This year at #EWF21, our Creative Nonfiction Masterclass was designed to help emerging writers develop the craft of writing personal, creative stories that stem from truth. Writer and teacher Anna Spargo-Ryan reflects on the event, and shares her insights on the topic.
What is creative nonfiction? It’s really anything that uses creative writing to tell a true story. (What makes something a ‘true story’ is an entirely separate question.) This year, I was fortunate to be part of EWF’s Creative Nonfiction Masterclass. The six hours covered every aspect of what it is to write from life, opening with Maria Tumarkin’s keynote and supported by ideas and queries from Ronnie Gorrie, Fi Murphy, André Dao, Rebecca Harkin-Cross and Ellena Savage. A totally brilliant day.
Tumarkin’s questions – in a typically thought-provoking and inspiring session – have stayed with me. What she posed weren’t just questions to ask ourselves; they were the same questions we should be asking of our work. We might ask, “Why should I write about my life?” And we should direct the same question to our work: where in this story is the evidence I should write about my life?
The craft of writing from life isn’t as simple as putting down each event as it happened. Stories begin in all kinds of places, and end in all kinds of places, and the significance of what happens in between is rarely linear. There’s a quote I love from the godmother of creative nonfiction theory, Vivian Gornick. She wrote: “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.”
Great creative nonfiction considers two critical factors: “Who is telling this story?” and “What am I promising to the reader?” As writers, when we address each of these, we start a dialogue between us and reader.
During the masterclass, we spent time thinking about our story’s narrator. Memoirs and personal essays almost always have a close perspective narrator. It’s often an explicit “I” character who’s telling the story, which makes it easy to confuse the narrator with the author – but they’re not exactly the same. In creative writing, we call this narrator a “persona”. Think of it as being the version of the author that’s best equipped to tell this story. It’s not the author in their entirety, but the parts of them that are necessary for them to be able to share, divulge, explore and muse on the narrative on this specific occasion. When the author writes another piece, they will inhabit a different persona.
Life writing isn’t all of you. It might not be a deliberate process, but you get to choose what you include and what’s revealed.
Part of inhabiting this persona is setting an expectation for the reader. That doesn’t mean writing to an ideal reader” or following trends, but understanding the promise your work is making and what you need to do to fulfil it. What can they expect to get out of this story? What is lurking beyond the first page? Who is telling it to them? The reader comes to creative nonfiction with some existing expectations: it’s going to be engaging, they will learn something about you, and the story will be true.
Understanding the promise your work is making is trickier than it sounds. Hopefully, when we set out, we have some idea of what we want the reader to take away from the story. We know what that is, but how do we convey it through the writing? Unfortunately, we don’t get to sit next to a reader and explain what we meant by each part of the story, so we have to create this agreement in other ways. Our job as writers is to establish:
- •A reason (or reasons) the reader should care about the story
- •Our trustworthiness as the storyteller.
The ‘reason to care’ can be one of two things (or both, ideally). You open with a great hook. A reader turns to page one and it says, It wasn’t the first time my brain had been transplanted into someone else’s body. That’s a winning formula. Or, the writing is incredible. Who cares what the story is?
Trustworthiness is a different kind of thing. You need to make the reader believe you’re an authority on this topic. Maybe you’re literally the authority, in which case the title page probably includes your credentials, and you will assert your expertise within the narrative. Maybe you’re a doctor or an astronaut or someone who discovered a new species of tiny fluorescent spider.
It’s much more likely that you’re writing from your lived experience. So, how can you, on the first page or so, signal to the reader that they can believe what you’re saying, and therefore that they can trust you’re going to fulfil the terms of your unspoken contract?
- •Something relatable. Something only the two of you would know.
- •The language you use. It’s authentic. Someone who shares your lived experience knows you’re using the language of the experience. Or, someone who doesn’t share your lived experience sees evidence of a different and specific way of writing about it.
- •The situation you’re in. It’s recognisable as a real scenario, even if the reader has never been to the place you’re talking about or met the people in your story. This is often about using specific words that could only describe one place or situation. We’ll talk about concrete language a little bit, too, but it’s the difference between describing someone as having ‘brown hair’ – which conjures a whole spectrum of abstract images – versus what we see when we find out she’s done a home dye job and the greys are poking through. Our job in this situation is to give the reader reason to believe we have been there.
An editor once asked about a scene I had written. In this anecdote, I was sitting in my new therapist’s office for the first time, looking for new help for my debilitating anxiety. I had written about the way the air came in through the gap in the ceiling, and the discomfort I felt sitting on a couch that was too low to the ground, and how worried I was about not having worn the right shoes.
This editor’s feedback was this: she couldn’t picture the room at all. What did the therapist look like? Did she have a big desk? I dwelled on it for ages but, actually, I wasn’t sure of the answers. And what I realised was, those weren’t important details to me, and as it turned out, I wasn’t convinced they would be important details to the reader, either. I didn’t notice them because they weren’t giving me any information about the immediate danger I might be in. Did my therapist have a desk? I didn’t give a shit as long as it wasn’t threatening to fall on me.
The details we include and the details we leave out reveal all kinds of things about our “I” character and the story we’re telling, which is everything in life writing. By building out these two questions – who is telling the story? what am I promising to the reader? – we can create an honest conversation between a nonfiction writer with something important to say, and a reader who understands why it’s important to listen.
Anna Spargo-Ryan is the author of The Gulf and The Paper House and a winner of the Horne Prize. Her next book is a blended memoir about life with mental illness, forthcoming from Pan Macmillan. Anna is the current Nonfiction Editor of Island magazine and has also written for the Guardian, ELLE, Meanjin and Good Weekend, among other publications.
Revisit more highlights from #EWF21 over on our YouTube Channel.