By Sara Ross, Assistant Editor
In fiction-writing, we cheat and embellish, manipulate worlds to match our whims. We get to do whatever it takes to make a reader feel something, see a bigger picture than what’s there on the page. In creative nonfiction, we’re working within a whole different set of constraints. We’re fighting to take pieces of memory or history or theory and make these personal bits matter to a reader on that same grand-scheme human scale. The chance to see a writer do this successfully – turn regular life into something transcendent – is what keeps me reaching for more nonfiction submissions to read.
This all sounds really lofty and hopeful. In reality, reading though essay submissions, there are a couple of ways things tend to go:
#1 – It’s just not that interesting. In many of the essays we read, not a lot happens. Now, you might say that real life is boring, mundane. So, if you’re writing nonfiction, depicting real life, there is bound to be some humdrum everydayness in there. You’re right! For most of us, life is going to work then making some dinner, walking the dog in the morning or taking the kids to the bus stop, reading and writing whenever we find the time. That is not very exciting stuff. But here’s the trick: a good essay about it is. (More on that to come.)
#2 – The weight of the piece relies on the plot. We know to avoid this in fiction, but in nonfiction, it comes up a lot. These are the unbelievable-but-true stories, the rare disease stories, the life and death, or religious conversion stories. I’m certainly not saying that these topics couldn’t hold the center of a good essay, but it can’t be all there is, because even if a writer has an extraordinary story to tell, it’s probably not that extraordinary. It’s cliché because it’s true: every story worth telling has already been told. This means we have to give a reader something more than just the story.
The solution to both of these problems is obvious, but not simple: craft matters. This is harder to see when we’re writing memoir-style nonfiction because the fact that we’ve had a particular experience makes it feel momentous, powerful – whether we’re writing the mundane or the extraordinary. We imagine that nobody else has felt this particular blend of emotions before, that our stories are one-of-a-kind. This natural preoccupation with our own experience is why, in creative nonfiction, we have to be even more careful to look for the larger Truth in what we’re putting out there for our readers, to think about the experience of the reader, rather than the experience of the self.
For an example, pop over and take a look at the very short essay, “Nearing Solstice,” by Lisa Ohlen Harris, published in Sweet, Issue 4.1. This piece is about making coffee on a summer morning, about remembering being a kid, about growing old – all that mundane, regular-life stuff I was talking about earlier. But there is an emotional pull that carries the reader far past the mundane. There is a care with language that makes us want to say the lines out loud. There is a familiarity, but also a momentum pulling us forward from summer into fall and reminding us of the ache when the carefree, long days end. There is something of human experience here that reaches past this one life and makes us think about our own. This is the mark of a good essay – like good fiction or poetry – that a reader can feel emotion resonating with something bigger, something grander than just the life being described on the page.
Maybe this point seems obvious, that the reason for writing is to expose some capital-T Truth or capital-B Beauty. Maybe it should go without saying. But in writing about our lives, it’s an easy thing to let slip. As writers, we so often live in our heads, in our own little made-up worlds. This is necessary and useful much of the time. The mark of good nonfiction writing though, seems to be an ability to step out of that internal space, out of the this-happened-to-me mentality and figure out how our little lives fit into something larger.