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On this week’s episode of Working, Isaac Butler spoke with writer Mira Jacob about the different challenges—and pleasures—of writing fiction and memoir; how she made the decision to write Good Talk, her memoir, in graphic form; her creative influences; and more. This partial transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Isaac Butler: I’m a huge fan of your novel, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing. I have a feeling that the process of writing that book versus that for 2019’s Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations was pretty different.
Mira Jacob: You’re right—it’s really different to write a novel versus a memoir. If I’m picturing myself writing a novel, it’s as a small animal running through a field. Anything could happen. Is it joy? Is it terror? I don’t know. All possibilities are open. I don’t know what exactly I’m trying to get to, but the process of getting there feels really fun.
One of the things that I love about writing a novel versus a short story is that it can wander a bit. And what comes out in the wandering is usually as interesting as the story itself, as anywhere you were trying to get to. I wrote that book over 10 years. I wrote it through the death of my father and the birth of my child and getting laid off and all of these things. But it was like going to an island where I got to control everything. And it felt really amazing to be able to go to that place. It’s really different from writing a memoir.
It seems like there are both logistical differences—and, I don’t know, should we call them spiritual differences?—between those two things.
I think spiritual differences is a good way to put it. As far as logistical differences go, one is that my memoir is a graphic memoir. So I had to teach myself how to draw to do that. And I had to make up a visual language as I was going along. I had to learn a lot of programs to do it all and a lot of software and how to hold a stylus. All these weird, picky things that sound so boring, but in the moment that you’re trying to learn them, you can just feel so utterly stupid every second. I didn’t feel that way when I was writing the novel because I’d been writing my whole life and I had been trying to write a novel my whole life. So when it finally gelled, it was just like freedom, freedom, freedom.
The memoir felt really different. If I would have told myself in the moment that I decided to write and draw this memoir, “OK, you’re going to have to teach yourself how to draw, and then you’re going to have to learn these five software programs, and then you’re going to spend whole days in which you basically stay in the same position because you get so focused on what you’re doing that by the time you think to move again, your back is going to feel like a pillar of salt,” I probably would not have done it.
There are two different constraints in play, right? There’s the constraint of the art and the constraint of it being nonfiction, as opposed to the blank page where you can write anything. It sounds like there was something good about those constraints.
I am a huge fan of constraint when it comes to creativity. I blame this on the fact that I’m a Capricorn, but really I need sharp edges and rules, and that generates a lot for me. In the book, you’ll notice that none of the expressions ever change on the characters’ faces. That was a deliberate constraint because it’s about all these conversations that have affected my life, and a lot of them are racially loaded. A lot of times white audiences feel trepidation about getting into that conversation. And even brown and Black audiences, we could feel exhausted, too, just by having to talk about it all the time.
So I decided I wasn’t going to change the expressions because I didn’t want to have to perform the emotional work behind it. But that put a lot of pressure on every single line of text. Every single line suddenly had to do a lot of work. And I have to tell you, as a former metaphor junkie and a person who really likes writing down the exact feeling of an exact feeling, it felt amazing to be like: “No, you don’t get to do that anymore. No more metaphors. None are allowed. You’re not allowed to hint at anything. It’s either there or it’s not.”