When one first ventures into creative writing there is often a piece of advice that gets thrown in your direction: write what you know. I used to understand this as being: only write about things in your fictional world that you have experienced in your non-fictional world. And if one takes it that way, one would run out of things to write about pretty darn fast; unless you have lived a truly remarkable life filled with an unfathomable number of adventures. The more I write fiction, the more I believe what this advice actually means is: write what you can embody and write what you can do so ‘believably.’ If I take it this way I can certainly get onboard, and understand it to be very valuable advice rather than stifling anti-advice.
As I continue to write and create fictional characters, then attempt to tell their stories, I feel more confident in allowing their realities to differ from what I’ve lived, but are still ones that I believe I can do justice to. There are still many, many characters or experiences I believe I will never been able to write authentically – but perhaps in time that will change too. This all being said, events, conversations, people, and experiences from my ‘real’ world certainly leak into my stories. Fragments of conversations with my husband have made it into a play, a tragic even from my childhood was used in a short story, and my characters are often composites of people I ‘really’ know. This is entirely to be expected of any fictional writing, assuming it has been written by a human that hasn’t lived out their entire lives in solitary confinement.
But what of writing non-fiction. I don’t mean a carefully researched article on a historical event, or a commentary on a topic of social importance but rather the ‘personal essay’. Non-fiction that is suppose to be a (re)telling of an event that truly happen in your non-fictional world – one that you, you know, actually lived through. In the last few months I have ventured into the world of the personal essay and it is, frankly, terrifying. Not because I’m worried about laying bare my ‘soul’ for critique by persons both known and unknown to me (you have to overcome that hurdle when you first do any form of creative writing), but, because, well, why would anyone want to read an essay about my life?
At the start of his chapter entitled “Modesty and Assertion” in his book, To Show and To Tell, Philip Lopate says if better than I ever could.
The most difficult hurdle confronting the would-be essayist or memoirist is the fear that one’s own life story, one’s own experiences, ideas, and impressions are of too little importance to pass on. “Why should I talk about my happy or unhappy childhood? Or my appreciation of nature? Why burden other people with the unsettled debris of my mind?” thinks the student.
This! Exactly this!
But then if I take a step back and breathe for a second rather than letting the panic set in I realize there was a similar emotion when I first started writing fiction: why would anyone read what I write? That fear has been dissolved (somewhat) by positive feedback – by letting people read my work and getting affirmation that it is worthy of reading, and that they found it “good” or “enjoyable.” Like anything in life, if we are told “you are worthy” we find the motivation to move forward and to grow in our chosen endeavor.
And so to the personal essay. I expect to learn a lot over the next couple of months as I study, and write, this format but I think I’ve already learned something that has allowed me displace the dread enough to put pen to paper. Firstly, people will read things that are well written – if you as the author put your efforts in writing well rather than stressing about whether or not your essay is ‘entertaining’ or ‘informative’ or ‘insightful’ you will end up with an essay that will be read. It is then in the hands of your reader to find their own connection to the story – and each reader will identify with your work in wildly different ways. The unknown-to-you reader might find something that resonates with their own experiences or an insight that they never considered before. The known-to-you reader may find themselves (literally) on the page and revel in the shared memory, or be aghast at your interpretation of the event that you’ve chosen to regale. But ultimately, it is not for you, the author, to worry about those things – just write!