During my first nonfiction class, my teacher told us a story. When she was eighteen she entered and won a place in a one-time workshop with a prestigious author whose name I don't remember. When it was her turn before the firing squad, the distinguished author ripped her and her work to shreds. The way she described it this was not at all in keeping with normal workshop decorum of constructive criticism. He made her cry.
After the class, the distinguished writer took my teacher aside and told her, "For the next three years, don't write a word. Go to Terrell County, Texas and get a job as a waitress. After three years, you'll have enough material to be a good writer."
Then she said, "Bull. Shit." Writing is about craft. And no one has the right to tell you what to do with your life or make a value judgement on your experience. That's why Lee Gutkind's article "The MFA in Creative Nonfiction: What to Consider Before Applying" in the most recent edition of Poets and Writers pissed me off.
In the article, Gutkind writes that the most important criterion a potential applicant should consider is "How much have you suffered--or experienced?" He elaborates, "I'm not contending here that young people can't write with power and beauty or that they haven't suffered. But it's often better to join the Peace Corps, take a job driving a taxi, or interact with a different culture before studying writing on a master's degree level."
Flannery O'Conner said something to the effect that if you make it through childhood then you've got enough material to write. All of our experiences, everything, is inherently interesting.
There's a scene from Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation that I particularly love, when Kaufman's meta-character sits in a screen writing class and asks the instructor, Robert McKee, how you write about the everyday world since it's mostly boring and nothing happens. McKee responds, "Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day... Every fucking day somewhere in the world somebody sacrifices his life to save someone else. Every fucking day someone somewhere makes a conscious decision to destroy someone else. People find love. People lose it..."
Our everyday experience is a plenitude of bizarre wonders and miracles.
But this isn't what irks me about the "you need to suffer" philosophy of nonfiction writing. For one, this fetishizes and glorifies trauma. I think this can lead artists, young artists especially, to make stupid decisions -- I've met many who did. At worst, I think this devalues thoughts and experiences that aren't about this sexy suffering.
Chuck Palahniuk has a great essay in Stranger Than Fiction called "You Are Here" which criticizes the popular tendency to write about personal trauma. It's an ineffective and perverse form of exorcism. I'm not sure I agree with Chuck -- there's nothing wrong with writing as therapy -- but when you rest your life on life as story, trying to strong arm your memories into a thing that gives meaning to your suffering, you may need reevaluate your methods. Everyone has suffered. Telling the world is not a universal cure-all.
And that, I think, is what really bothers me about Gutkind's criterion of suffering. We're all filled with a wealth of material and memories, but not everyone who wants to attend a nonfiction writing program wants to write about themselves. There are whole galaxies of writing that fall under the category of "nonfiction." Just because the memoir and the personal essay are popular right now doesn't mean everyone wants to write them. What about those of us who want to write journalism, criticism, science articles, and social commentary and want to come at it from a different angle than the traditional disciplines?
What about those of us who just want to learn how to write more effectively about the facts? What if you just want to know how to best tell a true story, regardless if it's about suffering or not?