Category Archives: freewriting

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.

14 Comments

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

Art, craft, and the elusive self

“In Schooner Valley,” a pastel by David Owen

I knew Dave Owen in another life—my Hoosier period—and since then he’s become an admired landscape painter in southern Indiana. In his thoughtful new blog post “With the Artist Added,” at David Owen Art Notes, Dave reflects on the nature of art and artists as he prepares for a show. I was struck by how much his insights apply to writers and writing.

In the first place, he isn’t wild about the three pieces he’s taking to the competition, including the landscape reproduced above. And yet:  “. . . I have realized that my paintings become neither better nor worse when a judge gives them a thumbs down or a thumbs up. They have a life of their own and are whatever they are.”

To me, “In Schooner Valley” is lovely. But I can’t see what Dave sees—and certainly not what he’d hoped to see emerge from his brushstrokes. I too have finished pieces that I feel don’t quite work. Or at least fell short of what I’d imagined. Even successful and published stories, essays, and poems are handmade things and are lumpy or lopsided in spots. And what a mess we had to make to get halfway close to our intentions. Have you ever seen an artist’s studio, a potter’s bench, or a writer’s hard drive?

After fearsome effort, the creator sees flaws. “A poem is never finished, only abandoned,” said Paul Valery. I believe it. Artists labor until they’re frustrated with what they have made—the work’s no longer an ego extension, far from it—and their feelings can’t be hurt by a judge or an editor. They did the best they could, got what help they could, and at some point they moved on. Not because they gave up too easily, but because whatever that object still needs is beyond their powers.

At the gallery, Dave looks at various paintings and wonders where each artist’s style comes from. Hours later he happens to read John Burroughs, the nineteenth-century nature writer, reflecting on how bees turn the nectar of flowers into honey. “Just as honey begins with the nectar that the bee finds in the flower,” Dave muses, “so a painter’s style begins with whatever sweetness the artist finds in life.”

Thus we arrive at the irreducible in art: the creator. Craft is the necessary conduit for this elusive self. We can teach craft—how to apply paint, how to put words in logical order—but we cannot teach that which paints, that which writes. At least not directly. And it’s the only thing more important in making art than craft.

Yesterday, after reading Dave’s essay, I was thinking about this as I judged some poems and essays for a little contest on campus. Most of the work was very rough from a craft perspective, yet there was such life and energy in it. One girl’s vivid essay, brimming with feeling for her handicapped brother, read like one of Gertrude Stein’s better stream-of-consciousness prose experiments. I admired it—hang the grammar. I recalled how writing theorist Peter Elbow advises writers to write as fast and as thoughtlessly as possible in their first drafts.

Elbow’s aim is to foster discovery by freeing the unguarded self from the constraints of craft before, necessarily, imposing craft. Natalie Goldberg’s and others’ freewriting approaches cleave to this. But many other successful writers use what Elbow calls “the dangerous method”—trying to polish each sentence to perfection as they go.

Self and craft need each other like the bee needs the flower and the flower needs the bee. Yet they can seem hostile to each other. Writing drafted for utter correctness may fail to express truth and beauty; writing that’s not at some stage disciplined by craft may fail to express anything at all. Working out this paradox seems central to art. I believe it’s something all artists must do in their own sweet, idiosyncratic way.

9 Comments

Filed under aesthetics, craft, technique, discovery, emotion, freewriting, NOTED, working method

Writing by the ‘dangerous method’

A train station near Ravenna, Italy, May 2010

Frankly, I thought I knew how to write, but it turned out I didn’t, and I don’t. I don’t. I get to learn it over and over and over. It isn’t supposed to be easy. It is supposed to be hard and the process of making art and the product is worth all the energy that you put into it. It is what matters. It is a noble goal. Even if you never attain it, which is true for most of us, it’s life-enhancing to try.“—Jo Ann Beard, in an interview with Michael Gardner in Mary

On my recent European trip I dipped again into Writing with Power, finding it dense but savoring Peter Elbow’s hard-earned insights. He’d been such a poor writer that he had to drop out of graduate school, only returning years later. If he’d been a natural, he probably would not have noticed how he actually wrote successfully, when he did. Pre-outlining didn’t work for him, either.

Elbow advocates timed free-writing—ten-minute nonstop bursts to empty our heads of junk, to find nuggets, to warm up, to tap creativity, or to explore topics we’re writing about, like Aunt Mary’s screened porch in summer. He comes closer than anyone does to convincing me to freewrite. For instance, I’m a sucker when he gets all mystical and credits freewriting both with reducing writers’ legendary resistance to writing and also with preventing them from conquering their resistance. Here’s a sample of his thinking on this from Chapter Two of Writing with Power:

To write is to overcome a certain resistance: you are trying to wrestle a steer to the ground, to wrestle a snake into a bottle, to overcome a demon that sits in your head. To succeed in writing or making sense is to overpower that steer, that snake, that demon. But not kill it.

This myth explains why some people who write fluently and perhaps even clearly—they say just what they mean in adequate, errorless words—are really hopelessly boring to read. There is no resistance in their words; you cannot feel any force being overcome, any orneriness. No surprises. The language is too abjectly obedient. When writing is really good, on the other hand, the words themselves lend some of their energy to the writer. The writer is controlling words he can’t turn his back on without danger of being scratched or bitten.

You’ve got to love a guy who comes up with stuff like that. In one of his chapters on the pros and cons of various writing processes, I discovered that I use the “dangerous method,” which means trying to make perfect words, sentences, and scenes as you go. The problem with this, he says, is that writing’s two major components, the creative and the critical, are at odds. They are too different. He thinks the editing mind being employed too early blocks writers or turns their prose wooden.

It would be hard to change my ways, however, and for now at least I’m not even going to try. For one thing the dangerous method is kind of working. Granted, I’ve ended up cutting hundreds of pages from my memoir that I’d been polishing for years. But lots of famous writers seem to use the dangerous method, or some variation. Recently I read that someone, Joan Didion I think, used to retype the entire essay she was working on every day. And based on Scribbly Jane’s recent post on John McPhee’s interview with Paris Review, it appears he stews and procrastinates all day, then sits down at the eleventh hour and taps out one perfect page. John McPhee! In its obituary for William Styron, The New York Times reported on his method:

[I]t was an unconventional routine he stuck to: sleep until noon; read and think in bed for another hour or so; lunch with Rose around 1:30; run errands, deal with the mail, listen to music, daydream and generally ease into work until 4. Then up to the workroom to write for four hours, perfecting each paragraph until 200 or 300 words are completed; have cocktails and dinner with the family and friends at 8 or 9; and stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning, drinking and reading and smoking and listening to music.

My personal excuse for trying to make everything right as I go is that that’s how I achieve Elbow’s holy grails of discovery and of experiencing what I am writing about. He’d probably say I’m just polishing and could spend that time creating, and he’d probably be right.

Elblow’s discussion of such intangibles reveals that his concern isn’t with nuts-and-bolts craft but with process—and, really, ultimately, with the writer’s psyche. Writing does seem to me to be a profound struggle with the self—or at least it is for me. Facing the blank page with the Self and all that. Who am I? Who was I? Why did I do that, say that, fail to do that?

This returns me to the quote at the start of my last post; but if writing is not, at base, a set of skills, what is it? Some time ago, when I knew more about writing, I tried to answer this in my post “Between self and story.” This time, I’ll return to Clear and Simple as the Truth, whose authors, Francis- Noel Thomas and Mark Turner, say that writers’ “verbal artifacts” mask something deeper, more fundamental and conceptual going on than the mere arrangement of words. They say:

Great painters are often less skillful than mediocre painters; it is their concept of painting, not their skills, that defines their activity. Similarly a foreigner may be less skillful than a native speaker at manipulating tenses or using subjunctives, but nonetheless be an incomparably better writer. Intellectual activities generate skills, but skills do not generate intellectual activities.

Words on the page come from the self, and, for most writers, getting them there regularly seems to require a struggle with the self, of overcoming resistances arising from fear and confusion. I think a writer has got to like making sentences. This work is about seeing what comes out of you and, at the sentence level, trying to make it sturdy and sometimes beautiful.

Then revising, forever. And dealing with resistance and the exciting-depressing realization that any new project worth doing is going to make its own unique and otherwise perplexing demands. But I believe, and fervently hope, that writing, like other complex activities, rewires our brains. I think we do get better with practice, even if writing doesn’t seem to get much easier.

8 Comments

Filed under freewriting, revision, working method

Review: ‘Old Friend from Far Away’

Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir by Natalie Goldberg. Free Press. 309 pages

Books on writing fall into two broad categories: how-to and inspirational. Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones is solidly in the latter tradition, and I suppose so is Old Friend From Far Away. Yet Old Friend is ultimately highly practical, for it captures the spirit of writing and the essence of memoir. I think I tend to be kind of . . . straight-ahead, directed, event-driven in my writing approach, and this book underscores how important it can be to slow down, explore memories, and discover subject, theme, and narrative thread. Her freewriting methods (basically bursts of timed writing to discover subject or to pile up pages once one’s subject is found) seem great at getting beneath the chattering “monkey mind” (which Goldberg says is also highly and destructively critical)  to tap what we really experienced and how we felt and feel.

In Old Friend—that person we were—Goldberg manages to blend the essence of good writing—tactile, visual, specific, quirky—with related Zen principles and a theme of human mortality. In this she conveys that writing is, or can be, a path, a spiritual path, a way of being in the world, a way to grow and to reach out. I can see why she’s so popular as a teacher, for she empowers. What she’s saying over and over is anyone can be a writer, an artist, which is true! Talent is common, actually. Just do it. This is an antidote to the feeling that one must have big Certified Success or why bother? How common but how narrow and narcissistic.

Writing can be part of being alive and a way to be more alive. Her way, that of the artist rather than someone who has a recipe for writing a bestseller, may seem somewhat artsy and touchy-feely to some (and as a guy who can be kinda macho I tend to resist) but Old Friend has a core of steel in it: spirituality, craft, and artistic determination. She’s obviously an artist herself, someone who tries to see and who tells the truth, and she tries to nurture and encourage and empower that part of others. Her approach to writing is intuitive rather than linear. As a linear guy, I needed Old Friend from Far Away a lot sooner than I got it. But perhaps it’s simply true that the teacher you need appears when you need her.

8 Comments

Filed under discovery, freewriting, memoir, religion & spirituality, REVIEW, teaching, education, working method