Writing in a new genre: Originality, and pain

I’ve started working in what is a new genre for me, creative non-fiction. I have a friend who teaches memoir and colleagues who teach creative non-fiction, but it’s a genre that until now I’ve associated with only as a reader. Writing in this genre is unsettling—mostly in a good way. For at least this morning, I feel that it’s therefore worth blogging about. What’s it like to be an experienced writer and teacher of writing who’s suddenly undertaking not just a new project but a new and very different genre of writing?  Exploring answers to that question will undoubtedly be useful for me. The possibility that it might be useful to others means that I write about it here in my blog rather than in my journal.

Writers talk a lot about the pain of writing. That’s not what this entry is about. It’s about the painful memories dredged up by the writing I’m doing right now.

A year ago a very dear friend told me that there was a book I was meant to write and that I needed to get to work on. Over lunch in a Syracuse restaurant, he described the book. I was nonplussed, and riveted. He was right!

I won’t even discurse on the fact that a friend told me what I should be writing, and that I hadn’t already seen it myself. After a lifetime of writing and a career of teaching writing, I take for granted that this is how very good writing often happens: One person sees what another person should be writing, and the chase begins. My students sometimes think I’m a magician when I’m the one telling them what they should be writing. I’ve given up trying to talk them down from that fantasy; if they want to think I’m a Muse, fine. Whatever makes ya happy. This particular variety of musedom, though, is not magical at all; it’s just a matter of paying attention to, and caring about, writing and writers. Not just writers but readers get insights, and it’s great when these can go back to the writers and produce fresh new ideas and directions.

After my friend made this suggestion to me, I mulled it over for awhile, but I just couldn’t see how the thing could work. I agreed that it was there, but it was behind a veil. Then last spring I was on a redeye where I had enough miles to upgrade to first class. The guy beside me was a corporate executive. He was an interesting guy and told me about his business. He asked me what I wrote, and I explained. Then he said “What are you working on now?” And out it came. In the middle of the night, somewhere between San Diego and New York, I wrote the TOC for that book as I spoke it aloud to him. I had the presence of mind then to pop open the iPad, log into Evernote, and write down what I’d just said. The book was a reality.

Other realities intervened, and as the months passed I just couldn’t find the space for working on that book. Other obligations pressed upon me.

And then two weeks ago I recognized that I was feeling long-term stress and frustration over life events that hadn’t been going my way. I needed an antidote, to prevent getting entrenched in negative thinking. So I decided it was time to get going on this book, and I pledged to put in an hour every morning.

Except for a several-days spell when pneumonia (gack) had me sleeping around the clock, that’s worked very well. In two weeks I’ve drafted 21 pages, and that’s pretty satisfying. I often tell grad students that Virginia Woolf counted 500 words as a good day’s writing. Using her standard—and I generally do—things are going well.

This morning, though, I found that this genre can be a very painful one. I’m not writing a cathartic memoir; this book is not a form of therapy, and its purpose is not to elicit sympathy or readers’ sense of identification. This book is a very deliberate argument about the nature of—or possibility of—originality. It does, nevertheless, incorporate autobiographical elements, and therein lies the pain. As I worked this morning, I dredged up some long-buried and painful memories. Unexpected, really disturbing. Stuff that was important to me, that I couldn’t deal with emotionally, and that I had for decades locked behind the wall of memory, inaccessible. Everybody’s heard the assertion that can produce unexpected insights and trigger old memories. I’m not sure I’ve ever had that experience myself, until now.

Onto the page it goes. In this early drafting, I’m not holding anything back. There are things in Chapter 4 that I know can’t stay, things that would injure people I love if I published them. But I’m committing them to writing in the early drafts, planning later to revise down the material that might hurt people I care about.

What I hadn’t expected is that the drafting would hurt me. I don’t mean to say I feel injured in any sustained way. The sudden, unexpected stab of suppressed painful memory, though, is something that never happened to me as I wrote textbooks and scholarly work. If it happens again as I work on this book, I guess I won’t be so surprised by it. But I sure was when it happened for the first time this morning.