Let me start by telling you a secret—sort of a secret, because I’ve mentioned it once or twice before. But it’s not something I talk about very often, because it’s a little bit embarrassing. Maybe more than a little bit embarrassing.
I used to make fun of “creative nonfiction” and mock the people who wrote it. (I could say “gently mock” but I’m afraid that wouldn’t be true.) Fifteen, twenty years ago, here at Ohio State, where I have taught since the late 1980s, it would not have been unusual to hear me say that if we were going to offer courses in “creative nonfiction,” well, then, we ought also to be teaching “creative nonpoetry.”
I couldn’t understand—I would say, whenever I had the opportunity—why any writer would want to be “shackled to the truth”: why he’d want to waste all that good material that might be made use of in a story.
I understood biography, I would say (though I had little interest in reading it—and I especially wasn’t interested in the biographies of the writers I admired: I didn’t want to know the true versions of what they’d made such good use of in fiction)—and I understood journalism, science writing, history, child-rearing guides, etiquette manuals, [End Page 79] political diatribes. But why, I wondered, would any writer imagine that a reader cared about what had happened in real life to him—or her—or about what he thought about what had happened to him—or, really, what he thought about anything?
And then I started writing the stuff myself.
I didn’t mean to.
I wrote my first essay a dozen years ago, after a lifetime of swearing that I never would. It was an act of desperation.
I wrote it soon after 9/11, but the essay wasn’t about 9/11. It was about love—romantic love—a subject I had been writing about, in stories and novels and the occasional poem, for, oh, thirty years or more, if you count the writing I did when I was in my teens—and the essay was also about my daughter, who until then I had never written a word about.
It was a pretty straightforward essay: an account of things that were happening around our house just then, and of some things I remembered, and a direct address to my unseen audience about the meaning and nature of love and my efforts to explain it to an eight-year-old child.
And writing it was hugely liberating for me. This, as you can imagine, came as a shock.
I couldn’t believe it. To plainly tell the truth, as I knew it? To patiently get down on paper what people who actually existed in the real world were like?—to work at getting that right and actually know what “right” was, instead of having to guess, instead of “right” being a moving target and sometimes even changing of apparently its own accord?
To get myself down on paper as accurately as I could?
To ask myself the questions, Is this true? Did that happen? Instead of the squishier ones, Does this seem true? Could this happen?
I loved writing my first personal essay.
And you know what I loved most of all? Getting to step out for once from behind the tree—or from inside the closet—wherever I had to hide myself when I wrote fiction (as an invisible third-person narrator, say, or behind the persona of an invented first-person narrator) and [End Page 80] speak my mind, telling readers, for example, what it was I planned to tell my daughter when she was old enough:
that even when love comes to nothing, love makes you more than you were before. Even when you know it’s going to come to nothing. Even when it’s just a little bit of love, a sideline-to-your-life sort of love, a temporary insanity love—a crush. Even when it’s only yearning...