By Colorado Review Associate Editor Beth Stoneburner
Since I was a child, I’ve dreamed of becoming the next great American novelist. I have published a few novels, and yet none of them are quite as dear to my heart as my two memoirs. I realized something critical about myself the more I’ve devoted myself to nonfiction writing (mostly about the intersection of faith and politics): I’m not very good at making things up.
If there’s anything I’ve learned during my time as a graduate student of creative nonfiction, it’s that memoir writing, and even literary essays, can follow a story arc similar to what you’ll find in fiction: there is a beginning, a development of conflict, a set of characters (even if the only character is the writer herself), a middle, and a resolution. Like fiction, nonfiction doesn’t require a neat, tidy ending. But a decisive finishing point is required just the same.
This is the biggest difference between fiction and nonfiction, as I understand it: in fiction, more effort is required to keep all my ducks in a row; there is a plot to maintain (and keep plausible); there are subplots to remember and resolve; there are main characters and supporting characters that cannot be forgotten. Without these essential elements in place, a writer risks leaving pieces of the story hanging in ways that don’t make sense, or simply fail to satisfy.
While I do believe that there are elements of real life in most, if not all, fiction, the truth about me is that I’m best at writing what I know. And when writing about “real life”—particularly my struggles with faith and spiritual identity—I don’t have to worry about finding the perfect ending, because I know there isn’t one. As a memoirist and regular blogger, the story keeps on going, and there is never a shortage of material to draw from. In many ways, my readership contributes to it with their comments and thoughtful questions, further prolonging the dialogue and inspiring future writings.
This isn’t to say that I will never write fiction again, and I still enjoy reading it. I appreciate the imaginations of authors who craft story lines and characters that stay with me long after I finish the book. But there’s also nothing quite like finishing the memoir of a real person who has lived through something similar to what I’ve experienced, and finding a kindred spirit in those pages. Even better is when that writer is on Twitter or has a blog, and I can contribute to their ongoing dialogue as my readers do for me.