Confessions of a (Nonfiction) Writer

Okay, I admit it: I like nonfiction.

Now this might not seem like too big of an admission for a blogger to make–well, of course she likes writing nonfiction, that’s all she does around here, anyway–but, for me, at least, it actually is a big deal. See, I don’t want to like nonfiction. In fact, I’ve spent the past several years trying to convince myself that I prefer fiction–and, to some extent, I still do prefer it.

(Oh, come on now, Bekah, no need to go into denial here, you’ve already gotten the worst of it out…)

But it’s true. When I sit down to read a book, it’s usually a novel I’m after, or a book of short stories–with the notable exceptions of a few amazing nonfiction books such as Outliers and King Leopold’s Ghost and Will in the World–and, when I daydream about a mythic future in which I’m a best-selling author (with a few Pulitzers and National Book Awards to my name, of course), the book in my hands as I dole out those interviews with talk show hosts is invariably fiction. When I remind myself that I need to spend more time writing, I sit down to one of my several in-progress short stories, and console myself that, come November (aka NaNoWriMo), I will at last begin work on a novel.

Yet, even so, when I just sit down to write, fiction is not what comes out.

It’s a cliche of writing to say that writers write, not because they want to, necessarily, but because they can’t help themselves. Well, as much as I may hate to admit it, I can help myself when it comes to fiction; love it as I may, my writing process in that genre is full of jerks and half-starts and self-doubt. I question my characters, I question my word choice, I question my conflict(s), I question my pacing, I question where, exactly, the story is going, or needs to go. It becomes almost impossible for me to turn off my self-critic and self-editor and just write. I may love the outcome, sometimes, but getting there is often nothing less than painful.

Then there’s nonfiction.

Shortly after high school, I was reading The Writing Life, a book of essays written by famous authors on the subject of writing that a high school teacher had given me, and I remember getting to one entry by a famous biographer, describing his process of becoming a nonfiction writer. The book itself is boxed away somewhere right now, but his general reasoning for his genre choice has haunted me ever since I first read it: He said his life had been too boring, too ordinary, for him to write fiction. I didn’t want that to be me.

I’ll be honest, before college I didn’t even know there was such a thing as creative nonfiction; in my thoughts, writing existed in two categories: fiction, and textbooks. That may be a bit of an oversimplification, but not much of one–if I’m remembering right, I read my first-ever piece of personal narrative, an excerpt from Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, during my senior year of high school, and it existed in my mind as an interesting, but isolated, writing form. Besides, even that was an exercise of journalism, and of research, more than of creativity. Creative nonfiction? That just seemed like a contradiction in terms.

Even in college, creative nonfiction flew under the radar with me–I got a Creative Writing degree on the fiction track (the only other option was poetry), and it wasn’t until my senior year that I took my first and, to date, only class in creative nonfiction.

But I was hooked. Sitting down to write was so easy–I just wrote! No questioning my story–it happened! No questioning my characters–they existed! Sure, I still had pacing and word choice to think about, but the primary struggles behind those concerns–namely, the constant preoccupation with setting up my main character’s personality and motivations through tone–disappeared, since the narrator was, suddenly, no one other than myself. My creative voice sprang forth almost without my trying. It was bliss.

And it is bliss–even now, as I type this, I cannot help but remember that that is what I am doing, now: writing nonfiction. And it was what I was doing, all last year, as I wrote my stories from Taiwan. When I want to process something, I write. I can’t help myself. And what do I write? Nonfiction.

What I didn’t understand about the biographer’s description of his entry into the field, but which I understand now, is that nonfiction of any sort is more forgiving than fiction of an ordinary background–but that doesn’t necessitate a boring life. In fact, in the case of creative nonfiction, it requires precisely the opposite: you must go have amazing adventures, or at least be able to dramatize your smaller ones, or you will have nothing to write about.

As a fiction writer, it actually helps if you had a screwed up childhood or identity issues or what have you, because those are the sorts of real human problems that go into making real human characters out of the ideas in your head; those are the sorts of fictional people people want to read about. As a nonfiction writer, reality’s okay–all you have to do is be able to organize it in such a way that it becomes interesting and meaningful. Nonfiction is intensely personal, and it’s that, very intimate, nature, and the author’s ability to bring others into that space, that makes for a good piece. Drama isn’t necessary if you’re doing it right.

So yes, I like fiction–I like reading it, and I want to like writing it. But the fact is, at this point at least, I’m a nonfiction writer–might as well step out of the shadows and claim it outloud.

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102 thoughts on “Confessions of a (Nonfiction) Writer

  1. Some of thing rings mighty familiar! Lol. I have 3 novels in the works as well as my blog…actually my blog then 2 other blogs I am in the start up process….my “want” is to finish at least one of the novels I have started by Dec. Heck….forget Dec…I just want to FINISH!! lol

    Enjoyed your blog..congrats on Freashly Pressed!!!
    AJ

  2. I’ve always preferred nonfiction. That cliche, “truth is stranger than fiction”, really is true. Too much fiction is just formulaic, partly for the reason that it’s so hard to come up with interesting characters who have believable motivations.

    I know what you mean, though. I can’t write fiction, and it’s frustrating to no end. It might have to do with the fact that I’m pretty much a social shut-in, and I don’t really have any sources from which I can draw believable characters.

  3. Glad to see someone sticking up non-fiction, which tends to fall by the wayside. Good non-fiction is just as difficult to do well as good fiction. I’m thinking of David Sedaris’ essays, which I happen to be reading at the moment. His family’s a little cuckoo, but his humor and wit come through in the most banal daily happenings. And really, can we say it’s ALL non-fiction, anyways? Art imitates life, or is it the other way around? I forget! 🙂

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  4. I think YOU can write anything, if you stop doing what I do – analyse things to an untimely end.
    You must have tried building a skeleton of a story without worry for detail, and then fleshing out with extraordinary attention to detail, plumbing in all the necessary pipes, so the plot is not smothered by too much insulation?

  5. This sounds exactly like me. I think NaNoWriMo is definitely a good exercise in fiction, because you are trying for the word count and it gets a bit easier to turn off the self-critic inside. But I completely agree about nonfiction. Creative nonfiction was one of my favorite classes in college: we read people like Anne Lamott and David Sedaris, and enjoyed writing exercises that just took a personal experience and you ran with it. I personally still want to write fiction, but I think that the skills you learn with putting your experience to use can be useful in fiction as well. The first novel I started with NaNoWriMo had a brief excerpt of a scene that happened in my own life, but it was also twisted into a different one altogether. It’s fun what you can do with the experiences you have had to create a new world all your own.

    Congrats on Freshly Pressed 🙂

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  7. I loved this. Sometimes we find our flow in places we didn’t expect. I’m trying to write both now, not sure where I’ll end up. Nonfiction especially in terms of memoirs or crime, have loyal readers. I enjoy reading both.

  8. Thanks for this interesting post! I recognize my own thoughts a lot. I have written non-fiction since the eighties – that was when I started my engineering education and later my Ph D in automatic control. So there have been a lot of equations (I love LaTeX – it renders math very beautifully), a lot of software development documentation and also some more administrative-like reports, telling my manager the weekly status and ticking the correct boxes in his Excel tracking sheet.

    I tried writing fiction in NaNoWriMo 2011. I found this contest an interesting challenge, and in order to get started I tried to capture events and feelings from my own life. After a while I felt brave enough to add stuff that I knew was not true. I felt this somewhat relaxing and it gave me some freedom that I enjoyed. If I wanted to add things I could simply invent them as I went along.

    I am not sure what I do really, since many of the characters I dream up have some resemblance to some aspect of myself. I do not know if this is a sign of a not yet fully educated fiction author (or a sign of a narcissist with multiple personality disorder), but it is fun, and I have also felt that it has given a boost to my professional non-fiction writing.

    Perhaps, if you want to try fiction, you may like Alan Watt’s technique, where a lot of things are created before you even know what characters you have, or what environments they will live in. I found his method very helpful, especially since I felt a bit too structure-driven, a habit one gets after spending too many hours doing software development and other engineering-like work.

    Greetings from Sweden and Ola

  9. I ran across your blog and felt as if I were reading my words on your nonfiction post. New to blogging myself, I find that just writing about life and real stories or my thoughts on an event is effortless. The other thing I wanted to say is that I am constantly amazed at all the events people call “coincidences”. I read that you live in Seattle. I do as well. Tonight I couldn’t sleep so got on my laptop and here I am and apparently here you are as well. If you ever want to get together to talk about writing, I would love to do so.

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