Can Nonfiction Writers Be Happy—and Still Write?

by Caitlin McGill


The longer we’re away from our writing projects (that is, the more time we squander coming up with excuses for why we’re just too busy to write), the harder it is to come back to those projects, to sit down in front our laptops or notepads and write. Actually write. The time we spend not writing often becomes the time we spend grappling with our identities as writers. For me, that means wasting hours on Netflix marathons of How I Met Your Mother, pausing between episodes to ask, “What am I doing with my life? Was pursuing a MFA the right decision? Am I a writer at all?” And, worse: “Do I even have anything to write about anymore?” I internalize these questions—distancing myself even further from myself and my writing—and hit play again. As an essayist who writes mostly about dark memories—memories that inherently beg to be ignored, including suffering and death and losing yourself to both—that internalization becomes exceedingly dangerous.

So when I met with my writing group last week and realized I’d let nearly a month pass without addressing my work, I panicked. What would I write about? Would I be able to dig back into those scenes I’d tried to so hard to ignore? Did I even want to?

We chose a prompt titled “Five Fears,” and with the amount of self-pity and doubting and pathetic second-guessing I’d already been doing (and have been doing here), you can imagine some of the fears that materialized in my writing that night. Of the vignettes that developed from that exercise, though, it seems the most significant was the one that moved me to rethink the way I look at pain—the way I rely on it; the way I have to let it go; the way it can’t be my sole inspiration anymore. I began to write about those dark memories in a new way, from a distance that informed my work differently than it had before.

I realized that questioning whether or not I was a writer hadn’t been the issue. My need to make sense of my past had simply waned. I wasn’t waking up in the middle of the night every night to wipe sweat from my chest and jot down flashes of memory. I wasn’t stuck in the past. And I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself. I was happy.

It wasn’t the act of writing itself that I feared; it was the possibility that the wealth of bad memories that’d been feeding my writing for the past few years had run out, gone dry.

So I began to wonder: Can nonfiction writers be happy and still write? Can our painful pasts—the stories we mold into personal essays and memoirs—suddenly cease to fuel our writing? Can we arrive at a point where we’ve exhausted the memories, where we’re forced to face the new, happier ones and try to write them into material worth reading? For the past two or three years I’ve been writing about pain as though it’s the only issue worth writing about. I didn’t believe that anyone would want to read about my new, happy life, and I certainly didn’t want to write about it; I wanted to live it.

It seems, then, that the first step toward breaking my reliance on pain is to identify the reliance itself, even if that means writing about not writing about pain. From that identification I’ve come to understand that these sorts of realizations about our writing habits can enrich our writing and enlarge our understandings of what’s possible—of what we can achieve—in our work. If we don’t turn over every stone, if we never reevaluate the limitations of our often-narrow perspectives, we might never break the boundaries that we unknowingly allow to constrain our writing. We might lose a new wealth of material that’s bound to emerge from such reevaluation, and I don’t think that’s a risk that any writer—no matter how fearful or self-doubting or, dare I say it, happy—should be willing to take.

caitlinCaitlin McGill is a nonfiction writer with a serious addiction to dancing, dogs, and all things chocolate. She's also a MFA candidate at Emerson College where she is an instructor for emersonWRITES, a college-based, creative writing workshop for Boston high school students. She received her BA in English from the University of Central Florida and has worked on the editorial staff of several publications. She's currently a reader for Ploughshares and a writing tutor at The English High School in Jamaica Plain, and although she's lived in Boston for a year now, she can still usually be found discovering Boston by way of bike. When she’s not writing or exploring the city, Caitlin loves to practice power yoga, travel, and check out live music.

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