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.