I don’t like to write fiction, at least not right now. When I try to write fiction I sort of shrivel up and forget how the world actually is–what people actually say, do, think, eat. Writing fiction to me feels like looking through a tiny keyhole at a tiny slice of a room and then being asked to produce a drawing of exactly how the whole room looks. Not enough information to draw from. The need to create everything in the world feels enormous. I’m too small, the world’s too big, and I have no idea what any of it means. I just walk through days and talk to people and see things, what glorious imaginary stories could I possibly have? I’ve hardly had lunch!
But I do like to write. Clearly I do. It’s the thing that I sort of keep coming back to in life, a thing that people keep nudging me towards, encouraging me in. I am a writer. And I write nonfiction. Essays. I’ve been working at this blog for quite a few months now. I’m an artist and this space keeps me making things, keeps me attempting to articulate what I think and see, keeps me working. Right now writing essays is what I feel capable of, what I want to share. It’s what makes sense to me, what flows out of me when I lay my fingers on computer keys. And it’s what inspires me most, what I reach for at the library, the section I always find myself in, the books I cherish, the writers I admire. Women who write glowing nonfiction feel to me like queens, like stars. That’s the sort of woman I want to be, a woman who writes about life.
I adore nonfiction. When I was younger, I thought the only things worth reading were novels, that nonficion was just books about science or history. And I was gloriously wrong. These days, novels are often hard for me to buy into, hard to finish. I get stuck in the ways it could have gone, too fascinated by the “how” of it all, the fact that the writer made it all up, and less interested in the story itself. I can’t get over the awareness of it. But I devour creative nonfiction. It feels so much less complicated but still impressive, so much more pure, direct. Give me a memoir or a book of essays written by a brilliant, vibrant woman and I’ll carry it with me everywhere I go, read it on the subway and at the counter while stirring oatmeal, leave it beside me while I sleep at night and then pick it up again first thing in the morning. I read these books and then I want to write them, piles of them. Nonfiction, nonfiction by women in particular, is glorious to me. It’s what I crave, what I need to read right now in my life. I’m twenty-two, almost twenty-three, and I’m only just beginning, opening into myself. I’m learning so much, I’m absorbing as much as I can, I’m looking to other women for my cues as I learn what I want in the world. Thank goodness that there is a great cloud of witnesses, women of all sorts who have come before, and a handful who have bravely written all about it, became transparent, who chose words and put them down on the page in an act of generosity, of love. Writing anything is an act of love if that’s what you want it to be.
The thing that is sort of special about this particular moment in the world that we are living in right now is that beautiful nonfiction isn’t only happening in books. It’s all over the internet too, and I’m really glad about that. There are glowing essays in countless blogs and in newsletters just sitting in the internet waiting to be found, dug out. Beautifully written nonfiction by women is being self-published every day, and just the thought of this makes the world feel so spacious, so true. It isn’t a hard thing, writing from life. It is, but it isn’t, it mostly just takes bravery and self-awareness and voice and some foreknowledge of grammar rules. I know from the magnificent women who have come before me that it is a worthwhile thing to do, that writing about one’s life can be so much more than self-referential or hopelessly narcissistic. It really is an opening for someone else to crawl through. A sort of hospitality. A form of empathy. At least, that’s what I’ve found it to be as I’ve nestled in the words of Nora Ephron and Joan Didion and Annie Dillard, the mothers of modern creative nonfiction as we know it, the ones I come back to again and again, me and all the other smart women I know and don’t know.
I want to be a woman who writes. I want to be like Annie Dillard, like Nora, like Joan. I want to stand in the world with things to say, with an account of what I had for lunch and why it mattered, with enough spaciousness in me and what I’ve seen in my small life to welcome someone else in for the afternoon. That’s how I want to be. I want to stand in bravery, I want to share my secrets, the things that hurt, the things that I’m unsure of. I want to tell you what I think is beautiful because maybe you think it’s beautiful too. I want to remind you that there are angels so that you and I can hope for one together. I want to write so that maybe you’ll write too, and I’ll find space in you and you in me for living and walking and reading on the subway. I’m so grateful for the women before me who have written their lives because now I’m writing my life too, I’m brave enough for that because they were before me.
If somehow you’re on the other end of the internet reading these small words of mine, I want to thank you. Really, I do. It’s amazing to me that people read my words, as I’m just one small woman and I feel like I don’t know very much except for the tiny keyhole I see through. Thank you a million times for being here, for reading the things I write. Thank you for joining me in bravery. Thank you for sharing space with me. I hope that if you like to read what I write that you’ll put away the computer for a little bit and also read some Annie Dillard or some Nora Ephron, or some Ann Friedman or some Rachael Ringenberg or Molly Wizenberg, or some Joan Didion for goodness sakes. These are the people I’m reading, the people who prod me to write, who say things so clearly and beautifully, who remind me that writing things down is important. There are so many women writing so many amazing things every day. So many women holding out pages in their hands waiting for the wind to catch them, hitting “publish” then walking away wondering at the whole thing, feeling maybe small and maybe insignificant but actually being strong and courageous. Dear women who write, you are doing something good and hard. I’m proud to stand with you. I’m forever excited to read your words, to share what I think is lovely, to pass your books or your URL to the women I love, and to subsequently put my fingers on the computer keys and exercise bravery with you.
I think this essay makes me feel a little more exposed than most. It’s strange to write about writing. It sort of makes me want to explain myself too much or prove that I qualify for the job. I sort of want to do a tap dance for you to make sure you like me. But I can’t do that. All I have to give are the words I’m typing on this page. I’m going to keep trying at it, I’m going to keep writing this blog because I need to right now. I’m basically assuming that no one will ever pay me to write, and I’m okay with that. Doing it feels important, no matter what it returns to me. I’m figuring it all out and writing about it like so many women did before me. I’m joining the ranks, putting down my words, standing up and offering my pages. Here world, all I’ve got! Women’s words!
I just got back from Oregon, where I was at a friend’s wedding on top of a mountain (more on that later). On the plane to and from, I read Nora Ephron’s Heartburn and felt like I was holding in my hands a national treasure. I wanted to read it out loud for the whole airplane, so we could all laugh together and marvel at Nora’s magnificent words and heart. It’s a novel, but everyone knows that it was written from life, that it’s one of the most personal things she ever wrote, that her words were her revenge, her manifesto, that every word she ever wrote in film or in print was blazingly coming directly from her life. If you haven’t watched HBO’s documentary about her, Everything is Copy, watch it now. These are the books and the writings that I want to read out loud to anyone who will listen, that I want to carry in my suitcase to a desert island, that I want to stack on my bedside table and return to again and again. These are the women who are writing from life and doing it spectacularly and creatively.
Here is a list of the writings I’ve found to be spacious and lovely. Many of these I’ve mentioned before on this blog, and for good reason. These are some of the best things I’ve ever read. I hope you’ll find them to be as lovely and spacious and brave as I have.
- Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard
- An American Childhood by Annie Dillard
- Heartburn by Nora Ephron
- Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham
- Two-Part Invention by Madeleine L’Engle.
- The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits
- Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton
- How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti
- We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction by Joan Didion
- Erstwhile Dear, a blog by Rachael Ringenberg
- Orangette, a blog by Molly Wizenberg
- Various writings by Ann Friedman (I suggest subscribing to her email newsletter)
- Lenny Letter, an email newsletter featuring nonficion by women