By Carolina VonKampen
I didn’t finish reading H Is for Hawk.
It had been assigned by my professor as the last required book in our creative nonfiction writing class during the fall semester of my senior year of college. I could have pretended I did finish it and written a perfectly fine reflection on it—I was well-practiced in this, being a senior and all, and I had done it for other book reflections and gotten 100 percents on them—but I thought there was value, especially in a writing class, in exploring why I didn’t finish the book that was assigned and being self-aware of those thought processes and decisions. And I hoped my honesty wouldn’t tank my grade in the class.
In fifth grade, I was scolded by my teacher when I refused to finish The Wanderer by Sharon Creech. I tried to get into that book, but I couldn’t. I had read other books like The Wanderer and I had read other books by Sharon Creech, but I didn’t like that one, and I knew there were a lot of other books that I would like a lot more. Perhaps this experience of being told I had to finish a book—a book I didn’t like—spurred my perfectionism with finishing books. Throughout high school and college, it was rare for me to start a book and not finish it. (Books for history classes were the exception.) I would read one book at a time and barrel through it. If I hated it, I’d scribble criticisms in the margins to cement my dislike of it.
I didn’t dislike H Is for Hawk. I got 35 pages in, and I just couldn’t continue. There were things about the book and Helen Macdonald’s writing that interested me. But something about the book wasn’t resonating with me the last few weeks of that fall semester in 2016. I was getting lost in the timeline, even in the first three chapters, between those long paragraphs and shifting tenses. I was getting lost in the frequent Britishisms. I was getting lost between the information about hawks and falconry, the memories, and the things happening in her life as she wrote it. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the book; I wasn’t connecting with the book at that time in my life.
I wondered if I didn’t connect with H Is for Hawk because I had never grieved over the death of someone really close. The closest death I had experienced at that time was my best friend’s dad (cancer). It had hurt watching my friend and her family in so much pain. But I hadn’t personally experienced the soul-wrenching, life-changing type of grief and pain that Macdonald wrote about, so it was hard for me to really get it. I couldn’t compare her experience to anything I had experienced.
Of course, this is not a good argument for not reading a book. After all, I haven’t died of cancer, but I had stayed up until three in the morning crying and reading Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air earlier the same semester. I connected to that book in a very emotional way and appreciated what Kalanithi did with his style and narrative choices. I had often read books about situations or emotions that I had yet to experience in life. So it couldn’t have just been that.
Maybe I didn’t connect with the book because I was burned out on reading creative nonfiction. That summer, as I was looking ahead to the semester, and the creative nonfiction writing class in particular, I realized I hadn’t read much creative nonfiction. So I bought a bunch of books and started familiarizing myself with the genre. I savored the first few pages of Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life; it prepared me to encounter Holy the Firm when we read it in the class, as I knew what to expect from Dillard’s style. I read Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, which taught me how to weave together anecdotes, philosophy, and history to create an enthralling book.
During the fall semester, I read Elie Wiesel’s Night. This was an interesting book from several perspectives. The publication, editorial, and translation histories were fascinating to dig into. And I had read Anne Frank’s diary for the first time while studying abroad the previous spring and had visited a concentration camp in Germany, so I was interested in reading about concentration camps from Wiesel’s point of view.
I had also read Gay Talese’s The Voyeur’s Motel at the end of October, which was more journalistic than the creative nonfiction that we had read in class or that I had read on my own. It raised questions of trusting sources and how a creative nonfictionist presents the main character of a creative nonfiction piece if the piece isn’t memoir. Talese crafted a meta narrative of his interactions with the voyeur and how he came to know his story over decades. In the end, Talese left a lot of judgment-making up to the readers, which he was criticized for because people thought he didn’t push hard enough in seeking the truth and getting to the bottom of the story. But as I read it, I understood that Talese left it open intentionally, forcing the reader to become the voyeur to his writing process.
So, these creative nonfiction readings gave me a lot to think about outside of the required class readings, but by November, I could not read another creative nonfiction book.
I felt burned out on creative nonfiction at the end of that semester, so I decided to read fiction. I’d been upset with myself that semester for getting over halfway through some novels but then putting them down to read required books for classes. (Books in question: Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth and Therese Raquin by Emile Zola. I finished Therese Raquin that Christmas break and adored it. I still haven’t finished Portnoy’s Complaint.)
We had talked about David Foster Wallace in creative nonfiction writing class, and I had been meaning to read him for some time, so I started his debut novel The Broom of the System over Thanksgiving break instead of continuing H Is for Hawk. This was more beneficial than if I had read H Is for Hawk, because reading Wallace helped me focus on style and character and writing interesting sentences. As Jeannette Walls said in a Writer’s Digest interview, sometimes it’s a good thing to not read a memoir or creative nonfiction while you’re trying to write your own creative nonfiction.
This idea of not reading the genre you’re writing had been on my mind the last few weeks of the semester, because H Is for Hawk was a longer read than the other creative nonfiction books I’d read that fall, and it was going to overlap with my writing, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that, because I wasn’t connecting with Macdonald’s writing in the first place and didn’t want to internalize that attitude toward my own writing. But Wallace’s writing had so much energy—it’s just so fresh, one of those novels I couldn’t believe was almost thirty years old, like Murakami’s stuff—that it helped me when I sat down to write over Thanksgiving break. Even though I didn’t end up using that material in my third essay, what I did write over Thanksgiving break seemed better, stylistically, than what I’d written the rest of the semester, although I noticed a significant increase in commas.
I wrote down all these thoughts and submitted them as my reflection essay on H Is for Hawk. Appealed to my professor as a fellow reader and writer to accept my honest, vulnerable essay on why I could not finish H Is for Hawk—the essay almost a creative nonfiction piece itself—and to not penalize me for not finishing the required reading. I got my best grade of the semester on the essay I wrote when I had been reading fiction instead of H Is for Hawk. But after I turned in my reflection essay on the book I did not read, my final grade for the class dropped to a B+.
I had imagined that I’d grab H Is for Hawk from my shelf in a few years or decades and would enjoy it when it was the right time for me to read it. Since college, I’ve experienced grief for the first time—the sudden death of my grandpa in February 2020. But I haven’t found the right moment to read it. H Is for Hawk still patiently sits on my shelf, waiting to be read one day.
Carolina VonKampen graduated with a BA in English and history from Concordia University, Nebraska and completed the University of Chicago’s editing certificate program. She is the publisher and editor in chief of Capsule Stories. She is available for hire as a freelance copyeditor and book designer. For more information on her freelance work, visit carolinavonkampen.com. Her writing has appeared in So to Speak’s blog, FIVE:2:ONE’s #thesideshow, Moonchild Magazine, and Déraciné Magazine. Her short story “Logan Paul Is Dead” was nominated by Dream Pop Journal for the 2018 Best of the Net. She tweets about editing at @carolinamarie_v and talks about books she’s reading on Instagram at @carolinamariereads.
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