Forgetting What We Know When We Write Creative Nonfiction

Usually when I write an essay—particularly if it’s a segmented, braided, or lyric piece—I have no idea where it’s going. My first draft consists of gathering pieces—bits of narrative, details, images, associations. I might have a central narrative that I sense is the container for what I’ve come to the page to say, but I may not know what it contains until the very end. At other times, I might have a detail or image that the draft is featuring, but I won’t know why. Sometimes there will be an accretion of details and images that finally collide in a way that makes meaning. But what about the times when, in the midst of the writing process, I understand exactly where the draft is going. I know the surprising response the narrative will bring out of me, or I know how a detail or image will evolve by the end of the essay. What do we do when we know too much too soon in our writing process?

Even if we know early on the truth or meaning that we’re going to express at the end of an essay, we want our readers to feel as if we’ve reached this understanding at the very moment that it appears. We want our readers to have the experience of thinking and feeling with us throughout the essay until we all arrive at the same meaning at the same time. How, then, do we suppress our understanding in order to let the significance of the essay emerge organically as it unfolds?

Simple. If we know something early on, we don’t let the reader know that we know it. Ah, but how do we do that while still giving the sense that the essayist is peeling back another layer of the narrative or the detail or the image? How do we ignore the meaning that will ultimately be made while giving the reader the sense that the meaning is coming?

When I wrote the first essay in my most recent collection, Such a Life, I began with an anecdote of a time in my childhood when I answered the phone at my grandmother’s house, and the voice on the other end—my aunt’s I assumed—told me to tell my grandmother to bring her calendar. At least, that’s what I heard. When my grandmother came to the phone with her calendar, there was no one on the other end, and she suspected me of fibbing. The central image of the essay is in the title, “Colander.” Early on in the writing, I’d already thought quite a bit about how colanders are used and what they do. I knew that by the end of the essay, this image would allow me to think about the straining that often takes place before the clarification of a relationship—in this case, the relationship between my mother and me. I could have brought the colander into the essay right away, for that was what my grandmother was to bring. My aunt was picking us up and driving us to our farm where my mother was waiting to can tomato juice. She needed a colander, not a calendar. But I chose to hide the central image even though it was already present in the reader’s mind. I also wanted to hide the fact that my mother was the one who’d called, not only for the narrative surprise at the end of the essay, but also for the response that surprise would bring out in me: a mixture of shame and longing that would seal itself inside me when my mother finally said with a hint of hurt in her voice and in her eyes, “Didn’t you know? Didn’t you know it was me?”

The opening of the essay leads me to a sifting of memory and observation as I consider my mother’s journey through her life, and what I must have meant to her, her only child who came to her in her middle years. Though I never directly state the question, it’s clear that I’m mulling over exactly what I meant to her. The colander is far in the rearview. It’s made its appearance in the title, has been suggested by the anecdote of the calendar, and starts to re-emerge toward the end of the essay when I write about the gardens my mother kept and the canning she did. I remember the sound of the pressure valve on her pressure cooker jiggling. “What did I know then of the noise our living makes?” I say. “The sounds that mark our give-and-take, the ones we sort and press and try to preserve.”

After I write this line, I let white space carry me to the end. The last section begins, “I remember this—a moment frozen in an eternal present.” And just like that the swirl of memory and inquiry and speculation stops, as if the handle on a food mill has stopped turning. Then I let the colander, which was actually a food mill, come fully to the page when my grandmother walks into our farmhouse with it in her hands. Here I let the description of how my mother will use the food mill to press the cooked tomatoes into juice bring the full significance of the image to the surface. Part sieve, part mill. A gathering, a pressing, a culling, a letting go. The description does the work I could have done at any time of the essay. It shows the readers what I could have told them early on. The colander was an image of my own sorting and sifting, my own pressing of memories and stories and the complicated feelings I had about my mother, the shame I still carry from all the times I disappointed her. “I wish I could tell her now, yes, I knew,” I write. “I always knew.”

Forget what you know once you know it. Let the image be present and absent at the same time. Let it be the controlling image for the shape of the essay, but never acknowledge that you’re aware of how it’s operating. Let it and your thinking and feeling emerge gradually. Let the reader walk with you into that moment of meaning making, as if, together, you have no idea what you know until you know it.









  1. Stuart Rose on November 2, 2015 at 11:38 pm

    Wow. I really struck it rich in synchronicity here.
    A day after I puzzle over how we can have epiphanies on the page we’ve already had in our minds, you offer this little guide.

    It all makes sense to me. Still, since narrative essays are still essays, one needs to analyze along the way- as you do in Colander- while holding off the deepest revelation(or perhaps we can say holding off the most vivid expression of the deepest meaning of an event) till the end of the piece.

    But one uneasy thought from someone who does more If you have a load-bearing image, as you do in Colander, then holding off the big understanding till the end seems easier to manage than if a writer is flying without a strong image and just talking and digging his way through the meaning of a past event or situation. I mean, the image is a neat storage vessel for the big insight or confession.

    Seymour Krim, a writer whom Vivian Gornick discusses in Story and the Situation, just plunged into what he had to say. He didn’t trade in suspense. Gornick first analyzes essays by Didion and Harry Crews and shows how their pieces have a turning point about three quarters of the way through. She proffers Krim as an alternative, but his stuff works, she says, because his voice is so damn strong. Maybe if you give away your point early, you have to hold your reader by deepening it and describing how you came to that point.

    • Lee Martin on November 3, 2015 at 8:33 pm

      Stuart, thanks for your good thoughts. All images are merely details at first. A colander is just a colander. It’s the thinking that goes on in the writer’s head as the scenes unfold that imbue the detail with meaning. I like for that meaning to fully arrive at the end of a piece.

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