Emily Louise Smith: I first encountered “A Resourceful Woman” on Instagram, nestled between selfies and photos of cats. What attracted you to the platform?
Jeff Sharlet: I was sitting in my car in Saratoga Springs, New York, preparing for a long drive across the Green Mountains to my home in Vermont. I was making that drive quite often then, usually at night, helping with a family situation. I was worn out. And I had some writing that was overdue. More conventional writing, a story for GQ, about some really angry men with whom I didn’t want to spend any more time, not even on the page. So I was avoiding a great deal—my emotions, my deadlines—and I went to a comic book store. I’m not a collector, but I read them as a kid, and when I’m really worn out, and don’t know how to write, or how to feel, I buy comic books. The simplicity of the stories helps, sure, but more so the motion—between panels, between pictures and words. I’ve always wanted to make one, but I can’t draw. So I was sitting there in my car, eating a sandwich, reading a comic book—it was an issue of Hellboy by Mike Mignola—and I glanced at my phone and Instagram. I’d just signed up for it, to share family pictures, of course, and I saw all the panels and room for captions, and I thought, I could make my own comic. I made my first essay, later published on Killing the Buddha as “Prayer Hands,” that evening, pulled over on the side of the road.
ELS: You’re part of an emerging community of writers using Instagram for literary journalism. The startling effect of the medium calls to mind flash fiction or prose poetry. Could you talk about working within its unique constraints?
JS: So far I don’t experience them as constraints. Just the opposite—the format is liberating, for many reasons. First, because I love photographs. I came to this mutant genre of creative nonfiction through Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee and Walker Evans. But I’m not a photographer. On Instagram, I don’t have to be. In fact, I get tired of the really polished galleries. I like the snapshottiness of it. That liberates me from some of the anxiety that accompanies writing, too. It feels very low stakes and very high stakes at the same time. Low stakes because I’m not a photographer, and high stakes because it feels vitally important to say something true with the image. Not about the image, but with it.
Instagram transcends the classic divide of the photo-essay, in which text serves image as expository caption, or the illustrated story, in which image serves text as, well, illustration. In the Instagram essay, I think they’re about equal. The block of text, 2,200 characters long, is about the same size and shape as the Instagram square.
Neil Shea, a journalist who’s done what I think is some of the best work of his impressive writing life on Instagram, coined the hashtag #killingthenutgraf. A nut graf is the who-what-where-when-why. And they’re maddening. Explaining when you don’t want to explain. On Instagram, there’s not room to. The image is the nut graf. Except there is no “why,” exactly, in a good Instagram essay. Just the picture and the words and the motion between them.
ELS: Reading the essay uninterrupted in print is very different from experiencing it serialized on Instagram. Have format and audience changed how you approach and carry out your work?
JS: Profoundly. One, because this is my work. A few publishers reached out to me about a book, and although I haven’t yet figured out how I’ll do it, I know I want to. So at the most literal level, yes. And then at the level of the sentence and the paragraph. That small space demands economy. You find out how much a tight sentence anywhere else seems to sprawl on Instagram. You find out how much weight just a few words can bear. That’s really more about structure overall, though, than the sentence. This kind of writing has taught me that a scene doesn’t need to unfurl. It can be a moment, a dense one. Not a vignette, but a small, self-contained world.
This work has returned me to my roots, when literary journalism was a license that allowed me to peer into ordinary lives. Magazines aren’t much interested in them, because most readers aren’t. But this is what I love: people like Mary Mazur, the subject of “A Resourceful Woman.” Mary’s not extraordinary. There’s no reason to tell her story except that she’s alive. Which, when I began, is the only reason I needed.
One of my favorite nonfiction stories is Joseph Mitchell’s “Joe Gould’s Secret.” Mitchell was one of the original wanderers-in-the-city of the early New Yorker, and Joe Gould was the 1930s hobo-bohemian he made famous in his essay “Professor Seagull.” Professor Seagull, a.k.a. Gould, was a Harvard dropout who’d hit upon the most splendid idea: an oral history of the world. He claimed to be writing it, in thousands of notebooks, which he stored at an undisclosed location, since he himself was homeless. But the West Village hipsters of his day—including major artists and writers—loved the idea, and they kept Gould alive. Years after Gould died, Mitchell wrote a much longer account revealing what he’d come to know only after the publication of “Professor Seagull.” The oral history of the world—spoiler alert—didn’t exist. Instead, Gould wrote the same three or four essays over and over. “Joe Gould’s Secret” is a heartbreaking work, and I teach it at the end of the term because it puts young writers on the spot: It’s a powerful case for giving up. It’s also a powerful case for carrying on, if you can imagine your way toward that great documentary dream. So I’ve been trying to imagine my way toward it for the last twenty years, and here, at last, it is. An oral history of the world, only it’s visual: birth, death, cats, food, style, grief, games, cats, cars, trucks, disasters, drunkenness, crushes, cats, age, marriage, divorce, cats, lust, greed, love, architecture, jokes, cats, etc. It’s great not despite the endlessly banal but because of it. In fact, my biggest concern about making a book of this work, or even publishing it here, is losing the meaning it gains from the cat pictures and the food porn and the shoe shots and the vacation snaps. A story like this one, about Mary Mazur: Mary’s not separate from all that, she’s in the middle of it.
ELS: How did you meet Mary? What are the challenges of telling her story?
JS: You see it in the first picture: I was up late—clearing out my father’s house in preparation for a move—and I went to the only place open, a halal fried chicken shack. Mary was wheeling herself up the street, it was cold, and she was in trouble. So the cops came and declared her a danger to herself. And I kind of got involved. I felt responsible. I wanted to know who this woman was. But she didn’t give a rat’s ass about what I wanted to know. She wanted to stick it to the cops and Social Services—they had it coming, I think—and in the process we spoke for many hours, and Mary became interested in self-narration. You see it at the end, when I finally confront her with the patterns evident in her tales, and she laughs and grows dark at the same time as she recognizes what she believes. I like to think that this was valuable to her. Having a listener who wasn’t a cop or a doctor, who wasn’t trying to get her to do anything or challenge her choices. A listener who’d stick it to the cops and Social Services, as it were, by telling the story she wanted told about them. A listener who’d take out the trash, and take her to Walmart, and bully the motel into giving her more than one roll of toilet paper at a time. All of which I did not because I was trying to help her—but because that was the transaction. She talked, I did what she told me.
I cringe when I hear someone say they’re giving “voice to the voiceless.” It assumes that the so-called voiceless were mute until you came along. I can’t tell Mary’s story. I can only tell my story about her. They’re two different stories, but if we struggle together—and we did—they can become, for a time, intimately linked.
I’d call her and fact-check things. She’d get annoyed. “Weren’t you writing that down? Why do I have to talk about that again?” Of course, she does have to talk about it again. It’s what she does. She’s like Joe Gould, telling the same stories over and over. I felt like if I paid attention to them, though, they might become a window into the whole world, and for me, for a time, they did.