back to nonfiction

In one of my groups, a nonfiction writer who was testing out a chapter of a novella lamented that fiction was more difficult to write than nonfiction*. His admission stunned me because I thought the exact opposite. He argued fiction writers had more groundwork ahead of them; he struggled the most with creating situations and characters. True, I said. But the act of purposefully summoning a memory that you’ve spent your whole life running away from or writing about people close to you terrifies me. Nonfiction writers possess the fortitude to admit their flaws, excavate truths hidden in their bodies. This isn’t easy, especially for an introvert like me.

I’m not new to nonfiction writing, but I’m still an acquaintance. I guess this website, where I publish most of my stupid thoughts, counts as nonfiction. In college, I took a creative nonfiction class—the class that launched my serious commitment to writing. We had to write a political essay and a personal essay. It was such a wonderful experience seeing my inner thoughts—mine, not another character’s—crowd the pages. One of my pieces eventually won an English Department award; I felt honored and my parents were there to hear a reading. Since the piece was about my mother’s late younger sister, I was moved when she cried and told me she was proud of me.

But as rewarding as the piece made me feel, I think revealing myself in this medium led to an invisible wound. I wanted to collect my words and thoughts before they could be put under further scrutiny. I shied away from nonfiction until a few months ago honestly. I tackled a nonfiction piece about fan fiction writing that’s been sitting in my files for ages, and I’m pleased to say that it’ll be up on Submittable in September. As the subject might suggest, it’s not exactly a “serious” creative nonfiction piece, but it’s a piece where my voice dominates the pages. And it’s honest. I’ve been lying way too much with fiction!

My next piece-in-progress deals with a childhood incident that’s bled into my writing and into my life as a young woman. The latter was a recent revelation. The writing process for this piece is similar to being in a car that’s alternatively stalling and jerking. I’m resisting my instinct to “pull away” in my writing—like if I touch it, I’ll get burned. Knowing this, I’m still clawing my way to the finish line, not for the purpose of publication or likes or follows, but for myself.

I’m writing this post at the point where I’m starting to think I should just store this piece. Then again, there’s a fifty percent chance of me abandoning it . . .

I’m quite jealous and awed by a nonfiction author my imprint had just published. Michael Arceneaux, now the New York Times bestselling author of I Can’t Date Jesus, makes a living writing things that are true, but this book of essays is all about him, his sexuality, his family. I saw him at a Strand event, where, despite being nervous  before speaking to an audience (about 100 people!), he seemed incredibly at ease with the fact that his life is laid bare in this book. The aftermath of catharsis, I suppose.

What nonfiction reading material would you recommend to a short story writer experimenting with the genre?

*my initial thought: well, yeah, you’re writing a novella.

A True Story, Part 1

A True Story

W. sits alone at a table near the kitchen, and the flurry of cooks, French expletives, pots and pans in the background brings him and his stillness into sharp focus. Our eyes meet and I smother the pinprick shock I feel. I can see, even from my spot, the curl of his bottom lip that causes his chin to jut out ever so slightly, making me clench my fist. The sight of this little crease, the attitude it exudes, the silent judgement … If not for this spike of annoyance, I would have kissed him to erase that pout. But as I bridge the gap between us in the cafe where we’d met just yesterday, where he requested that we meet again today, I remind myself that I shouldn’t criticize what and whom I don’t know. Not yet, at least.

I answer when he inquires about my morning so far, as if I care to tell him, as if we are simply two friends catching up, rather than odd strangers. His voice is slow molasses, and the pauses between every clothes-line sentence is like a sudden breeze from nowhere amidst a stiff-hot summer day. I feel my irritation disappearing. Finally, he thanks me for meeting him here and I nod, wary.

He waits patiently, hands clasped, as I place my messenger bag against the table’s legs, dig through my mess  for a decently sharp pencil and a clean, unwrinkled piece of paper. I feel as if my every move is being tucked away in some mind palace. I stiffen my spine and clear my throat to sway authority in my favor. I am the one telling his story.

But then he said, opening his palms to feel the weight of the air: “Let’s begin.”


“I have a story for you,” the note had said. At first, I didn’t notice the hastily scrawled words, just saw the folded-in-half notepad paper that was dropped in front of me, one corner dipping itself into my cup of jam, and the rest of it soaking in the oil from my croissant. I glanced up from my morning read – a New Yorker – and prepared an indignant Excuse Me. But I stopped when I saw a man about my age, looming over me. Tall, lean, and handsome, with black hair that curled along his forehead, still slightly damp from a shower or from summer sweat. Impatient, too, I gathered from his dancing fingers atop my two-seat table at Manny’s.

It was my Summer Friday, and I had allowed myself to read for pleasure, rather than participate in the search for The Next Big Book, that everlasting pressure an editorial assistant like myself would feel on a daily basis. I already disliked what I was reading, a pretentious essay that overused semicolons, which always need to be treated delicately.

I picked up the note and read it. “What?”

“I see you writing here, all the time.”

“Okay. Creepy?” What an odd way to flirt.

He only laughed. “I have a story. For you.”

“What makes you think I need a story.” And what would he be able to give me?

“Every writer needs a story.”

“Well, every writer lives in Brooklyn. Why are you giving me a story?”

He shrugged, which frustrated me but also made me place down my New Yorker. I wanted to hear his answer, I realized. “I belong to a group called The Saints. We deliver punishment to those who deserve it.”

And I felt it suddenly, a great familiar pang of disappointment, what I seemed to feel every time I fell in love with smart-looking and meticulously dressed men on the subway. This guy was crazy.

“Right,” I said.

“No, look,” he said, a cutting edge now in his voice, which caused me to look around uneasily. No one seemed to noticed this strange man. “I’m serious. I want to tell my story, but I haven’t met the right person to help me with that.”

“Okay. What’s the story?”

The clerk, Hector, called out an order. Crazy Guy got up. He said, looking at me, “W.”

“W?”

“That’s my name–for the story.”

But I just heard it clearly, didn’t I? “But your name’s –”

“No, W.” He reached for his food, in a brown bag, still not looking at me, and would have grabbed Hector’s shirt if only he hadn’t taken a step back. In another hand W. accepted the outstretched cup of coffee. He pointed at me with a finger. “I need to keep quiet about my identity. I’m telling you, it’ll ruin The Saints.”

“What the fuck’s The Saints?” I cried out.

Then W. grinned. “What’s your name?”

I snorted. Why the fuck would I tell him?

“It’s Loan,” Hector, still behind the counter, said.

“Jesus.”

“No, I’m Hector. Jesús is in the kitchen,” Hector said, pointing a thumb in the kitchen’s direction.

W. looked at me, amused. “Great, Loan. Saturday. Same time.” He walked backwards, until he was at the front door. Over the cafe’s din, he yelled, “My number’s on the back. Text me if you’re running late.”

To Be Continued As The Story Is Told To Me.