ABCS of Creative Nonfiction: U is for Unafraid (and more)

Posted by on Jul 26, 2016 in Uncategorized | 1 comment

Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 8.51.28 PMAuthors face a myriad of challenges when writing non-fiction or creative non-fiction (CNF) including the truth and the shaky reliability of memory.  One of the biggest challenges for new writers is fear: U= Uh-oh.

What will my family think? How do I expose myself like this? How will people react to me if I share this problematic memory? What if I’ve set the piece in Idaho instead of Florida and the people are now flying dogs but they might still recognize themselves and be hurt? I need to write about X but it is personal and painful. Unlike fiction, it’s hard to hide behind the story when writing CNF even when the names have been changed to protect the “innocent.” Let’s struggle to unpack our baggage and write the stuff of real lives. U=Unafraid.

U = Underground. Many memories and events are buried deep in the pools of the mind. Our friend Freud would talk about the unconscious, but think of actual rivers that still exist below cities. Some municipalities, like Yonkers, New York, are endeavoring to uncover rivers that were diverted into culverts or simply covered over with the cities above. This practice is called “daylighting.” What happens when we uncover these events to air and daylight? We could fall into the open holes in the street, but there is another world and ecosystem to explore. Swimming in faint or unexplored memories can unleash creativity. Or it’s possible that the memory rivers are still roaring along. Where do they go?

U=Underdog. As a writer, you are an underdog, facing an uphill battle to get published. If it was easy, everyone would do it. Unlike the Underdog, writers can’t take a pill from their u-shaped ring and gain super writing powers.  I write fiction, some poetry, and creative non-fiction. CNF is by far the hardest genre for me as a writer because it involves real emotion and stakes. Persevere and give your work the time and effort it deserves.

U=Unplug. So what magic talisman is going to help you compose this painful paean to your past? May I suggest the pen, or computer? If you must, use a typewriter.  Unplug your internet while you are writing. You can discover that Bowie video or watch Maru after you’ve unlocked the truth.

U= Unhappy. So what if you’ve written something that will make your grandmother unhappy, or piss off your sister? Are they going to read it? Perhaps, if you’re one of those authors that has every word published. But if you’re like the rest of us, much of your canon is flowing  deep in your hard drive and may never be daylighted. Tell your story. Can it be shared or should it remain private? There is a reason computers have password protections. Certainly I’ve written things that might be uncomfortable to family members but I’m not certain that my family reads my work even when I send it to them.  I recently sent my mother a lit journal that had published one of my fiction pieces. She thanked me for the “nice little book,” and I realized that she never opened it or read the Table of Contents. 

U=Unburden and U=Uncomfortable. I had a discussion with a writer friend about a tragic and awful event that he couldn’t write about. He is a prolific, confident writer, and has published a great deal of non-fiction. But this event was his undoing, his Waterloo, and he was unable to get the words on the page. I suggested making a poem, and stepping out of his comfort zone allowed him to write about the event. The poem was rough, but the content and emotion were all there. The hard work was done, the angst and emotion surrounding the event turned to healing and relief.  He later turned the poem into an essay. As writers, we have many outlets and shouldn’t have myopia about the “right” genre for dealing with difficult events. 

Taking my own advice, I wrote a piece about my father shooting our kitchen floor when I was eleven. This is not, as you might imagine, a happy family memory. It was a low point in my childhood and I can look at it now with perspective many years later. Am I unflappable, do I have nerves of steel? Nope. Not all of my CNF touches raw nerves and involves this level of trauma, but the gray and white kitchen floor tiles and the six holes patched with muffler cement are part of my experience.   Writing about the event was cathartic and good for me as a writer. 

U=Unapologetic. What does my father think about me writing about the floor-shooting? I have no idea. I’ve read the “kitchen” piece in public, but it is, as of yet, unpublished. It isn’t hard to imagine that there will be an uncomfortable discussion with him sometime in the future about the kitchen floor piece. But I am unapologetic. It’s non-fiction;  I didn’t make it up. If I allowed every fear and qualm and issue about creative non-fiction to be the starting point, I would never complete a grocery list- length work.  For a jaw-dropping memoir that holds no punches, try Lit by Mary Karr. 

U=Unafraid.  Write. Is the event unsettling? Write it down. Unsavory, unflattering? Write it down. Start with the unabridged version and go from there. Nobody produces great work that is unedited, but this is the place to start, just writing. Un-tether your worries and fears and write them down.  Not every memory needs to be unequivocally disinterred, and you won’t want to share everything that you write. These are decisions that you will have to make as a writer, but only if you challenge yourself to write about everything that you need or want to write about. Start with the writing. Writing is a discursive and exploratory practice, so go to it. To paraphrase the 1986 remake of the Science Fiction film The Fly, Be unafraid. Be very unafraid.

Christopher Madden’s work has appeared in Temenos, Spry, and Airways Magazine. He would like to SCUBA dive the diverted Norwalk River.


1 Comment

  1. Chris – thanks so much for the message in this post. It has certainly given me the push and the courage to start writing the truth and the pain.

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