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The Science Survey

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The Science Survey

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The Science Survey

New Yorker Writer Rachel Aviv’s Advice to Young Writers

In 8 questions, Aviv gives her perspective on the research process, writing, and her purpose as a writer.
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Rachel Aviv is a writer for ‘The New Yorker’ with two nominations for a National Magazine Award for Public Interest, one National Magazine Award for Profile Writing, and one Whiting Award for Creative Non-Fiction. Her book, ‘Stranger to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us’ was named one of the ‘10 Best Books of 2022’ in ‘The New York Times.’ (Photo by Rose Lichter-Marck; used by permission of Rachel Aviv)

When I discovered Rachel Aviv’s book Stranger to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us last year, I was captivated from beginning to end. The New York Times named it one of ‘The 10 Best Books of 2022,’ and for good reason. It reads like a novel but comprises six true stories of peoples’ experiences with mental illness. It challenged my belief that mental illness is strictly biological, but also refused to offer a clean-cut framework to think about mental illness.

Since then, I’ve read many of her articles. Each one asked many questions and didn’t provide simple answers. I wanted to understand the methodology behind her articles, which range from profiles of a philosopher’s divorce to how an elite university betrayed a star student to a Butoh dancer consumed by her craft. For her articles, she has twice been a finalist for a National Magazine Award for Public Interest and in 2022 won a National Magazine Award for Profile Writing. I reached out to Rachel Aviv for a phone interview, and below is the result of our conversation.

Your topics are wide-ranging but always fascinating. I’m thinking of your story about a Butoh dancer, for example, who in committing herself to the practice loses her sense of self. How do you find these topics? How often do you identify subjects but not pursue them? What is the process behind that decision?

It’s unsystematic, which is why, for me, the hardest part of writing is figuring out what to write about. The Butoh story, for example, came from a researcher I work with. She came across that story idea and sent it to me. 

Once I come across a subject or case that’s interesting, I think about these two different strands: the individual story and how it intersects with some larger story about social, medical, or political issues. There may be a fascinating story, but it feels like it doesn’t hold weight or I’m not sure what larger ideas it’s exploring. I only do the story if I feel like it has both of those components.

Do you do research before formulating questions of interest, before knowing everything you want to know? 

It’s a fluid process. I read, and then the reading will prompt more questions, and the questions will guide my reading. To some degree, I’m still researching while writing. And the writing itself allows me to know what questions I have more clearly.

With such deep topics, you can overturn every stone. How do you know when you’re done researching?

I think what’s helpful to me is that I start writing at some point. Even when I start writing, I’m not done with the research. Writing helps me identify what kind of information I need to tell the story fully and do it justice. The story’s narrative becomes a kind of limiting principle in terms of what I can include.

I think it’s interesting how in your book, each story has so many nuances that each story could be its own book, but you still find a way to use all of the nuances to build on one central idea. I’m wondering how you came to that central theme and how you thought about balancing every individual story with this central idea.

I think I always want to privilege the story itself. I want to tell the story with an awareness of what ideas I’m trying to explore. 

Something I think about a lot is not bringing in a larger context until the reader wants it, so I think about where in the story a reader is craving some intellectual context and bringing it in then, as opposed to bringing it in earlier when the reader doesn’t actively desire it. 

I think of telling the story as guiding people to be curious about something they might not have been curious about otherwise.

Do you always follow the same methodology when writing your articles? Are there specific questions you always ask? 

I think a question I ask myself a lot is “What is the story? What is this about?” Sometimes you can forget what it is that’s making this a worthwhile story to spend all this time on.

I use the same methods of organizing my notes and research materials because at this point I know what I’ll need for the fact-checking process.

Your articles often tackle large systemic issues with personal stories, for example, in your book, your article about the troubled teen industry, and how Cummins prison dealt with the pandemic. Would you say that seeing these issues on a much lower level has made you believe they are more or less solvable?

Oh god. 

I do not have a great sense of confidence about the solvability of the issues I write about. I think of what I’m doing as less of trying to give people a solution and more like trying to see the problem more clearly, understanding the contours of the dilemma with more precision so that someone else would have a clear view, like a policymaker, in terms of how to solve it.

Some stories are more straightforward like a wrongful conviction, where you can see on the local level how you solve it by reversing the conviction, or you can see the mistakes made along the way that led to it, so those feel more straightforward. But, if you’re writing about mental illness or homelessness, you could show what is working and what’s not and why, but proposing solutions is less straightforward. 

I think my hope with my book was that there would be more thoughtfulness with the ways that clinicians and others approach people with mental illness, but that’s not a policy solution; that’s coming at these problems with more knowledge and perspective.

When you’re writing an article about an issue you deeply care about, once you’re done, how are you content finishing the article and going on to the next thing?

It’s hard. I’m having that problem right now, where I’m still very invested in the previous story, and it’s hard to just find something new. My life is very cyclical; these periods of trying to find out what I’m writing about, and then becoming deeply invested, and then it ends, and all of a sudden I’m at the beginning all over again.

My last question: what is your advice for young writers?

Something in writing that isn’t sufficiently valued is, ‘What are you writing about?’ We think so much about good sentences or good formal structure, but not developing a deep base of knowledge about a particular part of life that you are writing about. 

I’ve always felt like among my peers like in our college days or grad school days, there was so much focus on how we were writing, and not whether we actually had anything to say. People were overlooking whether we had built a kind of space in which we could feel like experts who had something to say.

“Something in writing that isn’t sufficiently valued is, ‘What are you writing about?’ We think so much about good sentences or good formal structure, but not developing a deep base of knowledge about a particular part of life that you are writing about,” said Rachel Aviv. 

About the Contributor
Georgie Barth, Staff Reporter
Georgie Barth is a Spotlight Editor for ‘The Science Survey.’ Journalism’s ability to convey truth and give voice to the issues all around us brought her to the newspaper. She is fascinated by the issues so often overlooked in favor of domestic and international issues. In school, Georgie imagines how the school she loves can be even better, and outside of school, she turns her eyes to local politics. While it’s hard to choose, some of her favorite books are Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and Strangers to Ourselves by Rachel Aviv. Georgie loves to spend her free time taking walks through her neighborhood because she loves looking at the old buildings.