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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.



Clients Crushin’ It: Michael Witt

Madison Utley speaks to Michael Witt about his more than two decades of fiction writing, his passion for his ancestral homeland, and how it feels to have his art out in the world upon the publication of his debut novel, I Am Germany

 

Q: I’d love to hear about how you landed on historical fiction as a genre and, more specifically, why you decided to tell the story you did. 

A: My grandfather was a German immigrant and I have a lot of German blood, so I’ve always been interested in German art and culture in a broad sense. Because of that, I have also always wondered how such a rich cultural nation could fall into the depths of Nazism. I did a lot of reading around that question over the years and never found an adequate answer; honestly, I don’t know that there is one. But it was an idea I wanted to explore further. 

My book addresses that question on a very high level. It explores how Nazism came about, why the German people allowed it to come about, and how it affected the country’s culture. We can’t shy away from that part of the equation, but at the same time I also wanted to highlight how the culture survived and flourished after the war. Germany has been producing great art, literature, and music for centuries–and it still is. There’s something there that’s timeless and indestructible, and I think there’s great beauty in that. 

 

Q: What was the process of finding a publisher like? 

I started by writing to a number of agents who work on a traditional contract basis. Being a first-time author, I can tell you it is almost impossible to break through. After about three months of doing that and reaching out to over 100 of them, I ended up Googling: publishers who don’t require agents. Köehler Books was on the list that came up. I sent the manuscript over and it was read by Greg Fields who called me to say he loved it and wanted to take it on. 

An added benefit of pivoting from searching for an agent to going straight to a publisher is that once Köehler was on board, they told me we could get the book out in eight to nine months. If I found an agent, I would need to go through months of work with them, and then the agent would need to find a publisher, and then I would need to go through the editing process with that publisher. On that path, it could have been over two years before my book hit the bookstores and I didn’t want that. 

 

Q: How does it feel to know that your book is, as of September 27, out in the world? 

A: Getting that call from Greg was the culmination of years of dreaming. I can’t tell you how happy I was. I’m so grateful for Stuart. He did some really strong edits on my book and I know I couldn’t have gotten it into the shape it’s in, or gotten to this point of publication, without his help. He’s a stellar gentleman and I’m so glad I got connected to him and Book Architecture.

Heed The Click: Writing & Intuition

You may not know this, but I have a master’s degree in literary aesthetics. That might sound fancy, but we basically learned about one thing: aesthetics –art, in other words –operates by intuition.  

That means that writing well, writing about what matters, writing something worth reading is all about tuning into our intuition. 

Now, intuition doesn’t give you a read out like a thermostat. It’s not like one of those bank account apps where you can flick on and see the percentage of your discretionary income that went to eating out. It’s a feeling you have to be quiet enough to hear, a feeling that often squashed by life’s obligations, by the many instances we’re beholden to following someone else’s instructions.  

But knowing where to go with your writing, inviting intuition to the fore, can be as simple as dwelling on what would be fun versus what sounds like a drag. Consider the topics, the genres, the moments that feel the most vibrant to you. Listen for the click. 

Yes, heed the click. That might sound vague, but you know when there’s a yes — in terms of a project, a character’s motivation, or even a paragraph. You can feel when there’s a that’s what I should do; that’s what I care about; that really moves me. You can also very much feel when it’s, I don’t care about that shit

If you can tune into that frequency, it makes everything easier. It’s easier in the beginning, when you’re getting started. It’s easier in the middle, when you’re deciding what to leave out and what to work on more. It’s easier at the end when someone gives you unhelpful feedback and you know, “It doesn’t make sense to do that. That’s not the click.” 

So, heed the click, but also, wait for it. It’s okay — no, it’s ideal — to start a writing project with little more than a vague sense of something you find interesting, or worrisome, a thing that makes you think: “Wow, I’d really like to write about that but it would mean I would also have to deal with this.” 

Trust the process. Sit with the moments that present themselves to you and ask yourself what’s drawing you to them. Think of it like you’re an experienced marine excavator. When you hit a piece of rusted metal with a barnacle on it, you might decide, “Well, that’s obviously nothing.” But the veterans know, “Well, maybe it’s nothing. But maybe it’s attached to the hull of a Spanish galleon.” And then they pull it up and there are doubloons inside. 

Now, that hazy hope is not a lot to stand up against the internal dialogue which is always there, even for writers who’ve been practicing for a long time. This is the voice saying, That’s stupid; that’ll never turn into anything, and certainly not anything good. Certainly not as good as what you did last time. There is plenty of anti-intuitive dialogue around and it is entirely unhelpful.

The point is: don’t be looking at that little piece of metal that scraped your leg and made you bleed and decide it’s nothing. Slog deeper into the mud. Your intuition is not going to lead you astray, but it’s also not going to tell you everything all at once because you wouldn’t know what to do with it all. Keep moving forward, even when you’re not entirely sure where you’re headed. It will be clear in time, once the mud has settled and you’re holding that gold coin in your hand.

To that end, I leave you with the words of novelist E. L. Doctorow: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

 



Clients Crushin’ It: Kathy Kleiman

Madison Utley speaks to Kathy Kleiman following the release of her first book, Proving Ground: The Untold Story of the Six Women Who Programmed the World’s First Modern Computer, a detailed history–and, perhaps more importantly, a celebration–of the female pioneers who triumphed against sexism and technical challenges to invent computer programming.

 

Q: I understand that Proving Ground is the first writing project of this scale you’ve undertaken, so can you tell me a bit about what motivated you to write this book?

I am a public interest internet lawyer and a professor of intellectual property and internet governance. Normally I write legal things: comments, articles, advocacy pieces. Writing books is not my forte, so a full-length narrative story was quite the challenge. 

That said, I knew this story–the story of the programming pioneers who worked on a secret Army project during WWII–had to be told. These six women programmed the ENIAC, the world’s first general-purpose, programmable, all-electronic computer, which is the grandfather (or, dare I say, grandmother) of today’s laptops and smartphones.

I had known for many years I was sitting on a great story that contradicted the one I was taught in my computer science courses. The truth is the history of early computing, and the ENIAC project at the University of Pennsylvania during WWII, was quite diverse. The team included women and men, new immigrants, and people with diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds. That diversity was key to the team’s success in creating a new technology and ushering in the Information Age.

Whenever I hit a snag while writing, and I encountered many, I thought about my students and my desire to attract the next generation of young women and young men to STEM and STEM policy work. There is so much opportunity in these fields, with many jobs open today and millions more projected to open in the next few decades. This history inspired me to seek my career and I hope Proving Ground will inspire others to explore this space too.

Q: Can you talk about how the research process unfolded?

My undergraduate thesis at Harvard centered around the women at the heart of Proving Ground, the ENIAC Programmers. But 10 years after that, I found out most of those women hadn’t even been invited to the 50th anniversary of ENIAC because no one other than the original generation they worked with knew their story. As I saw it, that was a big problem. 

In 1997, I got a grant to continue my research. I spent six months in the Library of Congress, among other archives, researching materials. I then interviewed four of the original six ENIAC Programmers, resulting in 20 hours of broadcast quality oral histories. I wanted to turn the cameras on them and let them tell their own stories. They did it wonderfully, beautifully, creatively. They’re funny. They’re brilliant. They were in their late 70s and early 80s at that point in the late ‘90s. They really became my mentors and role models. It’s their voices that I try to bring out in the book.

These interviews resulted in my co-producing the documentary, The Computers: The Remarkable Story of the ENIAC Programmers. We premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival and then won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary Short from the United Nations Association Film Festival.

The demographic of a typical audience for a PBS documentary is 50+ year old, well-educated, white people but I explained, “No, we’re making this for everyone 12 and up.” So in telling the story, we didn’t assume any prior knowledge about the war, and we didn’t assume any technical knowledge either. We really wanted the film to be accessible to everyone, and that was something we tried to carry into the book as well. 

It was an honor to watch the surviving programmers finally get some of the recognition they deserved, to watch them light up, to watch the audience at the screenings light up, and to watch the young women converge around them after, laughing and crying at the same time, wondering how they had never known this history.

Q: How did the process look different as you then prepared to tell the story through the medium of a book? 

I had thousands of pages of research in my house, much of it in paper form. And while it may have been challenging to organize, thank goodness for that, because during COVID the libraries and archives were closed. I took over the den. The floor space became my filing space. I had piles of papers sorted by chapter spread across the room, that I was trying to arrange into a sequential story; at the same time, once I got into the later, technical chapters, I was really trying to break down a rather obscure method of direct programming which is both modern and esoteric at the same time. I was writing for a general audience, so I knew I had to make it accessible and I couldn’t “talk tech.”

Q: What role did Stuart play in getting Proving Ground out into the world? 

Stuart was many things. He was an editor, but he was also the audience. He is someone who was incredibly well prepared to read this book on its different levels–the technology, the history, the law–and help make it accessible. He could answer: Did I get it right? Was I explaining this all well? 

Stuart was also a sounding board; he was an encourager–Encourager, capital E; he was an architect. A lot of times, I felt like I was writing for him as I shared these stories. Then we’d get together and discuss if I had hit the marks and he would help me make sure we got it even better. We were working on a fast timeframe and he was turning things around very quickly, which I appreciated. 

But perhaps most importantly, Stuart encouraged me to say what I wanted to say. With so many historians pushing against this story for so many years, telling me not to say what I wanted to say, it was powerful for me to hear, “Go ahead and say it. We’ll massage it into the right words after. For now, just say what you need to say.”

Q: Your book came out a month ago now. How does it feel to have it circulating in the world, and what kind of feedback have you been getting?

It’s very exciting. Publisher’s Weekly was the first to come back and say nice things about it. They loved it. Across the board, people seem to really be diving into this book and they’re seeing what I saw–that this is an inspirational story. My book has also made it onto some ‘Hot Summer Reads’ lists which I could have never have conceived happening, seeing as it’s a story about six techy women programming a 30-ton computer nearly 80 years ago. But it’s great.

I’m also getting a lot of fan mail, including from men. Many are telling me how moved they are by this history and others are asking questions, but my favorite are those who have been inspired by the book to tell me the stories of their own mothers, grandmothers, or great aunts–the women they know in tech who encouraged them to go into the field.