Our Meet the Editors series gets real with the nonfiction/essays department. Constance A. Dunn is crafty yet ethical, Aaron Grierson has front row seats for the battle between fiction and nonfiction, Lilly Brown thinks we’ll never get over “the self”, Gimel Samera cites Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Noah Klein talks about martyrdom and his novel, and Momina Mindeel struggles to find her true self.
Is nonfiction stranger than fiction?
Constance: Depends. In our nonfiction lives there are long periods of banality and waiting. Extraordinary people, events or ideas that break up the monotony force our hands to nonfiction (perhaps the opposite is true of fiction; its genesis may come from boredom), but once these “true” stories are retold on the page there is always an element of fiction about them. Eyewitness accounts never hold up in court.
Aaron: Definitely. Sometimes. The concept of “writing what you know” exists for a reason. It might normally be applied to fiction, once upon a time, but I think it’s an axiom when it comes to nonfiction. And let’s face it: life throws some really strange curveballs our way sometimes. Then of course there are the horrors of reality that turned us to fiction in the first place. I’d rather face a man at spear point than ever have to face down an atomic bomb. So essentially, it comes down to who is writing and what they’ve experienced, or what they would have us believe they’ve experienced.
Lilly: Oh, it totally can be. I think that’s one of the reasons that I love it so much. When something “strange” happens in fiction, the reader can write it off as a hypothetical or impossible situation, whereas nonfiction events tend to stay with people, because they’ve already happened.
Gimel: Oh yeah, it can get pretty weird.
Noah: I had an out of body experience in New Orleans, after I sought out a street psychic in the French Quarter whose name was The Raven. He informed me that I travel to different dimensions in my sleep, and that I, in fact, nearly died while I was asleep in my ex-friends stinky, pigsty apartment on his uncomfortable couch. I didn’t pay this man. We, instead, shared a Marlboro Red cigarette. I then panhandled by reciting poetry on a trolley to get back to my friend’s home. Is this fiction? You be the judge.
Momina: It is actually not. All writers are humans and their writings are eventually influenced by their worldly experiences. While nonfiction is the actual truth, fiction is just the enhanced version of it. That is all.
In your editorial opinion, what’s the main difference between a well-written essay and one not so well-written?
Constance: Craft, which is essentially knowing a language well enough to break rules with intent instead of oversight. If a writer masters craft, then their work must through the filter of a reader’s personal taste. I, for one, like bravery in style and specificity in form, It’s a bit hypocritical for me to say, because I never studied writing as a craft in any institutional setting; I fell into it as a means to an end. The craft I’ve achieved has been through trial and error, in other words — humiliation.
Aaron: There are a few factors. It has a lot to do with style. Style and language control. And paying attention. It astounds me how little attention some people pay when submitting a piece for publication. I mean, even the free word processors have spelling correction functions. But you know that doesn’t stop some people from submitting garbage.
Some people have interesting ideas, but can’t express them clearly. I was, and sometimes still am, one of these people. Over my university career several professors, and even some authors I’ve had a chance to meet with have all said the same thing — reading makes you a better writer. So I think there’s that too. I’ve met people who write, and who want to make a career of writing, but admit they don’t read. It shows. Such was the case with what I call the Worst Novel Ever Written. Not an essay, but it functions on the same principle, and is a long, drawn out torture.
Lilly: While good grammar is certainly an important component of any well-written essay, I think that the main factor that makes an essay “good” is the story behind it. I can tell when a story is actually true and always intend to honour that.
Gimel: It takes as much literary muscle work to write nonfiction as it does to write fiction. A good essay is marked by the author’s skill to write a cohesive piece while keeping his/her readers interested. And to be always wary of how one paragraph flows into the next thought. Poor transitions feel like a dysfunctional family.
Noah: Articles need to be researched. Nonfiction or Creative Nonfiction need to be raw, but tempered: think Japanese Katana.
Momina: It is actually very simple. The well-written essay will be precise and coherent while, the not so well-written essay will (almost always) go on and on about what the topic is all about in an embellished introductory paragraph. Just get directly to the point. That is all, unless you have a word limit to meet. In that case, write everything that you think is even remotely related to the topic.
Why are people’s personal stories so transfixing? Haven’t we had enough of “the self”?
Constance: They transfix because they offer a taste of taboo, or a mirror, or a memory, kinship, romance, a brush with death, or whatever else we’re looking for. There is no other way for us to experience the world other than “the self”, we are trapped by it in many ways. Some writers and artists have spent their entire adult lives attempting to break through the boundaries of a “self”, achieving limited success or destroying themselves in the process. I’ve often thought that the paradox of selfishness is that is has the potential to bring us together, because we have that in common.
Aaron: I think it depends on who you ask. I personally don’t find a lot of nonfiction all that interesting – specifically because it is so mundane and commonplace. There are more captivating selves, typically out there in high quality fiction. Those that are more substantial stories tend to be either extremely tragic, or extremely vindicating in some sense. And as to why such things are so transfixing, well I think that’s simply the human condition; we’re drawn to the sensational. That is, in some cases, what makes us, or at least masochists like me, persevere through the horrendously written – it’s like a train wreck you want to see the end of.
Lilly: I think that we’re inherently selfish beings, so any story that we can relate to, catches our attention and helps us grow. Because of this, I don’t think that the topic of “self” will ever die out.
Gimel: People are fascinating creatures (Google Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster) so I don’t think we’ll ever get tired of “the self”. We’re drawn to stories about people who’ve withstood the harsh storms of life and still live. Even if it makes our blood boil, we still choose to read about people who’ve committed heinous atrocities. Those are just a few examples.
Noah: The “Self” is only interesting in terms of deep moral questions and socio-political context. For instance, I wrote a creative nonfiction piece about my father attempting suicide for the second time and I, once again, was placed into a situation where I had to either save his life… or let him die. There is obviously complex familial historical context, however I boiled it down to very relatable terms: a child, or burgeoning adult, is faced with a decision usually left to what people believe as a higher power, to save a human life. This decision will change his life. He tries to think of his father. He tries to think of his family. The last person he thinks of is himself. He is the martyr. Yet, at the same time, he is only human: a child of the West. The act of “helping” here becomes a prison. The child is caught in a situation where he must make the correct decision, the best version of helping. The truth is he doesn’t know if his decision is right. The truth is he still doesn’t know. “Self” is interesting when it is in a greater context. Don’t spout emotions with no thought.
Momina: Well, I do not think we have had enough of “the self”. I remember taking a writing course, back in my sophomore year that focused on helping us explore ourselves through a number of crafts. The instructor would ask us to write our personal opinions and instances on certain topics related to these crafts, and I would just somehow transform Internet material into my own opinion. I was so scared of finding my inner self. Probably, I was scared of what I had been hiding. What if it was too dark? What if I was not who I thought I was? I never let myself go in that class and I still regret it. If you ask me, this is one of the chief reasons why I find people’s personal stories so transfixing. Maybe there are different ways to be brave, and this is one of them.
Has editing articles made you a different kind of reader? In other words, do you find yourself editing newspaper and magazine articles as you read them?
Constance: All the time.
Aaron: Well, I find a lot of spelling errors. Even in professionally published newspapers and novels. Not that it’s anything new though. I’ve always been a pretty astute reader, even from a young age. If anything, editing has just heightened my sense of humour, primarily, because of some of the errors. But I like to think every day I get a little better, more mature. Like a fine wine being forcibly consumed by an unsuspecting author.
Lilly: While I’m not necessarily copyediting every journal that I read, I’ve found that I naturally search for certain elements in a story, beyond just the beginning, middle, and end.
Gimel: Definitely! I’ve been told that it’s good practice for editors (and writers) to read through newspaper/magazines articles (even books) and re-write them or make corrections.
Noah: I separate my work life from my personal life.
Momina: It has to a certain extent. Whenever I read an article that has been written in a rush with jumbled words and incoherent paragraphs, I unconsciously find myself changing the inappropriately used words into appropriate ones and cutting long sentences into their shorter, well-connected versions. Wait, I just wrote an incredibly long sentence myself. Oh, the irony!!