As a novelist who’s been writing a great deal of non-fiction lately, I’m starting to wonder: What on earth is happening to me?
For most of my life I’ve been so single-mindedly devoted to fiction it’s been like a vow of chastity. For decades I’ve hardly known what it meant to write at all without holding the screen of character, the mask of make-believe in front of me, always peering, willfully, through another pair of eyes. Even before my novels began being published, my passion for fiction was near-total: all through the years of my childhood, I devoured (an occasional biography or history aside) the novels of Austen and Christie and Dickens, and when I was done with them made up my own stories; through college and graduate school it was the 20th-century American fictionists I adored, Faulkner and Cather and Morrison, and what non-fiction I wrote was forced on me, required by coursework and professors. As soon as I was free of schooling I did nothing but write stories and novels, year after year after year, until finally it seemed to me I had no voice apart from the characters I created. And I didn’t mind at all. It’s awfully nice, wearing a costume (something I learned during my years as a ballet dancer), even if it’s a costume that fits so snugly it plainly shows your own form.
Then one day I was asked to contribute an essay to an anthology about grief (because there is loss as well as hope in my novels), and I found I . . . couldn’t do it.
Because I had no idea what “I” sounded like.
And it felt naked. And painful. And stiff.
And I discovered I was absolutely terrified to write as . . . me.
I don’t know about you, but as a creative person, I hate bumping up against my limitations. If I find I don’t know how to do something, I generally want that much more to learn how to do it. A few years ago, when I realized I was afraid of dialogue, for example, I wrote a novel, The Floodmakers, in which half the characters are playwrights and all anyone does is talk. Another year, when I was worried I didn’t know how to write from the perspective of an elderly man, I wrote The Deadwood Beetle, a book that forced me to look through a retired entomologist’s wrinkled, secretive eyes.
When I discovered I had completely lost the ability to write without a fictive mask shielding me, my first thought was that I really ought to do something about it. I mean, what kind of writer is afraid of any kind of writing? So I muscled through the essay on grieving, somehow, and then oh-so-tentatively decided to enter the naked world of blogging. You’ll laugh: but it was hard for me. What seemed to come so naturally to others—perhaps even to you—was a daily mystery to me. Is that me? Is that really me? Only slowly did my words become familiar, the sound of that voice on the screen recognizable as the one I lived with every day. Yes, that’s me. It’s been two years now, and this year my blog American Stories Now is being recognized by that paragon of journals, Creative Non-Fiction, as one of the best of its kind on the web. In fact, with more invitations to contribute essays to anthologies, I seem to be writing more non-fiction now than fiction. Which brings me back to my initial question:
What on earth has happened?
I ask myself if it’s a sea-change. I don’t know. Perhaps. I like change. I remember so clearly the day I knew I’d danced in ballets long enough. The light changed in the rehearsal hall, the bodies around me looked beautiful but strange, the floor dipped slightly, I felt a little flutter in my stomach, and wondered what was going to happen next. And liked not knowing what was going to happen next.
The difference between fiction and non-fiction is often slight—often no more than the angle from which you see the stage—but as a form of presentation, as a stance taken in front of an audience, it’s profound. This is me talking now. I know many writers who move with great fluidity and grace back and forth between these genres (and others), and I may yet become one of them. But I wonder. The tools I use in these different forms of writing are very much the same—that is, the words seem to pile up in the same way—but I’m liking right now the way non-fiction fits to my hand. There’s always something to be said for a new angle. It makes you see the tools all over again. Learn them all over. Feel them fresh and clumsy and wet. See, the trouble is, once you leave school, no one is around to make you do things you don’t know how to do. You can spend years gripping a pen in exactly the same way. Until the day someone comes to you and says, Tell me about the death of your father.
What is happening to me? I’m finding I’m drawn more and more to any kind of writing that closes the distance between me and the reader. I’m hunting proximity. I find myself earnestly trying not to wear a veil—and this is so curious and fascinating a pursuit to me, so fraught with confusion—isn’t everything veiled? isn’t everything constructed, made-up?—I feel awake and alive and yes, naked again. Good and naked.
Someday—and it will be sooner rather than later—I’ll want to be an old scientist again, or a gay playwright, or a Jewish woman. There are so many ways to dance. To record the truth.
But for now it’s just me.
Ever ask yourself what has happened, and discovered it was simply time?
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