This Story Would Make a Good Essay
This month we are delighted to share three craft essays—written by cross-genre writers—that center on nonfiction, and some of the ways fiction writers can learn and grow from the elements of nonfiction. Here, Paul Crenshaw, whose latest essay collection, This We’ll Defend, is out this month from U of NC Press, writes about how “fiction and nonfiction feed each other,” some of his favorite genre-blurring collections, truth in fiction, and more.
By Paul Crenshaw •
As an undergraduate I wrote a lot of autobiographical fiction in which narrators from small Southern towns attempted to escape the confines of their region, all the conservative culture and Christianity that wrapped around them like kudzu. I was reading George Singleton and Dale Ray Phillips and New Stories from the South, and the stories I liked best captured the character of the South, not the creeping ivy and fried bologna sandwiches, but the way the air felt on an August afternoon and how everyone was always seeking something, even if they didn’t know what it was. I liked men who knew they were flawed inside but didn’t know how to fix it, and every attempt they made to do so only screwed things up worse.
It took me a longer time than I’d like to admit to realize I was writing about myself. This seems obvious—write what you know and all those other mantras—but what I mean is that it took me a long time to realize that my narrators were attempting to escape from themselves in the same way I was. They were not happy with who they were and so they blamed it on where they were. They blamed the people around them for their own inadequacies and failures. My stories often ended with someone leaving—a house, a town, a marriage—while looking for something else, but they were really trying to leave themselves behind and, perhaps, become something better.
Most of these stories were not good. Like the men I wrote about, these stories struggled, trying to find their way. Like most of the men I knew, these stories stumbled around under the church steeples on their little postage stamps of land, often angry and worried and scared for all the things that could happen to those they loved, not quite understanding they were doing the things that worried and scared them.
But a few figured out what they wanted to be, and I had some success publishing them. By then I had left my hometown and gone to graduate school, where I took my first nonfiction class. Nonfiction came very hard to me at first. It was not easy to strip away all the layers of subterfuge I incorporated into fiction. I did not want to be exposed. I did not want my grad school classmates, who seemed far more worldly and sophisticated than I was, to see that at heart I was as flawed as any Flannery O’Connor character, full of wants and fears I wouldn’t be able to explain on the page without looking like the misfits I loved.
I also did not want anyone to know how badly I wanted away from who I was. I identified with the flawed characters in New Stories from the South because they knew something was wrong with them. I had two young daughters and was terrified I was not good enough for them. I had a wife who was kind and caring and I was afraid I was neither kind nor caring. I was in a graduate writing program but felt like an imposter, which often made me seem arrogant, and I did not want to write about myself unless I could lie.
What I did not realize at the time was that nonfiction finds its strength from these weaknesses. The personal essay lives in the light of our human weaknesses, the fears we wear around like a second skin, the dreams and desires we’re too afraid to describe to anyone because then they might come true. If fiction was armor that protected me from who I was as a human being, then nonfiction was the hole in that suit of armor, the spot where the spear could sneak in.
The reverse worked true as well—fiction also finds its strength in weakness. Being honest about the place I was born, with all its problems and failures, helped me understand the problems and failures of the characters in the stories I wrote. Being honest about myself—my weaknesses and worries—helped me understand why my fictional characters wanted so much from the world. The great problem with the Grandmother is that she wants too much: to go to Tennessee, to see an old Southern plantation, to stay alive. She was, like I was, attempting to lie, though by the time she sees the truth in her own fiction, it is too late.
I also did not realize how fiction and nonfiction feed each other. A man cannot have two masters, the Bible tells us, but I say the Bible is wrong. I can write about the dangers and falsities of growing up confined by small town conservatism and Christianity in a short story, and then write about how I still love the people who practice those ideologies in an essay. The two do not preclude one another, in the same way criticizing the United States does not preclude anyone from loving it. Or leaving it.
In fiction, my characters spent a lot of time leaving where they are from. In nonfiction I spend a lot of time going back, trying to make sense of why someone would leave. It only occurred to me years later that fiction and nonfiction both begin at the same place.
Tom Franklin’s great short story collection, Poachers, for example, which I read around the time I was writing autobiographical fiction, begins with an essay that describes the Alabama woods in which Franklin was raised, and which play so prominently in the title story. The essay sets up the book in a way I’ve always admired, and tells the reader that though the stories may be fiction, they are set in a very real place, one that still haunts Franklin long after he left. Tyrese Coleman’s How to Sit is a collection comprised of both stories and essays, sometimes blurring the lines between, a thing Kerry Howley’s semi-fictionalized Thrown also does. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried fictionalizes real events involving real people, with real worries and fears. Bernard Cooper’s essay collection Maps to Anywhere won the PEN/Hemingway Award for fiction, meaning even the awards committee confused fiction and non, or, perhaps, did not see enough of a difference between the two to separate them.
These collections show that both fiction and nonfiction are trying to reach the same place and, sometimes, take a similar route getting there. My early stories weren’t good because they always left. They never hung around long enough to learn anything. Never sat on the front porch on an August afternoon in the ungodly heat, listening to the crickets call in the middle of the day, until night fell and the first fireflies came out. They were too busy getting away to understand why they wanted to leave, or so busy bolting the door they never let anyone in.
Nonfiction helped solve this problem in my fiction. Writing nonfiction, from which there is no hiding, about storms in an angry Arkansas spring helped me understand why so many men I knew watched the weather, why they loved observing the landscape. Writing about the made-up stories my grandfather told helped me understand how stories had shaped him, and how he wanted me to be shaped. Writing about small-town Christianity in the form of a fifth-grade teacher we called “Mrs. Born-Again” helped me realize that despite her fear of all the sin in the world, she also held a lot of love. Writing about the death of my nephew helped me understand that all writing is really about life, and how we can help each other through it, or at least suffer together.
It also helped me understand why my fictional characters were always flawed. Why I often wrote about men who are so afraid of being exposed they hide who they are, so afraid of being seen as weak they live behind a screen of indifference. None of them could show any emotion except anger, which made them all horrible people, in the way hiding often has either a horrible cause or horrible outcome.
I still love them, though. I still take them out of their file sometimes and read about them: the guy who laughed at funerals because he didn’t know how to cry; the women who shot arrows at the sun in their anger over the men in their lives; the writer who thinks the mailman is refusing to deliver the literary awards he is sure he is winning. I look at these early attempts at telling truth through fiction, and I forgive myself, at least a little.
This story would make a good essay, I think.
PAUL CRENSHAW is the author of the essay collections This One Will Hurt You, published by The Ohio State University Press, and This We’ll Defend, from the University of North Carolina Press. Other work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Pushcart Prize, anthologies by W.W. Norton and Houghton Mifflin, Oxford American, Glimmer Train, Tin House, North American Review, and Brevity, among others.