This post originally appeared on August 14, 2013.
A few weeks ago, students in my creative nonfiction workshop were discussing a classmate’s essay about her rather eccentric grandmother. It was a good piece of writing, a solid first draft, and I wanted to get my students talking about what made the piece so successful. It seemed to me that the student had done a good job of blending sensory detail with her reflection, developing scenes and then extrapolating from those scenes her own mixed emotions about loving someone who can be, at times, rather exasperating.
“Why do you like this essay?” I asked one student pointedly.
“Well,” he replied, “I could… relate to it.”
“Because… well… we all have grandmothers.”
This is true for most of us, I suppose, but I tried to encourage my class to reflect more deeply. While it’s true we all have grandmothers, it’s not true that we’re all this particular 20-year-old woman writing the essay, with her particular relationship with this particular grandmother. I had an eccentric grandmother myself, but my Nana’s eccentricity manifested itself in the casual use of racial slurs and sudden angry outbursts that no one could see coming, whereas the grandmother in the essay was inclined to hoard food and drive recklessly.
The notion that a successful piece of writing (or film, or probably any art form) should be something we can “relate” to is a little problematic for me. I agree that I want to be able to find something that I can recognize and understand as “true” when I’m experiencing art, and for that reason I enjoy reading essays that explore the world as I have known it. But my inability to personally relate to an author or experience described in a piece of nonfiction is not necessarily the author’s fault; nor is it a “flaw” in the writing itself. I have never suffered through a migraine, but Joan Didion’s description of her own affliction in the essay “In Bed” is still powerful and vivid. I don’t have the experience of being a southern African American in the middle of the twentieth century, but I can still feel empathetic when Maya Angelou describes the shame and anger she felt when the white politician insulted and degraded his audience when he spoke at her 8th grade graduation in the chapter of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings that is frequently anthologized as either “Graduation” or “Graduation in Stamps.” I’m not a lesbian, I’ve never seen an analyst, and I don’t really have much tension in my relationship with my mother, but Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? was still probably the most riveting works of nonfiction I read last year.
This is writing that I don’t relate to, but it still resonates with me, largely because these authors provide such vivid details, metaphors, scenes, and reflections. I don’t personally know how it feels to be Didion, Angelou, or Bechdel, but because of the way they render their essays, I come to know a bit more about how they experience the world. I walk in their shoes and see through their eyes, at least for a little bit.
That, I want my students to understand, is the power of nonfiction. It makes another person’s experiences and perceptions vividly real to us—so real that, while we’re reading, they begin to feel like our own. We fool ourselves—or allow ourselves to be fooled—into believing that this point of view is our own. So this semester, and maybe from now on, I think I’m going to correct students who praise an essay for being “relatable”—and ask them to think more carefully about how the choices an author makes can allow a total stranger’s personal experience to resonate so deeply within us.