Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Facts and Nonfiction

Welcome to 2016! Here's a story about facts and creative nonfiction.

Recently, we took a long car trip. My husband has this love for our (now antiquated) GPS system, while I'm a paper map kind of person. I find the GPS annoying, and sometimes "she"--we have the voice set to an American female--doesn't know what "she" is talking about, in spite of her authoritative tone. Meanwhile, my husband finds paper maps confusing and likes "her" detailed instructions.

One day on our multi-day drip home, I was driving--out of a city, an interstate stretch, and then a shortcut to a different interstate. My husband was "navigating" with the GPS, though I'd also looked at the map earlier before I stowed it somewhere, and I was pretty confident that I knew which routes I wanted to take.

We enjoy car trips--the time together, the scenery, the chance to think aloud to a sympathetic audience of one--so we were relaxed and chatting. Then my husband and the GPS announced that our turn, the one to cut the corner to the other interstate, was coming up soon. I thought it seemed early, but hey, maybe time and miles were passing faster than I had thought.

We took the turn and continued our relaxed morning. After some time had passed, I realized that we weren't where I thought we were. I suspected that this genius GPS was taking us on a longer, "scenic route." In winter. A few days after a snowstorm. In a national forest, in the mountains, on twisting roads with dramatic gains and losses in elevation. A route that I knew would add two hours to our already full day of driving. A route that I didn't particularly want to take in summer, much less winter, when we had several days of driving ahead of us.

The map that would have confirmed my suspicions was "stowed somewhere," and the shoulders of the road weren't big enough to pull off comfortably to search for it. I couldn't begin to tell my husband where it was, and he wouldn't have been comfortable reading it if he'd found it.

So I kept going, fuming the entire time. Yes, the scenery was beautiful, and I'm glad my husband got to see it and that I, control freak that I am, was driving those hairpin turns.

But I was furious with myself--I should have known better than to trust the GPS. Just that morning, the GPS had taken us out of the city on a route that I didn't like. After that, I should have stopped somewhere to dig out my map to be sure I knew the rest of our route.

Nevertheless, there we were. And even I was navigating the narrow turns and hills, dusted in salt mixed with red sand, at turtle speeds, I knew what was supposed to happen in the essay I (of course) was mentally writing about this experience.

Here's what was supposed to happen: At some point, we would come out onto a vista that was so breathtaking that everything--the extra two hours, the nerve-wracking white-knuckle drive, the infuriating sense of being taken off-course by something mechanical instead of my own decisions--would be worth it. I'd have this serendipitous moment of incredible beauty, insight, and understanding. My own loss of control would become the important lesson--it's all small stuff, let go more often, life is a journey so enjoy the detours, blah blah. I'd emerge from the national forest a finer, gentler person.

Here's what really happened: I stayed pissed off about the whole thing. To tell the truth, I'm still mildly annoyed at myself. I should have known better. I should have been more responsible--I had investigated routes and made decisions, but I hadn't followed through to ensure that I accurately remembered the correct turn. Sometimes controlling situations is okay; sometimes expressing preferences, making decisions, and supporting those decisions are ENTIRELY APPROPRIATE activities. I'd done the first two without the last one.

I still enjoyed the scenery--the desert at the bottom to pine forest near the pass, the trunks scarred by a previous fire sticking up at awkward angles from the snow around their roots. Near the end of our descent to the other interstate, we did stop to stretch our legs, and the view really was beautiful--a humbling perspective. I enjoyed it thoroughly. But I still wish we hadn't done that route--it extended our day beyond the pleasant limits we'd carefully chosen. It frazzled my nerves and used up energy that I wanted to spend in different ways.

My personal "lessons," if I'm forced to have some, are that it's okay to trust my own instincts, and that I need to be sure to support my own decisions. Other lessons may emerge, or not, and that's fine, too. Not every experience needs to be an essay. (Another lesson.)

But the whole experience made me realize why what I think of as good creative nonfiction can be hard to write: we have to be vulnerable and admit that we didn't respond the way we knew we were "supposed" to. We have to go beyond the expected outcome, the "meaningful" "uplifting" perspective that makes a shitty situation (illness, death, loss, grief, even a minor loss of direction) "all worth it" and makes readers comfortable.

Because here's something I've learned: Life is often uncomfortable, with anger and loose ends and no way to wrap it and tie a bow on top. In my experience, truth emerges when we're honest about hard facts. That truth may not be palatable or popular, and that, too, has to be okay.

It's good to be home from our vacation, and writing, and challenging myself. Here's to honesty in weathering 2016's inevitable twists and turns, climbs and descents--wherever they lead.