Gathering, we swap stories. In New Jersey (and I'm guessing surrounding eastern seaboard states), much of tomorrow's holiday table exchanges will be about our experience during and after superstorm Sandy. I can't help but think how much we communicate underneath the surface talk:
Because when we talk about the storm and its challenges and aftermath, what we are really talking about is something else entirely. When we complain about being unprepared for how long power was off, the high cost of generators, the downside of TV/phone/internet bundling, we are talking about vulnerability, loss of control, the underbelly of modernity. When we cite crippled mass transit systems, we are talking about anxiety, isolation. The stories about discarding ruined food are stories about guilt and money; the stories about fighting with spouses over not having batteries or working flashlights are stories of blame.
The stories themselves are about more than, often something other than, their topline narratives. This is the goal of memoir, the personal essay, and nonfiction narratives: to illuminate what’s percolating under the surface, what drives the unfolding event, and what it tells us about ourselves.
This is why people read creative nonfiction in the first place.
The renowned spiritual thinker Henri Nouwen wrote, “That which is the most personal, is the most universal.” Readers must be able to find, in any nonfiction work about a personal experience, that which is universal – but the only way through to the universal is by way of the personal.
The excerpt is from an article of mine at the blog of The Writers Circle, titled "What We Talk About When We Talk About the Storm." I invite you to click over and read the full piece, which explores this craft aspect of writing creative nonfiction, how CNF writers must constantly excavate the real story from under the one we talk about.