Is writing itself creative nonfiction?

Adam Haslett at Napa Valley College, July 2011

This summer, I learned to read again.

It's amazing how long I tried to write without really trying to read. Though perhaps that's just it--I didn't want to feel like I had to try. I missed the pleasure of simply falling in, absorbing language and character and story without having to dissect any of it. What made the difference? Adam Haslett, Dorothy Allison, Michelle Huneven, Steve Almond, Aimee Bender, Maggie Nelson, Jim Shepard, Major Jackson--I got to see them read. Watching Almond describe hapless actors, listening to Allison bellow the most beautiful curses, sitting in the room while Jackson conveyed mood and tone and history in a series of careful phrases; it was electric. It reminded me of reading in my parents' cars, even after sunset, when I'd keep my finger on the page until we passed the next stoplight, because it was all so urgent. This was life, distilled in a way that made the world more real, thrilling, wonderful or tragic.

I've attended two conferences in the past month, studied writing on and off for years, worked at various institutions and stopped and started various projects. I needed a reminder that reading and writing are acts of pleasure, that maybe good stories and poems don't always beg deconstruction, that perhaps the best books are the ones that remind us of who we are. There are so many reasons not to write, and even more not to read--there's enough content floating through the universe that is digestible in visual and auditory form, what's the point of relying simply on words? And perhaps the scariest question of all: if our writing is not immediately marketable, or can't promise any financial gain, is it worth the time and energy?

I see this question in terms of its fiction and non-fiction: if the answer is yes, writing is always worth it, regardless of what we earn and what we spend, then we are telling one of the "writing market"'s greatest fictions--that if we believe in ourselves, eventually we'll be recognized. If the answer is no, that good writing reflects raw talent and there's a specific formula for achieving success, then we lose the opportunity to risk originality. I veer from one pole to the other, encouraged by the positive feedback of one teacher while reeling in the amount of work it will take to make any singular story passable or (maybe) publishable. This is all work that I enjoy doing, but I know that the minute I leave grad school, this is all work that I cannot afford to do full-time.

I present this not as a surprise, nor as a tragedy, but simply as an example of how we as writers tell ourselves stories in order to sit down and write our own. Some people (Allison, Haslett, Almond, etc.) do it so well, we tend to forget they were ever anyone else except those well-spoken professionals behind the microphone. I can't help wondering if at some point they had to distinguish between the fictions and nonfictions in their own lives from those they figured out how to depict on the page.

Either way, I'm so glad they reminded me that reading is fun--a truth that keeps us all writing.

Lemony Snicket: how to make things happen

Tonight Daniel Handler (also known as Lemony Snicket, of A Series of Misfortune Events fame) spoke on campus. This man is irreverent, brilliant, strange, and opinionated on the topics of story, plot, and honesty in literature. My understanding of him as a writer comes less from his popular children's books, and more from his novel Adverbs, which many argue is actually a collection of love stories. His prose is familiar both with itself and (it claims) with you as a reader. He often acknowledges his narrators, perhaps to beat us all to the punch, or to further the story in a way he finds interesting, or to add a finer, more textured experimental layer to the story.

I realized as he was speaking that he's exactly the inverse of the writer that often pops out of me, and maybe that's why I find him so easy to admire. He drew a diagram of the way he often imagines his characters intersecting, focusing less on their individual characteristics than the incidences that make them collide. His prose is often fast, funny, and furious; although it is clear that writing so clean can only be the product of laborious effort (he said that his first draft of Adverbs was 1000 pages long), he made it clear that developing full characters is only interesting when they operate in a plot- and problem-studded universe. Often when I try to write fiction, I get so absorbed in the very concept of a person, and his or her psychology, and the place in which he or she resides, that I have to weed out and around the outline of who they are in order to see the story at hand. There comes a time when being so conscious of character, and how he or she would react in any given situation, actually inhibits the writer from furthering an invented universe.

Handler quoted a fan letter that complimented him by saying, "I enjoy your books. I am always curious when things happen." He underscored the simplicity of that statement, and how the more interesting parts of our own lives, the parts worth retelling, are not morality tales or formulaic episodes, but rather the honest, bizarre and unexpected moments that arise when stuff happens.

When stuff happens. His great magic trick as a writer is knowing instinctively what "stuff" is worth happening, and what is worth leaving behind. I hope one day to understand that maneuver myself.