Non-Fiction for Fiction Writers: Irritable Hearts

Character and world-building: two essential skills for writers.  I’d submit that our invented characters and worlds are inevitably reflections of our real worlds and our understanding of ourselves and others.

Some of that understanding comes hard-won and first-hand.  I learn through falling down.

I also learn through shifting perspectives.  I need a sense of the wider context in which my own life sits, and I need it to believably write people who aren’t me.

I also have trouble reading fiction when I’m working a lot on my own writing.  Something about the process, especially in the last couple of years, has made it very hard for me to get swept up in a novel the way I used to.  I get hung up on the craft of it, like having x-ray vision, seeing the skeleton too prominently beneath the skin.

Non-fiction also has its tropes and conventions, but since it isn’t what I am writing, it’s easier for me to read it wholeheartedly.  And I’ve read a lot more of it in the past couple of years.

So: this is going to be the first of a series of posts about amazing non-fiction that has expanded my understanding of people and the world.

Irritable Hearts by Mac McClelland

Irritable Hearts is the memoir of a tough, hard-drinking, seen-it-all journalist who falls in love with an equally tough soldier.  It’s also the memoir of a sensitive, vulnerable writer who lives through some of our worst fears and then nearly dies in the aftermath.

This book questions what it means to be strong.  Did McClelland start out strong and did trauma break her?  Did she start out more vulnerable than she knew, and did trauma put pressure on the cracks that were already there?  Did she start out in denial, and does she now show her greatest strength in resilience?

McClelland has been criticized–rightly, I think–for writing about someone else’s trauma without permission, in an earlier piece that was the genesis of this book.  In this book she confines herself as much as possible to her own experience.  She does a great job of exposing the tangle of personal history, privilege, and politics that underlie both her own trauma and her imperfect response to it.

Irritable Hearts fascinates me because it doesn’t give easy answers.  McClelland isn’t a perfect victim, and she isn’t perfectly recovered by the end of the book.  She isn’t a perfect partner to her soldier husband, and he isn’t a perfect husband either.  In all this imperfection is an irreducible optimism, a liveliness.  A more interesting story.

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