Creative Non-Fiction

I have been taking a course in creative nonfiction at the nearby community college. There are about 18 students in the class, a mix of youngsters who are probably mainly undergrads, and a few of us older folks. In fact, at least one might officially be a senior citizen, and it’s know I’m not the most ancient person in the group.

I have a notebook filling up with class time scribbles, a bulging folder full of handouts, and a growing selection of new writing on my hard drive. I’m a little put off by all the paper, and wonder how much of it I’ll bother to keep when the class is over. At least there is a scanner in the house.

The instructor is upbeat, and has great things to say about the quality of writing in our group.

In the hope that it might fill in some of the blanks of several missed sessions, I also purchased the Kindle version of Lee Gutkind’s You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between. I think the instructor said it used to be the textbook for that course, but students had complained that it was an unnecessary expense, so she doesn’t require it anymore.

I started to read it in February, but it discouraged me, so I put it away. The problem was, Gutkind stresses the importance of truth or authenticity. It’s not that I have a desire to lie outright, but if I only wrote the facts I am sure of, I don’t think I could put together anything worth reading.

I don’t know how it works for other writers, but my memories are pretty sparse. I cannot describe the sensory details of an event that happened to me last year, let alone twenty years ago. I’m lucky if I have much in the way of visuals. I remember a little about some of the emotions that I felt during various episodes, but I don’t feel them anymore: I just remember the fact of having experienced them. I certainly can’t tell you what people said in a conversation long ago, except for the occasional seemingly profound snippet. I know that certain things did happen, but the details have long since vanished.

So Gutkind’s book, along with some other elements of the course, I think, caused me to question my ability to write creative nonfiction. How could I create interesting — or even just sensible — scenes without making things up to fill in the dialog and other details? But once I start making up anything, even if I am drawing from various other bits of memory or knowledge and making a sincere effort to portray a composite that is a reasonable facsimile of life as I remember it, does it still qualify as non-fiction? My instructor suggested adding qualifiers to the story to indicate that memory isn’t perfect, but inserting “if I recall correctly…” or “she may have said…” at every point where I’m unsure or drawing a total blank would be awkward and unreadable, to say the least. There just isn’t enough certainty to tell much of a story. Then again, it seems nearly impossible to me that most people could remember enough about their past to tell a detailed story. So do most people memoirists make some things up, inserting verbal collagen to smooth out the wrinkled account of their past? Are my concerns more OCD than reasonable ethics?

I tried to discuss my concerns with my instructor, but that didn’t go far. I’m not sure exactly what she said at the time, but at one point after that, I believe, she told me I should write fiction. I had started prefacing my pieces with disclaimers about their authenticity, and I think that’s why she said it. But I can’t think of anything thrilling enough for fiction. Nonfiction, in my humble opinion, can afford to be more mundane, because truth adds its own value. What kind of reader would suffer through the lengthy tedium of My Life, if it weren’t Bill Clinton’s biography? (I bought it in the hopes of learning something from the former POTUS, and I still didn’t get very far.) Likewise, a novel about a protagonist who suffers from OCD sounds like a yawn, while an OCD patient’s memoir might provoke some interest, as an inside account of little-understood mental health problems. Non-fiction promises to inform, to educate. Novels generally don’t, so they have to have some other appeal.

Stumped, I put the Gutkind book aside, but since the class was still going, I soldiered on. I’m glad I did, because the instructor says my writing is very, (“very, very“?) good. She even asked me the other day whether I did this for a living. Shocked, I didn’t press her, but I do wonder what she meant. As she said it, she was handing me back two pieces I had written, one about a chance meeting with Bruce Springsteen, another about the pros and cons of television. Maybe she was just asking if I wrote reviews about TV shows for a local rag or a blog? I don’t know, and I wish for once I could be an optimist and just take it at face value, as a wonderfully unexpected compliment.

As I said, I missed several sessions, so I don’t know if I might have learned to distinguish between “memoir” and “personal essay,” or what other tidbits I might have missed out on.  I’m pretty sure I missed a session dealing with such elements as “scenes,” “reflection” and “background” (if that’s indeed the right term). But the important thing is that the class has introduced me to some works I might otherwise never have read, and it has kept me writing diligently, more than I have in a long time. I still don’t know whether or not I will be able to write much that can be qualified as “memoir,” but I’m determined to keep writing. I will write what I want, and write well, and when I have to make up the details, I’ll make a note that I did so and submit that with any works going to agents or publishers. They’re the experts: let them decide whether I’ve written a memoir or a novel/short story that’s merely “based on a true story.” Then again, maybe I’ll try writing just the facts sometimes, and see what comes of it. I believe the instructor said that details would come back as we go along. That hasn’t been my experience so far, but maybe I haven’t tried the right things.

Every week or two, the instructor takes the homework papers and gets them copied into packets. She then hands those out, and has us get into small groups to “workshop” the pieces. We each read our story aloud to the others as they follow along, and then listen to their comments, which are almost exclusively complimentary. Again, I don’t know whether I missed too much in class, but I really don’t have much to say in terms of feedback for the others. But I do appreciate their compliments, and I like doling some out as well when I can so with sincerity. “That’s very powerful,” I think I said the other day to a young man after he read his piece.

I do most of my writing on the computer at home, as I’ve done for the past couple of decades, but in each class we spend some time “free writing” as well, inspired by prompts from the instructor. I don’t really enjoy most of those exercises — my handwriting is wretched and I don’t like being put on the spot and I end up writing mostly garbage — but I have actually used one or two of these little exercises as fodder for some pieces I turned in for homework. So it’s perhaps not as pointless for me as I’d once thought.

Next week, for the second-to-last class, I have to give a ten-minute presentation on a memoir I read. I will also need to turn in a short paper about the Visiting Writer speech that I attended one evening (part of a series of Visiting Writers talks at the college) before the end of the course. Then, due the last class, there is the portfolio. This is to be a selection of several (I think it’s four or five) of the pieces we did for homework, revised, hopefully improved, since we have supposedly learned a lot since we initially wrote them. I don’t feel that I learned anything much in the way of specifics about writing from this course, but I suspect it doesn’t work that way. And then again, maybe if I read through my notes and the handouts I’d find I did get a lot out of it. In any case, I probably absorbed a fair amount of wisdom that will serve me some day, if not now, and I probably improved a bit from all the practice I’ve been getting.

I have a lot of work to do in the next two weeks, but I’m looking forward to it. At the same time, with this course ending, I need to select my next adventure. I have a couple of ideas, but they’ll have to wait for the next post.