Building On Memories for Authentic Emotion in Creative Nonfiction
At 5am on Christmas morning, my grandmother stood in the kitchen, a bit of dried oatmeal crusted to her lip. My mom was the one who walked in on her, surrounded by pots and pans and curly orange and brown peels of sweet potato skins. She nonchalantly pushed the newly-assembled casserole behind the toaster while also pawing at her mouth, before finally just snapping her tongue over that incriminating smear of leftover topping– evidence of the great oatmeal debate which brought us here.
The beginning of this piece is the actually the climax of a story that has taken years to write– simply because of the sheer amount of nuance, history and sentiment that is involved in telling true, complete stories (one of the beautiful things about creative nonfiction).
Building and weaving together memories in nonfiction writing is sort of like getting into a fight or falling in love: both are often the result of a bunch of little moments. By themselves, these moments seem trite or inconsequential, but when put together, they add up to something bigger than the sum of its parts.
This kind of writing is a tenuous process. You are working these small, independent bits that have occurred over months or years into a narrative that builds to the summative emotion or knowledge that inspired you to write the essay in the first place, while trying to stay grounded in the emotion you experienced when these events first transpired. Without hearing both perspectives of the writer– how they felt and what they knew both then and now– the piece can lack a certain level of authenticity. I think that the key to maintaining this balance is simply stated, though harder to implement: Remember what you were thinking then; contrast it with what you know now.
For example, for the story about my grandmother and the sweet potato casserole to be an effective narrative, the reader would need a certain level of backstory that spans years.
The reader would need to know that years before– even before I was born– my grandmother established herself as the kitchen martyr. It’s a position where she thrives. She begins fretting about “The Meal,” as she calls it, months before Thanksgiving. Every year, on a humid night in mid-August or September, she will moan to my mother over the phone: “I just hate that greasy mess. Maybe this year we’ll just go to Cracker Barrel or something.” However, when anyone, including my mom, offers to help– she’ll demur.
Months later, The Meal inevitably goes off just fine. My grandfather will always murmur from the head of the table, “You’ve really outdone yourself this year” while my uncle will declare that “the cherry sauce is the bomb, the bomb, the bomb.”
The reader would need to know, however, that last year due to some health complications, my grandmother finally allowed my mother (who is nearly 50 and daily cooks for our family of six) to step foot in the holiday kitchen. “I’ll make the turkey,” my grandmother said to her. “I’ll let you take care of the sides.”
Like years past, The Meal turned out delicious. Turkey, broccoli and rice casserole, mashed potatoes, rolls– and sweet potato casserole. The way my mom made it, it came out fluffy and buttery with a spiced nut-crumble topping. The dish it was prepared in was almost scraped clean, and instead of dessert, some people opted for a second scoop of what small pod of leftover casserole there was, but here’s the deal– Mom prepared it differently than her mother by leaving out toasted oatmeal (an ingredient which causes the topping to resemble a kind of sandpapery paste, rather than a crumble).
That’s when readers would need to know that my grandmother, who had initially teared up over the display of love and family, turned passive-aggressive. “You know, I’ve never seen a sweet potato casserole made without an oatmeal topping, who would make it like that?” she asked my mom over the phone. A few days later: “Well, yours was fine if you don’t want to do the topping right.”
The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas was kind of confusing and awkward– all culminating in my grandmother waking up extra early so she could make a sweet potato casserole at 5am Christmas morning. While I kept a journal of the events during those weeks, if I had written an essay in the midst of the emotion, I’m not sure it would have painted a full picture, or if I would even be able to disseminate the emotion in a cogent way. Looking back a year later, there’s a lot to parse out, and perhaps it’s the journalist in me, but I wanted all the facts before I started piecing together a full narrative. I can now see the dark humor, the potential discomfort my grandmother felt watching my mom assume a matriarchal position in the family, the similarity it bears to others’ holiday narratives.
For others juggling stories like this, that’s where the concept of remembering what you were thinking then and contrasting it with what you know now is incredibly useful. With that, here are some tips to think about when implementing this craft technique:
Let’s start with David Sedaris’ essay “Memory Laps.” It is one of my favorite essays by Sedaris for a number of reasons, but namely because of the concrete dialogue that has been inserted. It makes the reader feel like they are standing poolside with nine-year-old David, eavesdropping on a conversation that he is carrying on with his father. Here is an example:
That Labor Day, at the season’s final intra-team meet, I beat Greg in the butterfly. “Were you watching? Did you see that? I won!”
“Maybe you did, but it was only by a hair,” my father said on our way home that evening. “Besides, that was, what—one time out of fifty? I don’t really see that you’ve got anything to brag about.”
That’s when I thought, O.K., so that’s how it is. My dad was like the Marine Corps, only instead of tearing you to pieces and then putting you back together, he just did the first part and called it a day. Now it seems cruel, abusive even, but this all happened before the invention of self-esteem, which, frankly, I think is a little overrated.
This section of text is extremely poignant for two reasons. The first being its authenticity. It is written in the voice of how Sedaris and his father would have talked at the time. It’s not stilted, it’s not particularly elegant– but it captures the emotion that he felt in that moment.
Then, in the accompanying description of what he thought of the exchange, we see a flash of how Sedaris interprets the experience, and his relationship with his father, now. This grounds the reader in the present, so that the essay doesn’t simply read as a transcription from a diary page.
Similarly, in my own essay about The Meal, it became apparent quickly that I had to refer to the notes that I took during that time period in order to provide accurate dialogue, untainted by reflection, while in turn also bringing the reader up to speed with how I feel today. It’s this juxtaposition that makes for a complex, textured essay.
Give a Sense of Time
Something else that Sedaris does well in his work that is applicable to stories that cover a span of years, is giving readers a sense of time. This is also from “Memory Laps.”
When fall arrived, he got behind a boy in my Scout troop. But my father didn’t really understand what went on in Scouts. The most difficult thing we did that year was wrap potatoes in tinfoil, and I could wrap a potato just as well as the next guy. Then one night while watching “The Andy Williams Show” he came upon Donny Osmond.
Simple notes like these connect memories to tangible objects or people in time. These are cues as a writer to which we should be attuned. I looked back over my journaling leading up to the sweet potato casserole incident for details such as this: “My grandmother was watching a Hallmark movie– from October 31st to January 5th she always was– starring Danica McKellar; I did a double-take at the screen. It was weird seeing her character look matronly– preaching the inherent good of Christmas spirit and all that, rather than wearing a neon hair scrunchies on The Wonder Years.” Again, while additions like these may seem basic, it allows your reader to more fully experience that moment in time.
Make a Then/Now Chart
Something that I find particularly helpful in working on stories that span time, and on which my emotion has changed with time, is making a then/now chart. Map out a sequence of events, and simply note in a few words how you felt while the event was happening, and how you feel now. This can lead you to discovering turning points in the story where you have grown or developed as a narrator– and in nonfiction growth is always compelling.
There are variety of ways to weave memories into a narrative, but by keeping the idea of remembering what you were thinking then, and comparing it with what you know now, writers can ensure that they compile a complete, authentic essay that speaks to to how we as individuals do grow.
I’ve grown immensely in my understanding of my family since embarking on writing the essay about that holiday season; there is a level of nuance in a the story that I was able to explore once mapping out the events. Instead of simply recognizing those events as a sequence– my grandmother’s deteriorating health, Mom taking over the cooking, passive aggressive comments, 5am baking– I was able to apply the benefit of distance by recognizing the larger themes associated with the seemingly small actions. For example, my grandmother was feeling a little helpless both because of her health and the idea that she is no longer the ultimate matriarch in the family. It was a process to come to terms with the fact that her daughter is very much an adult, with a family of her own, and that there is something bittersweet in that realization. Her biting comments weren’t necessarily coming from a place of malice, but of insecurity– a place that, in retrospect, is both relatable and heartbreaking. However, it is a recognition that could not have been made if I hadn’t written what I was feeling then, with the perspective of what I know now.
Ashlie Stevens is a journalist based in Louisville, Kentucky. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Slate, Salon, The Guardian and is upcoming online at National Geographic. She is currently pursuing her MFA in nonfiction writing at the University of Kentucky.
Photo by Hiltrud Möller-Eberth
I am an essayist. Ever since I started keeping a journal when I was eighteen, I’ve thought in essay, in narrative, in truth. My life is offered back to me in the mirror of creative nonfiction, in finding metaphor and art in life and fact.
Since that first river heartbreak:
Those late nights, when stars are the only
friends, I floated beneath
the surface of water.
The peace of silence.
I relapse into fiction once or twice a year (maybe like those younger-day mistakes I used to make during late nights when I drank too much and chased after the shadow of the moon).
When someone tells me a story and I think, I need to let that story wander where it may. And I will follow along. During those short windows, I explore invention, fiction.
The art of the empty stage: drama. A genre I’ve never studied. But the camera is so close, intimate, like falling in love, that first night. The hardest kiss. Or the night of the breakup. Nights alone.
Though I don’t know drama, I understand the feeling aloneness on a stage, a hot beam illuminating our essential aloneness.
I teach an intro level, multi-genre creative writing class at a small Vermont university. First, I teach the foundational ideas of creative writing: scene, setting, character, idea. Only then do I teach the four genres.
Definition: Genre is a category of writing based on shape. The four major creative writing genres include poetry, drama, fiction, and creative nonfiction.
Title: The Teaching of Genre in a One Act Play.
Setting: A stage filled with twenty desks and twenty students. A professor, bald, 40ish, thin, walks across the stage.
Teacher: “Genre is a way to categorize writing based on its shape.”
Students nod their heads.
Teacher: “Creative writing has four genres. Can anyone tell me what they are?”
Smart Student: “Fiction …? Poetry?”
Professor nods his head.
Other Smart Student: “Drama?”
Smartest Student: “Oh, and real stuff.”
Teacher: “Yup, creative nonfiction.”
Classroom is filled with smiling, happy students and proud professor.
Smart Student: “How are the shapes of fiction and nonfiction different?”
Teacher: “Err. Some genres are based on shapes, like poetry and drama. But some deal with whether they deal with truth or fiction.”
Smarter Student: “So genre is either shape or truth/lack of truth?”
Students look confused.
Teacher wrings his hands.
Teacher: “Okay, let’s start over. We have prose, poetry, and playwriting. Those are our three shapes of writing. These are the shapes a piece can take on the page. Prose is any writing done in paragraphs. Poetry is any writing done using line breaks. Drama uses playwriting techniques.”
Students smile again.
Smart Student: “Wait, are poetry and drama true or invented?”
Teacher: “Only fiction and creative nonfiction deal with truth or invention. Poetry and drama just deal with shape.”
Smartest Student: “Why?”
Teacher paces in front of classroom.
Is this confusion between truth and shape within genre merely a problem for the random professor? Merely an issue in the classroom? No. For this writer, there are a plethora of problems with our current system of how genre seems to use both shape and truth as its defining characteristics, that tries to meld together these differing ideas on what genre is, that offer only false borders.
As a writer, I am stuck trying to explain my writing to editors, agents, readers, and publishers.
I write micro-essays that look like poems. What do we call that?
Creative nonfiction poetry?
How will the reader know that these poem-like things are truths? How will they understand that truth is the heart of these pieces and the shape serves the truth I am trying to get at?
My friend, Julia, calls these hybrid pieces that span shapes Thingamabobs, which just highlights the problem. Julia and I, and so many other writers, are forced to create unclear terms to try to define something that should be easily defined. We are writers. We work with language. How is it that we have no language here?
And then there is the issue of bookstores. I read environmental and nature writing. When I go into a bookstore and search for nature writers, I look in the Nature Writing section. Easy enough. Unless I want environmental poetry. Then I need to go into the Poetry section. Here, I’ll find nature poets like David Budbill and T’ao Ch’ien kissing covers with lyric poets like Ezra Pound and ultra-talk poets like Mark Halliday and confessional poets like Sylvia Plath. These poets are lumped together for their reliance on line breaks, on their shape. This organizational system of gathering likeminded things together might tell us to call a house and a cardboard box the same thing since they share the same rectangular shape.
Also, the reader often has an unclear understanding of what they will be receiving from the writer. Is that poem true, invented, or something else? What is the small paragraphy-thing? A prose poem? A lyric essay? What is the difference? We can be more clear with the reader. We can tell them exactly what they will be holding in their hands. Genre, or shape, is normally easy for a reader to see just by examining a piece of writing. Most poems clearly use line breaks. Most fiction and creative nonfiction clearly use paragraphs. But truth/fiction is not something that can be seen. It can only be told to the reader. Once the reader knows what they are reading (genre and truth/invention), then they can decide on how to use that information or if that information is even important. But right now we often don’t provide that information to the reader.
Finally, as writers, we have been taught to write truth or fiction in prose, to often ignore truth or fiction in poetry and drama, and to see creative nonfiction as only prose. These are artificial limitations. These constraints hem us in for no reason. A poem can be true. Creative nonfiction can use playwriting techniques. Fiction can use historical information and fact. Drama can be true or invented.
Etymology of Prose: Prose is birthed from the Latin word for straightforward. Prose uses paragraphs, sentences, and traditional uses of punctuation.
Etymology of Poetry: Originated from the Latin word for poet, poetry originally meant maker or author or poet.
Etymology of Drama: Drama comes from the Greek words for to act, to perform, to do.
Etymology of Genre: Originates from the French word for kind, sort, style.
What is genre?
We saw the definition and etymology above, but let’s start here. We have four genres:
- Creative nonfiction
That’s pretty simple.
Before we visit with genre, let’s examine how the use of (or lack of) truth affects pieces. Maybe truth will offer clarifying ideas. Here’s a simple chart looking at truth in our genres.
|Truth/Invention in Our Genres||Truth/Invention|
As we can see here, truth/invention is only partially useful when examining genre. Truth/invention works great with creative nonfiction and fiction but doesn’t work at all for poetry and drama. So truth doesn’t clarify enough for us. It leads to more confusion.
Next, let’s examine the keys to figuring out what makes a genre a genre.
|Genre||What Makes It a Genre?|
|CNF||Truth + Paragraphs|
|Fiction||Invention + Paragraphs|
Though this chart is simple, it’s also confusing.
Two of our genres deal with truth or lack of truth (fiction and creative nonfiction) plus shape (paragraphs).
Two deal with shape (line breaks or playwriting).
So we are no farther along. Genre is unclear (because two of the genres focus on truth and two focus on shape) and truth is ineffective because two of the genres don’t care about truth.
Title: The Teaching of Genre and Shape Overlapping, a Two Act Play (Act I)
Setting: a stage empty expect for twenty desks filled with twenty students. A professor, bald, 40ish, thin, stands at the board looking at his diagram, which he has labeled “Illustration of Genre and Shape Overlapping.”
Teacher: Points to illustration. Looks confused. Tries to explain how genre and form works. Sputters. Erases work.
- As a professor, I get stuck trying to explain genre and truth to students.
- As the writer of a textbook, I get stuck trying to explain genre and truth to readers.
- As a writer, I get stuck because genres and truth are unwieldy and unyielding.
What if I want to write creative nonfiction in poetry form?
What do we call that? Essay? Memoir? Poem?
If we call it essay, we wonder about shape.
If we call it poem, we wonder about truth (or lack of truth).
I could go on and on.
[See confusing illustration above.]
We need to move to a system that offers rational borders and removes the false limitations that have been set on our genres. What is the solution to this overlapping confusion of genre and shape?
Let genre teach us only the shape of a piece since the term genre originated to mean style and never was meant to include fiction or truth. Maybe this problem originated with the invention of the term “the fourth genre” for creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction is not the fourth genre (and fiction isn’t the third genre). Rather, prose is the third genre but before creative nonfiction became popular, fiction was seen to equal prose. Now we see fiction and creative nonfiction as genres rather than as types of prose.
Once we have moved to three genres (poetry, drama, prose), then let us create a new category that deals with truth or invention. I propose veracity.
Definition of Veracity: The observance of truth, or truthfulness, of a thing, something that conforms to truth and fact.
Etymology of Veracity: From Latin, meaning truthful.
So we will have two (or three) veracities. Veracity only teaches us about the truthfulness or invention of a piece.
|Veracity||What Makes a Veracity|
|Hybrid||Inhabits truth and fiction|
And let us have three (or four) genres. Genres will only teach us how a piece will look on the page.
|Genre||What Makes a Form?|
|Poetry||Line Break Form|
Dichotomous Key to Veracities:
Habitat: Lives in areas of sunlight populated by truths, facts, memories, and speculations.
Location: Can be found in prose, poetry, and drama.
Appearance: Carries the appearance of the writer’s life or the life of those who the writer has studied.
Times: When the writer wants to examine the factual, the truth, the real in a moment.
Habitat: Lives in caves populated by invention.
Location: Can be found in prose, poetry, and drama.
Appearance: A changeling. Can appear like the writer, like other humans, or entirely unlike humans at all.
Times: When the writer wants to create something new, when the writer longs to invent.
Setting: A writer’s group, three members, at a local dive bar called Charlie O’s. Practicing a new way to view genre and veracity.
Jess: So what would you call Anne Carson’s The Glass Essay?
Jess and Julia in unison: “Hybrid/hybrid.”
Julia: “What about Moby Dick? It’s fiction and nonfiction and it is prose.”
Jess: “Catcher in the Rye is fiction and prose.”
Jess: “Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle? Nonfiction/Prose.”
Sean: “The ancient Chinese poets, like T’ao Ch’ien? Creative nonfiction and poetry.”
Jess: “In Cold Blood?”
What does this new system allow that sees genre as poetry, drama, and prose? That offers a scale for veracity of a piece?
One: It makes the teaching life easier. This simpler view on genre and veracity is easy to teach. Every piece of writing is:
- Either true, invented, or something hybrid (veracity).
- Either poetry, prose, drama, or something hybrid (genre).
We can go back to calling a cardboard box a box and a house a house.
Two: It allows writers flexibility to conceive of how they should write on the page. Writers may no longer need to feel constrained by genre and veracity because we’ve separated truth and fiction from genre.
Choose a genre(s).
Choose a veracity(s).
Three: This system allows publishers a way to clearly articulate what they want. Again, just choose a genre(s) and a veracity(s) and the writer will know what to submit.
Four: This new system instructs the reader more clearly on what they will receive. The contract is clear between writer and reader. Veracity teaches us about truth/invention. Genre teaches us about shape.
I am an essayist. But I see my truths, attempts, tries at understanding life not always in the long paragraphs of prose. Sometimes my brain, heart, hands need, yes, other forms.
my truths through poetry.
I don’t want
constrained by form.
Let my words, like the waters
of my life, wander.
 There exist hundreds of definitions for poetry. Most offer major flaws in how they categorize poetry. The only definition I have found that doesn’t have major holes (because of its simplicity) is that poetry, almost always, uses line breaks to determine the shape of the poem. Except when it’s called ‘prose poetry.’ And once again, the professor looks confused.
 My friend Karen just said that she reads most poems as “real” or “based on the writer’s life.” I read most poems as invented by the writer. We, the reader, have no idea if a poem is real or invented.
 Hybrid texts intentionally blend fiction and nonfiction, play with fiction and nonfiction, or have fiction and nonfiction share space. We can continue to work to decide where the hybrid boundary begins and ends, but it seems that the hybrid space could be reserved for pieces that mix or play with truth and fiction.
 We decide on fiction and prose because the heart of the novel is about the invented story not the nonfiction on whaling.
 We’d still need to work out some kinks (like where to place In Cold Blood), but the kinks are smaller and on the edges of the borders. So rather than dealing with major issues in how our genres and shapes overall and confuse, we’d have to deal with smaller borderland issues like Is IN Cold Blood nonfiction or hybrid.
Sean Prentiss is the author of the memoir, Finding Abbey: a Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave. Prentiss is also the co-editor of The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction, a creative nonfiction craft anthology. He lives on a small lake in northern Vermont and serves as an assistant professor at Norwich University.