Threads of Literary Citizenship: Four Questions with Elaine Monaghan

Interviews
Elaine Monaghan

Elaine Monaghan grew up in Scotland and joined Reuters’ graduate journalism training program in London in 1993. Reuters posted her to Moscow, Kyiv, Dublin and Washington, where she followed Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell for three years. She decided that moving countries every two years was a bad parenting choice and became a Washington correspondent for The (London) Times, where she also penned a column, Abroad in America. She later co-authored a memoir with CIA officer Tyler Drumheller, a behind-the-scenes look at how the Bush Administration misled the public to justify invading Iraq. Monaghan covered foreign policy for Congressional Quarterly and wrote for CQ Weekly magazine. She has blogged for Microsoft UK about the election that produced President Obama, lived in Poland for three years while her husband served as an ambassador, and worked for a progressive, strategic communications firm where her main client was Amnesty International USA. In 2014, Monaghan joined the faculty of The Media School at Indiana University Bloomington. As a professor of practice, she teaches courses in data, ethics, reporting and writing, and serves as coordinator for the school’s news reporting and editing concentration. She is a correspondent for News-Decoder, a not-for-profit news service and forum for young people, and co-education lead at the Observatory on Social Media.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

I’ve loved reading and creating written words since I was a child. Fifteen years as a foreign correspondent, and a decade otherwise occupied in the trenchers of journalism taught me that writing takes real labor. I might have churned stories out in minutes, but it felt like it was happening in slow motion. I sweated over every word, every sentence, every paragraph, and still lose sleep over that intro that wasn’t quite right.  In my 50s, I have turned my attention to creative nonfiction, memoir and autofiction. I still sweat over every word, though now I have the luxury of time and life experience, and now I often put it back on the shelf because I think it needs to mature for at least another couple of years. Does that make me a lesser writer than when I was a journalist being read by large audiences every single day? Not at all. I think I’m a much better writer now. 

The main lesson I’ve learned as a writer is that life is not a popularity contest. Put another way, if you are committed to telling stories with words on a page, and to improving your craft no matter who is watching, you are a writer. If people read you, that’s a bonus. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

In late 2019, after five years teaching writing and reporting at The Media School at Indiana University, I enrolled in a low-residency MFA program at Mississippi University for Women, determined to make space for a writing life. I was participating in my first writing workshop when the pandemic hit. I got sick and wrote about it. That’s how I had what I consider to be my first creative piece published in 40 years.

The most surprising thing about my writing life, though, is not that I had a 40-year gap in it that was filled with writing. It’s that choosing a writing life is not really about writing at all. It’s about friendship. It’s about the people I think of as my writing family, which includes my actual family both here in the US and back in my homeland, Scotland, the friends around the world I talk to in person, by phone, WhatsApp or Zoom, people I trust enough to look at my writing – to look at me, even if we’ve never met in person, which is often the case – and to care enough to tell me what works and what doesn’t. 

The most surprising thing about my writing life, then, is that it has taught me more than any other experience what true friendship looks like, and a big part of it is service, which I see in the idea of literary citizenship.. Literary citizenship threads through my life, in friendship, teaching, learning and good neighborliness.

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be and why? 

Squirrel.

I mean it as a noun and a verb. When I am writing, GReat! I am like the squirrels in my back yard running furiously up and down trees and sending acorns clattering across the roof. Sometimes they just stop and stare. Perhaps they’ve just had a brilliant idea about where to get their next stash of acorns, or maybe they’re puzzling over which tree to go to next. Sometimes they lose their grip on the acorns and they go flying. Sometimes they eat them on the spot.

Sometimes squirrels squirrel and hide their acorns in exactly the right place in the earth so they can find them later.

Some acorns get eaten right away and some don’t. The ones that get used up right away germinate fast or are damaged. The ones that get squirreled away are hardier and less imperfect. 

As I look for inspiration for stories now, it’s those hardier acorns that I go back to turn into stories with a longer shelf life. Much to my surprise, that process is immensely satisfying, even when my memories are imperfect, because when turned into fiction or autofiction, some of those hardy acorns are pretty okay.

What is the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

I could trot out all kinds of things I remember from my Reuters training from the unforgettably brilliant George Short, RIP. Here are two.

  • When you don’t know what to write, just say what happened. (Recipe for lead-writing block on deadline. Saved me every time.)
  • Lie, cheat and steal. (In a nutshell: Pretend you want one thing from an interview when really, you want that and something else; borrow and take brilliant structures and story ideas and make them your own.)

But George would also have told me to be kind and show respect to my fellow human, and no doubt did, though I don’t remember now and it would have probably sailed over my ambitious, 25-year-old head. 

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