For the past few months I have been reading and writing and talking about creative nonfiction (CNF) with my peers in workshop. I won’t romanticize. Writing creative nonfiction, especially personal narrative, is challenging. It is messy and vulnerable and hard. When the speaker is the self (as in you, the writer), writing about the self and the self’s experiences can feel high-risk and emotionally difficult, even when (maybe especially when?) the self feels personally compelled to write, to self-investigate, to make sense of the past, to storymake. You understand what I mean. Your inner conflict is why you are here, seeking magic cures. I am sorry you are struggling to get the right words on the page. I am working on it, too.
I am working through figuring out how we can navigate writing anxiety. How we can navigate the mental gymnastics of storymaking: the odd combination of feeling like we need to write about our experiences along with the feelings of inarticulateness and insecurity that accompany our need. How we can sidestep our worst, most critical editor—ourselves—and get words on the page anyway.
I don’t pretend to have magic cures for you—I am only a witch-in-training after all—but I can at least offer you some mix-and-match suggestions I offer myself when my frustration over storymaking begins to hinder me from storymaking at all.
Inner Voice says, “Stop writing because you are telling the story wrong, and you are representing yourself wrong, every reiteration you write is wrong.”
Remind yourself there is no single way—certainly no “right” way—to recount personal experience. Remind yourself that you are allowed to retell the story from a gazillion angles (all in the same text, even!), that you’re allowed to make this self-criticism a part of the story, that you are allowed to write from memory even when memory is hazy. (Read more about hazy memory in CNF here.) Remind yourself that “right” is not a synonym for factual and that there are multiple kinds of truth and that sometimes the more authentic story is the one that bares less resemblance to fact; remind yourself that you are allowed to introduce magic and myth and impossibilities if and when traditional narratives feel inauthentic to you and your story. Remind yourself that this is a very, very first draft, and you can edit later. Give yourself permission.
Inner Voice says, “But what if I write XYZ and everybody judges me for XYZ?”
Stop thinking about your audience right now. Think about audience later.
I am beginning to realize that if I think about audience (primary but especially secondary) too much while I am trying to storymake, I give up. No words come out. I am beginning to realize that, in order to be productive in the initial generative stage of writing, I need to make drafting feel low-stakes and experimental.
For me, this means separating myself as much as possible from the idea of an immediate audience, at least for a first draft. Try giving yourself a “rule” that regardless of what ends up on the page in this first draft, you will not show it to someone else for at least X number of days; try reminding yourself that regardless of what ends up on the page, you will not submit this initial draft for publication, i.e. your first (or even second or third) draft does not need to be perfect, does not need to anticipate criticism. You are allowed to edit out whatever you like in second, third, forth drafts; the first step, though, is getting the words out.
Try these writing exercises to distance yourself from yourself, distance yourself from the dread of audience:
- Write about yourself in third person. My CNF professor Matthew Vollmer suggested I try this when I thought writing about the subject matter in first person felt too personal. Alternatively, I suggest second person (singular or plural), depending on the narrative’s goals.
- If you find yourself re-editing a section to the point that you are unable to move on to the next section, try a timed writing exercise: give yourself X minutes to write X words. Write associatively if that helps. Remember, you can edit and reorder later.
- If you are having trouble writing at all (but want to be writing), try opening a word document and changing the font color to white so that the words themselves are less intimidating. Alternatively, if the thought of the blank page absolutely terrifies you, open a word document already full of text so that your own drafting feels lower stakes. (Sarah Hansen made this latter pointer in her article last week “When Inspiration Doesn’t Strike”; read it here.)
Inner Voice says, “But I don’t want people to know that about me.”
That’s okay. You don’t have to share your work right this instant. If you feel that you need to write but the idea of audience is paralyzing you, remember that your first audience is yourself and that you can always share later if you feel emotionally ready to share.
In my mind, not wanting others to know a segment of your personal life is different from worrying that others will judge you for your experience. The former is an issue of privacy. Obviously, the choice to write CNF is a personal one. The choice to omit details within the CNF you produce is also a personal one. You are not obligated to reveal the innermost details of your life. You are not obligated to make your life privy to others. You are not obligated to relive your trauma.
I worry sometimes that my CNF depends on conflict and tension that make me upset in real life, that writing about these experiences leads me to narratives I am uncomfortable sharing with others. I am working on reminding myself that just because I am writing a story does not mean I have to share that particular story with others. Just because I am a writer does not mean I am obligated to put my entire existence on a page in ways that negatively impact me in real life. Some stories are only for me. That’s okay.
At the same time, just because you make an ethical decision not to share certain aspects of your life with your reader does not mean you are unable to write compelling, interesting stories that will make a profound impact on your readers’ lives. As a writer, yes I write for myself-in-the-now, but I also write for my past-self who really needed the writing I am now producing to help her make sense of her life, maybe make her feel less alone and voiceless. Consider what you can borrow from erasure poems. (What are erasure poems? See here for a brief introduction of found poetry, including erasures on The Found Poetry Review’s website.) Consider blank space on the page. Consider how omission of detail can fill your need for privacy—and also drive the story forward.
Inner Voice says, “Okay, fine, but how am I supposed to write about myself when my experiences do not make sense within traditional narrative?”
You don’t have to! You are a writer. You are a meaning-maker. You have the power to create the new forms that you need to exist in the world in order to tell your stories. As my writer-friend Anna Hundert advised in an email a few weeks ago, “If you feel constrained by straightforward narrative structures / conventions, then just smash them.” (Shameless plug: you can check out Anna’s Book Diary here.)
I reiterate Anna’s advice. If traditional narrative arcs are not working for you, try writing nonlinearly. Try writing associatively. Try writing in found forms. Try rewriting the same scenes twenty ways. Try incorporating process in your writing. Try poetry when prose fails—or playwriting or visual art or some hybrid collage. Experiment.
Because writing is an experiment. Drafts are experiments. CNF is, well, a creative experiment. It is honest and vulnerable—but it is also an approximation of who you are as a human. Remember that. Remember also that it is brave and admirable that you feel compelled to share yourself with others to begin with, that it is brave and admirable you feel compelled to write down your experiences.
That readers should be so lucky.
Yasmine Kaminsky is a first year poet at Virginia Tech. She is a poetry reader and the blog editor for the minnesota review.