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 Allissa Woodson
I have always felt that my writing was an act of independence, and an assertion that I had control of my emotions. When I first started writing, it felt good to me that, even though my emotions were written out on paper, I had the sole right to them. It felt like therapy. It made me feel strong and capable. I found solace in my solitary practice, and I liked having physical control over my thoughts and feelings. Here they are, sorted out in a way that feels right to me on the page and I can share that or throw it away.
Sometimes, though, my writing felt selfish. When I got serious about it, my time became less dispensable. The people I loved (often not writers themselves) felt neglected because in addition to the time I was taking to write, I was also busy with biology homework and handing out pancakes at the local IHOP--the normal undergrad gig. There weren’t many in my life who fully saw the value of the work I created, or the necessity of writing as a form of therapy. There were times I felt unsure and frustrated, and even times when I felt totally uninspired because of the lack of support. So naturally, it became my own responsibility to take care of my writing needs, and to do what I needed to do to stay sane. But writing all alone is a difficult practice, and hard to sustain without support.
I met the person who would become my friend and my writing partner in January of 2017. Pj and I clicked right away. We were the only two poetry students in our cohort at the Regis’s low-residency Mile-High MFA, so we were instantly paired off together. The person that you write with doesn’t have to be someone who shares the same beliefs or that writes the same way; my work was winding and abstract while Pj’s was imagistic and compact. However, I always valued her advice and insight, and because of our mutual visions, our work naturally moved in a similar way towards a complex web of emotions and ideas that we are both happier with.
Pj is from Houston, and for ten days every January and July, we attended lectures and workshops together. Most importantly, though, during that time, we wrote. While we got so much done during those ten days, it still didn’t feel like enough time. After the first residency, we didn’t do a great job of keeping in contact. We sent a text message here or there, but nothing organized or planned.
The most important part of having someone to write with is that you hold each other accountable. Finally, knowing I had to take action if we wanted to stay in touch with our creative partnership, I set a notification on my phone for every Friday: “Check in on Pj.” Whenever the notification went off, I sent Pj a quick “How are you?” text, which inevitably led to a conversation about our latest projects and our lives. I quickly fell into this Friday routine, and even the simple back and forth check-in had me feeling like I needed to write more and feeling more inspired.
It wasn’t until the the third Mile-High MFA residency when program coordinator and fiction writer David Hicks, along with his colleague and close friend, Sophfronia Scott, gave a powerful lecture about their relationship as “writing buddies”. The idea instantly clicked. I knew that Pj and I would be able to write together in the same way. We already had started a habit of maintaining contact, which seemed to be the biggest hurdle. David and Sophfronia discussed how they had used various video chat services. We took that advice and ran with it, so when the residency came to an end, our writing buddy relationship didn’t.
The concept of writing buddies is not a new one. It's no secret that T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound exchanged letters and that Pound heavily edited Eliot’s draft of The Waste Land. The New York School of Writers, which included writers such as Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Barbara Guest, were known for their collaborative work both amongst themselves and with painters. In The Art of Poetry: Poems, Parodies, Interviews, Essays, and Other Works, Kenneth Koch writes, “We were very close friends, John, Frank, and I, and poetry was a big part of it... we inspired each other, we envied each other…we were almost entirely dependent on each other for support” (213).
With inspiration from other writers who had done the same before us, the weekly text message between Pj and I turned into a weekly video chat. With that method of communication, we developed a routine that works for us, and we now cover a lot more ground. We always spend the first half of the chat talking about what we are up to and how our writing is going, which is always the most valuable aspect of the chat for me. The weekly writing feedback and advice that I get from Pj, and hearing about her own struggles as a writer, all come together to inform my writing. Because of that, I never begin the second half of the chat, (that is, the writing part), feeling like I don’t know what to write.
Elizabeth Bishop describes her first talk with her lifelong friend Robert Lowell about writing poetry as "exchanging recipes for making a cake." Pj is always showing me new recipes, and it saves a lot of time; where I might be experimenting with too much salt or licorice, Pj may have already tried it and be able to give me the feedback that helps me get to my desired result more quickly.
One of the other benefits of having a writing buddy is that it is much harder to slack off when you have a camera pointed at you (or another set of eyes on you, if you are in person). For our sessions, Pj sets a timer, or we just go until one of us is tired. Sometimes I read instead of writing, or do whatever else it is that I need to do. Sometimes only the chatting gets done, and not the writing. Sometimes our planned writing schedule gets postponed three times in a row. No matter what, though, we plan the next chat.
The distance between Houston and Denver no longer feels as far as it once did. Writing together with Pj via video chat versus in person has still had the ability to transform my work. We have both learned to find what is lacking in our own work by seeing the strength in one another’s. We share our words and worlds. That experience adds a new vocabulary and allows me to see the power of a single image or the impact of a well-placed line break. Having a writing buddy has meant receiving and offering insights, making suggestions and asking questions, and it has helped me make significant changes to what and how I write. Not only do I get more writing done, but the quality of the work I create has improved along with my feeling of confidence and self-worth. The writing buddy relationship we have built is genuine, and I feel only great work can come out of it.
Because of establishing this writing buddy relationship, I no longer feel the guilt of neglecting others around me. I no longer feel selfish in taking this time to write, because it’s not just about me. Having a writing buddy is about making a commitment to support someone else in their writing. It’s about holding each other accountable to the work. But it’s more than that: We erase the doubt that we have for ourselves about our potential as writers and the difficult aspects of our own work.
Koch, Kenneth. The Art of Poetry: Poems, Parodies, Interviews, Essays, and Other Work. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 1996.
Preview Koch’s book here