By Rachel Simon '81
Perhaps this single-minded goal is common to most children who dream of being authors, though perhaps my preference for the made-up was influenced in part by my sister. She was diagnosed as an infant with mental retardation, so I remained in the tenaciously fictional world of Hop On Pop and Make Way for Ducklings long after my peers had subscribed to the nonfiction of Young Miss. Of course, my family received Life and Time, but nonfiction struck me as no more than a regimented march of facts, mechanically recorded and transcribed. I coveted the unraveling of ingenious mysteries, the righting of undreamed-of slights. Not to escape my reality, as the clichéd psychology of writers would have it, but to escape the rigidity of reality itself, to fashion tales with curves and twists. Perhaps my closest friends would someday be able to discern the familiar in my descriptions, spotting the models out of which I would produce a metaphor or setting, but I would endeavor to minimize such lapses, heedful of the card catalog's firm categories: Nonfiction shelved by an orderly sequence of numbers; Fiction by name, or, as I saw it, something as unique as each author's mind.
For years I did indeed write fiction. After spending my 20's developing my skills, I published a collection of short stories and a novel in my 30's. As I matured, however, so did my understanding of fiction. Whereas in my younger years I'd believed in the primacy of absolute fancy, now the living, breathing origins of my characters kept revealing themselves to me in the embryonic stages of a piece, or during the fitful developments of the writing process, and I felt it less and less of a mission to conceal them. Those who knew me inadvertently played detective; I remember well the remark made by a classmate at my 10th reunion, upon encountering in one of my stories the detail that the character had attended Woodstock as a child: "Hey, I remember you talking about doing that in English 015." By that reunion I knew-as did my classmates who'd gone on to study literature or who, like me, had struggled to emerge as authors-that fiction was a collage of experience and invention. What mattered was not how far one's imagination could stretch, nor how cleverly one disguised a story's ancestry, but how effectively a writer could knead any intriguing fact into a larger fiction. That one might also use the skills of fiction to animate fact was something I had yet to consider.
During these same years, my sister matured as well. First she moved from coloring books to circle-a-word puzzles. Then she crossed other seemingly fixed boundaries as well: she moved from our family's house to a group home, and, a few years later, into her own apartment. We grew apart, as sisters are wont to do, and I told myself that, also like most sisters, this was a consequence of our different interests (me: writing, reading; her: pop stars, sitcoms, a budding romance). I was uneasy with this distance, feeling guilty that I should be more available to her, angry at her for not extending herself to me. Yet I quarantined this discomfort in my mind; it was just one of those things, I believed, that one never gets beyond. I went on writing fiction. Sure, on a few occasions I allowed myself to craft stories about characters with developmental disabilities, and I frequently wove through my work themes of otherness, diversity, and ambivalence about fitting in. But I did the latter without associating it with my sister, and went on believing that I was maintaining the divide between fact and art.
By then, my mid-30's, I was teaching in the Creative Writing Program at Bryn Mawr, a position I loved and continue to love. As I guided numerous students through similar inner wrestlings about how one stitches nonfiction into fiction, I told them that it's acceptable to sprinkle authentic details throughout a story, or even to use reality as the blueprint for the plot-as long as it works as a story. It is, after all, the story that matters, not the source. As they produced their fictions, I discovered that each student milled life into literature differently. Some students operate best in a purely invented realm, others render emotional truth more successfully when the balance tilts far more toward nonfiction, and still others shift between the two with ease.
Around this time I stumbled into writing commentary for The Philadelphia Inquirer. By amusing coincidence, my tenure there began with a piece I wrote for the 25th anniversary of Woodstock. I'd attended the music festival at the age of 10, and now, no longer confining the experience to a minor detail in a short story, I allowed it to blossom into the entire piece. I used all the fictional skills I'd acquired over the years-scene, setting, character, detail, dialogue, etc.-and, as I'd cautioned my students, took pains to ensure that the story was a good story. To my delight, I also enjoyed writing the piece. Yes, it was nonfiction. But, I realized, nonfiction could be far more than the dull drumbeat of who, what, when, where, and why. It could be presented as elegantly as Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, or as humorously as David Sedaris' Naked. Characters could be well-developed, as in Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes; scenes could be riveting and unforgettable, as in Maya Angelou's I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. This was real, but it was also art. With this knowledge, I wrote many narrative nonfiction pieces for the Inquirer over the next few years, a period that happened to coincide with nonfiction's surge in popularity. Indeed, it became so attractive to both readers and writers that it now has its own name, Creative Nonfiction.
Here is where my sister re-enters this story. One of my Inquirer pieces turned out to be about her. By this time she had challenged the expected boundaries so completely that she'd developed a most unusual lifestyle: She spent her days riding the buses in the small city where she lived, chatting up the drivers, confronting those who expressed intolerance toward her, and creating a traveling community. At an editor's request, I rode with her for a day and wrote a piece about our adventures together. For the first time since we were teen-agers, I felt excited to be in her company, and admired the confident and surprisingly agile person she had become. When she asked me to join her on the buses for a year, I agreed, and eventually decided to write up our year-long journey as a book-a creative nonfiction book. After all those years, I now saw that invention was even more limitless than I'd thought.
Now I teach both fiction and creative nonfiction at Bryn Mawr. And often, I find myself reminded of something one of my creative nonfiction students exclaimed in our final conference. James too had been a writer who believed himself to be at ease exclusively in the realm of fiction. "I get it!" he declared, in one of those epiphanies that reward a teacher for months of quiet cajoling. "Creative nonfiction is just fiction about real people in real places doing real things." "Yes!" I said, and I cheered, because I know exactly how he feels.
Rachel Simon '81 is Lecturer in the Arts at Bryn Mawr.
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