When a Nonfiction Writer Ventures into Fictional Territory
April 3, 2019 § 7 Comments
by Jennifer Lang
My friend and I rendezvoused in the rectangular room; she drove in from New Jersey for the day-long workshop, I flew in from Israel for the week. The room was stuffy, its one radiator working overtime. Outside the window, tall, official, personality-less buildings stared at me: Midtown Manhattan. I crossed, uncrossed, and re-crossed my legs, trying to find a comfortable position, trying to calm my nerves.
Our instructor, Seth, introduced himself and asked each of us to share why we’d signed up for a Fiction Intensive. I write creative nonfiction, mostly memoir, I said, I’m here to see if I can learn to make it up since telling the truth has gotten me in trouble with my family. Everyone chuckled. I wasn’t kidding.
So I’ve drawn nine pictures, and if you don’t know what they are, you’re probably not alone. Seth pointed to the blackboard and named each image. I quickly jotted down the words. There are three down and three across. Choose any three words tic-tac-toe style and write a story using them.
Despite the heat, I froze. Words like alien, circus, and necklace were too far-reaching and other-worldly for me. Thoughts paralyzed my mind. Fingers floated over the keyboard. Shit, I whispered to my friend. We met during our MFA, each of us steeped in truth-telling mode. I glanced at her hands, relieved to see they weren’t moving either. Our fellow workshoppers—younger, older, male, female, newbies, experienced—typed frantically. Fuck, I muttered. The heater hissed. I opened a new document. Chose three words diagonally from the picture board: magnet, flashlight, bridge. Inhaled. Aimed fingers at letters. Forced words: she took two steps into the cave. My exhale choked me. What did I know about caves? Nothing. What did I know about anything other than my own drama? Nothing. I deleted. Inhaled. Squinted eyes toward screen. Furrowed brow. Lifted hands. Hovered over letters like a pianist over keys. Started over. Closed eyes. Opened eyes. Summoned an intentional yoga breath. Wrote:
One foot, two steps, she enters darkness. The siren stings her ears. An unrelenting sound. Her long layover in Tel Aviv—to learn Hebrew and hang out at the beach—isn’t what she planned. When she arrived at her Airbnb, two blocks from the Jaffa port and directly above the shuk hapishpushim—the infamous flea market—her host, Igal, showed her the apartment. He explained she had to switch on the hot water heater before showering and casually pointed at this room—ma’amad—mentioning it doubled as bomb shelter. She fumbles in the black for a light switch, a flashlight, even a match. Anything to see the floor underneath her. One more step in, the earsplitting siren still rings steady and strong. Barefoot, she touches down and screams ouch.
Times’ up, Seth said.
Of 129 words, I had only used one of three. I needed more time. I wanted more time. To write how she, my unnamed protagonist, had stepped on a magnet. How she, some character about whom I knew nothing but perhaps resembled some version of me, remained calm during the 90-second siren but felt petrified. Where a bridge would fit in my story bewildered me. But how mysterious our subconscious is; the terror I felt about writing fiction sneaked into my story.
Anyone want to read?
I raised my hand. Read my words—both foreign and familiar—unable to believe they belonged to me. In all my years of writing, never had I attempted to make it up.
Good job, Jenny! my friend said. I loved how she called me my childhood nickname. Seth and some of the well-meaning strangers uttered words of praise.
How did it go for you? Seth asked.
I leaned back in my chair. Thoughts swirled and righted themselves. I had a lightbulb, I said. Even if I create characters and fabricate settings, I can still write what I know. And I can do that.
I’m not sure. I might be making this part up. But I think Seth or my friend or someone else or everybody else said yes you can.
Maybe, just maybe, one day I will.
A San Francisco Bay Area native, Jennifer Lang lives and writes in Raanana, Israel. Her essays have appeared in Under the Sun, Ascent, the Brevity blog, and 1966: A Journal of Creative Nonfiction, among other venues. A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, Lang earned an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as an Assistant Editor for Brevity. Find her at israelwriterstudio.com and follow her @JenLangWrites.
Yes, you can.
I think you’re on a great path. Recording your life is one thing. Writing fiction about things from your life is a step in a different direction. Soon, you will be comfortable with writing about places you haven’t been to and things you don’t know all that much about. Well, maybe that’s wrong. We should all know SOMETHING about what we write.
Thank you… I haven’t tried my hand at it since that class but know it’s always there.
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Go for it, nothing ventured nothing gained! I went from non-fiction to fiction, and it’s an interesting string to have one’s bow.
I abide by that same motto. One day…
You are a funny and poignant writer. How did you do that? 😉 I can relate to your lightbulb. I write mostly memoir, but am learning fiction to tell a story about an ancestor I never met. And you’re right: our own emotions do find their way into fiction. Whew. Something we don’t have to make up.
I definitely do not see myself as funny but take it as a compliment. Thanks, Linda.