by Chelsea Fernando and Marco Moreno Flores
Christopher Noxon is one of those rare artists who has done it all. He’s a writer, journalist and illustrator. He published a well-regarded novel Plus One and nonfiction book Rejuvenile which received praise from Ira Glass. His essays and articles have appeared in the most prestigious outlets including The New Yorker, Details, New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine and Salon. We caught up with polymath himself in DTLA. The result: an interview with essayist and illustrator Christopher Noxon to enlight and delight.
Christopher is bringing the art of Illustrated Journaling to the Pad, an inspirational new medium that uses words and pictures to document your world and develop your creative life. He used this technique to write his new novel Plus One. In his one-day Illustrated Journaling workshop on Saturday, October 3 in LA, he will step you through fun writing/doodling exercises and share the work of illustrated journalists like Danny Gregory and Tommy Kane. By the end of the class, you will have started your first journal and have several entries to boot! Also, he is teaching a five week humorous personal essay class where he will help you find the funny in your life’s most harrowing moments. This class has helped 77 students sell essays. You should be next. It starts this Wed. 9/30 and is almost sold out!
Christopher talked with us about what exactly makes a good story, how to turn sad into funny, and what storytelling means to him.
1. Aside from the obvious, what do you think makes for a good humorous personal essay? From your perspective, how does it differ structurally from a traditional personal essay? What drew you to this type of writing?
Humor is an attitude — it’s an instinct more than an objective. Trying to be “humorous” is like trying to be “cool” — the effort often kills the thing you’re trying to achieve. THAT SAID, there are obviously things you can do to cultivate the funny. The big one is to relax. Too often people approach the capital-E Essay as a Thing I Shall Now Proclaim. Step off the soap box. Cultivate self-deprecation. Humiliation, embarrassment, shame — these are hilarious emotions! (At least they are when they’re *yours*). There’s a reason why people love hearing your most embarrassing moment. Spill it, baby. We all want to laugh with you. Also, believable dialogue, careful use of detail and a masterly use of the language — those are really important too.
2. You’ve done hard news and investigative journalism, such as your feature for Playboy about living as a patient with recovering addicts, or your report for The New York Times Magazine about Mel Gibson’s ties to an ultraconservative Catholic splinter group. However, you also write fun culture pieces, such as a story you wrote for the New York Times that inspired your nonfiction book Rejuvenile. How do you shift between styles? Is there a common thread in your voice that is shared by both types of writing?
I’m pretty ADD when it comes to writing. I’ve done daily journalism, theater reviews, long narrative nonfiction, comic sociology, screenwriting, and semi-autobiographical fiction. Most recently I’m trying to write and draw a graphic memoir. I honestly don’t give a lot of conscious thought to changing styles. Each new thing has really been about the topic and story I want to tell (or someone offering to pay me to write something). I sometimes think I’d be better off if I stuck to one style for a while and got really good at it, but then a new story comes along and it leads me down a new road…
3. You and the protagonist of your novel Plus One are both men whose wives are successful television writers; your essays have also talked about marriage and parenthood. What are some of the challenges of using real-life material in your writing and have you found any hard and fast principles to navigate what can often be a slippery slope when trying to write the best story and yet preserving our personal relationships?
I’m not one of those writers who Writes My Truth, Bystanders Be Damned. I believe in the essayist’s Hippocratic Oath: first, do no harm. On the other hand, I recognize that most great writing grows out of tricky, juicy, deeply personal material. So, how do I strike the balance? In general, I write what I hope is a fearless first draft, getting down all the potentially damaging stuff and letting it all hang out. As Stephen King says, I write my first draft with the door closed. Then I edit with the door open, thinking of all the other eyes that will be on the story.
If I’ve written something explicitly about another person (like, say, my wife), I’ll share that piece with them before showing it to anyone and give them an opportunity to respond. With my book Plus One, which dealt with a marriage that looks a lot like my own, I gave my wife the chance to cut anything she found intrusive or private or whatever — no questions asked, if she wanted a line out, it was out. Happily, she had no edits. She did worry that even though nothing in the book literally happened as described, readers would assume that the book was all true. In the end, however, she came to appreciate that I took true-life elements and used them to make fiction, much like she adapted the memoir “Orange is the New Black” into the fictional TV series.
4. How do you, a busy husband and father, find time in your day to write? What does your daily writing practice look like? Do you have a special place that you write and do you have any special rituals that help you get into a productive head-space?
With three school-age kids and a wife who often works long hours, I’m a between-dropoff-and-pickup writer, starting at 8:30 and finishing before 2 for bus pickup. I write all over LA, in coffee shops and restaurants and libraries – anywhere but home (where I’m often interrupted by dogs, deliveries or the telephone). I love the ornate Mediterranean reading rooms at the Pasadena Central Library and the sunny modern stacks at the West Hollywood Library and have even written sitting on park benches and in my car while waiting for pickup at school.
5. What advice would you give to aspiring writers, journalists and essayists in particular?
Keep plugging away. It really is a lot like exercise — you’ve got to keep up a regular practice to get the benefits. It helps to have a group of fellow writers to share your work with. Join or form a writers group where you give each other deadlines. Read voraciously. Get to know a particular magazine or newspaper or website where you want to contribute top-to-bottom, then pitch them like crazy. Stay off the Internet while writing — download the Internet-blocking software Freedom. Take my class!
6. You’re an avid practitioner of creative journaling. How did you become involved with this new medium, and how does it influence your other literary projects?
I tried keeping a journal for years, lugging around little pocket-sized Moleskines and big sketchbooks, usually filling the first few pages with to-do lists and gripes before ditching it on my bedside. Then I happened to pick up a 5.5″ x 8.25″ hardbound, landscape-oriented journal with heavyweight drawing paper. It changed everything.
Always a doodler, I started drawing obsessively. I filled the book with sketches, bits of dialogue, travel tips, recipes, dreams, phone numbers — anything and everything. I rediscovered the power of writing first drafts in longhand — you get better, more intimate and powerful stuff when you’re writing in ink on paper, without the safety net-corrective function of the “delete” button. In fact, most of my novel “Plus One” grew out of stuff I’d written in my journal (including the illustrations!). I soon learned about the practice of Illustrated Journaling (everything is now A Thing). Now when I go out I take my wallet, keys, phone and journal.
7. What is the relationship between your fiction and non-fiction work? Does one inform the other?
I wasn’t one of those writers who dreamed of someday writing the Great American Novel. I just knew the particular story I wanted to tell — about male househusbands and female breadwinners — was a novel I’d want to read. So rather naively, I said hey, I’ll do that. I figured, how different can it be? Answer: entirely. I may as well have been a cobbler for all the necessary skills I had to write a novel. Of course, to write anything long and lasting you need to first of all keep your butt in the chair and ignore the Internet and your children and the insistent never-ending desire to right now at this very moment get up and eat a cookie. Everything else about the process was new.
The big difference, one that took way too long to recognize but which landed like lightening when I finally did, was the importance of emotion. I had initially outlined my novel as a series of events – this thing happens, which leads to this thing happening, which eventually leads to a big climax. Only after a few months of churning out surface-y, mostly lifeless prose did I realize that the fiction I love most isn’t built around plot. What happens in the story matters, but what gives it life and energy and propulsion is how people feel.
It wasn’t enough for me to outline a series of what TV writers call story beats – I had to dig deeply into how my characters felt and allow those emotions to drive what they did and how they behaved. I had to replace storybeats with what I now –embarrassingly – call emobeats. In the end, the process of writing fiction called on more of me – my head, heart, guts – than anything I’d done before. Writing a novel is part meditation, part performance, part puzzle. Now that I’ve written one I’m just as excited and intimidated by the form as ever.
8. What can students expect to learn in your Humorous Personal Essay and Creative Journaling classes at Writing Pad?
I’ll talk about story ideas and structure and the mechanics of rewriting and editing. We’ll do some fun exercises together. If you’re in the journaling class, we’ll draw and doodle. I’m told there will be snacks. So there’s that. All in all, we’ll have a great time and get your creative energies flowing…
Thank you so much of taking time out to talk with us, Christopher!
Don’t forget to sign up for his one-day Illustrated Journaling Workshop on Saturday, October 3 in San Francisco and his 5 week humorous essay course on Wed., Sept. 30, where by the end of class, you’ll have a kick-ass essay that is ready to be submitted for publication and a plan of where to submit it. And check out his his latest book Plus One which has received great reviews in everything from the New York Times Sunday Book Review to Elle and the Hollywood Reporter.