by Amanda Schuster
We, as humans, like to think of events as having a beginning, a middle and an end--things we can pack up neatly and put away, perhaps to take out to examine when we feel so called. The truth is, though, that many human experiences are not singular or finite. Certain patterns or events originating in the past, such as abuse or chronic illness, can persist into the present, perhaps never being fully over. Sometimes it feels impossible to get the distance required not to have a visceral emotional response. Other experiences, like living with racism or homophobia or misogyny, are continual, and while of course we can expect that a writer affected by these issues might gain a certain degree of perspective, expecting distance from something so pervasive just isn’t realistic.
During my first formal foray into creative nonfiction, I encountered this piece of advice in the textbook assigned by my mentor: “If you’re crying while crafting a piece of nonfiction, the tears will smudge the ink, making your work ultimately unreadable. If your hand shakes with anger as you write, your words will veer wildly across the page with no sense of control or design” (Tell It Slant, Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, p. 44).
The authors were encouraging their students to use discernment in deciding when they’re ready to write about something, and to leave it until later if it was something that still brought them to tears.
The thing is, I write about things that are intense for me. I write about things that make me cry. In the face of Miller and Paoloa’s words, I found myself asking: should I even be writing about the things I most want to write about right now? Am I relegated to writing only about things that don’t have a charge for me? Or can I find a way around it?
I really didn’t know what to do.
On the one hand, I understand the author's point about the need for perspective to create a work that can connect with a reader in a meaningful way. A myopic rant is not going to connect with a reader in the same way as a measured, carefully crafted portrayal of a situation. At the same time, I couldn’t accept staying away from work that was too emotionally charged, because I believe there are some things — some very important things — from which humans may never have distance.
For myself, queerness and being queer from a conservative background is one situation from which I’ll never have total distance. However, it’s a vital issue to write about, for me personally, and for society at large. When I first started trying to write on this topic, I was bleeding onto the page. Not only was it incredibly uncomfortable to share my work with others, but my writing was unstructured and full of abstraction, and just wouldn’t connect to a reader in the way I wanted it to.
That’s where imitation came in.
I don’t remember where I first picked up the idea of imitation (yes, it is ok to sound like your favorite author, and it’s not to be confused with plagiarism), but it’s a common tool writers use to break into their writing, and has also been taught to me in workshops at the Mile High MFA program where I’m currently a student. To use this practice, a writer chooses a piece of work they want to imitate, and sticks to the form--rhyme scheme, parts of speech, etc.--as closely as possible, but with a unique topic of their own choice.
I was reading a lot of Mary Szybist during this time, and her piece “Entrances and Exits” from her book Incarnadine moved me deeply--it is so full of concrete details and no abstraction, yet still deals up close with the immediate, emotional experiences of looking death in the face in ways both big and small.
So, I chose to use her work as a template for form, using the practice of imitation as a tool to develop my skill with detail, as well as to force myself to channel strong emotion into vivid imagery and ideally something that would convey my experiences in a way that would connect with rather than isolate a reader.
A few examples of lines from her work that I used as a structure for my own:
Duccio’s Annunciation sits open on my desk becomes Alanis Morissette’s Under Rug Swept plays on my computer.
I think of honeybees becomes I think of skin cells
until it is empty, Olivia drinks becomes until it is silent, I breathe.
The pieces are similar in structure, but entirely different in tone and meaning. Not only did I find a way into my writing that allows for strong emotion and lack of distance, it was excellent practice for developing the particular craft skills that I need. After doing this a few times, I tried to write my own piece without imitating; it wasn’t perfect, but it was much improved on my previous, pre-imitation work, with detail instead of abstraction and much more appeal to a reader.
Through this experience, I found that forcing a charged topic into structure the perfect way to create some perspective when distance in time or emotion just isn’t possible. I still cried a little when writing my imitation pieces--the topics I am writing about affect me deeply and presently, and will continue to do so for some time--but the strict form helped keep me focused. As a result, my work became (I was told) more accessible to the reader and, hopefully, began to exhibit a sense of composure and design.
Imitation as Inspiration: An Exercise for Writers
Guest Blog: Using Imitation To Learn Writing Skills
Sentence Imitation: Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms
Develop your writing muscle through imitation
Writing Exercise: 3 Reasons to Write Imitations of Your Favorite Authors
Freedom to Write—Through Imitation
Writing is Learned by Imitation
Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism
Imitation Vs. Plagiarism
Creative inspiration vs. imitation – when does copying turn into plagiarism
Imitation is really important, because it’s a very fundamental part of human social interaction
by Amanda Schuster
When I first started writing creative nonfiction earlier this year, I panicked. I am a person who likes to solve a problem, to tick a box, to arrive. I am at my most satisfied when I have completed something, or at least achieved a portion of what I set out to do. Similarly, in writing poetry and fiction, I like to get to a point that I can call it good enough, send it off, and all is well. But when it came to writing nonfiction, I found I couldn’t do that; letting it go, even if to only one or two people, didn’t feel like ticking a box or solving a problem. It felt like exposing parts of myself and parts of my mental and emotional processes that I wasn’t sure I wanted anyone to see--those thoughts and attitudes I experienced but which I was afraid to commit to in writing. I couldn’t hide behind the guise of a character or a voice not my own, as I sometimes did (or could plausibly claim to do) in fiction and poetry. It was painful, and I was ready to quit.
At first my nonfiction work only existed as side notes to the novel I’m working on while I attend the Mile-High MFA program at Regis University. As I wrote parts of the novel, thoughts and memories would arise, and I felt compelled to stop to write them down before continuing with the book. After doing that several times, I thought that maybe those side notes could become works of creative nonfiction. However, I knew very little about how to go about doing that, so I decided to learn. I signed up for a dual-genre study, with creative nonfiction as a secondary genre, and began to work on my first piece for submission to the workshop. Writing creative nonfiction allowed me to directly address my experiences, which was refreshing, but it also left me feeling raw and exposed in a way I hadn’t expected.
In creative nonfiction, I am learning, the writing process and the mental and emotional processes of the writer are often one and the same. As Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola explain in their creative nonfiction textbook Tell It Slant, “As you write [creative nonfiction], in a sense, you re-create your own past and your sense of self, and you do so in front of a live audience, over and over again.” In other words, the process of our becoming--the mental and emotional development that is usually kept private or only shared with those closest to us--becomes part of a nonfiction writer’s work and thus becomes accessible to anyone who reads it.
With my love for all things tidy and complete, the thought of exposing the mess of my process to another person, let alone one I hardly knew, was terrifying. During my first several attempts at writing creative nonfiction, this fear nearly paralyzed me. I thought, as we often (and usually mistakenly) do, that I was alone in my fear. When I finally went to members of my writing community with my concerns, nonfiction writer and faculty mentor Kathryn Winograd gently but firmly told me that creative nonfiction is about “the messy process of the mind, not about the neat, pat answer,” and that fear and discomfort over facing and exposing that is sometimes part of the deal. My adviser and poet Andrea Rexilius suggested that I step back and hybridize to give myself a little of the cover that fiction had been providing me.
I took the advice of both mentors, and, slowly, it helped. Telling myself that, if I needed to, I could hide parts of my process by retreating to fiction freed me up to put on paper what I wanted to say without the immediate fear of being exposed. Reminding myself that every writer has a messy process, and that one of the points of the creative nonfiction genre is to explore and capture that process, gave me the courage to stay in it.
In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg warns us that “it is important to remember we are not the poem.” She reminds us to “stay fluid behind those black-and-white words. They are not you. They were a great moment going through you. A moment you were awake enough to write down and capture.” Human experience is infinite, and words will never be able to capture the entirety of a person’s existence, or a character’s, or a moment’s.
I am slowly learning to let my work stand on its own--to let it be a moment, a perspective, a snapshot of a specific time and a specific place--rather than expecting it to represent me permanently and in entirety. I’ve had to learn that, just like in life, I will never be able to tick all the boxes in my writing, or to wrap up my thoughts in a complete and tidy package. This perspective makes me more willing to embrace and disclose the mess of my process.
It is both a frustration and a relief that I can write until the end of time and never capture it all. The boxes will never all be ticked, the problems will never all be solved, and I will never completely arrive. I try to remember these things now when I still feel anxious about exposing my process via writing. The words may be mine, and they may be a reflection of a moment through my perception, but they are not me. I am made up of infinite moments captured and uncaptured that can never be fully rendered in art. Ultimately, I’ve decided (see how I wrapped that up neat and tidy, there?) that I’m okay with this, partially because it’s an unavoidable part of life so I kind of have to be, but mostly because that’s exactly where the most lively and interesting parts of writing--and life--happen: in the exploration, the uncertainty, the mess.
Resources and Additional Reading:
“Writers on the pain of hindsight in publishing”
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones
Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, Tell It Slant (creative nonfiction anthology and guidance)
Kathryn Winograd’s website
Andrea Rexilius’s website