Creative Nonfiction and Your Real-Life Stories: Why We Should Care

by Lori Horvitz

One of the first questions students ask in my creative nonfiction workshops—why should anyone care about my stories? At times, especially when I’m down on myself, I ask myself the same thing. Likewise, why should anyone care about a fictional character or story? We care because we can connect and learn from a character’s complex emotions and actions, because the story and characters make us think about our own life and actions in a deeper way. But how do we get someone to care? Why should I care about David Sedaris’ life as an American in Paris in his essay collection, Me Talk Pretty One Day? Or Joan Didion’s memoir about her husband’s death, The Year of Magical Thinking? Even though one might not be a gay man living in Paris, or a famous author in New York who lost her husband of many decades—at the heart of their stories there is something universal to connect with. When Joan Didion writes about denying her husband’s death, and then coming to terms with it, we can connect with our own magical thinking about losing someone, or some thing, whether that be a dream, a relationship, and the denial and final acceptance of that loss. In Joanne Beard’s essay, “Out There,” she’s not only chased by a creepy guy on the highway in Alabama, she’s also running from a failing marriage. In the chase, despite her fear, she finds the anger and strength to successfully get away from her pursuer, and ultimately she finds the strength (and rationale) to leave her marriage.

Philip Gerard, in Creative Nonfiction, emphasizes that creative nonfiction essays should have an apparent subject and a deeper subject. The apparent subject is the surface story, which should be familiar yet told in a fascinating way, and the deeper subject should teach us something and take the subject beyond the obvious, into new territory. The narrator of the story should learn something, as the reader should, through the narrator’s “moment of insight.” From that point onward, the narrator will never be the same. For example, on the surface, Richard Brautigan’s short piece, “The Corporal,” is about a young boy going door to door to collect newspapers—the more paper he collects, the higher the military stripes he will earn. The exuberant tone at the start of the piece, while the boy runs from neighbor to neighbor to gather paper, quickly wanes. Towards the end, Brautigan writes: “The kids who wore the best clothes and had a lot of spending money and got to eat hot lunch every day were already generals. They had known where there were a lot of magazines and their parents had cars. They strutted military airs around the playground and on their way home from school.” Beyond the apparent subject, the narrator learns about class issues and experiences a loss of innocence. We see how paper, once a benign object, becomes a symbol for scarcity and loss. In his last sentence, the narrator writes:

Shortly after that, like the next day, I brought a halt to my glorious military career and entered into the disenchanted paper shadows of America where failure is a bounced check or a bad report card or a letter ending a love affair and all the words that hurt people when they read them.

How does one choose a subject to write about? First off, we need to write about something we care about, a subject that might scare us, a subject we have burning questions about. Julia Alvarez, when asked why she wrote her novel, In the Time of the Butterflies, said, “It was more that it was a story that was a pebble in my shoe I couldn’t shake out.” After writing it, she said the book helped her understand her country’s story and her parents’ story. Dorothy Allison gives further advice for what to write about: “Write the story that you were always afraid to tell. I swear to you that there is magic in it, and if you show yourself naked for me, I'll be naked for you. It will be our covenant.” If the writer doesn’t have a burning desire to explore, to answer questions, to expose themselves in profound ways, why should the reader care?

The word essay is rooted in the French word, essayer, which means to attempt, to explore, to try. So it makes sense for a creative essayist to not have a set beginning, middle and end (as many high school teachers emphasize in the five paragraph essay). Creative essay writing is an exploration to discovery. And we can’t discover until we push ourselves deeper into the words, into the cracks we can’t see without delving deeper into our writing. Or simply stated: through writing, through the mining of our words, we mine our emotions and thoughts. On a side note, the term memoir-essay has been used often over the last few years. If a memoir is a book-length narrative about a certain incident in someone’s life (like the death Joan Didion’s daughter in her book, Blue Nights), a memoir-essay is an essay that has a narrative arc and sticks with the narrative, a mini-memoir of sorts, as opposed to a personal essay, which could be more of a meandering, taking tangents into the greater world, developing themes. Bill Roorbach, in his book, Writing Life Stories, clarifies this point: “The starting place…is the self. But the personal essay strides past storytelling, past simpler memoir, to offer counterpoint in exposition, quotes from other writers, arcane knowledge….”

Over ten years after my mother’s sudden death, I attempted to write about her—a raw subject I had shied away from. My first draft, filled with anger on the verge of rage, focused on why she didn’t mother me in a way I thought she should have, why she didn’t encourage or support me in my pursuits. But with each subsequent draft, I let myself go deeper, pushed myself to understand why she had been shut down as an adult, why she hoarded junk, why she preferred to sit in front of the television instead of nurturing her kids. By the tenth draft of the essay, “The Weight of Stuff,” my anger dissipated; not only did I find compassion for my mother, I found compassion for myself.

Of course, one has to be ready, and take time for their material to “mulch” before telling a story. It took me over a decade to mine the story of my mother.

A while back, a student wrote a draft of a story about her favorite teacher. Besides the lack of strong writing, it lacked tension and didn’t have a narrative. I suggested she come up with another idea. She sat blank-faced. I asked her if we could brainstorm together. In a prior story, she wrote about her aunt, her sister, her mother. “Is there a father in the picture?” I asked. The student sat up and scowled. “I hate him,” she said. “He left my mother eight years ago and I haven’t seen him since.” She told me about his drug use, his lies. “Actually, I did see him after that,” she said. “Two years ago. He was working in Wal-Mart. I walked by and we both ignored each other.”

“Bingo!” I said. “Why don’t you write about that?”

The student said she’d think about it. But she came in with another draft about her favorite teacher. Besides the story lacking any clear conflict or risk, it still lacked tension and a narrative. Yet a good story needs more than just tension and a narrative. I’m reminded of a heart-breaking piece a student wrote about her abusive stepfather. One awful scene after the next. It was brave of the student to expose herself like that, but I explained that she needed to find the narrative in the story, the moment of insight. “What did the narrator learn by telling this story?” I asked. “What do you want the reader to learn?” Of course these types of stories need to be told (as Dorothy Allison did in Bastard out of Carolina), but they need to be crafted through the use of vivid imagery, vibrant language, believable characters, etc. Writer Barrie Jean Borich states it best: “Your life and the life of the world is your raw material, as much a part of the mix as is the paint, the chords, the words. Your subjects might be any part of this world.”

Just like all genres and sub-genres, there might be blurring between a personal essay or memoir-essay, but after all is said and done, we can put aside the classifications and, as one mentor put it, a good essay, or for that matter, any piece of strong art, should do three things for the reader: entertain, enlighten, and educate. It’s not only the narratives these authors tell that are story-worthy, it’s how they tell the stories. We have to tell our stories in imaginative ways, so they’re more than just a story—they’re a piece of art.

Lori Horvitz' writing has appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies including Epiphany, Chattahoochee Review, South Dakota Review, Southeast Review, Hotel Amerika, and Quarter After Eight. She has been awarded writing fellowships from The Ragdale Foundation, Yaddo, Cottages at Hedgebrook, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Blue Mountain Center. A Professor of Literature and Language at UNC Asheville, Horvitz also directs the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program and is a former faculty member of the Great Smokies Writing Program. Her book of memoir-essays, The Girls of Usually, was recently published (2015) by Truman State University Press. Horvitz received her PhD from SUNY at Albany and MFA from Brooklyn College. Please visit her website: