Writers on Writing, Volume 4: Lauren Markham
Lauren Markham is a writer and educator based in Berkeley who writes fiction, essays, and literary journalism. Her book, The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life, was published by Crown in 2017, and was the winner of the Ridenhour Prize, silver medal winner of the California Book Award, and winner of the Northern California Book Award.
Lauren's essays and reportage have appeared in outlets such as Harper’s, Guernica, the New York Times, The Guardian, Orion, and Virginia Quarterly Review, where she is a contributing editor. She also coordinates the annual overseas writer’s residency in Slovenia for Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Lauren will teach our 8-week nonfiction workshop this fall. The class, Writing Ourselves, Writing the World, begins on September 19th at Left Margin LIT in Berkeley.
The Far Away Brothers is described as “the deeply reported story of identical twin brothers who escape El Salvador's violence to build new lives in California—fighting to survive, to stay, and to belong.” What was your experience like when writing this book?
It was joyful and painful, enthralling and excruciating. Writing a book is a tremendous undertaking, and also a tremendous responsibility. I had a responsibility to myself as an artist to make the best work that I could, but in this case, because my book is a work of nonfiction that focuses quite intimately on the lives of a particular family, I felt immense responsibility—and rightfully so—to the people I was writing about. I spent several years reporting on issues of Central American migration, Salvadoran history, community violence, and the U.S. immigration system. I found the reporting process to be gratifying (if incredibly troubling, given the horrific things I was reporting on). Getting to ask questions, learn from others and have one’s previous understanding completely upended and put into check is deeply rewarding, and, in fact, an honor. I learned so much from so many people who shared stories and information with me. And then came the work of making sense of it all in my mind and on the page. That was much harder than asking the questions. Being in the role of the writer was much harder than being in the role of the listener.
What would you say was the hardest part in writing The Far Away Brothers? What scene do you consider most interesting or most difficult to write, and how did you overcome that difficulty?
My biggest strength as a writer is rendering what I myself have seen or been
present for. And yet I met the protagonists of my book when they were seventeen; they’d had a whole life before I met them, and I had to reconstruct that life on the page. This was very difficult for me because I couldn’t rely on my usual crutch of attentive observation. Instead, I needed to rely on extensive and repeated interviews, primary source documents, photos, memories, social media accounts, weather reports…. really anything I could get my hands on to be able to bring an important moment in these young men’s lives to life on the page with truth, sensitivity and integrity. This was complicated, of course, by the fact that these young men had experienced a lot of trauma and heartache, and talking in detail about their pasts was difficult, even about the happy times. So I just had to find the information elsewhere where I could, and be patient, and sort of piece together whole moments over time, letting the information come out as was comfortable for them and as it naturally revealed itself to me.
What motivated you to write out Raul and Ernesto Flores’s story? Why did you choose to capture their story through this biographical form, rather than through a different genre?
I’d been reporting on unaccompanied minors—young people who cross the border alone without papers or parents—for several years. Every article I wrote, and every conversation I had, led to more questions, and I kept wanting to learn more. At the same time, I worked (and still work) at a school for newly-arrived immigrant youth in Oakland. All of a sudden, in the winter of 2014, we realized that out of a school of 400 students, 60 of them were unaccompanied minors in deportation proceedings, all of whom needed lawyers—we hadn’t known. So when my writing life and my life as an educator converged, I knew I wanted to write about this dynamic. Even after this issue blew up in the news, I wasn’t reading much that did the stories I was hearing justice, or that went particularly deep into the lives and struggles and dreams of these young people. Anytime a large group of people suddenly starts moving, we should ask why. That’s what my book is, really—an attempt to answer the question of why all of these kids are coming to the Untied States from Central America, and what awaits them once they get here?
What’s your next book project?
I am in the very, very early stages of working on a fictional project. Who knows what will come of it? In the meantime, I continue to write articles and essays. The future is wide open, which was scary when my book first came out, but now is a total mysterious delight.
What is something you would like to say to potential students interested in taking your memoir workshop?
I think so many of us are called to write in order to understand something about ourselves, our past experiences, and the way the world works around us. That’s a big part of why I write. There is often a personal element in my work, even in some of my journalism that is about other people. But it’s important to make sure that our experiences are offered up on the page in such a way that they are meaningful to others and part of a larger narrative question. My goal with this class is to support writers to balance the deeply personal with the universal, the “I” with a larger consciousness and greater world.
What’s your approach to leading a writing workshop? We’re especially interested in hearing how do you balance honest criticism with encouragement.
I find heartfelt encouragement to be vital, especially at the early stages of a piece of writing. As a workshop participant, it’s actually much easier to talk about what doesn’t work in a piece; I push students to think and talk about what does work. That’s the scaffolding upon which we can move into constructive feedback so that the feedback is actually constructive, in the sense that something can be made of it, and from it. At the same time, we come to workshop to learn and grow as writers, so critical feedback is important, too. In my mind, all of the feedback given in a workshop should be encouragement; even the more critical feedback should be offered in the spirit of helping a writer grow.
How do you overcome writer’s block?
Writer’s block isn’t an issue for me. I always have something I want to write, or say. The main issue for me is making the space to sit down and write. I often will find excuses not to. And then, once I do sit down and make an ecstatic mess on the page, there’s also the work of unraveling the mess into something that will make sense to something else (and, hopefully, that will mean something to them.)
What is the best writing advice that someone has given to you?
Someone once told me: “don’t worry about your writing. Just keep reading and keep writing and your work will get better.” I didn’t think it was that helpful at the time because I wanted a magic bullet, but it really is excellent advice. And the only way.