When I was in grad school several years ago, everyone in my Fiction Writing program was required to take a class on creative nonfiction, which basically boils down to writing about your own life. My professor was named Doug (we called all of our professors by their first name, because it was not like a regular school, it was a cool school), and the class began at 8am. Or maybe 8:30, I can’t remember. What I do remember is this: I absolutely hated it.
Generally I’ve always been a good student, quiet and punctual, turning in all my work on time and getting good grades. In fifth grade I was given an award for being a teacher’s pet, and in middle school I was student of the month. All through high school I was in National Honor Society, and I was also that quiet girl who literally never talks and who for some reason people were compelled to ask constantly, “Why don’t you talk?” I did fine in college, and in grad school I excelled—until I got to creative nonfiction. It wasn’t that I didn’t get a good grade (I think I ended up getting an A, or an A-), but I was a bit of an antagonist. Or, if that word is too strong a word to describe me, I was at least very difficult. I didn’t want to be there, and I made my displeasure known.
I guess you should know that I am not in any way a morning person. The only thing I like to do in the morning is sleep. I don’t drink coffee, because I just don’t like it, and I’m always tired before 10am no matter how early I went to bed or how well I slept. Some people, like my husband, rise with the sun as if attached to it by a string, but I’m more of a bask in the sun, powered by the moon kind of person. I’m okay with this. But our society was structured to favor morning people, and I’ll never not be bitter about it. Anyway, I could plausibly argue that it was merely the early hour of the class that instigated my ire, but that would be a lie. It certainly contributed to it, but that was not the reason. The reason was that I simply hate writing about myself and always have.
Doug tried, he really did. (If you’re reading this, Doug, I apologize for being difficult. It wasn’t you; it was the nature of the class itself.) He was very complimentary of my work, and I remember that in our one-on-one meeting the teachers were required to have with students at least once a semester, he told me that he read a portion of my assignment aloud to another teacher because he enjoyed it so much. My response to this was literally, “Hmph.” He would call on me in class (we didn’t raise our hands in grad school, we just started talking if we felt like it, which is my personal nightmare scenario, so unless I was called on I didn't talk much anyway, in any class), and ask if I’d like to read aloud from my work or do something that we called recall (basically sharing something from a piece read aloud by someone else, a line or an image, that we found particularly evocative). More than once, when he called on me, I crossed my arms over my chest and said, “No, thank you.”
No, thank you! You must understand, I hate confrontation, I am a rule-follower to a fault, I am a shy, good student, and this was totally unlike me. But I loathed this class and I wanted to do as little work as possible. The first time I refused, I believe Doug was amused. The next few times, I’m certain he was annoyed. I probably would have been too, in his shoes. This simply was not done. We were all expected to participate and contribute (we sat in a circle with no desks and no computers, it was all about participation and contribution, in every single class), and I can recall no one but me ever saying No, thank you when called upon. I did not want to share anything that I wrote; I did not want to write or talk about myself. And to an extent, I still don’t.
It’s not that I feel I don’t have anything meaningful to say, or nothing in my life worth sharing. My reluctance stems almost entirely from frustration. Frustration over that inevitable, unbridgeable gap between my description of a real person or event, and what the person or event was actually like. Consistently in that class I felt that I couldn’t quite capture the realness of whatever I was writing about. It always felt a little bit fake, a little bit off. I suppose that’s where the creative part comes in—creative nonfiction is not meant to be a truly accurate account, but a way of enhancing and tweaking so that it reads like fiction, while still remaining largely true. I get that, but I also can’t accept it. That sliver of unreality was like a splinter in my skin, digging deeper and bothering me to distraction. In the course of that class, I never found a way to write about my life in a way that satisfied me. It satisfied others, including Doug, ostensibly (I got an A, remember?), but I was frustrated from day one and it never got better. Maybe it was my own fault, though. I was getting in my own way.
At any rate, this is why I prefer fiction, and probably always will. There is no gap between what is real and what isn’t. (Operating here on the idea that real and realistic are two different things.) There are, of course, shades (huge shades) of myself and people I know in my fiction, and real places and events and pieces of dialogue. But when it comes right down to it, my fiction is one hundred percent make-believe. I am comfortable with make-believe. I thrive on make-believe. I would crawl into my imagination and live there forever if I could. In writing fiction, I am free. I can expand beyond the bounds of myself, beyond the rational, beyond the present. Maybe, in a way, creative nonfiction feels claustrophobic. It feels limiting. But I also acknowledge the benefits (processing your thoughts and feelings, connecting through shared experiences, making sense of trauma and joy and anger, etc.), and I enjoy reading creative nonfiction from other writers. I can’t say that I’ll never write creative nonfiction, because who knows, but this blog is a possible step in that direction. I’m hoping to write about writing, and books, and I guess a little bit about myself, because I can’t separate myself from my writing, or from the books I love.
So, again, I’m sorry, Doug—I know I’m a few years late, but I’m finally ready to say yes. Yes, I would like to share. Thank you.