Category Archives: essay-lyric

Dinty W. Moore on concise nonfiction

The writer, and editor of the journal of concise nonfiction, Brevity, was interviewed by Mary Richert as part of her nonfictionist series odintyn her blog No Titles:

“I think certain experiments, with language, point-of-view, structure, work better in the short form.  Very brief essays are like a petri dish for innovation.”

“. . . [T]he lyric, almost ethereal essay as opposed to the highly journalistic ‘article’ –   are both nonfiction, and nonfiction that allows creative choices on the part of the author . . .  But fiction has this range as well: fiction includes the child’s board book and the highly formulaic western, and all of the literary genres and sub-genres, including the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Italo Calvino.”

“I think any story can be set as fiction or nonfiction (though of course, the nonfiction story must be limited to the honest facts, memories, and observations, and the fiction author can , and should, allow the imagination to add and enhance).   Maybe the difference is with the author — some authors need to explore an experience, idea, or question in one mode while others need to explore it in a different mode.”

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Filed under creative nonfiction, essay-concise, essay-lyric, essay-narrative, fiction, honesty, journalism, NOTED, Persona, Voice, POV, structure

That sweet white space

The line break, an extra return after a paragraph that adds white space to a text, has practical and dramatic uses I was slow to understand. I was proud of my verbal transitions, and physical ones seemed like cheating. It took me a while to transcend my guilt, undoubtedly forged in newspapers where column-inches are precious.

But verbal transitions can be lame—they are artificial devices themselves windowblogand often clunky—and line breaks do more than indicate a major shift of location or time: they underscore the material where the break ends. That white space is a dramatic transition and a resonant pause filled with meaning and its own kind of content, a space pregnant with time’s passage and unstated events.

In his essay “This is What the White Spaces Say,” the writer and nonfiction writing theorist Robert Root discusses today’s segmented essay in which the line break is a significant element in the composition. “Segmented essays . . . depend on space, usually expressed as numbers or rows of asterisks or squiggly lines or white breaks in text, as a fundamental element of design and expression,” he writes. “. . . Like musical compositions, nonfiction need not be one uninterrupted melody, one movement, but can also be the arrangement of distinct and discrete miniatures, changes of tempo, sonority, melody, separated by silences.”

My students love trying the technique and discussing their thinking about where and why they’ve used breaks. (One girl confessed they seem like cheating to her, so this Puritanism isn’t just mine.) Undergraduates may miss the rhythm involved, and some happily hit an extra return after every single paragraph in an otherwise linear traditional essay. Students also like to put a dingbat of some sort in the white space, which I dislike but rarely mention. With today’s nonfiction writers using more white space, the unnecessary philodendron leaves or flowers or chuffy hogs that some publishers stick there can annoy. Asterisks are bad enough.

Perhaps the most basic reason for line breaks in traditional work is that they give readers an island where they might rest amidst a sea of dense type. Which raises the question of how white space is used in America’s greatest novel, Moby-Dick, which sprawls to 654 pages in the copy I own. In the book, white represents a hostile blankness epitomizing the indifference of the universe, so one wonders if Melville would dare employ white pauses, and if typographic conventions of the day were a factor when the book was published in 1851. Moby-Dick is famous for its 135 chapters, many of them very short; and Melville regularly ended a chapter and began the next as an almost-seamless continuation—a perfect place for a line break transition.

But . . . he does use line breaks, about four, and the short chapters supply even more emphasis and resonance than mere pauses. (In fact, one famous chapter, 122, is only four lines and is itself mostly white space.) To Melville, the matter was organic, as he explains in the opening of Chapter 63: “Out of the trunk, the branches grow; out of them, the twigs. So, in productive subjects, grow the chapters.”

Melville employs his  line breaks in the way we do. The first doesn’t appear, by my count, until page 234, in the middle of the short chapter “The Mat-Maker.” His white spaces aren’t completely empty, as they bristle with five asterisks harpooned across their modest wake. The publisher’s unfortunate decision? Maybe not, because there’s a strange place in Chapter 54 where four asterisks trail a sentence, telegraphing a break typographically, not physically—yet another innovation, an ugly one. I wonder if Melville drew them into his draft, though technically dingbats are the publisher’s lookout, at least nowadays, and I think a pure uncluttered white space there would be better. Yet preserve Moby-Dick with such eccentricities: Melville also uses the dash like we do—but sometimes like this,—with that comma, or sometimes a semicolon, before the dash. That’s the nineteenth-century showing in this startlingly modern book. Dash-wise, Melville may seem caught typographically in the evolutionary middle, halfway out of the sea, so to speak; but there were reasons for his variance, subtle in the case of the comma; the semicolon and dash pair makes more obvious sense: a pause;—and then a leap. We’ve largely abandoned that flexibility and have stripped to the plain dash; and to wider, more frequent, and less ornamented white spaces.

These may be small matters in a masterpiece. Yet white space is a powerful structural device and, as I like to tell students, structure is what writers talk about when they talk about writing.

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Filed under craft, technique, design, essay-lyric, fiction, journalism, structure, teaching, education

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

Review: ‘For the Time Being’

For the Time Being by Annie Dillard. Vintage Books. 204 pages.

In this audacious little book Annie Dillard ponders God, the holiness of newborns, and any individual’s insignificance in geologic time. Her prose is astringent, with wry appreciation for the brilliant and for the genuine among us; with a barely controlled horror at our dillard-for-the-timeanimal fates and our capacity for indifference and evil. She unfolds this meditation in discrete chunks; each of the book’s seven chapters is divided into segments, more or less these and in this order:

• Birth (especially horrific birth defects and the brief otherworldly calm of newborns);

• Sand (its formation and ubiquity);

• China (the ancient, buried humans and civilizations, and the 1920s work there of the French theologian-paleontologist Tielhard de Chardin);

• Clouds (randomly documented ones);

• Numbers (people, especially—so many and yet so compactible);

• Israel;

• Encounters (hers, with random people, in airports, deserts, the Sea of Galilee);

• Thinkers (wise men considered in turn, mostly rabbis);

• Evil (including the torture of thinkers and genocide);

• Now (the humdrum pathology of our time).

What’s impressive is to see these subjects come together. Sand, for instance: The earth’s rivers make it by breaking up rocks; the rivers spew it into the sea, which throws it back and makes beaches. The ocean creates no sand, just refines it. Neat—but? Well, who hasn’t wondered why ancient civilizations are so far down? Because of sand and loess: We are being patiently buried. The Earth steadily takes us back. The finest grit and carbon swirl everywhere and come to rest. Sand is further broken by windblast and water, moves, and settles. Every thirty years there’s a new inch of topsoil. 3,000 years is nothing.

“Why is there sand in deserts? Because windblown sand collects in every low place, and deserts are low, like beaches,” Dillard writes.

She wants us to ponder such accretion.

We are as ephemeral as clouds, individually, of course, but so are our generations in the reach of time and so too our civilizations pass away. How old is America, again? Apparently we can know some things intellectually but not emotionally. Dillard finds herself reading the news more faithfully as she ages, getting her daily fix of the delusion that we and our time are unique in human history.

She answers this notion:

No, we are not and it is not. These times of ours are ordinary times, a slice of life like any other. Who can bear to hear this, or will consider it? Though perhaps we are the last generation—now there’s a comfort. Take the bomb threat away and what are we? Ordinary beads on a never-ending string. Our time is a routine twist of an improbable yarn.

We the living, meanwhile, continue to encounter each other: “Possibly when our brains fire their dying charges we will remember and see, to our dismay, not any best-loved face but instead some solitary figure, a stranger, whose image the mind retains.” Maybe, in her case, the punch-drunk ex-boxer who, working as a skycap, impersonated Elvis for her at an American airport’s curb. Or one of her other smoking buddies she shows huddled around the world’s museums, shops, and cultural hubs.

Her prose is distilled, the reside of rigor.  In the holy land she spies birds mate in the air and snails, for hours, in wet litter. A Palestinian boy pees his name in the sand behind a camel. She writes, “Under the camel a runnel moved over the dust like an adder.” In China she watches in the distance a man pulling a plow he’s harnessed to his body: “His feet trod his figure’s blue shadow, and the plow cut a long blue shadow in the field. He turned back as if to check the furrow, or as if he heard a call.”

Grounding her juxtapositions in the jaw-droppers we’re normally immune to—over eight million gene combinations occur in the creation of each of us; it takes a river one million years to move a grain of sand one hundred miles; there are nine galaxies for each person alive on earth, and each galaxy contains one hundred billion suns—in stories and in our own cast-off insights from age twelve onward, Dillard earns her flights and even her despair. Reared a Pittsburgh Scotch-Irish Presbyterian girl, she converted to Catholicism, taking refuge in the yeasty anonymity of the corporeal mass, then absorbed the Jewish mysticism explored here and finally called herself a “Hasidic Christian.”

In this book she wonders: just what kind of God are we dealing with, anyway? The notion of an all-knowing deity that presides over our suffering causes good people “to quit God altogether at this point,” she says but adds, in an oblique rebuke, that evidently “they last looked into God in their childhoods.” It is each adult’s task, obviously, to define for himself the God he believes in (or doesn’t).  Dillard’s doesn’t have his eye on every sparrow:

Many times in Christian churches I have heard the pastor say to God, “All your actions show your wisdom and love.” Each time, I reach in vain for the courage to rise and shout, “That’s a lie!”—just to put things on a solid footing.

On her website, Dillard says of For the Time Being, in part: “It tells many short journalistic stories, and a few long ones: Hasidism, Teilhard de Chardin and fossil Homo erectus, the formation of sand, the critical importance of the individual in a world of almost 7 billion individuals, and the absurdity of the doctrines of divine omniscience, divine mercy, and divine omnipotence. I quit the Catholic Church and Christianity; I stay near Christianity and Hasidism.”

Onward we go, with a few seekers like Dillard thrown in. She notes the paradoxical view of people of every age that heroism and holiness are far in the past while their time alone is—nevertheless—uniquely historic and significant. Both are erroneous prideful notions, as spiritual thinkers have pointed out, and they’re elegantly dunked by Dillard:

In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less.

But who is wise? Dillard: “Confucius wept. Confucius, when he understood that he would soon die, wept.” Maybe he just loved the world and hated to leave it. But her sentence implies something less. Common surprise, perhaps.

We’re just here, for the time being.  We’ve forgotten, Dillard notes, our ancient ancestors’ stone knives that can skin a bear or open an abdomen with more ease than any of today’s shiny instruments. But we’re playing with new gizmos. Our thin lightweight laptop computers are only getting better. And we don’t mourn people we can’t imagine, whether they died yesterday in India or 10,000 years ago beneath our feet.

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Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, essay-collage, essay-lyric, essay-narrative, religion & spirituality, REVIEW, structure

People understand the constraints

Solstice musings on poetry & nonfiction & Mom’s Christmas letter.

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.addressfirebell-blog1 In much of the best creative nonfiction, every line is polished into poetry. And many contemporary poems could pass as segmented essays.

The 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 it could have been developed 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 often 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.

The background for this slight poem (and formalist to boot, with a modest rhyme scheme that plays off its content and supposed genre): 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,” our daughter said, 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.

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Filed under creative nonfiction, essay-lyric, humor, modernism/postmodernism, MY LIFE, narrative, poetry