Nadine Kenney Johnstone is the author of the memoir Of This Much I'm Sure. She teaches writing at Loyola University and received her MFA from Columbia College in Chicago. Her work has been featured in Chicago magazine, The Moth, PANK, and various anthologies, including The Magic of Memoir. Nadine is a writing coach who presents at conferences internationally. She lives near Chicago with her family. Follow her at nadinekenneyjohnstone.com.
At the upcoming 2017 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference, Johnstone will teach a craft-based session on “Book Proposals 101,” and will participate in the roundtable discussions “Engaging Your Audience: Raising Your Profile & Self-Promotion” and “Finding a Publisher that Cares About Your Book.”
We asked Nadine about her experience of writing her memoir, the process of finding a publisher, and what advice she has for writers who are working on writing their book proposal.
CNF: As someone who has written a memoir, can you give any advice to those who are in the process of writing their own?
JOHNSTONE: During your first draft, write everything that catches your attention. Don't worry about structure or perfection. Just write the scenes that are tugging at you. Once you get up to, say, 100 pages, print out everything you've written and have a coffee date with your manuscript. Read everything in one sitting and you will see the emerging threads. Then you can start shaping it—adding, cutting, moving. This is what I did and it’s the same advice I’ve given to my memoir students at Story Studio Chicago and Grub Street.
CNF: What were the biggest challenges you faced while writing Of This Much I’m Sure?
JOHNSTONE: Length! I wanted to keep goin’! It would have been 500 pages long, but I forced myself to get it closer to 300 pages since that is at the higher end of a typical memoir length. Also, it was hard to write the scenes that I had pushed out of my memory—like my IVF injections and emergency surgery.
CNF: Your book has been described as vulnerable, terrifying, and joyful all at once. Someone said that it is crafted out of raw emotion. Can you tell us what it’s like to put yourself out there like that?
JOHNSTONE: It's terrifying and exhilarating. My husband and I both had moments about a month before the book came out where we panicked, thinking, Oh my gosh! Neighbors, colleagues, family members, friends, and strangers are going to know incredibly intimate details about us. But then the freeing part came shortly after that when we realized that it felt great to not have secrets. I felt proud of our willingness to reveal our truth. It's the bravest thing we've ever done, and the reward is that those neighbors, colleagues, family members, friends, and strangers have emailed to say, “me too.” They were able to identify with our story. It's such a gift.
CNF: As a reader (or a writer), do you gravitate toward any specific types of narrative?
JOHNSTONE: Though I grew up loving fiction, I've been reading memoirs and essay collections for the past five plus years. I read what I like to write, and I read narratives by authors I admire: Cheryl Strayed, Mary Karr, Megan Stielstra. I also love reading essays in litmags like Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, and The Sun.
CNF: And what about advice to those who are looking for a publisher? You’ll be participating in the panel “Finding a Publisher that Cares About Your Book” at the 2017 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference. Can you tell us a little about your own path to publication?
JOHNSTONE: I went three different routes—first, with an academic press, then with an agent, and finally with She Writes—so I am going to talk about all three during the session. The academic press and I had different visions for my memoir, so we parted ways and I decided to look for an agent. She is amazing and we have a great relationship. We had some near misses with large traditional houses, but she believed in my book. Basically, an editor would love the book, but would have to sell it to their team, at which point they would look at my platform—essentially how many social media followers I had. Though I taught and presented at conferences internationally, I hadn’t concentrated my efforts on getting tens of thousands of social media followers because I was busy writing my book, which I deemed as being a bit more important. So I got the “It’s an amazing book, we just don’t know how well we can sell it” line. I didn't want to do the submit-and-wait game anymore. I wanted to see the book in print, and I wanted more control over the process. That’s when I learned about She Writes Press—an all-female hybrid publishing house. It has been amazing working with the SWP team. I had control over the cover, the internal design, and my publication date. But most importantly, I have the support of an amazing female-author network.
So, for those who are trying to find a publisher, the most important thing is to decide what your goals are. Would you like the prestige of being with a certain publishing house? Do you want to work with a local indie press who has a strong reputation in your community? Do you want exposure? Do you want to build your career? Do you want to make money? These questions will help drive your decision about the best publishing road to travel.
CNF: You’ll also be teaching a session called “Book Proposal 101.” Can you give us a short preview of what you will be covering in that session? What kind of advice do you have for those in the process of writing a proposal?
JOHNSTONE: At AWP 2013, a few editors who liked my “Nine Babies on Ice” essay in PANK magazine asked me if it was part of a larger work. I told them that it was part of my memoir-in-progress, so they asked me to send them my book proposal. I told them, "Sure!"—as if I had it on my computer, ready to be sent over—but the proposal existed only in my head. So, I ran out and bought every book about proposal writing. I read Jane Friedman's blog. I reviewed the notes I had taken in book proposal classes at Grub Street in Boston. Then, I wrote the proposal and submitted it and was offered a contract.
At the conference, I'm going to take all of that knowledge and condense it down to a 90-minute session so that writers don't have to spend a million hours reading books and blogs. We'll go over all the main parts of a proposal and each participant will write and brainstorm a plan for their own proposal.
CNF: What advice do you have in terms of how to go about engaging your audience and promoting yourself as a writer? What has worked best for you?
JOHNSTONE: Do more of what you enjoy. To me, Twitter feels like work, so I don't do it. But, I like Instagram, so I use that. I love speaking at events and conferences, but other authors hate public speaking and rely on guest-blogging. I love doing yoga—as I write about in my book—so I hosted a book event/yoga class during National Infertility Awareness Week. I also love teaching writing workshops and doing writing coaching/developmental editing, so some of my book promotion also pairs with my workshops.
An hour before my first book tour event in April, I wanted to hide in the bathroom and recite my talk ten more times. Over 100 of my students and colleagues were coming to hear me speak at Loyola University, where I teach, and I was terrified. There were a lot of very smart people in the audience. But, then I thought, This is supposed to be a celebration. I planned this. No one forced me into it. I told myself: You know your material. Get out there and enjoy yourself. And I did. I went out and hugged all my students and colleagues and I played Sia on the overhead speakers. I had a blast.
CNF: Are you working on any upcoming projects?
JOHNSTONE: I'm working on an essay collection called Try Again Politely. Whenever my son asks for something, but does not use his manners, I say, "Try again politely." So, if he says, "I want milk," I say, "Try again politely." Then he'll say, "May I have more milk, Mama?" I think that second chances usually work better than punishment or silent treatments. So, as I started writing different essays, I realized that this saying applied in other contexts, as well. The collection is about giving and receiving second chances in parenting, marriage, family relationships, and friendships.
CNF: Do you have any other words for the conference attendees, or other practicing writers of creative nonfiction, who will be reading this interview?
JOHNSTONE: Your story deserves to be told. Give yourself permission to write it.