As I've mentioned, I'm really busy right now. But what is it I'm busy doing? Well, for one thing, I'm teaching a bunch of very full classes--I have more students this semester than I've ever had before.
One of the primary duties listed in my job description is teaching creative writing in general to undergraduates, and literary nonfiction writing in specific. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, literary nonfiction is an umbrella phrase typically encompassing autobiography, memoir and the personal essay. Some people call it creative nonfiction. My department calls it "literary" nonfiction instead of "creative" nonfiction because essentially all writing involves acts of creation but not all writing is literary, and we want to stress that we're striving for a certain quality of writing. I don't get my knickers in a twist when I hear the phrase creative nonfiction, but I HATE the acronym CNF.
A book I often teach in both literature and writing courses (though I'm not teaching it this semester) is A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, a memoir about the deaths of his parents less than a month apart from different types of cancer, and his subsequent experiences as the appointed guardian of his younger brother Toph, who is orphaned at age nine. It has its problems, but students generally like it, and I like it for its preface, where Eggers lays out some of the theoretical and critical issues involved in the writing and reading of literary nonfiction. For instance, he suggests that readers who are bugged by the fact that he claims to be telling the truth do what readers have been doing for centuries: pretend it's fiction. He also appraises the quality of his book, and gives suggestions for reading and enjoy it. He suggests that his readers skip pages 239-35, noting that those pages concern "the lives of people in their early twenties, and those lives are very difficult to make interesting, even when they seemed interesting to those living them at the time."
Given that my students are typically in their early twenties if not their late teens, this statement has dire implications for their efforts as writers of nonfiction.
However, one of the classic genres of fictions is the bildungsroman, (from German bildung, "building" and French roman, "novel"), or the coming-of-age novel. In fact, many venerated first "novels" are essentially coming-of-age memoirs disguised as novels by the changing of a few names and the fudging of a few facts.
What makes literature about people in their early twenties "interesting"? Is it really so hard to make these lives interesting? And what are the implications of these questions for young writers in creative writing classes--who are sometimes not merely in their early twenties, but their late teens? How do young writers acquire the wisdom, the vision, the craft, the perspective, the insight to make accounts of their early lives not merely interesting, but works of art?
Trying to find answers to that question that satisfy me and my students is part of what I'm so busy with right now. Oh, and explaining when and where to use commas.