When I first started writing nonfiction, as an undergraduate creative writing major, I struggled—a lot—to find my subject matter. These days, I write about my ever-evolving relationship with masculinity, particularly now that I have been living openly as a transgender man for five years and have been sporting a beard for three. Back then, though, I had a lot of ideas of what I was supposed to be writing in nonfiction. Like so many beginning writers, I believed that, to write good nonfiction, you needed to have exceptional things—“interesting” things—happen to you.
Meanwhile I was 21 years old and had never tried an illegal drug, had never been drunk, had never been in trouble with the law beyond a single speeding ticket that kept me constantly driving five miles per hour under the speed limit for the next five years, had never traveled anyplace more interesting than Orlando and Niagara Falls, and had a great relationship with my family—including parents who were high school sweethearts and were still happily married in their fifties. The only thing I had that fit my definition of “interesting” was my discomfort with my body and my gender—and I didn’t yet have the language to articulate it clearly to myself, let alone write about it for my classmates and professors to read. In other words, the only “interesting” thing I had to write about was off-limits for the time being.
Eventually, in the fall of my last year of college, I figured out the language to talk about the mismatch between my assigned gender and my body and wrote my first real essay—the first time the essay was more than an anecdote about something funny my grandmother had said or a fight I’d had with my brother. I believed this essay was powerful, that it was a “good” essay, because it was the first time I’d admitted to myself—let alone to others, when I gave it to one of my professors to read—that I had always felt like—had always been, deep down—a man. It was the kind of essay I thought I was supposed to be writing.
For a while, I continued to believe this. I wrote a lot of essays, particularly in my first year of graduate school, that quite literally reported on my body, my growing discomfort with it, my evolving sense of the person I really was, despite what others might believe based on how I looked. In some ways, at this point in my story, when I was writing these essays without really understanding what was interesting about them, I was writing for the “right” reasons.
Those who teach nonfiction tell their students that to write an essay is to ask questions, that the best essays are the ones when the writer can’t stop thinking about a question, can’t stop thinking about a subject, and they just need to figure it out—whatever “it” is. That’s where the word “essay” comes from—the French verb, essayer, means to try.
And I was coming to the page with questions—they just happened to be the easy questions: Who was I? What did I want other people to see when they saw me? They were questions I already knew the answers to—I just hadn’t allowed myself to actually say the answers out loud. I thought that was enough.
When I wrote these essays and shared them in workshop, my classmates and professors said the right things. They talked about craft—about where I needed more scene, about where my sentence structure or word choice fell apart, about how my essay could open in a more engaging way, about how I could create a satisfying conclusion even when there wasn’t one in real life. It wasn’t until I started to publish—particularly when one of my essays, which is about choosing my name after I made the decision to socially and medically transition, was reprinted by Slate, along with the headline “A Transgender Man Chooses His New Name After Making a Life Change” and a cartoon drawing of a man holding up two pieces of paper with my birth name on one and my legal name on the other—that I started to get comments like “You’re so brave,” or “Thank you for sharing your important story,” or—my personal favorite—“You’re so lucky you have something to write about.”
Even while I told my students that everyone has a story to tell—that it doesn’t matter how ordinary their lives might seem, they could still write nonfiction even if they hadn’t led an “interesting” life—a part of me still believed that having a subject matter that grabbed the reader’s attention was important. I always assigned essays to read that dealt with subject matter that was anything but ordinary—essays like “Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard, or “The Love of My Life” by Cheryl Strayed, or Kiese Laymon’s “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America”—and in class we had just as many conversations about subject as we did about craft. Students told me things like, “I can’t wait until I get done with school and can get out into the real world and have something to write about” and I corrected them, but only half-heartedly.
It wasn’t until notifications started popping up with emails from strangers who had read my essay after their friend or grandmother or college roommate or next-door neighbor shared it on Facebook and simply had to email me to tell me how much my story had “touched” them that I realized how wrong I’d been.
This kind of rhetoric drove me crazy; I felt like everyone had missed the point. I’d always thought that was the point: to write essays about “interesting” subjects and then have people read them and be amazed by my “interesting” life. But after these emails started coming in, I reassessed. What did I want people to get out of my writing? It certainly wasn’t that I was “brave.”
I don’t mean to imply that it’s not important for us to write and publish and read capital-I Important essays: essays that deal with very real, life-altering issues and open our eyes to lives that are drastically different from our own. I do, of course. But we—as writers and scholars of creative nonfiction—shouldn’t lose sight of the hard writing work that goes into these essays. I don’t want people to talk about my essays the way they talk about Caitlyn Jenner’s interview with Diane Sawyer; I don’t want people to call my work important, or brave, or interesting because it can so easily be sensationalized with a click-bait headline.
I want people to read my work and notice my attention to language, or the way I’ve balanced elements of scene with my reflection on page four, or the actually difficult questions I’m grappling with on the page—the hard questions, the ones I want to back away from but force myself to answer. I want people to understand that the hardest thing I’ve ever written—the thing that took the most emotional and artistic work—was not the section in an essay about my experiences dating as a trans man where I speak relatively openly about my sex life; in fact, I eventually read that essay, including that section, during a job talk, in a room full of strangers who would eventually become my colleagues. It was no big deal.
The hardest thing I’ve ever written is something I’m still writing—an essay about my love of football that uses my identity only as a lens and not a primary subject. It’s hard because I have to look deep inside myself and answer questions honestly, questions like, “Why is it that you only started caring about football after you started living openly as a man?” and “How can you possibly call yourself a feminist if you really believe that your interest in football is tied to your testosterone levels?” and “If you claim to really care about issues like violence against women and the commodification of black masculinity and the exploitation of college athletes and the long-term effects of head injuries, how can you sleep at night when you spend fourteen hours watching football most weekends?”
Now, when I teach nonfiction, I do everything I can to make sure my students understand these things—that the real work of creative nonfiction is the writing and the revising, and that the truly brave thing is to ask, and attempt to answer (whether or not you succeed), the hard questions—not just the questions about “interesting” subjects. I have them read essays about seemingly mundane subjects—Maureen Stanton’s “Laundry,” for example, an essay that, on its surface, seems so ordinary, but because of the questions she asks, because she doesn’t shy away from the hard ones, becomes extraordinary. I want my students to understand that they have stories worth telling, that their lives—however seemingly ordinary or boring or typical on the surface—are worthy of reflection and examination. And I want them to understand that true bravery isn’t about confessing something to shock the reader; it’s about trying to answer the questions that scare you because of what they might say about who you really are.
Silas Hansen’s essays have appeared in Colorado Review, The Normal School, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Slate, and elsewhere, and have twice been listed as “Notable Essays” in the Best American series. He teaches creative writing at Ball State University and is currently working on a collection of essays.