I remember nothing about that day in middle school when Billy (not his real name) called me “thunder thighs” while sprinting past me on the field during P.E. I remember the sting, the desire to laugh it off, my own disassociation. Was it raining? Sunny? Cloudy? Cold? Was it before or after lunch? I honestly don’t know.
In addition to my questionable memory for details, I have little concrete information to work with when it comes to family stories. I am a first-generation American. Much of my family’s history has been lost during their forced uprootings and eventual migration to the U.S.
It is actually this desire to recover what is missing―and reconstruct what I don’t really remember―that compels me toward creative nonfiction generally, and the “creative” aspect of it in particular. I am inspired by work that blurs the line between “true” stories and fiction. Some examples include Fun Home, American cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s 2006 memoir of her dysfunctional family told in graphic novel form and Homeland Elegies by playwright and novelist Ayad Akhtar. Published in 2020, Homeland Elegies is a novel written in the form of a series of personal essays, told in the first person and about a character named Ayad Akhtar with similar biographical details to the author.
I also find the following ideas helpful in giving myself permission to lean into the “creative” part of creative nonfiction (CNF).
Memory itself is an act of creation
My memories are easily influenced by new information and by the passage of time. Some of my memories turn out not to be memories at all but scenes I’ve imagined based on something someone told me, or even a photograph.
Some ways of working with this: acknowledge the unreliability of your memories. For example, I wrote a creative nonfiction piece about my maternal grandmother who emigrated from the Middle East in the 1950s after multiple experiences of displacement and passed away in 2015. My knowledge about her life is very limited given both the language barrier (her first language was Armenian; mine, English) combined with her not-one-to-dwell personality. Silence is also a very common response to the kinds of trauma she experienced. For all of these reasons, I never learned much about her past and she is no longer here to tell me. I acknowledged that circumstance by making the act of excavation and the need to use my imagination a part of the story.
Another way to do this might be to create a structure that is itself artificial, like a hermit crab essay. In Fun Home, Bechdel approaches a reimagining of her past after her father dies by suicide acknowledging that “..his absence resonated retroactively, echoing back through all the time I knew him.” The very act of writing her memoir in comic book form acknowledges the artifice involved in telling a “true” story when new information about her father has influenced her memories of him.
“Creative” may mean incorporating other genres
CNF writers may be more comfortable with ambiguity than the average person. CNF, after all, lives in the “in-between.” It is not reportage. It is not invented. Inherent in the form is the permission to occupy whatever place in that spectrum suits your fancy―even the extreme―so long as the logic of the piece can sustain it.
I recently wrote about a difficult relationship with one of my uncles. In it, I draw a sharp contrast between me and him. One of the differences I highlight is my love for American popular culture, especially TV sitcoms, and his disdain for it. Given this theme, I wasn’t terribly surprised to find myself closing the piece with an imagined scene from the 1980s hit TV show Mork and Mindy. Given the fact that the rest of the piece is fairly straightforward memoir, and that the imagined TV scene reads like a coda, I am calling it CNF, with an emphasis (in my own mind) on the “creative.”
The upshot: free yourself to go where the story takes you―you can decide later if it has crossed a line into a different genre.
It’s OK to cross the line into a different genre
It was a terrifying thought: what if my CNF piece is actually something else―a play, a novel, a short story, a monologue, a comic book? Writing coach and “creative midwife” Chris Wells presented this idea to me in a workshop I took a few years ago. My first instinct was to reject the idea as too overwhelming to consider, given how much time and energy had already gone into the stories I was writing. Since then, I have come to embrace it. First, one does not have to be one kind of writer. Just because you write CNF doesn’t mean you can’t also write novels or plays or songs. Second, I have found that imagining my stories in other forms is helpful to my creative nonfiction. For example, writing a first-person personal essay in the third person can reveal new aspects of the story―even if I eventually return to its first-person essay form.
While working on a flash nonfiction piece recently, I kept imagining the story as a comic book. While I did not attempt to create it as such―a real high-wire act for someone of my limited drawing skills―thinking about the story in this way helped me to zero in on visual images that became central to the piece. It influenced how I constructed and sequenced moments which I literally envisioned as comic book panels.
Creative nonfiction allows me to tell my stories in a way that resembles how I experience memory: as full of holes, invented and fractured. There are no rules written on tablets. So if, like me, your unchangeable circumstances include a faulty memory and a family history where much is lost, why not embrace it and lean into the “creative”? Perhaps you will find inspiration, as I do, in this quote, attributed to Alison Bechdel, that serves as the epigraph to Akhtar’s novel: “I can only make things up about things that have already happened…”
Lori Yeghiayan Friedman was born and raised in Southern California and has an MFA in Theatre from the University of California at San Diego. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Post Road Magazine, The Nasiona and XRAY Literary Magazine. Her CNF piece “How to survive a genocide” appeared in Exposition Review Vol. V: “Act/Break” and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
1 comment for “CRAFT: Leaning Into the “Creative” Part of CNF by Lori Yeghiayan Friedman”