Sarah Smarsh on the Challenges of Writing Heartland
Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo


Each author struggles with her own worst stretch of creation. For some, fanning the spark of an idea into a fully formed concept stands out as most agonizing. Others get caught in the middle stages, struggling to find a way out of narrative tangles and research rabbit holes and multiple storylines. While each phase of her book Heartland had its challenges, writer Sarah Smarsh told Spine that the hardest might have been final edits—letting go of a book she’d worked on for some 16 years.

Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth hit bookstores last month, and has been short-listed for the National Book Award for Nonfiction. In it, Smarsh tells her own story, and the story of her people in Kansas in the 1980s and '90s. She also uses her family to illustrate what was happening politically and economically in the United States, and to its working poor, during those decades and into today.

Smarsh began the book in college, in 2002, and has chipped away at it for the entirety of her adult life. Arriving at the final edits marked a significant milestone. "The most harrowing and stressful moments for me of the creative process were final edits. For me, it had to do with the length of time that the gestation had taken.


"It was a book I was working on, and it was my creative passion, but it felt like an energy orb around me always. Doing the very final edits last spring, and having the realization that this is the last time I'm going to touch these sentences, was hard."

Acknowledging the difficulty of letting go, and the fact that time made that release more difficult, Smarsh is nonetheless grateful for the years she had with the book, years during which it underwent several transformations. When she first began writing as an undergraduate at the University of Kansas, she focused primarily on the memoir aspects. "My earliest research and writing work on the book was centered on the family story, and the more personal passages."

Even early on, Smarsh recognized relationships between her own particular history and the political, social and economic shifts taking place around her state of Kansas, the agricultural Midwest, and the country. But it wasn't until she began working as a journalist "to get by and pay the bills so I could work on this passion project," that she truly began to see the full connections.

"I gained an understanding of the public forces that were at work in our private stories," she told Spine. "I gained a language for articulating the ways in which the public and private are intertwined."

Heartland offers an excellent example of narrative journalism, writing which relies both on well-researched, well-presented factual information and exceptional storytelling. But additionally, Smarsh employed a wholly unique device throughout the book to firmly pull readers into what is, at times, a very intimate retelling.

From early years, Smarsh carried with her a presence, an imagined daughter, the next female offspring in a line of children born of teenaged mothers in tight circumstances. She wove this unreal child into the book, addressing her as "you" and using her imagined life to hold her narrative together.

Smarsh said this "you," this imagined daughter, this private and integral part of her self, wasn't an integral part of the book until she was far along in the writing. "There were still some pieces that were not quite clicking together in terms of narrative flow. The voice would at points seem to shift in a jarring way from a familiar tone to a more journalistic one." As she struggled to meld the two halves, she experienced what she described as "the classic creative epiphany."

"I was on a walk, and I realized that somehow, the reason that some spots in the book weren't gelling is because I was keeping the reader at arm's length. I was trying to be the puppet master. That resulted in a removal from the deepest truth of the story. Even as I'm talking about society, and my family and culture, the backbone of the book is my personal reckoning with all of the above, my deeply private experience of dealing with my family's legacy of teen pregnancy and how that shaped me."

She realized she needed to include the child she carried with her, needed to bring her forth and address her directly throughout the book. Once she allowed the reader to access that internal dialogue, the book opened up, achieving cohesion.

Agents repeatedly showed interest in Smarsh's manuscript over the last decade, but not until this particular time in American history — economic, political — did Heartland arrive where Smarsh wanted it to, creatively and professionally. Once Scribner acquired the book in 2015, Smarsh "pulled out the old manuscript and got to work making it a new thing, something that is timeless but also relevant to our current moment."

Then came that moment, "harrowing and stressful," when Smarsh had to let it go, had to release her very personal story, this second voice inside her, this project that had been hers alone for decades. "Now she's leaving home and I can't control how she dresses," Smarsh joked.

Ultimately, that release has proved positive. Heartland has been nominated for a National Book Award and generated press and praise. "I'm understanding what I think I always sensed," Smarsh said. "The book is bigger than me. It's less like I planned out some book, and more like a book chose me. I'm in a good place."

Find Sarah Smarsh online at and on Twitter @Sarah_Smarsh.

Spine Authors Editor Susanna Baird grew up inhaling paperbacks in Central Massachusetts, and now lives and works in Salem. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Boston Magazine, BANG!, Failbetter, and Publishers Weekly. She's the founder of the Salem Longform Writers' Group, and serves on the Salem Literary Festival committee. When not wrangling words, she spends time with her family, mostly trying to pry the cat's head out of the dog's mouth, and helps lead The Clothing Connection, a small Salem-based nonprofit dedicated to getting clothes to kids who need them. Online, you can find her at and on Twitter @SusannaBaird.

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