Sarah Smarsh is a Kansas-born journalist, public speaker and educator. Her writing has appeared in Harper’s, The Believer, Creative Nonfiction, The Guardian, Guernica, and The New Yorker. Her forthcoming book, In the Red, combines memoir, literary reportage, and social analysis to examine the life of poor and working-class Americans as seen through the lens of Smarsh’s own turbulent upbringing in rural Kansas.
To read Smarsh’s New Yorker essay “Poverty, Pride, and Prejudice in Kansas” and an exercise on raising the level of analysis in an essay, click here.
In this interview, Smarsh discusses strategies for beginning essays, the challenge of explaining complex and technical material, and the delicate balance of writing truthfully and respectfully about family.
I love the way this essay begins, with the story of a vandalized ATM that you encountered in Italy. It’s vivid stuff, but it’s also from 2001 and set in Europe; the essay that follows explains a 2015 Kansas law. This makes me curious how you approached the problem of introducing this essay. It’s about a law, which means you’re tasked with explaining something dry and convoluted. Did you sense that, without some striking imagery at the beginning, readers might not follow you through the details of the law?
Thank you for the good words.
The essay’s opening isn’t quite what journalists call an “anecdotal lede,” starting with a quick story to humanize an issue and grab the reader’s attention. But while nothing happens in the opening, the image has the tangible components of a real person interacting with an environment in a way that is metaphorically rather than directly tied to the story’s news component. As poets and photographers know, a poignant, true image cuts as deep into the psyche as story. When I was a nonfiction professor I’d do close-reads of essays with students and then have them close their eyes. I’d ask them to picture the contents of the essay, write down the first image that came to mind, and then go around the room reading their answers. Almost every time, most answers were the same; some visual had been most searing for everyone.
The bloody ATM jumped into my mind after I started working on the essay. I’d thought of it a few times in the past fourteen years, but it was deep in my memory files. At first I wasn’t sure why or how it was relevant, but I trusted that if my brain had made the connection, readers’ would too. I researched the political protest that was cause for the ATM’s vandalization, and it turned out to involve the Bank of Rome funding the arms trade. A long leap from welfare allocation in Kansas! In an early draft I referenced that bit of global economic history to demonstrate the power of banks—they control not just poor people’s pocketbooks but international warfare. But what was more relevant to the essay was why the image had stayed with me: my relationship to the ATM as a cold, inhuman middle-man between me and scarce money, as Kansas legislators now stand between poor citizens and their funds.
I could have opened with a modern-day image of a Kansas welfare recipient at an ATM, but I was more interested in digging into the symbol of what these machines represent to us as a culture. (My editor wisely struck from the piece an overwrought description, “robotic foot soldiers for plutocrats,” which I’m happy to exhume here.) One of my favorite things about nonfiction is that one needn’t contrive or strategize real-life metaphors. They materialize on their own, from the actual, if you’re paying attention.
The details of the law pretty complex: understanding them requires understanding not just the wording of the law but several types of financial transactions: ATM fees and food stamps. Explaining this stuff would seem to require a skill set that is completely different from those used to describe animal guts smeared on an ATM. How did you convey the basic info about the law and the transactions to readers who likely have only casual knowledge of such things?
Writing what I like to think of as literary nonfiction about wonkish topics takes a lot of work because I myself only have casual knowledge of them before I dig into the research. This essay had about thirty footnotes linking to public documents for the New Yorker’s fact-checkers, and I consider this light work since I didn’t conduct interviews (though I did make a few calls to verify this or that). In that process, one can get hung up in red tape very easily. Having reported on municipalities, laws, cops, public schools and other bureaucracies from hell for many years, I’m confident that some of that confusion is by design; in this piece, for example, I had to consult several state sources to figure out what private financial company holds a contract to administer welfare funds, since its umbrella corporation has factions and subsidiaries legally referred to by different names. Once I have the info, though, I have a pretty easy time describing it. What would I need to know in order to understand the gist? Whatever the answer is for me, it’s the same for the reader. A harder task is knowing where to stop. An earlier version of the ATM piece had a sizable tangent on the rise of electronic debit cards in public assistance programs, along with numbers from other states demonstrating the enormous amount of public money that now ends up as private-bank fees.
You’re right, though, that two different writerly sensibilities are in play with this and many of my essays. I remember attending an Investigative Reporters & Editors conference in New York in 2000 when I had an internship in the news unit of the NBC affiliate there, and being struck by how razor-like the reporters’ minds were in cutting straight to one particular narrative within a story. My brain is more of an artsy-fartsy thing that relishes how everything is connected to everything. I like to juxtapose and suggest expansive ideas rather than directly explain hard facts. Maybe my upbringing is why I can put on a reporter hat all the same. It was not an environment that indulged in daydreaming and philosophizing. “Cut the bullshit and get to the point,” my grandma might say.
I’m a huge fan of James Baldwin, and so I was happy to see the reference to him later in the essay. I was also surprised. You make a jump from the specifics of the law to a broader discussion of the particular costs of poverty. Did you always know that such a widening of the essay’s frame would happen, or did you stumble upon it during the writing process?
When an editor asked me to weigh in on the new law, it had already been covered elsewhere. I knew right away that what I could offer that other stories hadn’t was a big-picture understanding of why this abstract discourse about laws and ethics might matter to a woman living in poverty—how a policy plays out at the ground, and even how it feels to be affected. I’m careful to not speak for anyone but myself, but yes, I immediately saw the law as springboard to a broader experience rarely represented first-hand in the media.
At the end of the essay, you describe your childhood experience of using a free-lunch card in school and how embarrassed you were. You also mention at the beginning of the essay that your family was eligible for welfare but, out of pride, didn’t apply for it. This gets at a tricky part of writing about family and, more broadly, experiences that you share with others. How you do you accurately write about stories that may still evoke strong emotion, even embarrassment, in others while respecting their feelings?
In her essay, “Poor Teeth,” Sarah Smarsh wrote about the prevalence of poor dental care in impoverished families and the shame it brings in middle-class society.
However simple and factual a statement, so much context often is missing by necessity of length or keeping momentum. My family didn’t apply for benefits out of pride, yes, but probably for a lot of other reasons—lack of information or access and so on. We also managed to be employed in manual and service labor; what if we hadn’t had those skills or the health to perform them? Regardless, we might have made a comparable income—when factoring in income tax—on public assistance, but to us that was unthinkable. When I was writing the story, my grandma confided in me that she had in fact received public benefits in the 1960s. That was long before I was born and Reagan started yapping about “welfare queens,” but it’s still a small piece of my family’s survival story. I then wrote the following, that didn’t make the cut in the final piece:
To suggest that recipients would be able to splurge under such constraints even if they wanted to is to cast every impoverished Kansan as the dastardly welfare queen of lore. This sneer from the capital is not lost on the poor, who in my considerable research would rather have a job with a living wage than a “handout.” Only as I was discussing this story with her did my grandmother—who, like myself and our whole family spent much of her life doing manual labor, juggling at least two jobs and turning clever frugality into a satisfying art form—admit that she briefly went on the dole as a teenage mother with a newborn to feed in the early 1960s, when her abusive husband went AWOL from the Army and their military payments stopped. “I’m ashamed to say it,” she told me. She only took assistance for a few weeks after giving birth; then she fled her husband for another state and went—by grit and by choice—off welfare and onto a factory floor. There, she made enough to pay for rent, baby formula, gas to get to work and a babysitter who lived in her apartment building with padlocks on the doors. With what remained, she calculated, the most filling meal available was a frozen chicken pot pie, and she ate exactly one per day for months—a story I share not to tug heartstrings but to demonstrate the resilience and ingenuity of people so often categorized as “lazy.” Where I’m from, there is no more hurtful word, and to demoralize our poorest citizens, as the new welfare-restrictions does, is not just bad form but bad economic strategy.
Since I was writing about my family as I was growing up, it’s accurate to say my family “didn’t apply,” but there’s a bit more to the story. I accept these limitations of writing as we all must—you will never write the whole story, I used to tell students—but I try to include brushstrokes that suggest whatever nuance I don’t have room to describe at length.
Nuance is often at the heart of a subject’s experience in reading a piece. I’ve been written about only a handful of times, and I know it’s not an easy thing. I always try to put myself in my subjects’ shoes and consider their experience as important as my own—especially when it comes to matters as sensitive as class. But I think there’s a way to go right at the truth, however painful and ugly, and still respect all involved. I try to do that by writing from a place of “we” rather than “me” and “them”—not just in matters of family but politics and all else.
Clear communication with people about the contents and intentions behind a piece of writing goes a long way in softening the experience of being turned into subjects or characters. I messed up on that once as a young writer doing a cover story for an alt-weekly, and though the story was factual, it was unnecessarily traumatic for the subjects (and, thereby, since these things matter to me very much, for me). Sometimes investigative reporting requires sly maneuvering for the sake of revealing corruption or being a “watch dog” for democracy. Even with more personal stories I’d never share a draft for someone to review. But my writing often intersects with vulnerable populations—say, a teacher who could get fired for sharing her opinion or a guy whose small-town banker could turn him down for a loan because he talked to me about his poverty. So I try to be as upfront as possible about what’s going down with a story.
At the most personal level, I tell my family about writing projects that mention them and give them an opportunity to say, “no.” I’m grateful that they never have. They aren’t a crew that’s sitting around offices reading online think pieces, and perhaps I could let publications slip by without their knowledge, but I offer to share them. They don’t always read them, which is perfectly fine, but I want them to know there’s this thing in the world that has appropriated, channeled and hopefully honored their energy. I would never not write something that felt essential to me because someone told me to keep my trap shut. But something that leaves a loved one vulnerable without her blessing will never be essential to me.
Occasionally something I write stings them, and that’s probably inevitable. Last winter I told my grandma that an essay I wrote about dental health as class signifier was on some fancy best-of-the-year lists. She said, “Well, I guess now the whole world knows I have false teeth.”
In this ATM piece, I describe myself as “the first member of my household to finish ninth grade.” My mom told me she was “taken aback” reading this, as she left school after eleventh grade and got her G.E.D. I explained that I was describing my grandparents, with whom I lived permanently from age 11 to 17, though I often spent weekends and summers with my mom. In a family and class where “household” can be complicated, to me that grandparents’ farm unequivocally was my “household,” with a grandpa who quit school after sixth grade to work the family farm and a grandma who left in ninth grade to wait tables. “I know, but people won’t know that,” Mom said. And she’s right; most readers would assume I was talking about my parents.
Furthermore, the sentence, while accurate and succinctly effective in conveying my life experience to readers, does a disservice to my grandparents; in the seventies my grandma got a government grant to attend “business college” and admirably worked her way into the Wichita court system, where she served as a probation officer for many years. Most readers probably picture a very different person when they picture a “high school dropout.” Meanwhile, my mom had her IQ tested when I was a kid, and it’s statistically probable that she’s considerably smarter than the vast majority of New Yorker readers.
Mom, it turns out, didn’t care about the majority of readers. She cared about her close friends, all former co-workers in the real-estate industry, who might click the story from my Facebook page and think she left high school at an earlier grade than she did, or that she’d been a poor student, or that she’d not actually gotten her G.E.D. She’d just been through the most harrowing, near-death cancer battle of her life, so knowing I’d written something she found misleading and painful was brutal. I asked the New Yorker if we could tweak the sentence, but it would’ve required some hullabaloo, potentially including an asterisked explanation of why the change was made. Mom had said not to make a fuss, so I offered to instead provide public clarification somewhere in the future. Thanks for the opportunity to do that here. This is the only time in the course of many thousands of words written about my family that a small quibble has arisen, so I’d like to think we’re doing pretty good.
There’s a famous book by Janet Malcolm about these things, and I got to ask her some questions once in New York. She’s a goddess on earth who rightfully tired of having this line referenced twenty years ago, but I disagree with her provocative opening statement about a journalist’s work being morally indefensible. A blanket statement that journalism is inherently jacked-up strikes me as a dangerous carte blanche for those tempted to use their subjects in callous ways. Welp, regardless of how I conduct myself, journalism is shady, so might as well trot this starving child out for a Pulitzer and then hit the road back to New York! For me the ethical quality of a piece of writing falls along a continuum like any other human action. In my experience, the care you put into it is never lost.
Here’s a political question: The essay is about a controversial law in Kansas, a state where the governor has introduced all sorts of controversial legislation. He’s now massively unpopular, and yet I’m not sure what will happen in the next election. In the recent past, when Republican governors and candidates have veered too far to the right, Kansans have elected Democrats (Joan Finney and Kathleen Sebelius). But, this is a state that has a long history of political extremism and a Democratic party without any infrastructure. I’m curious how you’d read the state’s political tea leaves. Do you think it will move back toward centrist politics? Or are there enough voters with an extremist conservative ideology to keep pushing the state further to the right?
Brownback enacted his far-right policies in his first term and managed to get re-elected in a close race. He is uber-conservative for ideological reasons that appeal to some voters, and his very wealthy supporters in Kansas are uber-conservative for fiscal reasons that by most economic estimations hurt voters. That has been a perfect storm for pushing state policies destructively far to the right.
Out on the streets in Kansas, though, as in all places, you’ll find a diverse spectrum of political views not represented by the stories out of our infamous legislature. Historically that sort of divide between people and government leads to an extremely pissed-off populism. Pissed-off populism is what Kansas was founded on, in fact; the state’s early years were all about abolition, women’s rights, workers’ rights.
I’m a good enough student of Kansas and life to know there’s no predicting where state politics will go. But there are many new bipartisan movements and organizations afoot within the state that share a goal of repairing and preserving Kansas’s historically good outcomes in health, education and other public systems. Kansans are switching parties, getting involved in ways they’ve never been. Our former insurance commissioner, elected as a Republican, boldly fought on behalf of the Affordable Care Act in an extremely inhospitable administration. For all their Midwestern reserve, and whether they got themselves into this mess or not, Kansans are pissed off. I’m a fifth-generation Kansas farm kid and can tell you this: My grandpa didn’t blow up very often, but when he did, you’d better run like hell.
Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.