Jeff’s God ComplexPosted: July 26, 2017
Nonfiction as Catharsis
So I’ve been trying to decide what my next major writing project will be, and my mind keeps circling back to the last couple years of my life. I’ve had a crazy run of things recently, and like any writer worth his salt, I’d like to capture these events.
Primarily I’m a fiction writer. I could probably disguise all this stuff and get a halfway decent novel out of it, but something’s telling me the true circumstances need the kind of veracity one can only achieve through nonfiction.
It seems to me many short story writers and novelists shy away from nonfiction. Perhaps the truth hits them too close to home, or more likely, it’s out of their purview. Which is fine of course. Nonfiction sells to a completely different segment of readers, different publishers, different literary agents. It may not make sense for an author to skew into a different genre altogether. In fact, some might see it as a waste of time.
But there is one thing nonfiction has on your average novel or short story, an element of the art form that has nothing to do with craft or overall viability. Not everyone deals with incredible, tragic, surprising, or uplifting events in their lives. Some people are born to breeze through this existence, though perhaps these people are fewer and farther between than we might otherwise surmise.
For the rest of us—for those with the linguistic and artistic capability to do something about it anyway—telling our personal stories can be extraordinarily cathartic. After all, psychologists have long advocated journaling as a means of self-healing. Writing about the key events which have shaped us can be both uplifting and enlightening, and it can help us make sense of an otherwise threatening or chaotic world.
Some might argue that the leap from journaling to penning an entire memoir leaves quite a bit to be desired. Only authors think this way, I suppose: “Well something terrible happened to me today. Guess I better write it down and try to sell it.”
The truth of course is that one needn’t publish such material in order for it to be of benefit. Good stories exist everywhere, and the will to look at yourself and your life unflinchingly is a skill more people should cultivate. I can only speak for myself and my recent history, but if I never told my own story, if it just receded into the background of my mind, only to resurrect itself in moments of repose and contemplation years later, I know I’d be doing myself a disservice.
The world of creative nonfiction is wide. Write about societal injustice, pop culture, the plights of your friends and neighbors. Tell stories that reduce the global perspective to something more personal, and in so doing, help us understand ourselves better.
Or, conversely, write about things only you know. Consider it an act of good will if nothing else. You’re doing this for yourself, and there’s not a damn thing wrong with that. Recognize, however, that you may uncover things you’d have otherwise preferred hidden. Know Thyself; is there anything scarier? Is it perhaps more dangerous to remain ignorant? If you’re so inclined, only time will tell.
Contained in every human life is the seed of expansion. We are not static beings, but nor are we entirely free to pursue our futures unhindered. Rather, many of us (if not most of us) find ourselves chained to our pasts. If I were to actually sit and pay attention to my thought processes throughout a single day, I’d likely discover I think about my past way too much. I’d likely also discover I tend to dwell on all the negatives, all my mistakes. Truly, we can never go home again, so why is it my mind is hell bent on constantly reminding me off all the crap I’ve done?
The truth is most of us don’t want to forget. We feel this unconscious pull to relive and recycle, even when it means the here and now is distant and vague by comparison. Perhaps we do so because we worship our identities, the classic psychological concept of the “ego.” These otherwise random events, if they were fully revealed to us, they’d make a mess of our flawed and often one-sided self-conceptualization. Recollecting rather than looking forward is commonly a hindrance, especially when all you’re really doing is reopening old wounds. I think this is me more often than not, though I have no way of knowing if it is also you. Imagine getting your story out, putting it down on paper, reading it, understanding that past is past and that there are certain things you don’t need to hold onto anymore.
Now extend your imagination a bit further. What would happen if you recognized your story could help others, too? Maybe you’ve learned from your experiences. Perhaps you could help prevent others from falling into the same pitfalls as you.
All of this is not to suggest everyone needs to write a memoir and sell it. You might say, “But, Jeff, my story just isn’t interesting enough. And anyway, it’s nobody’s business but mine.”
Which is fair enough. Some might also suggest attempting to profit from personal struggle is the opposite of altruism, and in fact, borders on exhibitionism. This attitude, it seems to me, comports with a general unease and discomfort with getting too close to the truth, which is another way of saying digging down deep on a personal level makes some people squeamish.
My writing mantra has always been if it’s worth writing, it’s worth reading. Write your story under a pseudonym, or in a pinch, write the damn thing and then bury it in your sock drawer. But as you’re doing so, do me a favor and look inward. Notice how you feel different, perhaps a bit freer. Recognize that in telling your story, you’ve performed a neat bit of alchemy. Maybe we can’t turn lead into gold, but through nonfiction, we can transmute pain and tragedy and allow them to release us.
If all else fails, write because your story is both unique and universal. I mean this. If in a hundred years all that could be said of us is that we strove to understand ourselves, that in itself would be a minor miracle. Don’t be afraid to quest. Maybe the answers you’re looking for can help your readers, too. Anything and everything is possible, right?
Interested in my writing? Check out my latest short story collection, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces — https://www.amazon.com/Fear-Loathing-Las-Cruces-Stories-ebook/dp/B06XH2774F