Maybe you’re searching for the meaning of life, or maybe you’re just trying to describe a great breakfast you ate off a street cart in Phnom Penh. Whatever the case, any ambitious nonfiction writer knows that this broad (and increasingly popular) genre poses a unique set of challenges and pleasures — workdays filled with mind-numbing writer’s block sprinkled with those rare, introspective Eureka! moments when words suddenly fly from your pen like they're going out of style.
In the 2008 syllabus for his English class at Pomona College, David Foster Wallace astutely observes:
In the grown-up world, creative nonfiction is not expressive writing but rather communicative writing. And an axiom of communicative writing is that the reader does not automatically care about you (the writer), nor does she find you fascinating as a person, nor does she feel a deep natural interest in the same things that interest you.
So there you have it, in 57 words: the nonfiction writer’s plight. How does one write clearly, truthfully, and communicatively in such a way that will sweep a reader into the narrative fold? Whether you're experimenting with travel writing, memoir, personal essay, or any other form of creative nonfiction, chances are you'll be able to commiserate with the following spectrum of thoughts and questions that inevitably pop up while working on your latest piece...
"Well, this is embarrassing..."
How strange it is to dig into personal shortcomings we'd often rather not admit to ourselves, let alone an entire audience. This mode of writing can work wonders, though. Just look at the way Roxane Gay was able to deliver a fresh take on feminism by examining it through her own admittedly flawed lens.
"Why wasn't I raised by a pack of wolves?"
Struggling with memoir-style writing? Does your childhood suddenly seem frustratingly ordinary ? If only you had been raised by wild animals, or grown up with <insert another juicy, obscure life experience>, these pages would practically write themselves!
"Will <insert friend or family member> hate what I write about them?"
This is where writing creative nonfiction can get you into particularly murky territory. Include a friend, family member, or other acquaintance in your story, and you run the risk of writing something he or she may not like.
"If only I had a rewind button on all my life experiences."
How much can you really trust your own memory? A wise travel or food writer knows to take notes while traveling or eating for the sake of accuracy, but for a writer digging deep into his or her past without the aid of notes, the task gets much trickier.
What would Jack Kerouac do? A good travel writer knows that Kerouac was king of making any road he traversed the most interesting place on Earth. Can you work the same magic on your recent trip to your grandmother's house in Iowa? Only time will tell...
What would Joan Didion do? It's hard not to envy the iconic author's ability to tackle nearly any subject with a straightforward tone that manages to be simultaneously frank as it is elegant.
"How can I tell this story with my most authentic voice?"
Think about your roster of favorite nonfiction writers: Rebecca Solnit, Leslie Jamison, David Sedaris, and the list goes on. What makes the work of these writers so memorable is the distinct voice with which it is written. Finding your own voice is no easy feat, but the more you write, the more likely it is to reveal itself.
"What am I bringing to the table that hasn't already been written?"
We live in an age when the literary market feels more oversaturated with material by the minute, no thanks to the explosion of online writing and blogging. So how does one set oneself apart from the pack? If you discover the answer to this question, drop me a line!
"I'm going to change the WORLD with this piece..."
Who doesn't have visions of grandeur while on a hot writing streak? Admit it, the Pulitzer would look great on you.
"Maybe I should have gone to law school."
Why oh why didn't you listen to your uncle when he told you to become a doctor, or lawyer, or investment banker, or astronaut?