Monthly Archives: March 2009

Noted: Anne Lamott

from Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:

“I honestly think in order to be a writer, you have to learn to be reverent. If not, why are you writing? Why are you here?”

“The conscious mind seems to block that feeling of oneness so we can function efficiently, maneuver in the world a little bit better, get our taxes done lamotton time. But it’s even possible to have this feeling when you see—really see—a police officer, when you look right at him and you see that he’s a living breathing person who like everyone else is suffering like a son of a bitch . . . ”

“You do not have to have a complicated moral philosophy. But a writer always tries, I think, to be part of the solution, to understand a little about life and to pass this on.”

“To be engrossed by something outside ourselves is a powerful antidote for the rational mind, the mind that so frequently has its head up its own ass—seeing things in such a narrow and darkly narcissistic way that it presents a colo-rectal theology, offering hope to no one.”

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Filed under creative nonfiction, NOTED, Persona, Voice, POV, religion & spirituality

Editing, exposed

Lois at her blog Narrative Nonfiction alerts writers to an experiment at Creative Nonfiction in which the editors have published, on the journal’s web site, the before and after versions of some essays in the current print issue. The revisions essentially cnf36involve massive cuts to the essays’ openings; the web page with the essays showing the changes using contrasting type colors includes a forum for reactions from readers, who can weigh in, pro and con and mixed.

Creative Nonfiction’s editorial statement on the matter is interesting:

In textbook journalism, the lede covers the famous Five W’s–who, what, when, where and why (and sometimes how). In creative nonfiction, the lede functions somewhat differently. Because the primary purpose is not so much to communicate quickly the basic information of a story as it is to draw readers in, the beginning of a story may not capture the Five W’s; often, some of the answers to those essential questions are purposely held back to enhance suspense and to allow the narrative to develop more organically.

“The lede also has a more complex function for the writer; it tells the writer where to take the reader and when to introduce ideas, themes and characters. The lede, in other words, leads. It gets the writer going and fuels momentum.

“While revising, however, the writer usually has to return to the beginning of the piece and decide whether the first lede is still necessary. Often it is not; the first lede was just a tool or triggering device that allowed the writer to get to the ‘real lead.’

“During the editing process for this issue, with the permission of the writers, we eliminated the original beginnings of three essays and started them a few paragraphs or pages later. Our goal was to make the beginnings more immediate, to eliminate some writerly throat-clearing, to help plunge readers into the heart of the story—the action, the theme, the substance—from the very beginning.”

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Filed under craft, technique, editing, essay-narrative, flow, journalism, memoir, narrative, structure, teaching, education, theme

Does writing pay?

In his recent column in The Week, Francis Wilkinson asks whether professional writing has become an activity for the rich, since almost no one makes meaningful money at it. He notes:

“In 1896, Richard Harding Davis went to Cuba to report on what his binspublisher, William Randolph Hearst, fervently hoped would be a war. Hearst offered the 32-year-old writer $3,000 for a month of work; Davis expected to collect another $600 freelancing for Harper’s Magazine. Davis was a well-known and popular writer. But even the most famous print journalists today would have a hard time duplicating his earnings, which would amount to six figures in today’s money.”

With legions writing for free, and with most writers who are paid earning peanuts (especially if they consider their hourly rate), the fact is that the craft is a calling. Or, as a sensible businessman would say, an activity for “artists,” by which he means “idiots.”

But college creative writing programs are packed. The recent Association of Writing Programs conference in Chicago was host to 8,000 writing teachers and students. Interesting shifts are occurring in English departments because students are flocking to classes in writing poetry, fiction, and nonfiction while avoiding the traditional study of literature.

In his essay “The Rise of Creative Writing & the New Value of Creativity,” in the February 2009 issue of AWP’s The Writer’s Chronicle, Steve Healey notes and defends the proliferation, saying a creative writing degree constitutes a great liberal arts education and fits a body for today’s economy about as well as anything. “[A]n increasing number of American workers are valued not for their ability to produce things but to produce concepts, emotions, lifestyles, and experiences—and this class of workers increasingly wants to consume those same abstract products,” writes Healey. “. . . The skills that have the most value in the new economy are often those practiced in this academic field—including the ability to manipulate language, to affect audiences in powerful ways, and to craft evocative stories, characters, images, and voices. [T]oo few of us are willing to consider how rapidly and thoroughly post-industrial America has taken on a creative ethos, how that desire for escape from commercialism has itself become a commodity, and how many of our students are actually receiving valuable training for the new economy.”

Healey says he asks his students why they’re there, and he reports: “Overwhelmingly the answers resemble my own motivations for taking Creative Writing: my students want freedom from an oppressive curriculum that demands too much rote critical thinking, dry textual analysis, and academic prose strangled by thesis statements and Strunk & White correctness. As a teacher, I feel that same buzz of liberation, partly because my students seem so happy to be there, and also because I feel less pressure to teach and evaluate them according to conventional standards. None of us in this field can quite understand why this freedom is allowed to exist in an institutional environment still apparently controlled by those standards, but we also know that understanding is not necessary, because here we are, and we’re in demand. We can accept that mystery at the core of Creative Writing as long as it continues to succeed.”

Moreover, he adds, in the writing classroom “poems and stories are not passively consumed but actively created; and they’re exchanged not for profit but as a ‘humane’ gesture that asks for nothing in return. [T]he familiar opposition between cultivated humanism and vulgar marketplace, between impractical creativity and practical profitability, is rapidly disappearing, and this disappearance has contributed to the Creative Writing boom. . . . Students are savvy enough to understand how powerful creative literacy has become in our current social context. Whether they see Creative Writing as rebelliously impractical or career-mindedly practical or just a fun way to earn credit, they want access to its power.”

There you go, art for art’s sake, with a twist in that it’s ultimately practical. Surely a small percentage of graduates will become regular writers, and a tiny percentage of that subset will make any money. For most people, writing, like farming, may function best as a calling, as a hobby, as part-time work, as prerequisite for the day job. Professional writing always begins there, in any case, with someone writing a term paper or a poem or a short story and pleasing himself and perhaps a teacher or parent.

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Filed under aesthetics, fiction, journalism, poetry, teaching, education, workshopping

Annie Dillard on structure in nonfiction

from “To Fashion a Text,” collected in Zinsser: Inventing the Truth

“I like to be aware of a book as a piece of writing, and aware of its structure as a product of mind, and yet I want to see the represented world through it. I admire artists who succeed in dividing my attention more or less evenly between the world of their books and the art of their books. In fiction we might say that the masters are Henry James and Herman Melville. In nonfiction the writer usually just points to the world and says, ‘This is a biography of Abraham Lincoln. This is what Abraham Lincoln was about.’ But the writer may also make of his work an original object in its own right, so that the reader may study the work with pleasure as well as the world that it describes. That is, works of nonfiction can be coherent and crafted works of literature.”

“When I gave up writing poetry I was very sad, for I had devoted fifteen years to the study of how the structures of poems carry meaning. But I was delighted to find that nonfiction prose can also carry meaning in its structures and, like poetry, can tolerate all sorts of figurative language, as well as alliteration and even rhyme. The range of rhythms in prose is larger and grander than it is in poetry, and it can handle discursive ideas and plain information as well as character and story. It can do everything. I felt as though I had switched from a single reed instrument to a full orchestra.”

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Filed under aesthetics, craft, technique, creative nonfiction, Dillard—Saint Annie, essay-narrative, fiction, flow, NOTED, poetry, structure

Mere writers

I read a piece in Poets & graywaterblogWriters ostensibly about the writer, a former journalist now teaching in an MFA program, standing for honesty over invention in creative nonfiction. But his outrage wandered into a querulous cul-de-sac over experiments with hybrids between poetry and prose. And his aggrieved tone indicated an upset about more than some nonfiction teachers’ perceived unconcern about inventing scenes, details, and dialog. There was a straw man feel to his named villains.

Once and future journalists who stumble into the creative nonfiction world are naturally hypersensitive. Much of this unease is the insecurity of outsiders trying to elbow into the fun being had in the ivory tower. But there’s a structural division, too: fiction writers and journalists tend to emphasize narrative in nonfiction. The avant-garde is apt to deemphasize narrative in favor of deep reflection upon experience (back to the future with Montaigne!), or with lyric or collage forms.

The imperatives of narrative keep fiction writers, from Stephen King to Philip Roth, more or less hewing together to Flannery O’Connor’s famous sentiment: “Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t write fiction. It isn’t grand enough for you.” People, bless our hearts and forgive us, want stories: conflict, rising action, crisis, resolution, denoument. This keeps fiction from veering into an exercise for other insiders. Nonfiction, sporting both an epic lineage and proletariat leanings, is everywhere and would seem immune from rarification—but, showing one of its affinities with poetry, isn’t. Who would have thought humble nonfiction is where exciting artistic experimentation would blossom?

As a former newspaperman who also wrote magazine articles and essays, then turned to memoir—and who almost wrote a lyric essay—I fall between. Or so I say. To some, my blog’s title, Narrative, and my preoccupations and background probably give the whiff of Grubb Street. And that gulag may mean to the literary artist the abdication of personal responsibility and serious purpose, ultimately moral and spiritual, without which writing is just shoveling manure: the journalist is useful to bark at politicians, no doubt, but his prose is congealed at the surface—journalistic—without art’s resonance and therefore without lasting interest. (Such is the scornful attitude I give my straw man, who conveniently forgets the value of being informed and is oblivious to the call of public service.)

For their part, most journalists, who probably still comprise the nation’s largest group of fulltime professional writers, seem unaware of the existence or relevance or accomplishments of their brethren in academe. Granted, narrative is what most readers crave, and it’s hard enough to tell a straightforward story that it keeps most writers busy for a lifetime. But Mencken be damned: if art is not fostered and the envelope not pushed in academe, then where? Why so much hostility to art or efforts to make it? What’s wrong with a little art for art’s sake? And yet: the journalistic understand nonfiction’s implicit promise to honor the material surface, which isn’t trivial, as truth arises from it and emotions attach there, to stuff and things—the Baptist preacher’s dark little mare, mom’s faded red blouse, grandpa’s long white fishing boat. And they honor narrative, events reconstructed from life’s dusty and grubby leavings.

Categories can drive a body crazy: when does journalism become literary journalism become creative nonfiction? Such divisions blur under the weight of practice, the lone worker bearing down. The different paths that successful practitioners take fade. Art is a handmade thing. Therefore imperfect: look closely and you can see the brushstrokes. But not their origin. Everything that rises must indeed converge in order for anyone to become that exalted, complex, simple thing: a Writer. A person, writing. A mere writer.

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Filed under aesthetics, craft, technique, creative nonfiction, essay-lyric, essay-narrative, fiction, honesty, journalism, narrative, structure