April 17, 2013

Thoughts on Nonfiction and Ch-Ch-Changes

David Bowie gets it.

 

David Bowie gets it.

David Bowie gets it.

A few years ago, I applied to give a talk about my faith for a retreat through a Catholic church on Mizzou’s campus.  The application instructed me to write a short essay about my faith, and to detail an obstacle I had to overcome in order to reach where I am today.  In italics, an added note advised:  Do not write about an obstacle you are currently facing.  It is better to write about something from your past that you have already overcome.  It made sense to me – you need distance in order to tell the story right.  You need the emotional detachment and wisdom that time supposedly offers.

I can still remember exactly what I wrote about on that retreat application.  In short, I had a rough few months during my senior year of high school and made some poor decisions that still make me cringe today.  I wrote an essay describing the ordeal and how it connected to my faith.  I was chosen to give the talk at the retreat, but a few months beforehand, I dropped out.  A chronic fear of public speaking and an even bigger fear of sharing my story with a group of peers convinced me I wasn’t ready yet.  It turns out, two years of distance still wasn’t enough.

Fiction is my bread and butter, but on the rare occasion when I try to write an essay, I inadvertently return to that note on the retreat application.  I ask myself the same questions.  Am I ready to write this story from my life?  Do I need to be safely out of range from the emotions of a particular event in order to write about it well?  Do I need detachment in order to write clearly, or will that make my writing hollow and remote?  I raise these questions because I don’t have an answer.  If I did, I would write nonfiction much better than I do now.

I ran into a similar problem recently when I decided to submit the only completed essay I’m proud of to a few journals.  I wrote the essay last semester for a class called, oddly enough, “Writing the Spiritual Narrative.”  Before I sent it out, I reread the essay for the first time in about six months, and I was struck by how much I didn’t like it.  The writing wasn’t bad, but my perspective had changed.  My essay detailed my on-again, off-again relationship with both Catholicism and bouts of depression, my struggles with prayer when I left the church, and how this culminated during my study abroad in Scotland.  At the time that I wrote the essay, I had not been to church voluntarily in almost a year, and I was in the middle of a typical “what am I going to do with my life” crisis, which colored my work considerably.  At the time that I reread the essay, I had resolved much of my quarter-life crisis and also made a cautious return to my old church.  Every word of my essay was still true, and yet I wanted to rewrite it on the spot.  Nothing in my past had changed, but the way I interpreted my past had changed.

As a fiction writer, if I reread something I’ve written six months ago and decide it needs fixing, I can manipulate the story however I want.  The narrative only lives inside my head and my characters are the ones who change, not me.  But I find that when I try to write nonfiction, I get stuck because the narrative of my life is not linear or tidy, and if the narrative of my life has changed, then so have I.  I wonder how I’m supposed to write about my life when time and maturity will offer so many shifts in my point of view.  If I can ever document my life in an honest and satisfying way, despite these shifts.

The question of truth and authenticity comes up a lot in conversations about nonfiction, and I know I’m just adding more noise.  Anytime I sit down to write about my life, I am only writing about how I feel at this given time, and therefore, my work is still truthful and authentic.  It’s not necessary for me to place a disclaimer on all of my essays, or for me to feel badly about growing up.  The meaning I glean from writing about my life should matter the most.  Eventually, I’ll put these questions about distance and time to rest.  In the meantime, I think I’d better stick to fiction.

About Maura Lammers

Maura Lammers worked as the contest assistant for The Missouri Review for two years, and graduated from the University of Missouri in 2013 with degrees in English and women's and gender studies. She currently lives in Walla Walla, Washington, where she serves as an AmeriCorps volunteer for an alternative high school. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Quaker, Nib Magazine, and EPIC.

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