I spent last weekend re-acquainting myself with the downtown streets of my adopted hometown, a city I moved to at 17 to attend university. At the time, I was excited to escape my small northern Alberta town and finally go somewhere where ideas were generated and people were interesting. It turns out I hated university. Far from the exploration of tantalizing new ideas and fire hose of revelations that I’d expected, it seemed ultimately more of the same. Teachers standing at the front of the room with that tired approach, telling you what to think about or how to interpret a particular book, poem or moment in history. Disciplinary silos where, for example, the theoretical lessons of history were rarely linked to the visible history of geology. Perhaps that’s how I ended up in geography, a melting pot of environmental science, politics, social science, anthropology and more.
In my first six years in this city, the arbutus and the ocean imprinted themselves on my heart, as did the lesson that expectations rarely match reality: you have to make the most of the world at your disposal to find what you need to sustain you.
Having attended my first Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Collective (CNFC) conference last weekend, I feel much the same as I did those two long decades ago.
What had I expected? A couple of days of stimulating conversation and writing exercises with like-minded people – a couple of whom I found by finally meeting a few Twitter friends in real life. Unfortunately, many people got in the way of the writing. People keen to tell their own story and perspective, rarely pausing to listen to others; people keen to theorize about what *is* creative non-fiction (CNF), how we define it and how we adhere to its precepts.
While the ‘Creating Scenes’ workshop, with The Scribes’ Annette Yourk and Jeanette Taylor, was very helpful, what was missing from the meeting overall was the focus on doing, on the craft itself, on the skills and tools we bring to the table to create these lingering narratives that beg to be told.
In my mind, defining CNF matters less than the fact of being a writer – full stop. We write what we must in the best way we can, by being true to the narrative and letting it ring clear as a bell – insights gleaned both from Betsy Warland’s masterclass and Alison Wearing’s keynote talk.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Labels are used by publishers and literary journals to sift through submissions, and if you don’t fit in a specific category it can be hard to find a publishing home. The same is true in interdisciplinary science: if your work doesn’t fit the categorization system of academic journals or even the classification system of university departments and faculties, it can be hard be hard to find not only a publishing home, but a disciplinary home as well.
But labels and classification also encourage sameness: of thought, writing style, and idea generation. Originality can be stifled – or perhaps less likely to be aspired to – when writers get too involved with the do’s the don’ts of a particular genre. There comes to be a formula behind the writing (in this case, for creative non-fiction), and only the really creative people can break out of that mould to produce something dazzlingly new and original.
It’s the same in scientific disciplines. We all gravitate towards similar research questions but from different initial angles – the community as a whole moving en masse, a murmuration of starlings, to new research ground. But the truly groundbreaking scientists have startlingly new ideas, new approaches, and are covering new territory.
I read winners of CNF literary prizes or books published out of MFA programs and in many instances can still see the remnants of the cookie cutter used to create the text: ‘Here I must set the scene by putting in details to draw the reader in; here I must allude to my overall theme and add a metaphor to elevate it beyond the prosaic; here I must incorporate a fragment from someone else’s book to create broader context – to make it less about me and more about the human condition.’
It’s in the structure, language, and content: the mark of sameness and the hint of a formula. The scent of the sausage factory churning out identical tubes of text.
It’s only when a writer steps outside that box that something different explodes inside of the reader. But how does this happen?
Part of it is training – having the skillset to do the work in the first place, be it writing an essay, crafting a symphony, or performing heart surgery. But maybe the critical difference lies in how the really good writers, scientists or artists see and interact with the world.
They’re not thinking of themselves so much as they are seeing and watching the world spin around them. The people, ideas, shapes, scents, sounds, patterns and light. Dean Keith Simonton, writing for Nautilus magazine, describes it as cognitive disinhibition:
The tendency to pay attention to things that normally should be ignored or filtered out by attention because they appear irrelevant.
A section from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek captures this way of seeing marvellously:
The color-patches of vision part, shift, and reform as I move through space in time. The present is the object of vision, and what I see before me at any given second is a full field of color-patches scattered just so. The configuration will never be repeated. Living is moving; time is a live creek bearing changing lights. As I move, or as the world moves around me, the fullness of what I see shatters.
By taking in even the irrelevant information, the creative person can make connections between seemingly unrelated topics, stealing ideas and approaches and remixing them in their own way. This – according to Austin Kleon, T.S. Eliot, and others – is one of the keystones of creativity.
There’s no shame in the average, whether it’s in writing, science or elsewhere. Where would we be without it, since it contributes to broader conversations and bigger picture studies, providing a platform on which to build new ideas and approaches. But we also need those flashes of brilliance to illuminate the way forward. To remind us what it is possible to achieve. To give us something to aim for – that perfectly-tuned bell that rings clear and true (thanks again to Alison Wearing for that image).
And we’re not going to achieve that by hanging around with our own ‘kind’ all the time. It’s diversity – of people, ideas, experiences, approaches – not classification and labels – that will really bring out the best.
As for me – the weekend showed me that I need to hone my skills, much as Ursula Le Guin writes in Steering the Craft, so I can use them effortlessly to translate what I experience and think about the world around me. Rather than theorizing about writing, I just need to do it. The rest will come from there.