One of the things a writer is supposed to do is to strip away the surface of our everyday selves and get underneath what's polished and pretty to the more essential stuff of life. After writing three books about my own life — about getting married; teaching my kids to read; and surviving breast cancer — I considered myself something of an expert at self-revelation. I prided myself on how honest and brave I had been to write about my in-laws, my body, my mother, and the tendency I have to treat parenting as if it were a competitive sport. Oh, I thought, how I had bared my soul! And then I wrote a novel and realized how little, in fact, I had revealed.
I may have bared my soul when I wrote nonfiction, but I bared it in small doses, through little windows, and I felt completely in control the entire time. Here look, I was saying, let me show you how very human I am. With my second novel just now hitting the marketplace and my first one still on the shelves, I feel as if all my skin has been stripped off and my soul laid absolutely bare. It feels frightening and exhilarating, and it's taken me awhile to understand what's going on.Why should publishing a sex scene that I dreamed up out of the clear blue sky be any more difficult than publishing a sex scene that I am purporting actually occurred? Why should it be more satisfying? The answer, I believe, lies in the nature of creativity.
People who are not engaged daily in conscious creative acts — which is the vast majority of my friends and family and neighbors and acquaintances — like to believe that creativity is something that strikes like lightening from God. They like to believe, for instance, that Mozart was a genius and not, as Twyla Tharp explains in The Creative Habit, a prodigy who happened to have a highly musical father and who practiced so hard for so many years that his fingers hurt. So much of what we do every day requires hard work — washing the dishes, doing our taxes, raising our kids, driving on the 405 freeway through West L.A. — that it's nice to think that there are some people who are simply blessed with ability so great they don't have to work at it. This is the premise that has made American Idol a runaway hit. There's something redemptive about the idea that there's a giant talent that's just sitting out there somewhere waiting to be revealed. We want to believe creativity happens like that, because otherwise what excuse is there for us?
The creativity necessary for writing good memoir is largely about structure. Where do you start, where do you stop, from what vantage point do you stand when you are telling your story? If you do it well, it doesn't look as if it was very difficult. Here's Joan Didion [The Year of Magical Thinking] talking about losing her husband; here's Tim O'Brien [The Things They Carried] talking about going to war; here's Elizabeth Gilbert [Eat, Pray, Love] talking about finding her soul. To the civilian reader, it sometimes looks as if these writers just sat down and spun a story the way they might spin it if they were sitting at a bar with their pals. The creativity inherent in their work — and any writer knows it's there in spades — is not immediately apparent because people are used to hearing other people talk about themselves.
The creativity necessary for writing good fiction includes a mastery of structure, as well, but it also includes something else, something mysterious, something that allows the writer to make up an entire world. It's incredibly difficult to explain or even to understand how imagination is fueled — but we always try to ferret it out of writers, because it's so fascinating. We want to know if Shakespeare [Romeo and Juliet] himself was a star-crossed lover, whether Charles Shulz [Peanuts] really had a beagle, how J. K. Rowling [Harry Potter] established the physics of the wizarding world. We want to know what creativity looks like, and how it behaves, and what its properties are, the same way we want to know all those things about gravity or the motion of the planets.
On Writing, Stephen King calls the craft of writing a basic skill. He goes on to say that "sometimes the most basic skills can create things far beyond our expectations....We are talking about tools and carpentry, about words and style...but as we move along, you'd do well to remember that we are also talking about magic."When you're writing fiction, you're not just baring your soul, or the details of your family or your love life; you're baring your creativity. You're declaring that you believe in it, that you worked hard at it, that you nurtured it, invested in it. It turns out to be an amazingly intimate act. In his fine book
So that's it — this thing that I'm feeling. It's the power of magic. I am, for this short while, the sorcerer's apprentice. I have unleashed something bigger than my own small self. It's awfully frightening, but awfully grand, as well.
÷ ÷ ÷
Jennie Nash is also the author of the nonfiction book The Victoria's Secret Catalog Never Stops Coming: And Other Lessons I Learned from Breast Cancer.
Books mentioned in this post
Jennie Nash is the author of The Only True Genius in the Family