James "Big Fan of Wind" Hancock, Creative Nonfiction editor
When I mention to someone that I write creative non-fiction, one of the most common responses I get is something along the lines of “I wish my life was interesting enough to write about” or “I don’t have anything exciting to talk about with my writing.” These responses are the result of a skewed belief on what makes good creative non-fiction: that you need to live an interesting or exciting life to be able to write amazing non-fiction.
We’ve all seen them: bookshelves in the non-fiction section of bookstores featuring the memoirs of famous doctors, chefs, or celebrities. They’re the bestsellers, the tales about beating cancer or learning how to live after reaching rapid success from playing the role in a blockbuster movie. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these books being bestsellers. Instead, the problem lies within the stigma that comes with these books being bestsellers. These are the books that lead writers to believe that they aren’t allowed to write about themselves unless they’ve experienced some form of traumatic event or conquered a great ordeal. Thankfully, that doesn’t need to be the case at all.
During my time as the creative non-fiction editor for Grub Street, I’ve read a lot of non-fiction submissions. Some of them were wonderful, some of them needed work, but almost all of them had something in common: they were never about the kinds of extraordinary things you saw in bookstores. Instead, plenty of them were about normal, everyday aspects of the authors’ lives. This is because creative non-fiction, like any kind of story, is all about how it’s told.
At first glance, telling a story about the day your 2nd grade pet died might seem relatively simple. But if you take a second to reflect, you might be surprised. Think about the ways that loss might have affected you, how it may have changed you in the future. The moment you start to tell your reader about the complex sort of emotions and thoughts that you experienced, you begin crafting a re-telling of something that was wholly unique to you, and nobody else. Sure, the loss of your pet hamster may sound less intriguing than the bestselling memoir about someone who was a prodigal musician from the age of three, but if you can tell your story effectively, then you could have a non-fiction piece that is equally as interesting.
Now for some, telling a life story in an interesting way also means bending the facts a little bit for the sake of telling a more fascinating tale. I’m here to try to encourage you not to do this. Sometimes, it’s tempting to alter even the slightest part of your memory to help spice things up, and it doesn’t help that your readers have no way of knowing what’s a lie and what isn’t. However, looking at your memories as a type of creative constraint, rather than a restrictive one, can completely change how you write about yourself for the better.
Our memories might not always be right (in fact, they can quite often be wrong), but that doesn’t mean they should be ignored. Sometimes, you can run into a situation where it would be far more artistic or profound to order your memories or portray an emotion in a way that didn’t happen, and it can be frustrating when you’re trying so hard to tell it how it is. Instead of looking at your memories as something that restricts you from being able to write, try looking at them as a challenge that forces you to be creative. Instead of lying about how sad you were when your pet hamster died, consider reflecting on why you weren’t that sad. If things didn’t happen the way you wanted them to, talk about that instead of pretending like they did. It might take some work but doing so might help you discover a new way of conveying a scene while still being totally honest with yourself and your readers.
Writing creative non-fiction can be a scary thing for some. I’ve read some very personal submissions for Grub Street, and it makes a lot of sense why some people are put off by this genre. But know this: your story, like anybody else’s, is important. Not because you climbed Mount Everest (because let’s be real, who has?), and not because you have millions of subscribers on YouTube. Your story is important because it happened to you. So please, if you or anyone you know has ever been too put off from creative non-fiction because you don’t think your lives are important enough to write about, just remember: both you and your stories matter. It’s just all in how you tell the tale.
Grub Street is Towson University's award-winning literary journal, run by undergraduates enrolled in "Editing the Literary Magazine."