Using a Newsletter as a Prewriting Exercise and Research Tool

March 16, 2022 § 6 Comments

A sepia toned photograph of a dark haired woman holds an infant while a toddler sits beside them. All are wearing white frilly dresses.)
My great grandmother Bertha Hander Polan, my uncle Eddie, and my grandfather. Taken in Baltimore in 1907

By Sarah Einstein

I came out of the worst of the pandemic feeling creatively dull and uninspired, in spite of having a book under contract with WVU Press that I was very excited about. I was really enjoying the research process, but I just wasn’t able to get any words on the page. Starting a Substack newsletter, Writing Family Histories, about my research really turned that around, and I think it might be useful to other writers of nonfiction as well.

My current project asks the question of whether or not I am, or even could be, an Appalachian Jew. It relies on family history, and I started the newsletter as a way to share my research with my family in a centralized way. It’s been a great boon because multiple relatives send me email after almost every post, filling in missing pieces of our history and—especially—letting me know when I’ve gotten something wrong. I’d tried a few other ways to do this before, including a Facebook group, but the newsletter has been the most effective way for us all to engage, perhaps because when someone answers the email I send out, it only goes to me, so nobody’s starting any family fights.

I’m also excited by the way it allows me to get nearly instant feedback on my research from both family and fellow writers doing the same sort of work. My partner and I are about to embark on a three month research trip—where, among other things, I’ll be visiting the part of Lithuania my great-great-grandparents lived before emigrating to escape Russian persecution—and I’m relieved that I can share what I find and get responses quickly enough to alter my research trajectory when someone with more complete knowledge is able to recognize a mistake or opportunity.

An unexpected boon of the newsletter has been the way it’s become really useful prewriting for the final project. In order to share my family stories, I have to write them out, but with none of the pressure of working on the manuscript. It’s absolutely lifted the pandemic pall and I wake up excited to write again. The immediacy of it, but also the fact that it feels very low stakes, has been really helpful in getting me over the post-lockdown funk. As soon as I learn some new thing—the story of my Uncle Henry’s murder, or the fact that my grandfather didn’t want my mother to give me an obviously Jewish name, I’m excited to share that with my family and the growing group of other writers who have joined the community. It has absolutely gotten me back in the chair.

Sarah Einstein

There are three things I wish I’d known starting out that I’d like to share with you:

  • More people will be interested in what you’re writing than you expect, and you should plan for that. Originally, I expected to be writing something only my own family members would be interested in, but in just a month we’ve built a community of writers and Jewish folk interested in genealogy of just over 200 people. If I had understood that there would be an audience for this kind of work, I’d have planned the elements of the newsletter that are about engagement a little better. I’m now set up with conversations and writing prompts for subscribers, but initially I was just writing about my family for my family. So, plan for people to show up and have something to offer them.
  • The paywall is an absolute necessity if you’re writing about anything that can rile up the internet trolls. I had to trash the first iteration of my newsletter because I didn’t have one, and almost instantly got a couple of online bigots posting antisemitic messages. You have choices you can make about what content goes to people with free memberships; I’ve set mine so that everybody can read everything, but only paid subscribers can make comments or join discussion threads. Even if you’re writing about something you think is troll-proof, remember that the internet can get het up about almost anything.
  • If you’re at all like me, you’ll start out so excited to be doing a new project you’ll want to post every—or even several times a—day. Unless you think you can keep this up, don’t. You don’t want to set an expectation you aren’t going to meet. I post 2-3 times a week, and vary the posts so that sometimes I’m talking about my findings, sometimes I’m talking about my methodology, and sometimes I’m just talking. I’ve even revived an old comic strip I used to co-write for a Jewish punk zine back in the 90s, Ma and Pa Shtetl, just for the newsletter. Keeping things varied ensures that different parts of your audience are finding something that is engaging to them.

I hope you find this useful for your own writing practice. I like to think of my newsletter as a set of public process notes—here is what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, and what I’ve discovered—toward the final manuscript. But it’s also becoming a place where other people are sharing their stories with me, and that’s helping me to find and create more context for my own. If you’re interested, I hope you’ll join us, and if you start your own newsletter, please let me know!

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Sarah Einstein teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She is the author of Mot: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press, 2015) and Remnants of Passion (SheBooks, 2014). Her essays and short stories have appeared in the Sun, Ninth Letter, PANK, and other journals. Her work has been reprinted in the Best of the Net and awarded a Pushcart Prize and the AWP Prize for Creative Nonfiction.

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