Thursday, October 17, 2019

Meet Sari Botton

I’d been aware of Sari Botton for years through her published essays and interviews, her bestselling anthologies, and her editing work at Longreads. When I learned that Sari was teaching a class on anthology publication at Catapult, I signed up right away. I’d had an idea for a literary anthology for a long time, and I couldn’t think of a better person to give me tips about the process. Sari was everything I expected her to be, and more—knowledgeable, thorough, wise, frank, funny, and insightful. When the MFA needed a new Mentorship Lab instructor, Sari came immediately to mind. I was thrilled when she said “yes.” You will be, too, when you read this interview with Sari, a self-described “late-blooming Gen X lady” who just happens to have had an extraordinary life and career. 

You’ve had a varied and interesting career journey, which you’ve been writing about in your subscription e-newsletter, “Adventures in Journalism.” For those who are unfamiliar with your background, can you tell us about some of the significant milestones (or twists and turns) in your writing journey?
I’m 54 and I honestly don’t feel as if I’m as established or successful as I “should be” by my age. I’ve had a very varied career in which I’ve sometimes felt right where I belonged, and I’ve thrived, and other times felt very much in the wrong place, and I’ve floundered. Sometimes that was a function of whether I had enough faith and confidence in my own inner directives to follow them; sometimes it was a matter of market forces and things like recessions killing lots of publications and jobs, and there was also a little thing called sexism holding me back now and then.

The first creative nonfiction I wrote was an essay for a school contest when I was in fourth grade about what I’d do if I won $1 million. (I can’t remember what I said I’d do!) I won that contest, and the same one the following year. The summer of 1986, when I was a junior in college, I managed to get a paid internship on the arts desk at Newsday, where I flourished writing arts features and profiles. But after college, I had a hard time finding myself as a writer. An essay writing workshop I took at NYU in 1992 got me going with creative nonfiction again.

I started publishing personal essays in magazines in the late 90s and early aughts, and knew that was where my heart was. I published two Modern Love essays, one about reprogramming myself away from The Rules and another about becoming okay with not wanting children.

My dad wasn’t happy with what I wrote in the first Modern Love essay, and that began my obsession with trying to figure out how to ethically write about the other people in your life. In 2010, I started a column on The Rumpus called Conversations With Writers Braver Than Me, where I interviewed memoirists about how they handled this.

In 2013, after hearing agents and editors tell me no for eight years, I published my first of two NYC anthologies, Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York. The next year I published its New York Times Bestselling follow up, Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers On Their Unshakable Love For New York.

Those books led Mark Armstrong, the founder of Longreads, to reach out to me.

You’re an editor for Longreads, which publishes a wide variety of longform essays and features both established and emerging writers. You also created and edit “Fine Lines” for Longreads, focusing on personal essays about aging in our culture. And you’ve edited and published three literary anthologies. What do like most about editing? What is your primary goal when editing an essay?
Editing an essay is like solving a puzzle for me. I just love the form — love to read and write personal essays, and to help make other writers’ essays sing. I lose myself in editing them because it is such a passion. One of my primary goals, though, is to maintain each writer’s intentions and voice. I try to not do anything unnecessary.

How does editing inform your writing practice, and vice-versa?
I bring my experience as a writer to editing. One of the things I’ve hated most as a writer is being edited by people who are flexing their muscles unnecessarily to justify their jobs. With that in mind, I try to do very spare editing. And I always invite writers to push back against the suggestions I’ve made.

As a writer, editing has made me sharper and more considerate of my editors. I remember in the past filing pieces that were over word count, telling the editor, “I decided to let you pick what stays and what goes!” I will never do that again!

Does your work as an editor influence your teaching practice?
Being an editor, editing two to three longform essays each week, makes me a better teacher because I am so deeply immersed in what does and doesn’t work in the writing. I share this with my students.

Your writing has been featured in multiple major publications, and now you are working on your memoir. What brought you to the point of wanting to write a memoir?
I’ve been wanting to write a memoir for a long time, but have felt conflicted about revealing things about other people in my life, so I’ve been kind of…hiding? I’m tired of hiding. And I think I have figured out how to do this with minimal blood spilled.

Can you tell us what the memoir is about?
It’s about being a late-blooming Gen X lady who has zig-zagged haphazardly through life while battling a case of impostor syndrome, borne of trying to be who I thought people (mostly men) wanted me to be instead of who I actually was. 

What is your writing process like? What techniques or strategies work for you?
I don’t have as much time for my own writing as I’d like. That said, sometimes I’ve written the most when I’ve been the busiest. I try to make it easy for myself to just dive in when a thought strikes me. To this end, I keep a running Word doc that functions as a scratch pad. I also like to get in a room with other writers, and set a timer a few times – for anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes at a clip — and babysit each other as we race the clock and get a shitty draft down. I also got a lot out of Jami Attenberg’s #1000WordsOfSummer. The first year she did that, in 2018, I rough-drafted a lot of the material for my “Adventures in Journalism” newsletter.

You’re an instructor at Catapult and now teaching for the Bay Path MFA. What made you interested in teaching for us?
I was curious about your program, because I knew my colleague Lisa Romeo teaches there. I had stumbled upon the Bay Path table at Hippocamp a few years ago. When Leanna James Blackwell reached out to me, I was thrilled to get the chance to teach here!

What do you hope to give your students?
I hope to empower my students to hone and follow their instincts; some tips and tools for overcoming the fears and doubts that keep so many of us blocked; and skills for developing, fleshing out, and then reigning in their writing.

Is there any one thing you love most about teaching? If so, what is it?
I love watching and helping writers develop. I also love watching and helping them find their confidence, because it has taken me so long.

What inspires your work as writer/teacher/editor? What interests you most?
When I was coming up, I had a hard time finding mentors and teachers, and vowed that I would fill that void for others.

Who are some of your favorite (or formative) authors? What do you love to read?
Some of my favorite creative nonfiction authors are Leslie Jamison, Kiese Laymon, Lacy Johnson, Jesmyn Ward, Anne Lamott, Sarah Miller, the late David Rakoff, Joan Didion, Maggie Nelson, Chris Kraus…too many to name! I love reading essay collections and memoirs.