The Process of Writing

Comedian, actor, podcaster and now published author Aparna Nancherla ’05E was 11 when she got her first taste of stand-up and performing. After attending a public speaking class, the shy child of immigrants was encouraged by her mother to enter a speech contest. The topic was very broad: any issue affecting the South Asian community at that time.

Nancherla’s competitors’ speeches were about racism, exclusion and being “othered.” Hers? A competition-winning takedown of Bollywood movies that she wrote “purely out of my resentment of having to watch them, which my parents forced me to do.”

Aparna Nancherla and Jen Acker.

Comedian, writer, and actor Aparna Nancherla ’05 in conversation with editor, writer, and LitFest director, Jennifer Acker ’00, on Feb. 25, 2024.

“It was before subtitles, and [the recordings] were all pirated,” she explained during a conversation with Jennifer Acker ’00, founder and editor-in-chief of The Common literary journal, at Johnson Chapel on Feb. 25. “I never knew what was happening, and I had a lot of built-up anger. It was a full-on roast. People loved it.” In addition to bragging rights, the victory in the contest gave her an “inkling that humor has this power that maybe can kind of enrapture people in a way that you don’t always know how to get in normal life—at least I don’t,” she noted. “I feel like talking in front of a group of people kind of led me to that in a way that I couldn’t do with strangers” in smaller settings. 

Nancherla describes this comedy origin story in her new book, Unreliable Narrator: Me, Myself, and Impostor Syndrome. It was one of several topics covered in this discussion, the final event in a weekend of LitFest activities attended by students, faculty, staff and neighbors in and around the Town of Amherst. Now in its ninth year, the College’s celebration of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, spoken-word performance and Amherst’s “extraordinary literary life” featured craft talks, a poetry slam and discussions with three Pulitzer Prize winners—novelist Paul Harding, memoirist Natasha Trethewey, and science writer Ed YongNational Book Award winner Justin Torres, poets Ilya Kaminsky and Katie Farris, and alumni authors  Blair Kamin ’79, Lisa Biggs ’93 and Anne Pierson Wiese ’85.

Audience members at the Aparna Nancherla talk.


Nancherla’s conversation with Acker also focused on her approach to her craft–writing essays and comedy bits–performing stand-up, being an introvert, and, of course, the term in the title of Nancherla’s book: impostor syndrome, the widespread modern phenomenon wherein people doubt their own skills and successes, and worry that they are frauds. 

Nancherla hoped that writing about her impostor syndrome might cure it. Her verdict: “My theory was not salient.” 

“In the most meta way, really, the book should just be blank, and I should turn that in, and that would be most authentic,” she laughed. Her writing process was about coming to terms with that, she said: “I’m also a lifelong perfectionist, so I had to find peace with the fact that a lot of the essays I wrote didn’t have neat, tidy endings, or that I started at one point and then I ended another one. … I kind of wanted to really get into those gray areas, which is harder with something like stand-up, where it’s a setup and then punchline.” 

Somewhat counterintuitively for a comedian who performs live, appears in movies and on television, and hosts a podcast, among other pursuits, Nancherla nevertheless said that she deems herself a true introvert and feels anxious in interactions with people one-on-one or in small groups. “What comedy and performing gives me is a medium in which I can come to the stage prepared with what I want to communicate,” she told Acker. “It feels weirdly more manageable than [if] I’m going to tell a funny story at a dinner party.”

Audience members getting autographs from Aparna Nancherla.

Audience members approach Nancherla for a meet-and-greet at the end of her talk.

Nina Theis, a resident of the Town of Amherst who attended the LitFest event, later commented, “It seems brave to me to identify as an introverted stand-up comic.” Theis also said that she was “really struck by the idea of trying to get your impostor syndrome to pull its weight by being the fodder for a book.” 

Nancherla also fielded a question about comparing herself to people who work in more “traditional industries” than entertainment. The introvert credited her friends and fellow comedians with validating her and her work.

“If people say, ‘You need to pursue a serious actual job,’ it is hard to sometimes explain, ‘I’m doing this show for three people in a basement, and you’ll see!’” she explained. “I think a lot of it is surrounding yourself with people who support your vision, or at least are on a similar path where you guys can be buddies and champion each other. … I find that people are just trying to support each other as well as they can.”

Aparna Nancherla On…

Returning to the Amherst campus for the day:

“I was sort of stalking the perimeter. It was Jurassic Park.”

Studying psychology:

“I feel like it’s the only major that condones navel-gazing because everything is kind of directly applicable to your life. It’s like an online personality quiz. You’re like, ‘That’s this person I know, and that’s me, and this is how I trick people. Nice.’”

One of the lessons of Unreliable Narrator

“I think the point of the book was also just how we are messy as humans. And there isn’t always a tidy resolution on things like body image or our relationship to productivity or the internet.”

Writing an autobiographical essay collection:

“In dealing with anything personal, you realize you’re probably going to face feelings or come into contact with memories that you’re not fully resolved on. … It was almost like Pandora’s box for me, but where it was a chest of drawers. I think I thought to myself, ‘Let me just open every drawer at once. What could go wrong?’”

The impostor syndrome phenomenon itself:

“I think impostor syndrome [showed up] when I was given an opportunity or near a goal that I wanted. I was kind of like, ‘Do I really deserve this? Am I like everyone else here? Why was I given this?’ I guess some people, they get opportunities and their first thing is, ‘Finally. You guys took long enough.’ For me, I would get something, and I’d be like, ‘Why?’”

Her book’s “failure résumé,” a curriculum vitae of mishaps and rejections:

“[My editor] was even like, ‘I want to cut this. … This one makes me sad.’ And I was like, ‘That’s the point.’” 

What happens when she caters to an audience by including a local reference: 

“You just name a restaurant and they’re like, [cheers]. Then you’re like, ‘Huh, great. I only spent 10 years on this other joke.’”

When she first started speaking about her own mental health in her act:

“I was struggling pretty acutely with anxiety and also some depression at the time, and I think I was having trouble really writing about anything else. So I was like, ‘Might as well let you guys do some work for me. Let me try to figure out how to exploit you.’”

Her mother's support of her work:

She doesn’t fully understand my sense of humor, but she’ll come to one of my stand-up shows and she’ll be like, ‘Everyone around me was having a great time.’ And I’m like, ‘I love that you’re an audience monitor. Thank you.’”