Why I’m terrible at writing nonfiction

When I was young—high school, college—my writing came from a place of pain. I thought I was in touch with some larger wisdom when I let the words just come, trying to talk about my pain as if I had felt things no one else had, things no one else could understand. “I have seen too many changes, too many unfortunate circumstances,” I wrote. “I have experienced them.” As if I were the only one.

At the time, some of those things were serious, but most were mundane, and none were unique. Still, writing was how I communicated to the world, since I wasn’t sure how to do it any other way. When I blogged about being depressed, I thought I was being honest; when I poured my heart out to the pages of a secret diary I kept on my hard drive, I thought I had found release. When I wrote an essay about losing a man I’d loved, I called him and asked permission, pretending that I hadn’t written a word yet and that I never would if he said no. I had dreams of getting it published, then of someone stumbling across it and sending it to him, saying, here, Alex, see what you mean to her. But even then I was a fiction writer, shaping my life on the page into something it wasn’t: I was less interested in the truth of any given situation and more focused on trying to create the truth I wanted there to be. I made up for the lies by putting into my nonfiction every detail I could think of, relevant or not, as a way, I suppose, of trying to prove it was real.

I always was a terrible nonfiction writer.

These days the only creative nonfiction I venture into are these blog posts, and I still can’t fully commit, but while in the past I over-shared, giving away details of loss and heartbreak on first dates or even before, these days I protect my own stories. Some days I break down and sow tiny clues (or occasionally large ones), but when people do ask, I tell them it’s nothing. And it is nothing—or at least it’s nothing I can’t get through on my own. I made the switch to fiction long ago, but these days I write about things I dread rather than things I want. Instead of giving my characters the traits I wish I had, I give them the ones I’m afraid I already possess: cowardice, naiveté, greed, fear, selfishness, and, above all, a complete inability to be agents of change in their own lives. In some ways, I’m still looking for myself in every single thing that I write. I just do it with lies rather than with half-truths.

I haven’t written anything serious in a month again. I sat down tonight to start a new story, but after listening to a horribly wonderful sad song on repeat for twenty minutes, I finally had to admit that I had reverted to my old habits, and I simply don’t allow myself to do that anymore. Writing isn’t therapy, after all, and I’ve rejected more than a handful of pieces because the writer’s emotion was too fresh for the writing to do anything other than bleed. I want to write stories that make other people bleed, but if I’m the one feeling the cut, that becomes next to impossible.

I pulled out that essay tonight about the man I once loved. I haven’t looked at it in nearly eight years, and originally I was just looking for humorously bad quotes to include in this post, but then I read through it in an objective way I never could before, and I realized it’s not really that bad. Oh, it’s cringe-worthy at times, and it sacrifices heart for pain, leaving it feeling more like a plea than an essay, but parts of it might be salvageable. Just not as a piece of nonfiction. I need some new story ideas anyway, and as I tell my students, I have an advanced degree in how to lie.

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