Nonfiction for the Writer

It was my brother who got me interested in writing. He’s always been an insatiable reader and as kid I would always follow his example and build on it, so I started reading everything he was finished with. It’s hard to describe what was going through my mind as I turned each care-worn page, the closest comparison I can make is that it was like falling in love. I couldn’t put the books down and I tore through them at a pace that both shocked and delighted my family. My brother and I would talk about all those fictional worlds we had been through for hours on end and compare our interpretations and theories for what was to come next. After reading so many books and feeling the complex emotions they brought me, there was no way I wouldn’t want to be a part of the enigmatic world of authors, so I began trying my hand at fiction.
The results as of now have been mixed. Last year I attempted to become a Creative Writing major and join the fiction workshop, but was turned down. It hurt, in fact it had me depressed for quite some time. Fiction has always my preferred genre, but the rejection had shaken me and I was caught at a point of indecision. Before freshman year I had never written nonfiction, and my one experience hadn’t left me feeling very confident. But walking down the hill to my dorm on a windy fall day, I was reminded of my high school track team, of the feel I got when I sprinted. I got back and just started writing it, wondering why those particular memories had stuck with me. What was their significance? Why would those experiences stick out so much? It was only after I finished the piece that I realized the freedom I felt while sprinting was a lot like the feeling I have when I feel inspired to write. I submitted that piece and here I am now, in a nonfiction workshop.
When I write I feel like I’m suspended in midair on a powerful wind. There is no outside noise, and all the pressure I feel in life seems to vanish for a while. All that matters is motion, moving forward along the path that is being filled in before me. That piece was a sprint, the track being stitched together with each memory that fell into place. I remembered things I hadn’t till then, things that made me rethink memories I had previously been so sure of. It was a strange feeling, but also exhilarating.
For me writing and reading have always been a means of expanding my perspective. Through stories I could learn about experiences I may never have, and through my own writing I could explore idea or concepts that had been on my mind. For a long time I thought these were things that could only be accomplished through the freedom unique to fiction. But, nearing the end of the nonfiction workshop, I can say that is no longer the case.
Nonfiction is exploration, but it’s of a much more inward inclination. That should have been obvious, but before going through the process of trying to create order out of fragments from my memory, I didn’t realize exactly what it entailed. It’s difficult, much more than I had ever thought, but it’s also an amazing experience. I feel like I’m working my way through a series of dark tunnels, trying to map my way through it all and make sense of the structure. But even when you come back to a familiar tunnel, you’ll always be surprised to see how it connects to one you had thought was completely unrelated. You keep going, bit by bit, and eventually that map has become a sort of portrait. It doesn’t always come together like you’d think, there aren’t usually clear endings, and contradictions run wild, but if nothing else this course has taught me that even uncertainty has its place. Because sometimes life just doesn’t make sense.
Writing nonfiction is a struggle for me, in part because I just have a bad memory, but also because it asks us to look at ourselves and our lives critically. As a writer, you’re obliged to tell the truth as best you can when putting together an essay, even if it means showing that you didn’t always do things perfectly or that life hasn’t always been fair to you. The essay demands that level of honest, of understanding. But I believe it is because of this acknowledgment that we can grow from our essays, and that readers can take something genuine away from our reflections. We cannot change the past, but we can also find meaning in it. For me, this is the goal of my essays. To understand myself just a bit better, despite the difficulties.

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