Making Stories Matter in Creative Nonfiction
I could tell you a story, as I do in my essay, “Bastards,” about the night a young man opened the back door to our house and stepped inside while my mother was washing dishes. I could recall, fact by fact, what happened next. The relevant question for those of us who write creative nonfiction is one of why I’ve decided this is a story worth telling.
It’s our nature to tell stories, and we have a number of them at our disposal. When we write, we usually choose to tell the ones that have left us mystified or unsettled in some way. When I recalled the night that young man came into our home, I felt jarred—something at loose ends within me, something about the boy I was and the man I’ve become, something that demanded an interrogation. Really, though, that essay began with much lower stakes attached. It began with a curiosity. I wondered why my father, when we moved back downstate from a Chicago suburb for my high school years, decided to rent a post office box instead of taking advantage of free delivery to the house we’d bought in town. It didn’t make sense to me, and so I started to recall when we moved into that house, the day someone broke into our garage and stole some of my father’s tools, the winter morning we found footprints in the snow around our house and it became clear to us that someone had paused to look into each of our windows, and, finally, the night the young man came into our kitchen. I trusted that my curiosity, if I kept asking questions, would lead me somewhere worthwhile.
To write creative nonfiction is to examine, to interrogate, to wonder. One of the pleasures of reading someone else’s essay is to be granted access to the writer’s sensibilities, thoughts, confusions, questions, attempted answers. This interior track of someone trying to know something, to make sense of something, to come to terms with something is what draws us to the page, writers and readers alike. So if you get that little squiggle of discomfort when you recall a memory, trust that you have not only a story to tell, but an internal journey to take.
Here’s an exercise meant to help provide the interior track that makes clear the significance of the material:
1. Start with a curiosity. Freewrite a list with each item beginning with the words, “I wonder why. . . .” Or, “I wonder whether. . . .” Or, “I wish I knew. . . .” Any sentence that establishes the position of writing from what you don’t know. Keep listing until something makes you uncomfortable. That’s what you want to write about.
2. Craft a scene that’s relevant to your material. Be aware of any character who seems to be wanting to occupy center stage with you. Write a line that begins with that person. For example, “My father was the sort of man who. . . .” Fill in that sentence to express how you thought of that person the majority of the time.
3. Then start a scene with the line, “But there was one day when. . . .” Let the scene lead you to a reconsideration of that person. In other words, look more fully at him or her. Let action and dialogue bring you to a place where you see something about the person that you usually didn’t.
The night the young man came into our house, my mother, noticing his cut hand, offered to help him. My father’s reaction was to confront him, thereby getting him out of the house. Where was I in the midst of these interactions. I was a boy who lived in a home filled with my father’s anger, my teenage rebellion, and my mother’s goodness. I sensed that I was close to being lost to my own anger forever. I also sensed that if my mother was able to help this young man, a healing for my family would begin. But the boy ran from the house. My father (most of you know he lost both of his hands in a farming accident and wore prostheses the rest of his life) worked painfully to lock the back door with his hook. He moved on to the front door. I stayed in the kitchen with my mother. My father said, “You don’t have to worry now.” That’s when I knew something about him I’d never known:
He was proud. He was watching out for us. This was his secret. His world was always tilting. He was on guard. Let the bastards come. He’d be ready. Wounded as he was, he knew no other way to speak of love.
I told the story, and I let myself think about it as I did. I let the memories, the scenes, the actions, the dialogue take me further in my thinking than I’d be able to go without the writing. That’s what creative nonfiction does. It allows us to see more fully, to know more completely, or to arrive at another series of questions we didn’t have when the writing began. It’s one thing to be able to tell our stories; it’s quite another to be able to make them matter. I hope this post and the writing activity will help you do both.
Thank you for this, Lee. I’m glad I found it today and plan to try the exercise to untangle a story I’ve been working with. I think you’ve got a book coming out? Has the publication date been announced (or have I missed it)? Looking forward to reading it.
Joanne, my craft book, “Telling Stories: The Craft of Narrative and the Writing Life,” came out on October 1. It’s available for order at all the usual places and from the publisher, the University of Nebraska Press. Thanks, as always, for reading my blog.
This is very helpful, Lee. In order to figure out why our story matters, we must first know what it is really about, I think. Is it about our father or about our grief? Is the story too large for the space? Can we zoom in closer to see its essence?
Yes, and sometimes it starts out very small like with my curiosity of why my father rented that post office box, and then that curiosity takes me to the things I need to think about, the larger issues at the heart of the piece. Thanks so much for your comment.
Thanks Lee! Great exercise. Looking forward to reading your new craft book.
Hi Lee! Great to read this here. I’m engaged with the MFA program at Bay Path, on a journey, let’s say. Good to be grounded in the wonder and curiosity. Love the post, thank you! Hope all is well.
Hi, Naomi! Believe it or not, I was just thinking about you the other day and wondering where your writer’s journey had taken you. So glad to hear that you’re in the wonder and the curiosity. All best to you!
Lee, I would love to buy a signed copy directly from you. Is there a way I may do so?
Jayne, I’m afraid I don’t have copies to sell personally, but if you’d like to buy one and send it to me, I’d be happy to sign it and return it to you. Or if you happen to be at AWP in Tampa in March, I’ll be signing there.
Lee, this exercise is so effective. I’ve given it to one of my classes and also to several individual students, and it has unlocked important, worthy material from every single student who attempted it. Thank you for sharing it!
Hi, Kelly! Thanks so much for letting me know how the exercise worked in practice. I’m so glad it’s proved useful to your students. Thanks, as always, for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave this comment.