This wasn’t therapy, damn it, and I’m no therapist. It was a creative nonfiction class and these students were paying good money to gut their lives, plunk the prime pieces on the operating table and, by the end, Frankenstein the remains into a narrative that made some bloody sense. Tall order, sure, but they didn’t have to draw conclusions or wrap things up in tidy packages. Trust me, I said, the material won’t make sense now. But it will. I promise. Just get the material on the page, please. And, thank you.
I lied, of course. How the hell did I know if it would ever make sense?
Faith spurred me on. After all, they were advanced writing students and I had a few years of teaching under my belt (teaching that gave me the confidence to boldface lie). And, really, what else does a writer have to go on but her gut?
Not a whole hell of a lot, that’s what.
After that first week, after receiving myriad quizzical looks, after talking creative nonfiction until our faces turned azure, The Time of Bellyaching began.
It’s so hard to write about my life.
My life isn’t exciting. I have nothing to write about.
I want to write fiction. Not the truth.
Oh, but there was more:
I hate this class and I hate creative nonfiction.
And they did hate it. I mean, some of them hated it more than others but, for the most part, they hated the idea of putting a narrative to their relatively short lives, and they hated me for insisting they do it. Let’s face it; it’s agonizing. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a big, fat liar. Of all of the possible avenues to set your attention to in writing, looking back at your life is, quite possibly, one of the toughest things you can do.
It is, after all, why people go to therapy. But, like I said, this wasn’t therapy.
And I wasn’t a therapist.
Then began the Time of the Big Read and we broke out the good stuff: Orwell, Baldwin, Iceberg Slim, Allison, O’Brien, Hersey, Ehrlich, Sinclair, Kincaid, Selby, and a boatload of others. We also read novels based on the writer’s personal experience and research: Moby Dick, Go Tell it on the Mountain, When I was Puerto Rican.
I asked them to pick a subject to investigate — from cats they’d known to a life-changing experience. I didn’t care, I said. Everything and anything could be compelling material if you paid attention to it.
This was the Time of Wrestling and, let me tell you, it was not enjoyable. There was weeping and gnashing of teeth. They attempted material and abandoned it to the threshing floor. There were stunning failures and brilliant successes.
Their topics changed and morphed and, sometimes, became suddenly unrecognizable. And that was fine. Tangle with the material, I urged, find something out about it — and yourself — that you didn’t know when you started. You might not know the depth of the water, might feel like you’re going under, but that’s okay, as long as you give the material its due.
Full disclosure: I adore my students. I do. Not in a creepy-Mrs. Robinson-way but in an I-respect-your-artistic-struggle way. Think Shirley Partridge.
Fuller disclosure: I adore teaching creative nonfiction. I love the way it reveals the sublime and intimate parts of us; parts that, when exposed, become universal truths. How comforting it is when we recognize that the oddities in ourselves are familiar to others! There’s always that amazing moment when a student reads their work out loud, and the other writers in class nod their heads in recognition or wonder.
It’s writing, though, and it’s hard work. It’s not hard labor. It’s not hard the way my grandfather’s job was hard every day when he descended into the mine. It’s not Armed-Forces hard. It’s mentally challenging. It’s sitting-at-your-desk-all-day- only-to-produce-three-quarters-of-a-page hard.
In the end, though, it’s work. And the students who put in the work reap the rewards. For what, though? A grade? Really? They’re reaching in and pulling out their heart for a grade? Of course not. They’re learning how to shape a movement, choose the right POV and vantage point, pick the right material, build dramatic tension. And those are just a few of the things I attempted to get them to recognize. And it was all conjured out of their own lives.
Over the years, my students’ material has been compelling (for the most part). They have written about gentrifying neighborhoods, playing the violin, tragic accidents, insects, terminal illness, bad relationships, family pets, drug addiction, religion, bad jobs, rehab, abuse and neglect. I could go on. The range represents 360 degrees of human experience. Some are quietly dramatic while others are explosive and unnerving. The work sticks with me, jabs me in the brain, and reveals a stunning range of human tenacity and emotion.
I’m not taking credit for it. I’m just stating fact.
Now here I am, back again, to the fact that this isn’t therapy. Right? I’m no therapist. They’re not patients. And, yet, every semester, I get choked up at some point (I hide it well and I don’t think they know) when a student makes a revelation or reads a particularly poignant passage. And, usually, one or two students can’t read their own work out loud because they fear they just can’t get through it. Those highly charged moments might be the realization of small but honest truth, a particularly startling scene or something in between.
I am aware that a student might simply be blowing smoke up my ass, making it up. How would I know? I mean, really, how would I? I do, however, have a finely tuned bullshit radar. So, if they can fabricate a scene that didn’t even remotely happen to them and I don’t call them out, more power to them. If they’re honest they can repackage it, some day, as fiction.
Now, I’m not saying that every student becomes a successful creative nonfiction writer in one semester — far from it. It’s a beginning. It’s that tentative first step. But it’s an important one. Some end up running, some stumble. That’s to be expected. It’s not always neat and tidy. Sometimes it’s messy. Sometimes it’s spectacular. Sometimes it’s maddeningly unmemorable.
What does it say about me that I fully revel in this process? I mean, am I some kind of masochist who enjoys imposing mental anguish?
Short answer: hell, yeah. I believe that it will make them better writers in the end. I know that looking at their work with a critical eye makes me a better editor and a better writer, too.
I know about anguish. We all do. But I’m particularly sensitive to writerly anguish. A big New York agent picked up my first novel in 2001. And then the World Trade Center fell and the big publishing houses lost their collective minds. No one would touch a novel about an inter-generational Lebanese family.
Didn’t feel patriotic, I guess. Or maybe it just sucked. Who knows.
That rejection (thirty-two very polite rejection letters to my agent) took me a hell of a long time to get over. I mean, when you get an agent, you usually get a deal. And I didn’t get a deal. And I had to start all over.
Enter tiny record player playing sad music.
I lost myself in motherhood for a while. But, no matter how difficult it was to be a working mom, I kept my hand in writing and editing (more than a hand, I guess. Two hands and I put my back into it). A few years ago, I started another thing. I thought it was a novel loosely based on my life, which it partly is. I ended up listening to the characters too closely, though, and they bullied me into a collection of linked short stories.
So here I am, with a collection of short stories. Good for me, huh? Yeah, real bully for me.
Regardless, this question of therapy, of working things out, is a niggling one. Why do it? Why keep writing? Why spend every minute of your non-day job, your scarce family time, the time when you could be watching Seinfeld reruns in your pajamas, sitting in front of a computer making up stories?
It’s ridiculous, really. Think about it. I’ve spent years working on a book that no one asked me to write. Get your head around that. It’s like throwing yourself into a project at work that no one — not your boss or co-workers — thinks is essential to the company. If it doesn’t get done, it doesn’t matter. No one will even know.
How completely insane is that?
But, like I said, I’m no therapist. And this isn’t therapy. And I’m not one to judge. So I’ll keep revising my thing. I’ll start sending it out to publishers and contests and hope for the best. I’ll trust my instincts because what else does a writer have to rely on?
Nothing. And that’s the God-honest truth.