On Creative Nonfiction

I believe in the old adage: no reader, no writer. When it comes to personal essays I also believe: no self-reflection, no essay writer.

I’m teaching creative nonfiction online this summer and have been gifted a capable group of writers as students, people who’ve been around the block a few times, some of whom have written professionally, as journalists, academics, as tech writers. (Tech writers are translators and translation is also one of my favorite writing genres.)

We have class discussions online, and because writers tend to communicate best in writing, their discussions are rich and useful. One student, talking about the way essays explore inner reality but also need to incorporate external reality, describes the coffee shop in Albuquerque she’s writing in, how the coffee is good and the music bad and loud.

In that moment, she is writing what used to be called the familiar essay, relating an experience we the readers have all had, establishing a relationship between us. We’ve suffered that music while trying to write. I recall published essayists who’ve employed that way of pulling the reader in by describing the moth on her window, the warm cat in his lap, the sound of a siren on the street.

A meander of the Colorado River, near Kremmling

In an attempt to define creative nonfiction, several students mention how little laymen—those who are not nonfiction writers—know about it. Like memoir, you might say, because that’s something most people will get, but nonfiction takes many forms. You are loath to say “essay,” because that word has negative connections. Several of my students are teachers and one says her high school students say nonfiction is boring. They are thinking, she adds, of their history textbooks.

Years ago, when I told my high school students that we were going to write essays, there was moaning, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. “Essays,” one of them recited, “five paragraphs, the first paragraph to tell them what you’re going to tell them—.” I cut that explanation short.

“There will be no five-paragraph writing in this class,” I pronounce. “Furthermore, no writing about which you already know what you think.” They were stunned. I threatened them with dire consequences if they turned in five paragraphs. And then they wrote wonderful, painful, humorous things.

Mathematicians have calculated that the most probable path between two points on a surface is in fact a meander. Meanders then may be the norm, not the exception. The question may be not why some rivers meander, but why every river we see does not…A particular essay’s shape may be more akin to one of the other basic natural forms — a sphere or hexagon, a spiral, say, or helix, or branch — but on the whole, I think, what essays do best is meander.

— Mary Paumier Jones, in Creative Nonfiction

Writing that is not linear, that meanders, Rebecca Solnit says, is “concerned not so much with what happens but with what it means; they are less about destination as resolution, and more about meaning revealed along the way.”

The meander is not an efficient way to write. I start with a vague idea, a sentence, maybe an image, and write for several pages before I have an intuition about where I’m going. I spend hours excising extra words from sentences. When I write sentences, I apparently stuff them with superfluous modifiers so that when I come back to them later, I’ll have something to do.

By the time I get the intuition about which bend in the river I’m rounding, several paragraphs or even pages of that first draft have become pointless. Maybe not pointless: beside the point I’ve now decided I’m making. If I like those words, I paste them into an idea file for future reference. Doing that makes them easier to cut. Another adage repeated so often it’s become a cliché: kill your darlings. I open that file from time to time to admire them but reuse those darlings perhaps once in a blue moon.

My online students are revisiting the past, a primary domain of creative nonfiction. Well, they must: I’m making them write a memoir. They’re also writing a personal essay, flash nonfiction, nature writing and a final essay in a genre of their choice. Nonfiction, my students say, is telling the story of your experience, a way to understand yourself and the world.

As I write this the crabapple branches outside my second-story window toss in the hot breeze of our first over-90° day. I have kicked off my shoes. The evaporative cooler turns on. Across the alley, children shout with the joy of summer and their new trampoline. Their voices reach me in brief bursts, like the sound of chimes.


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2 Responses to On Creative Nonfiction

  1. normandosky says:

    Hey! I see what you did there! Very clever, worldly-experienced master writer. Meandering, to me, sounds like what someone does in order to find something to write about. Is that what you said? For me, as a visual artist, I will sometimes just scribble, slowly but with no real subject in mind (it works better that way) until something appears that I can strengthen and turn into an image. Oddly, that’s the method I was using, at 6-years old, when I suddenly discovered that hidden in the mass of twisting lines was the cursive letter “R” which matched exactly the same letter in Roy Rogers’ name, written in lariat rope, on the T-shirt I was wearing. It’s nice to be surprised by your work.

    • dubrava says:

      What a fine early creative memory! Why I love CNF: you’re never sure where you’re going to end up.

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