Thursday, July 01, 2010

in which i talk about what i don't know about nonfiction (part 3)

Ah, nonfiction.  We have come so far, in such a short period of time.

Its amazing what reading a few books, perusing some definitions, and just pondering a subject for a while can do.  I feel much more intimate with the genre of nonfiction than I ever did before.  And overall it has been a pleasurable experience.

Let me briefly explain why the genre has been so prevalent in my mind lately.  I'm taking a creative nonfiction workshop class this fall--one of the first workshop classes I'll be taking officially as part of my MFA program (along with the YA Novel workshop class).

I was hesitant to enroll at first, mostly because I had hardly read any nonfiction--ever--let alone having tried to write something in the genre.

But I think I've come a long way.  Reading The Next American Essay and having started another nonfiction compilation entitled The Art of the Personal Essay has been very helpful.  Reading what some professionals think of the genre has helped me incubate my own opinions much more effectively.  I've even attempted my first (conscious) nonfiction piece--and I don't think its that terrible.  I have some ideas for other nonfiction projects that I'm excited about, hopefully they'll emerge from the darkness of my encephalon and see the light of my computer screen later this year.

So I feel like I've been learning a lot.

And now I want to talk about the personal essay.

It seems to me that the personal essay is the heart of creative nonfiction.  Auto/biographies, histories, etc. make great nonfiction, but I (personally) am much more concerned with the creative aspect of the genre--which seems to be aggregately piled under the heading of "personal essay" (although memoirs, debatably, exist there as well--sort of one-foot-in-the-creative-and-one-foot-in-the-general of nonfiction).  So I thought I'd look at the OED defenition of "essay" (again, I've bolded statements I found particularly interesting) . . .

OED, "Essay"
I. The Action or process of trying or testing.
1. a. A trial, testing, proof; experiment. b. The trial of metals.
2. A trial specimen, a sample, an example; a rehearsal.
3. a. assay. b. The part of a deer in which trial was made of the 'grease'; the breast or brisket.
4. A taste, or first taste, of food or drink presented to a great personage.
II. A trying to do something.
5. a. An attempt, endeavor. b. The result of an attempt.
6. A hostile attempt.
7. a. A first tentative effort in learning or practice. b. A rough copy; a first draft.
8. A composition of moderate length on any particular subject, or branch of a subject; originally implying want of finish, 'an irregular undigested piece', but now said of a composition more or less elaborate in style, though limited in range.

So.  An essay is an attempt, a trial, an endeavor.  I like that.  The idea of the essay as an attempt at addressing something (an issue, an emotion, an item, a person, a location, an idea, a religion, whatever) is intriguing, and humbling as well.  An essay is not definitive.  Its certainly not fact.  Its just a sincere attempt.  They're an effort made towards understanding.  And therein lies one of the most valuable qualities of nonfiction.  I don't know anybody who couldn't be more understanding or sympathetic in some area.  Many essays, in my opinion, are created to help the understanding (or at least the exploration) of a given topic, and thats a worthy objective--and quickly becoming one of my favorite attributes of creative nonfiction.

I also found the "rehearsal" and "rough copy/first draft" definitions interesting.  A "first attempt" at understanding things, as it were.  Hmmm.  So all of these musings about nonfiction I've been mulling over could be their very own personal essay, right?

Anyway, the point is:  Yoda, eat your heart out.  There sure as hell is a try, and its called the personal essay.

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