Most of my MFA program was spent with other fiction writers. Seven of the eighteen required courses were workshops; after one of my fiction friends sneaked into a nonfiction workshop, the program started with some serious rules about taking other genres. But I'd share the classroom with the poets and creative nonfiction writers in literature courses and, in one case, a teaching practicum. (Surprisingly, I did make use of the course and teach high school English for a year. But at the time I had no intention of using ANY OF IT.)
One assignment was to create a syllabus. The poets did theirs on poetry. Mine focused on metafiction, an obsession I'm yearning to encounter in just about every piece of culture I encounter. And the creative nonfiction writers did their CNF thing. Our professor walked into the next session with our marked syllabuses in hand and addressed the class with a number of remarks. One of which was a gentle comment:
"Not everyone has to have David Sedaris as required reading."
Which taught me two things: Number one, that nonfiction works best when it's humorous and entertaining - even the professionals agree to that. And number two, that I'd discovered the CNF guilty pleasure. I found my new bathroom reading and did my best to catch up with this new information.
Recently, my friend was dealing with the grief of a loved one's passing. It made me think of a David Sedaris piece I'd read in the New Yorker a couple of years ago, about his sister Tiffany's suicide. I thought it might be cathartic for my friend to read; I remembered the piece being gentle and subtle. I remembered it focusing on the vacation that Sedaris treated his grown-up family to, only mentioning the suicide halfway through the piece. The deft way he expressed how he was thinking about the family as a whole, now missing a piece, had seemed so sad but beautiful at the same time.
When I went to look up the article, though, it was not at all as I remembered it. Most notably, Sedaris talks about the suicide right out of the gate. His attitude is not one of "How did we allow it to get to that point?" but rather one of "If it had to happen, it wasn't exactly surprising." The siblings all want to move on as quickly as possible - mentions of Tiffany occur mid-conversation, but not for long and without much depth. None of the subtlety I had been enamored with existed in the current piece I was reading.
Which, in a way, made the piece like performance art for me. The first time I read it in 2013, it had a deep, emotional effect on me. I was dazzled by the way the timelines were woven together. I wondered what it might mean for me to lose one of my five siblings during my lifetime. It caused me to consider new things and I was struck by the emotional core of the writer.
That was an experience rooted in time. It depended on the world being exactly as it was, on who I was at the time, what I was doing at the time, what confusion I was dealing with. I saw "Hamilton" this past weekend and spent half the show crying and the other half with goosebumps - and I know I will never again watch it and feel that same way again. But I expect that from live theater, something that changes from night to night, from audience to audience. What I didn't expect was to feel that way about a piece of writing, something I thought was static and stayed the same, and I didn't expect to lose the way I felt reading it. That makes sense, though. Creative nonfiction is about putting real life on the page, putting memories on the page. Our memories change with us. It's a personal form of performance art.
Thoughts with Alisa
Current writing on pop culture. Also known as my post-graduate school writing motivation.