From the outside looking in: a foray into non-fiction

Have you ever wanted to know someone’s deepest, darkest secrets and not have to reciprocate with skeletons of your own?

You should consider a career in narrative non-fiction!

Actually, if your primary goal is to expose the dirties in someone’s closet, maybe you’d better choose a different path (burning sources, and all that).  But there is something fascinating about knowing pages and pages of information about a person, and realizing one day along the line that they know comparatively nothing about you.

I recently had the opportunity (and may I just say, the absolute joy) of spending a whole whack of time with a person employed in a rather under-discussed profession, about which quite little is known – at least as far as my own circles are concerned.

She is a music therapist.  That’s right – someone who helps people deal with issues by using music.

I know what you’re thinking – who wouldn’t want to spend their days singing and dancing and handing little plastic maracas around to happy people?

But the profession is far from light, easy sessions of sit-n-swap-songs.  Imagine how trying it is to spend your time, day in and day out, with people with development disabilities, or youth at risk, or elderly folks fading away with dementia.  I definitely couldn’t do it.

Even just spending a few sessions with this woman (who is probably one of the most amazing people I have ever met – I couldn’t say that in my impartial story, but I can tell you now), I was exhausted.  There are definite perks, like watching a silent little boy with autism smile during a song.  But there are heartbreaking sights, too, like a two-year-old who doesn’t wiggle and fuss and laugh like two-year-olds should, but rather lies limp in your arms because she was born with practically no muscle tone.

I came away from the sessions emotionally drained.  Not always negatively.  Sometimes there was just so much energy – and I’m an introvert, so I don’t get energized by mass excitement.

It’s also exhausting to spend two hours asking questions and listening to answers.  Yes, yes, because it’s difficult for me to keep my mouth shut, har har.  But honestly, in a lengthy interview you are listening so actively.  You are constantly on the lookout for a mention of something you can branch off of, something that might provide an unexpected insight into the person’s psyche, or uncover something they hadn’t meant to reveal.

And when the assignment was over, I walked away with my head and my recorder and my notebook chock full of things about her: where she grew up, her first musical memory, her mother’s former profession.  And she doesn’t even know I have a dog.

The point of all this, I guess, is to reflect on how different it is to write a narrative non-fiction story – that’s what these immersive, long-style research pieces consisting entirely of truth and zero fabrication are called – than to write, say, a 500-word article on a college food bank.   It’s not that it’s more important that a shorter piece, it’s just completely, miles away, different.

At the end of such an assignment, I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling an unreal surge of accomplishment.  Maybe it’s because I’m historically dreadful at sticking with long term projects, but I scrolled through those 3000 words about a person I feel I know better than I know a lot of my friends and just thought ‘Wow.  Do you see what you did here, dude? You wrote a story – not an article, something creative and hopefully engaging to read – and you didn’t make anything up.  You didn’t exaggerate a colour, or fabricate a laugh, or make up a scene for metaphorical purposes.  You made art out of simply what you saw and heard.’

And that’s pretty neat.


One thought on “From the outside looking in: a foray into non-fiction

  1. I found it hard not to share stuff about me, like “I totally understand cuz I did this!” and it was weird. Very weird. But a good experience!

    Though i feel like I had an article more than a story, haha. But good for you! 🙂

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