Days of Creative Nonfiction

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Last week, I spent my time between working on the rough draft of the Emmett’s second chapter (which is coming along quite nicely; averaging about 10 pages a day), and reading a friend’s Master’s thesis. I’m on her committee, and two full days were dedicated to review the first three chapters of the document.

Then, she came up to visit for a day, so that we could go over edits, and plan the details for the last two chapters (the data analysis and conclusion chapters).

Anderson Island, Washington, with Olympia in the lower left. Source: Google maps

Anderson Island, Washington, with Olympia in the lower left. Source: Google maps

Her thesis is a story about the early settlers of Anderson Island, in Puget Sound, Washington.

The settlers were her ancestors, and she’s telling their story, using creative non-fiction as the vehicle for this research.

It’s a completely different approach than anything I’d ever seen; which, of course, I can completely relate to, because Emmett’s manuscript will be unique in its final presentation, too.

Anyway, in tradition theses, the document breaks down this way:

  • First chapter – introduction/state the research question
  • Second chapter – review of the literature
  • Third chapter – the theory/approach/method/subject
  • Fourth chapter – interpretation/data analysis
  • Fifth chapter – conclusion/results

The first two chapters of her thesis follow a traditional style; the third chapter, however, tells the story of the settlers in a series of brief essays, with original poetry in between each essay, which serves to ‘change gears’ as she introduces each individual essay.

The reason she is using the creative non-fiction approach in the central chapter is because she has only a few original documents that belonged to her ancestors, and there is little published secondary information about the settlers of the island. She struggled with how to tell this story when there is very little original information to be had? She didn’t want to do a superficial job, obviously; also, she didn’t want to presume anything about her ancestor’s lives. [Lack of primary documents in Emmett’s words (scrapbooks, journals) has been a huge challenge for me; so, I completely empathize.]

One thing that jumped out in her writing was the use of a lot of what I called ‘supposing’ language; i.e., the settlers “likely did such-and-such”, or, “they must have done x, y, and z”.

I understand why she uses that approach; however, I wish she could be more definitive, though, because seeing a lot of ‘might haves’ and ‘could haves’ made me impatient. I asked her, based on what she knows about her ancestors, can she not be more definitive in some of the essays?

No, she said, because she didn’t want to chance that it would fall into the category of historical fiction. I get that; I also get the frustration of having holes in an ancestor’s story, and trying to reknit that fabric with little to go on.

I suggested to her that once the thesis is finished, to not consider it complete. Once the document is published, and others in the historical community have had a chance to read it, new material may come to the surface — perhaps her ancestors did have a journal or perhaps there are tax documents, or other records out there — which is something I also hope will happen once Emmett’s story is finished.

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