An Academic Practices Creative Non-Fiction
I started taking a creative non-fiction class last week. I'd never taken a formal writing class, much less a creative one. I'm practicing writing creative non-fiction this week, writing about how I felt in my very first writing class. As this is a new genre for me, this is a truly shitty first draft. I'm learning.
This week, I attended my first creative non-fiction writing class. I’m practicing. I present to you here the world’s shittiest first draft, in which I write about being an academic writer in a room full of creative writers.
I had wanted to try creative non-fiction writing because I wanted to transform my dissertation into a more readable book. I still hadn’t managed to publish any of my research, save for a few articles I published in a obscure journal in 2010. A colleague once had told me that I’d be a great popular historian, which I took to mean that my writing was more readable than the average academic.
The class met in the attic of an renovated Victorian house downtown. The room was cool, quiet, and softly lit with a long table surrounded by bookshelves stuffed with books about writing. I sat at the far end, in the gunfighter’s seat. I felt safer there because I could watch everyone else. I eyed the other participants, sizing them up and wondering about their writing.
The instructor arrived. After welcoming us to the class, she told us a little bit about herself. We discovered that she was a poet, had published seven books, and was now in a PhD program. She also had a spreadsheet of writing projects to accomplish. She described to us how she’d raised her son as a single mother, getting up at five every morning to write. She’d written daily for five years straight. I tried to remember the last time I’d written five days in a row.
We began with introductions. I was the only academic. “I’m a historian,” I said to the group. I said something else about studying modern Latin America and wanting to rewrite my dissertation as a trade book. The twelve women seated around me smiled politely. Nobody knew what I was talking about. I wondered if I should leave.
In addition to introducing ourselves, we were supposed to mention the book we were currently reading My classmates were reading mostly fiction. Someone mentioned Anne Lamott’s book Bird By Bird. Someone else mentioned Roxane Gay’s new memoir, Hunger. . I think the last book I’d read was something about the history of science, probably something about eugenics, but I didn’t want to say that to a group of creative people.
Our instructor had sent us a few articles about creative non-fiction to read before our first class meeting. Having weekly readings evoked memories of graduate school seminars when professors would send us 500 pages of reading before the semester even began. I felt sure that I’d have something to contribute to the discussion. We began discussing the reading. One piece was about some creative non-fiction writers discussing what creative non-fiction was and wasn’t. The other was an actual piece of creative non-fiction by Joy Harjo.
People talked about what they liked and didn’t like about the readings. Our instructor helped walk us through some of the important points about each of the pieces. We talked about structure, pacing, authority, setting scenes, creating tension, and writing endings that weren’t totally cheesy. We talked about how to pack big ideas into small pieces of writing, like poets do. Some people didn’t like the Harjo piece, feeling like it was too artsy, too literary. I’d actually really enjoyed reading it because it packed powerful ideas into a tiny space, much like poetry. But I didn’t feel like I could say that.
I’d done the reading and had come prepared to talk about it, but didn’t feel like I knew enough to say anything about it. I flashed back to my first grad school seminar, of sitting around a large table and feeling like the one person in the room who didn’t understand what was going on. Only much later did I realize that my graduate colleagues weren’t any smarter than I was. They’d just read more books and internalized more jargon.
We discussed setting the scene and the importance of concrete details, of describing the world with our senses. My mouth felt dry. I don’t write about the concrete and tangible; I write about ideas. I write about science shaping culture and shaping ideas about what we believe about native cultures. I was definitely in the wrong class.
“Let’s do some writing,” our instructor said. We rustled pens and paper.
We wrote short biographies to learn to take ourselves seriously as writers. I wrote about having a PhD and being a historian. I wrote about my research interests (history of science, neoliberalism, politics of adoption, Latin America). Nowhere in my biography did I say that I was a writer because it felt dishonest.
When we were done with our short writing exercises, we also talked briefly about the how writers shouldn’t write about writing. I had never heard that writers should not write about writing. I write an entire blog about my writing process. Perhaps it was self-indulgent. I’d actually been thinking of publishing a short book based on my blog. It would definitely be a book about writing, which seemed to be some kind of unspoken sin.
Our reading assignment for next week included some stuff by Natalie Goldberg. We briefly discussed how she focuses process and practice, but also about feelings. I learned that but that people don’t take writers seriously who talk about feelings. That usually women writers talk about feelings. That people undervalue women’s writing generally and that women have often had to resort to less respected genres such as memoir and travel writing.
As a historian, I knew this. The women archaeologists I researched often had to write about their scientific findings disguised as travel memoirs. About how they often carried out research more important than that of their husbands, but received far less credit and acclaim. About how media reports usually focused on their housekeeping, rather than their scientific contributions. But I didn’t say any of that.
Our teacher gave us one final writing prompt. “Why do you write?” she asked. I stared at my yellow narrow-ruled legal pad for several minutes.
I finally wrote: I write to be heard and understood.