Summer School with Catie Malooly: The Beauty and Horror of Nonfiction

The first in an ongoing series by undergraduate students in Intro to Creative Nonfiction at the University of Iowa who reflect on writing and revising. We begin with Ms. Catie Malooly who addresses procrastination, workshop, and the beauty and horror of creative nonfiction.

I procrastinate. Hard.

I wish I didn’t, but I do, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. I tell myself I write better under pressure, that those rigid deadlines are what I need to really crank out my best work.

But a lot of that is bullshit. I’m just incredibly lazy.

Now, being a Journalism major, my waiting-until-the-last-possible-second-to-submit-a-piece-electronically-to-my-instructor-and-hope-he-doesn’t-notice-it’s-actually-two-minutes-and-fifteen-seconds-late usually worked out fine. I didn’t have a problem putting a story together, since journalistic writing is pretty straightforward: find the story, interview some sources, get the facts, glue together, submit. (Okay, it takes a little more thought and effort than that, but you get what I mean.)

I decided to pick up an English minor this year. My family thought it was because I loved writing. My friends thought it was because I loved reading. Neither one is particularly true – I really just needed something to fill the rest of my time at the University of Iowa so I didn’t have to graduate early. Being an adult is overrated.

One of my biggest struggles this semester came from the transition from journalistic to literary writing. In journalism, stories are concise. They use short, to-the-point paragraphs, implementing the inverted pyramid structure. I had spent the entirety of the previous semester working to perfect this style, and was starting to really get the hang of it. But all of that was shot to hell the moment I walked into Creative Nonfiction. All of a sudden I was asked to describe objects, people, and scenes. I was “perhapsing” about a character’s intentions, rather than researching and verifying them. I was putting myself into the story instead of maintaining objectivity. Everything was backwards. But of course, practice made…better, and I found myself adapting to an entirely new writing style.

Before my immersion into the world of creative nonfiction, I never revised anything – when that last word hit the page I was done, and I did not look back. Again, most of it was laziness, but I will still maintain that part of it is my confidence in the mechanics of my writing. I am meticulous about my word choice and sentence structure, to the point where I literally stare at a sentence immediately after writing it, trying to figure out how to improve it before moving on to the next. (I rewrote that sentence five times.) This instantaneous revision still works quite well for me, but this semester has taught me that it isn’t enough.

Nonfiction writing goes beyond the order of words on a page. It holds complex messages, invokes feelings, creates and maintains personas. It asks questions and pushes boundaries, while telling stories that need to be told. It requires time and attention. It can’t be half-assed.

I quickly learned I needed to set aside more time to complete my Creative Nonfiction assignments. I set up shop in the living room of my apartment because the mess in my bedroom would remain a constant distraction. I struggled to find ways to keep myself from avoiding the task of writing, but soon found classical music to calm and focus me. (I would like to take this opportunity to thank Pandora for its continuous love and support, getting me through the sometimes painful process of nonfiction writing.)

Hands down, the best way to revise is through group workshop. This is not to be argued – it is strictly fact. The notion “two heads are better than one” is far more than a cliché to me. I take it very seriously. I truly believe the best product comes from group collaboration, taking one idea above and beyond its initial potential.

I deeply valued our class workshops for both of our large essay assignments. My first essay was a personal account of an incident with my drug-addicted mother when I was twelve years old. I started writing the story knowing only the plot points, but couldn’t figure out how to create scene, give my narrator a voice, or anything else that makes a nonfiction essay worth reading. I was completely dreading my workshop day, convinced my classmates would think it was melodramatic and incomplete.

I could not have been more wrong. Each workshop started with the same question: what is this essay about? The only thing I could come up with was my mom. But my classmates were experiencing my story for the first time, and took away messages I never even intended – the power of words, relationships, fear, the impact of a parent, a personal turning point. Out of nowhere, I had more than enough themes to choose from, ones I never would have thought of if it weren’t for the writers around me.

Though my first essay benefitted from the workshop process, my second essay was really able to go above and beyond the limitations of my first draft. Once again, the “about” went from the literal description of a drunken spring break experience to an essay about the struggle between maturity and immaturity, true to almost any college student as some point in their lives.

I chose to incorporate footnotes into my essay, emulating Jenny Boully’s “The Body.” I was using them to add in facts about different minute details of the story, hoping to convey a studious yet sarcastic tone. And then one of my classmates made an off-handed comment that changed my paper – “What if, as you were telling us about your increasing drunkenness, your footnotes got drunker too?” There is no way I would have come up with that on my own. Absolutely no way. Soon, my footnotes went from “Busch Light contains 4.10% alcohol and 95 calories per 12 oz.” to “Wes looks EXACTLY like Pokémon traiiner Ash Ketchum” and “DRINKING IS SO FUNNNN ILOVE COLLEGE NEVER GARDAUATING!!!!” Not only did they add a level of humor to my piece, but also intensified the narrator’s inner struggle and contradicted her original attitude.

While I have obviously learned a thing or two this year about the writing and revision processes, I learned even more about myself as a writer and a person. That’s the beauty and horror of nonfiction – whether you mean to or not, you end up looking deep inside yourself, sometimes finding things you never knew where there. This experience has led to some self-discoveries, which will hopefully change me for the better. Eventually.

(But not today. While writing this, I managed to take breaks to do the following: visit Facebook 23 times, buy a Mountain Dew, stare at the wall, check my email, eat a sucker, hold 3 different conversations via text, impersonate a pogo stick, lay on the floor, clean my glasses, buy Cheez-Its, and introduce a friend to The Creep. Sorry I’m not sorry.)

Catie Malooly was raised in Darien, Illinois, a Chicago suburb with the actual tag line “A Nice Place to Live.” Currently a Junior at the University of Iowa, Catie is majoring in both Journalism and Communication Studies, while also pursing an English minor.

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