S2-EP19: Anne Fadiman on Writing: Taking Risks, Improving, and Witnessing History During the Pandemic

Jun 5, 2020


Debbie Weil speaks with Anne Fadiman, a brilliant author and beloved writing teacher, about the writing process and how we should all be a witness to history, as writers, during this unprecedented time of a pandemic.



Debbie has a conversation about writing with friend and college classmate Anne Fadiman. Anne is an illustrious – and revered – essayist and author, perhaps best known for her first book, the prize-winning The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, an account of the unbridgeable cultural conflicts between a family of Hmong refugees and their American doctors. She’s spent her whole career in the writing world as a reporter and editor and for the past 15 years as an award-winning teacher of nonfiction writing at Yale University. She’s a writer’s writer and Debbie couldn’t be more excited to have her on the show.

They talk about writing in the context of the pandemic we are living through. Should we all be writing about our daily lives right now as witnesses to history? Her answer is “Yes, keep a journal!” Just as Anne Frank did during World War II when she hid from the Nazis in Amsterdam with her family.

They talk about the intimacy of Anne’s work as a writing teacher at Yale, how she and her students nonetheless jumped into Zoom classes, and how proud she is of her students, a number of whom have gone on to become well-known writers. They discuss the therapeutic benefits of writing, what it really means to take risks and to become a better writer, and the importance of reading.

She also reminisces about being confined to bed, at home, for eight months during one of her pregnancies and how that was more difficult than sheltering in place during the pandemic. She couldn’t venture out into the world as a reporter so she started writing essays.


Mentioned in the episode:

  • Memories of a Catholic Girlhood by Mary McCarthy. Anne assigns her students “C’est le Premier Pas Qui Coûte,” about how, as a girl in a new school, McCarthy reinvented her identity by pretending to lose her faith – and then found that the pretense had become real.
  • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
  • The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
  • John McPhee, a pioneer of creative nonfiction and a professor of journalism at Princeton University


Anne Fadiman’s books:


Pandemic-related reporting by two of her students:


Photo of Anne Fadiman by Gabriel Amadeus Cooney

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