Right now, I’m taking a class called “Writing Literary Non-Fiction.” A few weeks in, when the class really started rolling, I was pleased to be reunited with Roger, who had been my TA in the editing class I took last year. He was tough, but fair, and gave excellent comments, ones that really help you learn and grow.
The assignment was a short writing exercise: write two paragraphs about the same thing, one in an academic voice and the other in a literary/creative non-fiction voice.* Basically, before moving on, they had to make sure everyone understood that they were NOT supposed to be writing academic papers in this class.
I decided to write about my cat, because I am an old spinster, but also because she had recently started meowing and I had already read some studies about vocalization in feral cats that I could repurpose. You see, my cat is a feral cat and feral cats don’t converse with their humans like domestic cats do. In fact, after this cat was already moved in, I discovered that she might never vocalize. This was depressing, because honestly, a completely silent, black cat sitting in the shadows, staring at you with her giant yellow moon eyes is creepy as fuck. She did vocalize, and fairly quickly too, but she’s hard to comprehend. She is making language up from scratch and has no idea what she’s saying herself, so how on earth am I supposed to understand her?
It always feels like an eternity for grades to come back but when they did, I read Roger’s comments with interest. On the one hand, Roger didn’t care for the technical term “vocalization” – academic writing doesn’t have to be pretentious, he said – but on the other, he thought it sucked when I used “speak” as a synonym for it later. Speak, he felt suggested that cats use language. This confused me a bit too, because errr, they do?
Anyway, I thought about it for a long time but I couldn’t think of many other words to sub for “vocalize” that didn’t have a human connotation. I had no bones to pick with my grade but I didn’t really understand the comments so I decided to email Roger for clarification. I mean, I am paying tons of money for this education, so sometimes I think it’s worth it to ask questions and actually get educated. It also doesn’t hurt to develop relationships where you can, because distance studies can feel kind of lonely at times. I asked him what words he would have chosen instead.
Well, he didn’t know. It was just that those words hadn’t felt right. He said that he would probably just try a whole lot of different terms to see what worked. Just throw a bunch of stuff up against the wall and see what sticks.
“Sometimes,” he concluded, “writing can just be annoying.”
* Literary non-fiction and creative non-fiction are the same thing. I prefer to call it “creative non-fiction” because I think it sounds less pretentious, but I am not surprised that a university would opt to call it “literary non-fiction.” You know what I’m saying.