Writing Non-Fiction.

Tomorrow I turn in my first piece for my creative writing class.

This is not the first class I’ve taken on creative writing. I’ve taken a fair few, considering the relatively small number of years I’ve had to take them. So naturally, I have the voices of several different writing instructors, whose advice I have worshipped, yelling in my ear any time I sit down to write.

There are countless “rules” (which, to be fair to my teachers, I’m sure they would have readily admitted are not hard and fast) that I think of when I write. “Show, don’t tell.” “Use exclamation marks very sparingly.” “Write what you know.”

These are lovely rules, and have helped me a lot over the years. I’m not trying to denounce them, or even to question them. But when it comes to non-fiction, which is what we’re studying first in this particular creative writing class, everything seems to be less sure, less true, less real. It’s hard to know which rules to break, which to bend, how far to go, how close to stay, how much to say, how much to leave unsaid.

You’d think it would be the opposite. You’d think non-fiction would be the easiest genre to write. After all, you don’t have to have any imagination–all you have to do is re-tell something that already happened. Simple, right? 

I’ve heard this time and time again. Actually, I think I heard it out of the mouth of my own husband once, which sent me straight into a swoon. (Well, it at least sent me into a horrified gasp.) But even though I bemoan this logic, it’s a perfectly reasonable way to look at non-fiction writing–if you’ve never tried it.

For me, at the stage of writing and life I’m in right now, this is how I would describe writing non-fiction: You have to take all the details and intricacies and unspoken, unworded things of regular life and somehow fit them onto one little page, and the only tool you have to work with is a 26-letter alphabet. (If you’re an English-writing person.) You have to completely defy reality, which is that we don’t do things in words. There is no narrator constantly describing our actions. Even our thoughts rarely appear in complete sentences. By nature, writing an experience is re-writing it. You can’t possibly write it exactly how it happened, because it didn’t happen in writing.

Moreover, non-fiction requires an obscene amount of deletion. Not only do you have to decide what to include, you have to decide what to exclude. And since it would take longer to write every single event and thought and detail of one day than it would take for all those things to actually happen, you have to exclude much more than you can include.

So you have to cut and paste your life, put some kind of meaning on it, wonder whether anyone will care except your mother, and then put in into a written form that people will not only understand, but enjoy. That’s not easy. And it takes a lot of imagination.

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3 Responses to Writing Non-Fiction.

  1. Greg Bayles says:

    I found the thing that helped me most when I was working on my personal essay (i.e. the only real non-fiction that I’ve done), I got the best stuff out when I would just sit and spit out emotions and images and sounds that I remembered. Afterwards I would go back and try to turn it into something worthwhile, but I found that eventually, things just started to flow. Anyway, if best of luck to you. Here’s the link to my essay if you wanna read it: http://forsakenotthisdream.blogspot.com/2012/11/a-stranger-in-corner.html

    • emucoleman says:

      I’m beginning to think that the only way I’m ever going to get it is to carry a journal around with me and write things down when they happen, or when I start to think of them as fodder for a creative piece. The longer I let things stew in my mind without writing them, even if what I write is garbage, the more difficult it is to write them later. Anyway, that’s sort of what you’re talking about, I think. Writing something is better than writing nothing, even if the something never turns into anything. (How poetic. I certainly hope I never get quoted on that. You know, when I’m famous someday.)

      Thank you for sharing your writing with me. I love being inspired by other writers.

  2. Pingback: Fiction. | A Moment of Time

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