My last semester in college, I took a creative non-fiction workshop on Wednesday nights in a class of all women, taught by a woman scarcely older than I was at the time. There was some odd symmetry to it. I started college at a Women’s College. I finished in a classroom without men.
I had a hard time taking the class seriously. I joked a lot, which was at odds with my earnest classmates, all of whom younger than I and most afflicted with a taste for what was then called emo. They wrote stories about beautiful angular boyfriends that cried and how veganism made them beautiful angular girlfriends and the perfect beauty of a butterfly wing beating in tempo with an Ani DiFranco on a summer morning during an internship at an organic farm. I wrote stories about shoplifting bodice rippers from Lord’s Drug Store when I was nine (true) and how when I was twelve, I got fired from cat-sitting for the famous child psychiatrist next door by inviting all the boys in the neighborhood over to play with his extremely cool vintage collectible pinball machine (also true). I felt like a drunken elephant harrumphing around a china shop full of exquisitely damaged porcelain figurines. This was not uncommon. Conventional femininity is a lot about being delicate and whenever I tried to perform it, I usually just ended up tripping over myself, tumbling down a grand staircase and destroying something priceless.
I had not, as they say on TV, come to make friends. I’d arrived at the conclusion of an endless, contentious and frequently abysmal college career. The writing class was literally my very last class. When I got around to submitting for the last workshop, I decided to write, in particular, about how college had been, about the lowest moment of my horrific undergraduate career.
At the time of the class, I vastly preferred writing fiction. I’d written a mostly awful gothic novel about homeless punk rock kids, family pressures, and Gilded Age ruins in eastern Pennsylvania. I’d won a literary award in college for a stream-of-consciousness short story I wrote about doing crystal meth at boarding school, which was hilariously cliché, and everyone believed was autobiographical. It wasn’t. I considered Creative Non-Fiction a euphemism for literate “truth” that blanched at first sight of a fact-checker and a cynical marketing ploy to sell mediocre autobiographical novels. I’d received plenty of criticism in the class thus far for my failure to delve deep into the endlessly gentle, endlessly suffering thing that a girl at my former college had tattooed on her arm after misunderstanding TS Eliot’s “Preludes” (or perhaps Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats”). They wanted misery and they wanted it to be beautiful and sexy. They refused to believe that anything as banal and petty as I ran away from home because my dad wouldn’t pay for boarding school could possibly be true. Which was both deeply weird and weirdly flattering.
So, the story I turned in was about 70% fiction. It took place in my actual old apartment. It described a bar I did go to. It mentioned songs that existed in the world—songs I liked, even. And I had certainly felt the way I described myself in the story–empty, lonely, impossibly depressed, deploying a lot of gallows humor to create (ironic?) distance between myself and crushing despair. The plot line, however, followed an entirely invented evening of various self-destructive behaviors and a boozy, low-lit sexual encounter with a flatteringly scruffy amalgamation of several dudes I knew, all dialed up to a solid 11.5 on the Nan Goldin-style beautifully/seedy meter. It made a better story than the reality of chastely contemplating suicide over a Cook-Out Tray in the Piedmont Triad. And if I were truly not vulnerable and tragic and real enough for my professor or classmates, I would happily serve them up a whole pile of horseshit in their preferred scent profile.
I had plenty of practice making things up. I’d spent much of my young life lying through my teeth. Sometimes this would start with something simple. A polite white lie. A bit of gilt on the lily. The sort of fanciful exaggeration my family–a rogue’s gallery of writers, politicians, peddlers, socialites, and bullshit artists of the first degree–might call a melon ball. An offhand anecdote, spurred by an attempt to enliven a conversation. A false admission so I might better fit in or seem cool. You can make a lot of friends nodding along about a neglectful punk rock boyfriend in California ,even if you’ve never had a neglectful boyfriend in California, even if you’ve never had a boyfriend at all, even if you’ve never been to California, and 99.9% of the time, no one asks follow-up questions, because most people, especially young people, are mostly just waiting for their turn to talk about themselves. Sometimes the tales transformed with time into things that required complicated infrastructure and timelines and character sheets. They were cinematic, evocative with scenes so richly imagined I could describe the scent of the air, the way the ground felt under my feet.
Eventually, I grew out of the lies and tired of the care and maintenance they required. Sometime around the bottom of the abyss, on a night very much like the night I’d fictionalized for non-fiction class, I realized I’d reached the limits of invention. I no longer took any pleasure from the ersatz versions of my life and I couldn’t get any of the old razzle-dazzle to work on my actual lived circumstances. Human beings are, after all, annoyingly unreceptive to authorial intent. I could neither imagine my way out of unhappiness nor make art out of the boring, irrational, endless days of sitting up until five am listening to the same five songs waiting for a different final verse.
I stopped lying when I was depressed because I had to stop telling people I was cool and fine if I were going to make it.The whole time I’d assumed, eventually, they’d call me on my shit. They didn’t. People have their own shit. They don’t want to work out your inconsistencies or analyze your word choices. They generally prefer a good tale to boring truth, as evidenced by the whole world over the past few years, as evidenced by my creative non-fiction class.
If I’d had the slightest concern at being called out for making up my assignment, I needn’t have. My fake evening having fake sex with fake guy were the only parts of the story that rang true to my classmates. They lauded me for the brutal truth of my descriptions of the sexual encounter, the heartbreaking honesty of my richly-imagined conversations, my precise recounting of the laundry list of self-destructive behaviors I never actually partook in. Very brave, my professor said, if only the parts where you describe your state of mind were so honest. And then she went on to describe the actual true parts as too remote, too dry, too full of ironic distance. This doesn’t feel like something written by a person who has been depressed. You write about pain like a vapid hipster.
I think I just rolled my eyes and said something pretty close to exactly oh well, whatever, nevermind. She gave me a B in the class, the lowest grade I’d ever received in a writing workshop. I didn’t care. I graduated. I believed—and perhaps still do– the only way I could write really honestly about anything, was to do so through fiction.
Seventeen years after my non-fiction creative writing workshop, I find myself writing a lot more creative non-fiction than fiction. Not just stories, but statuses and posts and blogs and tweets. Social media wasn’t a thing when I was in creative non-fiction workshop. I couldn’t have foreseen a world in which I’d feel obliged to curate a multimedia memoir installation all the time and every day in order to maintain a professional reputation and register my presence as A Person in The World. Facebook and Instagram and the rest offer truth in the most soft-focus, Colbertian sense. There’s certainly risk of a call-out—the internet gives those inclined all the tools they need for fact-checking—but who has the inclination or the time to call out everybody. A fellow memoirist recently told me, on the sly, as I was hemming and hawing over my lack of material for a theme-based submission call, that a good non-fiction piece really only needs to be about 70% true.
I wasn’t shocked about that. I even couldn’t be depressed about it. A 70% true story in 2018 looks pretty good, right? I wanted to look at him and say, the reason I stopped writing non-fiction for so long is that best-received story I wrote when I was young was only about 30% true and no one called me out on it. I didn’t. I was sure it wouldn’t have surprised him.
Truth rarely makes for satisfying narrative. We forget our epiphanies when we have them (sometimes because they’re dumb). Our intuition fails. Our will rarely rallies against distraction, let alone catastrophe. Suffering does not necessarily make us stronger. We’re undone by small tragedies far more often than we triumph over the large ones. We resist change. We don’t get rid of things, and when we do, we tend to pick, if not the wrong things, then the easiest to throw away. For many of us, life is an excruciating re-watch of a movie in which the protagonist continually makes all the wrong choices. And even as we yell passionately from the other side don’t open that door, don’t have that drink, don’t text that guy, don’t stay at that job, don’t let people treat you like that, she, or rather we go on, doing the stupid thing over and over again.
People like a snappy ending, a triumphant conclusion, a real sense you’ve overcome, you’ve survived, that you’re stronger, better, wiser. I’m not always good at those. I try to cleave to what happened, to what I remember, even if what happened was unsatisfying, banal, and without the requisite uplift. The best thing I can offer is silly, irrelevant anecdotes that end only with the promise that I’m still alive and as long as I am there will certainly be more of the same sort silly, irrelevant anecdotes. They’re usually true, even if they’re rarely dramatic or beautiful.
Sometimes, in flashes, they’re even a little bit honest.