Why Writing Nonfiction Feels Wrong, But Isn’t

 

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My uvula is forked, but not my tongue. That little dangly bit at the back of your throat? Yeah, mine has a bifurcation in it (likely the result of my palate closing late-on in my mother’s pregnancy). The kindest way to describe what this looks like is to say that it resembles a sort of upside-down heart. The way I end up having to describe it, inevitably, is that it basically looks like a tiny ballsack in my throat.

I know about the forked-uvula thing because I was told about it by my family doctor literally every time I visited him when I was growing up. We’d have almost the exact same conversation every visit, verbatim.

Doc: “Say ahh.”
Me: “Ahh.”
Doc: “Hey, did you know you have a bifurcated uvula?”
Me: “Yes.”
Doc: “How did you know?”
Me: “You tell me every time I come in here.”
Doc: “Well, it’s a pretty rare thing. Pretty neat, Michael.”
(an awkward pause)
Doc: “Hey, it’s better than having a forked tongue!”

And every time, this cheered me up. Even when I was sick. Maybe my mood lightened because of the humor of my doctor’s confusion (though certainly not his corny joke); maybe I felt better because of the sheer familiarity of the routine. Most likely what lifted my mood was something different, something bigger than all of that.

Most likely what lifted my mood was the doctor’s sincere interest, his wonderment, at a part of me (even such a small thing as a uvula that no one ever sees, that has no effect on anything, really, whatsoever). As if something about me was worthy of note.


I grew up a good Christian boy, regularly attending church as many as three times a week, listening as patiently as I could to sermons and Sunday School lessons. From the age of nine until the age of twenty-five, when I left the faith, I was relatively diligent in my beliefs. What I’m saying is that I heard a lot of sermons and talks and testimonies and messages. Understandably, plenty of these talks get lost in time, and it’s interesting to note the ones that I remember.

One such moment from my religious past that has stuck with me is a talk that was given to my youth group by our youth pastor, Brad. The talk concerned humility. Trying to drive home the fact that remaining humble is a constant process that requires serious dedication, Brad gave us this little quip that I think has some profound implications: “If I were to give out a trophy to the most humble person in the room, I’d have to snatch it back the minute someone came up here to take it.”

Obviously Brad’s point was that humility is one of those slippery qualities that put you in a Catch-22 situation. If you think you have it, you probably don’t. And this was meant as a way for us young folks to start to think about our actions and our attitudes, to strive even more toward behaving in healthier, kinder ways toward other people. It was meant as a sort of admonishment and encouragement to us, a command to esteem others above ourselves. And this, of course, is a good and noble purpose.

However, I have grown up to be a writer. I have discovered that I feel most comfortable and alive when I am crafting some kind of written work. It is, to borrow jargon from my religious past, my calling. And one of the most important lessons to learn about writing is that the most powerful pieces resonate on a personal level. As all of my teachers hammered into me in college: write what you know.

But I don’t like writing too much of what I know. I don’t like writing creative nonfiction about my own past. For one, it feels less revelatory than my fiction (which, paradoxically, often winds up showing me something true about myself that I wasn’t even aware I was writing toward). Yet I think the worse issue with nonfiction, at least for me, is that it feels terribly unhumble. Writing fiction feels like I’m creating something new, making a thing that wasn’t there before. Perhaps I’ve been trained by an upbringing that urged me to join in the work of the Creator, that told me art and creation were things that proved I was made in the image of God, and perhaps for this reason fiction seems much holier, much safer. With fiction, I create whole realities out of thin air.

Writing nonfiction feels like screaming at the world LOOK AT ME, THESE ARE THINGS THAT HAPPENED TO ME, READ THEM AND BOW BEFORE MY WORDS. It feels uncouth, somehow almost dirty, in a way that writing fiction simply doesn’t. It feels like esteeming myself before others.

It feels like sin.


But it is not.

Writing nonfiction can be poignant or aphoristic; it can be a way to categorize your own life, even only for yourself (like a journal); it can be useful in finding others who have had similar experiences, useful in helping them through those experiences when needed, useful in bonding. Even if it weren’t important in all of those ways, writing nonfiction would still be important simply for the reason that it often does feel less safe, less holy than writing fiction. What better way to stretch yourself in your art than by doing that which is difficult for you to do? What better way to learn?

Above all that, writing nonfiction is important and good and righteous for this reason: it affirms that everyone has some feature that is interesting and worthy of note.

See, you may not have some harrowing drug-recovery story that you think will sell a lot of books. You may not have met tons of famous people or traveled to exotic locations. Hell, I went out of the country one time over a decade ago and I still try to milk those stories as much as I can. But even so, you have something within you that can serve as a story, that can and must be told. As the great Flannery O’Connor once said: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

You have important things to say. You are interesting and worthy of note.

As for me, my name is Michael Candelario.

My uvula is forked, but not my tongue.

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Work Schedule: A Life Update

Hey there, readers.

It’s been eons. And I apologize for that, but not too profusely. See, things have been afoot in the life of ML Candelario. My wife gave birth to our second son, I got a job selling timeshare, and now I’m staying at home watching the little stinkers while Megan does her Speech Language Pathology wizardry at a couple of local schools.

I didn’t forget you during all this, though, potential audience. All this while, I’ve been working on my first novel—a science fiction story that’s been labored upon under the clever working title “Sci-Fi Story,” but which will probably be called Marionette when it launches. I finished the first draft, did a cursory edit on my laptop, and now am handwriting edits and revisions on the printed-out pages. Initially, the novel weighed in at around 85k words. But it has become apparent that I’m going to lose a lot of those words after revision. I’m told this happens.

Anyway, I just wanted to pop up on here and give you all an update. Here are the projects in which I’m currently engaged:

• Marionette—current release date = December 2013
• first novel of Dwarfstory series—first draft to be written during NaNoWriMo = November 2013
• collection of poetry—ongoing, no set release date
• unnamed sci-fi/possibly YA project—doing concept work, will write after Dwarfstory (2015?)

I’m also planning to redesign this website. It worked for a bit as a sort of blog, but now that I’m going to be publishing things in the near future it has become apparent that better organization is necessary. But Megan will probably do that. She’s better at the computahs.

We’re taking a trip out to Texas this week, but I hope to post a poem on here in a few days. I want to get back to regular posts, even if they’re only little updates.

Thanks for your support, and I’ll (hopefully) have something out for you to read pretty soon!

-Mike

Life Update 2/8/13

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(or: It’s Half Past Four and I’m Only Just Now Doing Anything Worthwhile)

So, internet, Mike is back in the writing game. Yes, I know you all missed me dearly and now here I am, ready to start once again doing regular blog updates. Rejoice, world.

Here’s the skinny: my wonderful wife Megan recently graduated with her Master’s degree. Since her degree is in Speech Language Pathology, this basically meant that she was on the job market for all of like five minutes before the openings and interviews started rolling in. Long story short, she now has a job in the school system of a local town. What this means for my family is that I was able to quit my job cashiering at the hospital and focus on writing. So here’s my schedule: three days a week, we have a babysitter come over to watch Asher and I go out to various locations (usually either Starbucks or my parents’ house – or both) and write. The other two days I stay home and play househusband. I say “play” because I lack the mystical quality of housekeeping that so many housewives I know inherently have. I mostly try to keep up with Asher and do laundry, and even that proves too much at times. But oh well. The point is that I am now able to write and get stuff done. So let me tell you about that.

I have made the unretractable vow that my first novel will be published this year on the Kindle store. This first one is going to be a science fiction novel. Current as of this blogpost, I have written about 22,000 words. This is roughly a third of my estimate for how long the finished novel will be (though I could be off on that estimate…). So things are getting done. Furthermore, I have mapped out an extensive plot outline and timeline as well as having short dossiers on my main characters. Guys and gals, I am super-excited about this story. It’s making tons of sense to me and is interesting. Hopefully it will be interesting to others as well. But if not, that’s cool. I’ll learn from the experience and approach the next project with new knowledge. By the way, that dwarf story I was tweeting about a lot last year is on the boards to be the next project after this one is published. It’s still looking like the dwarf story will be a trilogy of shorter novellas, but there is a chance I could combine them into one larger novel. It all depends on the scope of the story and whether or not I think the proposed trilogic segments will have the necessary climaxes/resolutions. Also, it depends on how the market goes for these shorter novellas. I know that recently there has been a spike in novella sales, but I’m not totally convinced that people are going to keep preferring them to novel-length stories. My plan is that after those two projects, and if people are buying my stuff and/or Megan is making enough money for it, I have a few more sci-fi/young adult projects that I’d like to finish. My plan is also to release at least one or two poetry collections or short story collections within like the next five years. Maybe.  Perhaps, after all of that, I will feel comfortable enough to start really trying to work on another project of mine – that environmental terrorism novel that I’ve mentioned before on this blog. That thing is like my baby (disregarding, of course, my actual physical children), and so I’ve been really reticent to start digging in and writing it until I feel my skills as an author are better. But, I also recently had the revelation that writers, y’know, write. You have to start walking if you ever hope to reach your destination. Or whatever trite aphorism applies here.

Something else that has changed recently: I just applied to graduate school. If I am accepted, I will be starting this fall with the goal of obtaining my Master’s Degree in English with a concentration in Rhetoric and Composition. I think that this will do two things: firstly, it will allow me to better my understanding of the English language and thus hopefully will improve my writing; and secondly, it will give me the option of teaching at, say, a community college – and therefore will give me a way to actually make some money should it arise that my writing career doesn’t earn me millions. In any case, it will certainly be a good thing to do in this economy and in this job climate.

Okay, so those are the major changes in my life at this moment. Did I mention that here in about eleven weeks Megan, Asher, and I will be welcoming a fourth member of our family into the world? Because that’s happening (good lord, eleven weeks!). So life is really good right now and yet also really busy. Funds are tight, since Megan only gets paid once a month and so we’re kind of in no-man’s-land since I already quit my job. But it’s okay. For the first time in a while, I am actually happy with the direction my life is taking, profession-wise. I feel like I am working on a project that is worthwhile, that I am pursuing a goal that is both attainable and meaningful, and quite frankly that I’m doing something that is fun. Which is a new experience for me. I mean, I haven’t hated every job I’ve had, but I sure haven’t been doing anything that fulfilled me.

For you guys and gals out there (all ten of you who might read this blog occasionally), this also means that I am going to try to update this here blog at least once a week. I feel like it’s an important thing to do – that it offers an outlet for any future fans of mine to connect directly with the author of books they read. So I have to start providing that now, I think. Expect a review of Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash sometime in the following week.

Ooh, I almost forgot. At the same time that all of this is going on, a close friend of mine and I are co-writing a screenplay. It’s an adaptation of a short story that a more distant friend of ours wrote some years ago. Actually, it’s really more like my friend is writing and I’m just sort of helping out with the story, providing another brain for him to bounce ideas off of. I can’t reveal any more information at this time, but it’s pretty cool. I think the movie is going to be rad.

And… that’s it. Other than all that, though, life is simple. I guess. Thanks for reading, and get ready for my first published novel to be released!

Audience Feedback #2

THE QUESTIONS

Q1.      Do you prefer stories where the “bad guy” is clearly defined, or do you like ambiguity concerning who is really good and who is bad? And if you clearly outline who is the antagonist, do you ever tell the readers how the said “evil” character became that way, or trust that they will accept that the character is inherently bad?

Q2.      Do you find it easier to write stories that you can use actual historical events as a backdrop, or do you prefer to create an entire fictional universe to use as you want?

Q3.      Which perspective is it easiest to write from? Do you find it easier to write a story where you don’t have to provide a character’s mental justifications for their actions, or do you want your readers to know the “why”?

THE ANSWERS

A1.         Okay, I’m going to go ahead and admit something about my writing that needs lots of improvement: the absence of a real villain. Most of my stories don’t really have a set villain. They tend to be introspective and villain-less for two reasons.

First, I use my writing to deal with facets of myself, and so there is lots of ambiguity there since real life doesn’t delineate the heroes and the villains so clearly. I mean, in an election year like this one we get to see just how ambiguous things are: each side is trying to slant everything so that its own candidate is the hero and the opposition are the villains. However, both sides contain good philosophies and both sides misuse and abuse power. So life doesn’t delineate things like stories do. And since I try to use my stories to talk about real life, the war tends to go on inside the characters rather than being fought between them. That said, there has to be some sort of good vs. evil going on in order to maintain interest in the reader and in order to set the stakes high. So I’m working on making that clearer in my writing (especially in my forthcoming novella, lovingly referred to as The Dwarf Story in lieu of a title, which is a fantasy story and thus needs to better adhere to that genre’s expectations).

Secondly, my thinking is largely defined by my philosophical and religious views, and therefore so too is my writing. Specifically (as I have stated on this blog a few times), I am a Calvinistic-type Christian. Which means, among lots of other things, that I believe man is unable to truly choose goodness over evil apart from the grace of God. This doctrine is referred to as Total Depravity, and basically it means that I do not think anyone is ultimately good apart from God. Therefore, characters in my work are constantly doing bad things, or even good things for bad reasons. For example, I wrote a short story (and am still editing it and getting it ready to eventually send out to publications) called Desperately Sick in which the protagonist is a sex addict who ends up (*spoiler alert*) impregnating an underage girl who lives in the same rehabilitation compound as he. The story does not have a happy ending, and it features a pastor who tries to help the man out of his sex addiction by preaching false theology. Anyway, the man is supposed to be viewed as a villain, but not one who is monstrous. The reader is supposed to realize that he is just a man like any other, who happens to have fallen into sinful sex addiction and adulterous habits, and is unable to escape his own sin through his own power. This is part of the belief system to which I subscribe, and it is a doctrine that I philosophically struggle with, and so much of my more “serious” stories deal with it.

So there you have it. I prefer ambiguity, but ambiguity not in the sense of “what is right and wrong,” but more in the sense of “everyone is constantly doing both good and bad things.”

 

A2.         I’ll be honest. I like to create entire fictional universes. This is for a multitude of reasons, but most importantly these two:  1. It’s fun and cool. 2. Research sucks. Being brutally honest with myself, it’s probably mainly the latter. I struggle with anxiety and depression, and so for me it is difficult to tell myself that doing the hard work of research-based novel-writing is going to pay off for me. I would not be opposed to setting stories in historical backdrops in the future, when life is a little less hectic than it is now (starting a family, trying to start an online magazine, working a regular job, trying to write, etc.). But yeah, basically I’m lazy and don’t want to spend all that time researching. However, I have spent a good amount of time creating the world of the Dwarf Story and of another untitled novel I have on the shelf, so the time saved is probably mostly in my head.

 

A3.         First off, I do want my readers to know the “why.” For me, writing is all about communication. So ideally everything I write encapsulates some point  or idea that I want to get across to the reader. I haven’t spent a lot of time reading philosophical essays on literary analysis, but I think the idea that it’s all up to the reader is ridiculous. The point is always communication, and communication only works when the author has some message that he or she gets across to the reader. If the message is missing, or if the reader fails to receive it, communication hasn’t taken place. Now, the best art allows for multiple interpretations and inspires discussion, so I’m not saying the reader should not have his or her own views on a particular story. But I do try to get some kind of statement across to the reader, and therefore knowing the “why” is often important (unless, of course, the message I’m trying to communicate is something like “reasons don’t matter,” or “the universe is meaningless,” etc. – although even in those cases the lack of an explicit or implicit “why” is itself getting the point across to the reader).

To answer the first part of your question, I think it’s really difficult to truly deal with justifications using any perspective. Even using first-person is tricky (it might be the trickiest to pull off, actually) because it can easily slip into hokey declarations of why the character did what she did. It becomes easier, at least for me, to tell things instead of showing them when using first-person. I tend to gravitate toward what a teacher of mine (and renowned author) David Madden calls “Third-Person Central Intelligence.” It’s third-person, but the author is not omniscient. Rather, it’s like a camera right behind the shoulder of the protagonist, showing everything from his or her perspective, but outside of his or her mind. I like that style because it allows me a safety net against telling instead of showing. I am forced, since I’m not inside the characters’ heads, to use description of the surroundings and actions, etc. to help the reader understand what’s going on and why. This is kind of a convoluted answer, but basically there is no easy perspective. I do prefer, though, to write from a 3rd person Central Intelligence.

 

There are the answers to some more reader questions. Thanks to Hannah Lundy for asking tough questions and making me think hard about some important stuffs. I plan on restarting the weekly blog post thing, so look for a new post every week. I can’t designate a specific day because my current job is not on a consistent schedule, but I can say I’ll try to have one up every week. Thanks for reading!

Book Review- Hunger Games Trilogy

THE ODDS WERE EVER IN ITS FAVOR

I’ll start this review by listing the things that irked me about the Hunger Games trilogy. As a first-person narrative with a strong female protagonist, complete with the obligatory love triangle, the books were always going to appeal to that certain group of pubescent girls known as the “teeny-boppers.” One could say that it rode on the coattails of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga, but that’s not quite accurate. As someone who has actually read the Twilight books (though I have not seen the movies), I can say with confidence that the writing is much the same in the Hunger Games. The only real difference, and the big redeeming quality of this trilogy, is that the story itself is much more interesting and Suzanne Collins at least attempts to give us some of the underpinnings of her world. But let’s be honest: comparing these books to Twilight is the obvious thing to do, given that anything nowadays that is a hit with the youth is going to be measured against Twilight. So I’ll move on to specific grievances.

Perhaps the worst part of the Hunger Games is the love triangle. It’s a tired old cliché; it’s an example of an author “copping out” when she can’t think of any other way to introduce some more drama into the story; it’s a ploy to get young teenage girls hooked onto the plot and sell merchandise (Team Jacob/ Team Edward shirts, e.g.); and it’s unnecessary. Without wanting to risk spoilers, I’ll just say that Katniss’ being torn between Peeta and Gale never, ever, seems more than a contrived gimmick on the author’s part (side note: what kind of name is “Peeta,” anyway? I kept thinking about bread… which, given that his father is a baker, all of a sudden makes more sense). I never once felt the “love,” if we want to call it that, between Katniss and either of her suitors – regardless of her frequent inner monologues about the differences in the way their kisses felt. Which leads me to the next, bigger problem with Collins’ writing:

The author tells instead of showing. This is rule number one of writing. You have to pull the reader along, show them the details, and let them work out the story for themselves. Instead of really putting us in the moment with Katniss in such a way as to convey the mood Collins wants her to have, the author simply has Katniss say something along the lines of “man, I sure do miss my family. Like, a lot.” I’m not saying she does this all the time, but she does tend to just state things that would have a much better effect is she simply showed them. Relatedly, the world itself is not too deeply described. If you read the last review on Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, you know that giving details can go too far. It’s a fine line between giving too few details and not letting the reader develop his or her own picture of the world. But for me Collins fails to set up her world in such a way that displays its grandeur (or poverty, in the case of the districts).  She is more interested in describing fashion and Katniss’ feelings than she is in building the world. Which, let’s be fair, is okay. Not every novel has to be about world-building, and the way that Collins used fashion to signify rebellion was rather unique. I just thought the story could have used more details about the cities and districts and arenas. Especially when you’re coming off reading George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series (which review is coming in the next month or so, when I can finish reading books 4 and 5).

Okay: last negative thing. Or, I guess, semi-negative thing. One of the recurring phrases that I have heard used by numerous people to describe the Hunger Games is: “1984 for kids.” I don’t know that that’s a totally accurate representation of what the Hunger Games is trying to do, but I will admit that the comparison has merit. Essentially, these people are complaining that the story is like the totalitarian world of Orwell’s masterpiece – except oversimplified and dumbed down. And that’s sort of true. You know what, heck with that. It is true. It is difficult to really understand the full chronology and political motivations that led to such a ruthless practice as the Hunger Games themselves. And it seems odd that some kids and poor, malnourished district-dwellers can contend with a government that is supposed to have total control. I mean, the government struggles with maintaining its power over the airwaves at a certain point in the trilogy. It doesn’t seem like the type of government that could get away with putting the Hunger Games on for such a long time without rebellions sprouting up every few years. And besides that, the way that the children are humanized and treated well before they have to go into the games decreases the story’s believability. In real-life dystopian nightmares, the bad guys dehumanize the victims in order to escape their own consciences. So there are lots of things about the novels that seem too simple and that lack the convolution of reality. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter that the book is a “kid’s version” of anything. It’s a Young Adult book, after all. We shouldn’t be surprised that it doesn’t have the complexity of a novel intended for a more mature audience.

THE BOOKS THAT WERE ON FIRE

Despite all the negativity of the above paragraphs, there are some positive notes to take away from this trilogy. Most notably, Collins is very adept at writing a page turner. Her style makes the reader say “You know what, just one more page.” And so while Collins is not a stellar writer, she is an exciting one – which is an important quality to have when you write books like these. If you doubt her ability to excite people and keep them coming back for more, just look at all the hype the books and corresponding movies have generated. People are eating up her story, and it’s spreading like wildfire.

Another really important point to consider about these books is that the concept behind them is genuinely interesting. I remember speaking with my friend Hugh Howey one time about the ways in which the literary community frowns upon genre fiction, and his response was that the writing in a lot of genre books may not be up to the same standard as more critically acclaimed novels – but they sell more. His point: people like these stories. They are interested in them. Speaking of another writer we both know, Hugh made the comment that “his writing is brilliant, but I don’t care about his stories.” And this is where Collins succeeds. The premise is captivating, and it has a lot of promise. I don’t think she ever fully delivers on that promise, but nevertheless I was intrigued. And that’s worth something.

A third positive is that Collins uses the book to discuss things like a)violence and its effect on the innocence of children, b) government and human depravity, c) class warfare, etc. Apparently these are themes about which she has written in other novels of hers, so there is a sort of intimacy with these issues that is present in the book. You get the sense that, while she may not get into too much detail and she may not discuss all the philosophy behind wars and morality, Collins has thought about these things a lot. Which makes for a deeper story than just an adventure-ish romance like the Twilight books.

Finally, and perhaps most applicably, the Hunger Games books are an easy, enjoyable read. I tend to read long thousand-page works, and getting away from those to something I could read in a day or so was pretty relaxing. The writing is at a level where you definitely won’t have to break out a thesaurus every other page. If I had to give it a name (and I hope this can be said with as little pretentiousness and malice as possible) I’d say this series is “popcorn entertainment.” It’s fun if you just want to have a quick read.

In the final analysis, though, I have to say that Collins’ writing left much to be desired. I’m sure I won’t be able to hear the end of this from all of you THG fans out there, but in all honesty I thought the hype was much bigger than the books were worth.

OVERALL SCORE: 6/10