Greetings one and all,
I see that we have lots of new followers joining us recently! Welcome one and all. This post comes to you in two parts. Or perhaps, one and a half parts. I say that because the first part is something of an introduction to the second part and… okay lets get to it.
Part One: The Email
Recently, I sent a round-robin email to all our judges that asked them two questions.
1. What are your top three favourite creative non-fiction books that have been published in 2000 or after?
2. What kind of stories could you imagine using those books as a jumping off point?
And so here, in part two, is Aaron Simon’s response to these questions. To see more of Aaron’s work, click here.
Part Two: Aaron Simon
“Creative nonfiction’s not usually my thing.
Nonfiction’s not usually not my thing.
We’re so inundated with the goings-on of real life - you might say we even live in it - that, man, at the end of the day, you just want to curl into the fetal position, grab a bottle of scotch, and either bawl yourself to sleep or read a book that’s not set on this planet.
That said, I do occasionally venture out of the fiction bubble. I’ll pick up a book on Zen philosophy, or a human interest piece, or, if I’m feeling particularly daring, an incredibly dense - but enjoyable - book on the universe. Reb Trimmer asked for my top three of the 2000s so far, so here they are:
1. Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, & Dogen’s Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye. Long title, right? Well, around the time I was in my sophomore year of undergrad, I was really coming to the point where I knew that my religion up until then wasn’t for me. I knew that Islam and Christianity weren’t for me, either, so I did some poking around and found Soto Zen, then Zen in general. Now, I ain’t saying I’m a good practitioner of it, but I am saying that it makes a good amount of sense, and Brad Warner does a great job of chopping away at the ritual and ornamentation and showing what it is, based on Dogen’s work.
2. The Lost City of Z. It’s like an adventure novel, something you’d see by Arthur Conan Doyle - when he wasn’t writing about spiritualism or detectives - or H Rider Haggard. The catch is that it was written by a New York Times journalist, and tracks a Victorian explorer’s quest to find a long-mythologized lost city in the heart of the Amazon.
3. What Are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal. Laina Dawes writes about her experiences growing up as an adopted black woman in the heavy metal scene. The book talks to women like her from the metal and punk scenes, and discusses the genres’ pasts, present, and futures, and what those women have gone through. Obviously, it’s a human interest piece, and you have to be at least somewhat interested in the histories and scenes and cultures of the two genres to get anything out of it.
Second on Reb Trimmer’s to-do list was to to talk about what sorts of stories could be created from these.
Ultimately, I’m a believer in letting a writer stare at something long enough and - hopefully - she’ll come up with a story. However, I tell that to people, and follow up with “It works for me - most of the time,” and, judging from the amount of obscenities and rude gestures I get in return, that doesn’t quite work for other people.
So, personally speaking, I’d probably get the most traction out of The Lost City of Z. Something like a modern-day explorer going through the jungle to track down ruins spotted via thermal imaging, but runs into some really spooky shit. The exploration turns into a fight for survival as his party is hunted down by - something.
At the heart of the trouble, though, isn’t finding creative nonfiction, or journalism, or anything else. It’s making a story into a story. I mean, come on! There’s already a narrative - what else do you need?
Well, let me tell you what I think about real life: It’s boring. Dull. Yeah, even the exciting bits are pretty boring. Life can’t hold a candle to fiction when it comes to excitement. And why? Because there’s always another side. There’s always some logical reason for things to happen why they do, and, when there’s a logical reason, there’s consequences.
You don’t have to think about all of the stormtroopers who died in the first Death Star in the Yavin system, nor do you have to think about their families waiting for them after their tours of duty ended.
You don’t have to think about how severely screwed up the fact that a giant great white shark prowling the waters off a beach in Jaws is. (There’s no way there’s only going to be big sharks. There are going to be big everything. That shit don’t happen without other weird shit happening.)
And you know why? Because it’s fiction. It’s not real. We are free to place ourselves in a universe far, far away, where those dudes are supremely evil, and it, frankly, doesn’t matter what the consequences are. Or, we’re free to go “Yay! The big, mean shark is dead and the two guys lived!”
So, perhaps you should take a look at a piece of nonfiction that you really like and say, “How can I turn this into a rollicking good time? How can I turn this not into a narrative, but a rollercoaster ride?”
Will you run the risk of not being Literary because you’re not writing in a Realist mode? Will you not attain a position in the hallowed halls of academic literature because you’re not another Jonathan Franzen?
Probably. But, man, I hate to break it to you, but even the most melodramatic parts of your day-to-day life don’t always have some existential meaning. Sometimes stuff just happens.
Hell, some days go by when you’re not faced with an existential breakdown brought on by… I don’t know. What’s the buzz in the Times best-seller list these days?
Sometimes, you just have to have fun.”
 That’s not particularly true. Most of the time, it’s a high-gravity beer.