Nonfiction Like a Brick–Nicole Walker

Sometimes, when you’re writing, you feel you’re beating your head against a wall. That’s not only an appropriate metaphor—it’s part of the point and part of the fun.  This is not to say writing is exclusively a masochistic endeavour. Why do it if it’s only painful? But the “wall” in this metaphor is an important element to writing and one that helps to make creative non-fiction a literary endeavour.

I teach and write both poetry and non-fiction. This last semester, I taught a poetic forms class to my graduate students. Sonnets, sestinas, villanelles. I wanted my students to know the forms to help them to understand in their work, which tends toward free verse, why they break lines, why the poem turns when and where it does, and the possibilities of rhyme and repetition. But I also wanted to make them suffer a little. Not because I’m a sadist (at least not in this class), but because when there are bounds, chains, rules, laws, something inside the mind breaks free. The language becomes sharper. Images become rich. The meaning intensifies. You only have so many iambs to get your point across. These chains and laws are the wall. Your head, beat against that wall, shakes free newly creative ideas.

Walls are inherent to creative non-fiction. A wall of truth and memory. Truth and memory are as great a law as fourteen lines to a sonnet. If, in your writing, you are tied to the truth, attempting to get at the truth makes your language sharper, enriches images, intensifies meaning. “Tie up my hands with your chains, they are bound to set me free,” said St. Augustine. Or maybe it was the band No Means No. Either way, it’s one reason I stick with the term “Creative Non-fiction.” Even if it’s oxymoronic, the “non-fiction” is what helps to make the “creative” happen.

Last winter, my mom invited me to speak to her book club about my book that had just come out. It was hard for her, in a way, to have family secrets spilled all over But she was proud too. It was thanks to her that I loved literature. We had books in every corner of the house. She had an English major. She scribbled in journals of her own. Her book club fostered in me a sense that books brought people together. One of the members of the book club, Kathy Lake, asked why I combined stories about my father’s alcoholism with stories of how the Mormon settlers transformed Salt Lake Valley from an arid desert into a cradle of green. I answered, the way the Mormons transformed the mountain streams to reconfigure the valley below was similar to what my dad was doing with his drinking. Trying to change a seemingly unchangeable situation. The rivers flowed down the mountains, funnelled into the Great Salt Lake. My dad drank a lot of liquor. The Mormons made reservoirs to stop the rivers before they reached the lake in order to irrigate their farmland. My father went to AA, Betty Ford, Minneapolis Rehab Center to try to stop the drinking. In the end, the Mormons were more successful than my dad—they transformed the landscape. But, as I spoke to the book club, I understood that the content of my book—that one spends one’s whole life wrestling with granite-like forces—paralleled its form, and that truth, natural force that it is, has to be contended with in writing.

When I reach for a memory, for instance, of my dad getting up from watching Dallas to get what I then thought was a drink of water, I envision the scene. I can hear the clinking of the ice cubes. The jug-jug of the water filling the glass. The shifting blues coming from the TV screen. In my memory, the glass is filled with water. Later, when he is sick with cirrhosis, I have to rethink my memory. Was it water? If it was vodka, how does that change things? Does it change the smell in the room? The colors coming from the TV? Yes and no. The TV still shimmers blue, but now that blue is a little darker. The innocent sound of ice now sounds like the dum-dom-dum of mystery revealed. J.R. Ewing’s words are even more sinister. That truth, or those truths, combine to make different kinds of senses. One is a new, logical sense. If my dad is sick, then maybe he was drinking. But there’s another layer to that sense, an intensified meaning. That my dad, though drinking, sheltered me from what he was doing. That the drinking, at that moment, had no sinister result. That in my memory, water is water and my dad is my dad. That the truth was possibly different is what makes it interesting, puts some stress between memory and logic, and gives me reason to put the story to language. The language—“blue,” “Ewing,” “ice”—deepens the meaning as does double duty trying to be faithful to both memory and truth.

Shelley wrote in his defense of knowledge, “We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know.” Knowledge, truth, memory are the laws, the chains, the givens against which writers flail. It is our creative faculties that turn those truths and memories into meaning.  The knowing is the wall. The creative faculties the head. If our heads, like our genres, become bent a little in the banging, it’s worth it. We created something new.


Nicole Walker received her PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, USA. Her nonfiction book, Quench Your Thirst With Salt, won the 2011 Zone 3 non-fiction prize and will be published next year. She is also the author of a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street, 2010). Her work has appeared in the journals Fence, the Iowa Review, Fourth Genre, Shenandoah, New American Writing, the Seneca Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. She has been granted a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry.


This essay originally appeared at Writers and Artists: The Insider Guide to the Media. 

Bending Genre–Margot Singer

Once—just once—I wrote a story that that I didn’t need to revise.

From shining idea to fingers tapping at the keyboard to my workshop mates smiling in appreciation and urging me to send it out, capped off in short order with publication in a respected literary journal and a prestigious prize—only once did this lighting bolt of good fortune strike me.

This is what I used to tell people. I remembered it vividly: the feeling of flow as I sat at my desk writing, the flash of insight into structure, the ease with which the words and images and paragraphs fell into place. The rest of the time, of course, writing was the usual hard slog, a slow and painstaking process of groping about in the dark for structure and meaning, turning sentences around in my head, cutting and pasting, giving up and starting over again.

And then one day, standing in the shower, hot water beating on my head, it came to me that I had got it completely wrong. It wasn’t true that I had produced a perfect piece of writing—not even once. The reality was that I had struggled with a previous incarnation of the piece in question (and there they were, multiple drafts of it, stuffed away in my files) that amounted to a failure I had forgotten about, or blocked out, until now. My so-called perfect story was, in fact, a phoenix risen from the ashes of those failures, resurrected four years on.

The point here, however, is not the slipperiness of memory, or the power of wishful thinking, or even the contingent nature of the truth. What’s relevant is what happened in the process of revision (a process I hadn’t even consciously thought of as revision)—what I did with that lump of discarded raw material—that succeeded in bringing it to life.

I had been trying to write about my grandmother. I didn’t have much to go on—only my childhood memories of her and the stories she used to tell. I did some research, but the little information I could find felt thin. I tried to stick to the facts about my grandmother, but I kept writing about myself, and I wasn’t sure how to make those strands connect. The writing felt constrained, hemmed in. I gave up.

When I came back to the material, four years later, I approached it initially as fiction rather than nonfiction. I called my grandmother by a different name. I gave myself a different name as well. I opened up the gates. I gave myself permission to invent.

But what emerged was not fiction but a hybrid, a story-essay braided into three discrete narrative strands: a first person memoir; a version of my grandmother’s stories narrated in the first person in my best approximation of her voice; and an explicitly fictional section, narrated in third person, in which I imagined what my grandmother’s life might have been like.

To say that the third strand was “explicitly fictional” is not to say I lied.

Even in that third strand, which was the most exciting part to write, I either stuck to the facts or made it clear that I was deviating from them deliberately. For example, while I imagined my grandmother having an affair, even my least open-minded relatives understood that I wasn’t suggesting she’d actually had one. Rather, it was apparent that I was imagining her having an affair because I was having one at the time. In other words, it wasn’t story about a woman having an affair so much as an essay about the longing for connection, about the desire to find a reflection of oneself in a person one loves. It wasn’t even an essay about my grandmother (not biography) so much as a meditation on storytelling, on the persistence and elusiveness of the past.

What I discovered was the power of opening up a story beyond the bare-bones skeleton of fact. I learned that there’s a kind of magic portal that opens when you use words like maybe or perhaps. When you use the subjunctive mood (If it had happened this way … ), the conditional tense (It might have happened like this …). So long as you tell the reader what you’re doing (which is to say, if you are honest), I came to see, you can do anything you want.

Here is what I remember. Here is what I imagine. Here is what I think. How powerful they are, these modes of perception (truthful modes) that spread their wings beyond the narrow confines of reported fact.

So dare to bend genre, to flex the confines of story, essay, memoir. Admit what you don’t know and take off from there. When you discover the true meaning that you’re seeking, it might not even feel like the hard work of writing and re-writing at all.

Margot Singer is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. She also teaches in the low-residency MFA Program at Queens University in Charlotte, N.C., USA. She is the author of a collection of stories, The Pale of Settlement (University of Georgia Press, 2007), winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the Glasgow Prize for Emerging Writers, and the Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction. Her stories and essays have appeared in the Kenyon Review, Conjunctions, the Gettysburg Review, Shenandoah, and elsewhere. She has received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Prose and the Thomas Carter Prize for the Essay.

This essay originally appeared at Writers and Artists–The Insiders Guide to the Media.

100×10–Eric Lemay

Sometimes there are words. Sometimes there are big words with small ideas. Sometimes there are small words with big ideas. Sometimes you can push go. Sometimes you can hear the small words make big sounds. Sometimes there is big skill. Sometimes there are genres that you can only play. Sometimes there are platforms that don’t allow frames. Sometimes, to get the Bending Genre essay of the week, you have to click here. And then again, there.

Writing in the Major Key–Joe Oestreich

One day nine years ago, I bellied up to the urinal next to a fantasy writer named Charlie. This was during the second year of my MFA, and the fiction class that Charlie and I were enrolled in had just finished workshopping a story of mine. After we zipped and flushed, Charlie said, “Hey, man. I heard one of your songs on the radio the other day. Good stuff. Really poppy.”

He was talking about Watershed, the band I’d played in since I was a teenager, the band whose budding success had driven me to drop out of college as an undergrad and, years later, whose frustrations had pushed me back to school to try for a master’s in creative nonfiction. As Charlie had said, Watershed’s songs are poppy—and fast. The kind of songs where boy-meets-and-loses-girl in three chords and three minutes. Every now and then one of them got played on the radio, and I smiled at how cool it was that a classmate had heard it. “Thanks, man,” I said.

Charlie turned toward the sinks. “But here’s what I’m wondering,” he said. “Why doesn’t your prose have that same kind of, I don’t know, concision, I guess. That same quick, hard burst of joy?”

His question stumped me for a second. I’d come out of that day’s workshop feeling good, thinking the class had liked my piece: 6,000 words chronicling a disintegrating marriage in the Detroit suburbs, via a painfully detailed backstory and narrated from the POV of (stick with me here) the wife’s Guatemalan trouble doll. Clever! Meta! This story had come on the heels of my first effort, an 8,000-word behemoth that was also about a rocky Michigan marriage, with an even more painfully detailed backstory, this time from the POV of a small town tow-truck driver. Gritty! With social class sensitivity!

My fiction was positively breezy compared to much of the nonfiction I’d been writing, longwinded essays that left no personal crisis unexamined. My fellow nonfictioneers were largely doing the same, and in our workshops we dissected pieces about death, disease, sexual abuse, and—that ever-present staple—white men plagued with chronic dissatisfaction. Now that I think about it, sitting next to some of my classmates’ manuscripts on that workshop table, my essays, earnest as they were, were comparatively lighthearted. But measured against the song Charlie had heard on the radio, a lot of my work was, well, what’s the opposite of poppy? Sludgy?

I don’t remember exactly how I answered Charlie in that bathroom, but I probably unleashed a screed about how prose writing gave me the space to delve deep into character, motivation, and the ways in which the past comes to bear upon the present. Because this was grad school, I likely used the word ontology. I almost certainly used privilege as a verb.

The truth is I didn’t know then why I could write concise and joyful songs but had trouble writing concise and joyful prose. I think I know now. As an MFA student, I didn’t yet have the experience or training to write poppy. I hadn’t earned the confidence. I thought that in order to be taken seriously, I had to take myself über-seriously. I thought that longer + sadder + darker = more important. I thought that real writers wrote in the minor key.


I see now that this was the same mistake I’d made as a high schooler in the mid-Eighties, when I first picked up a hand-me-down acoustic. I figured myself to be a smart kid. I was good at calculus and physics, and I dominated American civics. I knew I could easily become a chemical engineer or a lawyer. But those jobs were for pudgy suckers with Sansabelts and comb-overs. I was going to be a rock star. Not some headbanging baffoon, but a serious musician-type, like the guys in my favorite band back then, Rush. But every time I strung together the three chords I knew—A, D, and E—it always came out sounding silly and simple. How could that be? I read Ayn Rand. I was sincere, dammit. Striving to be intense. I wanted to write songs that mattered (the italics here indicate that I am bringing two clenched fists to my forehead in tormented earnestness—to be followed immediately by earnest torment).

One day I brought my acoustic over to my friend Colin’s house. He also played guitar, and he had decided that the two of us should start a band, the band that would eventually become Watershed. While I was strumming away on my trusty A-major chord, Colin told me to shift my index finger so that it sat on the first fret of the B-string. I wrestled my fingers into position, and there it was: A-minor, the sincere sound of my sincere heart. Ayn Rand played on six strings. From there I learned D-minor and E-minor, and before long I was writing lyrics like He finds disillusion here, disillusion there. He drinks from the well of his own despair. My minor-ness was boundless.

This reliance on minor keys didn’t last long—only all through high school and my first three years of college. But after my bandmates and I dropped out of school and into a rusty van, we learned what disillusion really looked like (playing humorless, five-minute ballads for the bartender and the doorman on a Tuesday night in Charleston, WV), and my sense of what counted as an important song changed. I stopped listening to Rush and started listening to the Replacements. I slid my index finger back to the major position and got to work writing three-minute power-pop tunes.

Why the switch in sensibility? If you would have asked me then, I would have said that I had finally figured out the kind of song I was actually good at writing: quick and catchy. I would have said that I’d gotten better at my craft and that “lightweight” pop songs are much harder to write than “serious” minor key dirges. I would have said that songwriters too often use the minor key as a shortcut to—or a substitute for—meaning, as if minor chords automatically give a song gravitas. I would have said, “Rock songs don’t need gravitas. They just need to fucking rock.” I would have used those exact words, and I would have been exactly right.

I’m twice as old now as I was then, so I can see that there’s an additional element I didn’t quite understand. Before I dropped out of school, everything I knew about heartbreak and hardship was purely theoretical. My life was simple. It kicked ass. I was a civics-dominating, Rush-loving, suburban kid with nothing more dire to worry about than talking my mom into letting me see the R-rated Risky Business at the megaplex. Because my day-to-day was so poppy, so major-keyed, I had the luxury of tormented earnestness. But as soon as I dropped out of school, hit the road, and started getting my ass kicked a little bit, then I lost the need to write glum and dark songs. When my life edged toward minor, it freed me up to write major. And by then I was a practiced enough songwriter to know how to do it.


Sorry for that painfully detailed backstory, but I’m exploring the ways in which the past comes to bear upon the present. And right now, in the present, my life still kicks ass, but it’s much more complicated than it was nine years ago when I had that exchange with Charlie or twenty years ago when the band was playing for the bartender and the doorman in West Virginia. Now I’m the father of a four-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter. Now I have to think about the quality of the kindergarten I’ll soon be sending my son to. Now I have to monitor childhood speech development and cognitive milestones, and I have to find a way to explain to my kids that yes, we do in fact live on a big blue marble that circles the sun. And yes, some day the sun will go dark.

Now that my life is so wonderfully complex—and now that I’m a more experienced and confident prose writer—I’m trying to write with more sweetness and light. I’m trying to write with self-deprecation but not self-flagellation. I’m trying to avoid writing (and reading) essays that strike the same minor key notes my own work has struck time and time again: excessive gimmickry, admitting ones own faults and limitations in a naked attempt to gain the reader’s sympathy, the inclusion of backstory under the guise of exploring the ways in which the past comes to bear upon the present but really doing it mostly for nostalgia’s sake, exaggerating the innocence of children to amp up sentimentality.

I’m trying, but it’s not easy.

Writing in the minor key is easy—for lots of reasons. From a craft perspective, stories need trouble, and trouble ain’t cheery. From a practical perspective, ours is a community that rewards the sincere and solemn, as most literary journals lean to that side of the scale. Then again, the fact that last year’s AWP Conference featured two separate panels on how to inject humor into creative nonfiction suggests that we already suspect we’ve been taking ourselves too seriously.

Mostly, though, the minor key is easy because the material presents itself so easily. Death and suffering are everywhere. So are beauty and happiness, of course, but we often avoid writing about them because we don’t want to seem Pollyannaish. Safer to go either sad or ironic. Which, by the way, is how “important,” hipster bands typically cover mainstream pop songs: either in a whisper or while flying a postmodern devil-horn fist. Both ways can be cowardly. 


After starting to work on this essay, I put it aside for two weeks so that my wife, kids, and I could travel to Ohio to spend some time with my wife’s mom, who, according to her doctors and home hospice care workers, had only a few days to live. I hate to admit this, but while we were staying at my mother-in-law’s house, essentially waiting for her to die, I found myself processing the events not so much as lived experiences but as potential essay topics. Needless to say, all of those topics were dreary. An afternoon of shopping became “Buying My Son His First Funeral Suit.” An excellent curried-chicken salad dropped off by a neighbor became “The Last Grape on the Serving Spoon.” And, yeah, I know it. Despite my original intentions, this essay, the one you’re reading now, took a sharp turn toward the minor key. Like I say, I’m trying, but it’s not easy.

Maybe I can learn from my mother-in-law. She was a piano teacher, and the hospital bed she spent her last days in sat in her living room, two or three steps from the piano bench. A few hours before she died, she smiled and told all of us who were gathered around her bedside that when she looked back on her life, “It was awesome.”

In the moment that was as minor as minor gets, she played one last resounding major chord. A quick, hard burst of joy.





Joe Oestreich is the author of Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll. His second book, Lines of Scrimmage: A Story of Football, Race, and Redemption (co-written with Scott Pleasant), is forthcoming from the University Press of Mississippi. He teaches at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC, where he co-edits Waccamaw

Stone Houses: a Poem about Fiction within Nonfiction–Sonya Huber

The “really real,” as William James called it, will not be theorized.
My theory was I could tell just the vivid rollercoaster parts.
My writer friends read those pages and said there’s not enough ketchup and too much mustard, so to speak.
“Off the record,” I said, and proceeded to tell them the extra-page details, the ham, bacon, and eggs: the intimate details that made him three-dimensional,
the secrets that would give it all away.
(sigh) they said: “That should be on the page.”
Dammit, I said, in so many words.

I have to say the real thing, but I can’t, cannot,
or think I can’t.
My lovely writing friends write fiction, and they got my fiction brain humming:
Driving northbound on the highway home from that writing meeting I saw how I
could maybe give him a different job, a different city, a different passion—
extend the preface caveats wider to fit in all the dilemmas
and beg for reader pardon.

In fact: in the next moment, stuck in rush-hour traffic, I thought it would be perfect to make him a stonemason
and he would build perfect stone houses, you see, and the metaphor
took me away and I could see it and as I drove
I made the specific sculptures he might create, and I saw this phantom
as his hands strewed gravel, made Stonehenge, taught me words like
igneous and basalt which I already knew but was pretending
for the sake of this geologic fantasy that I did not know
because that made it neater and slightly
better than it was.
I was not really driving on the highway
I was falling in love with this man I’d never met, this man who made analogous art
and I could taste it.
I heard the song of fiction and it was meaningful and good.

I passed exits and off-ramps and knew next with
a sick feeling in my gut like a cruel word or getting fired that
the promise I made for this specific project and only to myself, the formal constraint, was that each sentence should be true.
Each effing sentence.

Could I do it anyway? But that won’t work because I’ve written almost this whole book
(think of the time)
and written myself into a corner of sorts. What now—what the book needs…

Then, I-95 south of Bridgeport around exit 25, I broke up with nonfiction.
I hated it: nonfiction’s flat, frizzy, fizzed-out demanding bitchiness.
There was nothing on that nonfiction highway: no art, no sweetness,
no stonemason
just green square metal signs and the humidity and the asphalt
and it was as sucky as when I was ten, without hope that the future could be
strung with sentences. Like I was ten
and with really bad hair. A home perm. That bad.
(Oglivy. Bangs curled in the wrong direction. The unavoidable really real.)

The relentless realness of facts slung by like roadside debris
and I wondered when exactly I had taken this fraternity pledge
this Bodhisattva vow complete with hazing
Just let it be a novel let it be why not rewrite it as a novel
I had wanted to write fiction, you see, and loved it first. I wanted to
but am not a novelist only because I
good at it.

Or: It turns out I am writing nonfiction because I am stubborn.
I could just switch sides.
There are no sides. There is only the bargain in each project that I make with my self. And those bargains are only as good as every stupid human promise like
I love you.

But then as the difficult industrial lace of rust and fences hemmed me in
and the smokestacks of Bridgeport anchored the sky as I sped past on I-95
I realized I only had to say the next true sentence
and the next true sentence is this:
there is something I cannot tell you
but here is why I cannot tell you
and here’s how it feels not to tell you
but here’s what I can tell you:
I can tell you how he liked his coffee.

and I can tell you the size of my grief at carrying secrets
which is the weight of being alive
and I can tell you why secrets matter sometimes
more than pages
and I can tell you how my thin worn-out secrets
and the promises I make to myself like formal constraints
make me believe
I am still trying to be a good person even though
I have made so many

Sonya Huber is the author of two books of creative nonfiction, Opa Nobody and Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, and a textbook, The Backwards Research Guide for Writers (2011). She teaches at Fairfield University and in the Fairfield Low-Residency MFA Program.

Annie Dillard’s Cat–Liz Stephens

I think more than you’d suppose about Annie Dillard’s cat. Also, Vivian Gornick’s mother. Many of you will see already where I’m going with this. Some of you will already have an opinion on what makes that cat and that mother different from a boy who jumped from a roof of a casino one night, or another, in 2003.

I write literal truth, actual nonfiction. I tell readers exactly what happened, any ways my knowledge of an event is limited, and my bias for or against it, and I make no composite characters (I’m particularly proud of that, too proud no doubt). Life is insanely unbelievable enough, each life rich enough for two lifetimes. I don’t even make up dialogue that is more than one sort of organically transcribed step from verbatim. I may also tell you that an event makes me think of, even “see,” unicorns and leprechauns, but you will understand if I do so that I am speaking metaphorically, or at the very least, claiming only my own experience, not the facts of the experience at large. I’m just like that. I come from a family in which every single member might remember whole decades differently and then proceed to hinge our future personalities on it. So our interpretations are broad. But our factual claims are parsed down to the most excruciating, politest line where our own memory meets the other’s with the least violence. We hate to argue on uncertain ground.

On the one hand, facts. On the other hand, feelings. Desires. Wishes. The kind of memories that are packaged like wedding dresses in clouds of archival cushioning, a sort of tissue paper of bruises and heart squeezes and gasps.

I admire with a hot and sweeping lust the writer Anne Carson, who it seems to me could not give any fewer shits about literal truth but commits wantonly to an emotional reality. Here’s the fairy forest, the beginning of each piece seems to indicate, the mouth of the Labyrinth. Once you’ve reached the center – she shrugs – You are confused maybe? But I told you where we were going, and you said yes. Opposite to this on the spectrum of my trust, and thus my love, are writers like James Frey (poor man, short-hand among us for liar) and John D’Agata, the author in About a Mountain of the boy who jumped from the casino roof a certain night; though on the actual night the boy jumped, the boy is the author of his own life, and others can only relay his facts. When I read a piece that I believe to be true – not tricky in its form, not winky in its rhetoric, not magically realistic in its content – then I expect it to be true. I do not want to fall in love under false pretenses. D’Agata is my boyfriend who tells me he has no other girlfriends, only for me to realize, months later, that he means they are not girlfriends because he does not call them that, and so.

What has all of this to do with cats and mothers?

Annie Dillard begins a memoir of hers, the justly well-regarded Pilgrimage at Tinker Creek, with a passage about her cat jumping onto her and leaving bloody footprints. The blood, I think, distracted people from ever putting too much thought into the cat, least of all its provenance, and anyway, who would wonder at it, a solitary female writer owning a cat, the least surprising development in a memoir perhaps ever. Only at a reading as she was asked about her work did she as she answered supply this electrifying fact: the cat was not hers.

Well, who cares? People apparently. Readers had been told it was her cat, by her. I used to have a cat, she’d said. Still, in the end, it really wasn’t that important. It’s fine, we’re fine. But we had been burned by other untruths from other authors, and it stung, and now there it stands as a cautionary tale to other memoirists. No one wants to be caught with a cat that isn’t theirs.

What stuck for me was really only this. How could such a capable writer, one who connects me so deeply to the whole of the wide and mysterious everyday world, miss such an opportunity for metaphor? The cat of a neighbor, the cat-at-large of the neighborhood, knows her with such intimacy that it would leap through her bedroom window to her, step lightly onto her chest, and print her with its last mission, from the streets across her into the bedsheets, as the author wakes up to the world herself?

It’s hard to write. Sometimes fewer words work better. She was on her way to another, perhaps better, point. All of that can be true, and still. No one wants to be caught with that cat again.

Gornick’s mother in Vivian Gornick’s memoir Fierce Attachments got a composite treatment in which Gornick collapsed multiple conversations into one or two. You are maybe now getting a sense either of the exacting drive for truth that drives memoir, or a sense that perhaps we need additional hobbies. But the fact is, it matters, this imprecision. It is slippery. One likes to know where it is, and where it isn’t. Gornick is an agile writer, like Dillard, and choose this for narrative reasons easily understood. I think writers reacted badly to Gornick’s admission – again, made by herself in a craft conversation with students – because it worried them not in and of itself but because under it writers sensed an abyss. It was a gateway choice.  After it, what? A life imagined whole cloth? James Frey?

No. After it, we address the humans that are writers at play. Memoir is not after all autobiography. You will see why I am so forgiving of Dillard and Gornick’s narrative  manifest destiny momentum, and will marvel at how I have the cajones to talk badly about my boyfriend John D’Agata.

Time and I are intimates. Not sexy intimate but the kind where pillowcases smell like the head of the person who sleeps there and also the way you accidently stare at the lines on your partner’s face of fifteen years instead of remembering to listen to them talk sometimes, or maybe that’s just me. The kind of intimacy you never pursued on purpose.

I track time like a jealous lover, because I am fearful of death. I used to think something in my memory I had yet to unlodge stuck that fear there, something in the way I learned about death. That my father became a priest when I was around ten and I was faced with theology and existentialism at such a combustible age? That the extreme force of will I was born with couldn’t change this one thing ever? The time when my teacher told a room of fourth graders that the sun would be imploding some day and would be taking our descendants with it, but not to worry, humankind might be kaput by then anyway? Was that the day? In any case, I have begun to think it is genetic because my very young daughter worries with it too, like another loose tooth.

And in my obsessive account-taking of time that I call “writing nonfiction,” I did fall in a sort of love with time. We became familiar. I watch its movements as closely as I might a Brassai photograph held to a lamplight: Paris was good that year, that kiss will always have happened, that woman was young once too. It is a lover who will leave me, I am sure of it, but while it is here I will never take for granted its lush face, its deliberate pace, its follies and humors, the moments when I can feel the force of it on me. It is intimate, as I said, my attention.

So when I wrote my first book, a memoir, the only thing I tinkered with truth-wise was time. I knew just how to do; it seemed fair, it was my familiar, and I knew well what worked on it. Other people are other people. I would never mess with their lives. Ask anyone who has read the book: I was extremely fair to other people. Hey, reviews say it. Also, I was accurate about the place I lived to an anthropological degree. No fact-checker would need to wonder about the miles that truly lie between Salt Lake City and Wellsville, Utah, nor about the mores and habits of my Mormon neighborhood from dusk to dawn. The dialogue of everyone is just what they said, the wonderous puzzle of humans saying crazy amazing things or perfectly exemplary every day things just replicated lovingly in the text.

But writers: I moved before the book was done. And the book was about being there.

The infraction is so slight. One trip taken after I moved is included in the timeline as having happened last, just before I moved. But I’ve thought about it a lot. I’m glad I did it too (she says defensively) because in thinking about this narrative choice, I learned something very important.

I think no one writes more beautifully about temporal moments than Virginia Woolf. I’m not the first one to think this – her essay and collection both called “Moments of Being” are anthologized and taught widely ­­– but I’m one of the cadre of readers who believe it. No one else has honored so well those moments that fall in between other moments, the ones that define us in ways we can’t explain when we aren’t looking for it, so much better than those moments we work ourselves up for and stand on the top of the mountain for, waiting on the lightning and the tablets to be passed down. And my time as I left such a beloved place was full of this, the inconveniently sublime. Maudlin ridiculous moments patting trees and sides of houses, hikes of pilgrimage and exodus on days of horrible weather, sitting on my dogs’ graves speaking, it must have appeared, in tongues, to nothing. And in these ways the occasion on which I returned to Utah, the place of the book, after I’d moved, well, it was not on a different timeline. My address had changed but my head hadn’t budged. Splitting hairs? Sure. But did it affect anyone else? No.

And so that’s where my line is. If Vivian Gornick wants to mishmash all her deceased mother’s conversations into one, she’s allowed under my own law of creative nonfiction. She’s feeling it. I’m unlikely to do that largely because I am interested in the mundane aggravation of seemingly worthless time (see above, re: me and Time’s love affair) and what it reveals on further investigation, i.e. all the times our mothers don’t say anything “worth” recounting. But I haven’t tried to telescope forty years of conversations yet, so don’t count me out.

I wrote once that memoir is held by a “tensile strength.” I think unacknowledged untruth, in nonfiction, is the un-annealer, the ruiner of metals and bonds, the thing that anti-climactically releases the tension of the narrative into disparate parts. I think that the truth of this unbelievable life, well-considered and well-loved with the attention of craft and retrospection, is the spring we can’t stop pressing together if only to watch it work over and over, jumping in our hands like a live thing.



Liz Stephens is the author of the memoir The Days Are Gods from University of Nebraska Press. She has served as Managing Editor of Brevity, was a finalist for the Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction, and is included in an upcoming anthology Dirt: A Love Story from University of New England Press.

On Not Being Able to Write It–Wendy Rawlings

In 1988, fresh out of college and working at a macrobiotic deli in a health food store, I had an affair with the stock manager, a married Irishman living illegally in the United States and the father of a three-month-old daughter. In the mornings, when we met before work to make love in the back of my car, he smelled of baby powder and the beer he’d drunk the night before at what he called his local, The Dribble Inn. We flirted through the workday, French-kissed in the walk-in freezer. One day six months or so after our affair began he didn’t show up for work. Just like that, he was gone. This was in the days before cell phones; he didn’t get in touch to tell me that his wife had found out and given him an ultimatum: quit his job or she’d take his daughter away and make sure he never saw her again.

Two years later I’m in graduate school in Colorado, sharing an apartment with some guy working on his MBA. At seven in the morning I get a phone call. It’s the Irishman. He and his wife have split up; he wants to see me again. In his wallet he’s been carrying a note I wrote him. He has read it so many times that it’s falling apart.

He flies out to visit me. I’ve just gotten over the chicken pox and my face is still flecked with scars. We’re massively in love with each other. I have written down everything that’s happened between us, since the day we met, and in his absence I’ve imagined him and dreamed about him and probably misremembered him in a hundred thousand ways. Now we’ve found our way back to each other. I spend most of the next summer in the tiny house he rents with three other men, two of them English and living in the States illegally. For its cesspool problem the house has earned the nickname, “The Swamp,” which we have to navigate to get inside and make love on his twin bed with the trundle pull out for when his daughter stays with him.

I move to Utah to pursue a Ph.D. We maintain our relationship long distance. Two years later, on my birthday, my friends take me to Chili’s for dinner. I’m sitting there wondering why my friends have taken me to a shitty fast food restaurant on my birthday when a waiter steps up to the table and places an ice bucket containing a bottle of champagne in front of me. The waiter is my Irishman. He has come straight from the airport and he’s here to stay.

I’m one of those writers who draws from my own life to write fiction. My first book is a collection of short stories, Come Back Irish. Versions of the Irishman appear in many of my stories. But someday, I tell myself I’ll write a memoir. That memoir.

I have tried for thirteen years to write that memoir.

I have not written that memoir.


Why do some nonfictional stories resist being told? On a table near my writing desk sit twenty-four journals I kept during the years of my love affair with the Irishman. They’re filled with details that evoke the tenderness and difficulty and hilarity of two people from very different backgrounds who fell in love nonetheless. There’s the time I took him to dinner at a friend’s house in a wealthy suburb of New York City and the host presented him with a six-pack of Guinness, as if it was the birthright and duty of all Irishmen to drink six packs of Guinness (N.B. he hates Guinness, is a fan of Budweiser). The day I first met his daughter, at the wedding of one of his roommates, and I got nervous and drank so much wine I threw up all over my green linen dress in his van after (thankfully) we had dropped off his daughter at her mother’s house. He got me undressed and into his bed, and when I awoke several hours later, I wandered barefoot down the street to the Dribble Inn and found him drinking pints with the usual gang. “Ah, barefooted like a peasant,” he exclaimed, and didn’t even mention the embarrassment I’d made of myself earlier. Or one time in Utah, when he was giving me a ride to work in the truck he bought when he moved out there with me and I noticed a black liquid sloshing around in the plastic well between our seats. “A sea of tea!” he said. He was in the habit of drinking a cup of tea on the way to work at Fedex, and over time, tea had sloshed out of his mug and into the well. He liked it like that.

And one time we’ve made love in the back of the van and afterwards he’s hungry, so we go to the drive-thru at Taco Bell, ten in the evening, and he buys a bunch of stuff to eat and we sit in the van in the parking lot while he rests the clamshell on the steering wheel and eats messily and happily, licking his fingers. I refuse to eat anything at this late hour. At the end, folding the clamshell shut, he lets out a despairing sigh. “What?” I ask, alarmed. To which he exclaims, reaching into the paper bag beside him, “I forgot my mild and spicy sauce!”

I’ve often tried to begin the memoir with one of these moments, but it falls flat. We are too ordinary; I cannot in words convey the charm of his accent and the unfettered pleasure he takes in his senses without turning him into a leprechaun.

Have I just not found the right form to tell this story, the right voice? Is the story of two people from different backgrounds falling in love just too played out? Do I simply lack the confidence of Mary Karr and Tobias Wolff? Or are some stories meant only to be lived, not told?

It has been fifteen years since I left the garden-level apartment with the intermittent box elder bug infestation where we lived together. He still lives there, still pays $400 a month for rent, still has the framed Matisse poster in his living room that I forgot when I moved out and and asked him to ship to me in Alabama, where I met my husband and got married ten years ago. Recently I visited Utah again – for an atheist convention, of all things – and met him for dinner. It was the first time I didn’t swoon when I saw him. He was an ordinary middle-aged man eating a plate of fish and chips. In a few months, he told me, he’s taking his Filipina girlfriend to his hometown in Ireland and marrying her.

Is there an algorithm that will predict the moment when a writer can begin productively to translate life experience into nonfiction? Must a certain number of years go by? Or does this impasse mean I’m supposed to give up on my desire to write the nonfiction version and write a novel instead?  In order to write the memoir, must our feelings toward the experience we want to write about be utterly neutralized, as by some reverse alchemy that changes gold back into workaday metal, “massively in love” into mere material? But by the time I’ve reached neutral, will I still want to write that book? If I have to wait until I’m sixty, will I be even be able to summon the intensity of those years?

You tell me. I’m still sitting here with my twenty-four journals, waiting.




Wendy Rawlings is the author of two books, The Agnostics and Come Back Irish. Her nonfiction has appeared most recently in Creative Nonfiction, The Cincinnati Review, Passages North and Crab Orchard Review. She teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Alabama.