Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Writing Nonfiction

So last week, we had a Writer's Festival hosted by my university. It was the fourth year of the event, with one fiction author (Nami Mun), one nonfiction author (David Shields), and one poet (Maureen Mclane). There were several events which took place throughout the week, including several masters' classes, a guided discussion panel between the three authors, and readings by all three.

Although I unfortunately wasn't able to make it to any of the master classes due to class conflicts, I did make it to two of the readings- that of Nami Mun and Maureen Mclane. I thought they were really interesting, and seeing them in person, reading their own work, was really inspiring and made me wonder how I would present my fictional worlds to audiences if I had the chance to do so in the future.

But one thing I missed out on was David Shields' class and reading, which several of my classmates in the nonfiction class I'm in currently were able to attend. I'm regretting now that I wasn't able to go with them, because from what I hear, his talk was very controversial- the reason being that he says that there isn't really much of a difference between nonfiction and fiction. I wish I could have heard what he had to say in person, as what I heard by proxy through my classmates got me thinking about the topic regardless.

Now, I don't know if I believe Shields' position. It's true that I've read some wonderful pieces of nonfiction since entering the class I'm in- pieces like The Pain Scale by Eula Biss (who incidentally teaches at Northwestern as well) and Joyas Voladoras, a beautiful piece by Brian Doyle, as well as some great work by Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace (who I'd never heard of before taking this class; what rock have I been living under?) But all of these pieces are distinctly "nonfiction"-y to me. Their tone, the way they're constructed, all have a specific form and function.

I think they're wonderful and they're difficult, especially when I'm trying to emulate them (doing so is part of the assignments I have in class, and I spent the better part of the second half of my weekend trying to figure out how to imitate tone of The Pain Scale while using facts from twenty different books and trying to figure out how to retain my own personal voice in rewriting them). It's a challenge, and it's different from fiction.

Sure, maybe the goal is to reach the reader and to get them absorbed in what you're trying to say the same way you would drop them in a fictional realm, but isn't that just the power of great writing? I'm not sure I buy the notion that fiction and nonfiction are two different sides of the same coin. What do you think?


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