,” covering topics including the Black Lives Matter movement, LGBTQ issues, and feminist pop culture. She is a full-time reporter for Environmental Health News.

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