April Murphy: I discovered your writing when “One Thousand Kittens” was a finalist for Cutbank’s Montana Nonfiction Prize in 2011, and then went on the hunt for more essays from your unpublished collection Ambition Towards Love. What I found surprised me.
Some essays of yours, like “Proxy” and “Somewhat Organic” are what I think about as being kind of traditional memoirs, but then there are essays like “Shades of Gray” and “Another Lesbian Space Fantasy” that seem to break out of old ways of thinking about the CNF genre – blending the imagination and a sense of magic without the same authentic and honest (and charming!) voice that characterizes your longer work. Can you talk a little bit about these different forms your writing takes?
Catherine Lucille Sharpe: I am certain that the distinction between fiction and nonfiction is important, for reader and writer alike. It must be important; people get quite upset when they discover that the writer has cheated–stepping outside the bounds of “literal truth” to copulate with fiction. But why don’t people get upset when nonfiction parades around as fiction? I am guilty of this.
The Ambition Towards Love collection deliberately flows back and forth between fiction and nonfiction. Whatever the genre, I continue to circle the same ole boring human stuff–love, loss, more love, more loss, lies, less love, gain, a little more loss, joy, heroism, duplicity, frailty, failure, growth, shrinkage, doubt, love again, loss again, truth, etc.. The usual.
As a writer and self-avowed nutpouch, I’ve clearly been trying to sort one or two things out on the page–the mere two dimensions of the page seem so much more manageable than the infinite dimensions of my head and heart.
I know that the distinction between fiction and nonfiction is important to me because I take the trouble to know the difference line by line, paragraph by paragraph. In my nonfiction, I might forsake a perfectly good “real” detail, simply because it does not add to the meaning of the story, or what I want to emphasize in the story. And guess what! I might include that same detail in a short fiction because it creates ambiguity–one of the best ways to make fiction seem just as true and confusing and unknowable as real life.
The decision to approach an idea through fiction or nonfiction profoundly affects my writing process, even when there are thematic congruities. I’ve noticed how the struggle to craft readable fiction has improved my nonfiction writing, in both predictable and surprising ways.
Predictably, being forced to dredge up a believable character is good practice for bringing your Great Aunt Susan to life for the nonfiction reader. She’s the one who always sucks the knuckle of her pinky finger so that she can twirl her wedding ring. It doesn’t fit on her ring finger anymore, and anyway Uncle Frank’s dead, so it doesn’t much matter where she wears it. There’s something pathetic and familial about all that saliva, and now the reader gets Aunt Susan, too.
Unpredictably for me, engaging in fiction demands that I suffer a vulnerability I don’t necessarily feel in the process of nonfiction. In fiction, my judgment must fade way, way back, allowing the story to emerge from its mysterious place, a place I hardly control. It can be frankly terrifying to tap in to my subconscious–my id whines, my ego hits, and my superego makes me write the same sentence a hundred times on the chalkboard. The reader, even as she nods her head vigorously, agreeing that she’s reading fiction, is still coming to some conclusions about the writer. She can’t help it! If the writer goes on and on about cup size, the reader is not going to mistake the writer for a leg man. Or a leg woman. (Boy, I can’t make that sound right.)
When you read my fiction, don’t you dare tell me I’m lonely, or wimpy, or flailing, or crazy-in-love with my offspring (thus doomed to suffer), or bitterly angry, or actually quite sad at times.
When I am writing the truth, or at least my nonfiction version of the truth, it is so much easier to control what the reader thinks about me. The persona is deliberate, calculated, securely insecure, always ready with a deflective quip. The reader will certainly mistake my persona for me, and thus I am safe from scrutiny. I believe that I am in charge. Which is, of course, a different kind of fiction, but luckily, the kind I reserve for therapy sessions.
To my dismay, all of this precision about fiction and “truth” does not ultimately prove useful to me in the real world. Some people tell the truth only to discover later that they lied. Others lie only to discover the truth. Some don’t even bother to lie, they just keep their mouths shut, suddenly go on diets, go to work early, come home late, and wait to be caught.
Your resumé is one big piece of creative non-fiction.
My Amibition Towards Love collection approximates the experience of a whole story–one where the reader swims through truth, both designated and actual, as well as the lies we call fiction. Nonetheless, like me, the reader still has to figure out what really happened.
But by the time the words hit the page, it’s all true.
AJM: Do you think that queer writers are obligated to write queer nonfiction? I suppose since nonfiction is about personal experience, the subject matter is inevitable is one is queer. The writer, then, gets to figure out how their queer identity is expressed what (if any) resonance it will give to their more ‘universal’ life story.
One of the things that’s refreshing about your writing is that the central struggle isn’t your queerness – the narratives don’t get their tension from a ‘coming out’ plot, nor do they have a political abrasiveness despite the fact that they are about gay marriage/divorce/reproduction – instead your work exists in a world where all of this is secondary to the love you have to give your daughter and yourself.
CS: As far as I’m concerned, nobody is obligated to write anything. Well, unless contracts are involved. I do, however, this it’s Super Nice when people write about stuff they really care about. The form – fiction or nonfiction – is less important than the question at stake for the writer. When I’m reading, I’m engaged in the investigation that the writer is making into the subject matter, so it better be a real question the writer has, with some juice.
I’m totally way flattered that you find my work refreshing in its absence of Queer Identity Conflict, which I’ll just call QIC for our purposes. I haven’t written much specifically about QUIC because it is not a painful enough question for me – plus I already know the answer. I’m special.
When I say I’m special, what I really mean is that I’m like everyone else. That makes me special, because not so many people realize that. And I’ve decided to worry less about being original and worry more about being average. And writing about that instead.
I’m really, really, really, really, really interested in what it is like to be human. More precisely, what it is like for me to be human. My current line of inquiry is how I am like so many others, not how I feel apart from these other creatures.
AJM: It seems like you really have a focus when you’re creating your persona. So, how do you navigate your real lesbian identity with your lesbian narrators?
CS: Poorly. They are all mixed up inside. Therefore, I try not to think about it too much. The idea of a continuum of truth – from lies (fiction) to truth (nonfiction) – is inept at best. Truth is a blob, a DNA strand, a froth of delicate, short-lived moments. I’ve had perfectly good fiction turn into nonfiction on me more than once. On the page and in real life. Freaky.
AJM: As someone who didn’t enter academia after completing your MFA, can you tell us a little bit about what your writing life is like now?
CS: Oy. I’m scattered and slow. I’m undisciplined about my creative work. I prefer black pens and write longhand in a college-ruled spiral notebook. Usually early in the morning. Sometimes my daughter has to borrow my notebook for drawing or math or to teach me something by diagramming. For now, I let her because she can’t really read cursive (this is de-emphasized in school now, did you know?). Also, I like what she inserts into my ridiculous musings.
For my paid work, I write all day (or at least sit in front of a computer all day as if I’m writing) for a corporate healthcare services entity. Sexy. Adjectives are discouraged, as are complicated sentences that involve semi-colons; apparently these are too difficult to follow. It is a constant struggle to avoid being sucked into the undertow. I have to remind myself that writing has saved my life—connecting and re-connecting to that source is an end in itself even when progress on new creative work is slowed down to a drag-drag-crawl-sob-crawl.