Writing Creative Nonfiction: 5 Things It's Taught Me About All Writing
Once, at one of those literary receptions, a male writer friend introduced me to a woman I didn't know.
“This is Aine,” he said. “She’s “bitextual."
The friend smiled and shook hands, but it was one of those twitchy, embarrassed smiles.
“She writes fiction and non-fiction,” my male-writer friend explained. Hence: bi-textual."
“Oh! Oh, I see!” The smile brightened.
I started out writing fiction, but then, soon after my first short-story publication, I began reading and dabbling in creative nonfiction. I enjoyed the variety and the synergy between the two genres. The more I wrote in each, the more the differences and similarities emerged. Also, I began to understand how some topics are a natural fit for first-person narrative, while others are just natural candidates for fiction.
For over two years now, I’ve been monotextual. It's not a permanent condition. I hadn’t planned it this way. But after many stalled fiction projects, I started a book-length memoir about my immigration to the USA at age 24. Soon into this project, I knew why my previous works had sputtered out. I needed to live monogamously in Non-Fiction-Land. Not `till death do us part. But for as long as it takes to get this book (and a few essays) finished.
Now, I’m over one-third of the way into the memoir project, and waiting to hear my agent’s reaction to the most recently submitted material.
The creative nonfiction gurus tell us (correctly) that the best personal writing employs fiction-writing techniques.
For me, the reverse has also been true. Writing memoir has provided a window into the entire writing process.
Here are 5 things I've learned:
1. Master the narrative dance: In memoir, we must immediately master that interplay between narrator, author and narrative. This three-way dance is damn hard. But in fiction and non-fiction, a well-choreographed process makes for better work.
2. Be smart. Be very smart: Before I started this project, I read lots of women’s memoirs. Some I abandoned after three chapters. Others I slogged through, hoping they would get better. Still others were high on cute, but low on substance. Then there were those few that I devoured, whose authors I wanted to invite to my house for tea. Heck, I'd have had them move right into my spare room.
So what made this last group different? Brain power or, rather, the author's courage to reveal that brain power on the written page. From the narrative voice to the depth of analysis and supporting research, these women opted for intelligent over gimmicky--often, I'll bet, at the cost of book sales. These women know and show that good writing--in all genres--should be an interplay of the intellect and the heart.
3. There are no short cuts: I used to envy those authors who could bang out a novel in a year, or who landed a three-book contract with a three-year deadline. Not anymore. Writing a memoir has taught me how to write to my own creative rhythms, to slow down, go deeper, to give the work the time and thought and love it deserves.
4. Write brave: There is no writing scarier than memoir. But scare is good. Courage is good. Writing our way into and through the scare is what we must do. For all writing. For all genres.
5. Meaning: In his wonderful book, “The Van Gogh Blues,” author, creativity coach and psychologist Eric Maisel writes about deriving and sustaining meaning in and from our creative work--and how our work must give meaning to our lives. Writing my memoir has been an “Ah! Hah!” moment in which I finally “get” what Maisel means. It has re-invested me in the process of writing as a self- and life-sustaining venture, as a way of forging my own identity in the world.
Do you write in more than one genre? If so, how do your two genres inform or cross-pollinate each other?