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The one thing more important than the facts in a nonfiction story

Here's how to cultivate being you on the page, through the story of Taffy Brodesser-Akner




A couple of years ago I read a profile of Ethan Hawke that said as much about successful writers as it did about the actor and director. Hawke told a story of reading Cassavetes on Cassavetes, the biography of the indie-film god John Cassavetes, and then going to hear his widow, Gena Rowlands, speak about the book and her late-husband’s career.


She said John Cassavetes was always disappointed because nobody would finance his movies; he’d always felt dismissed and disregarded. “‘And now here you guys are making a big deal out of him,’” Hawke remembered her saying. She said that was nice, but that they shouldn’t miss the point. “‘Make a big deal of yourself.’ You know? Whatever indifference the world gives you, he felt it, too. So you’re just as good as he is. Like, go out and do it.


"Mr. Hawke found that so moving, the idea of ignoring what the world was telling you about yourself and instead living only by standards that you had, yourself, carefully defined for your life and work. He vowed right then that he would do whatever it took to make good art on his own terms, no matter what anyone said. He would take himself seriously, even if no one else did."


That idea stuck with me, valuing your creativity enough to take it seriously and make it your life’s work. But the reason I remember that Cassavetes anecdote or even the New York Times’ profile of Hawke is because of who wrote the story: Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Just as Hawke tried to build a career based on good work and not his net worth, and just as his early efforts failed at that (critics called his first Broadway performance “an arm-waving display of unfocused nervous energy” and his film directorial debut “peddling a cliché”), Taffy struggled to fulfill her ambitions: writing for soap opera magazines that didn’t like her pieces, and then getting married and pregnant and, after her first son, raising him and feeling “just so behind,” she later told me.


It would take years, and a lot of tears, for both Hawke and Taffy to reach a point where Taffy could write this about Hawke, and in The New York Times:


But he never forgot Cassavetes. He never forgot that it was entirely possible that people wouldn’t appreciate your work while you were doing it. That they might appreciate it only long after you were dead. Or maybe even never! But that didn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.


The critics — the ones who called him pretentious and too earnest and too overly serious for a movie star — became a force he worked in contrast to, a dark shadow that rode alongside him. He learned to defy them, if not ignore them. He learned to let them remind him what he was supposed to be, which is an artist, which is someone who tells the truth, not just a puppet who dances to please his audience in a series of films that resemble the one he just did.


As I read that story I realized something. I’d known Taffy for a while and saw that her profile of Hawke was really a manifesto of her own life. What that manifesto screamed was, I LEARNED THAT I MATTER.


Too many people in journalism schools and MFA programs think the cardinal rule of nonfiction writing is letting the facts guide your story. To be clear: Honesty, the fidelity to the facts as you find them — these are vital to any piece. But for me the most essential element of nonfiction writing is authenticity. Bringing your essence, your experience, your voice to every story you write about someone else. That’s what’s helped my career and that’s what gives any great piece of journalism or memoir or history its iridescent shine.


Taffy’s own rise, and her profile of Hawke, prove it.


****


The soap opera magazine didn’t like her stories because, well, even today she’s not quite sure. “It’s like they felt burdened by my work,” she told me last week. She quit the job for one at MediaBistro and, by 32, had the aforementioned husband and son. The plan was to stay at home until her son was 1 and then restart her career but…with what? “I didn’t have a portfolio. I had less than a portfolio,” she said. No story that equaled the ambition she had for herself as a writer. Plus, “It was like, You’ve seen too many failures around you to believe that you could be the exception.” She was a bit of an emotional wreck, and not knowing what else to do, and sometimes between her son’s naps, she began to write about her life, in personal essays she pitched to whoever would take them.


The voice on the screen was hers: funny and conversational and emotionally probing, never apologizing for her intelligence or masquerading her flaws. The work got noticed. Bigger websites, then broader-interest websites — Salon, The Daily Beast — then smaller cultural pieces in the New York Times, then small stories in general-interest magazines she revered, like GQ. And then the big one: a feature for GQ on Nicki Minaj. If she could nail this, it meant Taffy Brodesser-Akner had arrived.


She watched a Minaj rehearsal at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn and, afterward, during the one interview Minaj agreed to, Minaj fell asleep. Just zonked out while Taffy was talking with her. Taffy panicked. Fled the arena and just bawled. What editor would want a massive celebrity profile where the celebrity falls asleep? My shot at GQ is over, she thought. My career is over.


Amid the sniffling her phone rang: the booker, the guy who’d brokered the interview between the magazine and Minaj’s management team and then stepped aside to let Taffy do her thing.


“How did it go?” he asked.


She fell asleep, Taffy blurted.


He paused. “The poor thing,” he said. “She must have been so tired.”


The way he said it, that hint of irony, awoke something in Taffy. She’d wanted to write the best possible story and had thought the way to do it was to please the editors, meaning write the story where Minaj revealed all. But trying to please people wasn’t what got Taffy this assignment. Of course not! She was standing against the Barclay’s Center after an “interview” with Nicki Minaj because of who she was. And who she was, in this moment, was a woman as tired as Nicki Minaj. It was hard to be a woman in the music industry just like it was hard to be a woman in publishing.


She could use this. Tonight wasn’t the worst night ever. It was a gift. She could convey the audacity of it all: the rising mogul Minaj who’d grown up in Queens and survived a father who set the house on fire while her mother was in it (!), and who’d quit Red Lobster and worked as a stripper and fought to get here, to the Barclay’s Center, to tonight, where she’d fallen asleep in a conversation with a journalist. And not once but four times! And not out of disrespect to Taffy but because of the albums she was making and, specific to tonight, her over-scheduled role in New York’s Fashion Week. It was the sort of ambitious exhaustion with which Taffy could sympathize. Here, at 1 in the morning, Taffy was thinking about how she could save the story from the not-really interview with Minaj while also thinking she still had to hoof it home so she could wake up her kids in a few hours.


That night had forced her, in other words, in the biggest moment of her career, to be authentic to who she’d always been.


***


The story was a smash success. It ran three times longer than scheduled and even before it was published Taffy got a writer’s contract from GQ. This meant more pieces like the Minaj one, except with stars who didn’t fall asleep: on the road with Billy Bob Thornton and his band, taking walks in London with Tom Hiddleston.


Somewhere around here Taffy came to my attention. I was working at ESPN the Magazine as a deputy editor. Other editors and I loved Taffy’s writing and didn’t care if she knew anything about sports. We wanted her in the magazine. For us she wrote “my favorite story of all time,” she said, a 12,000-word profile of a synchronized swimmer.


We had her for a few pieces until the New York Times called.


This brings us back to Ethan Hawke, and Taffy’s profile of him, and the paragraph that says so much:


But he never forgot Cassavetes. He never forgot that it was entirely possible that people wouldn’t appreciate your work while you were doing it. That they might appreciate it only long after you were dead. Or maybe even never! But that didn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.


The critics — the ones who called him pretentious and too earnest and too overly serious for a movie star — became a force he worked in contrast to, a dark shadow that rode alongside him. He learned to defy them, if not ignore them. He learned to let them remind him what he was supposed to be, which is an artist, which is someone who tells the truth, not just a puppet who dances to please his audience in a series of films that resemble the one he just did.


I love it for a couple reasons. The first is aesthetic. At a publication known for its fussy capital-S Seriousness, the writing is so Taffy. The rhythmic fragmented sentences, that exclamation point after Or maybe even never! The Times has a reputation for changing writers’ voices but it hasn’t changed Taffy’s.


The second are the layers of meaning. In a single paragraph, Taffy tells the story of John Cassevetes’ artistic struggle, and Ethan Hawke’s, and her own, and mine, and yours, and anyone who wants to write for a living.


Because she’s right: The point of all this is to tell the truth, which isn’t just relaying the facts but relaying all of who you are, your authentic self, in every story you do.


It’s the only way to write.


(Postscript: Taffy’s also writing novels now. Her first was a best-seller that critics called “a maddening unsettling masterpiece.” She’s at work on a second, while also adapting the first for a television series, to air on FX.)




New to my blog? I'm a best-selling author and award-winning journalist who's written for The New Yorker, GQ, ESPN, and New York, among other titles. My first book, The Saboteur, was optioned by DreamWorks to be turned into a film. I'm now at work on a second book for Celadon about a pivotal 10-week period in the Civil Rights Movement that still defines our lives.





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