Recently, I had a conversation with a friend of mine about a new essay I’m working on. I told her how scared I am to have this much of myself on display.
“You’re so brave for putting yourself out there,” she told me. All I could manage to think was, at least you get to hide behind fiction. Then it occurred to me that I had that option too. I just didn’t take it.
Throughout the course of my college career, nonfiction was always referred to as the “other” genre. When talking about my passion for the genre, it was always assumed by others that it wasn’t possible to be as “creative” as you can with fiction or poetry. I hadn’t even heard of creative nonfiction until coming to Towson. I had always assumed that you had to be a celebrity, a prodigy, or an anomaly to write a memoir.
This is one of the biggest misconceptions about nonfiction, and one of the reasons why so many shy away from writing it. Many writers assume that they just aren’t interesting enough to write a compelling personal essay.
One of the most common critiques of contemporary creative nonfiction is that it’s self-indulgent. I have a friend who says he never kept a journal because it allows one to “self-romanticize.”
Others assert that all we can really claim to know is the self (something close to solipsism).
I was first drawn to creative nonfiction because I am interested in people—the way they leave messes behind. I wrote about people I knew, only attaching myself as an auxiliary detail. It’s only very recently that I’ve begun to write about myself as a singular entity.
As a child, I floundered during timed, standardized test essays (I bombed my SAT essay too). It was always suggested that if we couldn’t think of anything interesting, it was perfectly acceptable to make something up. For some reason I still have trouble with fiction—I’m wired for nonfiction, for mess.
Nonfiction is less popular with readers because it provides no escape. We are forced to confront ourselves when reading, while simultaneously recognizing that the writer’s lived experiences may be entirely different from our own. If anything, personal essays promote empathy.
After the conversation with my friend, I began to wonder why I had chosen the most revealing, confessional line of writing. I could have easily chosen fiction or poetry. Even writing this blog post was difficult. I had to look myself in the eye, pick out the reasons why I do what I do. But even so, I’m still not entirely sure why (mess).
Good works of creative nonfiction transcend the self. I’ve always thought that the more specific a writer gets, the more relatable. Some specific details:
My most frequent recurring dream is always set in a crowded restaurant.
I make my own vegetable broth out of frozen scraps. I store it in a glass jar. I hope that this will be enough to stop climate change.
After I have bitten my fingernails, I look at them in disgust. Then, I immediately start biting again, in an attempt to fix them.
Specifics are a reassurance that the person behind the book is really there—full of complex problems and tics. To me, this is comforting. A vulnerable detail seems like a signal towards something larger. A collective vulnerability.
In her lyric memoir Nox, Anne Carson examines the death of her estranged brother. My brother is not dead, nor estranged, but I understand.
In Bluets, Maggie Nelson deals with lost love and an obsession with the color blue. Somehow, I manage to understand.
The moment a writer decides to put their work into the world, they have the power to transcend the self—to affect people, to forge understanding. I, like many others, began to write in order to let out something unknown. But as I read more memoirs, and prepare for my work to be made public, I notice a different force pushing me forward—the hope that I can stir empathy in someone. I can’t help but feel that someone who chooses to be so vulnerable is the opposite of self-indulgent. That by throwing their secrets into light, they are becoming a part of something collective, something larger.
Grub Street Nonfiction Team Member
Image source: Photographed by Barbara Fondelheit
The image above is "Flight" by Gillian Collins.