By Spencer Lee and Chelsea Fernando
Katie Hafner’s writing credits are impressive. Before publishing her critically acclaimed memoir, she was on staff at The New York Times for ten years, where she remains a frequent contributor, writing about healthcare and technology. She has also worked at Newsweek and BusinessWeek, and has written for The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Wired, The New Republic, among other publications. Her memoir “Mother Daughter Me,” was selected as an 2013 Oprah Book of The Week and Oprah’s one of seven powerful memoirs to kick off the year. The New York Times proclaimed her book “The Best Memoir I’ve Read” in 2013. She has also published five other nonfiction books covering topics from the origins of the Internet, German reunification to the pianist Glenn Gould. Her passion about topics she cares about gives her writing a unique style that inspires many.
Katie took a moment out of her busy schedule to answer a few of our questions about the craft of memoir writing and her writing career. Learn more from Katie in her upcoming 5-week Memoir Bootcamp class starting Sunday, Sept. 27 at Writing Pad San Francisco.
1. Can you tell us how you started your writing career, how you became a journalist and got your book deal for your memoir?
I’ve been writing since I was a teenager. I took a class in high school where we kept ‘intellectual diaries,’ whatever that means. I remember writing about odd things that caught my attention. I can recall none of the specifics, but I do remember that teacher loved it. I wish I’d kept that journal, but alas, I didn’t.
I majored in German literature in college, and stumbled into journalism one day during my senior year when I walked into the office of the college newspaper, and loved the buzz of the place — the deadlines, the camaraderie, the quick decisions. I decided that’s what I wanted to do with my life. I then went to journalism school and my first job when I got out was with the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza newspaper. I had no family or friend connections in the journalism world, so I worked my way up gradually. I started writing freelance pieces for The New York Times in the early 1990’s and then got hired for the paper’s new tech section in 1998.
The memoir was also accidental. I had written five books of nonfiction, and when my mother came to live with my daughter and me in 2009, I saw our experiment in intergenerational living as perfect material for a memoir. My agent thought so, too. So I wrote up a proposal and several publishers were interested. I ended up going with Random House.
2. Where do you find the inspiration to write about subjects such as motherhood, health, and technology? Do they have a sentimental value or a personal connection to you?
As a mother, I have a huge personal investment in motherhood as a topic. Having had a tough childhood, and a mother who was largely absent during my formative years, I have taken the parenting of my own child very seriously. So writing about it feels very natural. I have no particular attachment to writing about technology, but the healthcare stories I do for The New York Times always seems to strike a chord. I love writing about healthcare.
3. As a journalist you have had to do more than just give facts. Can you tell us about your creative process? For you, what makes a story?
I trip over potential stories every day. The best journalists can find stories in the most mundane things. An example: A couple of years ago, my elderly stepmother fell in her apartment in her retirement community, and the circumstances and aftermath of the fall made me think, “Oh my, if she’s going through this, how many other elderly people out there are going through the same thing?” That one small epiphany turned into a nine-month reporting project about falls among America’s elderly, a public health problem that has received little attention. My editor at The New York Times called my stepmother’s accident “the fall that launched six thousand words.”
4. How do you decide what information to include and what to take out?
That’s a great question. Journalism is all about making choices.The overall goal, of course, is to write a balanced story. But the tricky question of what gets included and what gets left out—well, that is something journalists grapple with all the time. The basic idea is that you want the reader to finish reading a story feeling as if he/she has been given a solid, relatively objective (by definition nothing can be purely objective) account, especially when it comes to complex topics.
5. What are the essential elements of a good memoir?
Well, I think that the biggest thing to remember (and this can hurt, I know) is that while you might find your own story fascinating, no one else can be expected to care—unless, that is, you make your own experience universal in some way. This requires distancing yourself from the particulars in order to tell a story that others will read and see something of themselves in.
6. How do you bridge the divide of reporting what actually happened versus crafting the most interesting story? Do you ever exaggerate, change details, or arrange timelines in your non-fiction work?
Okay, confession time: I’m a huge stickler for reporting the facts. But while writing “A Romance on Three Legs,” my book about Glenn Gould’s love affair with his piano, at one point, after months and months of hewing to facts, I came to one little section where I didn’t know the exact sequence of events and decided, ‘What the hell,’ and I decide just to INVENT what happened. I felt terrible about that—but not for long. I’ve told people to try to find the thing I invented and presented as historical fact but they never can.
In my memoir, I did not combine characters and did not invent stories. But in the first scene in the book (the first chapter, that is, not the prologue), there was in fact another person in the car with my mother and me as we drove from San Diego to San Francisco, but explaining him, and the complicated situation that put him in the car, would have burdened the beginning of the book too much. So I took him out. Occasionally I would play with timeline, but otherwise, I wrote true to what happened when it happened. I was sufficiently concerned about switching around the timeline that I asked my editor at Random House about this, and she said that as long as I hewed to the essential truth of the story, that changing a few dates around was just fine.
7. What can students expect to learn in your class?
They will learn how to craft a story about their own life—or a slice thereof—that is not just very well written, but that people who have never met them will actually want to read.
8. Finally, do you have any advice for new or aspiring writers?
Writing badly is easy. Writing well is incredibly hard. It’s why Hemingway—along with countless other writers—was a drunk, and it’s why Didion is chronically insecure. So my advice is this: If you think it’s easy, you’re not trying hard enough.
Thanks Katie! That was very inspiring. If you want to learn how to write a stellar memoir like Katie has, sign up for her 5 week memoir class starting Sept. 27, and you could have your memoir in Oprah’s book club in no time.