Annia Ciezadlo is an award-winning author and journalist who specializes in narrative nonfiction writing about food, war, politics, and crisis. She has reported on the Iraq war, the Arab revolutions, the Syrian conflict, refugees, coronavirus, and climate change. Her memoir, Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War (Free Press, 2011), won multiple awards, was translated into four languages, appeared on numerous “best of” lists, and was hailed by The New York Times as “among the least political, and most intimate and valuable [books], to have come out of the Iraq war.” Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post,Granta, Guernica, Foreign Affairs, The New Republic, The Nation, Politico, and other publications. She also edits investigations for the Beirut-based media outlet The Public Source. She lives in New York City and is currently working on two novels at once, which is probably a bad idea.
What excites you about writing? How has it affected your life?
Nice try. I know a trick question when I see it. Writing hasn’t affected my life. Writing is my life. You might as well ask how food or water or air has affected my life. That being said: while writing is something I’ve always done, and can’t imagine not doing, it wasn’t always something I thought I could do well. I think it’s in the nature of being a writer that you constantly question if you’re doing it right. And the definition of doing it right is something you’re always grappling with. It’s like one of those folktales where the protagonist wrestles with a supernatural creature, an angel or a demon that is constantly changing its shape. On one hand, that means always wondering if you’re good enough; on the other hand, it means never, ever being bored. A brilliant New Yorker writer once told me her cardinal rule, which was always keep going up the hill. She meant it as advice for writing a nonfiction piece. But like all good metaphors, it works on many levels. It’s also useful advice for a writing life.
What mindset does a writer need to continue to grow and learn?
I’m going to answer that question the way I answer most questions: with a story. Back in 2003, I went off to Baghdad to cover the Iraq war. The first time I came back to New York, with a fresh clutch of feature articles tied to my belt, I thought my mentor would be proud. Instead, she gave me a sideways look and asked me something about how much they’d edited my pieces. When I asked why, she said they didn’t sound like me. I was crushed. But once I got over that (I’m not gonna lie: it took a few days) I realized she had handed me something infinitely more valuable than praise. I had been writing in a style that I now call newspaperese. A lot of young journalists do this. Editors like it. Newspaper editors will often rewrite your stories into this bizarre syntax, which is more about conveying information than meaning, or, god forbid, beauty or insight or nuance or ambiguity or that breath of the divine that words can only ever graze. After they’ve hammered a few of your stories into this loveless dialect, you sometimes find yourself writing in it automatically, without even noticing. She made me notice. Since then, no matter who I’m writing for, I step back and ask myself: does this sound like me? Am I writing what I really think? Or what I think the editor—or the audience, or whoever I’m unconsciously writing for—wants to hear? In order to grow and learn, you need someone who’s going to tell you the stuff that you really, really don’t want to hear.
What makes a good writing mentor?
I think the paragraph above answers the first half of that question. A good mentor will tell you what not to do. She’ll warn you where the pitfalls are. But she also has to be able to show you the path around them. That’s the second half. This is the collection of tips and tricks and household hints that writers often refer to as “craft.” I have mixed feelings about that term—I’m not a big fan of jargon, especially when it’s so vague that it could mean anything. I prefer a phrase from Gabriel García Márquez, who once called this set of skills the “secret carpentry” of writing. I like wood, so this metaphor speaks to me. But if you’re not a carpentry person, imagine the set of elusive little details you need to know to fix a car, cook a meal, clean a house, or get a baby to go to sleep. If you’ve ever tried to recreate something you ate in a restaurant, you know that cooking isn’t something you can just pick up by seeing the finished product. You might be able to figure some of it out yourself, through trial and error. But a good mentor will teach you things that will save you time and energy. Like how to hold a knife so you don’t cut your hand. Or how to hold the baby so it feels safe. It’s counterintuitive, but not everyone who knows these tricks has the ability to pass them on. Writing is its own skill. So is teaching. A good mentor has to have both.
What is your style of feedback?
I’ve been lucky enough to have some unforgettable teachers. One of them was named Dick Blood, and the name suited him well. Another one of my teachers, Bruce Footracer, is now a Pentecostal preacher. Most of them were crusty, confrontational veterans of one conflict or another. Some of them were military. Some were war correspondents. Others survived grueling or cutthroat jobs or family lives. None of them were ever mean; they were generous and inspiring and motivated by love. But none of them were what I would call nice either. They always pushed me a little harder than I wanted to be pushed. And while this often pissed me off at the time, it always made me try harder than I wanted to. And I always ended up doing better than I thought I could. When you get praise from a mentor like this, you know you earned it.
I’m not as blunt as my mentors were. Not everyone has a thick skin. I’ve been teaching and mentoring for over two decades, and one thing I’ve learned is that a good mentor never makes it about herself. I try to ask more questions than I answer. But I will tell you when you’re screwing up. And I will show you how to fix it. And while I can’t promise this will always be easy, I can promise you this: when you produce the work that you’re truly capable of, you won’t regret a minute of what it took to get there.