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Emi Nietfeld: On Writing Memoir

Madison Utley speaks to debut author Emi Nietfeld following the publication of her memoir, Acceptance, which tells the story of how a child faced with a seemingly endless series of challenges–including parental mental illness, foster care, and homelessness–and operating largely without the assistance of advocates, managed to propel herself into Harvard and beyond.

Here, Emi invites us into her writing process, explaining how she went about striking the right balance between factual integrity and structural clarity and sharing how Stuart’s book on writing, Blueprint Your Bestseller, helped her shape her manuscript into what The New York Times called “a remarkable memoir.”


MU: In the epilogue of your book, you tell readers about your experience of researching your own life. Your time as a child in the mental health and foster care systems meant you had thousands of pages of documentation to draw on. That information included many things you had forgotten, remembered differently, or couldn’t have known at the time. Talk to me about the process of reconciling that disparity. 

EN: I started writing my book about seven years ago. I began by completely relying on my own memory. The serious research part didn’t really start for two and a half years, when beta readers of my earliest drafts continued to question my motivations in certain situations and I couldn’t actually remember the why. 

Doing the research and confronting the facts from my past was one of the most difficult parts of the process. Every time I read the medical records or the emails or other things I came across, I was emotionally devastated. I often felt like I could not own up to what I actually did or said. I was mean. I stole things. I lied to people. But ultimately, I felt it was really important to be completely honest about my own mistakes and things I had done in Acceptance. 

After spending time with the research, I went back and rewrote what I had already written to take into account the fuller picture of the truth. It became both about taking responsibility for my actions while not bogging the story down with every available fact.


MU: How did you balance your commitment to telling a more honest version of your story with presenting a well-structured, navigable narrative to readers? 

EN: The detail available in my research introduces a lot of extra ups and downs in the story. Basically, I had to emotionally consolidate what I was thinking about in order to write it in a way that guides the reader without having them go over a bunch of those speed bumps. 

There’s also always this struggle between telling an authentic story and the demands of the marketplace. That was something I grappled with a lot early on. But over the last seven years, both writing the book and writing some essays and shorter pieces, I became more comfortable with the idea that there’s not just one version of the story. Tying what happened in my own life to questions that are relevant in the world is actually a powerful way to connect with readers. I feel lucky that I had a publisher and a team that was really thoughtful about making sure that I was only saying things that really felt true to me.

For example, in my early drafts of the memoir, I was trying to present myself as an overcomer with this really inspiring story. In that version, I deserved to get into Harvard, to work at Google, to have these really great things in a world where so many people do not. But being more honest about my experience pushed me to find the thing that’s bigger than myself and my own story, which is this question of resilience and how the ideal of resilience can be used against vulnerable people. Over time, conveying that message became more important to me than having readers like me or read me in a certain way.


MU: Tell me more about how you honed in on that driving theme to center your story around. 

EN: One of the best books that I read about writing is called 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School by Matthew Frederick. The main takeaway is that in architecture, to build a significant building, there is usually what’s called a parti behind it, a unifying principle. Every choice about the building emerges from that one principle. That idea was really useful as I considered how to make my memoir be about something and how to shape my story to have artistic unity.

Like a lot of memoirists, I had written early versions where the feedback was, “This is less of a memoir that has a focus, and more of an autobiography.” I was stuck there for six drafts, really, struggling to make it cohere. Then, a friend’s mom who’s a writer recommended Blueprint Your Bestseller and I really appreciated how it was so straightforward in laying out: here’s how to do this edit. I was able to go through that process in one month and do a complete revision. I went from 400 pages to 200-something. The feedback I received from beta readers looked dramatically different. Before, I had to beg people to read it and after I did that revision, people would read it in one or two days and there was a lot more excitement.


MU: What has been the most unexpected part of getting your memoir into the world? 

EN: The thing that’s been surprising to me is how many doors having published this book have opened up and, I think, will continue to open. Maybe that seems obvious, but I was so focused on getting this out as the goal. But now, to have it published and for it to have gotten good reviews, as well as having been able to publish essays along the way, I feel like I’m in a totally different place in my career than I was before it came out. I have this feeling of, “Oh, there are more directions that I can go.” 

I’m not from the literary establishment. I studied computer science. I was working in tech. Moving towards getting this book published felt almost like being a pawn in a chess game, where in any situation there were only two moves that I could make and I had to keep making those moves over and over again. Now, I’m a rook and it’s great. I have more moves I can make. It feels like there’s a lot of possibility.

The BA Band: Michele DeFilippo


Madison Utley speaks to 1106 Design founder Michele DeFilippo about how she got into the business of book designing, what seems to most surprise people about what it is she does, and why she’ll be forever grateful for the Catholic nuns of her youth. 


Q: To start, can you give us an overview of what it is 1106 Design does?

A: We provide authors a variety of services to self-publish their book when they don’t want to do the work themselves–and we do it with traditional publisher quality. I started my career at Crown Publishers in New York and every person on my team has 20 or more years of experience in the publishing industry. That’s how I’m able to say with confidence that we’re equipped to go about producing a book the way a publisher would with careful editing, careful proofreading, and collaborative design. 

When it comes to self-publishing, there are unfortunately a lot of providers out there now who will just slap something together, but we know that our authors have put their heart and soul into their books and it’s important to us that we handle their project with the highest level of care. 

Doing a good job with this work is a balancing act; our team takes the lead, making each step clear and driving the process, while also ensuring the author understands they have full freedom to collaborate and are encouraged to use their voice to tell us what they do and don’t like. We always hope our clients listen and respond to our experience, but ultimately what matters most is that the author feels able to execute their vision for the book and is happy with the final product. 

Q: What do you most enjoy about this line of work?

A: Authors put so much of themselves into their books. When they’re done with the writing process, a lot of them are scared to death. They have this treasured manuscript and they’re not sure what to do with it. They’re overwhelmed with all of the things they’re finding online about how to publish a book. They’re worried about how they’re going to manage the design process when they’ve never done anything like it before. 

When we step in, we like to think we bring a sense of control and calm to this internal chaos. We’re able to say: “Don’t worry. We know you don’t have the experience. We know you’re going to have a lot of questions. The good news is we do have the experience and we do have the answers. All you have to do is communicate with us, and we’ll guide you through every step.”

Q: What do you wish people knew about the work that you do?

A: Authors are often surprised by the amount of time, effort, and interaction it takes to produce a book. I think the perception before they come to us is that you just click a few buttons and everything magically comes together. When I recently gave a quote to an author she went, “You can’t fool me! I know it takes 15 seconds to make a book cover. You just slap a title on a picture and you’re done.”

That’s obviously an extreme example, but it does seem like a lot of people underestimate the time designers put into each job. The truth is that we’re analyzing every aspect of the process continually, trying to come up with a cover design and an interior design that’s going to best serve the author and most appeal to the buyer. 

There are so many pieces to that. Somebody has to decide how the book is going to be formatted and why, down to the smallest detail. We consider questions like: What’s the book about? What’s the mood of the book? What’s the age of the audience? That one is particularly important with typesetting because if your audience is older you don’t want to use type that’s too small and make it difficult for them to read. The point is, there are a lot of considerations that go into this process that can be overlooked if you don’t know to address them.

Q: What’s something you’re most proud of about what you’re doing at 1106 Design? 

A: We don’t take a commission on each book our clients sell like some of the other entities in this space do. Many other self-publishing companies structure it so authors’ books are sold through their account, meaning that they take the revenue from every book sale, keep a portion of it, and then pay the writer a royalty. The way we set it up, all of the financial transactions go directly to and through our clients. 

This is something we encourage authors to be on the lookout for. These companies might quote a lower price up front, but unless you know to ask explicitly, they won’t make clear that they will actually be taking a couple of dollars out of your pocket every time a copy of your book sells. I have to give some credit to the nuns with this one. I survived Catholic school, but I believe the nuns who taught me–and taught me well–are still watching so I wouldn’t dare do anything that’d upset them. At 1106 Design, we believe the author can and should control their own finances when they decide to go into publishing.

Book Architecture Turns 20

Madison Utley speaks to Book Architecture Founder and Principal, Stuart Horwitz, upon the 20th anniversary of his independent editing business; how did he reach this milestone, what has he learned along the way, and what’s in store for the future? 

(No, he does not get special treatment simply because he’s the boss. My new interview format is my new interview format). 


MU: Initially, what appealed to you about a career as an independent editor? 

SH: I was speaking to my colleague, Anita Mumm, about this and she told me that one day she had an aha moment about wanting a writing life. I think that’s what hits all of us independent editors at some point. I wanted a life that has to do with the thing that I love, which is books and writing and words. There are more traditional routes and less traditional routes to getting there; for me, heading towards independent editing had to do with avoiding any more toxic bosses than I had already experienced. It was terrifying to have my life in someone else’s hands, for them to be able to handle my well-being whimsically–especially as I got into my thirties. 


MU: How did the vision that you had in your mind for what your business could be 20 years ago match up to how it has actually unfolded? 

SH: I didn’t expect Book Architecture to be my full-time job; originally, it was supposed to be a way to make money while I went to graduate school in East Asian studies. My goal was to become a professor of Buddhism. But over time, I came to find that the academic future I pictured was an image that I had for myself rather than my actual path. 

Concurrent to this realization, there were changes happening in the industry that were radically increasing demand for independent editors. The advent of self-publishing, the profusion of e-books–it was sort of like buying a stock at the right time. I was doing better financially than I would have as a professor, but it wasn’t just that; I was also getting a much broader context of exposure to the world through the projects I was doing. It was all just happening, and some of that is certainly luck. If I sit here and look at the last year, two years, five years, twenty years, it’s clear that nothing is clear. Book Architecture was just meant to happen. I figured it out before it was too late; that’s the only credit I feel like I deserve. 

Stuart’s former office in Providence, which had red walls because he wanted red walls. His current office is in San Diego, because he wanted it to be in San Diego. // Alternate caption, sourced from SH: “I am my own man.”


MU: Where did the name Book Architecture come from?

SH: I did an architecture course during my first master’s degree. There was so much more artistry to it than I realized, in the proportion and emphasis and repetition of stylistic icons. It struck me as a symphony in stone, something creative but also solid. That’s what I wanted to bring to my business; something beautiful, but also built to last. That is book architecture. 

Book Architecture also represents hope. The hope that you can structure your octopus of a manuscript in progress, that there’s some kind of clarity and sanity to be found. The hope that your voice is enough, that you as an author are enough. The hope that the critics in your head saying you can’t do it can be silenced and your creativity is inexhaustible. That hope has become my mission of sorts, to help strengthen the roots of confidence within others and myself. 


MU: Something we’ve talked a lot about is the intensity of this job, in being brought into clients’ worlds and entrusted with the details of the most meaningful and, often, the most painful parts of their lives. Can you talk about how that’s been? 

SH: These are the things that make for the best books, so if I’m in a situation in which things feel flat or uninspiring, I’ll usually start digging to see what we can liberate. But truly, in these situations of working with a client before they go to prison or a client with a terminal cancer diagnosis who is aware they’ll die before the book comes out, it is a profound privilege to tell their story. Some of the books I’ve worked on with these kinds of stressors have impacted me profoundly and changed the way I view the world. Experiencing that was part of what validated my leaving academia; this work became better than more formal education. The courses I take now are all one-on-one, they’re more varied, and there’s a richness, an immediacy, a real-lifeness to them.

When you’re in the groove and collaborating together with someone, it feels like a multiplication and not an addition. So, being able to be in the creative process with people of quality, and getting paid for it, and setting my own hours? Yeah, sounds good. 


MU: How has helming Book Architecture impacted your personal writing endeavors? 

SH: One of the best things about this job is that it has allowed me to work on my own writing concurrently, whether that was my three theoretical books on writing, my memoir (which is in a very exciting phase), or the novel that I’m currently working on, which is incipient but glowing. I think there are some people who feel like they can’t work with words and then also do their own writing, like somehow they’ll be using up their talent or it’s too much in the same headspace. I can empathize with that. For many years, I thought I had to wait tables, because that way I would have my creative energy all to myself. That makes sense in theory, but in reality I was existing in a toxic and draining environment. While my creativity may have been safe and untouched, nearly every other kind of energy was being sapped, which seriously inhibited my ability to sit down and write effectively. 

Committing to my business full-time and being in control of my own destiny has had a huge impact on how quickly I’m able to clear my mind before a good writing session starts. Now, there’s a lot of cross-flow between the work I do for Book Architecture and the work I do for myself. I can do my job for five hours and then I can take a break, exercise, meditate, go to the coffee shop, whatever, and then write at night. I’ve created the context and learned the tools I need to access that headspace.  



MU: What are you most excited about moving into a new decade of Book Architecture? 

SH: In thinking through my answer to this question, I realize that Book Architecture is able to fit with everything that I want to do with my life moving forward. My wife and I are anticipating opening up a retreat center for writers in the next two years or so, and I fully intend for my work as an independent editor to continue through that. If there are areas of life that I’m more interested in learning about, I can seek out those clients. If I want to work more, I can get more clients. If I want to work less, I can get less clients. If I want to go be a digital nomad, done. I’m there. Over the past 20 years, it seems Book Architecture has become intrinsic to my identity and my lifestyle–and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.


The BA Band: Lisa Tener

We’re excited to share that friend of Book Architecture and industry stalwart, Lisa Tener, has launched her new book, The Joy of Writing Journal: Spark Your Creativity in 8 Minutes a Day.

When the Covid pandemic hit, Lisa’s personal journaling practice expanded as she threw herself into the pursuit with renewed vigor. Her daily writings infused the otherwise largely challenging time with beauty as she experienced rich inner growth and tapped into a new source of free-flowing creativity.

Having rediscovered the power of journaling for herself, both as a healthy processing mechanism in hard times as well as a gateway to previously inaccessible creativity, Lisa felt compelled to spread the wealth. Today, September 22, the fruit of that labor is being presented to the world; a resource created to uplift, spark creativity, and help guide readers towards fulfillment.

The Joy of Writing Journal contains creative and multifaceted prompts to helps users’ get their thoughts onto the page, whether in the form of a blog post, short story, poem, essay, book, or simply as a means to have fun and learn more about themselves. Better yet, the journal is interactive, containing QR codes which, when scanned, link to video and audio-based guidance and inspiration from other writers.

It has been a pleasure to witness Lisa pour her heart into this book, driven by a clear passion to equip others looking to access joy through their creativity with the tools to do so. The journal captures some of Lisa’s most valuable writing advice in a concise, innovative, and fun format. Sound up your alley? Ours too! Grab yourself a copy of The Joy of Writing Journal here