On Sunday morning, I woke up – as I have been of late – about 3am and immediately started thinking about Gayle Brandeis’ amazing memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis.* I thought about what I knew of Gayle’s story from my blessed friendship with her. I thought of the excerpt I heard her read last year. I thought of the ways that creative nonfiction like hers brings my soul to life.
Then, I thought about how I’ve let my love of creative nonfiction be sidelined by a desire – untested and unsure – to write fiction. I love the two novels I’ve written, but even now, they don’t feel as truthful, as honest, as real somehow as the creative nonfiction I’ve written. That realization has nothing to do with Truth – I know that fiction is often the Truest stuff out there – but for me, creative nonfiction is the genre that gets the deepest into how I see and understand the world.
I’d been feeling unsettled about the murder mystery I’d been writing since early January. I didn’t feel any real passion for it, any of the tug at my heart center that I need to be pulled into something daily. I had been writing daily, but I was bored by my words – more than that, I was bored by the idea of the book . . . not a good sign.
So I spent Sunday mulling, thinking about how important I know it is to finish projects but also how I have a tendency to stay committed to things (books I’m reading, cross-stitch projects, relationships) even when I no longer like them, find energy in them, or feel safe with them.
By Monday, with another couple hours of early morning musings under my belt, I knew I had to do it. I had to shelve (or put into a computer file, in this case) my murder mystery and write creative nonfiction for a while. My pre-dawn considerations had brought to light some thoughts and pains and processes I’d been carrying around for a while, ones that needed words for me to understand them, so I knew where to begin.
Tuesday morning, I finished my first essay in a few years, and it came out in snippets of story that had been woven together behind my breastbone over the length of years. Tears lubricated its arrival, and when I finished, I put my head on the armrest of the couch and slept for an hour. I was exhausted the entire day in the best way, in the way that told me I had poured forth something vulnerable and true, something I needed to say.
I’m still sorting through what brought me here, why I abandoned a genre I love and spent two years studying, but I’ve realized a few things:
- I had let myself get swept up in the idea that nonfiction wasn’t capable of telling the truths I wanted to tell. I know this sounds paradoxical, that fiction would be a better truth-teller, but when you work with painful stories – of enslavement, of infertility, of long years of grief – sometimes the cushion of fiction can make it easier to get at the truth. But that doesn’t mean that nonfiction isn’t capable, especially creative nonfiction; it just means I have to work harder and be more vulnerable, which wasn’t easy for me for a while.
- I had believed that I’d sell more books if I wrote novels. Novels, I would imagine, do sell better than works of creative nonfiction in general, but in my case, my nonfiction books FAR outsell my novels. Still, I thought if I just dialed in on the right genre I’d get those sales . . . and in the meantime, the light in my soul that is fueled by making the real world artful dimmed just a bit.
- I needed to try fiction. I needed to see what it was like to write novels, to make up characters and stories, to delve into places and histories that were not fact-based. I needed to see if I could do that, and I could. The process taught me a lot about pacing and structure and characterization, AND it also taught me that no matter how hard I try, I always go back into history and the themes I am called to explore, themes that are – often, at least for me – best served by creative nonfiction.
Maybe I’ll write novels again, and maybe I won’t. (Sorry to all of you who have been asking about the third Steele Secrets book. It may be a while.) But for now, it feels like homecoming and a sunny Sunday morning and a perfect cup of hot cocoa to be writing creative nonfiction again.
May you, too, write what sings from your heart in whatever form it finds a melody.
On May 22, a new book co-authored by Skot Welch, Rick Wilson, and I will be coming out from Herald Press. The book is entitled Plantation Jesus: Race, Faith, and a New Way Forward* and contends with the hard questions and history of racism in the Christian church. We are in the process of putting together our launch team for the book, and we’d love to have you join us. If you are interested, please come on over to our Facebook group and ask to be added. Thanks so much.