(Photo by Mark Trockman/trockstock.com)
Brazen memoirist Marya Hornbacher’s writes like she’s breathing. From “Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia,” to “Madness: A Bipolar Life,” her books feel somehow both spontaneous and painstakingly considered. In person, Hornbacher is as brilliant, honest and witty as her writing; a delight to interview. Currently teaching creative nonfiction at Northwestern University, Hornbacher spoke with Our Town at length about everything from her teaching style to her yoga practice.
Our Town Can writing be taught?
Marya Hornbacher You can’t teach an ear, you can’t teach talent, but you can teach people who have those things not to just fly by the seat of their pants. Part of it is reading good literature, deconstructing the way beautiful language works. There’s value to having a conversation with someone who’s been [writing] a while, who knows craft. I feel like I chat with my students more than I teach them.
OT Is it hard to switch gears from writing intensely vulnerable memoir to then having to show up and be this professional teacher?
MH The assumption that your teacher will not have a life—teachers believe that more than students do. My students know I have a life, they know I’ve written about my life. They know some detail, probably more than they know about their physics teacher, but I would’ve told them anyway! When you’re teaching creative nonfiction it helps to have written about your life in a very open way, because you can say, ‘look, how much are you willing to risk emotionally to write? How careful can you be with the other people you’re writing about?’ When you deal with nonfiction you deal with human characters. How do you characterize them fully? How do you deal with dialogue? You have a way of talking about those craft points which you might not had you never taken those risks.
OT Memoirist Vivian Gornick famously admitted creating composite characters in her memoir “Fierce Attachments.” What’s your take on the ethics of that sort of invention?
MH I’m kind of a hard ass on that. I feel like in memoir you tweak dialogue in order to characterize the people involved as accurately as you can, but in terms of conflating characters, hell no. Making up events, absolutely not. Memoirs are structurally more like novels than essay, so you elide and you cut and you pare. Memoir has a narrative arc [but] life does not follow that nice, neat path to resolution and hope. So memoir is neater than life, but you can’t lie. Why would you? Write a novel.