Writers on Writing #104: Gwendolyn Edward
What is Not Seen in Writing Nonfiction
Last year there was a solar eclipse during one of my creative writing classes. I learned of it just before we were to begin; a group of students were lamenting their missed opportunity. “No, let’s go look at it,” I said, remembering grade school science class, constructing small paper boxes which somehow keep our retinas from burning. I hadn’t seen a solar eclipse since then. So up we went and my whole creative writing class walked down two flights of stairs and out the side door. One ran ahead to scout out the best location for viewing.
Behind the building we waited in small groups. I think I was more excited than my students; the memory of that grade school phenomena was smoggy and tricky. I remembered being out on the playground, I remember holding my fragilely constructed box. But when I thought about it, I did not remember seeing the eclipse.
Childhood has been coming back to me. Not deja vu experience but incomplete memories sparked by event and seeing. What strikes me most is also what complicates my writing: my memory is faulty, incomplete fragments. Only now I feel I need the fill the holes. I can’t stand not knowing, feeling like I’ve let myself down in some way. Nonfiction is all about memory.
Here’s my chance, I thought, careful not to let the giddiness show through my academic demeanor. And then the eclipse, slow and eye-watering. “Be careful,” I told them, “try not to look at it directly,” advice I was not taking. No, this time I wanted to see.
Afterwards we ambled slowly back to the classroom. It has been a letdown, I think, for most of the class. The world didn’t end. We just stood for a few minutes and tried to protect our eyes.
“Scrap the plan,” I told them, shutting down the TED Talk I wanted them to watch that day. “Let’s free write some nonfiction. Think about a time,” I told them, “when you were blind to something and ask yourself why you didn’t see it coming, why you didn’t understand.”
We write often in class. It used to be an exercise I hated when I was a student. I was never prepared and thought the act of free-writing was filler. It never unlocked anything in me. Rather, anxiety filled me, knowing at the end of prescribed time the teacher would ask who wants to read and I would feel compelled to eventually volunteer because I always feared for my participation grade. But now that I’m teaching, I feel different. I find many of my intro creative writing students struggle to write, especially non-fiction, a genre they enter with preconceived notions of often being boring and serious. What do I have to write about,they ask, especially after reading McSweeney’s “A Personal Essay by a Personal Essay,” a piece full of tropes and expected topics. They’re so young; they cling to first romances and dead relatives. So we begin not with narrative, but with questions. Essays are about figuring something out. They investigate, seek answers and revelation. I now think free writing is especially important in non-fiction; it allows for exploration before committing to a full body of work.
My students never ask me to read, even though I write along with them, pen scratching paper, and I don’t volunteer. But this time, the same student who ran ahead asked, at the end of a few students’ readings, did ask what I had written. Did I really want to share? No, but teaching and writing nonfiction demands a certain amount of forthcomingness and honesty. And so I read, thrown back to my undergraduate days, paper gripped as loosely as I could pretend to hold it.
The flash essay began with the story of an elephant named Sissy who once survived a flash flood at the Frank Buck Zoo in Gainesville, Texas, the small town my mother was raised in and that she’s now, after retirement, moved back to. Sissy was bounced between zoos her entire life and was so ill-treated by her keepers that secret footage of her mistreatment was instrumental in the federal government’s evaluation of zoo standards. As I free-wrote I equated Sissy’s story to the childhood of my mother, a woman who was mistreated by her mother. Though Sissy now lives a much better life in an elephant sanctuary, my mother chose to return to the place where she endured harsh words and what I would now define as abuse. I meditated on how abuse can linger and anchor us to place and if it’s possible to forgive our environments for what we suffer there.
Afterwards I felt a little shame in what I’d read. It echoed an earlier essay written for an undergraduate class that ended with my mother, alone in her living room heaped full of things, eating a microwave meal and falling asleep in her arm chair in front of the television. What I say about my mother and what I write about my mother are two different perceptions: care-taker and giver versus lonely and taken-advantage of.
The student asked, “but what were you blind to? Seems like you got it figured out.” The rest of the class laughed.
“She’s the writer,” another said, “of course she’s got it figured out.”
“But I don’t,” I said. “Not even close. What question do you think I was trying to figure out?”
“Why your mom is alone, or how your mom is like an elephant?”
“You’re right in a sense,” I admitted. “Yes, I started with why my mom loves elephants, but it lead me to another question, and then another. I’ve got an answer for the first question, perhaps, what got me into this essay, but it’s not the question I’m interested in figuring out anymore.”
This is the way many of our classes turn out: a discussion of process. My intro students tend to think of creative writing, at first, like academic writing. They see it as one big project, a final piece, instead of intricate components. We try to talk about craft pieces, and process, discussions I never really had but that now fuel how I write.
“It’s not about why mom likes elephants, and why I think of my mom and Sissy in the same way. Now it’s about why I think of my mom the way I do, and in my later years--” my students giggle, “I’m just now concerned with how I really treat her, and view her, and if I’m fair to her, and if I understand her.”
This is what nonfiction does for me. This is what free-writing does for me. It is a process of asking questions, and answering them, all to get to the question I can’t answer readily, the question with an answer I have to puzzle out over weeks, and months, and sometimes years, of drafting an essay. A lot of time it starts with something mundane, rather obvious, and then I poke at it, wait for it to rear its ugly head and reveal something about me I didn’t know before, that I still have to figure out.
“I know it’s not always like this,” I told the class, “but sometimes non-fiction is like a turtle. You have to wait for it show itself, wait and write and see not what it is, but what it becomes.” And then I told them what I wish someone had told me when I first started writing, sitting at a small desk and thinking I already had it figured out, what I still struggle with because I’m in a rush to write, to publish, to be competitive in grad school and on the job market. “It’s a long process,” I said, “and at the end of the semester you can’t think you’re done, that you’ve written the essay and turned it in and now it’s over. It’s just the beginning. You can’t put a time limit on writing. You can’t say in two months it will be finished. There’s no telling how long it will take. There’s just no telling.”
Gwendolyn Edward writes nonfiction, poetry, and fiction. Her work has been accepted by Crab Orchard Review, Bourbon Penn, Crack the Spine, and others. She retains a MA in Creative Writing from the University of North Texas, where she worked with American Literary Review, and she is currently pursuing a MFA at Bennington. She works with Fifth Wednesday Journal as an assistant nonfiction editor and also teaches creative writing.