A few weeks ago, my eight-year-old daughter asked my husband, “Daddy, what is fiction?”
Without thinking, he explained, “When mama writes about something that she does not want daddy to see as true, she calls it fiction.”
“So, if mommy always writes about the truth,” my daughter seemed dissatisfied with the learning, “What is fiction?”
I have been thinking about this conversation since I overheard it. That evening, I laughed at my husband’s answer, but, at the same time, I was concerned. It is not easy to love a writer for we are cursed with rich and fantastical inner lives, and most of the time, we do not talk about the occurrences inside our heads until we birth stories. Sometimes, the stories we tell come from the outer world and the people we have met and heard, and sometimes, the stories come from our minds, our bloodstream. But which of these stories of equal importance we can call true, and which fiction?
I come from the South of Europe, from a family of voracious readers and oral storytellers, anticommunists, and bohemians. My mother introduced me to the world of literature, and my father thought me critical thinking. My grandfather and my two grandmothers told me hundreds of stories. I have never asked them if those stories were true because, at the time, I was not familiar with the idea of fiction.
Early on, probably at the age of seven, I learned about the concept of diverse perspectives. My grandparents lived through World War II, but their stories about the events from the period of the German occupation were drastically different. My grandfather described the horror of the bombing of Belgrade, the city crumbling and falling, the earsplitting noise of the enemy’s black planes, the sound and smell of the explosions. My grandmother, who lived in northern Serbia, above a restaurant her father owned and ran, expressed that it had been very hard that week when they did not have butter. True story – they did not have butter for a week, and what a struggle that was when you run a restaurant. My grandfather laughed at similar accounts of his wife – scarcity was too mild a word for him to describe his experience of the war and the occupation.
I began writing in elementary school. I experimented with poetry and prose that we may refer to as essays. I wrote to explain my thoughts and feelings. I have never thought of writing as a form of entertainment because to write, for me, was painful. I wrote when I was in love, when I was hurting, when I was confused, or angry, or sad. When I was happy, I was out playing with friends.
In the school
Yes, I read novels and short stories and dramatic plays. However, I read them to learn about the place and time those stories had come from, and not for the sake of amusement. I never thought of the work of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Sholokhov, Gorky, Dante, Bocaccio, Leopardi, Balzac, Zola, Pope, Hugo, Camus, Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Wilde, James, Woolf, Bronte sisters, de Beauvoir, Hesse, Stein, Updike, Twain, Emerson, Borges, Nušić, Crnjanski, Andrić, and many other writers whose words I had devoured before I was emotionally ready for them, as the work of fiction. I studied them as the truthful accounts of their society and time.
Moreover, I have never given myself a label of a genre until, after moving to the United States, I applied for my first writers’ conference. Your genre was a starred field on the application form, and I was required to pick one. So, technically, I lied.
Before moving to America, I had published three books of poetry in the Serbian language. I wrote for magazines and television. Also, I worked as a copywriter in an advertising agency. I wrote across forms and genres. To myself, I wrote essays.
Coming into my MFA program at Goddard College, I chose fiction as my direction because I wanted to learn how to write a novel. And not a single time during my program nor after graduating, have I treated my novel as a work of fiction. Every word I wrote about my hometown and about the events I covered in my story is true, all my characters existed (and still do) in my head. I listened to their voices. I saw their faces. I felt their pain and their joy. When I say that I’m still working on revisions of my book, it means that I am polishing the language. The story is not subject to change because it is what is. I haven’t invented it, I felt it in my veins, I heard it in my dreams, and thus I wrote it. The only thing I am allowed to play with is the language and the storytelling style.
Even though I spent almost ten years learning the American rules of publishing, my approach to writing has not changed much. I still see writing as a form of truthtelling and not entertainment. The story sellers – agents and publishers, have been asking me: What is the genre of your book? What are you comp titles? Where on the shelves do you see your book? Are you willing to rewrite it into a different genre? Romance perhaps? Everybody loves a good romance in wartimes!
They’ve been recommending “similar books” to help me find my way, all of which I found uninspiring and surprisingly dissimilar.
I am still resisting silently, shaking my head no whenever I hear echoes of their questions. And I am hopeful that, soon, I will find a perfect way to deliver my story as is. In the meantime, I have embraced the truth about myself: I am not a fiction writer. I have never been. I am a truthteller. I write to discover, to understand, to explain. I am not an entertainer but a teacher. And although I can write a funny line when I want to, I am not here to make you laugh but to incite you to think. Contemplate, ruminate, or however you decide to call the process of truthsearching.
Last weekend, I read the messy beginning of my book in progress to my writer friend. She was concerned it read like a memoir. “The narrator is too similar to you,” she said. “Are you sure about this?”
“I am aware of that,” I responded. I want it to read like a confession. It is how Juliana speaks. I only write what she reveals to me. And I continue writing to discover more, to understand her “why.”
Truthtelling carries an urgency that fiction rarely does. And I want my readers to feel the urgency of Juliana’s story the same way I’m feeling it. I want her story to haunt them the same way it haunts me.
Sometimes, I wonder why the publishing industry tends to render us to palpable, explicable forms. I am, at the same time, jealous and in awe of the painters and sculptors and multimedia artists who seem to have more freedom than writers. I am craving for their autonomy of expression and their liberty to push boundaries and sculpt the future as they envision it. I wish writers could reclaim the bravery to do the same. To break the forms and norms, to set ourselves free.
Lately, I have been obsessed with the work of Maggie Nelson, Jenny Offill, and Jenny Boully. I read, and I am rereading everything they wrote. Their words are sewn into my days.
Maggie Nelson defies classification. Her published work spans from poetry to autobiography to theory and art criticism. In the heart of her art resides fluidity. Similar is the work of Jenny Boully blurring the lines between essays, poetry, and criticism. Offill, to my delight, writes novels in the form of interconnected essays.
There are articles about them on the Internet and about the ways they challenge literary forms and genres. Among words describing their work, I found “groundbreaking” and “genre-bending”.
I love their work not because I see it as bewildering and different, but because to me, their style is familiar. To approach writing with an intention to seam together the philosophical thoughts and personal narrative, poetic language rich in images and abstract meditation, then season the narrative with literary criticism, was the approach that formed me as a writer. The European writers I considered my imaginary mentors challenged forms and classifications, and they all wrote in many, if not all, possible genres. I was taught that one should start with poetry or short stories, then progress to essays, find their way to more extended work, and continually write diaries and memoirs. There is nothing more compelling than a writer’s unedited diary. All the novelist I read growing up wrote a memoir, and they all wrote short stories and essays. Most of them wrote poetry in their youth and some never stopped. What all my imaginary mentors had in common was that they were all truthtellers. And their fiction was a way of safely delivering the truth.
Last spring, I took a six-week long class titled The Art of a Personal Essay. My teacher, a successful author of creative non-fiction, taught us a sort of a formula for writing personal essays. I tried week after week to deliver a piece that would, at least to some degree, answer the requirements of the favored structure, but I kept failing. Instead of getting closer to it, seduced by the fluidity of the form, I got farther and farther away from where everybody else was.
Six weeks later, my teacher didn’t have much to say to me but that my style and the way my brain worked was quite compelling.
What he didn’t know was that I was fed essays to grow.
The word essay originates from the Latin language that I (obligatorily) studied for years. Exigo, exigere means:
- to demand or require
- to measure or weigh
- to determine or find out
- to examine, consider, test
- to endure or undergo
- to conclude, complete
To execute each or all the listed actions we use the form of an essay. But essay, however, does not have a set formula one should or must write into. As writers, we do what we know and whatever we can in order to understand, measure, examine, endure the world we live in. The world that amazes us, confuses us, hurts us. The world that accepts us or works against us. The world we cannot separate ourselves from.
In the Italian language, the word for essay is il saggio. Another meaning of this word is a wise man. Or, let’s say – a writer. An essay is a writer’s way to discover her truth.
But, since everyone is different (the truth that we celebrate), every essay should be different as well, defying formulas or definitions. Writers should surpass limitations and invent new forms, just like, among other beautiful minds I admire, Nelson, Offill, and Boully continually do.
The only required attribute of an essay is the intention. And the intention has everything to do with the writer’s truth. The question “what is your work about” is not as critical as “why is your work important to you.” Once you learn the