I’ve got a confession to make. Last semester I had an affair. Looking back, I can see how it happened. When we met in my workshop we just clicked.
There were long nights getting to know one another over glasses of wine.
There were moments I couldn’t stop myself from talking about our time together, even when I saw my friends’ eyes glazing over.
There were times I would fall asleep, my face nuzzled inside the oh so soft caresses of my new friend’s papery folds.
Before I go any farther (and this gets any more uncomfortable for everybody), I should stop and explain that this was a literary infidelity. Yes, my friends. The homewrecker was nonfiction and I was hooked. A genre adulterer with the most voracious of appetites.
I came to the University of Central Florida’s MFA program in a committed (and blissful) relationship with fiction. If you asked me what I wanted to write, I would have answered, “The Great American Novel, of course!” (Whatever that is anymore…) But last semester my concentration broke when I took my first nonfiction workshop. I no longer had that singular focus as I was tempted by the siren’s call of reality. How I perceive reality anyway.
As I spent more time getting acquainted with the work of talented writers in my workshop and the incredible work of nonfiction writers like Jo Ann Beard (If you haven’t read The Fourth State of Matter stop reading this article and Google it immediately. It is transcendent) and Joan Didion, I began feeling less and less guilty for the tryst. The lines had blurred. My overly simplistic definitions for the two genres had crumbled. Real or imaginary? Fact or fiction? The boundaries are too neat. And great art is rarely neat.
This realization opened up a literary limbo for me, encouraging an exploration of a genre that had previously intimidated. Telling the truth incurs so much responsibility and, much of the time, a frightening, vulnerable honesty. Memoir especially seemed formidable. The idea of laying out my deepest, darkest secrets for the world to see made me want to simultaneously cringe and run for fictional cover.
However, I took the plunge. And I’m so glad I did. It turns out the uncomfortable part of the nonfiction process only lasted a little while…and I’m still reaping the benefits of stepping out of my comfort zone.
Benefit 1: A Stronger Writing Community
Everything seems scarier in the dark. But, letting your deepest darkest secrets out in the light will be less terrifying than you think. One of the biggest hurdles I faced when sitting down to write a short memoir was a fear of judgement—the idea that somewhere out there someone would read my story and realize what my inner critic has known since I wrote my first story when I was eight…
And I don’t just suck. Because this is nonfiction, I suck EPICALLY on a personal level. Opening up to complete strangers with this idea in the back of your head, baring your most vulnerable perceptions of reality, is terror beyond compare. And I am a fiction writer—a genre in which, even though I talk about highly personal things much of the time, I’m able to distance myself. It’s not real, right?
Nonfiction scares me. Shit gets real. However, once I got over the initial hurdle of passing out the memoir to my workshop group, I found that their reactions were much less hostile than the horror stories haunting my dreams. In fact, some people kindly told me they identified with my story and its themes. It’s funny, but opening up about my authentic self in my writing actually did the opposite of what I expected. Instead of ostracism, I found my memoir helped me create a support system for my fiction through friendships with those in my writing community. Brene Brown, a researcher on vulnerability, says it best: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity.” Show your authentic self in your writing and you will find your “tribe,” the ones who understand you and your work best.
Benefit 2: Writing my memoir helped me not only clarify themes in my fiction, but also clarify the themes in my own life.
I know there are plenty of people who disagree with the idea that writing should be therapy. And the truth is, I somewhat agree with that. No one wants to read word vomit about your past break up and a large part of the writing process is publication–sharing your work with an audience. However, I think the main problem in the above sentence is the term “word vomit” not the personal subject matter. If a writer wants to create a well-written piece about how a break up affected them, I don’t see the problem there. In fact, I see this protest as one rooted in the “traditional” (sometimes even misogynistic) approach to literary prose. There can be merit in more emotional and personal expressions. The prevailing of certain emotions and stories as “weak” or “not serious” can be a huge impediment to some kick-ass art. Even your sentimental emotions, experiences, or stories, can be mined for material.
The truth is, sitting down and writing about an important time in my life helped me, and my work, in tremendous ways. The comments I received during my workshop gave me insights that I didn’t even realize myself. And since my real life often pervades my fiction, this clarity made its way into several stories I am currently working on for my thesis and other publications.
Benefit 3: Freedom!
The best thing about my foray into nonfiction was the freedom I felt when I sat down at my desk and just wrote. I wasn’t thinking about genre. I wasn’t thinking labels. I wasn’t thinking about boxes. I just allowed myself to write what I wanted. It felt so good telling my inner critic to chill the hell out. Try writing without the labels. Experiment. I promise you won’t regret it.
It turns out when we embrace things that are different and outside of our comfort zone—even when the differences make them “scary” or intimidating–the world turns out to be a more creative, more connected place.
Take that tradition.
Heather Orlando is a first year MFA student at the University of Central Florida with a (non?) fiction concentration. She likes blurred lines, hybrid genre (and cars!), and impossible sudoku. She has worked with publications such as National Geographic and TV Guide Magazine, but is currently teaching creative writing to middle schoolers because she apparently likes punishment (another topic for another time perhaps). You can check out her work at www.whocaresaboutanoxfordcomma.wordpress.com and on instagram @talesofkale.