White Writers Pushed Me Out of Fiction and Into the Essay
Workshops made my stories feel so inauthentic that I switched forms altogether
“Nonfiction,” I said, when we had to go around in a circle and define our work at an artist’s residency in Minnesota. “I write nonfiction.”
“You said nonfiction twice,” said a very straightforward Dutch artist. “Like you want us to be extra sure.”
Trying to declare a genre for one’s entire body of work, past (20/20), present (sure), and future (how can you be so certain?) is a disingenuous if not fruitless exercise. My current project––on tigers, mental health, and the cultural fixation on wellness––may very well never be completed, and I could move on to work in any number of other forms. But perhaps my move from fiction to nonfiction was a more conscious one.
I had originally gravitated to fiction as a way to escape the reality of my life. I started, as many writers do, as a doodling teenager, dreaming of somewhere else. Later, when I began writing essays, I felt like I was giving up some of the prestige associated with novels and short stories. Nonfiction was still considered, at least by my peers, a lesser form. It seemed so much harder to construct a believable world out of nothing—or at the very least, construct a world away from one’s own.
Annie Dillard felt differently. In her 1988 introduction to the Best American Essays, Dillard––who once taught in the same classrooms I slouched in during my undergrad––had prophesied that the “narrative essay may become the genre of choice for writers devoted to significant literature.” Unlike reaching for metaphors or “fabricated dramatic obsession,” the essay makes sense of the real world analytically or artistically. It is versatile, expansive. “The essay’s materials,” she believed, “are larger than the story’s.”
The first essay I ever read was Brian Doyle’s “Joyas Voladoras.” To start, Doyle considers the hummingbird’s heart, the size of a pencil eraser, “a lot of the hummingbird.” The essay is equal parts science and love. Lean, elegant, and virtually perfect, “Joyas Voladoras” is what I would call a “go-to”: useful to send to friends in times of enveloping grief and ecstatic love, imperative to read when nothing else will reach me.
A professor of “Writing the Essay,” a mandatory course at my first college, assigned us Doyle. In the previous class session, I’d foolishly turned in a short story, playing fast and loose with my interpretation of the course title. The professor sat me down and asked: “Did this really happen to you?” It hadn’t. I was seventeen, flippant, and conscious of secrets. I held truth to be an intensely private experience, and after a lifetime of secret-keeping, had only one toolkit to tell stories. It was fiction: supernatural, psychological dramas situated in everyday life, often ending in murder by unlikely forces.
But fiction soon began to let me down. Professors would compare me to Jhumpa Lahiri, with whom my work had little to nothing in common, and congratulate me on my “exotic looks” that would “go far in publishing.” When I took narrative risks, my peers would praise me for moving past the “same old boring immigrant story.” Every classroom would feature at least one white man whom the professor and other classmates would dote on, convinced they were witnessing a young Carver or Vonnegut. Writers, I learned, were measured by how distant their writing was from the entire class’ experience of life.
It was the last writing workshop of my undergrad. I submitted a short story called “Clocks.” It was about a male writer, drunk and hoping that, if he switched to a typewriter, it might inspire him through a bout of writer’s block. Instead, he ends up fucking his maid, fucking his fiancee, and then gets fucked by a ghost, who kills him.
During my previous crit, my peers had personally consoled me after reading a short story where the main character––a teenager in the Midwest––processes a violent assault that happened while she was protecting her younger brother. Yes, I had a younger brother, and once upon a time I’d lived in St. Louis, Missouri. But the uneasy feedback session triggered a new plan of action: I changed the names of my main characters in “Clocks,” which would be my final story. Originally called “Raj” and “Chaman,” I made them “John” and “Charles.”
Yes, the ghost sex-murder plot line made many people uncomfortable, myself included. But I was met with a degree of praise. “Congrats on coming out of your comfort zone,” said a white classmate. The workshop favorite, a burly white man who possessed an inexplicable sway over the petite white teacher, told me he thought it was “rather good.”
It is no secret that the writing of the marginalized is often read as autofiction. It is also no secret that fiction can be a cathartic way to reinterpret trauma and personal history. I knew after that workshop that any fiction I wrote would be measured doubly: against the writing of literary heroes whom I did not emulate, and then against an arbitrary standard of “is this interesting or is it just niche?”
Fiction now felt tyrannical. I had inadvertently gotten caught in a submissive relationship to it; one in which I had to minimize myself in order to feel authentic to the form. I gradually realized didn’t like writing anymore. I half-assed a translation of a Hindi poem and gave up. I tried to start a blog about a decade after the form’s true heyday. The experiments of writing continued—but the joy was forgotten.
In the beginning, trying to write nonfiction felt like giving up—a concession that I had no imagination and my impulse to write was “feminine,” confessional. The derision that meets essays written by anyone other than old white men is rank with misogyny and snobbery. The urge to share personal stories is universal, but certain people are kept from it by a society where divulging is associated with impulsivity. And yet those same people are rewarded for baring all with page views and low freelance rates, because the mainstream’s thirst for narratives of suffering is hard to slake. I thought that “real art” was found in glimpses of the self through layers of expression; anything simpler felt basic. Committing the personal to paper felt like a series of betrayals.
I ended up in a nonfiction workshop in a liberal studies graduate program, my hand forced by the course catalog. I walked into that workshop with hesitation: after all, wasn’t writing a really good short story a lot harder than an essay or, as some said, even a novel?
We workshopped essays ranging from stories of unloving husbands to the history of boxing in a small town. I read copiously, surprised by a hunger I hadn’t felt before. I was searching not for truth but how the writer came to that truth––it became apparent to me that essays come after radical personal growth.
In every session with the nonfiction professor and my empathetic peers—“mature” students with full-time jobs, a far cry from the private school-educated classmates who used the word “inchoate” excessively—I had some sort of revelation, miniscule as it was. I thought deeply about why I read what I did and wrote my first essay as a photo-text series on where I kept books around my cluttered apartment with that grimy grey carpet. I experimented, with joy. I wrote a series of essays and turned it in as my master’s project. I kept writing, keeping a list in my journal of ideas. I’d get bored, and I’d write an essay. I tell people I write nonfiction not once, but twice.
But even now, I’m not faithful to nonfiction. I wrote my first short story in years this March, after a residency in the Catskills. The innkeepers had given me The Friend, a deliciously succinct and poignant work about grief, connection, and the preposterous endeavor of devoting a life to writing. It felt more like nonfiction than anything I had ever written, by which I mean it felt true. I wrote a story that was perhaps in conversation with the book, critiquing pet culture and the need for love. It was clumsy; I was out of practice.
I worry whether it is useful or smart to identify with nonfiction; I wonder if I’ll wake up and realize I’ve just been playing to the establishment’s self-soothing desire for diversity and ruined both my credibility and my imagination. I am terrified that I will have said too much.
The genre-izing of every serious writer is inevitable, if we are writing for a mainstream market. It’s impossible to be proficient in every form. But I was pushed out of fiction by the white canon, unthinking peers, and my ruined pride, and I found my way to nonfiction. Despite its proclivity to mine trauma, the form has embraced all the idiosyncrasies of my writing and my life. Writing life feels simple. It feels true.