Last night, journalist Rachel Aviv ’04 returned to Brown to deliver a lecture about her approach to nonfiction writing and the challenges she faces throughout her work. Her talk, which took place at Brown/RISD Hillel, was sponsored by the English Department as part of this year’s Great Brown Nonfiction Writers’ Lecture Series. Aviv, who became a staff writer for The New Yorker in 2013 (you can check out some of her work here), focuses primarily on investigating marginalized and often-stigmatized people. Her work has received an immense amount of praise, evidenced by a long list of awards and accolades. And, according to the lecture’s host, her phenomenal work was equally present on College Hill; Aviv was described as “a star in the [nonfiction writing] program” and one of the first students within the program to write a thesis and earn departmental honors.
Aviv opened her speech by sharing that what she finds to be the most difficult aspect of her writing process is actually figuring out what to investigate. The hours of seemingly-wasted time that she spends aimlessly browsing the web can become incredibly frustrating for a journalist — especially, in Aviv’s case, in the face of a 33,000-word annual writing quota from The New Yorker.
From there, she continued describing the manner in which she writes, describing “two intersecting strands” she deemed essential to the success of her stories. According to Aviv, a successful story would combine an issue of particular relevance or significance with a character that would serve as a guide, allowing for readers to become emotionally invested in the chosen issue. Especially within the context of the highly marginalized and stigmatized topics that Aviv explores, a compelling character is integral to her ability to create protagonists within the antagonistic parameters of her subject matter.
In her talk, she proceeded to share two specific stories she covered — one about LGBTQ homeless youth, and the other about pedophiles civilly detained after serving their time in prison — in which these intersecting strands helped create powerful prose that was able to immerse the reader in distant, if not unapproachable, topics. She closed with an excerpt from one of her most challenging stories, which involved an interview with the grandmother of an allegedly murdered infant — a tired, devastated woman who told Aviv, “You can say whatever you feel. I don’t have a voice.”
The event closed with a Q&A session, during which the audience learned a bit more about Aviv’s own story as an emerging journalist. Aviv provided some advice for post-graduate life, suggesting that students keep an open mind and, whether through taking a gap year or exploring some other route, take the time to “do something that gives you access to something that no one else has access to.” With regard to her field, she suggested that aspiring authors should remain aware of the fact that writing exists in many other fields (Aviv had planned on pursuing psychology for much of her early adulthood, and mentioned the wealth of nonfiction within that field alone) and to avoid thinking too narrowly about what exactly journalism is.