“Emergent writers need to keep asking themselves: what can I eliminate, what can I expand, what can I rework to get to the heartbeat of my story.

Writing creative nonfiction is, after all, heart work.”

Today I’ll be wrapping up my series of interviews on truthtelling and CNF with CNF Outlier alumna, Karen Zey.

Karen is a versatile writer whose work I admire for both her range and skill as a storyteller. You’ll find Karen’s abcederian lyric essay for CNF writers in Brevity, her hermit crab essay on being a writer who is “emergent, with promise” in Proximity, and a beautiful piece on how she surprised her son on his 21st birthday in the Globe and Mail’s Facts and Arguments.

Karen and I first came to know each other when she won a spot in the first session of my CNF Outliers e-course via a Twitter giveaway. As I’ve gotten to know Karen and her work, I’ve learned a few new and exciting approaches to storytelling. I really admire the way Karen celebrates life and truly honours her characters in ways that never feel sentimental or cliché – this isn’t easy (at least for me) but I think it comes down to simple honesty.

Karen has a knack for bringing moments of lived experience to life in her writing with careful observation, well-chosen details that ring true.

I’m so pleased to talk to Karen about how she goes about finding the truth, the heartbeat, in her stories.

NB: In To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction Philip Lopate writes “We may not ever be in possession of the truth, but at least as nonfiction writers we can try to be as honest as our courage permits.”

You touch on honesty in your article, “Telling the Truth Without Betrayal”, which articulates so many of the small internal battles CNF writers face every time we put pen to paper. To change names or not to change names? To hide identifying characteristics or “tell it like it was”?

Your work often includes family members, former students, people you care about. I wonder at what point you let people know you’re writing about them. Have you ever decided to change a piece or not submit it for publication because someone felt uncomfortable with being a character in your story?

KZ: I’ve never hesitated writing about family and friends, perhaps naively thinking that if I capture their endearing humanity in my essay, all will be okay. And I generally share my stories with them only after publication. So far no one’s admitted to being uncomfortable with anything I’ve written (other than my son complaining that I called a video game arcade a video game ‘parlour’: my bad).

I did check with my husband before submitting my latest essay, which includes details about his newly diagnosed chronic illness, a condition that can be managed but not cured. Although the essay focuses on my anxiety and coping mechanisms, I wanted to check how he felt about revealing his health situation to the world. He was comfortable with the story and even helped me remember details of hospital visits that I had forgotten. I wouldn’t have sent it out without his okay. Sometimes a relationship is more important than writing about it.

Writing about former students and their parents carries a different responsibility and set of constraints. I constantly teeter on the tightrope between truth and the right to privacy. I’m careful to use pseudonyms, change minor personal details and avoid naming locales, but there are some school stories I cannot tell, even though they touched me deeply. Some stories of pain or conflict, which I witnessed through my work in special education, are not mine to tell.

NB: I find when I set out to write a story there’s a layer of truth not always apparent at first. Beyond the factual events, my recall of what happened, lies a deeper emotional truth – what the experience actually meant to me. The layer of truth that emerges can sometimes be surprising, a discovery that only happens in the telling.

Does this happen to you, too, when you set out to write about experiences that moved or changed you in some way?

KZ: In many ways, writing memoir is an ongoing hunt for the truth. I begin by gathering and arranging the facts of what happened (or, more accurately, getting down my remembering of my last remembering), and chronicle my reactions in the moment. Other layers of truth emerge in the process of rewriting, as I tighten the prose and reflect on larger themes. I often go from a first rough draft with few narrator emotions, to spilling my guts in purple prose, to looking for details and images to convey my feelings. Just-right word choices and images come more easily as you grapple with the deeper truths you’re trying to reveal in your story.

The first time I wrote about my husband’s illness, a second-person POV and flash 100-word limit helped me approach a difficult topic. This was a first step. I have since written about it in longer essay form, with the telling of the story helping me process deeper emotional truths about the changes in our lives.

NB: I love Karen Zey as she appears on the page – this particular narrator’s voice which is warm and caring, at times self-deprecating and funny. I find Karen-on-the-page endearing, someone I want to know, and who has my trust as a reader because she doesn’t hide her own vulnerability, her true hopes and fears.

Writers often wonder about finding their true voice. Is it difficult to write yourself on the page – more challenging than writing other characters? Do you ever find yourself feeling resistance or fear about making yourself vulnerable in this way? How do you keep writing a vulnerable story through to the end in the nowhere-to-hide “I” voice?

KZ: I constantly wrestle with getting the “I” character present and believable on the page. Self-disclosure is a scary thing—but without showing personal frailties and self-doubts, without empathy for the feelings and foibles of others—a writer’s voice lacks authenticity. One of my first CNF workshop instructors, Sarah Lolley, highlighted this need for narrator vulnerability in personal essays, and I keep her lesson in mind when I write. When my hermit crab essay, “Individual Education Plan” was published, I felt naked in front of the literary crowd. But without revealing my anxieties as a writer—from my almost-a-senior age to the number of my submission rejections—the piece wouldn’t have been an honest portrayal of my writing life.

I belong to a peer writing group, whose members have met for 4 years. They keep me honest by gently yet relentlessly prompting me to dig deeper and show how I feel. The essays I love to read, the ones that take my breath away, always have a strong narrator voice drawing me into personal moments. I keep aiming for that kind of voice.

NB: One of the things I love about your personal essay, “Jake”, is how easily I can “step in” to the story. As each scene unfolds I’m right there with the narrator as she interacts with her troubled student over the course of a day. I think this is because all the cues for how she is feeling are embedded in the scene rather than in “telling” summations (“I felt sad/overwhelmed/frustrated when”). It’s expressed subtly in observation, description, action.

By holding back you allow the space for the reader to come to her own conclusions, feel her own feelings, as she watches the story unfold through the narrator’s eyes. As a result I really feel something by the end when the child expresses, so plainly and honestly, his trust in the narrator.

Do you have any tips for writers who want to make a reader feel something in their stories but struggle with striking the careful balance of showing and telling?

KZ: In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott advises writers to “throw the lights on for your reader.” I would add: trust your readers to interpret the images and actions you create for them. So much can be revealed in a gesture, an observed sensory detail, a small object that carries meaning. Part of my learning curve as a writer has been how to avoid exposition and develop these aspects of craft to convey feeling and inner thought. Emergent writers need to keep asking themselves: what can I eliminate, what can I expand, what can I rework to get to the heartbeat of my story. Writing creative nonfiction is, after all, heart work.

NB: Do you have any favourite essays or books that touch on truth telling (either instructive or for the joy of reading)? Any stories or memoirs you admire for the author’s willingness to make themselves vulnerable to get to the truth?

KZ: Reading is part of a writer’s work. I discover talented writers every day in literary magazines, both in print and online. Brenda Miller remains one of my favorite essayists, from her early hermit crab essay, to her wonderful writing guide, co-authored with Suzanne Paola: Tell It Slant. Another favorite is Anne Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, a collection of her essays about life and writing. “Writing is a miserable, awful business,” she writes. “Stay with it. It is better than anything in the world.”

Ah, when the words flow onto the page. As writers, don’t we all yearn for those moments?

Thank you so much, Karen, for going in depth about your experience and process as a writer. I’m a fan of the two great Anne’s, myself — Annie Lamott and Anne Patchett. What a fantastic quote from Anne P; I also love her powerful memoir, Truth and Beauty.

As we yearn for those moments where we can transcend the “miserable, awful business” of writing, let’s keep striving for beauty and truth, too.