A friend of mine explained that there’s a small difference between creative non-fiction and the essay. Since I had to teach this topic for class, I asked him what exactly that was, because I couldn’t really put my finger on that difference as well. He told me to explain by example, to tell him a story that I wanted to write about. I told him that, at the top of my mind, I wanted to write about the haunted house we lived in when I was still very young, and that because of our stay there I may have become more aware of the realities that lie beyond what can be seen–
he politely asked me to stop there. I did, though unsure why. I was at the point of recalling my memories, growing up in the large house, and the fragmented layout that my lizard brain could muster– the stairs, the library, the dining room, the bedroom.
He gave me an example of a narrative, about a beggar going about her way, trying to beg for alms. One person gave her bread, another gave her coins, another gave her a drink, and one gave her a rosary. After her collection, the beggar began sorting out what had been collected and dropped the rosary at the roadside and went on with the other items.
He stopped and asked me, “what do you think happened?”
I said, “She didn’t see the value of the rosary, because she threw it away.”
“And?” he encouraged.
“…and…” I saw the beggar, walking by a busy road that I frequently passed. In reality, I rarely saw her walking around with anything in her hands. More often, she sat by the roadside, and there was the occasional pile of empty paper bags on her side. But back to the story. She discarded the rosary. “Maybe to her,” when did she become a woman? “maybe to her, praying is the least that she needs to do right now. Maybe she doesn’t believe in God. Maybe she doesn’t know what a rosary is for. She just needs food.” I was uncertain with my response, and wondered if he could tell.
“Mm-hmm,” he nodded at that, saying that THAT was what creative non fiction is about. “Lead the reader to their own inferences, to their own conclusions,” and he pointed out that this was the trouble with my story. I began with the lesson, framing my reader to think of the insight I had drawn from the experience, rather than leaving them to draw it for themselves.
This particular insight caught me by surprise. Perhaps, being a teacher for some time, I’ve become so used to drawing students to what I need them to think, and to meet the objectives that would tell me they understood. But here I was, figuring out how to make any reader want to read my work, to stop a moment and take a walk with me down an imagined reality despite the busy demands of the moment. My friend showed me the same advice that I had heard from my previous literature classes in the past, “Show, don’t tell.”
“Let’s try this one more time,” he referred to my haunted house story, “what is it about living in a haunted house that you want to say?”
“Well, it was scary…” I answered, but suddenly realizing the redundancy of what I said. He was patient and prodded me on, “what was scary about it?”
I tried to dig deep into what I could remember about the house, about the stories my family members would share during our dinners, about the way that it turned out to be abandoned for two years.
I threw out a few lines from those memories, “I remember the haunted house we lived in when I was five years old. We would later find out that it was vacant for two years, and that there were things that happened in that house that could not be explained. There was also one time my mom had to be late for work, because of the dead body right outside our gate– a man who possibly got into a bloody fight after a drunken argument. I’m not sure which was more scary about that house…”
As my friend nodded, he saw that I had understood– even if for just a first step. I could not deny as well, the affirmation that I felt, the way that memories were lighting up in my brain, and the way that I needed to find the right words to create that picture to make a story worth telling.
Over our dinner, a plate of sushi and cups of tea, my friend showed me the world that I had missed so much that left me feeling very full. The world where words become images, the kind of images that move the heart, that capture the mind, all while one sits and watches as these worlds come into being.
I missed being a participant, a writer, a reader, a lover of words in a world where images were fed to me without me asking for it. And as I took another bite of salmon sashimi, noticing the lines and the pink meat, and how I could actually consume this, I wondered how I would write about the softness of that raw fish and how I felt like the soy sauce would ruin the fresh taste– but I realized that we had not really come towards a conclusion.
“So what’s the difference between and essay and creative non-fiction again?” I recalled the topic. He answered, taking a sip from his cup of warm rice tea, “Actually, creative non-fiction is also an essay.”