By Nicole Karlis
When it comes to writing about cringe-worthy life events, essayist KK Goldberg is an expert. Her talent for turning painful experiences into sidesplitting comic relief has caught the eyes of editors at likes of The Sun and The New York Times. She also recently published a memoir, “The Doctor and the Stork: A Memoir of Modern Medical Babymaking.”
We were lucky to catch up with KK and pick her brain about what it takes to succeed as a writer, tips for honing your craft and learn about her upcoming personal essay class at Writing Pad.
1. Tell us about your writing background and your journey to becoming an essayist and author.
Like many writers, I read voraciously in childhood, devouring anything I could get my hands on, ranging from A Wrinkle in Time to less-age-appropriate findings like Clan of the Cave Bear. I loved the way a written story could create meaning, insight and resolution from otherwise chaotic events. I couldn’t imagine doing anything but becoming a writer.
In my twenties, I took a class in personal non-fiction writing, which launched me into personal essays and memoir. I didn’t consciously decide on this genre, but the stories I wanted to tell fell most naturally into this format. I lived in Laos for several years, and much of my writing focused on that experience.
While in Grad School, I had essays accepted to various literary magazines. I went to Bread Loaf, spent a summer at MacDowell, and was lucky to find incredible mentors and teachers. It’s crucial to have community and connection; the idea of the solitary writer is a myth. Over time I trained myself to regularly submit writing for publication and to see that in itself as a success, regardless of outcome. There have been seasons of silences and passes, but also huge highlights, like getting a phone call from Sy Safransky at The Sun. He wanted not only to print my essay, but also to chat about it. This was a story a few other places had declined, and to make contact with a publication I loved gave me excitement to keep going. I wrote and placed the Modern Love story, and another for The Sun. The joy for me comes from the writing process itself, but it’s also exciting to see my work in print. If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, that tree still counts—but far better it make noise and be witnessed.
2. How do you know when you have a good story that’s worth writing about?
My best stories have emerged from life experiences that were unresolved and troubling. For example, I began writing my essay “It Takes a Village to Please My Mother” to decompress from what had been a difficult weeks-long encounter—my mother traveling from Bethesda, Maryland, to stay with me in Laos. In tangling with the process of writing about our conflicts, especially as they unfolded in a foreign setting, I discovered something new about those events and our relationship. I know a story is worth recording when it’s either something I discuss all the time, while holding back the potentially dark parts, or when it’s something I never tell anyone. Those two things signal that there’s meaning to be mined, and enough emotional energy to propel the narrative.
3. Can you take us through the creative process of how you write your personal essays, from the conception of the idea to rewrites/edits, and eventually getting published?
I often start with a scene or a line of dialogue, and build outward from there. If you start with dialogue, there’s immediate potential to show character, conflict, and setting. I almost always start with the situation—what happened—and then work my way down to the underlying issues—the story. It’s important to pin down the beginning and the end of an essay early. It’s like fitting a bed sheet on a mattress—if you get one edge sorted, the rest becomes much easier. Finally, I’m a huge reviser. I can go through dozens of drafts, cutting and polishing and experimenting. You’ve got to be the Marie Kondo of your own writing, and purge everything you don’t love.
4. One of the biggest challenges of writing personal essays is being vulnerable and exposing very intimate parts of yourself to your audience. Has that been difficult for you? What advice do you have for aspiring writers to overcome that barrier?
Part of what makes an essay worth writing and reading is that element of personal disclosure.
By social necessity, most of us don’t walk around sharing what truly matters to us, what has changed us, including those memories or experiences we can’t quite understand or shake. Writing is the space to do that. One of my criteria for sending something out for publication is to ask myself, have I offered something real here? The night before publication, I often curl up in a ball of anxiety and regret—how could I have exposed so much? In every case, however, people respond most powerfully to the vulnerable parts of a story, and when I begin to get that feedback, I remember why it’s worth the risk.
5. You’ve been published in some very prestigious places, including the New York Times Modern Love and The Sun. How do you write the kind of essay that the top outlets want? What separates a good personal essay from a great one?
One thing that separates an essay that lands in a top publication from those that don’t is not only the presence of a compelling story, but also the attention to language and detail. That means looking at every verb, and questioning it, and also paying attention to each image and the metaphorical resonance it might carry. A good story rendered with passionate artistry will always stand out.
6. You have a knack for creating vivid, specific scenes that draw the reader in with just a few sentences and finding humor in your most painful moments. What’s your secret?
In early drafts, I’m often pouring out the painful parts of an experience, getting down the facts as I recall them. I’ve also been avid about keeping journals, so I can look back for those random details or observations that can be lost to memory.
Often it’s in revision that I begin to see humor in a situation and not simply the rant. I almost can’t tolerate rereading my own accounts if they are strictly one note, and I end up finding something funny. The second story I wrote for The Sun, called “Where Water Comes From,” chronicles a sad time from my childhood, but each time I worked through a draft, I found moments of levity now clear from my adult point of view. It’s a way of broadening my perspective, to step outside the immediate sense of drama and find a new and sometimes lighter angle.
7. You also published a memoir “The Doctor and the Stork: A Memoir of Modern Medical Babymaking.” Why did you decide to write a memoir and how did you get it published?
I kept rigorous notes throughout my IVF twin pregnancy, as a matter of venting my own feelings.
I decided to turn it into a memoir because there was so little out there for women having this specific experience. In particular, there was nothing that covered the emotional or personal aspects of this highly medicalized manner of baby-making and almost everything was either scary or sad. I wanted to put forth something that was humorous and hopeful, while still honest, and mix in all the ways that conflicts within my family of origin re-configured as I became a mother.
I had three different agents go out with The Doctor and the Stork over a two and a half year period. It was a wild ride. At one point I received an offer to sell my story to a celebrity, who would publish it as her own, despite the fact that my book has some extremely personal details about my husband and I, not to mention my parents and sister. I declined. I’m a believer in preserving one’s soul and integrity in putting forth anything creative, and I ended up with a small experimental press. I’m gratified by the feedback I’ve received, from parents and non-parents alike, and also from doctors and medical professionals.
8. When you wrote your New York Times’ Modern Love essay “A Little Lint and Suddenly You’re a Bridezilla,” did you write it with the intention of getting published in Modern Love?
I did write this essay specifically for Modern Love. It had a hook into a broad relationship topic—weddings, and the idea of “Bridezilla”—but also an angle that seemed unique—getting sued over my wedding dress. I hadn’t met anyone who’d had that precise experience, no matter how many times I told the tale, and I knew there was an underlying narrative to explore regarding my feelings about marriage, especially as a child of divorce. Also, I had submitted to Modern Love before, and had the luck of receiving detailed feedback with my rejection. Dan Jones, the editor, pointed out that the childhood story I’d initially sent was far too focused on the past, and the column itself, in its very name, requires something contemporary. I took that to heart.
9. What are three things you learned from working with Modern Love editor Daniel Jones?
Dan is a genuinely nice guy, who is himself a writer, and working with him made me realize that editors and writers want the same thing—for a piece to be as strong as it can be, while fitting into the particular constraints of a publication.
I also learned that the Modern Love column, as part of a major newspaper, has certain journalistic requirements—for example you can’t change anyone’s name or location. Also, Dan was slightly incredulous about the ending of my story—walking out of my court case, which revolved around black lint on a wedding gown, to see an SUV with the license plate that read “LINT.” However it happened that I had a photo to prove it, and so he ran it. Certainly a literary magazine doesn’t practice that level of rigor over facts, though they will get extremely technical over semi-colons and commas.
Finally, in working with Dan, I learned an important lesson about perseverance and continuing to submit my work. As I mentioned, the piece that ran was my second submission. It’s so important to remember as a writer that rejection is not the end of the story—it’s an inherent part of the process, and no matter how uncomfortable, almost a prelude to publication.
10. Speaking of learning, let’s talk about your awesome class coming up on July 12. Can you tell us how your class is structured, and what students can expect to take away from it?
The class is structured so that students come the first day with an idea, and leave the final class with a publishable essay. Early on we read a variety of published stories that demonstrate crucial elements of craft and structure, and then practice those concepts in class. Everyone gets a draft down early. We also work in class to develop each student’s essay idea to its best potential. Then, everyone’s piece is workshopped. In later classes we cover key aspects of submitting for publication to a range of outlets, and each student receives a final round of feedback from me in a one-on-one conference. The writing that has come out of these five-week courses has been incredible.
10. In addition to being a writer, you have a busy schedule with twins! How do you find time to write and what advice do you have for aspiring writers on how to stay disciplined and keep writing this summer?
Birthing and raising twins has helped me eliminate procrastination—I have to use every moment I find, and/or create moments in which to write. I’ve learned it’s possible to accomplish a tremendous amount in small increments. In twenty minutes, you can write the opening paragraph of an essay, or polish a revelation at the end. It’s better to work regularly in modest chunks than await great swaths of time that might never emerge.
If you have a week in a cabin, that’s fantastic. That works too. However, if you don’t, you can still accomplish your writing goals. It wasn’t as relaxing as an artist’s colony, but I was scribbling out sentences during crazy hours while my newborn infants slept in tiny doses. If I wake up early, I still grab that time. Constraint can actually enhance creativity.
Toni Morrison wrote several of her most beloved books in the mornings before dawn, and Edward P. Jones conceived his masterpiece The Known World while working full time as an accountant. If they hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t have those gorgeous works. If you’re engaged in your story, you can do half of it daydreaming, and half of it in those tidy slots of time you set aside or seize.
Thanks, KK! That was fascinating. San Francisco writers, enroll in her personal essay class starting on July 12 here.