Can listening to others’ creative nonfiction help you with yours?
Several summers ago, after a school year of reading Newbery Award-winners, I walked into my local library looking for something for someone in her early 20s to read. (Not that Newberys aren’t for those in their early 20s. They’re for everyone. I was just mixing it up with a bit of variety. Long live Creech, Paterson, and DiCamillo.) I stopped in front of a display with books on beach towels and a sign that read something like Summer Beach Reads! The Oprah List.
Back then, watching The Oprah Winfrey Show was my guilty pleasure. The show aired at 4 o’clock, which meant if I was going to watch it, I would need to be at home — not in my classroom, grading papers and setting up the next day’s lessons or any of a teacher’s other daily preparations. Needless to say, watching Oprah was not a habit, but every so often I’d enjoy a glorious hour listening to her, usually wearing pajama pants and painting my nails.
Oprah presented the world with humor and fashion and with an interest in others that made me feel I could live the same way too. She was captivating, no doubt, but she shared her stage with her guests, showing genuine interest in what they had to say.
So when I saw The Oprah List in the library that day, I decided my summer reading challenge would be to read as many books on that list as I could.
I have a strange obsession with the Irish so I picked up Maeve’s Binchy’s Tara Road first. I love a Joyce Carol Oates story, so I picked up, We Were The Mulvaneys as well. It was John Krakauer’s Into the Wild that had me stumped. The entire story seemed to be on the front cover of the book: Chris McCandless decides to sell everything he owns and drive to Alaska in a van, where he dies because he ate the wrong kind of berry.
(Okay, so it was better than that, but that’s the gist of the story. Why would I read this? Why would Oprah pick this, I wondered, adding it to my stack.)
Turns out, this city-loving, materialistic girl willingly followed McCandless — and hoped and rooted for him — as he journeyed across the states hoping for what, I’m not sure. I don’t know if Chris knew either, but Krakauer rendered his story in a way that I cared deeply for not only Chris, but also for the land he travelled on. Through story, John Krakauer helped me see people and the world, differently.
I finished reading Into the Wild in a Barnes and Noble in South Bend, where I used to live. I was so affected by the story, the only thing I knew to do was write John Krakauer. So I did:
Dear Mr. Krakauer,
I just finished reading Into the Wild, and it left such an impression on me I wanted to write you.
I learned so much from Chris McCandless, and you. What’s funny is I grew up in Chicago, and I detest the outdoors. I am scared of bugs, I hate tents, and I think every nature trail has a grizzly bear waiting for me. I am much more comfortable sitting in rush hour on the Dan Ryan.
Yesterday my husband and I went to the Warren Dunes in Michigan. As I climbed the dunes, I thought, ‘What would Chris McCandless think of this?’ As I sat on the beach and watched people stuff themselves with junk food having little regard for the beautiful lake less than 10 feet away from them, I wondered, ‘What would Chris do in this situation?’
I am very naive, and probably even more idealistic. I have never lost a brother, mother, or father, and I can’t say what I would do in such a situation. But I do think the McCandless family is very blessed to have such a committed person write about how amazing and special their son was. Mrs. McCandless said she can’t pray now that Chris is gone, and Mr. Franz withdrew his faith in God after he found out about Chris’ death. However, I believe that God worked through your writing.
Through your writing I have a greater appreciation for nature. Through your writing, someone who I would’ve called a ‘freak of nature,’ turned out to be someone I wished I could’ve been friends with. Through your writing, I learned about the kindness of others, and, in turn, realized that I need to be ready to help if ever a Chris McCandless pops into my life. I learned about what a huge undertaking being a parent is, and how important my relationship with my brother is.
One of my professors in college said, ‘The greatest tragedy is not to be awake in your own life.” I believe, very strongly, God works through literature. And I believe God has worked through Into the Wild. It has been just 30 minutes since I read the last words of your story. This letter is an instant reaction to something I was immediately drawn to, and passionately involved in for five days. It may sound melodramatic, but I wanted to write before my rationality kicked in and talked me out of writing.
I simply loved your book. Thank you for writing it.
Callie R. Feyen
On October 3, 2001, I received a postcard in the mail with Krakauer’s handwritten note:
Dear Ms. Feyen –
Many thanks for your generous assessment of I.T.W. I was quite moved by your thoughtful, eloquent letter.
In an essay titled “Deeper Subjects,” James Calvin Schaap explores what creative nonfiction is and how it’s done but, perhaps most important, why the genre is necessary. He writes, “Creative nonfiction almost always marshals the facts in such a way as to tug us toward some truth about life and death and all those issues people talk about under the heading of, ‘the human condition’ … That story … will be about the people all of us are.”
I think this is what Krakauer did for Chris McCandless, and I think this is what Oprah did on her show. Even when we might not have been saying, “That’s my life, exactly!” we could identify. When Beyoncé talks about her experiences (and who could ever dare to compare themselves to Beyoncé?), we do have the opportunity, through story, to admire her talent and her willingness to share it and see some piece of ourselves.
What if that admiration turned into agency? If we were to look at our own desires and think of them as talents in need of being developed and shared? I think that is a story we can all connect with. Whether we admit it or not, sharing our gifts and being a contributing part of the world and its people is part of the human condition.
Creative nonfiction manifests itself in different forms. In Krakauer’s case, we are looking at a book, while Oprah offers the truth through television. I am currently reading Tania Runyan’s A Thousand Vessels, a book of poems written in the voice of women in the bible. What I noticed is that for each woman’s section, Runyan writes one or two poems as if those women are alive today. At least, that’s how I read them at first. Now I am beginning to think Runyan is writing from her own life experience but through the blended perspective of both her and the biblical women. What parts of myself do I see in Eve? In Ruth? In Sarah? Where does Esther show up in my life today?
If a good story tells us something about who we are, then I think this means stories are meant to be carried. Here is where the reciprocity of giving and receiving come in. To write — and write well — means to offer up what you have. To read well means you are willing to carry what’s been offered.
What story, poem, or even TV show (or song) shows you something about who you are? What stories do you carry with you? Write a poem about them.
Thanks to everyone who participated in last week’s Poetry Prompt. Here’s one from Jillian Hughes we enjoyed:
You wore crazy like a badge
Of honor. This is the beginning of
Underestimating yourself. Your
Armor was strong but
Endured the fire because
No one taught you
Otherwise. Here is what I would
Tell you now:
Always, you have been worthy.
Be proud of the girl you
Are, the woman you are becoming.
Do not abandon yourself.
Keep this in mind for the future:
I did not run when the earth shook. I
Did not let the ground swallow me whole
Browse more poetry prompts
If you have ever been in 8th grade, fallen in love, had a best friend, or loved reading, you will love this book. As the mother of an 8th grader, my other genuine hope is that my son will one day have a teacher as gifted as Callie.