The non-fiction writer, hard at work
When the folks at The Puritan got in touch earlier this year and asked if I wanted to curate a month’s worth of posts at The Town Crier, I was flattered and then terrified, instantly. What would I ask people to talk about? I wondered. What does it mean, to curate a series? I know all about channeling angst into literary(ish) production on one’s own blog, of course, but what about pulling other voices together? How does one maintain a coherent theme? How does one enforce deadlines? (I sometimes deal with deadlines in my work with Big Truths, but we are also, sometimes, kind of easygoing about it.) Would people read whatever it was that I decided I wanted to curate? Blogging for yourself is one thing—you press “publish” and some part of you always assumes that the words go nowhere, that no one reads anything and that you’ve sent words out into some kind of abyss and reached some point of Therapeutical Zen in doing so, with no worries about whether or not people actually pay attention to you.
But curating a blog, now, that’s a whole other kind of animal. Especially when the people who come asking you to do so helm a super-lovely magazine, a sparking little space on the Internet that has acclaim and coolness all packaged under exceedingly lovely fonts. There are Expectations in this kind of request. There is also Faith, and that Faith rests in you, Writer, to pull a good month’s worth of content together, and so here you are now, saying yes to that request and hoping to God that their faith isn’t misplaced.
What to do, peacock, as my mother might have said. What to do.
On the heels of that terror, however, came a quiet little thought. Non-fiction, it said. What about a month of non-fiction? True stories and the icky business of telling the truth about yourself, the truth about other people.
That could work, I found myself thinking. That idea might even have legs.
Here’s something that I’ve learned over the course of this month: non-fiction is the kind of animal that burrows. Whether it’s burrowing into the unknown and flailing about, as in Liz Windhorst Harmer’s essay, or burrowing into language and the placing of one word after the other just so, as in Cindy Matthews’ piece, the urge to tell and write non-fiction is the kind of urge that goes deep. It is animalistic in the best kind of way: desirous and primal, searching for sustenance and light. The desire for true stories—and the question of truth, memory, and what all of that means—is the kind of thing that asks us to delve into the unusual and strange of the everyday, simply because we want to know.
I was thrilled when people responded to my call for submissions with so many different variations on the theme. Non-fiction and translation. Non-fiction and teaching. Non-fiction and the art of pulling true answers from somebody else. Non-fiction and what happens when someone writes a true story about you. Non-fiction and gothic turrets, even. Non-fiction and what it means to be vulnerable just as animals are vulnerable—free from the truths that we tell about ourselves, reaching for the chance to be unmasked in all of our unkind, uneven glory.
As it turned out, the idea had plenty of legs. Multiple pairs, even.
When I wrote about confessions earlier this month—what it means to tell a true story, to want to put something out into the world—I was thinking mostly about what it means to tell the “truth” about someone else. Our need for myth can often extend from ourselves to other people, and the drive to write non-fiction—creative or otherwise!—is as much about storytelling and mythmaking as it is about setting any kind of record straight. (Whatever that means. There are no straight records anymore, not really.)
But it occurs to me now, after watching this month’s pieces come together, that sometimes we ourselves become the others that we write about. We are the unknowables, the ongoing mystery. Sometimes we burrow and dig and shimmy our way deep down into the dirt only to meet ourselves at the end of the tunnel, alien and strange. We see our eyes, yet somehow different, and our mouths, but still somehow not the same. If you read through this month’s pieces again, you’ll see that the narrators of the pieces are all alike in their itchiness, their sense of being not-quite-settled with the world they have before them. They’ve gone down into the tunnel and come face-to-face with their (other) selves, and the sight is so strange that they have no choice but to write about it.
We tell ourselves stories in order to live, goes the saying. When we write about ourselves and others, there is a kind of distancing that happens at the same time as we flail about and seek to draw the reader in, and it is this, more than anything else, that fascinates me about non-fiction. The way that we use the truth, and our versions of it, to keep going, to try and make sense of the world no matter how strange or surprising it might seem.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this month of digging deep, and the flickers of truth and mystery that these writers have elected to show us. The icky, lovely, slippery truth. Watch it carefully, because it just might disappear into the ground before you know it, where it will sit and wait for some other writer to find it.
Here’s a shovel, if you’re willing.