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
By Ashley Spurgeon, fiction editor
Many of us read to find a sense of familiarity, to know we are not alone in the world. We read to see ourselves. And we also write for the same reasons. When I write, I’m trying to process the current events that flash like an afterimage when I close my eyes. I’m trying to understand the people I’ve encountered whose voices I find compelling. I’m trying to make sense of my world, my humanity, and sometimes that’s easier when I can set it in a place outside of my day-to-day life and let my characters figure it out.
In many writing workshops and craft lessons, I was taught, “Write what you know.” It was a common refrain that I jotted down in my notes but didn’t really think about until I had finished the first draft of my first novel. I finally knew exactly where the plot ended up and what my book was about, and when reading back through, I realized just how much the narrative reflected events in my personal life, the current political climate, and social issues I had been struggling to understand.
When I sit down to write, I don’t disappear into my fiction and forget the world around me. Yes, I immerse myself in the world that exists on the page in front of me, but that world is informed by the reality that I live every day. The real world crosses over into a fictional world, whether it’s intentional or not.
This blend happens because all creative work strains to get closer to what we are all looking for--a better understanding of the complexity and vulnerability that comes with being human. Our truth sits at the tips of our tongues waiting to be formed into words, and it doesn’t matter whether it is laid bare in a piece of flash fiction, a lyric essay, a sestina, or a graphic novel.
Fiction allows me to reach for truth in a less literal way than nonfiction does, but it still presents something real and relatable for the reader. Nonfiction presents a literal truth that isn’t attainable in fiction. Both genres challenge the reader’s ideas and enlarges their world simply by putting words on a page.
Perhaps that is why there is a draw toward hybridity. Perhaps one genre just isn’t quite enough to reach the level of truth we work so hard to find. If we can weave fiction and nonfiction, with elements of visual art and music and moments of poetry, we can lift the veil a little higher and expose a bit more of our humanity and remind ourselves exactly why we are here.
Fiction and nonfiction are not opposites--genres do not function exclusively of the other, they are parallel, and sometimes intertwining, quests to find truth.
By Kateri Kramer
I think I have always been drawn to hybridity, that is, drawn to the combination of two different elements to make something new. Last week I was looking through my father’s, well really my grandfather’s, flat files. Amongst the old ski posters from Arapahoe Basin, Colorado, and the inky woodblocks of tiny carved fly fisherman, there were two canvases next to one another. On the first is the face of a woman that looks a little Picasso-esque with a pronounced nose and hues of Caribbean pink and peach. Hanging from the woman’s ear is a fishing lure. It’s not painted, it’s an actual lure which I realized when the other side of the hook punctured the flesh of my index finger. On the other canvas is another, different, face far more kindergarten-esque than Picasso-esque, which was apropos seeing as I was likely around four when I painted it. Covering the face are glued-on pieces of torn paper, glitter, and Number 2 pencil shavings.
Human beings are by nature hybrid beings. We are made up of so many different things; stories and cities, joy and sorrow, our mother’s influence and our father’s influence. Maybe then, hybridity in nonfiction (or fiction or poetry for that matter) is really the best way to convey who a person is. That is, the essence of a person distilled into words and whitespace. I found this was the case for me when trying to write about my father or grandmother. I needed the influence of other media or art forms to build a more fully formed version of the person I loved and knew.
The essaysist, David Lazar taught me during one of the residencies in the Mile-High MFA program at Regis University, that the essay, in its true spirit is hybrid. He writes,
"Nonfiction is in many ways a non-genre, the un-genre. Do we need to be liberated from generic pedagogy in the same way that some English
Departments were liberated from periodicity,not avoiding periods (Oh let
not time deceive you/You cannot conquer time) but not being so rigidly
structured by them? They only pay me to ask the questions. Which is why I write essays, and why I continue to believe that the essay is the ultimate
hybrid, or if you will, Hydra form.” (Hydra: I’ll Be Your Mirror”)
In the essay Hydra: I’ll Be Your Mirror, Lazar reminds the reader that humanity has been using hybridity since the 3rd Century B.C. in “prose and poetry in letters and prosimetrae, satires, and plays” and argues that all nonfiction is indeed hybrid in some way or another (biographies stepping into the realm of history, essays meandering into poetry).
It wasn’t until I found hybridity that I felt like I’d found a space for my work, or at least found an avenue in which I could write about my father and grandmother more fully.
Whether I am attempting to write an essay similar to the form of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, or shifting from conversational speech to formal in a more traditional piece, the essay, as Lazar points out is “hybridic almost by definition.” Writing (and reading) hybridity can sometimes be a balm for the writer’s soul- providing new opportunities for exploration and beauty on the page, nudging a new investigation into the parts of self that before seemed unreachable by the language and form that we’re most accustomed to. Ultimately, hybrid essay, cannot but equip us with a new understanding of art and humanity.
A List of Hybrid Nonfiction Books to Check Out
I’ll Be Your Mirror, David Lazar
Bluets, Maggie Nelson
My Body is a Book of Rules, Elisa Washuta
Imagine Wanting Only This, Kristen Radtke
Two or Three Things I Know For Sure, Dorothy Allison
Lost Wax, Jericho Parms
Limber, Angela Pelster