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.