By Jason Kyle Howard, Creative Nonfiction faculty
Creative nonfiction, like all other forms of creative writing, is a demanding genre. In whichever form the writer may find themselves working—and there are many: personal essay, memoir, lyric essay, meditative essay, literary journalism, immersion, travelogue—the most common thread is the self, the I as the eye, one’s own life and experiences as vehicle for exploration.
The finest pieces of creative nonfiction are those that dig deeply into the self, not shirking Rainer Maria Rilke’s famous admonition to “be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart” and to “love the questions themselves.” In Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin examines the rage he felt at realizing he was “a kind of bastard of the West,” not seeing his history reflected in the flying buttresses of European cathedrals or in the art of Shakespeare and Rembrandt. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion confronts the aftermath of her husband’s sudden death—of coming home to her empty apartment and cleaning up the syringes and ECG electrodes the EMTs had left behind, but being unable to face the blood. In H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald finds the will to live again after her father’s death by adopting a goshawk named Mabel, but not before becoming an animal herself, hiding out in her Cambridge flat as the rain “dampens the house,” and creating her own den of safety in a large cardboard box.
As these writers realized, there is a balance that must be struck between excavating the self—mining the deep recesses of one’s heart, desires, fears and motivations, and going public with the findings—and maintaining the observational and analytical distance necessary to put it all in perspective for the reader in reflection.
The danger is self-indulgence. All too often, the student essays I read end up collapsing under their own weight for want of distance from the experience in question or something outside the self to function as an effective counterweight to the phalanx of emotions present in the writing. For many, that something else has been a place: a cherished body of water, an old family homeplace, another country to which one feels connected.
For others it has been an event or experience. Erik Reece, for example, contemplates American socialist communities and traditions in his book Utopia Drive, and Tim Tyson chronicles the effects of a racially motivated hate crime in his epic Blood Done Sign My Name.
In my own writing, it’s often been a person—a cultural icon who has captured my imagination, and in whose life I see elements of my own reflected. Anne Boleyn, Thomas Hardy, Lauren Bacall—I’ve written about them all in relation to my life and experience to provide another dimension of the self I’m creating on the page. Others have used this method as well: Hilton Als with Louise Brooks in his stunning essay “I Am the Happiness of This World,” Crystal Wilkinson with Prince in her tour de force “Dig If You Will the Picture,” and Sonja Livingston with the Fox sisters, a fascinating trio who helped to create Spiritualism, in “Sly Foxes.”
Try it in your own work. For better or for worse, we are a personality-centered culture, and we all have these people to whom we find ourselves drawn. We have usually read about them in biographies, historical accounts or news articles. Take five minutes to identify several of these people with whom you feel a connection. Perhaps it’s a famous jazz musician from the streets of New Orleans. Perhaps it’s a writer from the Harlem Renaissance. Perhaps it’s a medieval king. Or perhaps it’s someone more obscure—a locally known poet who died fifty years ago or a forgotten country music singer.
Now, after you’ve made your list, choose one. Spend fifteen minutes writing about this person without stopping. Consider why they resonate with you, how your lives might be similar or different, what you have learned or can learn from their experience. Do some research if you need to—but write. Then look at what you have written and determine the strongest point where the two selves seem to merge. Perhaps there is a full essay there. If so, write it.
Jason Kyle Howard is the author of A Few Honest Words: The Kentucky Roots of Popular Music and co-author of Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal. His work has appeared in publications including the New York Times, Oxford American, Salon, and The Millions, and on C-SPAN’s Book TV and NPR. A version of this exercise first appeared in Piano in a Sycamore: Writing Lessons from the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop, edited by Silas House and Marianne Worthington.