I’m thoroughly confused or confounded or maybe muddled. Either way, I’m lost in over-thinking.
I couldn’t even add a photo for this blog post because how does one capture confusion in an image. But then I decided to add an image that only gives you part of the story. Maybe the reader is left wondering what it says or why I chose it. Welcome to my world. Over the last six weeks I’ve been taking a nonfiction writing class about authority and mystery which apparently is so mysterious that I’m lost in Plato’s cave staring at shadows. But I should back up.
First, I thought taking a class on nonfiction would be good. I’ve been writing seriously for about seven years (establishing ethos). I’m self taught. No creative writing degree or even a class until this last year. (did I just deauthorize myself or just bragging) Day one in the writing class we each went around introducing ourselves and what we were hoping to get out of the class. As each person went their turn, they mentioned a memoir that they wanted or were writing. I felt myself get jittery with nervous energy like a bee buzzing against a window not understanding why it can’t reach the clouds it so surely sees. Am I in the wrong class? I felt a feeling rise up in me that I haven’t felt since kindergarten when I was told I dressed up on the wrong day. Instead of finding out if this mean girl was right, I just pivoted sharply and began walking home to change clothes. (If you must know, she got the wrong day and felt embarrassed. Meanwhile I was picked up by the principal and librarian and brought back to school.)
When it came my turn to introduce, I simply and meekly stated I was generally curious as this was my first nonfiction writing class. Still not sure and feeling completely befuddled, that seemed the safest answer. We were assigned a series of readings. I loved one of them, the rest continued to confuse me on what class I had signed up for. The discussions in class revolved around personal narrative and memoir. Trying to make this class fit my writing style was seeming more and more difficult. I decided to persevere. I did pay $300 dollars so I pushed myself to see what I could glean from the classes and readings. By the (only) second class I decided to just come out with it. I announced that I was having a hard time apparently understanding what nonfiction was. (No need to ask where the mystery is for me. It was everywhere.) Everything seemed to be about very personal story-telling hitching on memoir.
Then the teacher may have exploded my brain or made me realize just how little I knew. (Am I creating authority or deauthorizing myself currently?) As she rattled off all the types of nonfiction and then all the genre-breaking and juxtapositions of merging fiction, poetry, and nonfiction together and as the fellow students tried to help me find where it was exactly that I was confused (which as this point I had no clue), I gave up. I realized I was holding too tight to whatever notion I had of nonfiction. I realized I knew very little about the whole topic. Mystery indeed.
I continued to read the assignments from Zadie Smith to Maya Jewell Zeller to Brian Blanchfield to Ben Cartwright to Yiyun Li to David Shields to David Wallace to Margo Jefferson to Kim Addonizio to Elissa Washuta. I kept searching the excerpts and listening deeply in class like I was peering through a microscope at all times. We looked at shame, talking about others with authority, and how connecting to flaws of the author can create authority and is surely what I’m doing here. This was all found by my classmates. I saw none of this until it was spoken out loud. Then I’m still not sure I saw it sometimes. What I did see were structures that spoke to me and released the invisible binds saddling my writing. Poetry blended with facts. Prose dipping and diving between narrative, memory, truth and facts. Where were the elements that we had no idea if they were true or not and did it even matter to know if they were made up?
I’m told that the writer should make sure that the reader (you) does some work within the text so I won’t give everything away. Ah, there’s the mystery. I’ll give you just enough. Lead you to water perhaps but then you’ll have to take it from there. Hopefully I atleast get you to the water.
The creative part of creative nonfiction is the technique of using fiction, playwrights and poets to present nonfiction – factually accurate prose about people and events – in a compelling manner. I think that means that I’m using a combination of pathos and logos to craft a story about something true in an interesting enough fashion that you may feel like you’re reading fiction or maybe poetry. The mystery lies within the missing words, the details left untold. My authority comes from personal experience perhaps or even, potentially, my lack of it. Maybe my lack of knowledge or experience also provides authority because I’m admitting publicly that I don’t know. Even more, I’m going to take you along for the ride so that now you’re pondering authority and mystery. I wonder if you are considering authority and mystery. Are you speculating my authority?
As I pack my bag on the last writing class, I feel exaggerated authority with complete and utter mystery. A potentially dangerous combination as I’ve learned that, just maybe, I can do anything I want. I’m in Plato’s cave and can see the light pouring in. I enter and exit the cave from paragraph to paragraph to the point where my knees shake and my thighs burn. Art imitates life to recognize truth and life imitates art so that we can swallow understanding of our human experience. So that we can see how we connect to others. My authority resides with the reader. When you feel just enough mystery blended with just enough truth that you decide to walk with me to the creek of crystal clear water and floating fronds.