Wise Women, Wielding Words: A Conversation with Women Shaping the Future of Nonfiction

Nonfiction women writers powerfully and skillfully share wisdom and insight.

5x5 Author's Corner Black Voices Diverse Voices Female Voices

Trigger Warning: The mention of depression and suicide in this article may be triggering to some readers.

Nonfiction is often overlooked in the bookish world. Yet, the anecdotal, creatively informative, educational writing teaches readers about the writers’ unique identities, experiences, passions, and the multifaceted stories they wish to tell. From nonfiction and the prodigious writers who author it, real-world advice and guidance create an invaluable community that fosters the success of readers globally, impacting the lives and touching the souls of many. We’ve gathered five women who are shaping the world of nonfiction to share their insights into the nonfiction writing process, their nuanced experience with the industry, their indispensable advice to aspiring women writers everywhere, and some fun, interesting facts about themselves!

The Authors

Kiyah Wright

Kiyah Wright, non fiction female writer.

Kiyah Wright is a remarkable author, creative director, and an Emmy Award-winning hairstylist who’s created styles for in-demand celebrities such as Laverne Cox, Jennifer Hudson, Halle Berry, and many more. Her amazing work can be found in Vanity Fair, Vogue, Elle, InStyle, Essence, and GQ. MUZE|HAIR is Wright’s award-winning and trusted beauty and hair care line that offers hair care products, premium wigs, and extensions. Kiyah Wright teaches a diverse selection of master classes, and her blog keeps readers up-to-date on celebrity news, trends, beauty, and hair tips. Her debut novel, From Beauty to Business, is a resource-rich course in hair and beauty entrepreneurship, fostering an environment for success for readers.

Thembisa S. Mshaka

Headshot of Thembisa S. Mshaka. She is against a white wall wearing blue and gold beaded necklaces.

Founder of Mshaka Media, Thembisa S. Mshaka is an author, producer, filmmaker, voice actor, activist, entertainment branding specialist, and an all-around creative contributing to many renowned publications and books. Her work at Mshaka Media aids the sights, sounds, and words of brand creation, campaign management, and voiceovers for promotional, political, commercial, animation, ADR, and live events. Further, literary and editorial services include docuseries, commercial script writing, manuscript editing, and proofreading. Thembisa S. Mshaka’s blog offers her reviews, thoughts, and commentary on entertainment news, and her book, Put Your Dreams First, is a detailed career guide stacked with critical information to support women working through the music and entertainment industry.

Beth Thomas Cohen

Image of Beth Thomas Cohen wearing a gray sweatshirt and camo print sweater over it.

Thomas Cohen is the author of the book Drop the Act, It’s Exhausting! in which she sheds light on the necessity of authenticity, the acts we all put on in life, and why it is important to drop them. She is an independent publicist and author who began her career in the Entertainment Dept. at CosmoGIRL! Magazine before moving over to launch O, The Oprah Magazine. She is the President/Partner of B’ Squared Public Relations, a company specializing in the representation of emerging and existing designers in the fashion industry. Currently, Thomas Cohen handles PR & Business Strategy at the boutique fitness studio Juma Fit, while continuing to consult on a “project base” with several other companies. She lives in Tenafly, New Jersey with her two daughters, Aiden Rae and Lila James.

Madison Margolin

A portrait of Madison Margolin. Her brown curly hair is swept to one side, partially covering her face as she smiles and looks down. She is outside in a desert environment with  the sun setting in the background.

Journalist, author, editor, educator, and consultant Madison Margolin is an extraordinary writer of culture, policy, science, technology, and agriculture, with an emphasis on spirituality, Judaism, cannabis, and psychedelics, researching how transcendence and healing can be achieved through meditation, creativity, or psychedelics. Beginning her career on The Village Voice, Margolin is an Ayin Press editor, podcast host of Set & Setting, the co-founder of the print magazine Jewish Psychedelic Summit and digital media platform DoubleBlind, and she recently launched DAVKA, a media, education, and consulting business. Exile & Ecstasy: Growing Up with RAM Dass and Coming of Age in the Jewish Psychedelic Underground is Madison Margolin’s novel, which explores the nuanced interaction of Judaism and psychedelics.

Teneshia J. Warner

A portrait of Teneshia J. Warner. With one hand on a beam, she turns over her shoulder to smile. She has large silver hoop earrings and a black blouse.

Teneshia J. Warner is an author and entrepreneur who founded the multicultural marketing firm EGAMI Group and created The Dream Project Symposium. Hers is the first Black woman–led company to be awarded the Cannes Lion Grand Prix Award and earn the Emmy Award for Outstanding Commercial in 2018. Her most recent book is The Big Stretch: 90 Days to Expand Your Dreams, Crush Your Goals, and Create Your Own Success, an empowering, self-evaluating guide for those starting a new business, making a career switch, or fostering new ideas. It offers powerful resources and knowledge to help those with new, exciting ideas realize their dreams.

The Questions

When it’s time to delve into your writing, do you have specific rituals or elements around you that you find crucial for entering the writer’s mindset? Can you share insights into the environment or practices that help you immerse yourself in your creative process? Do you have vision boards, playlists, or other helpful programs to help you keep the inspiration going?

Kiyah Wright: For me, it was about sitting still long enough to think about what I ended up focusing on for my audience. With such an extensive career, there are a lot of elements to focus on, from styling hair and business to the importance of relationships and taxes. There are a lot of things I could have focused on, so really, just sitting still and organizing my thoughts is what helped me enter my writer’s mindset.

Vision boards and journaling also helped me. My journals were a large part of how I mapped out my book. It was my goal for readers to really understand my mindset and my journals.

Thembisa S. Mshaka: Yes, I do. I have always been a night owl when it comes to writing; the words flow best for me between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. As for the environment, a tropical hideaway is ideal, but in the absence of that, I write to jazz music. On larger projects like books or screenplays, I employ a mapping strategy for story and characters.

Beth Thomas Cohen: Writing is an escape for me and has been since I was a child. I would write about literally everything I had done on a particular day that excited me about life. It was then that I realized writing was actually my passion and that I was actually good at writing, too.

Music is also a passion of mine. I don’t do much of anything without listening to music. Whether it’s working, working out, or writing, I always have something on! It helps me zone out (for lack of a better term) to then tune into my writing. There is probably a slight amount of ADD going on in my head, so music helps me focus on the task at hand, in this case, writing.

I am not never (double negative) inspired to write. Whether I am writing in anger or frustration and feel the need to get my feelings out (my boyfriend knows there is something going on when I send him an email), my emotions dictate what I sit down to write about. I am always inspired by something, mostly what is currently going on in my life. It’s cathartic for me at best!

Madison Margolin: I generally will first try to turn my phone on “do not disturb,” light a scented candle, say a prayer asking that I write something that fulfills the story’s highest potential and is received well by the audience, and then start writing to a playlist. It often takes me at least 30 minutes to an hour to get into a flow state zone with it, so I try to make sure my “writing days” are blocked out without any calls and such.

Teneshia J. Warner: One of the most important rituals for me as a writer is what I refer to as my “ideal Dream environments” — places and experiences that unlock my creative mindset. Nature is my ideal Dream environment, so I intentionally seek out natural surroundings to immerse myself in. A lot of the writing I did for both of my books took place in a cabin secluded in the mountains. While I acknowledge that getting away isn’t always possible, I’ve learned to find fragments of my ideal environment wherever I am. When unable to retreat to a cabin, a stroll through Central Park or a botanical garden provides the same creative inspiration.

Are there any historical events or women you think deserve more attention?

Kiyah Wright: I think the beauty, fashion, and hair space is a conversation where we need to honor all the veterans before us who paved the way in terms of creativity. A lot of vets don’t get the accolades they deserve and/or don’t have the opportunity to capitalize on these moments. The veterans should continue to be celebrated for the things they were great at.

Thembisa S. Mshaka: Yes! I frequently mention Cindy Campbell, the sister of DJ Kool Herc. Had she not asked her brother to DJ at her community event held at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, hip-hop would not have been born on August 11, 1973. Black women are foundational to hip-hop culture and industry, and this needs to be acknowledged and amplified year-round.

Beth Thomas Cohen: I have always felt pulled towards authentic people who have gone “Through it!” Drew Barrymore, who is close to my age, gives me hope that there is always going to be an outlet, a place (her show, namely) where she can be her authentic, imperfect, but incredible self. She is able to lay it out all on the table, her insecurities, the things she has gone through, and more, and connect with her audience in that way. Her authenticity speaks to me in so many incredible ways.

Madison Margolin: I would like to highlight Ann Shulgin, a pioneer in her own right with regard to MDMA and other novel psychedelic substances. Her husband, Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, was the famed chemist who brought attention to these compounds, but Ann was right there alongside him in their development, exploration, and popularity.

Teneshia J. Warner: Elizabeth Gilbert is one of my favorite authors of all time. She wrote the book Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. Her work inspires me to find the motivation to go forward. I read that book a few times before writing my second book because she talked about how you embody creative living as a lifestyle.

I also want to mention a few other women who inspire me. My friend, Pastor Sarah Jakes Roberts, now has a book out called Power Moves. She also has a movement underway under her platform, Woman Evolve. Another dear friend of mine, Tai Beauchamp, is creating a wellness platform that women of color will find and call home. Barby Siegel, Global CEO of Zeno Group, is a friend and business partner of mine, whom I am grateful for working with on a day-to-day basis. Tiffany Warren, founder of AdColor, which is shining a light on voices of color within the advertising industry.

I can remember when that was a dream and what it has grown into today. Brandice Daniels, the creator of Harlem’s Fashion Row. Again, I can remember when HFR was a dream, and now it’s the leading source within fashion to shine a light on designers of color. Valeshia Butterfield, who is the Vice President of Partnerships & Engagement at Google, is a changemaker and has a new program called Seeds that I know will be a great platform for women of color going forward. Those are some of my women SHE-roes making history that I think deserve mad attention.

What advice do you have for aspiring girls and women who want to become writers?

Kiyah Wright: I think that journaling is important. Journaling helps you go back and listen to your own voice and reminds you where you were at a time in your life and all the things you wanted to be great at.

Thembisa S. Mshaka: Journal about any and everything. Write daily. Put yourself in an accountability group to get constructive feedback and to keep you on track. When writer’s block happens, fill your creative tank with other creativity: art, travel, film, nature. What I’ve learned is that writer’s block is surmountable when you limit the energy you give it to slow your process.

Beth Thomas Cohen: If you think you can, then you can. There is nothing you can’t achieve if you find it’s your calling and destiny. You won’t have to question it; you will know it’s what you are supposed to do. I knew writing was something I was not only passionate about but really good at, mixed with the fact that I just always have so damn much to say :) So in not so many words, I would tell young women to go for it!!

Madison Margolin: Just keep writing. Keep honing your craft. Don’t judge yourself. Just let it all out and edit later. And get a really good editor.

Teneshia J. Warner: Write and write often. Get a journal, write your experiences and stories, and just truly put the practice of writing into action on a frequent basis.

What role do you see nonfiction writing playing in empowering women and promoting social change?

Kiyah Wright: For anyone to see a story that relates to them is encouraging and inspiring. I was inspired by seeing another stylist. It gave me foresight on what I could be and become. It encourages me to dream bigger and know I can accomplish more.

Thembisa S. Mshaka: The role of truth-teller. Every time women write nonfiction, they expand realities for society and show the world possibilities for solving problems in ways that innovate without doing harm. White Women: Everything You Already Know About Your Own Racism and How to Do Better by Regina Jackson and Saira Rao is a great example of this — it helps white women unlearn racism and bias while relieving members of traditionally marginalized groups from the burden of having to educate them. Now, all that’s needed is a recommendation to read the book. The Motherlode: 100+ Women Who Made Hip Hop by Clover Hope adds to the canon of hip-hop by centering women MCs and their personal stories and contributions to hip-hop culture. The truth, as written by women, hits different.

Beth Thomas Cohen: It’s purposeful and directional because it’s real life. It is everyone’s and anyone’s story, their life occurrences, and situations that so many of us, too, have endured. It is informative in that you can share your experiences, how they affected you, how you overcame them, and how all of that can help the reader. Personally, my objective is to always connect authentically with the reader, letting them know they are not alone, we have all been through it, and that they will be ok. I want to give them hope and also information about whatever I am writing about, with the notion that it could help them in their current situation.

Madison Margolin: I think the female perspective and voice in the nonfiction stories that need to be told are important in balancing out both the way history will be recorded and remembered, as well as the history going forward.

Teneshia J. Warner: I believe stories become our examples of what’s possible. The more women share their stories, the more those stories fuel change and expand the possibilities of others.

Looking ahead, what are some positive trends you see regarding women’s roles in writing and publishing?

Kiyah Wright: I think writing a book before seemed very unreachable, but now it’s more attainable to write a book or self-publish and really tell our stories. Writing a book is expensive, and nowadays, you have a new way to reach your audiences, too. It’s more encouraging to market to your own built-in audience to tell their stories, too. Your stories are more accessible to your network.

Thembisa S. Mshaka: I see more women authors self-publishing, and this is a good thing. Major publishers still struggle with new talent development and marketing/promotion agility; it’s good to see authors who are being rejected out of a lack of a pulse on the marketplace refusing to wait to publish their work.

Beth Thomas Cohen: Women’s voices are welcomed, heard, and celebrated today in a way that I never knew would be possible! I was always that woman, but as a child, I wasn’t sure the world could sort of “handle” me. Now I know there are podcasts and books, movies, and more where women can be themselves and talk about the things that are not always pleasant or comfortable to hear. That is an environmental change in all areas for women in media and more.

Madison Margolin: I think that the female voice is becoming more authoritative while maintaining the feminine attributes of compassion and nurturance. Part of women’s roles coming to the fore and being more respected is also about reverence for what womanhood and femininity represent. It’s not about women being “as strong as men” or “doing the same thing men do” but about being different, honored, and respected for what we uniquely offer.

Teneshia J. Warner: I believe in the power of our stories to inspire future generations, so I encourage women to continue to use their voices and share their experiences. Never underestimate how your story can inspire another woman to live out her own. Your journey can be the proof that her dreams are achievable because you’ve shown it’s possible.

In publishing, there’s a promising trend: using digital platforms to discover compelling stories. With Generation Z, storytelling isn’t a waiting game; it’s a daily sharing experience. Publishers wanting to discover future stories should tap into the voices on social media and collaborate to extend the narratives they’re already sharing.

How did your own background or experiences as a woman influence your writing and research?

Kiyah Wright: I always knew I wanted to write a book or have my children read my journals. I think journaling played a big part in it for me. I wanted to get out my stories on paper, my goals and aspirations.

Thembisa S. Mshaka: I can’t parse out being Black from being a woman, so my identity is the lens through which I generate ideas for writing projects, essays, and articles when I put on my short-form journalism cap. My goal is always to provoke thought while taking up space in media beyond the tropes and stereotypes Black women are subjected to when it comes to storytelling on the narrative side. With respect to my business/nonfiction writing, being a Black woman leads me to seek out other women of color to interview, highlight, and glean perspective from about their challenges and success strategies for working in entertainment. This is what separates Put Your Dreams First from all other books in the space, making it wholly unique and continually relevant 15 years later. The 15th Anniversary Edition is loading!

Beth Thomas Cohen: I didn’t have the most quintessential childhood, but then again, who the hell did? In my adult life, my marriage fell apart after the better part of 20 years, and that set me up to begin writing my second book about consciously uncoupling from your former spouse. I have had a hell of a lot of trauma: the death of a parent as a child, divorce, I was carjacked at gunpoint, my daughter tried to take her life. You name it, I have been through it! All of these experiences (and a shit load of therapy) have created the person I am today…And I worked really hard to become this version of myself. Unapologetic, but more importantly, empathetic, kind, compassionate, non-judgmental, complicated, and more. I am also mixed race, so the combination of all of that and all of the above is literally my daily research.

Madison Margolin: I think that my reporting/writing was unique because I am a woman and gained access to spaces that were often mostly dominated by men. This both helped and hindered me. As a reporter in the Hasidic Jewish community, there is a lot of gender segregation that I’ve needed to move past in order to observe certain situations or interview certain people. I believe my personality and female presence influenced the journalistic opportunities I’ve had, although it has also been frustrating when interview sources — more so, specifically in the cannabis/psychedelic industries instead of the Jewish world — would try to turn the interview into a date or have ulterior motives.

Teneshia J. Warner: Both of my books are deeply rooted in personal experience. In Profit with Purpose, I aimed to showcase some of our purpose-driven campaigns as the Founder and CEO of EGAMI Group, a pioneering multicultural marketing agency. This book provides a blueprint for others to create impactful marketing initiatives within diverse communities. By the time I wrote my second book, The Big Stretch, I had interviewed over 200 iconic dreamers looking for the universal truth about how they were able to manifest their dreams. My goal was to package everything I learned not only from those interviews but from my own lived experience as a woman who took her Dream to reality to guide other Dreamers in hopes of bringing their own aspirations to life.

Ending with a fun question: what’s a weird or unique talent that you have?

Kiyah Wright: If I wasn’t a hairstylist, I would be in artist management.

Thembisa S. Mshaka: One of my superpowers is making the toughest, most hardcore MCs smile. I’ve racked up a solid gallery of photos with the greats over the years, from Lauryn Hill and Busta Rhymes to The Lox, Chuck D, Rapsody, and Black Thought.

Beth Thomas Cohen: I can sing and act! Haha, my family and friends know that, but I don’t do it professionally or anything like that, so it would be hard for the world to know. I love to sing. My father had a great voice, too, and so do both my girls. I sing morning, noon, and night at home, in the car with friends, especially on road trips :) I was in all the camp plays as the lead and only stopped in high school due to my aggressive sports schedule. My oldest daughter caught the bug and, too, sings and is in all the plays at school.

So! My unique talent is that I can sing and act!

Madison Margolin: I love hula hooping.

Teneshia J. Warner: A unique talent that I have is a crazy photogenic memory of numbers. I experience the world through numbers. And so, I can see you and say, “Hey, it’s great seeing you again! Did you know the last time we talked was March 12, 2012?” I know that’s odd, right? It really freaks people out that I remember times, dates, and numbers to a T.

Thank you to Kiyah, Thembisa, Beth, Madison, and Teneshia for sharing their invaluable insights with the bookish and writing community. Their nuanced, intersectional perspective enlightens the writing community and touches the souls of many aspiring writers.

Find Kiyah Wright here.

Find Thembisa S. Mshaka here.

Find Beth Thomas Cohen here.

Find Madison Margolin here.

Find Teneshia J. Warner here.

Click here for another fantastic roundtable discussion with authors.

Click here to browse the books suggested by these brilliant writers and much more.