“Roberta. Do you have a minute?”
By Roberta Chevrette
“Roberta. Do you have a minute?”
Lee Gutkind – the "Godfather" of creative nonfiction – and I stepped off the grey stones and into the grass in one fluid motion. A glass of wine sparkled in his hand in the still-too-bright sunlight of Tempe, Arizona at dusk.
“What is going on with your story?”
The pause was filled with the cacophony of birds drawn to the lush flora in the restaurant courtyard, an oasis amidst a landscape of cactus and concrete. I hoped that the birds and the white noise of neighboring conversation drowned out the ever-louder thumping of my heart as Lee studied my face, waiting for my response.
He wore that familiar look, a strange mixture of sincerity and skepticism that I have come to know well in the two classes I have taken with Lee in creative nonfiction writing in my PhD program at Arizona State University, one part encouragement, one part disbelief, as if to say, "really?" His eyes danced, but his voice was serious.
“I know you can write better than this.”
I scrambled to maintain my composure as my heart landed in my sandal-clad toes. My grip tightened around my Odell 9-shilling ale. I wanted to defend myself, to insist on the quality of my work, but I couldn't. I knew that he was right.
We were at the reception for the second half of the To Think To Write to Publish workshop, a National Science Foundation-funded program focused on bringing science and policy scholarship to the public in the form of story. I had spent the past eight months trying to find a compelling story to tell about agriculture, plant science, and policy, with collaborator Angela Records. I had traveled to Los Angeles to witness agriculture inspections in person at the US Department of Agriculture APHIS facility there, spending the day with two entomologists, or as they call themselves, “bug guys.” I had spent countless hours researching plant pathogens and invasive agricultural pests despite the fact that I hate bugs. I had interviewed a woman who lived in an East Coast neighborhood where all the trees were cut down due to the invasion of the emerald ash borer. I had pulled all-nighters on the phone with Angela, writing frantically, trying to pull something together for our various deadlines. I had even participated in a public storytelling event on our topic.
But I’m not a scientist or even a science writer. My experience in creative nonfiction writing is in memoir, poetry, and song. In these mediums, I rely on deeply personal stories and free association writing. I don’t have to struggle to understand the characters, their motivations, or what’s at stake. I already know them intimately. For the most part, I am them.
Now I was trying to write what Lee, in his book You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, calls “the public story.” This wasn't a story about me. Yes, I’m terrified of bugs, and I even tried that angle on in one version of our story, contrasting my entomophobia, or anxiety-producing, panic-inducing fear of bugs, with the fact that – due to xenophobic national policy after September 11th – “the war on terror” had allowed more agricultural pests to enter the country, subordinating agricultural inspections to the seemingly “more important” work of protecting our borders from terrorists. But I have to be honest. My attempt to capture this through narrative was lackluster at best.
What was going on with my story?
I searched for the words to answer Lee, to describe why mine and Angela's piece was not yet the kind of scene-driven, character-driven story evidenced in much of the best creative nonfiction.
The simplest answer?
Writing creative nonfiction is hard. Intellectually, it is very easy to understand: "the building blocks of creative nonfiction are scenes, or little stories." A mantra that no matter how often I hear it repeated by Lee, remains hard to do. And writing creative nonfiction in teams is even harder.
As the “writing” half of the partnership, I have found myself on many occasions over the past eight months waiting for content from my collaborator, the “scholar” half of our partnership, I explained to Lee. I knew nothing about agriculture or science policy. So I wanted to know, what did she think was important? What story did she want to tell? Could she send me scenes – or little stories – and I could try to pretty them up, work some lyrical magic into them? Make them more vivid?
But, as one might imagine, working full-time in agricultural advocacy, as a fellow for both the American Phytopathological Society, and – more recently for the US Agency for International Development – is a little bit time consuming.
“This is why I’ve been so frustrated with this process throughout,” I explained. “I’ve seen the work that is published in Creative Nonfiction magazine, and it is really good! And I knew I wouldn’t be able to write something that good without being able to daily – or at the very least weekly – shape it, play with it, try it on.” For me – as for most writers – stories can be unpredictable. They usually come to life on the page, not in my head.
This requires spending time with them.
This is what I told Lee, as I tried to gracefully explain why our story failed to deliver. But beneath my cheerful facade I continued to sink. Had I a failed as a writer?
I thanked Lee sincerely for his concern, and for his offer to spend some time talking through our piece with us over the next couple of days, and we stepped off the lawn and went back to our respective mingling. But the questions remained with me. What was going on with my story? How could I make it deliver?
My soul-searching led me to a more nuanced answer. Yes, I could blame the difficulty of trying to collaborate on a creatively written piece, the way that this produced a kind of schizophrenia in the piece. As one of the other writing fellows, Jill Sisson Quinn had put it, you don't just have two voices, yours and our coauthor's, you also have the story's voice, what it is trying to say. And when all of these voices are competing, the story can get lost in the shuffle. But the real answer was maybe that I didn't feel it. I lacked passion about my topic. I was trying to bring alive for others a topic that didn't come alive for me. And if the most powerful writing strikes a universal chord, making your reader feel something, how could I do that? How could I make the reader feel something that I didn't?
Anaïs Nin, in a lecture first published in Ramparts, has said, "If you do not breathe through writing, if you don not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don't write, because our culture has no use for it."
These words remind me that this is why I'm here. I could have stayed a songwriter. But I felt drawn to finding different ways of playing with words, different ways of communicating radical ideas to publics beyond my few die-hard fans during my most prolific songwriting/gigging period, nearly a decade ago by now. So I entered PhDlandia, as one of my friends calls it. And TTTWTP appealed to me precisely because of the stretch it would require from me - what better way to hone my writing skills than to look outside myself, to try to take a subject to which I wasn't already connected and try to bring it to life on the page?
And that is what I hope to do, as we forge on into the last leg of our journey, as we hold on to the camaraderie and support so clearly felt during our time together in Tempe, as we take a deep breath and grab one another's hands and jump into the unknown, the breathing, crying, singing world of story.
In song, I would have said it like this:
I may not know exactly where I'm going
But I know that nothing's gonna be the same
Cuz I'm gonna be on a different road
Gonna sing a different song
And I could go all by myself
Or you could come along.