Headland Alumni: Where are they now?
The Headland team love to watch what happens next in the writing lives of authors we have published – we find out through Facebook updates, tweets, emails letting us know that their Headland story will now be published in their first book, or exciting new additions to their author bios the next time they submit.
But we thought it would be fun to find out in a more formal way, and to share the news with the rest of the Headland whānau. So over the next couple of months, we will be sharing a series of interviews with Headland alumni, called ‘Where are they now?’
In our first interview, Headlander Caoimhe McKeogh speaks with Wellington writer Alie Benge. She discusses her successes since she was published in Headland in 2017, the difference between writing fiction and nonfiction, and her best advice for people who are starting out in creative nonfiction...
Caoimhe: You were first published in Headland Issue 9, in 2017, with a piece of fiction called ‘No Church in the Wild’. Where were you in your writing career at that point?
Alie: It seems forever ago now, but if I’m remembering correctly, I’d gone from writing lame Tumblr-style poems, to writing fiction. I was working on a novel that was basically a memoir in disguise, and ‘No Church in the Wild’ was the short story version of the novel. I’d always struggled with fiction though, and abandoned it shortly after. So ‘No Church’ is actually the only short story I’ve ever had published.
Caoimhe: Wow – lucky Headland! But that’s very interesting; it seems like you’ve made a shift towards creative nonfiction since ‘No Church in the Wild’. Is that a fair reflection? If so – what was it that pulled you into the world of creative nonfiction?
Alie: It’s definitely a fair reflection. Shortly after that story was published in Headland, I applied for the fiction stream of a Master’s in Creative Writing and had the honour of being rejected. To make myself feel better, I took Harry Ricketts’ creative nonfiction class at the IIML and it was a revelation. I didn’t know being an essayist was an option. I’d thought the only way to get published in journals was to write short stories, and writing them had mostly felt like homework. I also realised the reason my stories had rarely worked is because they were all essays anyway. ‘No Church in the Wild’ was the only one I’d ever felt happy with, and that’s because it was basically an essay with imaginative leaps.
There’s a difference in the psychic distance from which you write a story and from which you write an essay, which was why I struggled to get the voice right in fiction. In an essay, the author is allowed to sit back and speak directly to the camera. The next year, I applied for the same Master’s programme, but in nonfiction, and got in.
Caoimhe: Since 2017, you’ve had a huge amount of success in your writing. What would you say are the three most exciting writing-related things that have happened to you over the last four years, and what made those moments so exciting?
Alie: The most exciting was that after submitting to Headland, I thought I’d try my hand at the Landfall Essay Competition. I’d always loved the winning essays, particularly Airini Beautrais’ essay ‘Umlaut’. I didn’t expect to get anywhere. I don’t even know why I bothered. I think it might have been because my friends were submitting. When I got the email saying I’d tied for first place, I remember just sitting at my computer being like, ‘Wait, what?’ Of course none of my non-writer friends and family knew what the competition was, so that was a bit of an anti-climax, haha.
Second would be the time I fired off an ‘OK boomer’ tweet about an article written against libraries, and was asked by an editor at The Spinoff to write a response piece. I felt very out of my depth. I’d never been brave enough to pitch to The Spinoff, and I was responding to a writer I have a lot of respect and admiration for. I sent it away hoping no one would read it, and then my phone went crazy. That led to an invitation to speak on a panel with Lloyd Jones and Elizabeth Knox at the Auckland Writers’ Festival. COVID killed that in the end, but it would have been terrifying and thrilling.
That article opened a channel to write more often for The Spinoff, which I’ve loved doing. The editors there are so lovely to work with, and are open to a variety of ideas. Which led to the third most exciting thing: a six-part dating column in 2020. I had so much fun doing this. So much of the dialogue around dating was despairing and hopeless. I wanted to write something that celebrated dating; that showed it as a fun, joyful means of connecting with people and hearing their stories. Because I met my partner in the first week or two of writing it, it also became about the anxiety-ridden early days of a relationship. I loved writing this series so much, and I’m so grateful to The Spinoff for taking a chance on it. Most people can get a boyfriend without writing several long essays about it, but not this girl.
Caoimhe: Wow, writing about those early days of a relationship seems very brave. But creative nonfiction often is – or at least seems – very personal. What’s been your experience of sharing your thoughts on real events and people from your life, knowing that people will read them?
Alie: Oof, I could write a whole essay on this. I don’t have many anxieties about privacy. I don’t see the harm in people knowing things about me. However, my dating column about dating as a Christian did open me up to a lot of judgement. Someone called me an unrepentant sinner on the internet, haha. Turns out that actually really hurts! Perhaps I was more vulnerable after COVID, and I didn’t have my usual armour. That was the first time I found that people’s judgement actually affected me. Recently, at a new church, someone I didn’t know came up to me and mentioned that particular article, and my body went cold. But then he thanked me for writing it and was so kind. It’s important to consider the positive feedback, rather than the negative. I don’t want to pretend that in writing nonfiction you don’t make yourself vulnerable, but you have to decide if the art is more important. For me, 99% of the time it is. In the project I’m working on now, I have found the upper limit of what I’m willing to share.
It’s more complicated when it comes to other people. I’ve gotten in trouble enough times that now, if I write something about someone I care about, I’ll run it by them first and give them veto power. Even if it’s only a tiny passing mention. I’ve found people are fine about it if they’ve been consulted and given a right of reply. But to further complicate things, a lot of people think I’ve written about them when I haven’t, which is awkward but unavoidable.
With my dating column, I sent the first article to all the people I’d dated that I’d stayed friends with to be like, ‘This is the tone, I’m saying nice things, you don’t have to worry’ and they were all cool about it and would often write to say they were enjoying the articles, which was really lovely. As it went on I was showing my very new boyfriend drafts that basically laid out all my anxieties about our relationship. I’m always a bit nervous and embarrassed showing him drafts that he’s in, but I’m lucky he’s so chill and also sees art as the more important thing. Otherwise that column might have been a much more difficult project.
Caoimhe: And have you had any strange moments of being recognised in ‘real life’ from your writing?
Alie: Haha, I don’t think writers acknowledge each other as a general rule. If I see writers in the wild, I mostly avoid eye contact and act awkward. I don’t know if I have the kind of profile to be ‘recognised’. Occasionally someone I don’t know will address me by my name or say they liked an article, and it’s surprising but very kind of them. Perhaps the strangest time was when I was introduced to someone who waved her hands around and said, ‘Oh, I’m all nervous’. It was cute, but made me feel weird, like she thought I was someone I wasn’t. It’s strange when someone encounters your work before they’ve encountered you and they’ve created a mythical idea of who you are. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with those interactions. It's just that it’s not real, and I’m not who they think I am. Writing isn’t a sacred task. I just sit at my desk and bash my hands against the keyboard.
Caoimhe: At Headland, we love publishing new writers, and we also love publishing creative nonfiction, but it does seem that people who are new to writing can be a bit unsure or scared when it comes to nonfiction writing. What would be your number one piece of advice for people who are starting out in creative nonfiction?
Alie: I think the first anxiety of nonfiction writers is ‘who cares?’ Like, who cares about my dumb little stories. It feels narcissistic to think your life is interesting enough that people will want to click into an article, and spend time or money on your work. It’s an important thing to keep in mind as you write because your story should be interesting, but don’t let the question paralyse you. Ultimately, we are all interested in each other. Storytelling is one of our oldest cultural practices, and everyone is interesting. The other day I spent 20 minutes leaning on a rail in Te Papa listening to an 80-year-old tell me his life story. He just walked up to me and started talking, and normally I’d be backing out of that kind of interaction, but I decided just to listen, and it was great. Not every story has to be some high-drama about fighting tigers in the forests of India. In fact, I find those ones the least interesting. Normal people’s stories about their normal days and normal interactions are so beautiful and fascinating. Lay it on me.
Caoimhe: And finally, the question writers dread to hear – what are you working on now?
Alie: After finding I have more annual leave than I thought, I’ve taken a month off work to finish writing a collection of essays. I wrote most of this collection accidentally. I just looked in my essays folder one day and realised I had 80% of a book sitting there. We all have natural themes in our writing, and I found most of my work was about love: approximations of love, good love, bad love, and so on. And there was also this interrogation of the concept of home, and suddenly I realised that the two were the same thing: love and home. I’m currently flitting between the last few essays and will be submitting to publishers very soon.