I’d Rather Write Nonfiction

Do any of you have the same dream I once did, to become a published author?  To write the next great American novel?  To find yourself on the New York Times best seller list with people asking for more?  Well, in my early twenties this was my goal.  I spent hours keeping notebooks, jotting down stories, and even drafting three novels.  Two of them are finished, and one is half finished and for young adults.

I’ve given all of this up because I would rather write nonfiction.  I guess that’s a good thing since I will be doing nothing but that in my Ph.D. program.  But somehow, writing nonfiction seems more noble and more attainable in terms of publishing and respectability.

I’m thinking of a woman I knew back in my “fiction” days who also aspired to publish her novel(s).  She often asked me to read her writing, and I would, but I never felt moved by it.  This woman was in her seventies and had no hope of ever finding an agent or being published, but she soldiered on.  I also found myself cringing as I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird when she described her students.  In the book, she recounts her experiences teaching creative writing, and every semester her classroom would fill with eager writers, hoping to be published.  One particular group ended up sticking together for years, encouraging and critiquing one another,  and in all those years only one of them had one short piece published without hope of further publication.

All of this strikes me as pathetic. And embarrassing.  And ridiculous.  Why does anybody spend hours and days and years writing drivel that will never see the light of day?  And if one is lucky enough to get an agent to actually read a query and like it, why add to the plethora of crappy fiction that is on the market?  (Please argue with me if I’m being too nihilistic.)

My goal was to write literature, not mysteries or women’s fiction or mass market paperbacks.  I realized that I was not capable of it and gave up.  Perhaps I am wrong, but whenever somebody reveals to me that they are a “writer” I just feel sorry for them.  I guess this is a jaded and cynical view.

However, I have Willa Cather on my side.  She is one of the greatest American novelists of the twentieth century.  Her work has withstood the test of time, although toward the end of her career she was not appreciated, but neither was Edith Wharton.  Cather began as a journalist and often scoffed at other women writers because they wrote for the masses, of sentimentality, and basically romantic crap.  She wrote:

“I have not much faith in women in fiction.  They have a sort of sex consciousness that is abominable.  They are so limited to one string and they lie so about that.  They are so few, the ones who really did anything worth while; there were the great Georges, George Eliot and George Sand, and they were anything but women, and there was Miss Brontë who kept her sentimentality under control, and there was Jane Austen who certainly had more common sense than any of them and was in some respects the greatest of them all.  Women are so horribly subjective and they have such scorn for the healthy commonplace.  When a woman writes a story of adventure, a stout sea tale, a manly battle yarn, anything without wine, women, and love, then I will begin to hope for something great from them, not before.” (qtd. in A Jury of Her Peers, Elaine Showalter)

Cather, once she began writing fiction, worked to create an American mythology, best seen in My Ántonia, my favorite novel of hers.  It’s the third of a trilogy of the pastoral American west.

To her, this is what a “real” writer does.

Are you a writer?  Am I wrong?

46 thoughts on “I’d Rather Write Nonfiction

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  1. It’s frustrating to me, too, that so many women write “chick lit.” They’re not doing women any favors by it. As far as people persisting in writing despite the fact that they are not “real” writers (as Cather sees it), I think that is an unfortunate result of the American dream: the belief that if you work hard enough, you will accomplish your goals—no matter if you have any natural talent. One of the reasons I like watching shows like The X Factor is because the judges are not afraid to tell horrible singers that they really need to just give up singing. Maybe we should hold a Writers’ X Factor?

    1. Although, I want to add: I think that by writing nonfiction it is easier to gain respectability, but it is not necessarily more noble. The authors Cather mentioned—Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, George Eliot, George Sand, Cather herself—wrote very noble fiction. Perhaps writing noble and respectable fiction is harder, but more worthwhile if you accomplish it?

      1. I like that. Writing respectable fiction is harder, and therefore more noble. Where would we be if Eliot, Austen, and the Bronte sisters gave up? Great perspective! And yes, let’s start the X Factor for writers! 🙂

  2. I’ve written both fiction and nonfiction and I’d rather write fiction. It is easier to get nonfiction published, but I’ve always felt too limited writing articles. There’s much more freedom in writing fiction. I don’t think it’s pathetic to keep writing even if no one ever publishes it, because at least that person is writing and following a dream. I’ve always tried to convince myself that the failure isn’t in writing and getting rejected, the failure is in not writing at all.

      1. Well, it’s not all that easy to get nonfiction published either. 🙂 The easiest thing is not to write at all. I’ve done that before too but have always gone back to writing for some silly reason.

  3. “All of this strikes me as pathetic. And embarrassing. And ridiculous. Why does anybody spend hours and days and years writing drivel that will never see the light of day?” Because they enjoy it? It’s something they feel compelled to do and, quality aside, it fulfills them in a way that nothing else can? It takes a whole lot of drivel to get to the good stuff.

    It is sad if a person’s dream hinges on publication and they never publish. But, hopefully all of those hours and days and years add up to more than just publishing failure. The group Lamott speaks of probably had a wonderful time supoorting and sharing their work with one another. I also gave up writing fiction years ago when I discovered creative non-fiction and the personal essay. But I don’t think fiction is less noble. In fact, I think it’s more difficult to do well.

    I shudder to think what our world would be like if so many great authors had given up when someone told them they weren’t good enough, that they were “ridiculous” to pursue such a lofty dream. Almost everyone faces failure as a writer. Among the masses of poor writers are the few who persevered and kept writing crappy drafts, eventually honing their skills to become the greats we know today. I respect your frank assessment of these ideas (and I like that you’ve chosen the less obvious argument). It does sometimes feel like everyone and their mother wants to pubish a dusty, cliche-filled novel, and you have to wonder about their motivations. But I am always astounded at how fine the line is between success and failure. The truth is, most people give up long before your seventy year old friend. Among the quitters are surely a Hemingway or two.

    Anyway, that’s just my two cents. Thanks, Emily, for sharing your opinions and sparking an interesting dicussion.

    1. I was a bit harsh, but I am glad you are here to temper my opinion. I am obviously in a cynical place when it comes to fiction publishing, and I wonder if might have something to do with the publishing industry. It is next to impossible to get into. I am not sure if I agree with the system, but what would work better, especially given the volume of would-be writers? Thanks for the great comment and for making me think.

    2. Love your two cents Truth and Cake, and hopefully Emily hears what you are saying. One shouldn’t write to be published. Being published is just some company saying, “Yes, this will look good/sell well in __________ and be read by ________ and more likely than not we will be able to recoup the money we spend publishing it.” (As I write this, I pray that my publishing company doesn’t think this about me but… end of the day I am just a name on the shelf…)

      It seems to me that you already have a rather extensive readership here, with supporters, friends, and word-lovers galore. Being published feels nice, I suppose, but it isn’t what one expects it to be. Perhaps because in our expectations, we convince ourselves that it will somehow make us super awesome-official-person. Like people will not look at you curiously when you mention you are a writer. If you live on a shelf as well as in real life, you are somehow more significant than you were before you inhabited both spaces. Lies homegirl. All lies.

      “All of this strikes me as pathetic. And embarrassing. And ridiculous. Why does anybody spend hours and days and years writing drivel that will never see the light of day? And if one is lucky enough to get an agent to actually read a query and like it, why add to the plethora of crappy fiction that is on the market?” This is a pretty sad, little-bit-of-nonsense and I don’t think you believe one single word of it.

      Write because it’s who you are. Write because beautiful sentences keep you up at night. Write because you bleed words. But don’t write and be angry thinking that being published makes you a writer. Write because you are a writer.

      1. You have a lot of great things to say. Thank you for sharing. Maybe I don’t really believe it, but sometimes I feel that way. I’m a people pleaser and I guess I thrive on feedback, or in this case, the thought of being published.

  4. There is an implicit idea here that I disagree with. Are you saying that writing non-fiction is easier than writing fiction – or, if not “easier,” is more likely to be published? Because if this is your contention, you are flabbergastingly incorrect. And then, part of this turns on the definition of “non-fiction.” If all that is meant by the word is silly blog posts, reviews, letters to the editor, then of course it’s easier. However, if we mean something like published articles/papers/texts, then god no it isn’t easier. Maybe some disciplines are smoother than others? I mean, writing non-fiction in “English Lit” is probably slightly more accessible than philosophy or psychology. I do disagree with your entry, I think. Don’t take it personally please, I just feel there’s a sense of naivete in your entry.

    1. I am happy to have you disagree. I think I want somebody to change my mind and to validate my own decision. I don’t think writing nonfiction is easier. I think it’s different, and for me, it’s what I prefer. I tend to think of my fiction days as naive and silly, but like I admit, I am cynical about the publishing industry and about everybody thinking they are capable of “good” creative writing. I think there’s a nobility in being able to admit that you just don’t have what it takes and that maybe your talents are in something else. As to journal articles, yes, just as hard. Maybe just as stupid in some cases. At the risk of sounding stupid, what’s with all the jargon? Isn’t it harder to write something clear and readable rather than something elitist that nobody can decipher?

  5. I prefer the idea of writing nonfiction because the story is already there. I’m a great writer if the story already exists and I just have to find it. Creating a story, though? I’m not creative in that way.

    As far as writing with no hopes of publishing, I feel this way a lot more often than I wish to: “All of this strikes me as pathetic. And embarrassing. And ridiculous. Why does anybody spend hours and days and years writing drivel that will never see the light of day?” So I can see where you’re coming from with that. But I’m also reaching a point in my life where I know I have to just do things because I enjoy them. I can’t write with the expectation that it will change the world or even be published or read by anyone else. I write because I feel compelled to, through some drive that my intellectual mind can’t understand. I’m trying to come to the understanding that, if it makes me feel better, writing it down is enough.

    1. Good for you! I think you are embracing a higher way of living that I hope to achieve someday. That is to live for what pleases you and not the crowd. To not care what other people think. If I’m analyzing myself, maybe that’s at the heart of my cynicism: nobody will approve of me! (so why approve of myself?) Oh, that’s just sad. I am a sad human being! 🙂

  6. I completely agree with Ariel’s assessment of the delusional empowerment bestowed upon the populus by misleading attempts to encourage people to follow their dreams.

    There are so many aspiring artists in the world, and only a fraction will ever know any kind of success, and a fraction of that portion may be able to live on their art alone. The rest of us, however, soldier on in blindness, seeking confirmation of our skills, and never really knowing if we are making progress.

    Being that art is so subjective, it becomes difficult to guage success, skill, talent, or any other attribute associated with the process.

    I too aspire to write “Literary” fiction, but I know that my voice is not suitable for such a dream.

    The other problem is that often, those writers whose work is terrible have no clue that it is so. Even when they are told, they will either ignore or scoff at such estimation of their material.

    I think the only solution is that we continue to work on our craft with the understanding that we do so, not to be a successful author, but to continue working on something that is important to us, just like painting may be cathartic, so is writing a release for us. If we do it out of joy rather than expectation, we may find we are happier writers for it.

    1. I like your solution, to focus on the craft and the happiness it brings. What you and Ariel have said reminds me of those singers on American Idol who just have no idea what they really sound like. I just don’t know what the solution to this is for writers, or if we even “need” one. Perhaps I have made an issue out of nothing.

      1. No, I don’t think you’ve made an issue out of nothing. There is certainly something to be said for those people who just are not qualified to be writers.

        Its like Stephen King said (and I’m paraphrasing), you can make a good writer great, an okay writer good, and a bad writer okay, but you’ll never be able to make a bad writer good or great (except for maybe a few exceptions).

        I look at it like this. There is skill, and there is talent. Skill can be acquired and improved. Talent is inborn, and must be honed and focused. Everyone is born with some amount of talent. They can then cultivate that talent and support it with skill. But, talent can never be acquired.

  7. I am not a writer but I think you’re not wrong. I aplaud your smart change of venue, but I also think that it’s okay to keep working you your fiction too, wether you publish or not. You can make a respectable career out of non-fiction for sure but there’s something special also in the dream of being “a writer” and I think it’s also okay to embrace the romantacism of the act of writing fiction – just don’t write about romance! HA! And the same goes for poetry. Most of it is terrible, just terrible drivel, but it still needs to be written for the self awareness it gives, or the humor in complete failure.

    My grandmother wrote a novel and had it published in a very limited edition. It’s not a great story – but my grandmother wrote it! And that makes me proud. I’m glad that piece of mediocre fiction exists even without the future editions and the respectability.

    And I have not yet read Willa Cather and now I must since reading that quote. I also have a hard time with the sentimentality in fiction.

    1. Denise, how cool is that!?! Your grandmother wrote and published a book! What a treasure, even if, like you say, it wasn’t wildly successful. And yes, you must read Cather. I think you’ll like her. She’s truly an artist.

  8. thank you! this is a great post..; I have no time to answer you though.. what a shame.. how do you manage having so much time to write when you have babies to tend too..
    I will say that “My Antonia” is my dearest novel along with “Jane Eyre”…I read both when I was under 20 and they had a huge influence on me at that time. Perhaps I should read them again.
    hope to write you more soon!

    1. Those are both beautiful novels. As to finding time to write, I mostly lock my kids in the closets and just ignore their cries for help. Ha! Just kidding. One is in school and the other naps. I do a lot of work at night and I did a lot of writing over the summer before I started school and then I have just been saving it for now.

  9. We need to chat about this. My creative nonfiction class changed my life–for the first time ever, English major though I was, I considered that I could write to be published. Short story or novel. I’m curious what cnf market you are interested in. Thanks for sharing!!!

    1. Ooh! I would love to hear what you learned in your class. As to nonfiction, I am more interested in publishing academically, but I would love to learn how to write creative nonfiction. I don’t think I am good at that either.

  10. I’m certainly glad there are people out there in the world trying to be writers, since so many of them have provided me with my lifeblood. I cringe and feel embarrassed for anyone who does something without realizing they’re not really good at it. But I’m still cognizant of the fact that those people are one step ahead of me in that they, at least, are willing to try something even if it leads to a failure. I’m always afraid to put myself out there because I don’t want to be ridiculed. Even in writing nonfiction you have put yourself out there and, thankfully, found your strength instead of making people cringe and feel embarrassed for you. In the end, I wish some people would learn a little faster that they probably shouldn’t have chosen writing as a profession, but in the end their failure to be the best writers is probably still a greater success than someone else’s failure to try their hand at something they think they might love. And if nobody tried then we wouldn’t have the Willa Cathers and Jane Austens of the world and that would be a sad, sad thing.

  11. I think if a person loves to write they should do so — whether they get published or not. Presumably the inability to get an agent is a sign that the writing is poor — though that’s a rule with exceptions! There is too much crap out there, but we don’t have to buy it!

  12. I agree with Cather about the greatness of the Georges, the Brontes, and Jane Austen, but I disagree that real writing is to tell stories of adventure and bravery. i think that Cather here fell into the common trap of dismissing the feminine with the weak and the unworthy. I may have stated this on your blog before, so please forgive me if I repeat myself, but I hold Carol Shields’ sentiments very dear to my heart. Shields thought that it was incredibly important to tell the stories of women’s lives, and that such stories should not be disdained if they contain cats or casseroles or yoga. After all, we don’t dismiss a work as crap if there are cars or guns in it. I think that good literature conveys the truth of life, and we need to be careful not to let gender prejudice silence half of the population.

    I haven’t read your fiction, but if your book reviews are any indication, you write non-fiction incredibly well, and I wish you all the best.

    1. How kind of you to say so, Naomi. Thank you! I agree with you on Cather’s mistake. The feminine is just as worthy of art as the masculine. I think she contradicts herself by suggesting such masculine stories, but then praising so highly female writers who depended on more feminine subjects but carried them off so masterfully that they don’t come across as one or the other. Thanks for the great comment!

  13. “I can hear my kettle singing like a tin whistle and the lid dancing to its music, with a rattling response, and in spite of knowing that my mate will be damned hot for my taste I am determined to finish reading your long comments before I go to the kitchen and do what needs to be done”.
    OK, that’s probably as good as my writing gets without editing, at least in English, which is my second language. Now, would you X me? Would it matter? Up to what extent?
    What your post addresses to, ultimately, is the great-grandmother of all questions: ‘why do we write?’ I know I may not be the next Hemingay, but I am also compelled to write. I write because I enjoy doing it, because it makes me happy, and because I can’t help it.
    I’ve turned off the stove a moment ago, and your comments followed me to the kitchen. All I can say is I am somehow convinced that I am supposed to write, which should make sense to some people (I think). And that’s enough argument for me.

    Ah! And for those who wonder, mate is an Argentinian hot beverage, quite similiar to tea, but drunk through a long metallic straw.

    1. I think you get to the heart of the matter by hinting that it’s a choice. If you feel like you need to write, then do it. I liked your little excerpt. My favorite style of writing, that I will never be capable of, is Wallace Stegner’s. He’s a genius. And thanks for reminding me of mate. That brings back some memories.

  14. From one Emily to another, I’d rather write nonfiction, too! It’s what I’ve centered my whole blog around: my story. Frankly, for me, and for now, it’s the only thing I know how to write passionately and (hopefully) well about. I’m glad I found your blog today. It seems like you have a breadth of insight and knowledge to offer other writers.

    1. Thanks! I like that you have decided to focus on your own story. I want to complicate the view that this is nonfiction, however. 🙂 I recently read that to create good fiction you should start with your childhood. I am also thinking about the recent flood of memoirs on the market, some of which have been revealed to be fiction. What do you think of all that? And what about memory? Is that fiction, or nonfiction? I write about myself too, so I am glad that I am in good company with you! Write what you know, right?

  15. My favourite post from you, by far.

    I don’t think writing non-fiction is more respectable than fiction, but I do think that writing good fiction is very hard (and in many ways, much more difficult than writing non-fiction because of all the imagination and research you have to employ). The fact that women are/were unable to do so is part social conditioning and part choice. You are only capable of writing – and wanting to write – the world you know of, if that makes any sense.

    1. Thank you! As I have been taking in everybody’s thoughts on which one is harder, I think I’ve decided that neither one is. They are just different, and hard in different ways. And I guess it really comes down to this: anything hard is worthwhile. Thanks for weighing in and giving me a chance to put more of my tangled thoughts down!

  16. Definitely an attention-grabbing post. Quite sobering, as well. As an aspiring fiction writer, I must admit I winced and flinched a bit as I read each paragraph. It seems to address some of the very concerns and struggles I have with myself these days as a writer and as an individual. Often, some of my ideas never actually make it to implementation for fear that they are simply not….”worthy” enough to write about. Sometimes I sit and scold myself and say what business have I writing about fantastical ventures and impossible dreams? Shouldn’t I get more involved in addressing the deeper issues of this world? But then, I can’t help but feel how much I have treasured the works of authors such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Jordan and, more recently, J.K. Rowling. There is such wonderful depth to stories such as theirs, it inspires me to likewise inspire others through my own writing — fictitious as it may be in genre. To highlight victory in spite of struggle, drive home the importance of loyalty and friendship, and to encourage that “dare to dream” spirit that sees people through the worst of times and despite the insurmountable odds. And I should know a bit about that last because, while I want to be a writer, I’m frankly quite panicked about the difficulty of publishing, and ultimately making no impact whatsoever. But writing is my heart, and I’m one of those keep-going types, even though the journey can be discouraging at times. Thanks for posting, though. Perhaps slightly cynical in tone, but certainly worth thinking about.

    1. It sounds like you have the passion and the vision. Keep going. Just because I gave up and moved a different direction doesn’t mean that you should. If you have a story to tell, keep telling it. 🙂

  17. I both agree and disagree with what you’ve said, Emily. It is true that most of the novels in today’s age are written as paper version of “chick flicks”. But I do happen to know of a fictional novel (not in publication) that 9/10 conforms to the list written by Cather! The writer is sadly not pleased with her work. Her story however, for me, ranks with those novels I so love: the classics, and some modern action tales written by men.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts! I’m sure there are unpublished geniuses out there who deserve our support and admiration. I hope your friend and his or her amazing novel finds peace with him or herself and finds success in publication if that is the goal!

      1. You’re most welcome.
        It isn’t sadly. As much as she loves Literature, writing isn’t her goal, she prefers politics. Alas, it will remain lost in the surfeit of unpublished works!

        I forgot to add: your post was indeed an interesting read! Thank you!

  18. Really interesting post, Emily — and you do speak your mind! I’m just now getting caught up on my blog reading and so I’m sorry for the late response.

    I agree with Truth and Cake, way back up on the list. I’ve spent my academic career writing nonfiction. I love it and I’m good at it and I have been published. But ever since I was a child, I made up stories, and I wrote them down, and dreamed of being an author like Jo March in Little Women. Did I/Do I dream of publishing my fiction as well? Yes, what writer of fiction or nonfiction doesn’t?

    But having been published, I’ve learned that — for me at least — it isn’t ultimately about that. When all is said and done, OK, my name is on a book, an article, conference proceedings, a thesis on the shelf…. Great. But the excitement is fleeting. And unless you’re one of the greatest of the greats so is the recognition. And obviously, after looking at the lives of so many tortured artists, its easy to see that publishing alone isn’t enough to secure happiness as an artist.

    In my writing career, especially as I have now jumped the tracks and am writing my first novel, I see that for me writing is about the journey, its about the process of working something out, bringing my idea into existence in whatever form its going to take, and about all of the things I learn along the way. Because whether I publish a piece of writing or not, I’m no longer the same person or the same writer because of having encountered that creative act. As humans, I believe we first write to make sense of our world and our experience. It is secondary to the act of writing that it be shared or even published, though these are happy events and not to be discounted as one aspect of the process.

    As far as your concerns over the state of fiction, well,I’d have to agree with you on some points. But it seems to me an overgeneralization to suggest that the majority of writing out there, published or not, is crap. Or that women aren’t writing anything worthwhile.

    Fiction writers are driven by the same desire to write that nonfiction writers are — an idea that won’t let them go, and while it may be the crux of your argument that keeps you up with a nonfiction project, its the voices of characters who come unbidden, out of nowhere seeking life breathed into them that keep us fiction writers up. Those characters who people our fiction won’t let us go and beg for their stories to be told, just like the intense inspiration for a wholly new and original reading of a novel might in your graduate program. And just like not every piece of nonfiction you write will get published, neither will every piece of my fiction. But the drive to discover, to express, to deepen awareness and learn will drive us to keep writing anyway. If you write only to publish, I would argue you write for the wrong reasons. But that’s just my opinion.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post and all the best of luck as you seek your publishing goals.

    1. Angela, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I had hoped that this wouldn’t offend you. I did think about you when I posted it in all of my brutal honesty. But I think you are doing it for the right reasons and not just because you are going through a period of angst or because you want to be like everybody else. I respect that and you! You are so right that not everything will be published, fiction or nonfiction. That is something I am going to have to live with! 🙂

      1. No offense taken, Emily. I think your post highlights the need to examine and refine our motives and how we live out our artistic purpose and philosophy and this is so important for us to discuss and be aware of as a writing community. Perhaps these things are not discussed among us enough? So you keep right on raising the issues, girl! 🙂

        Have you seen the new series on creativity at gwarlingo? You should check it out — I think it’s right up your alley.

        Cheers! 🙂

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