Writing a Nonfiction Book First

Image shows a marked-up draft with a pen on top in foreground, alongside notebooks, a mug, and a glass, all on a long dining table. In the distance, a cat lies at the other end of the table and a stack of books is visible in front of another table in front of a window.
Ancestor Trouble Revisions, October 2019

This year I abandoned the novel I worked on for ages. Fragments survive in the novel I’m working on now, but it’s a fundamentally different book, and that feels great. For years, I resisted writing a nonfiction book first, because I really didn’t want to write a memoir. But it turned out that (1) I really did need, as several writers suggested I might, to deal with the preoccupations of the novel in nonfiction before I could finish anything else to my satisfaction, and (2) my ideas about what a memoir could entail were much too limited. Is Ancestor Trouble a memoir? Yes, and no, and yes. Or: it is a memoir only the extent that you, the reader, experience it as one.

In other news, I’m grateful and delighted to see Ancestor Trouble on Adrienne Westenfeld’s Esquire list of her most anticipated winter 2022 books, alongside so many books I’m excited to read. She calls Ancestor Trouble “riveting,” and concludes, “Just what do the facts of a life tell us about who we are or where we come from, and what can our personal histories tell us about our national past? Masterfully blending memoir and cultural criticism, Newton explores the cultural, scientific, and spiritual dimensions of ancestry, arguing for the transformational power of grappling with our inheritances.” Some of the books I’m eagerly anticipating on her list include How High We Go in the Dark, South to America, Olga Dies Dreaming (which I just started listening to as an audiobook while awaiting my copy), Notes on an Execution, and the latest from Marlon James and Hanya Yanigahara.

It was also exciting to see the book on LitHub’s list of the most anticipated books of 2022—which calls Ancestor Trouble an “intricately researched account of the most universal subject”—with even more books I’m looking forward to, and several I’ve preordered, including The School for Good Mothers and In Sensorium. Finally, if you missed “Don’t Write the Tedious Thing” when I posted it on Medium last year, it was recommended in the site’s “3 Ways to Break Through a Block,” which gives me an excuse to suggest my preferred approach again if you find yourself stuck.


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