creative writing community, craft and inspiration
The Writers Circle is thrilled to welcome nonfiction writer and journalist, Lisa Romeo, to our roster of inspiring instructors. Here Lisa shares her perspectives on Hurricane Sandy, but more, she shows how, when we write about our lives, we can delve into universal truths that move us all.
What We Talk About When We Talk About The Storm by Lisa Romeo
“How long were you out?”
This question may not replace “Which exit?” as the official New Jersey ice breaker but for now at least, it seems to be on everyone’s lips. We are not wondering how many hours one spent out of the house doing something fun. “How long were you out?” in the weeks after Hurricane Sandy slammed our state, is the way we ask how many days one’s home was without electrical power. Two days? Eight? Twelve? Still?
Driving home the other night from a small gathering where I met a dozen new people, I was thinking about this question and the conversations it sparked. People who had known one another for only moments told of the small annoyance of doing dishes in icy water, the urgent challenge of keeping an asthmatic toddler’s breathing apparatus functioning. In the swapping of storm stories, from the mundane to the surprisingly intimate, we are strangers no longer.
In the time since the storm left the Garden State, we want to know: How was it for you? And underneath, unspoken but loud: What does it all mean?
These questions, and the myriad ways humans attempt to answer them, are what the art of creative nonfiction is all about, and what a good piece of CNF aims to achieve.
Because when we talk about the storm and its challenges and aftermath, what we are really talking about is something else entirely. When we complain about being unprepared for how long power was off, the high cost of generators, the downside of TV/phone/internet bundling, we are talking about vulnerability, loss of control, the underbelly of modernity. When we describe wrestling with generators or minding candles, hauling sleeping bags to the warmest room of the house, we are talking about ingenuity, self-reliance, adaptability. When we cite crippled mass transit systems, we are talking about anxiety, isolation. The stories about discarding ruined food are stories about guilt and money; the stories about fighting with spouses over not having batteries or working flashlights are stories of blame.
The stories themselves are about more than, often something other than, their topline narratives. This is the goal of memoir, the personal essay, and nonfiction narratives: to illuminate what’s percolating under the surface, what drives the unfolding event, and what it tells us about ourselves.
This is why people read creative nonfiction in the first place.
The renowned spiritual thinker Henri Nouwen wrote, “That which is the most personal, is the most universal.” Readers must be able to find, in any nonfiction work about a personal experience, that which is universal – but the only way through to the universal is by way of the personal.
Consider one person’s answer to “How long were you out?” The broad strokes might be: in a small town in northern New Jersey, an overextended middle age woman who typically answers work emails every evening, instead sat beside the fireplace with her husband, who normally only talks about bills and work schedules on a weeknight. Together they listened and laughed as their teenage son, usually so quiet and always nailed to his computer, read terrible ghost stories aloud with exaggerated expression. Then they all took turns making up better sequels to the stories and giggled, sharing a box of store-bought cookies.
Even in that broad-strokes paragraph, I’m doing more with this personal story than simply telling what happened. My choice of background details, phrasing, adjectives and other mechanical devices and nuance, are hinting at something else – the universal story underneath, one of family, longing, shelter, love, wistfulness maybe. Were I to develop it into an actual piece of CNF, I’d be doing much more of that.
Because otherwise, why, after all, would a reader care about how this family spent that night? No reason at all. But might a reader care about the ideas of longing, family connectedness, longing? More likely. The topline narrative details become scaffolding under which the creative nonfiction writer carefully constructs load-bearing walls, arches, doors and windows – for the more emotionally meaningful exploration underneath. Under the personal story of how these three people spent a stormy night are universal themes of what it means to be human.
In her wonderful book on nonfiction writing craft, The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, Vivian Gornick explains the difference – and the important web-like relationship between – what happened to the writer (the situation) and what the writer can make of that (the story). What happened is only useful if it leads to a deeper sense of what it all means, if it pulls readers into the rich fulgent soil of our common existence.
You may be used to thinking of the underlying story in more familiar terms like theme, core message, subtext. Perhaps you’ve been at the receiving end of critique feedback from a writing friend, editor or instructor who, after reading your creative nonfiction work responds, “Okay, but what is this really about?”
Everyone knows, when sitting to write about a particular experience, what happened to him or her. But we don’t always know, from the outset, is what that experience means. So we seek as we write and revise, like excavators. Or, as Joan Didion explains, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
The craft and skill in transforming personal experiences into rich nonfiction lies not in putting the details of the actual experience on the page, but in locating, and then offering to the reader – through nuance, reflection, carefully selected dialogue and detail, the narrator’s interior monologue, even (often) through posing unanswered questions – an opening, an invitation, for the reader to enter that universal space.
Lisa Romeo will be teaching Creative Nonfiction in the Winter session at The Writers Circle, and also leading an all-genre Adult Writers Circle. Her work appears in a broad range of print and online media, literary journals, essay collections and anthologies. At her blog, she offers writing advice and interviews with authors.