I just started taking a creative nonfiction course at Goucher College a few weeks ago, and have been busily brushing up on what exactly “creative nonfiction” encompasses and learning to shush that voice in my head that asks, “what’s so interesting about your life? What has happened to you that’s worth writing about?”
I’m sure this is a common problem confronted by writers of creative nonfiction. But the antidote to this self-doubt, and what I love about the genre, is creative nonfiction’s sense of enthusiastic and persistent self-discovery. You can’t effectively write about a personal event in your life without stepping back and analyzing yourself as a character—a process that’s rife with opportunity for new self-awareness. Any conflict or question in your life provides this opportunity, no matter how inconsequential or undramatic it might seem.
Phillip Lopate sums up this idea behind personal essays in “Writing Personal Essays: On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into Character”:
“I would further maintain that this process of turning oneself into a character is not self-absorbed navel-gazing, but rather a potential release from narcissism. It means you have achieved sufficient distance to begin to see yourself in the round: a necessary precondition to transcending the ego—or at least writing personal essays that can touch other people.”
As a psychology enthusiast and habitual ruminator, this style of writing sounds right up my alley. I’m excited to see what pieces of writing I produce this semester!
And on that note, I’d like to share here an excerpt from the personal essay I’m currently working on about how we contain and brand identity within limited spaces— in contemporary times these spaces might be twitter posts, blog posts, facebook statuses, online dating profiles etc. I love this idea, but it’s a vast and complex topic so I’m struggling a bit with the essay. Here’s the first section of my rough draft.
A Self-Conscious Collection
I’ve been sitting at my desk for two hours now, doing circuit drills. I examine my fingernails, rearrange my post-its, refresh Reddit, then stare at the endlessly blank “about me” page of the writing blog I created this morning. About me. I question the title (should it be About Teresa? About the Author? Am I an “author”? Should I put it in quotes like that? Do quotes read as endearing self-doubt or pretention?) until the words look like blobs and I’m not even sure if they’re really words, or letters, or anything that makes sense. Why is writing this page so hard? Or is it, why am I making it so hard?
I haven’t even gotten to my first actual post yet.
I remind myself that no one will think twice about or probably even read what I write on this bio page, that I am in fact being ridiculous, overthinking it. But another voice in my head dreams big, as if writing this about me section, 100 words or less, will become the lens, the narrative of my life at this moment. It could be the story I tell others about myself, consciously crafted – My Brand.
When I was little, I dreamed of running away. Back then, the world seemed like a kaleidoscope that I could shake into any image I wanted. If only I didn’t have to converse within the rules-and-limits language of my parents, who were rightfully busy with my upbringing, the world on my own could be full of king-size chocolate bars and long days that stretched past lights-out and grand adventures in deep, dark forests of Narnia. This vision wasn’t a product of any discord or real unhappiness with my home or family. Instead the daydream came from a gut-deep longing to be free and singular and tall—so tall, that no one needed to look down at me.
This is a familiar fantasy to most, I know. But looking back, there’s something fishy about my adult version, a red herring that is only visible now. Instead of slipping back into a puerile daze of the fantastic adventures I’d seek, the feeling of walking barefoot (look Mom, no shoes!) out the basement door and into the woods behind, my attention focuses and collects at another point, on the before-scene — before the leaving. The tantalizing, sweet core of the dream hung in the preparing and the packing. It was wondering, what of my life would I carry with me when I left?
I had this suitcase. It was ballet-slipper pink and lavender and it had my name on it. Teresa, no h. It was made for me, I remember thinking, because my name was spelled right. All the name pens and souvenirs were always for someone named Theresa. A not-me. I would take the bag down off my shelf, the pinky flesh-toned fabric folding around my hands, and unzip it. Inside was a blankness. It was full of promise and unshaped things.
Still, it was bounded. It was not an endless, expanding magical bag of the Mary Poppins variety —it was a limited space bordered by linear patterns of thread stitches. No room for messes of loner socks, or unnecessary things, like my second favorite doll. It was a perfect game of Tetris —compact. Rectangular. You could know who you were in that geometric shape because you could calculate the area. Me = these collected objects that fit into A = l x h x w.
With ritualistic solemnity, I would scrutinize every figurine, toy and object in my room like a shrewd antiquarian, summing up its value. I hovered about the room, collecting things together. There was my sketchbook, full of drawings of lopsided pears and girls who weren’t bored and well-behaved at school, and fairy characters from a story I was working on. In the section marked “dreams” was my scribbled dream house, a treehouse that beamed up into the sky like Laputa. There were notes from my two best friends marked top-secret, written on sugar-crusted paper scrolls of unraveled lollipop sticks. The minnie mouse locket my third-grade boyfriend gave me, which held my first kiss under the red playground slide. My three favorite books, the BFG, My Side of the Mountain, the Last of The Really Great Whangdoodles. Two CDs, a classics selection for ice skaters and the Cranberries’ Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?. A calligraphy pen and a rounded tub of cerulean ink. These were the things I packed, would pack, in the case of emergency. If something happened, or if I left, I would know how to pick up my life and move it, without leaving myself behind.
Now, when my life is constantly shifting, there’s a dangerous comfort in this daydream of packing my life up, and quantifying it. There’s security in the fantasy of containing “me-ness,” to one, tangible collection within a box. As if I could lay these things out like tarot cards, saying “show me who I am and was and will be.”
Satisfaction bubbles as I again imagine the bag filled, solid, its seams zigzagging like stretch marks across a pregnant belly.