On writing fiction and nonfiction

I spent the month of January working on a short story that I saw as part of a longer work of fiction. I had some time to think about writing on the plane ride home from AWP, at which time I wrote out, in a notebook, several pages of description/plot outline of the novel I was writing. I’m writing a novel! is what I thought. I’d been thinking and writing about my characters for a while, but suddenly the storyline seemed clear. All I need to do is sit down and write this thing, is what I thought.

Instead, something kind of interesting has happened: I started writing nonfiction again. You may remember that for many years I was an avowed nonfiction-and-nonfiction-only sort of writer. I came from a journalism background and couldn’t separate myself from the facts, or so I thought. While enrolled in my MFA program I took 99.9% nonfiction workshops and got mad about James Frey and that woman in my workshop who thought it was “cool” to fictionalize her “memoir.” I felt (and still do) that nonfiction is given short shrift in literary circles. On the other hand, I learned that some seventy-something percent of books published are nonfiction. That nonfiction sells; that as an unpublished writer you have a better chance of getting a nonfiction book out there than a novel, let alone a collection of short stories.

I’m a practical sort, and all of those rules and career possibilities appealed. I wrote a travel memoir for my MFA thesis. I was happy/proud/relieved to have finished it. Then I put it away. Because wow, I was sick of it. I hated it. I did not think it was my best work. A while later I got pregnant and couldn’t (hormones?) write a word. And after the baby was born … it was strange, but I found that I couldn’t write a word that wasn’t fiction. A friend suggested that perhaps reality was suddenly too intense and thus fiction felt more comfortable. Maybe so. I’m still not sure.

Oh no, this post is growing much longer than I intended it to. Yes, the point, I’m getting there. Really.

I’ve been thinking a lot this month about the interplay between writing fiction and writing nonfiction. I went to a panel session at AWP on how to decide whether to write something as fiction or nonfiction. All of the panelists seemed to see little difference between the two, which I found both shocking and oddly appealing. One part of me wanted to yell, no, you’re wrong! You can’t just label something that happened fiction! You can’t just embellish nonfiction for dramatic effect! But even as I sat there I was thinking about re-writing my stodgy stick-to-the-rules travel memoir —without regard to, well, the rules. How would it turn out?

I’m not saying I wanted to go back and make things up. But somehow that panel gave me permission to think about writing my experiences in Korea as if they were fiction.

I’ve been writing only fiction for a few years now, and liking it. Struggling with it, but liking it. I got a story in a small lit mag called Clare. I was a finalist in a Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers contest. I started writing a novel! And then. This post was named a finalist in a food blog contest held by Creative Nonfiction. As a finalist it won’t be published though, so I thought, I should really do something with this. And suddenly I saw that this snapshot of experience I had in Korea was not a standalone piece. In a way it wasn’t originally; it was a between-chapters interlude/vignette in that 275-page travel memoir I wrote five years ago. But all of the sudden I saw it as the end of an essay, and that essay flowed out very easily. And I remembered how much I like writing nonfiction.

Here’s the thing: Fiction writing is good for nonfiction writing, and probably the reverse is true as well. There’s a freedom in fiction that allows for considering all of the possibilities: the order in which events occur, who’s involved, where, etc. In nonfiction you’re limited by the facts. You can change the order in which you reveal a string of events to the reader, but you can’t change the order in which events occurred. And something about the freedom of fiction allowed me to rethink how to present material that five years ago ended up sitting limply in chronological order, hammered into boring, lifeless submission.

The limitless possibilities of fiction have lately felt an obstacle in the short stories I’ve been writing. What if my main character does this? Ooh, maybe I could have her do this! Or this! My indecision knows no bounds and has the power to bring any writing session to a halt. Should my character have brown hair and a blue coat? Or blonde hair and a red one? What if she doesn’t wear a coat at all?

And yet, giving myself more choices in writing a new essay about my experiences in Korea helped. I chose to leave some details out. I chose to tell the story out of order. I chose to relate three separate events that seemed unrelated before but actually provide lovely dramatic effect when layered together. I think it worked.

Oh, there it is finally, my point: Loosen up. Blur the lines. Get your genres confused. See what happens.

*Yes, I have been meaning to write my promised 2nd post on story cycles but some things have come up. Mainly, the entire family has been sick AGAIN for most of the month of February. I promise, I’m getting back to it. Really. Coming soon to a blog near you.

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4 thoughts on “On writing fiction and nonfiction

  1. Very interesting, Beth. It sounds like even more time had to pass for you to achieve what you need to in nonfiction. I recommend you read The Men in My Country, a memoir by Marilyn Abildskov. What she leaves out amazes. Her control in doing so gives such a depth to what’s there. I can’t seem to do it myself, but I know it when I see it!

    • Yeah, I should have said that it was a bit disheartening to realize that I needed five whole years to rethink the material in that memoir (which actually took place long, long ago). Time is always my ally when it comes to revision, and never more so than with that book. You mentioned The Men In My Country before and I’ve got it on my (very long) to-read list! Thanks!

  2. I forgive you for not posting the second story cycles post, because this was also excellent.

    I think the goal of a good memoir is (to borrow from Stephen Colbert) “truthiness.” Good writing, fiction or nonfiction, is about emotional truth and sometimes the exact fact narratives do not comply with that.

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