Monthly Archives: May 2015

Open Dialogue

My brother has often been described as “the smartest person he’s ever met.” Talking to him usually involves receiving some variety of a lecture—even when you enter into a discussion with the hopes of agreeing with him you always end up in an argument, and you are always wrong. Being that we’ve spent so many years growing up along side one another, we both know where to poke to make it really hurt, and so in order to avoid the personal attacks that would result from even the most innocent of conversations, at a certain age we stopped talking to each other almost entirely, and eventually were no longer friends.

It took me well into college to stop being angry with him and realize what our problem was, to discover that it is not actually unique to us, but is in fact quite pervasive in American society: a lack of space for and comfort with open dialogue.

When I participated in my first creative writing workshop I was terrified, and probably bore some degree of resemblance to a deer in headlights every time I had to open my mouth and comment on something. I was afraid to criticize, to critique, to question, to doubt, to disagree, but above all, to be wrong. The more I became aware of this lack of open dialogue, the more I began to see it in in my daily life, not just in workshops and other academic settings but also on social media, amongst friends, and even with strangers. I noticed people on Facebook mercilessly attacking the grammar or phrasing of each other’s posts rather than engaging with the meaning behind what was being discussed. I realized that at some point in between leaving childhood and entering adulthood, being wrong ceased to be an option, and preserving social harmony became more important than my own unique thoughts.

During that first workshop I remember on several occasions feeling like I wanted to sink away after someone had sparked disagreement with a point I had made—I interpreted this as a personal attack, assumed that the individual who disagreed with my thoughts and I couldn’t be friends now, we wouldn’t get along. One day outside of the workshop, I encountered one of the people who had disagreed with me on the sidewalk, we passed by one another and she smiled genuinely and said hi. It was actions like these from the older, more experienced students in my workshop that eventually led me to a turning point where I realized that I could disagree with someone without rejecting them as a person, that it was okay for myself to say something wrong, to admit this, to change my mind—no one would hold that against me.

This is one of the privileges that a workshop can offer, in particular those that deal with such intimate and personal material such as creative nonfiction: a space for open discussion and the exploration of ideas without fear of personal attack or judgment. Throughout my experiences with workshop style classes, I’ve learned that, depending on the students in a class, workshops can act as a microcosm for the way that society either fosters or neglects open dialogue. I’ve learned to appreciate the kind of growth that can only result from an openness to being wrong, the kind of bonds that form between people who are focused more on the honesty of their discussion than their fear of vulnerability, and the kind of critical knowledge that can be gained when the meaning of someone’s words takes precedence over the person who spoke them.

Creative nonfiction, a genre that hinges largely upon a degree of trust and openness between reader and writer, requires that open dialogue be achieved in order to have productive workshop discussions. Since participating in more workshops I have begun trying to bring the open dialogue that often takes place in class into all other areas of my life, because I think that there is an overlooked importance to constructive disagreement that can get lost outside of the classroom.

-Christy Leigh Agrawal


Central to the definition of creative nonfiction is the idea of truth. At the beginning of the semester our class discussed the distinction between creative nonfiction and fiction. The line is fine, surely. Can we invent dialogue that conveys the general idea of a conversation? How much liberty can we take in generating composite characters? How far can we manipulate the truth to get our point across before we are lying?

Writing creative nonfiction often jolts me into an understanding of how far my memories can deviate from actual events, and the role that I play in that transformation. I realize, when I begin to write about a memory, how frequently and easily I distort the truth. I find myself telling stories about my night out, my semester, and my childhood that deviate from what I actually remember in small ways. I do this so that my mother won’t worry or so that my friends will think that I am more fun. Without changing anything substantial about the events that occur, I can generate different truths about my life. This shaping of memory does not occur without consequence.

My best friend studied abroad last semester, and she worries that resuming her previous life at Geneseo makes it easy to forget her experiences abroad. “I tell the same stories over and over, and that is what I remember,” she told me. “And I’m probably changing it every time I say it. What happens to the other things?”

She is coming to a realization that creative nonfiction demands—our ideas about the world and about our selves are not the product of every event that has ever happened to us. Instead we select, edit, draw conclusions from, and write about a smattering of memories from the broad scope of our personal histories.

The question of what constitutes truth in creative nonfiction remains. Are we lying to ourselves and to readers when we write about these amended memories? Are these standout memories, revised as they may be, a true representation of what has gotten us to the place that we write from?

Writing my histories “creatively”

A problem I have encountered in my creative nonfiction is how to dialogue my personal history as it relates to the histories of my countries as a Dominican American. Essayists write the intersection of these histories with ease and while reading, I tend to focus on the stylistic techniques the writer employs when trying to transform this research into what we call “creative non-fiction”. Growing up, I admired how Junot Diaz and Julia Alvarez brought the voices of Dominican implanted Americans to life, but I knew what I read was fiction. But I also knew I had good stories to tell, important stories to tell. I just didn’t quite know how to scintillate my reader. How can I create prose that breathes the lyrics of life while still getting down to the facts of my story?

Recently, while doing research about the Dominican Republic for my writing, I stumbled upon “An American Childhood in the Dominican Republic” by Julia Alvarez, a story that blends the histories of both a brutal dictatorship and her family’s escapade – folds between the two transparent. In this piece, Alvarez’s informative, yet playful tone throughout the piece establishes a firm grounding in how she incorporates her research. She high lights the main aspects the piece brings about – the commodification of American culture in the Dominican Republic during Trujillo’s dictatorship and how it affected Alvarez’s childhood. Alvarez invites us into her childhood and brings her family members to life, “My grandmother also brought back clothes for her grandchildren – impractical things, such as gorgeous party dresses that were too dressy for any occasion”, and helps us reach an intimate relationship with the piece. The interweaving of dialogue to thread together pieces of her story almost make the reader feel as though she has met her Abuelita.

I was in middle school when I wrote my first piece of creative non-fiction. Ms. Lillywhite taught us about the anecdote” and asked us to remember a five minute moment of our lives where we felt any one emotion strongly, straight to the bone, and to remember every single thing about this moment and why it made you feel that particular what. “What did it feel, taste, look, sound, smell like?” she asked us. How did the verde of my bathing suit glisten in the water, my feet slide over the slimy rocks en el rio, miniscule grey pebbles stick to my skin when my father pulls me out of Jarabacoa as I gasped for air, spitting Jarabacoa back onto the ground? Why was this such an important story for me to tell ten years later? Although the facts of the writing can be found, it is the details one inputs and remembers, the smells of the pork twisting on the riverside, that bring us to the moment. The details one includes about the place, its history, people, culture, that make the reader learn.

Although I haven’t mastered these techniques, I know that it is through writing these true accounts that I can transport my reader and show them something they have never experienced. It is through the delicate balance of show and tell, my own lyrics, that I will be able to transport my reader.

No apple colored oranges

Fiction and Creative Nonfiction are similar in a lot of ways. They both use literary devices to characterize characters, show a setting, and prompt the reader to think more deeply about the text. They both use metaphor at times. They both have a strong voices that propel the piece forward through a narrator. They are both prose. But the difference get more blurred the further you delve into the genre. The line between fiction and nonfiction isn’t clear, but it exists. Continue reading

Keeping the Skeleton

At the beginning of class, one of the essay structures we were introduced to was the braided essay. I admired the writers who used this method. I consider it a great achievement on the writer’s part when I realize I have been transported from topic to topic, too caught up in the sway of the words that the transitions have passed without my notice.

As I would soon discover, this illusion is even more difficult when the structure of the essay weaves two or three topics together at once. In working on my first essay, “Running Home,” I strove to imitate the ease in which other writers integrated multiple topics at once. In order to organize my thoughts, I began by separating individual instances and memories I had into separate vignettes with titles. I’ll take away the titles and add transitions later. I just need this for organization, I thought to myself.

However, as I continued writing, I realized that with the way I remembered the events, a braided essay would no longer make sense. The vignettes were too separate, too distinct to reoccur more than once. While I longed for the effortlessness and neat tying together that came with a braided essay, I decided to keep the titles in my essay.

At first I was disappointed. Keeping the titles felt like I was giving away all the answers. Readers would see the titles and instantly know what the vignette was about. I was leaving the backbone in, the raw seams unfinished. As the class workshopped my essay, I realized another thing: nonfiction is all about honesty. The titles became road signs or markers for the readers. There was no use in hiding my thought process. I began to see the titles as less like scaffolding and more integrated in the essay itself.

Why isn’t all nonfiction about the mating habits of manatees?

I remember being forced to do a project on a nonfiction book about manatees in the 4th grade. It was the dullest book I had ever read. There were dull sentences like, “The manatee breeds once every two years,” and nothing else after that. Because of this I got used to nonfiction as being dull, boring, and basically unexciting.

Fast forward to the present and I have a different opinion of nonfiction. This semester I took Creative Nonfiction and the name of the class alone messed with my preconceived notion of nonfiction. How can nonfiction be creative if it has so dull language? After reading the essays from my classmates, I now understand that nonfiction isn’t just about the boring mating habits of manatees. It’s about the emotion and the journey that the author goes through in their essay. Creative nonfiction is way more than the essay itself. It is about what happened before the essay and what happened after the essay. Creative nonfiction is about the emotions between the lines–sorry, my writing is filled with clichés.

 I find myself thinking about the book I read about manatees. I ask myself, “Well, why do manatees bread once every two years?” Is it because their lives are too hectic and they almost never get a chance to get it on? Or is it because of  something having to do with their gestation period? I want to know the manatees. I want to know how they feel after waiting so long and then getting it done.


Anyway, being in a creative nonfiction class has changed the way I view nonfiction in general. I also wouldn’t mind reading an essay dedicated to the mating habits of manatees–it could really clear up a few things.


-db pena

The Difference Between CNF and Fiction

I fell into writing via fanfiction. Not the “M rated romance” sort, I should note. It was the kind of stuff you’d expect from a dyslexic nine year old—spelling mistakes, one-dimensional characters, weirdly decent dialogue, the “what-even-is-a-comma?” sort of feel. For those of you who don’t open incognito windows and sign into your account more often than you should when your roommate’s not home, allow me to paint a picture: It’s more or less a breeding ground for teenage angst. Sort of like Tumblr, but in word-form. It’s people, mostly teenagers, trying to get their raw and untampered emotion out before being able to fully analyze it, which, I think is a stage most of us have been in.
Speaking is hard. Digging into your emotions is hard. Sharing them with others is hard. I remember a friend once asking me what was upsetting me (which, seeing as I was a moody little teenager in high school, was pretty much everything), and I physically couldn’t answer; I felt as though there was a sort of heaviness in my throat that would block whatever words I tried to come up with.
For a while I tried writing what was upsetting me in the form of fiction (be it fanfiction or otherwise). It sort of helped, but not entirely. Although the emotions were going on the page, I couldn’t claim ownership of them. It wasn’t me who was upset—it was some 30-something year old dude from, like, Chicago who wants to talk to his sister, but can’t for such-and-such reason. In this sense, CNF made things easier. The writer in me wanted pieces to be good, or at least salvageable. This couldn’t be done without (A) Actually looking at what was upsetting me, and (B) Owning both the emotions and the experiences. Both these are about as much fun as they sound, especially when the things you don’t want to look at have been bottled up for the better portion of your life. To take this a step further, the emotions and thoughts and importance of situations have to be stated almost explicitly—more so than in fiction, which is something I learned only recently. That again is hard; not because I care about what others know of me, necessarily, but that I have to spell certain things out to myself—and god knows there are things I’d rather not acknowledge, as is something that I think can be said about most people.

Truth and Reality

John D’Agata has been described to me before as a literary bad-boy, creating a row amongst literary scholars and readers with his creative-fictional-non-fiction. He, like many authors I have read recently, bends reality to fit his artistic vision. In About a Mountain, D’Agata writes like a journalist, projecting facts so seemingly concrete that I didn’t second-guess him until I read his Notes section at the end, which lists the facts he altered and provides readers with the real facts. Continue reading

Did That Really Happen?

When people ask me which genre I prefer writing more, fiction or non-fiction, my answer was always absolute and without hesitation: fiction. I found comfort in the limitless possibilities of my characters and their worlds. I never had to ask myself; wait…did that really happen? But surely non-fiction is easier since you’re writing about already predetermined events, right? There’s no figuring out plot or making up character dialogue because the characters in non-fiction already exist and the conversations have already been had. Wrong.

Putting into experiences into words, some which may have happened ten years ago, is extremely difficult. Furthermore, making those experiences worth reading about is an entirely different beast. When I first ventured into CNF, I felt useless. The only way I can describe it is like this: you’re sitting at a table with your friend and they’re telling you about a dream they had last night. To them, it’s interesting as hell and worth sharing, but to you–to you it’s only worth hearing if you’re involved, there’s sex, or someone dies. How can I turn my personal experiences into something universal?

Doing this meant I still had to characterize, perhaps more than I had to in fiction. Because I knew the people in my stories so well, it became really hard to distance myself from them. Do I really include that fight I had with my dad? I don’t want people to think he’s an asshole. In CNF you just have to bite the bullet and write what you know, write what other’s know, write the human experience.