In writing about creative non-fiction, it seems like it often takes mere sentences before the name Montaigne is invoked. His essais, explorations of self and the world around him, are generally accepted as the basis of today’s non-fiction writing.
Essayer—to try, in French.
When I moved to Manitoba in Grade Five, I took French at school for the first time. A born and bred Saskatchewan girl, I was a year behind everyone else in learning one of Canada’s official languages, and I was nervous. The teacher would, in her imperious way, call on students at random to say a phrase or answer a question out loud. Le vingt-six octobre, mille neuf cent quatre-vingt-quatre. I’d practise on the bus ride into school. Est-ce que je peux aller boire de l’eau. Quelle est la date aujourd’hui?
I wanted to get past l’essai, the attempt, to le succès, success. I had to get it right. I had to make myself understood.
I am sure of myself when writing fiction. I already know what I want to say. I know how to speak that language, the language of setting, character, and plot. I know how to arrange events, symbols, and dialogue to get the exact result I want.
Fiction is building a tale from the ground up. There are many ways to arrange words and events to create a scene or a world for the consumption, engagement, and enjoyment of others.
Non-fiction, on the other hand, is building a story from the pieces of an existing language. Others may also speak that existing language, in their way. It’s taking an existing entity and turning it this way and that until it’s comprehensible—not just to me, but to anyone else who might read what I write.
Three years after my first hot seat introduction to my second language, I was in a BC high school, suddenly ahead of everyone in French. I was moved ahead a grade, even though, for all my conversation and phrase practice, I had no idea how to conjugate a verb. Back to studying, breaking the language down, figuring out how to put it all together.
In non-fiction, I write to find what I want to say and how to say it. Unlike fiction—where I can say what I want, how I want—non-fiction comes with rules. I cannot change the order of what happens. I cannot change what people have said and done.
Writing non-fiction is a kind of translation, one that turns experience into words that will hopefully recreate that happening for my readers. Like a second language, I have to translate those events, define the things that have been said and done, and then I have to rebuild them into something that is as close to the truth as it can be.
When essaying, writing essays, my stories come in pieces, in images, and in chunks. Though constricted in terms of la vérité, there is a kind of freedom in structuring these truths I want to find and to tell, a compulsion to fidelity that I’ve never felt with fiction.
In grade 12 I decided to be a teacher, a French teacher. I applied to a bilingual education program where my second year of university would be spent at Université Laval, and I was accepted. My marks on the entrance exam were good enough that I would not need to take the preparatory year. I was heading for immersion, for the first time, at the university level.
Immersion, indeed. I was in way over my head. Learning to teach seemed twice as hard for this anglophone coming out of français de base. The educational concepts became secondary to just learning the language. The francophones and students who’d attended immersion for 12 years had an ease of communication I would never have. I had to translate on the fly—not just with getting my point across, but also in making sure I had the verb tense and the pronunciation correct. Every word out of my mouth was scrutinized first by me, then by those listening. It was mortifying to have my French corrected by the program head in front of the Grade Twos I was learning to teach. I hid in the staff bathroom and cried after he left and wished again that I’d decided to take the English education program.
And yet, as with my earlier experiences in my second language, it’s not that I didn’t understand. I just didn’t have the all the tools I needed to make myself understood.
The requirements for the MFA at UBC state that coursework must be completed in three different genres to graduate. After exhausting YA and short fiction, I knew I needed to try something new and scary. Translation and creative non-fiction. The classes turned out to be more alike than I’d expected.
I’d written blog posts before, and I’d come up with a few essays for my application to the program, but writing an essay to be critiqued and judged by my peers brought back the anxiety of my undergrad, when every word from my mouth was judged for accuracy and clarity. Creative non-fiction was not my first “writing language.” Fiction was. Once again, I was nervous. Telling a personal story to strangers would be no different than presenting in front of a class of my peers back in university.
I studied hard, as hard as I did back on that bus when I was ten. I perused essays. I flipped through memoir after memoir. I read seven how-to-write-non-fiction books and shamelessly stole a structure from one of Susan Olding’s essays.
Unlike those experiences of struggling through making myself heard in my undergrad, in my UBC creative non-fiction class I found a supportive group of writers who asked questions and made comments that clarified not only how I was saying something, but what I was saying, and how I really felt about it. I felt heard. I felt understood.
By the end of the third day, with a quarter of the students having shared, we joked that only the students who cried should get an A. For me, fiction is personal, but there is a scrim there, a thin veil that provides a deniability if it’s needed. Non-fiction has no such protection, no matter if it’s a travel piece, a memoir, or a personal essay. It is personal in a way fiction cannot be. The story is the story, and so it comes down to the craft of translation—the slow choosing and ordering of words to make myself understood.
For some people, creative non-fiction is like journalling—a free and easy way to write personal stories. For me, writing creative non-fiction requires a very deliberate plan to bring all the different parts together in a (hopefully) coherent way. Just as, in my translation days, learning and speaking a second language came to be almost mathematical—this pronoun, that verb, the adjectival agreement—so too does non-fiction have its own patterning, its own sense of solving a puzzle. Attending to the truth in these stories in such a detailed, specific way has changed the way I write in all genres. It has forced me to be present to what and how in the same way I have always had to be aware of communicating in my second language. Getting it right. Making myself understood.
Way back on my first day at Université Laval, I walked into a large auditorium where student ID cards were spread out alphabetically on folding tables. Anxious and clumsy, I bumped the L-N table, scattering the carefully placed cards. A young woman glared at me before straightening them.
“Attention!” she said with a snarl.
Also, essayer. Try.
Kim McCullough is a writer and teacher from Calgary, Alberta. Her debut novel Clearwater was awarded a High Plains Book Award in 2014. Kim is a two-time winner of the Writers’ Guild of Alberta’s Jon Whyte Memorial Essay Award.