Adversity: On Writing Yourself As the Reluctant Villain

By Barlow Adams

Invariably, my best stories are the ones that share some part of me I’d rather not, some aspect of me I wish didn’t exist at all. As a result, my “biggest” most dramatic essays are frequently the hardest for me to write. This leads to an infuriating dichotomy where I often tell stories in order of inverse importance. I easily share anecdotes and side-eye glances about myself.

But those experiences that have defined me and shaped my life and character?

I instinctively don’t want people to see those.

Even if they are the best stories I have. Especially if they are the best stories.

Why? Because, at least at some point, I feature as a villain in almost all of these tales for the simple fact that when we are facing our most daunting and formative moments we don’t tend to get it all right. Or even most of it. We fuck it up. Consistently.

This might even be a universal experience. Do you know anyone who has made all the right choices as a partner, a parent, a friend or lover? How thoroughly inhuman such a person would be.

Perfection is the purview of fictional heroes, and even they must dabble sparingly or risk losing the appeal of relatability and developing Superman-syndrome. Someone who reliably does the smart thing, the wise thing, who acts unfailingly in pursuit of fairness, who does not have corners of themselves that are detestable or repugnant, is admirable but not relatable.

Perfection is certainly not the domain of narrators. No place for a writer to linger. It could even be argued that the purposeful aggrandizement of one’s own virtuousness is the antithesis of good writing. It’s sentimentality squared, promotional non-fiction with the purpose of swaying some imaginary ally to the perspective of your own righteousness.

If you want someone to trust you—and trust is the most valuable component of CNF, as it facilitates the intimacy necessary for emotional impact—you have to show them your cards, literarily-speaking.

You have to share your ugly, so that the reader—for the duration of the memoir—feels comfortable in their own hideousness. It’s something of a two-way confession, only the reader’s sins remain acknowledged but unnamed. But it is this very culpability that facilitates the empathy necessary for transplacement.

Just as one learns more in defeat than in victory, one connects more authentically to shame than pride. At least the less narcissistic among us. We all know that guy who is the lead in every story, who relates to the main character in every superhero flick.

While there is definitely a market for this in fiction, it simply does not float in CNF. The distinction of non-fiction is that it is true, not only literally, but figuratively. It must feel true as well as being true. This sensation, like one has wandered into a private journal and is seeing behind the facade of carefully cultivated propriety and moral posturing, is not just a hallmark of the genre, it is an essential element.

It is not only that non-fiction is different from fiction: it is that it is its opposite. CNF should be crafted but never conjured, navigated but not directed.

At its best it is a two-person grope through the dark for hope, reason, and solidarity in a world that often seems devoid of those things. And if you are to find it together, it must be honestly and without pretense to sanctity. The journey has room for wisdom, but none for sanitization.

No one has ever formed a connection with another living soul over having an ideal childhood. There is no unifying power in pleasantness.

But you could bond an electron with trauma, split and reform an atom with the might of pain, the fusion of shame and fear.

Which is not to say a writer should wallow in their degeneration. CNF is not a showcase for corruption porn.

Rather, the goal is often to relay an event or events in the simplest, most authentic way possible. The more emotional heft a situation affords, the more delicate the touch needed. The most powerful visuals in a movie rarely need dialogue. The scene speaks for itself. CNF is this same way. The situation carries the power. Moral posturing is not only ineffective, it weakens your position on all fronts. Whether you are sympathized with or demonized rarely has anything to do with ethical gymnastics on the page.

Tell the story. All of it. Even if it makes you a villain. This is the heart of nonfiction. We are all devils and heroes in turn, joined together by the shackles of truth, freed by the lock-pick of honesty.

Barlow Adams

Barlow Adams is a chronically ill writer in the Northern Kentucky area. He has survived kidney failure, lymphoma, and a saccular aneurysm. He occasionally wins writing awards and international competitions. He is overly fond of pie and smush-faced dogs.

3 responses to “Adversity: On Writing Yourself As the Reluctant Villain”

  1. You have summed up about 3/4s of what’s wrong with the world in my estimation. And the solution is to flip the switch and shine the interrogation light back on ourselves.

  2. Found this very helpful and insightful as a fiction writer taking first baby steps into CNF. Thanks!