What’s your Creative Nonfiction Really About?

In honor of  National Novel Writing Month, I’m going to tell you another story about the time I taught a nonfiction writing class titled “Writing Your Family History,” at the Nashville Public Library for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

Although everyone reads nonfiction every day, a lot of people think of it as dry, like writing a 5-paragraph essay for school. They often equate nonfiction writing with an encyclopedia article- a collection of well-organized facts that puts you to sleep. (Note: I don’t think that way, I’ve written encyclopedia articles, but I understand the sentiment).

But what about that fascinating personality profile you’ve read about your favorite celebrity’s brush with death as a child?  Or the clever piece that was organized as a series of exotic meals, but was really about the small-town narrator’s growing comfort with an unfamiliar culture? How about the human interest story from the journalist in Syria who reveals to us the histories of the people who are trying to flee? Have you admired the way you can learn about the conflict not through 5 boring paragraphs, but through the eyes of people who live it each day?

That’s the magic, right there.

Seasoned writers know that. Beginning writers always say “yes, but that’s a celebrity, or someone traveling to Cameroon, or a trained journalist in a war zone. What about someone like me who grew up in Monterey, Tennessee and worked in a factory for 40 years? Who wants to read about that?” (This was a real question from class).

I think it’s such an important question. One that set the tone for the entire session.

Because of course, the honest answer is not many.  Very few want to read about someone who grew up in Monterey, Tennessee and worked in a factory for 40 years. I almost fell asleep typing that.


And this is a huge however. So I’ll repeat it. HOWEVER: every good nonfiction story is about more than the thing it’s about. Every good piece of creative nonfiction is about two things: the thing it seems to be about, and the thing it’s really about.

Or, in more academic terms, the apparent subject, and a deeper subject.

Boring nonfiction only gets into one of those. It usually has very limited appeal and interest.

But great nonfiction uses the apparent subject- the thing your story seems to be about on the surface- in order to get at a deeper subject. The apparent subject can be about anything at all that happened to you or that you are interested in. It can be about working in a factory or small-town Tennessee life.

The deeper subject usually is more carefully selected.  To write nonfiction of caliber, the deeper subject has to be topical and reflect the zeitgeist. It has to find the universal in the specific, and it has to speak to something that is on the minds of people today.

To illustrate this point, I had the class read Gary Soto’s oldie but goodie essay “Like Mexicans.” It’s a personal essay about his search for a wife. He’s part of a Mexican family that tells him that he should marry a Mexican, but has fallen for a Japanese woman. That’s the apparent subject. It’s not terribly interesting to a wide variety of people in and of itself unless they’re going through a similar intercultural romantic conflict.

However, the deeper subject is one that many Americans can connect with. In the essay, Soto discovers what his family meant when they told him he should marry a Mexican. His family worried that if he married a Gringa, he would forever feel a conflict between her culture and his, and be torn between the obligations of his nuclear blended family and the values of his extended family. The Japanese woman Soto ended up marrying had the same values as his Mexican family and fit in. In the end, Soto concludes that his family didn’t really mean that they wanted him to only marry Mexicans, just someone “like Mexicans.”

This deeper subject is incredibly specific on the surface, but speaks to a universal one – the question of marriage and belonging. As more people marry outside of their ethnicity (or religion, social class, race, etc.), there is more interest in how to evaluate the longevity of such a partnership and how to minimize conflict with the wider family. Soto also offers people ways to rethink who belongs and the reasons they have for those categories, and more importantly- to whom they should extend this belonging. It is still an incredibly apt essay.

Every writer has stories like that in them. We’ve all had things happen to us, and we all have the ability to write them down. The challenge lies in how to make those things interesting to others, and you do that by offering them something of value that speaks to issues they are facing today. Maybe few people would want to read an essay about someone from Monterey, Tennessee, but I bet if my student wrote the story in a way that talked about the socio-cultural hurdles she faced moving from a tiny rural town to Nashville, she could tap into the angst of an audience of millennials all over the country who leave their small towns for bigger cities. How do they afford it? How is the initial jump made? How do they get to know people? How do they compete for jobs?

Or maybe no one wants to read about 40 years on a factory floor, but she buried the lede: She was the first woman quality controller hired by that factory! If she focused on that part of the story, the deeper subject could be about the historic hurdles Southern women faced entering an all-male field in 1978. Women entering predominately-male fields now would find it fascinating to see what has changed and what hasn’t in that time.

The best and worst thing about history is that it repeats itself. No matter what old story you have ready to share, you can find a way to make it topical to people entirely unlike you if you remember what your audience is currently facing. Don’t tell your life story chronologically as it happened to you- instead pick out the parts that resonate with the readers of today and draw those parallels for them. Use your skills to make them think, and let them use the stories from your past to help them evaluate the society to which they belong. That’s what makes your writing art.

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