ABCs of Creative Nonfiction: D is for Distance

Posted by on Jul 9, 2016 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

KL4My final MFA manuscript, 136 pages about culture shock, dark years, and things I still can’t believe 19-year-old me experienced, still sits bound on my bookshelf.  It hasn’t moved since I put it there after graduation almost three years ago now. 

Eventually, I imagine it becoming a piece of New Adult memoir.  For now, it’s a collection of words that I’m not ready to revise.

“You’re too close to it,” I was told while working on that manuscript. 

“It’s still too fresh.”

“Get some distance from it.”

This consistent feedback was an indicator that the work was missing the element of reflection needed to give it context and depth.  Sometimes, this can be remedied during the revision process by drawing upon memories and weaving them into the existing fabric of the story.

To an extent, though, context and depth can only come with time, be it in the form of another experience to add to a braided essay, knowledge to counteract the narrator’s prior ignorance, or a parallel experience to bring an essay to a close in a way that the writer never could’ve imagined until it happened.  Sometimes that distance is all we need in order for the person we’ve become to be able to write with compassion about that person who we were.

For most people, there’s no way to live but from past to present to future, a linear timeline from beginning to end.  The past has no choice but to inform the future, a fluid, forward-moving motion.

The stories we tell about our lives don’t fall into perfectly drawn plot diagrams, exposition, rising action, conflict, climax, and resolution, so we improvise.

As writers of creative nonfiction, we create the stories of our lives as we interpret our experiences.  We create our own reality on the page from our memory.  Through this process, we find ourselves both blessed and cursed with the ability to allow our present and future inform our past.

It’s easy to look to well-known writers to judge our habits and routines for everything from word counts to how long we wait to tell our stories.  Just as trying to search too hard to find one’s voice can bring the writing process to a complete standstill, trying to establish one’s normal can take a writer nowhere just as fast. 

As Joan Didion writes in the first page of The Year of Magical Thinking, her memoir about the sudden loss of her husband, John Dunne, she opened a document and began writing only days later.  While she stopped writing for a time, she still completed the book within a year of his death.  In this New York Magazine interview, Didion says she deliberately chose “to write it fast so it would be raw,” she “had the feeling that that was the texture it ought to have.”

Cheryl Strayed waited almost twenty years after hiking the Pacific Crest Trail before she found herself ready to write the memoir that wove together the physicality of her hike and the loss of her mother that became her national best seller, Wild.  In this New York Times interview, John Williams asked why she waited so long to write it, “I write what feels most urgent to me, and what that was for a long time is the story that became my first book, a novel called ‘Torch.’  I had to get it out of my system before I could contemplate writing anything else.”

That level of urgency and inspiration will vary from story to story, especially when we’re writing about tough experiences.  For some stories, it’s easy to write deep and write to the core.  For other stories, it takes some time and distance to gather the context and depth in order for us to be truly compassionate toward our past self, the self we’re often examining and writing about.

Writers, as naturally tough critics and professional procrastinators, sometimes shy away from the few hundred pages in the rough draft folder labeled “To Be Revised.”  A quick internet search tells us that we aren’t writing enough words per day, we don’t have a solid enough writing routine, and we must drag our work through revision after revision before it can reach what it’s meant to be.  There are so many reasons to avoid those pages.  Sometimes, it’s for the best.  Sometimes, it really is a case of procrastination.  Be honest with yourself here, you’re the only one who can make this judgment.

As for me, I’ll keep walking past those bound pages of my final manuscript.  Occasionally I run my fingers over the gold lettering on the black leather, but I never open it.  Even now, nearly ten years from the experiences in those pages, I’m not far enough from them.  For now I’ll keep writing other, more urgent stories. 

Someday, I’ll open that manuscript and find that I’m the perfect distance from the me in those pages.  And believe me, I’m looking forward to that day. 

Karly Little has an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles. She served as the Creative Nonfiction Editor for Lunch Ticket and interns for The Rumpus.  Her work has appeared in Free State Review, Spry Literary Journal, Drunk Monkeys, and Bluestem Magazine.  She coordinates community education and teaches English at Barton Community College.  Karly lives, writes, rollerblades, and watches sports with her husband in a central Kansas town of 172 people.

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