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Writing creative nonfiction the easy way

I've been asked to blog about my writing process for Thumbnail, the beautiful print/online literary magazine where I'm privileged to be the nonfiction editor. This is more daunting than the creation of an actual essay. Partially because there's no answer that comes easily to mind, no magic, no formula.

But there are rituals. Clean the house. Do the laundry. Get plastered, get sushi, light a candle. Wear the most wrecked pjs I own because they're good luck and I wore them when I wrote a story that got published and won awards and then was anthologized and I actually made some good money and got a grant. Turn on the television to the Food Network in the living room. Sit down at my laptop on the dining room table. My office is cut off from the background noise of the household; that white noise is a necessity to writing creative nonfiction the easy way. Listen to Bobby Flay make something I want to eat but will never have the time to cook, or maybe the challenger will finally beat the Iron Chef. Sit back down at the computer. Pet the cat on my lap. Let the dog out. Think about getting into the hot tub. Sit back down at the computer. Contemplate taking up cigarettes again.

What I eventually write will be the flesh on the bones of an idea that's been with me for months, maybe years. Or maybe something that came to me last night. I think I know how long it should be - how the story will play out - how it will end. I've scribbled ideas, sentences, paragraphs on sticky notes and I have to get those together. Cross off what doesn't work any longer. Put in, take out. Start again. Save every version. I know what I want to say, I know what I want to write. All I have to do is make some choices, like which is the best first line, and the second. Sometimes I don't have a clue what the first line will be. That’s when I repeat the rituals. Sometimes I don’t know how to move a story forward. Eventually it all comes. Did I say there’s no magic? Maybe I’m wrong, because eventually it all comes.

I can’t write something because it’s what everyone else is writing. My experience is genuine or I don’t write it. My first sentence will be short but not abrupt. I know what I want to say to you and I don’t dilute first lines. I'll give the story the first of a dozen titles. Eventually one will stick and an editor will change it. I don’t get too attached to what I write. I used to. That’s a losing proposition. I try not to take myself too seriously. That’s a losing proposition.

I usually know where I'm going to submit a piece. And whether it will be part of the collection or the memoir or something else entirely.

Something else I know is that creative nonfiction is easier to define by what it isn’t. It isn’t fiction and it isn’t poetry, except when it is. It’s fluid. Lines blur. Rules change. It’s about writing truth, some version of reality, but that’s a separate blog. There's something about going down deep, through the flesh, down to the bone, in the reverse order of how you write it. It’s an expectation that what I'm writing has something to do with something I know. But not always. What's memory? What's illusion? What’s delusion? Do I believe in recollections, sometimes vague, sometimes vivid, from childhood? I do. Do I believe I actually remember what I said? I do. But I know better. Watch Rashomon. Talk to a trial attorney.

Writing creative nonfiction – like all good writing – involves self-awareness, insight, looking at what hurts. How many types of creative nonfiction can you fit under the umbrella of creative nonfiction? Better know how to tell a story and write dialog. Better be an astute observer of trees and seasons and mountains and rivers, the skies and the stars and planets that live there and human beings at their best and their worst. Better be prepared to make enemies. Shit, I lost a friend over a short story (that would be fiction) who thought the story was about her. So another thing I have to be is fearless. And maybe that's why I have so many animals.

I organize when I can and deal with it when I can't, because eventually that comes with revision and editing which changes everything. I’m a merciless line editor. I challenge my word count. I want clarity, poetry, gorgeous words which, when strung together, tell a story that a reader wants to hold to their chest, weep over, laugh over, understand on a visceral level. I don’t hold onto the ms. when I’m done. I don’t let it percolate. I send it out but I go back and back again and again and make changes. And if the first editor who reads it buys it, I let her know that I have a newer brighter version. I’m a pain in the ass that way, but I haven’t met an editor who minded the way I do things.

So this is the easy way? Sure. All it takes is time and devotion. And that’s what I have.

Comments
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Nice piece. Good points.

Nice piece. Good points. Interesting thoughts. Well said. Thanks for making the effort.

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Tender precise observations of the roundabout ways of writers

Thanks for your tender, precise attention to the process of bringing thought and feeling into language. I once heard someone say that writing is the only activity we do that never gets easier. I am not sure if that is true or that just sounds good.

If we stay with our writing, we do develop our own maps and certain sometimes helpful rituals as you so clearly described; other things we do authentically remain difficult too.

I also appreciated your perspective on nonfiction. Teaching poetry to children and making art have greatly influenced my nonfiction writing and intercepted my rational mind in interesting ways. Sometimes, it is easier for me to see how to proceed with artmaking than with writing-when to push the work toward order and when to let it go wild and let the coherence emerge in layers. Except that’s usually what I think when I am writing. When I'm painting, it's a different story again.

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Sticky

Evelyn,

Your writing process is eerily similar to mine and bless you for it. Passion and precision are key components to my method...I don't try to make it that way, it just is. I don't control each creation until it's time to do so.

Perhaps it takes a little left brain and a little right brain. Create,recreate and organize.

I'm addicted to sticky notes. I have a pile under the coaster on my desk(quotes and current ideas.) If a sticky note is to the immediate left of my computer, the scribblings pertain to something urgent. Sticky notes tucked in my writing journal are a 'maybe someday.'

Thank you, Evelyn. I appreciate your insight.

Jules