Robin Hemley on breaking rules

‘I write what I want to write,’ says Robin Hemley, author of eight books, winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa and Editor of Defunct Magazine. ‘I tend to break the so-called golden rule [of knowing where you’ll pitch a story before you write it] all the time. Sometimes I’ll pitch it to a magazine and they’ll pick it or they won’t. But other times I just write it because it’s just a weird idea,’ says Hemley.


He gets inspiration from all around, and has written on a huge range of subjects from the personal, through the anthropological and even academic (though I hasten to add, he’s not an academic writer). Hemley writes fiction too. His most recent book, ‘Reply All’, is a collection of short stories.

‘What I find is that you write the piece you’re going to write. If it’s any good at all you’ll find a home,’ he says. Hemley gives an example inspired in Prague, ‘One of my friends got pick pocketed on the train right in front of us. I started being interested in the whole notion of pickpockets and the art of pick pocketing,’ Hemley says. This began, ‘The Pickpocket Project,’ an essay that was completely written before being picked up by Jill Talbot in ‘Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction’. More recently Hemley did a reading of it, and another editor expressed interest. ‘[Your good writing] will make its way through the culture in some way or another,’ he says.

Hemley uses social media to help his writing into our culture, ‘A part of me hates it. A part of me likes it,’ he says. ‘Increasingly writers are becoming these “circus barkers” having to draw a crowd to them. That takes up so much of their energy that when you get to the three-ring circus, what’s in the middle? Not much.’ On the other hand Hemley recognises the advantages of social media, ‘You’re able to very quickly make people aware of something you have written,’ he says. And using social media has resulted in increased sales of his recent book of short stories.

New technologies aren’t considered crucial in the Nonfiction Writing Program at Iowa University (where Hemley is Director). Students are given the opportunity to study radio and video essay production, but they aren’t made to learn these skills. ‘It always helps to be conversant in different technologies but when it comes down to it, it’s how good you are as a writer. It’s about content – not ultimately about the presentation alone.’ Hemley says that, ‘the most important thing is to hone one’s skills as a writer, and to have something that's worth writing about.’

What non-fiction writers choose to write has always been a popular subject in writing circles. The definition of truth has been the centre of countless discussions. But the release of a book earlier this year, ‘The Lifespan of Fact,’ by Hemley’s University of Iowa colleague, John D’Agata (co-authored with Jim Dingle) has fuelled the debate. (This review in the New York Times gives an overview). And it’s something that Hemley, Kate Holden, Lee Kofman and Lee Gutkind will be discussing at the Melbourne Writers Festival this weekend.

Gutkind, Editor at Creative Nonfiction magazine, is a big advocate for truth in nonfiction. By contrast, at the Melbourne Writers Festival ‘In Conversation’ session last weekend, Hemley puts forward an alternative perspective. ‘Fabrication and manipulation are a part of any artistic endeavour,’ Hemley says. ‘Lying,’ he says (using air quotes), is a part of the artistic process, ‘The sooner you understand that, the easier it is to write.’

Hemley won’t comment on D’Agata, but does question some of the decisions his colleague made in his original essay (which is the subject of the book). Hemley argues that even if a writer has meticulous notes, there is always some ‘lying’. To illustrate the point, Hemley does an exercise with his students. He makes them close their eyes and describe the room. ‘They always distort, that’s just part of it,’ he says.

The debate at ‘Fact, Fiction, Truth’ will no doubt be a corker. It’s on Saturday 1 September at 2.30pm.