Did you hear the one about the writer who signed up for a fiction workshop, only to end up writing a creative nonfiction piece? It sounds like the set up for a bad joke. In my case, strange fragment of memoir.

In the spring of 2018, I attended a five-week generative fiction workshop sponsored by Literary Cleveland and led by instructor Matt Weinkam. I tried to follow Matt’s prompts and write a story about a difficult relationship between a father and son; however, the more I wrote, the more real life intruded and flushed my fictional thoughts out of the way. I was living through a difficult relationship with my own son at the time, and when the feelings I’d carried inside me started to escape, I couldn’t stop them from coming. My father didn’t care to spend time with me. When he did, he seemed miserable. We never played catch once, and our one camping trip together was disappointing. When I wrote about this, my first draft exhibited all the messiness between generations of fathers and sons. How love and anger are similar. How love and like are not.

After the second workshop session, I spoke to Matt about my nonfiction/fiction dilemma. His response to me was to trust myself, to follow my instincts, and at the end of five weeks, I had a creative nonfiction piece that was nearly finished and ready to submit. I felt proud of my oddity. I felt somehow healed by the process. Flash-forward several months: it was shortlisted for Booth’s annual CNF prize, published in print and online, and nominated for a Pushcart.

Shocked by my success, I tried to understand the reasons why so I could set about replicating the process. I analyzed and hypothesized. I thought about it too much, which is why the exercise failed. It was never about “thought” in the first place. Later, at my writing desk, I recalled the brilliant 2009 essay by Tim O’Brien, “Telling Tails,” in which O’Brien states that good fiction must have both interest and emotional gravitas—in my paraphrasing, something for both the head and the heart. I believe the same wisdom applies to creative nonfiction as well.

The lesson was reinforced last November, during Literary Cleveland’s Flash Nonfiction Festival. After a week of wonderful craft talks and readings, the editors of several top flash CNF journals gathered for an online roundtable. When asked to provide an example of a memorable flash CNF piece, Brevity founding editor Dinty Moore didn’t hesitate. He pointed to Diane Seuss’s “I hoisted them, two drug dealers, I guess that’s what they were,” published by Brevity in 2015. The other editors on the panel added their praise for the piece. As Dinty read Seuss’s piece aloud to the entire session, it was clear why her micro-CNF was such an amazing gut-punch of writing: Seuss had artfully built a framework to fit her emotions, not conjured emotions to fit a framework. The love of a mother for her child and the power it summoned in the narrator is immediate and visceral.

It was then that I finally realized the truth about my own workshopped piece. It had succeeded precisely because it was rooted in honest, intense emotion. I’m now convinced it’s better to bleed onto the page first and afterward decipher (Rorschach-style) the meaning in the puddles than it is to draw the thought-limits of meaning and try to deposit feelings neatly within those lines. In other words, it’s truer to apply thought to an emotional core than it is to apply emotion to a cerebral core. Emotion as applique doesn’t work; such a piece inevitably rings hollow to the reader and therefore fails. As O’Brien might say, too much food for the head starves the heart.

I’ve begun to apply this test to my own CNF work: imagine wiring your draft to an EKG machine. Is it alive? Does it hum with a driving urgency? Do you feel a pulsing at its core?

Photo by Toshiyuki IMAI, used and adapted under CC.