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During my MFA, my nonfiction friends and I had a lot of conversations about the art of writing. Most of these conversations happened after class, at the end of a long day, around 10 pm at some bar near campus. We went to unwind and let loose and not think so much about the money or the time or our students or our abandoned drafts, but talk always wound back around to the work. That’s why we were there, after all.
Sometimes during a workshop, the class would read a draft and the author, sitting quietly during the initial reading or discussion, would tear up, stiffen, or just cry. Often it was just embarrassment and an acknowledgment of your words being read aloud. It’s good to read your work aloud, even better to have someone else do it. You get all the jokes, nod along to the cadence, get to hear the fluidity of your words. You also notice all the flubs, the missteps, the wooden dialogue, the typos, that thing you meant to cut but forgot.
And this work, particularly in nonfiction, hits close to home. It is home. We nonfiction writers, the essayists, the prose-ists finding art in the everyday, this is how we live our lives. And the art of writing about our situations isn’t just to tell people a story. At times, we write through our problems, our own sense of private — and then very public — therapy, putting these experiences down on paper to make heads or tails of them, once and for all.
Sometimes, it really is just about a story.
But the question we always asked ourselves is: “Is this art?” It wasn’t only the nonfiction writers, worrying about whether or not an edited narrative arc in a diary still fit the bill. The fiction writers and poets wondered this too, as they cribbed quotes and situations and barely-veiled ex-lovers into their work. How original is creativity, anyway? Is there a story that hasn’t been told before? We worried that by writing through our problems we were in some way subverting the creative process. That the ideas weren’t supposed to be in service to us, our writing was meant to be about something much bigger. I always argued that my writing could be both. That I could write about myself and make connections to the bigger picture. That was the whole point. You can write in a bubble, but all great writers read all the time. You can’t be a writer without being a reader, without seeing how everyone else places their words. It’s also another way that writers make connections to other writers. You find the work that speaks to you.
The one thing I found in common with all writers, like all people, is that we’re all a little broken in some ways. And we often use the work as an outlet to put our feelings on the page. It’s probably cheaper than actual therapy, potentially more effective. But then I wonder about my peers who cried in the beginning of our workshops, as even I (described as stoic to those who first meet me) turned red-faced and fidgety as my classmates read about how I wrote about my 10-year-old self.
I’ve gotten to the point where I can pinpoint a downturn in my mood to the last time I wrote a paragraph. This whole past week, wrapped up in other people’s work and words except my own, I fell into a type of bored sadness. Now, writing that sentence gives me pause. I want to take it back because even for all my writing about writing, and writing about myself, do I want you to know that? And now that you know, does it change anything? Are my opinions more or less valid because I express them fluidly, vividly, or cowardly? I need the story as much as it needs me.
Young writers are told that they can’t, or shouldn’t, write memoir because they’re not done yet, they haven’t processed anything, they haven’t lived enough. But no one gets to tell a writer what they can or cannot express (except an editor). The work, whether it’s scribbled in a notebook, read aloud in a workshop, or published in a widely-read novel, is still some writer coming to grips with their idea of the truth. There are so many unknowns and everyone has different ways of getting to the bottom of their story. Everyone who’s in the middle of an argument should recognize that there are three truths: what you think, what the other person thinks, and then, what actually happened.
Our truth in our history books is written by the people who had the opportunity to get it on the page. How many histories are ignored or forgotten because they weren’t maintained? It’s important for people with untold stories to have the opportunity to share them. Because although everyone is unique in their own way (I maintain I’m the shiniest of all the special snowflakes), there is always someone who will find something in common with your story. There is someone who needs your story, and there is a chance that your words can aid and help someone or something bigger than you. So to my writers out there who are dealing with getting the truth on the page: keep writing. Your words are worth it, and your stories are needed.