"You Can't Write About This in an Essay"

"I remind him profanely of his family and tell him I will search them out and write about them badly." 
                              Barry Hannah, "Bats Out of Hell Division"

...a few years ago, i was friends with a woman a decade my senior who, every time she spoke, would preface or end her musings with the phrase, "You can't write about this in an essay."  soon, each time we spoke--about her cats, her affairs with subordinates at work, her pampered childhood--she became increasingly anxious and had to repeat the phrase "You can't write about this in an essay" a few times...

...eventually, i did mention her in an essay, in an attempt to point out how desperately different i was from most women in the southern united states, or at least how different i was from her...she was her parents' only little jelly bean, who hadn't worked a real job until she was forty, and still asked her father for advice on most matters...she loved the essay so much she even attended a conference with me and sat in the audience as i read it...i don't think she ever got the irony...

...as i get it now...

...i'm no longer friends with this woman...the constant nagging about not writing about her led me to continually think--and now i wish i'd said--you're not that interesting...nothing of any significance has ever happened to you...you're an upper-class, southern, white woman who votes for the republican party...i don't need to write an essay about you...flannery o'connor and william faulkner pretty much covered your demographic and you're proof positive not much has changed...when i told another friend about this continual nagging, she offered this insight, "She probably wants you to write about her and is upset that you aren't. She wants you to make her interesting." 

...Lee Gutkind (the "Godfather" of creative nonfiction) says the first rule of writing cnf is "Don't make stuff up"...in his essay What is Creative Nonfiction? he writes, "The word 'creative' refers simply to the use of literary craft in presenting nonfiction—that is, factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid manner. To put it another way, creative nonfiction writers do not make things up; they make ideas and information that already exists more interesting and, often, more accessible" ...if it's true that my former debutante friend wanted me to make her more interesting, i'd have to lie, breaking rule #1...afterward, to maintain the lie, i'd have to stray from the very formula Gutkind describes...i couldn't maintain a friendship with someone who expected me to compromise my craft...i couldn't perform the literary miracle of making her interesting...thus, our relationship deteriorated...

...the few times i subsequently interacted with her, she acted odd, out of sorts, flighty, and downright insane--it was clear to me and those around her she was having a mental breakdown...ironically, she became more interesting the less we had anything to do with one another...with a year or two to reflect on our relationship, i mentioned her a few times in my writing...and she accused me of being a liar...for five years she'd preempted every conversation we'd had by saying "You can't write about this in an essay" because she assumed i'd be revealing some interesting truth about her boring life...but when i finally do tell the truth about her interesting life, i'd become a liar, someone who had to fabricate, to make stuff up, just to fill empty pages...i could understand her anger if i'd written about her badly, if the sentences weren't eloquent, if the diction left her wanting...but my phrases were so spot on, several people told me how much they'd enjoyed them...no, what upset her was the truth-telling...the fact that there are truths we tell ourselves, and then there are truths everyone sees...

...i've been meditating on the "ethics" of cnf, what lines i'm willing and unwilling to cross...most people think my life is an open book, that i have no filter, that i write about anything and everything that happens to me, the people around me...not true...i leave out plenty...there are currently seven familial dramas unfolding in my life and i've purposely avoided writing about them...even in the memoir i'm working on i've left out details i recognize to be painful to the people involved...

...Lynn Z. Bloom, in her incredible essay Living to Tell the Tale: The Complicated Ethics of Creative Nonfiction, says, "Children who know the family secrets also understand the family taboos" ...as a child i lived a tangle of secrets, deceptions, and half-truths...it's become ingrained in me to understand what makes for inappropriate, insignificant, or downright wrong subject matter...there are forbidden dances, dark corners to avoid...some things we just don't discuss...

...Bloom goes on to say, "I write for the usual reasons writers write about anything important: to get at the truth; to make sense of things that don't make sense; to set the record straight; to tell a good story"...it's a mantra passed down from Didion, from Capote, from Tom Wolfe...at the crux of it, though, is the idea of importance...if something is worthy of being written about, it will be...

...i see my writer's brain as a pressure cooker...lots of things go in...they mix with other things--memories, events, facts--and eventually the cooker starts to whistle, the steam rises and forms some piece of writing...it takes time, more than anything...making those connections, realizing the implications, forming the sentence, the paragraph, the page, into a truth-revealing story...avoiding judgement and attaining objectivity takes self-control and a certain amount of distance...

...the reflection necessary for a quality piece of cnf is at the heart of what i do...which is why i hardly ever write about the heavy dramas immediately unfolding in my life...i have to be able to look back on them with something i've learned...i have to wait for wounds to scar, for dark corners to be illuminated...then, as delicately as i can, i begin...

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