This is one of the first questions that my nonfiction professor asked us during my freshman year at Boston College.
After checking “Freshman Writing Seminar” off the list my first semester, I actually had an amazing grad student teach this class who brought so much to the table, I was ready for my next challenge. I had never called myself a writer before but found myself drawn to another writing class.
In high school we had only one real creative writing section in English class. With no instruction past the old – exposition – climax – denouement – formula we were left to it. I discovered that knowing when you were reading a good story versus actually writing a good story was a whole different beast. My teacher pretty much told me my fiction was terrible, along with my sonnets. I’d love to tell her about my acceptance into an MFA program ….
I still knew that I loved to write, but trying to do it in college, when I felt unprepared from high school was a daunting task. I was still scared to call myself a writer. It felt too intimidating. I thought I could be happy writing into a vacuum for my whole life. But I bit the bullet and showed up for “Creative Nonfiction.”
My professor talked to us during the very first class about mining our material. We sat in a circle, the 10 or so of us in the class, and were told to share our “material.” To varying degrees people opened up about their lives, their traditions, cultures, strengths, fears, and mostly hardships. This was our material. Our hardships, our scars. I was young and scared to show mine. I was self conscious that my material wasn’t good enough, but there I was, assigned to write, and to constantly read my work out loud to the group of students who were mostly experienced, seniors. And each week, I grew a little stronger, a little more sure.
Truth is stranger than fiction – Mark Twain
This idea of using our material is still one that challenges me every day. Maybe I just have some growing up as a writer to do still. Whether sourcing real life and experience for fiction, or writing our own true stories, I find that using my own life feels far too revealing for me and those who are in my stories. My privacy feels invaded and I shudder at the thought of sharing so much personal material with others.
But we are drawn to true stories. I know I always have been. Memoirs, essays, biographies. As Mark Twain famously said, “truth is stranger than fiction.” I envy those writers who are willing to put it all out there.
Some of my other favorite writers have dealt with this issue. I know they have, because if you read The Bell Jar, you know that Sylvia Plath is writing so much of her own self, own life, own truth. The story is just too close to real life to not be at least influenced but her life. Maybe Plath knew the story had to be told, maybe she even knew that many would see that the story was really hers, but she couldn’t help but use the mask of “fiction” to make the words come out easier. Maybe that thin veil was the only way she could share her material.
Does writing “fiction” make it easier for you to share your material? What about poetry? Does that genre help you disguise your truths? What is your material? If you are looking for some inspiration, perhaps you can write down your material this evening. Happy writing and happy Sunday!