Category Archives: creative nonfiction

The truthiness obsession at AWP

High interest in creative nonfiction swamps small rooms.

Way Out x

Guest Post by Janice Gary

The AWP is always such an exhausting, exhilarating and mind-blowing experience. Home now and coming down from the high, I’m overwhelmed with writing ideas and new ways of thinking about writing and appreciation for my writing colleagues—both those I reconnected with and those I met along the way. We are all each other’s teachers, and nowhere is that more evident for me than at the AWP Conference.

As always, there were too many panels that I couldn’t attend, too many programs and presses and journal booths I missed. FOUR HUGE exhibit halls worth of Bookfair – so many it would three days worth of the conference just visit every booth. This year, I saved my energy and didn’t even try to cover it all. But I did find some great little journals I never knew about, and even bought two: Image: A Journal of Art, Faith and Mystery and So to Speak: a feminist journal of language and art.

Nonfiction was well represented on the panels, although it did seem that many of the topics were redundant. Truth in nonfiction was an especially popular subject. The first (and one of the best) of these panels was Looking for Real Life Humberts: The Unreliable Narrator in Creative Nonfiction. Although I stumbled in late for the 9 am session, I got there in enough time to hear much talk about unreliable narrators in nonfiction. In the end, the general consensus was that if we write in this genre, we need to be as reliably truthful as possible. Surprise!

And here I will make a terrible confession: I cannot find my notes on the panels I attended. I am sitting here in abject horror thinking back to taking the notebook out in the hotel lobby while waiting for my airport shuttle and wondering if I ever put it back in my bag. If it’s gone, I’m left with a personal tragedy comparable to the burning of the library in Alexandria.

But I do have the program, and a quick glance shows the other panels dealing with “truthiness”: Nothing but the Truth: Perspectives on CNF”; Options of “I:” the Post Memoir Memoir (dealing with experimental forms as well as issues of truthfulness);  The Truth of Nonfiction: Bringing Students into the Conversation; Why Genre Matters (addressing conflating, configuring, twisting, embellishing).

Why Genre Matters brought together some of the finest minds in creative nonfiction (including Dinah Lenney, Sven Birkets and Judith Kitchen) for a fascinating discussion on truth and the way it is presented. And there were varying opinions – although all agreed that the heart of the matter is the emotional truth investigated as honestly as possible.

Another confession: I only caught the end of this session. For some reason, I ended up the wrong room and found myself at a session on experimental and short form cnf (which was quite good). But once I realized I wasn’t at the session I wanted to be, I was trapped, huddled in the very back of the room on the floor, knee to hip with other packed nf enthusiasts and not able to move until enough of the floor crowd left to leave a trickle of trail out.

This happened a lot during this conference (not the room confusion, although that happened often enough), but the appalling lack of space for nonfiction panels. Over and over again, nonfiction sessions were placed in rooms way too small for the audience. It seems to me that the AWP planners and proposal judges still can’t wrap their minds around how many writers are engaging in nonfiction.

I think it’s time for the AWP (and the literary community) to move past the truth/not truth obsession (almost every nf panel agreed the heart of the genre is the artful and truthful rendering of the author’s experience) and realize creative nonfiction is on the cutting edge of contemporary literature today. Writers sense the limitless opportunities in nonfiction to write the truth slant by stretching form and structure and tone and voice. This is great part of the appeal of the genre to contemporary writers. It is form well suited to those trying to understand not only from their own lives but of the world around them during a time of great changes.

In the halls, you hear folks asking each other “poetry or prose?” It’s funny, because my question is usually “fiction or nonfiction?” But poetry or prose is good question for those of us in creative nonfiction, because this is exactly where the genre is growing and going, existing in the intersection of possibility, the exciting new worlds of making art from life.

So next year, AWP, bigger rooms for nonfiction. More panels on what we can do with the genre and the process of wrangling the truth on the page and not so much on whether or not we’re telling the truth. Sure, there might be a few bad apples in the barrel, but in general, I think nonfiction writers are acutely aware of what the “non” in nonfiction stands for.

And if anyone finds a black five subject notebook in the downstairs lobby of the Westin, it’s mine.

Gary, Janice, Goucher 04 Grad x

Janice Gary lives and writes in Annapolis, Maryland, on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. Her book, Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance, is due out from Michigan State University Press in 2013.

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Filed under creative nonfiction, honesty, teaching, education

AWP: Day One

Setting up & already networking at earth’s biggest writers’ confab.

Actually I took this photo—accidentally—in Europe. But it fits my image of AWP.

Actually I took this photo—accidentally—in Europe. But it fits my fond memory of my last AWP: busy & kinda blurry . . . Richard

Guest Post by Janice Gary

I arrived in Boston a day earlier than the start of the conference courtesy of Winter Storm Sandy. With time on my hands, I was able to help Goucher MFA Director Patsy Sims set up her table and get an inside look at the Expo Center. So what happens early? Folks drag their posters and brochures and books into the halls, greet old friends, and the registration madness begins. You also get a sense of absolutely massive an operation this is.

While I sat at the Goucher table waiting for Patsy to come back with a stapler for the already fallen signage, Andrew Keating, the managing editor of Cobalt stopped by and before I knew it, we were discussing the state of publishing, the importance of e-books on print, his experience after publishing his first book, and how great it was to be here.

Although the sessions had yet to begin and most of the Expo Hall was still empty, the conference had begun. For me, discussions like the one Andrew and I had are the heart of what this conference is about: a chance for writers to gather together and talk shop. It’s a rare and wonderful thing.

So on to the main event. So much to choose from. Just flipping through the 322 page program can make you dizzy. My plan: to concentrate on nonfiction panels, allow time to catch up with old friends, make new ones, not get too exhausted or too overwhelmed and to write a little for Narrative about some of the sessions and hear from other Narrative readers attending the conference.

There are some great panels to attend on the REAL Day One: The Unreliable Narrator in Creative Nonfiction, Bending Genre, Thoreau’s Granddaughter’s Women Writing the Wild. And of course, four huge ballrooms worth of expo. Let the games begin.

Janice Gary

Janice Gary lives and writes in Annapolis, Maryland, on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. Her book, Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance, is due out from Michigan State University Press in 2013.

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Filed under creative nonfiction, MFA, teaching, education

People understand the constraints

Solstice musings: poetry, nonfiction & Mom’s Christmas letter.

Winter Patio x

When I read poems and when I (rarely) write them, I’m apt to think This is an essay! When poets gave up rhyme and meter, they exposed the fact that poetry and creative nonfiction can be one in the same, though poets are free to fictionalize. (Long ago I was taught the only definition of poetry is that the poet controls the length of his line.)

The similarity does not mean, of course, that poetry is passé; the relationship merely underscores an interesting harmony between the forms. In much of the best creative nonfiction, every line is polished into poetry. And many contemporary poems could pass as segmented essays.

Poet Emma Bolden addresses this affinity in her blog post “A Certain Slant of Light” :

I’ve written several entries about the difference between poetry and prose, but my latest prose-writing experience has led me to believe that they are, perhaps, not so different after all. Though I do still miss my line breaks, I think that there are great similarities. An essay — or, at least, a lyric essay — seems to depend largely upon what’s left out, and upon what happens in the blanks — the leaps created by white space, the connections and juxtapositions blankness and absence can create.

I wrote the little moment at the end of this post as a poem, but might have developed it as a concise essay. Or more. A glance can produce ten pages, or a book, as we know. This poem is intended to be wistful, not sad—but regarding that: sad poems seem sadder than sad essays. I think that’s because essays usually embody some narrative, and narrative is hopeful: “Obla dee, obla dah, life goes on,” the lads sang.

This slight poem—and formalist to boot, with a modest rhyme scheme that plays off its content and supposed genre—has this background: my wife was trying to get me and the kids to help her write the annual Christmas letter, and we were harassing her with suggested verses disrespectful of the genre, the season, her recipients.

“I want to write a poem in the usual sense,” Kathy complained.
“Too many constraints,” I said.
“People understand the constraints,” said our daughter, switching sides and rallying to her mother.

I thought the idea interesting of an optimistic woman trying to keep normal human difficulty out of her annual missive, a sunny Christmas-letter-poem that edges unwillingly into darker water.

 

A Poem in the Usual Sense

People understand the constraints:
the need for rhythm, vaguely the meter.
They still desire rhyme most of all—
give ’em that and no complaints.

We’re made to feel its wrongness, though,
the Philistine inside, the childish reader.
And I admit the postmodern order is tall:
Tell, with irony and restraint, life’s sorrow.

But Mama, animal despair beneath her,
strives for cheer, writing our Christmas letter,
and scratches her head as poignancy falls
unbidden, a solstice shadow, as it were.

This post originally ran Dec. 16, 2008. For the record, I rejoice at the winter solstice—because we’ve hit rock bottom: each day we get a few minutes more light. A child of summer, my despair comes on June 21 when we have reached our apogee of light and each day shortens even as summer lengthens. Wrong, deeply wrong.

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Filed under creative nonfiction, essay-lyric, humor, MY LIFE, narrative, poetry, structure

A new manual for flash nonfiction

The Rose Metal Press Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction: Advice and Essential Exercises from Respected Writers, Editors, and Teachers edited by Dinty W. Moore. Rose Metal Press, 179 pp.

They furnished off an apartment with a two-room Roebuck sale
The coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale
But when Pierre found work the little money coming worked out well
C’est la vie, say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell

—Chuck Berry, “You Never Can Tell (Teenage Wedding)”

When I was in school I hated creative writing exercises. They were just diversions from what I wanted to write. Now that I’m a teacher I see their great value and wish more teachers had made me use them. They surprise the planning mind, which may be cunning but struggles to soar. So for my classes now I peruse my growing file of other teachers’ exercises or hunt inside Now Write! Nonfiction: Memoir, Journalism, and Creative Writing Exercises from Today’s Best Writers and Teachers, edited by Sherry Ellis.

Before a prompt I like to play a catchy story song—for instruction and inspiration—because songs are so structural and so compressed (I make sure the students are holding a printout of the lyrics in their hands as they listen).

Now comes Dinty W. Moore with more helpful prompts in The Rose Metal Press Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction. It joins the Press’s guide to flash fiction, a genre that, Moore notes, stimulated short nonfiction efforts as it expanded in the 1980s. In his helpful historical overview Moore defines concise creative nonfiction as that of up to 2,000 words, though most is much shorter, 500 to 1,000, and 750 is the upper limit he’s set for his own journal, Brevity. His new guide features exercises, thoughts, and tips by masters such as Lia Purpura, Lee Martin, and Sue William Silverman, as well as their own published essays.

Here’s Purpura’s twist on the usual read-aloud advice:

I have found it clarifying to read my essays-in-progress in environments that are wholly different than the environment in which they were initially drafted. In this way, I reconstitute the sense of essay-as-letter, even if it’s addressed only to myself and is in its infancy. Take an essay you’ve been working on and read it aloud to yourself in a fresh place. Reading in the car at a red light allows for an urgency of hearing, and a close, fast, focused, intensified listening. Reading in a coffee shop (best if it’s in another country) allows for a form of intimacy created by ambient, atmospheric bustling—that sense of being happily on the sidelines. Reading a work-in-progress in a library, a space of enforced silence, can make the encounter feel different, too: almost chatty, in a private, slightly secretive kind of way.

As a writer I’ve found concise essays fascinating and challenging. They lend themselves to at least starting with prompts. In their imperative to make every word count, they underscore the affinity between poetry and creative nonfiction. Like great songs they often begin in media res and set in motion whole worlds in readers’ minds. While pulling off a publishable piece is as hard as for any form, they foster a freer and freeing approach. Writing that feels like cheating? That lightens one’s heart? Give me more.

And for anyone, success is apt to start in low-stakes exercises like those in The Rose Metal Press Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction. You never can tell.

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Filed under craft, technique, creative nonfiction, discovery, essay-concise, experimental, fiction, freewriting, MFA, NOTED, REVIEW, teaching, education, working method

Memoir, meet reportage

Brendan O’Meara on taking a reporter’s tack in memoir.

Guest Post by Brendan O’Meara

Twitter: @BrendanOMeara

Brendan O’Meara’s first book

Somebody at a book signing for Six Weeks in Saratoga asked me what I was working on next (this seems to always be a question when you’re selling your current book. What are you working on now?). I said I was writing a memoir about my father and baseball. Instead of the usual response, which is some measure of eyebrow-raising admiration, praise, and ego-stoking ovations, I got this:

“When Borders went out of business the only books left behind were Spanish books and memoirs.”

%&#!

Maybe if we were at the rim of the Grand Canyon I would have nudged her. But I thanked her for her input. I don’t think she bought a book. I felt ever-emboldened because when you feel strongly and passionately for your story, those words levitate off the page. The reader senses that energy and hopefully tells other reader friends about it. This is my hope.

So, yes, I too am writing a memoir, but I come at it from the blind side. I’m a reporter and I see memoir as no different than any other form of narrative nonfiction: the names are real, the events are verifiably true, and the writer did some—get this—reporting. The only difference is the story is closer to the marrow. The questions you pose to characters (which happen to be family/friends who acted never knowing they’d one day be told it was all on the record) ring awkward and, in some ways, judgmental.

My memoir, tentatively titled The Last Championship: A Memoir of My Father and Baseball is a hybrid of narrative journalism and memoir. It takes place at a senior slow-pitch softball tournament where I, the son, watch the father play ball. It illustrates the changing of roles as we age, how the children become caretakers of their parents, and how the young become old and the old become young again.

His team won the tournament and I thread the personal narrative around the seven-games. I’m profiling a handful of key players, ala David Halberstam, so the reader cares about the game action—narrative journalism. With the tournament as the backbone, I explore where my father comes from, who he is, what baseball means to him, and how he becomes the father I know, yet still know little about—memoir, personal exploration, the beating heart, etc.

It shows how sport, and specifically baseball, is the common tongue between fathers and sons, certainly between Dad and me. Watching those old guys play ball allowed me to reconcile the bitter end of my baseball career too. I then picked up the gear and played one more summer at age 30 to find the fun—10 years since I last played—and maybe one last championship.

Taking a reporter’s tack is best for the story and best for maintaining the readers’ trust.

Thanks, Jonah.

Thanks, Stephen.

Thanks, Jason.

Thanks, James.

Thanks, Janet.

Even when my memory is strong on an event from my childhood, I ask all the parties involved. I ask my sister if I really said what I said. I ask my Dad what he was thinking. Or I say, “Mom, what happened when you and Dad split up?” These questions are uncomfortable to ask. When it’s family, it’s hard. It avoids senseless naval gazing. You’re getting the important characters in your story to speak for themselves, not just what you thought and how you feel. A certain measure of detachment makes for a better product.

I try not to sound judgmental. I say, “What was that like? How tough was that for you?”

Or, as I told Dad at the beginning of this whole project, “I want to get to know my dad before too long. I want to know who your parents were (they died in a car accident when I was two). I want to learn where you came from.”

This puts a different tint on the lens. It softens the focus. My dad did some awful shit. I’m not going to lie. I’m not going to shy from writing about it, but that’s the mosaic. Readers will come away liking him more because of the ugly stuff. Because that’s human, dammit!

A character in the novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet said, “Memory is tricks and strangeness.”

It sure is.

It doesn’t have to be with some reporting.

Brendan O’Meara’s blog, Hash Tag for Writing, is at his website. He is the author of Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @BrendanOMeara.

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Filed under braids, threads, craft, technique, creative nonfiction, immersion, journalism, memoir

Review/Q&A: Lee Martin’s ‘Such a Life’

Stay in love with the journey.—Lee Martin

Such a Life by Lee Martin. University of Nebraska Press, 214 pp.

Lee Martin, an accomplished novelist, is also a master of life stories. His memoir From Our House focuses on his fraught relationship with his father, whose hands were mangled in a corn picker when Martin was a baby. Martin had been conceived accidentally to parents married late, his father thirty-eight and his mother forty-one, and his father had wanted to abort the pregnancy. Martin grew up in the wake of that impulse and of his father’s accident, suffering from the rage of a man with hooks instead of hands. As his father lashed him for misbehavior, a leather belt gripped in his pincers, Martin, a difficult boy, wailed in pain and terror, feeling abandoned by his meek mother.

The linked essays in Martin’s new collection Such a Life continue to explore his family, as well as his own adult life, at revealing yet ordinary moments. They show how people can love each other and constantly fail each other, how love can entwine with shame. This seems epitomized to me by how shy he and his father were with each other as they made up after beatings; each was ashamed of himself, the boy for being bad and provoking his father and the man for the rage he vented on the overly sensitive boy.

My favorite essay in Such a Life, “Never Thirteen,” is about Martin’s girlfriend and himself when they were thirteen and were about to be split up by his parents’ return from suburban Chicago to their farm in southern Illinois. Martin captures such sweetness in the kids’ relationship, which is set against the fears, suspicions, and flawed lives of the adults around them.

An excerpt:

     That afternoon in Yankee Woods we stop on the trail, and there in the grove of trees, there in the dark, cool shade, she asks me if I have ever kissed a girl, and I’m so thankful for this moment—even now I remember with immense gratitude how she reached out and touched me, lightly on my forearm as if to say, It’s all right, whoever you are, it’s okay—that I can do nothing but tell her the truth, that I’m practically without experience; outside of a chaste kiss from my mother, my lips are virgin lips.

     “It’s not hard,” she says, and she steps closer. She gives me a shy smile. Her hair is thick and blonde and cut short, a la Mary Martin in South Pacific, and, like Nellie, Beth is kind and spirited, the girl next door and everyone’s friend, eager to be swept away by love. I can still see her in her white Oxford shirt, her blue culottes, her white sandals, her books cradled in the crook of her left arm. She lifts her chin, tilts her head to the side, and waits for me to take my cue. . . . 

     I don’t want my mother’s life to be mine. I don’t want to be old, not at thirteen. I don’t want to be unkissed. 

    “What about my nose?” I say to Beth. “Where do I put my nose?”

     I’m serious. It’s been a big concern of mine since seeing an episode on The Patty Duke Show in which Patty and a boy kept bumping noses when they kissed. I’m afraid that Beth will laugh at me, but she doesn’t. She explains patiently that she will tip her head to her right, and I will tip mine to my right, and everything will be fine.

The stakes are high because he has needed Beth’s kiss “since the first time my father whipped me with his belt and my mother did nothing to stop him.” And, in this aching puppy love, for the first time he becomes aware of his parents’ own loving intimacy: “[A]ll along their lovemaking had been present in the gentle way my mother touched my father when she undressed him, when she held a drinking glass so he could take it in his hook, when she shampooed and combed his hair.” There are flashes too in “Never Thirteen” of Martin’s own adult self, looking back ruefully and tenderly on his innocence and Beth’s.

Lee Martin, fiction writer, essayist, memoirist

There are other remarkable stories here, and they expanded my notion of how an essay could be used to capture and to reflect upon life. Martin is brave in his persona as well as likable, unafraid to show his own faults and fears as he encounters in boyhood a vicious bully, ponders an annoying neighbor as an adult, awkwardly tries to deal with his and his wife’s aging parents, and admits his regrets about his wife’s decision not to have children. His essays, with their candor, pathos, and wry humor, linger in the mind.

Many of the essays in Such a Life appeared first in literary journals, and some are available online. “Twan’t Much,” a concise essay about a lesson Martin learned, as a college student, from a poor coworker in a tire factory, appears in Brevity; Sweet published “Take, Eat,” about Martin’s mingled nostalgia and repugnance, as a vegan, for the farm food he grew up eating and about the difficulty he has in finding a decent meal on return visits to southern Illinois; The Sun offers an excerpt of “The Classified Ad,” about his efforts to help a woman find her brother, with whom Martin had fought as a boy; and Gulf Coast published “All Those Fathers That Night,” an innovative segmented essay about how a man, the father of six, killed himself in an alley beside the town’s barber shop, another haunting incident from Martin’s boyhood. In that essay, which closes the collection, Martin imagines the town’s fathers trying to grasp the tragedy; he misses his own father and imagines them reunited with nothing withheld between them, each his best self, each for once leaving nothing later to regret.

Martin writes about “All Those Fathers That Night” and creative nonfiction issues in an essay for Brevity. A creative writing teacher in the MFA program of Ohio State University, Martin writes about writing and teaching at his blog, The Least You Need to Know.

He answered some questions for Narrative:

Did you produce these essays as byproducts of other work, such as your two previous memoirs, or did they arise on their own, from questions that dogged you?

Richard, these essays were never parts of longer works. They were always meant to be discreet, stand-alone pieces, and, yes, they came from my attempt to respond to my life, focusing on matters that wouldn’t leave me alone over the past sixteen years or so.

You seem to have embraced fiction and nonfiction equally. How do you decide whether to explore something as a life story as opposed to in fiction, as a short story or novel?

When it seems important to me to claim the material as my own, I turn to nonfiction. I guess that means there’s something in the exploration of the material that seems important to my own development as a person. The nonfiction form allows me to announce that I’m using this material to think about something important to me. Of course, I often use fiction for the same purpose, but there’s something about the material for my novels and stories that doesn’t have that same urgent call to me. For whatever reason, it’s okay with me if no one ever knows where I am in that work.

With other material, though, such as the essays about my father, it’s crucial to me that I have the power of speaking directly about my own experience. Doing so helps me think about the complications of my life in a way that changes my relationship to them. I wrote a number of stories in my first book, THE LEAST YOU NEED TO KNOW, that dealt with difficult relationships between fathers and sons. Even though I was obviously writing from the relationship I had with my own father, it was only after I wrote my first memoir, FROM OUR HOUSE, that I started to have any clarity about that relationship. Facing it directly was necessary for me to get beyond that experience.

I’m struck by the innovative structure and the everyday subjects of your essays, which epitomize to me the explosion of creativity and interest in creative nonfiction. How do you view this apparent surge in the genre?

One of the things that excites me about creative nonfiction is the elasticity of the form and how it can constantly reinvent itself. Even though I’m primarily interested in memoir and personal essay, I also write short, lyric pieces that appear in places like BREVITY, and I love sometimes immersing myself in voice and language and experiments with form just to see how all of that invites an expression of myself that I might not find in a more traditional essay form.

When you read memoir or personal essays, what are you looking for as a reader and as a writer?

As a reader, I’m looking for an emotional and intellectual connection to the material. As a writer, I’m hoping to be stunned, swept away, to the point that I say, “Damn, I wish I’d written this.” Then I take a hard look at how the writer was able to do what he or she did. In my teaching and my writing, I’m interested in how any artistic choice creates a specific effect. I’m interested in how those choices can be rethought if necessary. When I read other writers’ memoirs or personal essays, I’m looking for what I can learn, what I can borrow and put to use in my own work.

What lessons have you learned during the writing-reading-thinking process—whether in fiction or nonfiction—that have helped you the most?

When I started out as a fiction writer, I had to learn to trust my material, and I had to learn what my worldview was. The two things were linked for me. I grew up in a small town in southeastern Illinois, a farming community, and I spent too many years thinking, as young writers are apt to do, that no one was interested in reading about my world. Then I read the stories of Bobbie Ann Mason, who grew up not far from me in Mayfield, KY, and I saw that it was possible to write about the complicated lives of people who didn’t live in large cities. Richard Ford’s story collection, ROCK SPRINGS, was a big influence on me because, even though he was writing about the American West, I heard in his voice the voice I needed in order to access my material. When I applied that voice to my world, my view of how people interact began to come through. So I encourage students to write from the worlds that matter most to them and to listen to the sounds of those worlds.

You are known as a great teacher, and I’ve found the exercises for students on your blog very useful in the classroom. Are there some key points or lessons or ways of thinking that you try to give creative writing students by the time they graduate?

Thank you for that compliment, Richard. I suppose my answer to this question is partly contained in my answer to the one above—trust your material, write from the worlds that matter most to you, find the voice that best allows you to express your view of the way people bump up against one another—but I also try to impress on my students that writing is a life-long apprenticeship. Each piece we write demands we learn something new. We’re always in service to the craft, and we should stay focused on what brought us to writing in the first place—that love of the music language can make on the page.

I want my students to know that great disappointments and great victories await them, and that never changes no matter how long one’s career may be. Stay in love with the process, I tell them. Stay in love with the journey. Our obligation is to the piece we’re writing. The journey will take us to where we’re meant to be. Isak Dinesen said she wrote a little every day, without too much hope and without too much despair. That’s the approach I hope my students will embrace.

There’s another interview with Martin, by Dawn Haines, on the Brevity site.

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Filed under Author Interview, creative nonfiction, essay-narrative, memoir, MFA, REVIEW, teaching, education

About John D’Agata

I believe in immersion in the events of a story. I take it on faith that the truth lies in the events somewhere, and that immersion in those real events will yield glimpses of that truth. I try to hew to a narrow definition of nonfiction partly in that faith and partly out of fear.  I’m afraid that if I started making things up in a story that purported to be about real events and real people, I’d stop believing it myself. And I imagine that such a loss of conviction would infect every sentence and make each one unbelievable.—Tracy Kidder, from his essay “Making the Truth Believable”

I’m a sucker for an art-for-art’s-sake stance, but given my background in daily journalism I cannot easily accept John D’Agata’s defense of changing facts in About a Mountain as his artistic right. He says art tricks us and that he practices art, not traditional essayistic nonfiction and certainly not journalism. Apparently he calls About a Mountain a book-length lyric essay.

But to reasonable people About a Mountain presents itself as a nonfiction inquiry that melds D’Agata’s righteous probe of nuclear waste disposal with details of Las Vegas’s strangeness and an account of his and his mother’s relocation there. He increases the perception that his book is journalistic by dividing it into these chapters: Who, What, When, Where, Why, How, Why, Why, Why.

That stream of screaming whys is damn good, let’s face it. And, again, it reinforces the sense that like any good reporter D’Agata is a stand-in for us. He’s a stand-up guy on a quest to get at truth.

Maybe he’s playing with a journalistic approach to rub our noses in the shallow, obtuse nature of traditional journalism that preserves the status quo even as it ostensibly attacks it. But in doing so he’s also trading on the legacy of journalistic martyrs. From 1960s Mississippi to today’s Syria, reporters have endangered their lives to file their reports. They’ve died trying to get mere facts, like how many innocents were vaporized in a bombing. They’ve struggled to place those fatalities in a larger context, tried to show a brutal pattern asserting itself. They’ve suffered to assemble meaning from random shards. To give faces to the dead, to transcend mere facts, to carry the awful truth of human tragedy into our hearts.

It bothers me, to see anyone appear to mock that.

For instance, D’Agata portrays Congress debating whether to make Yucca mountain a nuclear dump, and, as if in response, a sixteen-year-old boy makes a suicide leap off the balcony of a cheap Las Vegas hotel. In a review for The New York Times Book Review, novelist Charles Bock excoriated D’Agata for changing the date of the boy’s death to better serve his narrative (D’Agata gave the correct date in a footnote). The book indicates that D’Agata worked hard in a journalistic way, collecting data and even visiting the boy’s family, but he changed things here and there, in this instance not only the boy’s suicide date but also the fact that at least one other person in Las Vegas took his life in the same way that day.

Bock writes of D’Agata’s decision to change the date, one of the few fabrications known at that time, before D’Agata’s recent admissions in The Lifespan of a Fact:

To me, the problem isn’t solved by a footnote saying, Hey, this part of my gorgeous prose is a lie, but since I admit it, you can still trust me. Rather, it damages the moral authority of D’Agata’s voice, which is his narrative’s main engine. It causes me to question the particulars of two other important scenes that, according to endnotes, were actually composites—a visit to a mall and a tour of Yucca Mountain. I don’t know what to think. What’s specific or representative or smudged? Pandora’s box is wide open.

I agree of course, and don’t see how using the boy’s actual date of death would have undercut D’Agata’s saying he emotionally associated it with another event—if that’s true and not another pose. The purpose of persona is to reflect and to reveal self and its reaction to the world, in this case Las Vegas’s and America’s damaged soul, thereby treating readers as friends or partners instead of as foes or stooges.

And besides, it just feels wrong to use that kid, poor Levi who solved his temporary problem permanently, as a narrative prop. To deny him the dignity of his choice to die on a particular day. Real journalism is far more humble than that; it says, I don’t know the significance of this fact, this date, this brand name, but maybe it will mean something to someone.

Maybe the day he chose to die meant something to Levi.

John D’Agata: a genre of one

Surely D’Agata is an outlier. But this flap has implications for how nonfiction practitioners are enculturated, especially since the rise of creative nonfiction as a popular major in English departments’ writing sequences. D’Agata himself teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Iowa. It concerns me that kids who don’t yet know the original sin of assumptions—how hard it is to get the most basic facts right in the first place—might think they have license to make up stuff and to change facts, stubborn signifiers of objective reality.

Nonfiction has a plethora of subgenres, including reportage, literary journalism, criticism, classical essay, narrative essay, memoir, and the currently popular catch-all and mixed-bag label of creative nonfiction. Having an over-arching rule—don’t make up anything unless you tell the reader or it’s obvious—can make the genre seem lesser, since the only rule in fiction is that it work (not bore the reader). But the sonnet is the result of following rules, and fictions operate within rules the writer chose (such as the ramifications of point of view) and then had to live by.

When Lee Gutkind came up with the term creative nonfiction, I think he wanted to describe the genre’s writerly freedom to employ persona and the dramatic storytelling techniques now associated with fiction (point of view, scenes, dramatic structure). Gutkind is most famous himself for his work as an immersion journalist. Tom Wolfe, as the 1970s poster boy for the now-dated label New Journalism, famously expressed contempt for the mere essayist, calling him “the gentleman in the grandstands.” That is, someone too refined and timid to talk to people and report. Someone who misses the real story of what real people, civilians, are doing and saying and thinking because his gaze is directed equally between the oh-so-distant parade and his own fuzzy navel.

But while immersion is the hallmark of all great writing, some can produce art by immersing in themselves alone. And while Wolfe was a great reporter, personally I can tire of his persona: always aping the alleged point of view of his subculture subjects, whether Black Panthers, test pilots, or NASCAR drivers, who always sneered at the uninitiated in the same voice.

I enjoy seeing a real human put on his big boy pants, stuff a notebook in a back pocket, and wade into the impersonal world on some heroic, ennobling quest. That’s what I thought D’Agata was doing, and I admired him for it. There’s a self at work, and we see it grapple with everything that’s not-self, see its limits and its biases and its internal conflicts. But that self is trying to get the objective world right.

The master of this sort of fused essay and reportage was David Foster Wallace, and lately John Jeremiah Sullivan walks the same path. A milder master of reporter-with-persona is science and food writer Michael Pollan, who once told Nieman Narrative Digest, “Journalists often write as people who have mastered subjects and are telling you about them. That’s a real turn-off for readers. In my work I often begin as a naif. It’s a good place to start because it’s a lot closer to where your reader is. Instead of starting as someone who knows the answers, you begin as someone learning about something. That’s a good way to connect with readers.”

Restoring persona to reportage makes the process transparent and makes the reader an ally. The writer can be a blunderer who makes his fear and confusion and flaws a theme, but he cannot be an unreliable narrator, at least not in the same way that one in fiction can be. We must believe, whatever the charms of his damage, that he’s trying to get at truth through hard internal and external inquiry.

His character must stop short of being or appearing to be sociopathic.

Giving D’Agata the benefit of the doubt here—he’s so young, such a wunderkind—rather than institutionalizing him, and since he already is sequestered in academe, if I could I’d sentence him to three year’s hard labor on a small American daily.

Johnny D’Agata, cub reporter, would cover city council, two school boards, the cops, and, oh, all high school sports. Since I have magical powers here, I’d also put him under my scariest editor from my newspaper days.

It would cure John—if choleric Bill, forever seething and red-faced, didn’t strangle him first.

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