Here’s a common scenario with intermediate creative nonfiction writers: They’ve gotten over the initial hurdles to writing true stories—fear of what others will think, mistrust of their memories, difficulties establishing the writing habit—and they’ve experienced the rush of elation that comes with drafting. They may have even dabbled in revision and overcome their resistance to meddling with their first words. They’ve fleshed out scenes, added dialogue, paid attention to character development; they’ve fiddled with craft and made worthy changes. But at some point, all creative nonfiction writers (and, I would argue, writers of all literary genres) must seriously consider revising their content as well as their craft. Revision is not simply about evaluating and changing the form of our work; it’s also about adding layers of insight to the content. And when our content is the material of our lives, this means doing serious emotional work.
Most writing students quit at this point.
The version of their life they wanted to write about proves a tad false or shallow or incomplete. Sometimes they know it; sometimes they insist otherwise. But before their writing can work for a reader, they must call this flawed version into question, asking themselves if there aren’t other ways of telling the story, other insights into what happened, and more emotional nuances than they’ve first allowed. This is the stage of the revision process where the writer pays attention to the inner story, that secret emotional world beneath action and dialogue and character. This is the stage where the story asserts its terrifying agenda, often overturning our own. Of course the story has made demands of us all along, but midway through the revision process, usually when we think we can rest on our laurels, the demands grow dreadfully serious. We must take emotional risks. We must examine our deepest motivations. We must admit we might not know the outcome of our story.
Techniques for navigating this stage range from journaling prolifically to entering therapy—whatever helps you reexamine what you assumed you knew. A trusted reader might pepper your draft with probing questions that you then answer, regardless of your resistance. I often challenge myself to begin drafting from scratch; is there another version of this story I haven’t yet uncovered? And of course time often sifts away falsehoods and raises truisms to the light.
Carol Bly wrote, “The greatest nonfiction writers are the ones who are willing to put up with extremely uncomfortable, miserable thoughts, for days and weeks and years on end.” Doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? And yet this is where break-throughs happen, and where your greatest satisfactions will lie. The best creative nonfiction is true, about both our personal journey and human nature. Becoming a speaker for this truth doesn’t come cheaply but is well worth the demand. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew