notes on an unfamiliar process

by sophie

It’s unnatural for me to write prose. In college fiction classes, I was caught in crafting the line, unable to move plot ahead effectively; pieces written in non-fiction classes proved largely masturbatory. “Stick to poetry,” I was told. And why not? My poetry had received awards, approval, no important criticism that had not proved useful. For five years I have stuck to poetry, published, received more awards, more approval, more important, useful criticism. One morning a few months ago I sat down with a cup of coffee to revise a prose poem & realized, with no mild terror, that the story required more prose than a poem’s worth.

I stopped myself at 9 pages of non-fiction, uncertain whether the piece was anything more than a very long journal entry, and sent the work off to a friend who teaches and writes fiction. On Tuesday, we had coffee, and I came with a retrospectively ridiculous assortment of questions that now feel superficial. “What is this piece about?” he asked. “Well it’s about, you know,” I said, “the impact of urban spaces on our psychologies… um.. how forced proximity affects our presentation of self, puts us on performance so much of the time that we forget the character behind the mask.. um..” I faltered, as his look of incredulity told me that I was full of shit. “You’ll do very well in an MFA program with language like that,” he said (and he would know, having graduated from the University of Pittsburgh’s MFA some time ago). We got down to business, or rather, he proceeded to talk about the basics of narrative, and I commenced to scribble down what he said.

I went home with a head full of possibility. My friend had pointed out that I’d omitted nearly every piece of conflict that might have made the piece more than “a lovely meditation.” Fear of (and actual) violence, feelings of betrayal, uncertain commitments, arguments, contested spaces… the story I’d been trying to tell is full of these types of things, but I’d somehow managed to leave all of it out. The piece had felt so risky to write in the first place that I’d neglected to write out the actual risks of the undercurrent human drama in what I imagined was going to be a more general piece … but the undercurrent story, my friend argued, is what’s interesting.

(an aside: after being in Amherst, MA for a week, my cat is much relieved to spend every possible moment on my lap, drooling, with her head jammed into my armpit. Sometimes it’s so weird to be a pet owner. How do I love this territorial ball of fur & teeth who bites me unexpectedly when I’m trying to go to sleep & spends every morning sitting immovable next to my head & meowing at regular intervals? Oh, affection is strange. It’s a shame the old lady’s remarkably anti-social towards other animals. Still want to have a little cat named Mr. Fahrenheit someday.)

I suppose the thing I’ve begun to wonder is : how much information is necessary? I’m used to non-fiction works by Joan Didion, Denis Johnson, Albert Goldbarth and.. not much else. I’ve read a few addiction memoirs here & there (mostly terrible), and read Neruda’s memoirs a few years back. I don’t think I’m trying to write simply memoir though – what I love about Goldbarth’s book (owch, owch, cat claws owch) “Many Circles” is that he weaves so much information & so many influences into each essay. In my favorite essay “The Space,” Goldbarth writes space itself into the piece – he leaves room for the reader to connect things how they will, depending on their own associations & understandings. I’ve read that essay a dozen times or more & find something different each time. Goldbarth doesn’t leave himself out of the picture, but he doesn’t focus on himself as a protagonist in the way that a piece of fiction might; shards of Goldbarth’s personal stories in ‘The Space’ are only important insofar that they provides solid human ground for the reader to relate to as an example for the types of distance Goldbarth’s interested in. He cites Jung and Bly and anthropology and all sorts of other things for the reader to sink their teeth into, but it seems there’s still something about the personal, the written “I” that remains important, cathartic….

(questions to be continued)

Non-fiction writers or readers : any book recommendations?

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