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Q&A with Nonfiction Program Director Robin Hemley

BY DI STAFF | SEPTEMBER 08, 2011 7:20 AM

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The DI sat down with the University of Iowa's Robin Hemley, the director of the Nonfiction Writing Program, to learn what is new in the writing field on the UI's campus and around the globe.

DI: How is nonfiction writing changing?

Hemley: What a big question. I mean it's been changing for quite some time. There is a lot of, especially in the U.S., great writing going on in nonfiction, and the boundaries of what is nonfiction is changing so much. We have what's known as the lyric essay, the graphic memoir and so on.

There's a way in which there is sort of traditional sense of an essay as a kind of profile, but nonfiction is such a large genre that it contains so much. So when you talk about nonfiction, you almost have to immediately break it down into its parts. But there are a lot of new exciting developments in terms of video essays, graphic memoirs, the lyric essays, and even ways in which people are experimenting with the traditional memoir, so there's a lot that is developing.

DI: What are some changes happening with the nonfiction writers on the UI campus this semester?

Hemley: The graduate program now for the third time in a row has been named the No. 1 nonfiction-writing program in the country. I think our students just keep getting better and better. And I think with the undergraduate writing track, people are discovering nonfiction as a really serious art form.

I think where poets and fiction writers can meet is in nonfiction because the essay can be poetic or it can be narrative. There is a lot of variation possible depending on how your mind works. Sometimes the way people write short stories can sometimes feel rigid because of certain guidelines that people have for the traditional short story, but nonfiction hasn't been overly theorized, and so people are really discovering the essay as a powerful art form.

DI: Why do you enjoy nonfiction writing more than other kinds?

Hemley: Well, I don't, actually — half my books are fiction. But I love teaching nonfiction because you just get such variety. I love writing nonfiction, too, but I'm not a loyalist. I don't feel that I'll only write nonfiction no matter what because for me, exploring different kinds of writing, including poetry, is part of the enjoyment of being a writer.

DI: How has the field changed since you were a student?

Hemley: Well, there is a field; there was no field when I was a student. I was in the Writers' Workshop, and there was a kind of "proto" nonfiction writing program at that time. But really there was just fiction and poetry, and that was the way it was all over the country. When you spoke of creative writing (in the past) you only spoke of fiction and poetry. And I think that in some people's minds there is still a bias about that, but I think that essayists are some of the most creative writers that there are. Some of the best writers in the world, such as Joan Didion and George Orwell and back to Seneca and Greek and Roman writers, did some of their greatest work as essayists.

DI: What advice do you give students about writing?

Hemley: Well, it's a question that I'm often asked, and there are some kind of rote answers, but they are still important. They're rote answers, but they're no less true. That is, you have to read deeply in the genre that you're writing, No. 1. I think that there is a lot of trial and error involved, and it's a long career as a writer, it's not short-term. You sort of dedicate your life to it and have to do it as often as possible, every day, just like a musician or any kind of artist. I generally think that writers need to also not give in to their self-doubts and be persistent. Because if you're at it long enough, you'll find your niche as a writer one way or another.

— by Jordan Montgomery


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