Monday, December 15, 2008

Write What You Know, Write What You Don't Know

An awkward thing happened in workshop last Monday: I was accused of writing nonfiction and calling it fiction.

This was actually something I was afraid of, except not for the part I got called out on.

The statement was made because I used an essayistic tone and talked about regulations at a high school that really exists while I fictionalized my old high school. They elaborated on "essayistic tone" because the instructor -- thankfully -- wouldn't let them get away with just throwing that term around (by "they" I mean only three people, btw). They stated that they were referring to an abundance of mundane details but a lack of dwelling on detail and blowing it up to unrealistic proportions -- apparently non-fic glosses over details and fiction blows them out of proportion.

Which leads me to the question: why didn't they just tell me that I had a page ful of boring detail?

Next -- it gets better -- I was told that anything that's nonfiction shouldn't be fictionalized because non-fic is easier than lit fic to get published.

Yes, the setting is "non-fiction;" I have lived and worked where my character lives and works. But does that also mean that I can't set stories in Chicago? Indiana? The Midwest in general? Does that mean that the guy in my workshop who is recently discharged from the military needs to stop writing about young, male soldiers?

But the thing that makes my story hang together, the thing that makes it interesting (which these nay-sayers didn't seem as interested in) is the main character's relationship with her late sister.

And, I'm sorry, I don't have any dead sisters.

This gets more awkward because the things I dumped in because they were factual about Ann Arbor -- a city I used to live in and therefore thought was good for setting my story as I know the landscape -- got me "in trouble" for crossing genres. But the fact that I dumped in huge chunks of stories my family tells over the kitchen table were touted as enjoyable, good, great, I really liked those.

So now non-fiction's fiction and fictions non-fiction.

It's an interesting hypocrisy as to the "write what you know" mantra.

Perhaps I could have avoided this confusion if I gave them a more polished draft of the story. But I didn't. I couldn't. We were given the creative "charge" to write something "clockless" and occurring over more than just a day or two at the beginning of November and on December 1 -- less than 30 days later -- I had to send out my story to the class. I generated a lump sum of material, but it in a coherent order and even put a caveat in the email that it was very new and very rough.

Maybe instead of me being boggled at the fact that people jumped to "non-fiction" instead of "boring detail," I should be proud of the people who picked out the main conflict despite the fact that I accidentally buried it ten to fourteen pages deep by not having enough editing time to skim off the "front" end of the story. But this is a story that I've never seen as ending up as short fiction, I've only ever seen it as taking the shape of a novel eventually, so I'm not overly worried about where things are going right now.

Overall, this workshop has been more of a trial than a treat. Though I already knew that you can't please everyone this class has been fourteen weeks of proof for the theory.

Highly Recommended