I came to nonfiction via a route that made sense to me, though many find it a bit mysterious: from poetry to scholarly writing and then to creative nonfiction. This path is not unheard-of, but I’m aware that more people bounce back and forth between fiction and nonfiction, working both sides of the prose street, and sometimes occupy the middle of that street with autofiction. What poetry taught me about writing creative nonfiction is harder to articulate. I was very happy to hear Yvonne Blomer, who was Poet Laureate of Victoria as well as the author of a memoir of bicycling through Southeast Asia, call nonfiction and poetry “the best of cousins” at the University of New Brunswick in 2017.
That cousin-like relationship, in which the resemblances between the genres are subtle but definite, is likely more obvious to the author than the reader, but working consciously and sometimes intuitively with those resemblances has become important to me as I write more CNF. The essay I wrote for TNQ’s issue 150, “Walk This Way,” was built piece by piece, like a house, over a period of ten weeks from June to August 2018. Since its publication, most of the comments I’ve received about the essay are about its structure and movement. It’s a segmented essay that knits together a series of influences about how I think about walking in general and my odd way of walking in particular. Maybe it’s important to say that I wrote a poem about this subject first, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Limp,” which was published a few years ago in TNQ 144. But some subjects demand poems and essays, and I returned to this subject for “Walk This Way.”
Two of the transferrable skills I’ve brought to creative nonfiction from poetry are a healthy disrespect for narrative chronology combined with my long-standing interest in juxtaposing objects or moods or words to get at the strangeness of embodied living. The earliest electronic draft of “Walk This Way” is dated ten weeks before I submitted it, and is 3,382 words long. Most of the beats from that draft ended up in the final essay, trimmed of side-musings and repetition. I generated most of that early draft, and refined it in various following drafts, at my weekly Two-Hour Write sessions on Thursdays with a group of colleagues and students. Two-Hour Write is a time we set aside exclusively for writing – whatever we want – together in a room. On the breaks, sometimes we talk about writing, sometimes not. I don’t teach during these times; we are all just writers writing. Last June when I started “Walk This Way,” I was in the midst of promoting two new books, and I remember being glad of the space to write rather than talk about writing.
I drafted and re-drafted for a month, then I was on the road from July 15-August 14 and didn’t look at the essay for a few weeks. In the August 16th draft, my grade eight geography teacher’s walking lessons just showed up, without plan, during Two-Hour Write. I don’t know if it would have happened that way if I had not left the essay to sit for those weeks. I say this not to make writing more mysterious, but sometimes you just have to trust the piece to marinate.
Looking over the drafts, I see that I initially started the essay with the piece that comes second in the final version – the incident at the reading. Many CNF texts will tell you to do this: to hook the reader with a personal anecdote, but I have seen this fail as often as it succeeds, and know that a too-chummy beginning can sink an essay. I wanted to try something riskier, to break a rule by explaining a joke. This enabled me to dive into the rabbit hole of film history and music history before arriving at me, my feet, and my history of “walking this way.” It also gave me the title. Once I chose to re-jig that beginning, the bold choice made it easy to bring in material from all over: Scottish dancing lessons, my broken distil fibula, the horror of that acting class, Helen Mirren’s performance of Queen Elizabeth II, The Screwtape Letters. I love a miscellany that reveals a hidden order.
Like everything I write, I design and build the puzzle and sometimes there is not room for everything I planned. I found a page in my notebook – dated July 19 – with a list of short pieces to add to the essay, and I see that I forgot about that page when I returned to the essay in August. The later drafts also show sections about learning to run with my odd legs, but in the end, these pieces didn’t fit. However, if you’ve written, no work is wasted: not even that forgotten notebook page. There will be room for that page later, in another essay. This is how books get written.