A few weeks ago, my editor at Ruminate asked if I’d be interested in reading submissions for their annual non-fiction contest.
Anyway, I agreed. Reading fiction submissions has been beneficial, so I looked forward to learning more about non-fiction writing. What I didn’t anticipate was this:
Feeling like an impostor.
Who was I to say what’s good non-fiction? What if a piece is simply not to my taste? What if I cut a strong essay that some other, more knowledgeable judge would put on their top ten list? What if I’m not a good enough judge? I know fiction so much better.
I knew exactly where this sense of inadequacy was rooted. Years ago, someone (let’s call her Gretchen) used to pal around with me. When people heard that I was a writer and Gretchen was there, she would say,
“Laura’s a good fiction writer.”
That sounds complimentary.
But there was this slight emphasis on the word fiction, a delicate inflection of tone, one that conveyed a different message. Yes, Laura may be a good fiction writer but she’s not good at non-fiction. In her unstated but clear opinion, non-fiction was harder to write; writing a novel was all very well and good, but writing a scholarly book was harder and more important.
(Incidentally, both types of writing are difficult to do well. One is not inherently harder or easier than the other, though they require different skills. What’s easy is writing badly.)
I resented that. I wanted to grab the attention away from her—pluck the megaphone from her hands—and yell,
“I’m a damned good writer. Period. Scratch that, exclamation point. I can write anything I jolly well please!”
(Except poetry. It’s a beast of a different species. Anyone who can tame that wild creature has my admiration.)
Gretchen probably didn’t even realize there was an inflection in her voice. I also don’t think she ever read much of my non-fiction: not my blog, and certainly not my narrative essays, nor my master’s thesis or other academic works.
(One paper was published in an online undergraduate journal. The journal is defunct, but I believe my paper survives as a resource on a site that sells academic papers “for research purposes.” Yes, for $29.99, you too can download my paper on feminine identity in Sophocles’ Antigone and turn it in to your professor. I hope she gives me an A and flunks you. Just sayin’.)
My professors liked my work. And if writing a 100-page thesis (roughly 25,000 words, or one-third of my current novel) on annihilation in Moby-Dick couldn’t be considered difficult, then I’m not certain our definitions of “difficult” are the same, and maybe you haven’t read Melville’s masterpiece, either. Whales are scary.
In regard to her statement, I think I’ve gotten over the resentment—mostly—but the insecurity has remained. The fact that I had to prove my non-fiction credentials to you, my loyal readers, by citing a paper I wrote 16 years ago shows that I’m still dealing with it.
So when I began reading non-fiction submissions, I doubted myself. I read all of the assigned submissions, took notes on each one, intending to sort them into Yesses and Nos later. It was tough. But yesterday, as I was compiling my final top ten picks, I realized something.
Most of the essays were narrative. They told a story.
What makes a piece of narrative writing compelling is the same for both fiction and non-fiction. Polished writing. Original ideas. Emotional depth. Strong voice. A hook, a conflict, a turning point, a resolution (in tone, if not in the conflict).
The same problems in a weak short story were present in the weak essays. Misspellings. Odd punctuation. Confusion. Clichés. A sense that the piece wasn’t quite finished at the end; the last line didn’t have a finality to its tone.
Realizing this gave me a boost of confidence. I’m still more comfortable in the realm of fiction, but I’m not feeling quite so much like an impostor.