I’ve been thinking a lot about voice in CNF. When do you step outside the first person POV? How do you truthfully embody your own childhood voice or past self? How can speculation function? I think that this has to do with the “what” of an essay. Form and content push and pull and ultimately must support each other. They’re like sisters in the backseat being dragged by mom and dad on a garbage road trip. When we read Brenda Miller‘s essay “Against Courage” I was surprised by the different voice and crafted styles that can be used in prose with as much versatility as the options you have when writing poetry. Well, maybe not surprised—I am a good reader. I’ve read Danticat’s edge-of-your-seat memoir in which the childhood voice is crisp. Fun Home and Persepolis are two of my favorite graphic books. Essay collections in high school were my jam (looking at you Joan Didion). But I guess I was seeing the sausage being made for the first time–I didn’t realize the complexity of prose writing (shame on LuLu).
Seeing this connection between poetry and CNF, I was brought back to the bridge between poetry and creative nonfiction. Often I’ve heard classmates and peers talk about how the two are more connected than poetry and fiction. I’ve generally disagreed with this statement—I’ve found that poetry is about creating new worlds or situations, disregarding normal world rules, and most of the time just making shit up. Okay, so that’s not the most eloquent description of poetry that I’ve ever given, but you get the idea: poetry is a lot of lying.
I’ve been thinking about why though I am so adverse to the comparison of CNF and poetry and I realize it’s because of two general misconceptions about poetry and creative nonfiction that I feel are perpetuated by conflating the two. First that they are necessarily confessional, and second that confessional writing is necessarily bad.
When thinking about confessional writing, immediately one jumps to diary entries or angsty Tumblr posts. However, the confessional can actually be presented in a skillful way. Anne Sexton wrote well-crafted and beautiful poetry—and it shouldn’t be valued any less just because it is about her own life and experiences. And that’s the key: the writing is well crafted. And as explained in Miller’s essay, good creative nonfiction does not stem from tough topics, it’s from good writing.
I think it’s important to focus on what the story is telling, not just telling the story. That I think is where poetry and nonfiction intersect. Both are more interested in how a work of writing is moving beyond the tangible events, finding something meaningful or something for another person to connect to.