Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Creative Nonfiction Dilemma

Whenever I publish something here that may be perceived as slightly embarrassing, that may make Colin wince or my parents shake their heads, I’m reminded of the same things. First, of how much farther I could go, and how much farther real writers go all the time. The second thing requires a reference. In the final issue of The Sandman series, Morpheus encounters William Shakespeare toward the end of his life, while he’s writing The Tempest. When we’re first introduced to Shakespeare in an early issue, he’s a bumbling wordsmith who would give anything to be talented. So he makes a deal with Morpheus, who gives him his ability, and sets out on becoming the Shakespeare we all know and love. Toward the end of his life, he questions the choice he made, and wonders if the writer’s brain Morpheus gave him wasn’t a curse. Every time something tragic happened to him, there was secret delight in how he would be able to write about it. His life was filled with suffering, and because his instinct was first as a writer, he wasn’t even completely able to feel his grief since it was partitioned off as potential material. As we suffer, we compose in our heads new inventions. When I first read this, it struck me in such an uncomfortable place. It struck me as something that rang so true, but I hoped wasn’t. I hoped it was one of those terrible ways of describing something that’s not actually that bad. I don’t really delight in my own suffering, do I?

One thing I know is true: writers are traitors and spies and thieves. We betray the secrets of our family, our friends, our own lives for the sake of some sort of testament. When I say “we”, I mean the writers and wannabe writers alike. It includes posers like me who are still haunted by visions of their own potential creations despite not having written in months. Even though I’m not a real writer, I still examine my life for lines or characters or situations I could lift and put into a story. Especially since I’ve been veering more towards creative non-fiction, the way I write is almost destined to hurt or betray someone. I’ve always had reservations.

I’ve thought about this dilemma since I was a little girl. I wanted to write what was honestly in my soul, but that might get me in trouble, that might make my parents or my religious relatives ashamed of me. I’ve had a story in my mind since I was seventeen years old. It has a central metaphor and everything:
He looks at the table, defeated and suddenly somber, “You know, I don’t even like it.”
“Then why do you do it?” I ask.
“Because the ghost of my father makes me.”

I can never write this story. Publishing those few lines for my select blog audience was agonizing for me. It reveals nothing, not the people involved or the situation, or anything to the general public. But the person involved will know. A few people close to me will know. And I don’t want the person to know what kind of profound effect these words had on me, and now he does. The rest of the story is humiliating, not only to people involved, but to myself as well. And people not involved, who are close to me, would be humiliated by what I’ve revealed about myself. But it might make a good story for a stranger.

When I was a creative writing preceptor, I taught a class on creative nonfiction. I warned the students, “You will have to write things that will make your mother cry.” I was astonished by the results. The students lay themselves out bare, revealing stories about abortions and drug use and AIDS tests and infidelity and molestation. All things I could never do. And these stories were far more embarrassing than anything I have. In fact, in my own intro to creative writing class when I was a freshman in college, I read aloud a fictional story I had written, sick to my stomach with my voice choking my throat. The reason? It was about sex and death and violence, and it was hard to reveal that something so twisted had come from me. At the time I wrote it, it was my complete, uncensored ideas, which I had never shown to an audience before. I censored only one line in my reading, because I couldn’t read it aloud.

I was praised for my writing starting in grade school. And I always censored what I really wanted to write. I pushed the envelope a little more in high school, but I was still cautious. As I became more willing to reveal my darkness, or things closer to my true self, my writing didn’t get as good of reactions. People preferred it when I was funny. So it goes.

I’m sick of that whole martyrdom for art thing. It’s easy to lead a tragic, thankless life without writing. And I know a few writers who seem to live normal lives. Art is cool and everything, but ultimately it’s frivolous. So why do I have this brain that combs through reality and composes and wants everyone to know it and love it? I don’t have anything to show for it. Maybe I’m too spineless, too eager to please to ever realize those masturbatory fantasies about putting art into the world. I’m pretty sure that with my slow rate of output, I’m not even fit to be a writer. I don’t necessarily want to be one, either. I’m just a quiet person who never really wanted to live quietly.


Blogger Amanda said...

Well I love your writing, the funny stuff AND the dark stuff. So those people who aren't as positive can just shove it up their hineys. :)

3:42 AM  

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