Fact or Fiction: An Interview with Joshua Millburn

Long-time readers of my work will have noticed my recent shift to a more creative form of writing.

Though I am still writing about real life events, this new creative form of non-fiction has been a breath of fresh air (as they say), and it has made the act of writing incredibly enjoyable again.

Recently I was speaking with Joshua Millburn, co-creator of The Minimalists, a hugely successful minimalism blog boasting over 100,000 monthly readers in only nine months of having been online.

Despite his celebrated approach to non-fiction, Joshua considers himself a fiction writer first and foremost, recently realizing his eight year dream by releasing his first book of short stories; Falling While Sitting Down, which went on to reach #3 on Amazon’s Bestselling Short Stories list.

I caught up with Joshua to ask him his views on everything from the power of using creative storytelling in non-fiction, to the future of the publishing industry.

You say your fiction is appreciably different from the non-fiction essays you have written for The Minimalists, essays which have become very popular among your large reader base.

Which form of writing, fiction or non-fiction, speaks to you the most?

I consider myself a fiction writer primarily.

Writing literary fiction has been my passion since age 22 (I’m 30 now). Even before I left my 70-hour-per-week corporate career to write full-time, I wanted to be a fiction writer.

Stumbling across non-fiction writing, such as the essays at The Minimalists, was sort of a beautiful accident that has worked incredibly well. But, then again, writing fiction is ten times harder than non-fiction for me: in fiction, one must worry whether or not his characters feel real, whether or not the narrative flows fluidly, whether or not the plot serves a purpose, and a dozen other things.

However, writing fiction feels 100 times more rewarding when I “get it right.” That’s because fiction allows me to explain life in ways that non-fiction can’t: it can evince human emotion; it can exhibit what it’s like to live in the complex, modern world; it can explain life in ways that non-fiction can’t.

I started by writing stories and then moved to non-fiction to share the story of my life. The way I think about it is that non-fiction nourishes my intellectual side (i.e., what I think), while fiction nourishes my emotional side (i.e., what I feel).

It is widely accepted by many writers and other creatives that we are currently going through one of the largest changes to the publishing industry in several hundred years.

What is your view on the current publishing model as a whole, and how do you see this changing in the next two years?

I don’t think the book-publishing industry is dying, as many people profess. Rather, I think we will see a shift similar to the music industry’s shift a few years ago. That is to say that, in many cases, indy authors (like indy bands) will have to grind-it-out and establish a following to get a solid deal with a big publisher.

Some authors will have a lot of indy success (e.g., Joe Konrath et al.) and stay independent, while others (e.g., Amanda Hocking) will get huge deals with traditional publishing firms. Plus there is an entire continuum between those examples.

Either way, it feels to me like there is now a great opportunity to self-publish—authors no longer need to depend on the big houses to publish their work, which is incredibly exciting. Two years ago, I never thought my book would be #3 on Amazon’s Bestselling Short Stories list, but now it’s a reality. Better yet: I was able to do it without a publisher. And for that I am incredibly grateful—I’ve never worked harder on anything in my life.

Back to the non-fiction for a moment. The Minimalists, the blog you share with your good friend Ryan Nicodemus, recently hit the impressive milestone of over 100,000 readers in a month, after only having launched nine months previous.

Were you both surprised by how quickly the blog grew? How big a role do you believe the strength of your writing played in this growth?

Yes I was surprised. Although the stat that resonates with me more than 100,000 (which feels like a fairly arbitrary number) is that people spend over 11,000 hours per month on our site. Thus, it’s not like a bunch of people come there for 30 seconds and leave. Instead, they stay for the long haul because they find value in the content we provide.

I think the content has played a large role in our initial popularity; three things specifically: the quality of the writing (we often write four or five drafts of our essays), the personal stories that people can identify with, and the content’s authenticity (we live the lives we write about—otherwise people’s BS-meters would detect it).

We put a lot of effort into everything we do on our site because we want to add value to people’s lives.

Recently I have been experimenting with what Gwen Bell describes as experience telling, the art of writing only from experience so the reader can connect deeply with my work. I discovered yourself through reading your guest post on Zen Habits, a post which can only be described as a tour de force of experience telling until the very last word.

Whether this was intentional or not, how important to the flow of the essay do you believe it is to create what most would see as a fictional set up when writing non-fiction?

When writing non-fiction, I still believe people want an interesting story that resonates with them on a deeper level. That’s part of the appeal of The Minimalists and of the internet in general.

Good fiction can, however, tell what it means to be a human being without all the facts getting in the way.

Finally, you recently wrote about your minimalist workspace and the benefits it brings to your writing. From this, what would you say are your top three tips to productive minimalist writing? What do you choose to leave behind, and what do you like to add to the mix?

Based on what I do, my tips would be: write, read, and avoid distractions.

I write a lot: three to 12 hours a day, every day, often laboring through the boredom or tedium of when it’s not going well. I read a lot too (mostly literary fiction, which is what I write primarily). Both of these things make me a better writer.

As for as my writing space, I get rid of every distraction: no clock, no internet, no phone. Just me and my thoughts and a computer to write them on. I also carry a notebook and jot down thoughts throughout my days.

Falling While Sitting Down is available for Kindle, Nook, and as a PDF download.

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Posted November 1, 2011 — Subscribe to keep up to date with my latest posts.

5 thoughts on “Fact or Fiction: An Interview with Joshua Millburn

  1. another great post Ben, and one that’s particularly useful for me given the direction I’m heading in. Something that I’ve been pondering is whether self publishing has monetary value, or if, initially at least, you use it purely as a tool to promote brand Joshua, Ben, Simon etc.

    1. I hoped you’d like it Simon.

      I think that’s the question on everybody’s lips at this moment in time. Personally, I see it being used mostly as a tool for getting your work out there initially. Joshua, for example, is currently only charging $0.99 for his collection of short stories (a collection which could easily retail for ten times that). He does have plans to raise the price shortly, but initially he needs to get eyeballs on his work. Building a responsive and passionate audience is absolutely crucial, in my opinion.

  2. True. My plan is to borrow that passionate audience (no, the book won’t be called Life rapture :) ). I think if you can target a specific group with your stories, an audience that someone else has already built, you can create a very quick shortcut to success and exposure. Jeffery Deaver has done this with Carte Blanche, or someone like Ruth Plumly Thompson with her Oz books after Baum had passed away. Kindle makes this a much easier prospect.

    1. A tonne of new novels by upcoming authors are always shipped into work with “If you like [name], you’ll love [other name]” stickers adhered to the front cover.

      One I remember in particular was Jo Nesbo, who was hailed as the new Stieg Larsson upon the release of his best-selling novel to date, the Snowman. Their are certainly a few niches where this is a very reasonable option, an option that is beneficial to both parties (the audience and the author).

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