Branching Out: Why I’m Trying Creative Nonfiction

The short answer is, I have to, for a grade in a class I’m taking this semester.

The class wasn’t my first choice to take, but it ended up being my only creative writing option. I was worried that the other students would rip apart my writing or decide that I just didn’t have many interesting true-life stories to tell. But so far, we have been supporting each other.

Our first assignment was a piece about home. I have never really written about my real life, and going back into my past was a little uncomfortable, as I imagine it was for other writers in the class.

Though I’ve only written one assignment, I feel as though delving back into my memories has forced me to sift through them, to come to a deeper understanding of common themes that have stayed through my twenty years of life.

We all tell stories in order to process the events that happen to us. Going back and revisiting memories is one way to categorize and preserve the different events that fit like puzzle pieces into the narratives of our lives.

The challenge in writing nonfiction or memoir is making my story, perhaps a seemingly insignificant event, matter to other people who have not experienced it. It seems different from fiction, but I don’t think we should necessarily feel this way. When I write fiction, my job is to take a bunch of imaginary people and events and orchestrate them to inspire some emotion in readers.

Doesn’t that boil down to about the same thing?

So, even though some of the topics might get personal and messy, I’m going to find beauty in the mess.

At the end, I think it will be worth the initial shock of remembering.

My Writing Tools

Among art forms, writing is unique.

Besides the fact that the finished product looks nearly identical to all other writing projects (in the sense that it’s made out of blocks of text), writing doesn’t require many tools. There’s no special paintbrushes, canvasses, or instruments. Computers simplify storing all your works of literary art in one place, but all the writers who lived before them got along just fine with paper.

So because you can basically write anywhere, writers have lots of options, and it pays to be flexible when your laptop fries. Today I’m going to share the techniques and software I’ve used so far to get my words out of my head.

Ignore That Unsightly Pile of Junk – I Mean, My Precious Notebook Collection

I’m not exaggerating when I say I have about a hundred notebooks. OK, maybe not that many, but it’s still a lot between the ones I used for my various classes and the ones I scribbled in for fun. And sometimes if my school notebooks have pages leftover at the end of the semester, I turn them into places to put all my story-related thoughts, drafts, and ideas for scenes and sentences. It’s convenient, but it causes quite the chaos when I have to find that one particular note and then search through pages and pages of cursive.

For my novel-in-progress, I probably have about a thousand handwritten outlines, all a little different. And when I get stuck on the computer, which happens a lot, I get my creativity flowing again by returning to writing with a pen and paper. It’s not as fast as typing, but there’s something extra special about that connection to the page that I just can’t get on a screen.

“But Jess,” I hear you say. “Get to the 21st Century!”

Haven’t you heard, I’m a time traveler? Just kidding. I do use modern technology as well. Specifically Microsoft Word and Google Docs. They aren’t all that fancy, but they get the job done. Google Docs makes it easy to share it with my readers. And I installed a plugin called DraftBack that lets me see just how many revisions I’ve made. Which can be quite distracting.

I should also start using my phone’s reminders to yell at me to write, because I’m so horrible with making a schedule and sticking to it. But even if it’s for five minutes a day, even if it’s just writing in my journal, I do my best to write every single day to get into the habit.

Do you have any special writing tools or routines?

My Playlist, Condensed

By now, you might have heard about my insanely elaborate 12.5-hour-long Spotify playlist for my novel (which has also undergone a name change and is now titled Woman of Words). I have not been able to listen to the whole thing all the way through–the closest I came was while stuck on an MBTA train for four hours, but that’s another story. I’m proud of this creation, but it’s also almost as complex as the novel itself.

So in today’s post, I’ll highlight a few key songs that were, and continue to be, particularly inspirational or conducive to my writing along the way, and maybe shed a little light onto exactly how. That way, you can still get a sense of how the playlist works and what it contains, without having to sit through thirteen hours of alternative, indie, and classic rock.

I wanted to only pick five songs, but then I couldn’t narrow it down, so please enjoy the bonus pick. And forgive me for not being able to embed; I wrote this on my phone (yes, a sad update: my laptop’s motherboard fried, and Lil Charcoal, as I fondly called him, is now in laptop heaven. You will be missed).

And before whoever is in charge of copyright comes after me, I never claimed to own any of these. If you want to listen, the links are in the titles.

1. Florence + the Machine, “Drumming Song”

Fun fact: a long, long time ago, one of the novel’s working titles was “The Echoes”. As in, “I couldn’t wash the echoes out”. Now that’s the title of a book my main character wrote, and she certainly can’t wash the echoes out. Nor the bells, nor the drumming noise inside her head that starts when a certain someone’s around. This song is so tense, I love it.

2. Green Day, “¿Viva La Gloria? (Little Girl)”

The song describes a lost girl running from her past, probably into drugs and other dark places. I can imagine how forlorn she is. Also, the line “there is no place like home” reminds me of The Wizard of Oz, and both Dorothy and my main character love their red shoes. It’s almost like we planned it. But that’s crazy, right?

3. Lord Huron, “Lullaby”

My main character is an insomniac, and she definitely has a fire in her eyes and blood on her hands. I love this song’s relaxing vibe, and you get the sense that, despite the singer’s attempts to calm the person down, everything is not going to be okay. Or maybe that’s just me and my story butting in. Particularly, the line “dream of when you were innocent / dream forever” helped me solidify what I was going for in terms of theme.

4. Fleetwood Mac, “Rhiannon”

*cracks knuckles and sighs* Where do I begin? A couple of my characters will get triggered if they ever hear this oldie again. And yes, I linked to the live version, because it’s better (those alternate lyrics, and that big old moon on the stage). Rhiannon is a magical, untethered woman who flies away from her problems. So is Renee, in my book. But, you see, neither of them are exactly what you would call real. There’s another freaky coincidence involving the book that inspired the song way back in 1973 (a whole 24 years before I was even born), but that might give away too much about my own story. I promise I’m not a time traveler (or is that what a time traveler would say?). Spooky.I even managed to reference it but without including any lyrics, so Stevie Nicks can’t sue me.

5. Lord Huron, “Cursed”

I first heard this song the morning after I wrote the chapter to which it corresponds, which freaked me out a little. My story features a character with eyes like “the endless night”, and at first I thought the lyrics were “there are moons on my skin” rather than “runes”, which freaked me out on a whole other level. If you’ve read a bit of the story, you probably have a clue as to why. 😒

Bonus: Panic! At the Disco, “Northern Downpour”

I apologize for triggering any PATD fans, but this one’s beautiful, bittersweet to say the least, and even references the moon (what more could you want?). It did so much to set the mood during one of my book’s scenes on a beach that I think I wrote the lyrics in brackets in the first draft.

The Best Writing Tip Ever

Writing advice is everywhere, and it can be overwhelming to sift through. A lot of what you can easily find on the Internet is also contradictory – some writers meticulously plan out every last detail before they even write the first draft, others drift along the story’s current to see where it takes them. Some people swear by writing a certain number of words every day.

Ultimately, every writer has his or her own process for getting words out. But no matter how you personally work, how do you know all your efforts are worth it?

My favorite advice doesn’t have to do with one’s actual method of writing, but rather the mindset behind it. I hope it changes your writerly life, as it did mine. I don’t remember where I first heard it, but it is part of K.M. Weiland’s Wordplayers Manifesto:

Two little words, towards the right. Surprisingly, I’m not talking about “dream big”, as anyone who knows me might first guess.

No, friends, I mean “write scared”.

It doesn’t mean that the thought of putting words down should fill you with uncontrollable anxiety, or that you should write twisted, uncertain tales of death and depravity (unless that’s your thing, of course). To me, this little phrase proposes a challenge: shatter your comfort zone, and write what happens in the process.

Sounds about as scary as the moon falling on us, right?

I’ve been there.

But comfortable stories are stale. Go an inch outside of your comfort zone, and you’ll get acres of growth for the story.

An example from my own experience might clarify what I mean. Before I had a solid draft of my novel, I had these two little plot lines. Both of them were doing OK on their own (that’s being generous), but they certainly weren’t thriving. And for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how to weave them together. I can’t get any more specific because, well, spoilers.

I know, what a tease.

But when I finally came up with the solution, it terrified me. I tried to avoid it the way cats avoid cucumbers. It was dark, and messy, and more than a little uncomfortable. I was about 18, and I thought I could write a realistic depiction of this complex, mature thing? It seemed too adult… no, too human.

For stories to resonate, to have any hope of connecting with another human person, we have to dig way down deep into the pit of despair human emotion and experience. And somehow come back alive.

Next time you have a stuck story, take a risk with it. Make yourself and your characters uncomfortable, and you’ll all grow. You’ll probably get a raw, honest, supremely human piece of art.

It might be intimidating at first, and messy, but so is everything worth doing in life.

What are some of your favorite writing tips? Feel free to share!

Some Thoughts on the New Year

Yes, I know I’m a little late. And I meant to post this on Wednesday, but then I procrastinated a lot. One of my goals for this year (I don’t really call them resolutions, more on that later) is to post on this blog more frequently and more regularly so I’m not apologizing every single time.

It’s almost expected that everyone gives up on their new resolutions by noon on January 1st. So what’s the point of setting yourself up for failure? I still make goals for myself, but they are for my own personal progress.

2017 was a breaking year for me in a lot of ways. In the last post we talked about my writing highlights, but there were a lot of tears for personal reasons. For every page I wrote, there was a day I felt like my life was going nowhere.

Which brings me to my first point. One thing I’m trying to teach myself is that there’s life beyond “life”. What I mean by that people are more than the exciting updates and happy moments they share on social media. It seems simple when I write it out, but it’s a truth that is hard to put into practice. So I need to resist the temptation to post everything on social media. If people need to know, they’ll know. I think we get so caught up in the idea of selling ourselves or showing ourselves off to others that it’s easy to forget no single experience can define who we are.

I also don’t want my phone to feel like an extension of my hand and freak out when it’s not there (it’s ironic because I’m writing this post on my phone because my precious laptop decided to not charge again).

Similar to that, I am also trying to not put too much pressure on myself to meet other people’s definitions of productivity or success. My happiness is my own. I also need to cultivate a positive outlook and focus on what I have, rather than fear losing it or worry about what I don’t.

Sorry if none of that made sense. What are some of your goals for the new year?

Thanks for reading!