During our packet discussion this weekend, Doug and I had a long conversation on critical thinking as a writer. I also read last night and this morning his essay “The Novel as a Poem” from Notes Home from a Prodigal Son (and also Cynthia Huntington’s “Poetic Technique in Nonfiction Writing” from the VCFA anthology). I think I might have made a breakthrough, or at least found a foothold. In his essay Doug mentions two types of patterns, patterns of verisimilitude (or “aboutness”) and patterns of technique. This distinction is one I think I’ve reacted to a bit emotionally in the last couple of months, and I think I might know why – in my non-fiction work, I think I’ve focused almost exclusively on patterns of verisimilitude. I think this might be because of the form itself. Until the last three or four years, I wrote almost exclusively fiction and poetry. My transition to non-fiction has been one I didn’t necessarily consciously make – people told me I needed to write about my crazy family, and I also was getting more publications in online media for the more journalistic work. Perhaps, in this not-entirely-conscious transition between forms, I made some assumptions, one being that, since non-fiction is about things that actually happened, it was more important to tell them as they happened (or at least how I remember them happening) rather than imposing structural forms on them. I’m starting to think this was a grave error. Two of the people in my writers’ group have said they like my fiction better than my non-fiction, that it just seemed to get to the “heart” of human experience better – I’m starting to think now that they were reacting to the “completeness” of the form, as they also said my fiction “pays off” better. I’m not sure what this says about the direction my non-fiction is heading, but I am now having a bit of a renaissance of formal introspection. It makes writing a bit less fun right now, but as Doug says in the essay:
Getting the balances right in any given work is part of the art of art and its mystery and is a skill that cannot be taught. It leads to a feeling…of submission, of loss of freedom, of loss of expressiveness. But there is a point in the process of writing a novel [or personal essay – my note] at which you must submit to the strictures of pattern that you have chosen.
One of my classmates entered VCFA as a fiction writer, switched to non-fiction during the first residency, and just told us she was switching back to fiction after last residency. I don’t envy the process.
I love when something about writing comes together like this and allows me to make a leap. Thanks for posting, John.
Cynthia, I agree. One of the great pleasures of teaching.
Discovery is the battle, but also the joy? I think the worst writers are those who don’t fight and don’t question what they are doing.
Why impose a structure on anything? Rather, why not find the structure that opens up — you, your material, the world, the reader? But this takes experiment, trial and error — and failure.
I suspect we’re all haunted by the narrow definitions of essays we got in school. While writing mine, I read Philip Lopate’s introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, as well as scanned a few essays in the anthology. I thought his comments bland, but they got me thinking. And he touches on many issues of self, audience, and structure that suggested possibilities.
Here’s the question that most intrigues me: how can the methods of fiction open up non-fiction?
My starting point in writing is always this: I don’t know what I am doing. This is liberating.
Now I have a new starting point.
I love the idea of opening up, of letting go. Maybe because I suck still, but it’s liberating to think that this process is one of discovery, of the infinite possibility, not one of arrival. We are all, more or less, lost in space, right? 🙂