Become a Writer Today

Why Non-fiction Writing Is So Powerful with Dr. Joan Smoller

May 09, 2022 Bryan Collins Season 2
Become a Writer Today
Why Non-fiction Writing Is So Powerful with Dr. Joan Smoller
Show Notes Transcript

Dr. Joan Smoller is a creative non-fiction writer, a writing coach, a former lecturer at NYU, and author of three books.

She’s also written for multiple high-profile publications in the United States, including the New York Times. In this interview, she talks about the power of non-fiction, how writers could use it to inspire social change and what non-fiction has done for her. 

Joan demonstrates that a writing career can be diverse. She has taught, instructed, edited, has prepared multimillion-dollar grant proposals, has written about topics like skin cancer, and has run a successful writing program. In other words, the genre or subject that you’re writing about today doesn’t necessarily have to be the genre or topic that you will pursue tomorrow.

Joan talks about advice she gives her students: the importance of writing every day and the value of freewriting. I was delighted when Joan mentioned free writing because I’ve used it on and off over the years. 

If you’re not familiar with freewriting, Joan describes how to apply it, and she also gives some tips which can help you get over a fear of self-judgment and what other people think.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • How writing can be a lifesaver
  • Choosing to write about specific genres 
  • How writing has changed over the years
  • Common mental hurdles that writers have to overcome
  • The benefits of freewriting
  • What to do in order to get your non-fiction to succeed
  • Writing about difficult topics
  • Overcoming the fear of self-judgement 


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Joan: I always tell people it’s not about you, it’s about them. First of all, you have to understand who is your reader. That’s very important. For example, when I write on medicine, I understand I’m writing to physicians. If I’m writing to the general public, I take a different attack.

Introduction: Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.

Bryan: Why is non-fiction writing so powerful? Hi, there, my name is Bryan Collins, and welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast. Fiction is great because it can take you to another world. And it can be also pretty entertaining, but there’s something particularly special for many people, and especially for me, about non-fiction writing. I love non-fiction because it can encourage readers to act, it can change their point of view, and it can transport them to another world. 

Now, I trained as a journalist years ago, and for a while, I used to think that journalism is the ultimate form of non-fiction writing, but it’s only much later I discovered there are other types of non-fiction. So, for example, you can blog or you can write content about a topic you’re knowledgeable about or you can write personal essays. A personal essay is basically a 2,000- or 3,000-word essay about a topic or a specific point of view where you explore what it means and maybe you challenge the ideas of other writers. Often there’s a story in the personal essay because it’s supposed to be personal. So it’s a way of inserting yourself into an ongoing conversation between different writers. If it sounds a little bit like blogging, it can be but, generally, personal essays aren’t written for the web. 

Now, I’ve enjoyed writing personal essays over the years because it got me to think about the craft of writing somewhat differently from journalism and blogging, and I used various personal essays to write my latest book, which is called I Can’t Believe I’m a Dad. Basically, I wrote personal essays about my experiences becoming a dad unexpectedly when I was 24 years old. And, ultimately, those essays became chapters for the book, and then I rewrote the book several times before publishing it earlier in 2021. 

If you’re interested in learning more about personal essays or creative non-fiction, there are a couple of writers I recommend you check out. For someone contemporary, read anything by David Sedaris. If you’re looking for something a little bit older, you could read some of Virginia Woolf’s non-fiction. But I also recommend checking out the journals of noted authors, particularly John Cheever’s journal, which I read a couple of years ago when I accidentally discovered it in a university when I was taking a college course, and also journals and diaries by Anaïs Nin because they really explain I suppose the viewpoint of a writer and the creative struggles that they went through and how they balanced their personal life with the life of an author. 

You could also buy an excellent anthology of personal essays which was edited by Phillip Lopate. It’s called The Art of the Personal Essay, and it contains dozens of personal essays, contemporary and old, so you’ll find Montaigne in it from hundreds of years ago and you’ll also find essays by Virginia Woolf and by personal essayists from the latter part of the 20th century. Definitely, one to check out. 

For this episode, I wanted to interview somebody who’s an expert in the power of non-fiction and in creative non-fiction so I caught up with Dr Joan Smoller. She’s a creative nonfiction writer, a writing coach, a former lecturer at NYU, and the author of three books. And she’s also written for multiple high-profile publications in the United States, including the New York Times. And in this interview, she talks about the power of non-fiction and how writers could use it to inspire social change and what non-fiction has done for her over the years. She also talks about why she’s more interested in coaching new writers today. 

My takeaway from talking with Dr Joan Smoller is a writing career can be diverse. Joan has taught, she has instructed, she has edited, she has prepared multimillion-dollar grant proposals, she has written about topics like skin cancer, and she has also run a successful writing program. In other words, the genre or topic that you’re writing about today doesn’t necessarily have to be the genre or topic that you will pursue tomorrow. But what’s more important is turning up and doing the work and writing consistently. And Joan, in this interview, talks about some of the advice she gives to her students: the importance of writing every day and also the value of freewriting. And I was delighted when Joan mentioned free writing because this is a practice that I’ve used on and off over the years. If you’re not familiar with freewriting, Joan describes exactly how to apply it in your craft today and she also gives some tips which can help you get over a fear of self-judgment and this particularly resonated because I know many writers worry about what will happen if somebody close to them or a friend or family member reads their work and isn’t happy with the topic or isn’t happy with the stories in it. And Joan has some great advice which will help you get over that fear of self-judgment and the fear of what other people will think. 

If you enjoy this week’s interview with Joan, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes Store. More reviews and more ratings will help more writers find the Become a Writer Today Podcast. If you have feedback, I’m on Twitter, you can reach out to, @bryanjcollins.

Now, let’s go over to this week’s interview with Dr. Joan Smoller. 

Bryan: Welcome to the show, Joan.

Joan: Thank you and it’s so great to be speaking across the Atlantic.

Bryan: It is indeed, yeah, it’s the power of Zoom or Squadcast or other tools that I use. So, I wanted to talk to you about the power of creative non-fiction. Non-fiction is something that I love reading and writing. But before we get into that, let’s talk about your career. You’ve had a fascinating career over the past 30 years or so. Could you walk through some of the highlights for listeners?

Joan: Thank you. Yes. First, I went to University of Michigan. I’m from the Midwest in the United States. But then I received a Woodrow Wilson fellowship to become a college teacher and I went to Columbia University where I got my PhD in English and comparative literature and I worked as an associate professor at New York University. And while I was there, I created and funded a program called The Writer at Work and we brought in all kinds of writers and publishers and editors to talk about writing, and that was both fiction and nonfiction. 

But that is where NYU, a wonderful colleague of mine, Walter Miller, a fantastic writer, termed me a creative non-fiction writer and I think that’s the important thing. I wanna start out telling a story about one of my most happiest pieces of writing. I wrote in the voice of a mother for Redbook magazine a story about disfigured children. In particular, her child who had what was called a hemangioma. There was a huge red bulb on the end of her nose, the child was born with that. 

That article led to a nationwide support group for those children. So that was just one example. I’ve written for lawyers. Just recently, we had a lawyer who had a client who had been put out of her job and, in the United States, many times, when you’re out of your job, you lose your health insurance. And this woman had a very serious disease and if she didn’t see a certain doctor, she would die. 

And so this lawyer, who was an employment lawyer, wrote and I edited the piece for him. And it was so powerful that at 11 p.m. at night, the counsel for the company that put her out called and gave her back her health insurance and so her life was saved. So, writing can be lifesaving. It can also be very life-enhancing. I often write resumes and cover letters for people and get them jobs. I wanna tell one story about that one.

Bryan: Please do. 

Joan: I had a client whose house burned down and she desperately needed a job. She had gone back to graduate school. And I wrote her resume and her cover letter. The sad part is, and, again, I don’t know if this is particular to any one country, but when she told people that her house burned down as she was trying to get jobs, she was told she has too much emotional baggage so we didn’t put that in the cover letter. But, in any case, in 3 weeks, she had a job in a hospital as an administrator after I wrote her cover letter and her resumes.

Bryan: That shows the power of the written word. When did you write the article for, was it Red Bulb magazine? 

Joan: Redbook.

Bryan: Redbook? Oh, sorry. 

Joan: Yeah, that was some years back. And I myself, as I mentioned, I had had, fortunately, it wasn’t the serious type, basal cell and squamous cell skin cancer so I also had had a bit of surgery on my face and that is how I happened to get — I was involved with the top doctor at New York University Hospital, Dr. Joseph McCarthy, who worked with any kind of facial reconstruction. And that is how I happened to meet the mother of this disfigured child and how I wrote that article. And that group is still ongoing, the young — at the time, she was a young child, now she’s a young woman, she has kept that group going and helping people, I think, probably worldwide.

Bryan: I really like that. Well, another theme that struck a chord when we were talking before the interview and even when you were describing your career is the idea of a creative non-fiction writer. So what is, in your words, will be a creative non-fiction writer versus somebody who’s writing standard non-fiction or a cover letter, for example?

Joan: Well, I honestly think it’s partly an inborn quality that you have that you just know what is the right word, what is the thing that is gonna be most meaningful, and then it’s a skill that you develop. You have to — I have a young man from Hong Kong right now that I’m working with and I’m telling him you’ve got to write every day. It’s like practicing the piano. 

So it’s a skill but it’s also — I think it’s just an inborn talent with words. My late mother, who passed away at 104, was an extremely talented public speaker even though she came to the United States when she was 13 years old. So, it may even be genetic, I don’t know. My grandmother wrote poetry. We just have a way with words. 

The other thing is, now, at this point in my career, because I’m older, I wanna support other people. Anybody who would like to come to me, you know, I think at the end, you’ll put my information, but I listen to them, what they have to say, and then they say I pull it out of them. So, I let their voices be heard and that’s the exciting thing that I’m doing now. I worked with one woman, for example, and she’s an Asian American woman who is speaking about discrimination against Asian Americans in our country, which has gone up a fair amount after the COVID situation, and I’m able to, as she says, pull it out of her and make very powerful what she has to say. It has to touch the reader. 

I guess if I can say one more thing about it, in terms of certain kinds of writing, I do web content, as I said, resumes, articles, and so on. I always tell people it’s not about you, it’s about them. First of all, you have to understand who is your reader. That’s very important. For example, when I write on medicine, I understand I’m writing to physicians. If I’m writing to the general public, I take a different attack.

Bryan: And that would change the tone and the language and how you explain concepts and metaphors?

Joan: Absolutely, absolutely. I can write on a very high level of research writing because I was trained that way at Columbia University but that’s not how I’m gonna write if I’m writing an article about, for example, the discrimination against the Asians or helping somebody to write an article about that’s going out to the general educated public. 

Bryan: Joan, when you think back on your writing career, did you purposely set out to write in specific genres or about specific topics or did they emerge organically?

Joan: No. In fact, the story is, as I told you, I was fortunate, one of the few women in this country at that time to get a scholarship to become a college professor so I was more involved with academic writing. But then I remember I was speaking to somebody and she said to me, “Oh, your eyes light up when you speak about writing,” and I realized at that point that I was more — although I could be a scholar, I definitely could be and was, that, at heart, I was a writer. And I think that’s something you just have to know. I’m assuming you feel the same about yourself and where it comes from.

Bryan: Yeah, I’ve always wanted to write. I struggled for a long time to figure out what topics to write about and then I attended a screenwriting workshop by Robert McKee. I was lucky enough to talk to him at the end and he said to go home and look at your bookshelf and whatever you’re reading, that’s an indication of what you should write about. So I found that quite helpful.

Joan: That can be very helpful. I mean, right now, at this point, I have written a lot about myself. I wrote a novel that I think, three novels, but I think they really were non-fiction, to be honest, very disguised non-fiction, not even so disguised. But that’s one way. And also now, at this point in my career, I’m here to support other people. So whatever it is that they want or need, I will help them to write it.

Bryan: When it comes to supporting other writers today like new writers, do you believe it’s easier for writers today to earn a living or to connect with an audience or readers than it was years ago?

Joan: I think it’s easier in one sense because of all this media. So everybody’s writing, writing, writing, blogging, posting, we’re supposed to be posting all the time, but I think it’s much harder because people don’t read a lot and they text and I have that with my own kids. You know, it’s like they don’t express themselves fully. In fact, they express themselves in like, you know, okay or lol or…

Bryan: Emojis. 

Joan: My daughter just had a big surgery and, you know, “How are you?” “Okay.” I mean, okay, is that it? Yeah. I suspect we’re losing the art of the kind of wonderful writing. Letters, for example, you know, that you could keep and that you would read and now people are communicating through text and email and I guess it eventually gets lost. And also the type of communication is much, much shorter. 

So like I’m doing web content for people or, as I mentioned to you earlier, I edit for a woman from Harvard and she’s amazing and she’s writing grants but, in today’s world, it has to be very concise and very concrete and very specific. So, is it harder for a writer to make a living? That’s hard for me to say, but I think the kind of writing that’s being asked for is different. Do you agree?

Bryan: I would say there’s a lot of opportunities for writers online and the challenge is capturing the attention of readers today rather than getting published. I mean, lots of people will publish your work or you can self-publish but it doesn’t mean anybody will read it.

Joan: That’s the problem. In fact, I have to say, and I have grandchildren, that I don’t think they read very much at all. And everything — snippets, really. When you read online, it’s snippets to capture the attention, so maybe that’s a real challenge, you have to really find exactly the right word and anybody who wants to be a writer, a lot of people say they wanna be a writer but I say to them, do you wanna spend hours just figuring out what’s the exact word or the exact phrase? 

Now, I personally love to do that and I’m sure you do too, I would assume, so a real writer just loves to go over things again and again and again. I was just reading about Hemingway, that he changed the ending to one of his books 45 times. 49. 49. My boyfriend says 49. So, that’s me too. I will sometimes — and sometimes it comes to me so easily and sometimes it doesn’t but I have to have just the right phrase, just the right word. And I will work on that for a long time. And I enjoy that. If you don’t enjoy that, I don’t recommend being a writer.

Bryan: When you’re coaching your students and your clients, are there any common mental hurdles that you see they often have or problems that you help them overcome that you recognize in other writers?

Joan: That’s a great, great question. I think you have to be honest. And by that, I mean — or authentic, if you prefer, and many people are. Right now, I have somebody that I’m working with and he’s brilliant but he’s too controlled. He’s not letting his real subject matter come out. And so I recommend sometimes free writing, like for an hour every morning, and just — I know when I used to do that sometimes, a topic would come out that I didn’t even have a clue about that I wanted to write about. 

I definitely feel that writing — and I think you have to keep writing often. Those are the two things.  And honesty too. Sometimes, you — I did a book about women writers and that was sort of a breakthrough for me writing the introduction to it, which I wrote in the first person and I didn’t even realize I had certain thoughts and feelings but they came out and that was powerful.

Bryan: I free wrote as well. I found it a helpful practice. I kinda considered it as part of morning journaling or kind of like early morning pages.

Joan: Absolutely. I’m glad you agree with that, because I’m trying to encourage my current — person that I’m coaching currently to do that. And it’s very hard for him. And he’s very, very smart. I think that’s very important.

Bryan: If somebody’s listening and they’re wondering what tips did you give that person, what would you say to them for freewriting?

Joan: Oh, I think every day and I think you just have to write without worrying about punctuation or grammar. Just let whatever is in your mind come out and whatever it is, and free associate and I think those are — and if you really go free like that, but most people find it very difficult. I think our training in our universities, I had to break free from all the training that I had to become a good writer. And it doesn’t mean the training doesn’t play in, it’s helpful for certain kinds of writing, but I had to break free from that.

Bryan: What prompted you to explore other types of writing that will be considered less creative? For example, I know you’re involved in writing grant applications for significant grants over the years. 

Joan: Yes. 

Bryan: What prompted you at the time to take on those kinds of writing projects versus more creative writing projects? Because I’d imagine writing a grant proposal is very involved and technical and requires a lot of research.

Joan: Yes. The grants, I did at NYU because I had my own — I told you I created a program called The Writer at Work, and in order to fund it, I had to write the grants and I had very large grants from the Rockefeller Foundation and also from the New York State Council on the Arts. So, at that point, I wrote the grants because I wanted to fund my own program. 

And, currently, I’m working as a writer and I get paid. It’s a way of making a small living for myself at this time in my career, and I was asked to write for this $40 million grant. I actually edited it, I didn’t write it from start, but editing it, and I think I could. I could make it. You always need another pair of eyes on something and that’s what I offered. So I just find it fascinating also.

Bryan: You mentioned that you wrote three novels during your career as well. Did you write them for fun or did you write them because you wanted to take on something more creative or was it a story you wanted to tell?

Joan: I think that, at that point, I didn’t have kids and I had the time and I was working at NYU and I would work afternoons and evenings and so in the morning, it just — I think sometimes you just — I wanted to write that so I did. I can’t explain it. I think being — I believe, as a writer, you’re a vessel and certain things come to you at different times. I’ve written poetry also. And now, as I said, at this point in my career, I wanna support others primarily. That’s really what I wanna do.

Bryan: When did you retire from NYU? 

Joan: Well, after NYU, I did — I left NYU maybe about, let’s see, 20 years ago, then I went into high school teaching.

Bryan: Okay. 

Joan: And I was in the English department, I had adopted one child and I adopted another one. And at NYU, I was working evenings, as I told you, so I taught English and writing in high school and that was very interesting too and very challenging.

Bryan: When you think of non-fiction today that succeeds, what does it normally do? Like you mentioned a few minutes ago that it puts the reader first. Are there any other things that non-fiction achieves if it’s to succeed?

Joan: Oh, my God. I mean, you can change the world if you write something that is very powerful. For example, I mentioned I’m working with this woman about discrimination against Asians, which has gone up since the COVID situation in the United States, I don’t know about in Europe, and I think you can make a very, very powerful impact and make very amazing changes. Also, depending on the kind of research that you do. I have friends who are journalists, I won’t say for what major networks, and, for example, one of them is able to find a murderer or stuff like that. It’s amazing what you can do with your writing.
 
Of course, it depends what outlet you have also. Oh, let me say one other thing. While I was at NYU with these grants, I did a thing about writing and healing. That helped many, many people who had very difficult medical situations. So, you never know. You never know. 

Bryan: What was the piece about? 

Joan: Well, actually, it was my experience and then we had numerous other writers speaking about how they used writing in their particular medical situations. For example, one of them had cancer and he spoke about it and I wrote about how I used writing in my situation, as I mentioned to you, I was young and I had skin cancer and I was disfigured for a while and I had reconstructive surgery and I wrote all about that while it was ongoing so it was healing for me but even more important, it touched many other people who are going through the same situation and it was healing for them.

Bryan: If somebody is writing about a difficult personal topic like that, should it be for themselves or should they consider publishing it? 

Joan: I think they should consider publishing. For example, somebody I’m working with now has a condition and I don’t wanna say it, a psychological condition that many other people have, let’s say depression, for example. And I think if that person wrote about it very powerfully, it would help many other people. I know it would. But he’s not ready to write about it yet.

Bryan: How does somebody know when they’re ready to write about a difficult topic?

Joan: That’s a good question. Well, I think sometimes it helps to have a coach like me to keep pressing and saying — for example, some person might wanna write about their sexuality, their sexual orientation, and they’re afraid to open up about it, or women who are afraid to open up about having been abused. 

So you have to get over that. I know when I wrote certain things about my family background, generally, it was good, but I was so afraid that my family wouldn’t like it, but they didn’t mind at all. But you have to have courage. You have to have courage to get past that. And another person can help you. A coach can help you. Because I think if you write about — Anaïs Nin, I don’t know if you knew her, she was very famous for her diaries. She thought nobody would be interested. Actually, millions of women were interested once she brought it out.

Bryan: You mentioned freewriting is one technique that you used to help your students overcome fear of self-judgement. Is there anything else that you would prompt them to do or any other strategies that you offer?

Joan: I think then you have to work at form. You know, is this gonna be a short piece? Is this gonna be a long piece? Oftentimes, I find, and if I may use the baseball metaphor, as my father used to love to play baseball, often, I’d find that you’re winding up and then there’s the pitch so often you could cut out some of the beginning of what you’re writing. 

You feel where it is that you’re really, you know, pitching, that’s where you’re really hitting. And then I think it’s a question of whether I think some people are long-form writers, some people are short-form writers so you have to know. And then, again, if you have an assignment for a newspaper or a magazine, they’ll tell you what they want and you have to adapt to that if you wanna sell it.

Bryan: You have to know your audience and the publication that you’re writing for.

Joan: Absolutely, absolutely. And then if you’re — like I’ve been working on web content, which I find fascinating, and I work one on one. That’s the way I always worked. I work one on one with the person who has the website. What are they trying to communicate? And I try to help them put it into words. And, similarly, with resumes and cover letters, that may sound like a trivial thing but it’s not at all because it can help people get the job they want. I always work — I work one on one to hear what the person wants to say.

Bryan: So, Joan, if somebody wants to work with you, where should they go or if they want to learn more about your writing? 

Joan: Yes. I have a website, www.resumedoc.com. My email is rsmejsr@gmail.com.

Bryan: Your website and email address, I’ll include those in the description for the show.

Joan: That would be great. Thank you very much. I would love to work with people. I especially would love to work with people that are non-native speakers and help them but I would love to work with anybody throughout the world. As I said, I’m currently working with somebody from Hong Kong. I’d love to work with people in Europe, and I’m here to — I put it, “Make your voice heard,” at this stage in my career. 

Bryan: Thank you, Joan. 

Joan: Thank you so much. This was great. All best wishes to everybody.

(outro)

Bryan: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode. If you did, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes Store or sharing the show on Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you’re listening. More reviews, more ratings, and more shares will help more people find the Become a Writer Today Podcast. And did you know, for just a couple of dollars a month, you could become a Patreon for the show? Visit patreon.com/becomeawritertoday or look for the Support button in the show notes. Your support will help me record, produce, and publish more episodes each month. And if you become a Patreon, I’ll give you my writing books and discounts on writing software and on my writing courses.