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 Amazon.com. 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. 

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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.