What can often happen in creative nonfiction is that we feel we must be interesting individuals at all times. At first glance, that wouldn’t seem to be an unreasonable request. If we’re going to write about our lives, might as well highlight the most intense and real moments, right?
That actually happens to be pretty relative. What if you haven’t walked 1,000 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail? Or worked at a major magazine and have the celebrity interviews to prove it? You haven’t taken a round-the-world journey or earned an advanced degree in something that would give you the necessary expertise to write a book about a well-known but little-appreciated phenomenon! Or maybe you’re just not quite ready to write about past traumas and pains.
You want to get started in the realm of creative nonfiction, but what if you haven’t done any of these things?
I’ve been reading this brilliant book over the past week called Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London by Lauren Elkin. Part creative wandering through her walks on lush city streets, it’s also a book about remaking the literary concept of the flaneur (a man who spends his time wandering city streets lost in deep thought) into a little-explored journey into the soul of the female citywalker– the flaneuse. Elkin’s extensive travel, professorship at the University of Liverpool, and experience with literature in translation makes her uniquely qualified to write this book.
I want to envy Elkin’s amazing life as an academic, writer, and world traveler. But most of me wants to applaud this great literary effort that cleverly incorporates the life stories of great women writers like Virginia Woolf and Jean Rhys into wanderings that are so human that I can’t help but take away lessons that factor into my own life.
No, I could not write this specific nonfiction book with my current life experience. But that’s okay. Beside the evocative anecdotes from Elkin about what it was like to be a 20-year-old study abroad student wandering the streets of Paris, I found that this book did teach me something about creative nonfiction that I hadn’t considered before:. Elkin’s emphasis on research. It’s something we can all apply to our work. There are several options to find our way around the problem that we never think our own lives are interesting enough to write about.
Find a Subject that Combines Your Life Experience
There is a way to do exactly what Elkin does with Flaneuse, even if you aren’t a world traveler. Think about your current work situation, upbringing, and experiences. What’s the unifying thread between them? You may notice that a lot of websites and publications soliciting submissions always ask the question what is the story that only you can tell? No one can answer that for you, but a little time and consideration may lead you closer to the answer.
Write About Someone Else
Think Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, the story of Olympian Louie Zamperini’s time as an airman and POW in Japan after his plane crashed in the Pacific. It’s a story about resilience, faith, and not giving up; if you didn’t read the book, you probably saw the movie. But notice something here: it’s not about Hillenbrand’s life. It’s a true story, and Hillenbrand dedicated seven years of her life to make this book happen.
And get this: she discovered Zamperini’s story while conducting research on her other nonfiction book Seabiscuit: An American Legend. Once she obtained Zamperini’s address, Hillebrand wrote him a letter. With his permission, she collected stories about his life that would later become part of Unbroken.
Hillenbrand’s own life story is also inspiring: she wasn’t able to graduate college because she contracted Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which she has struggled with ever since. Although she has gained some opportunities to travel once she was introduced to improved medical treatments, much of her writing has taken place from her home. To write Unbroken, she conducted many of her interviews by phone. Until recently, she has not left Washington D.C. because of debilitating vertigo that made it impossible to travel. She’s written through many challenges and still managed to carve a successful writing career despite obstacle.
Focus on the Quotidian
You may be thinking but that’s less exciting than writing about someone who definitely has more interesting life experiences than me! But it’s true. There’s something about your everyday life that you’ve noticed or done that other people would like to know about. Or, at least, your unique interpretation of the everyday will illuminate something that is universal enough that not many writers have voiced it.
Just take a look at The New York Times Modern Love column; as I scroll through, I’m inundated with stories about siblings and their parents’ divorce, a mom’s plea to save her son from school bullies, and what it’s like to be best friends with an elderly neighbor.
They are all about everyday experiences happening to everyday people. But why do 99% of submissions get rejected? Writers who get accepted frame the story differently. If it’s not gripping, well-written, and a unique take on an often-approached subject, then there’s no reason to publish it in this column– the gold standard of essay writing in 2017.
You may be new enough to this genre that you don’t quite know how you could go about making an everyday experience interesting enough that thousands, let alone dozens, would care to read your story. But I’m going to leave you with an image from Virginia Woolf. Among other things, she was a famed essayist in the 20th century. I could leave you with dozens of quotations from her about this one subject, but I think this one is inspiring enough:
“It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zigzagging to show us the true nature of life.”
See how she takes something small, transitory, and momentary and imbibes it with meaning even as it’s floating away? We need to do this more in modern nonfiction writing.
I challenge you to try this next time you’re writing. Don’t give up if you aren’t a famed world traveler just yet!
Kayla Dean is an arts and einment writer in Las Vegas, where she has interviewed several celebrities for publications like Vegas Seven. She has several YA stories in the works and blogs about writing and creativity on her personal website, where she also hosts the Millennial Writer Series. She received her BA in English from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and will pursue her Master’s in English Literature this fall. You can find her on Twitter@kayladeanwrites.