Category Archives: MFA

Learning the craft, part one

Pondering the writer’s never-ending education.

Paris bookstore Shakespeare & Company. Photo by my jet-setting sister, Meg.

Paris bookstore Shakespeare & Company. Photo by my jet-setting sister, Meg.

This is part one of a three-part series on the major lessons I learned while writing Shepherd: A Memoir, which is scheduled to be published in Spring 2014.

“I don’t think writers go to college,” my father informed me as I prepared to leave home for college. His unsparing honesty was one of the reasons I hadn’t revealed my ambitions, of course, but my dreams were obvious.

And while Dad was trying to be helpful, he was wrong. Not totally, in that his knowledge reflected what he knew of writers such as Jack London and Mark Twain and those of his generation—probably Hemingway and Faulkner. He didn’t know about Fitzgerald attending a prestigious Catholic prep school and then Princeton or about Dos Passos at Choate and then Harvard. Dad was a man of action. Though he’d graduated from a famous prep school himself, earning today’s equivalent of a fine college liberal arts education, he’d been thrown out of Cornell for landing an airplane on a campus lawn.

Afterward, he’d educated himself. He believed writing was about gaining experience in the world and then putting butt to chair. That’s how he’d written and self-published his own book, Success Without Soil: How to Grow Plants by Hydroponics.

There’s some truth in my father’s vision of the writer, but it’s ignorant about the degree to which writers must be highly educated, through some process, by other writers. Hemingway, again, is the case in point, though he famously turned on all those who’d helped him.

“I think you can be big in this business,” my father told me as I, newly graduated, headed off for my first newspaper job. “But learn the craft.”

Today the writers are in colleges, and that’s where craft lessons usually start. I’m not building up here to say that an MFA is necessary, not at all. But education in craft by fellow writers is. For most, that tutelage continues long past one’s undergraduate years; the guild of writers schools its apprentices by means of chummy conferences, by stray remarks about their work, and by sharp blows to the snout—stark rejections.

June 2005, just before my first MFA residency.

June 2005, just before my first MFA residency.

Creative writing, in whatever genre, is an endless education, which ultimately does become self-directed, through reading books and from practice. But there’s nothing sadder than a man who sits down to write a big book, the book of his life, thinking it’s just a matter of butt to chair. I had been such a boy and almost was that man. And while I like to think I’d have gotten a draft done without my MFA program, I might have lost heart without its craft lessons and its affirmation. Because at Goucher College I gained an instant supportive community—students and mentors who live and breathe literature—and also began my long-overdue apprenticeship in the craft of book writing.

I learned so much afterward, in writing draft after draft of my book—it’s true that the only way to learn to write a book is to write one—that I risk falling into the common trap of undervaluing my MFA as part of my process.

There are many paths, but the consistent key is learning, at first with help—with lots of help. I know a writer who published a fine memoir, with a big New York trade house, after taking post-college on-line classes (Stanford’s are great) and after attending writers’ conferences. (Then she got an MFA, desiring to write fiction and probably wanting the degree to teach.) After a while, reading deeply in your chosen genre is the main thing, and reading and raiding everything else, as you write. Plus all the other things you’ve always heard you should do and finally find yourself doing: looking up words, counting syllables, reading your work aloud.

So many times I thought of my father as the years went by: I’m learning the craft, Dad.

Next: Another lesson on the path to publication: learning to love the process.

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Filed under craft, technique, MFA, MY LIFE, teaching, education

Celebrating my book contract

Shepherd: A Memoir to be published in Spring 2014.

Shepherd: A Memoir depicts this view, our green pastures & neighbor Ernie’s weedy fields, the road below snaking into trees.

Shepherd depicts this view of our pastures & a neighbor’s weedy fields, the road snaking below.

 I was fifty and the marketing manager of a university press when one day I decided I would write a book. My own book. The story I needed to tell. There I was, bent over a drawer in the press’s endless row of gray-green filing cabinets, and from the radio perched somewhere overhead I heard a writer, a man my age, talking about his latest book. What am I waiting for? I wondered. I’d noticed that one of our recent authors had attended something called a low-residency program for her MFA. We were publishing what had begun as her thesis.

Slamming that cabinet drawer behind me, I headed for my computer to google her college. That’s what I’ll do, I thought. Keep my demanding day job, keep running our sheep farm on the side, knock out this book in a year, polish it for a year, and publish. I figured that picking up an MFA would be a nice bonus credential. Maybe I’d learn a few tips—couldn’t hurt.

Boy did it hurt sometimes. But fourteen months later, I emerged with a 500-page manuscript, which I set about paring to 300 pages. The lessons continued as the years went on, post-MFA. The pains now seem trivial and passing compared with the joy of learning and of creating.

me with Freckles' '06 lambs.

Happy day: me with Freckles’s 2006 twin lambs.

The book, a memoir, is about how I, a guy who grew up in a suburban beach town in Florida, ended up operating a sheep farm in the Appalachian hill country of southern Ohio. It’s about my obsession with my charismatic, distant, farming father and about my father’s traumatic sale of our family farm when I was six. It shows how I was even more scarred by something else—the effect of my grandfather’s suicide on my father—but that I couldn’t see that. It depicts the upheaval I put my own family through as I tried to become a farmer myself: how I got into financial trouble, struggled with fatal and disgusting sheep ailments, and got seriously hurt trying to save a dying ewe. In the wake of my injury we sold our first farm and retreated to a neighboring property bought in my early lust for land. Finally I became a respected shepherd and supplier of breeding stock.

My story wasn’t quite so crystallized at the start, especially its emphasis on my father. What I really wanted to do—and this was my project’s worthy seed, I believe—was to try to explain, so someone else would understand, what it was like to win Mossy Dell, the farm of my boyhood dreams, and then to lose it. That’s really what my literary ambition came down to. I yearned to tell about losing a magical farm so that someone else would understand.

Now, after seven-plus years of work on that book, I’ve just signed a contract to publish Shepherd: A Memoir with Michigan State University Press. The book is due a year from now, in Spring 2014.

Next: My first lesson on the path to publication.

This frontispiece map shows the rural neighborhood depicted in Shepherd: A Memoir. Map copyright Laura Joseph.

The rural neighborhood of Shepherd: A Memoir. Frontispiece map copyright Laura Joseph.

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Filed under memoir, MFA, MY LIFE

Lee Martin: the artist must risk failure

Lee Martin, speaking at Otterbein University on April 9, 2013

“Write what you don’t know”: Lee Martin, speaking to my class at Otterbein University, April 9, 2013.

Celebrated novelist & memoirist discusses how he became an artist.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few. . . . This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner. Be very very careful about this point.— Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

A masterpiece of memoir & personal essay

A masterpiece of memoir & personal essay

I’m trying to learn from Lee Martin whenever and however I can, as a writer and teacher. I haven’t yet made it to his celebrated fiction—one of his novels was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize—but I’ve read just about all of his nonfiction. His recent collection of linked memoir essays, Such a Life, is on my creative nonfiction favorites page, but it’s also on my private list of touchstone artistic works. Yes, it’s that good.

Such a Life is my personal textbook on how to write stand-alone memoir and personal essays. That’s how I’ve been using it this semester, in fact, as a textbook, reading it for the third or fourth time with a group of twenty junior and senior college students. The kids love the book, are fascinated by its stories, which are about Martin’s tumultuous growing up years and his middle-aged dilemmas, and some mix those two time periods. I pat myself on the back for choosing Such a Life and for starting my students off with its “Never Thirteen,” one of the most beautiful and affecting essays I’ve ever read, about Martin’s relationship with his first girlfriend. After reading that essay, my students were hooked. They’re still close to their first crushes, after all, and they found Martin’s depiction of the tenderness of the young sweethearts, set against the sour adults around them, thrilling and surprising. I think they’d never read anything like it.

Just as some fiction writers say they’ve typed up Ernest Hemingway’s short stories to learn to write, one of these days I’m going to type up “Never Thirteen.” Having already reviewed the book, I won’t go into more detail about Such a Life here, except to say that Martin is a master at exploiting the enriching advantages of the memoiristic dual narrator—him “then” as a character in the action, him “now” stepping in to comment—and at writing essays that, simply put, are interesting. When he graciously came to my class last night to speak with my students, in answer to one’s question about how he knows his family stories will be interesting to anyone else, Martin said, “If it interests me, I figure it will interest someone else.”

But that’s the end of his long answer and therefore misleading. He told my class he works on an essay for about three months on average; he’s exploring, discovering the whole time, working without a net, no outline (though he plotted during his long apprenticeship); when he writes he doesn’t picture a reader he’s confessing to or entertaining but feels he’s having a conversation with himself, with the different parts of himself. In this regard, one of my favorite quotes about nonfiction comes from him, writing on his excellent blog:

In an essay, I’m always interested in the opening to see what the writer wants me to pay particular attention to, and often that ends up being the layers of the persona which are in conflict with one another.

All semester, my students have been fascinated by Martin’s openness, by his willingness to reveal things that make himself look bad, and a couple asked about that last night. He pointed out that that’s his past self, that we all have faults and have made mistakes. When you portray other people in nonfiction, he said, you are inescapably going to write about their faults, so you’d better write about your own. Besides, he said, he forgives his younger self, or at least views him with some wisdom, from time and age. He writes about what perplexes and bugs him, past and present, testing possibilities and moving toward an understanding he didn’t have. “Write what you don’t know,” he told my students. A good example is Martin’s essay in The Sun, “No Ears Have Heard,” which was spurred by an incident Martin witnessed while waiting to check out at Wal-Mart and grew into an evocative portrayal of the hidden burdens people carry.

Martin told me that it took him twelve years after earning his MFA to pull all elements of craft together and to grasp the intangibles. Where does he stand in a fictional piece with a first-person narrator? How can he view life with Flannery O’Connor’s “anagogical vision,” which means seeing “different levels of reality in one image or one situation”? He said Richard Ford’s famous short story collection Rock Springs helped him find and free his voice. And along the way he learned with help from Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction that a story is not just about a conflict or its resolution but about something else that, by the end, is rising. Call it implication, perhaps, in part. Martin’s persistence and study resulted in his first book, a collection of short stories, The Least You Need to Know.

As he explains in his most recent blog post:

This writing business takes a thick skin, persistence, a willingness to fail, to listen to why I failed, to figure out a way to not fail again while at the same time accepting that I will. Developing as a writer takes an intelligence, an ability to look at one’s work as if you’re not the one who wrote it, an acceptance that there are other writers who know more than you do, who are more talented, who are farther along. Steal from them whenever you can.

• • •

It took me six years to begin to answer these questions for myself:

1. From what world do I wish to speak? (the small towns and farming communities of my native Midwest)

2. What’s my material? What am I obsessed with? (issues of violence and redemption, the consequences of deceit and betrayal, the blending of the moral and the profane)

3. How is the person, Lee Martin, connected to the writer, Lee Martin? (I spent my adolescence balanced on the thin line between my mother’s compassion and my father’s cruelty; it finally struck me that everything I wrote was in some way an attempt to navigate that boundary.)

Lee Martin makes a point.

Persistence, acceptance, humility: Lee Martin makes a point.

I asked my students what they thought of Lee Martin after meeting him in person rather than just through the page. “He’s so soft-spoken,” one said—a few may have been concerned, after the darkness of some of his stories—“but he’s funny!” Yes, they agreed, he’s funny. He’s a lifelong teacher, and by all accounts a great one, so I must’ve expected humor to be part of his quiver of tools. Beyond that, he was funny like a Zen master is funny, which seems to involve laughing through well-dried tears. But they saw that too, my students.

The medium was, in the end, the message. Isn’t it always? Martin revealed himself in tangible and intangible ways—through his craft advice, his candor, and his persona, at once crafty, wry, and sincere. Through great effort, he’s made himself into an artist. Maybe that’s no more rare or precious than becoming a successful businessman or “learning to think like a lawyer,” though of course to me it is. And it was to a classroom of students, here at Otterbein University, who’ve been touched by his art.

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Filed under essay-narrative, essay-personal, fiction, honesty, memoir, MFA, Persona, Voice, POV, teaching, education

Tale of a gravedigger’s daughter

Graves to Horizon x

It takes a village to raise a child, and my village was the graveyard.

—from Rachael Hanel’s memoir

 We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter by Rachael Hanel. University of Minnesota Press, 177 pp.

hanel-cover-small-copyRachael Hanel grew up in a sleepy Minnesota town where old people “have more faith that cars will stop for them than they have in Jesus Christ.” But where her gravedigger father could joke, with a darker edge than any TV Mayberry admits, about a jaywalking elderly woman, “Business has been a little slow. Should I gun it?” Even sincere, hard-working folk—especially them?—can be naughty. Maybe need to be. Especially when they’re gravediggers and cemetery-tenders, their noses rubbed constantly in the taboo, the unspeakable, the humdrum matter of death. Her father, in wry response to his mundane-macabre role, dubbed himself Digger O’Dell, and took for his business motto the cheeky pun that gives Hanel’s memoir its title.

“Death infiltrated our lives,” Hanel writes, casually mentioning how a man’s ashes, shipped from California in a white box wrapped in clear packing tape, once sat on their clothes dryer for a week or two, “bouncing and vibrating every time Mom did a load of laundry.”

Surrounded by death, playing and working in cemeteries, Hanel was more aware than most of mortality as she grew up but was untouched personally by its sibling, grief, until her vibrant father was struck down. His abrupt, agonizing death from cancer came when she was fifteen. The thirteen linked memoir essays in We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down circle this loss and culminate in its depiction.

The tone of Hanel’s writing is exquisitely pitch-perfect. She achieves a plainspoken charm and a depth in the spare elegance of her expression, inseparable from her appealingly forthright Midwestern persona. Due credit must be given to her mother, who told young Rachael stories of loss, harrowing and gruesome tales of how those bodies came to her father for burial, and kindled in her daughter the storytelling impulse. Here’s Hanel on her bookish childhood and the dark turn her reading took:

Other people my age also went to wakes—we were all part of this small town. But no one went as much as I. No one spent their summer days in cemeteries, though occasionally my friend, Amy, came with me, and we rode our three-speed bikes up and down cemetery roads. I didn’t feel the need to talk about my immersion in death. I didn’t feel a heavy pressing on my chest that had to get out. People here didn’t show much emotion; we didn’t pour out our love and sadness. These were people of periods, not exclamation points. If I couldn’t connect with people in person, I could connect with them on the page.

I knew death but Bridge to Terabithia showed me grief, the part of the story others left out. I learned what could happen to the people left behind. At wakes I caught only glimpses of grief, those initial moments of shock that render family as zombies. Immediate grief forms a quiet, hard surface that makes it impossible to peer inside. Quiet tears slipped down cheeks, of course, and there were gentle hugs, but the calm surface of a sea hides volatile riptides flowing beneath.

The murders of 1986 made the gap between Bridge to Terabithia and Helter Skelter very small indeed. The summer, with its violent deaths, demanded a book on the scale of Helter Skelter.

In our house, it was perfectly appropriate for an eleven-year-old to read Helter Skelter. I had no need to hide it, no need to read it furtively by flashlight like it was some type of pornography. I read it out in the open, in a chair in the living room while everyone else watched TV. Mom valued a good story; she wasn’t going to stop me. Tales of grisly murder, violence, and disaster had knitted me in the womb.

A former newspaper reporter, Hanel lives in Mankato, Minnesota, and works for Kaplan University as an administrator. She’s an adjunct journalism instructor for Minnesota State University-Mankato, and is the author of many nonfiction narratives for children. She answered some questions for Narrative:

You’ve said that your memoir took you thirteen years to complete. Why so long?

I used to feel badly about this, but then I took a step back to examine why the writing process was so slow. I was always doing other things while writing. I’m somewhat of a workaholic and blessed/cursed with a strong work ethic. A 40-hour week to me is like a vacation, because I’ve usually always had side jobs on top of full-time work. When you’re working for a paycheck, that needs to take priority over creative writing, at least in my world.

Here’s an inventory of things I’ve done in the past 13 years besides writing: completing an M.A. degree in history; running four marathons; completing about 10 triathlons; maintaining a happy marriage; maintaining lifelong friendships. There were times when I wanted to work on my book but other things took precedence. After working all week and not connecting with my husband, it felt unfair to him to say, “Honey, I know I haven’t talked much to you for a couple of days, but I’d like to work on my book now.” Or it felt wrong to say no to a nephew’s birthday party or no to a friend I hadn’t seen for a while. So the 13 years represents how writing fit into my “real life.”

I’m struck by the fact that you were an experienced nonfiction writer, as a journalist and narrative nonfiction author, yet it appears that to produce your memoir you had to create your own MFA program by attending workshops and classes for years. Could you explain your education process in creative nonfiction? What was the challenge of personal nonfiction since you apparently had the factual down cold?

Rachael Hanel; photo by Steve Pottenger

Rachael Hanel; photo by Steve Pottenger

Not doing an MFA wasn’t a conscious choice. This may sound strange, but when I decided to go to grad school, I was so steeped in the journalism world that I didn’t even really know what an MFA was. I had a vague notion of creative nonfiction, mostly in terms of literary journalism, but I thought that was something for others to pursue, not me (because I was a “serious” journalist). I got a graduate degree in history, mostly because I love history very much and I thought it would be a good complement to journalism. By the time I was finishing my M.A., I realized I should have pursued an MFA instead, but it was too late. So I looked for writing classes elsewhere, namely at The Loft in Minneapolis. I took several creative nonfiction classes there and also was part of the 2007-08 Loft Mentorship Series. In the mentorship, four of us nonfiction writers worked closely with noted nonfiction writer and teacher Barrie Jean Borich. In addition, I read a lot of narrative nonfiction and memoir, closely examining structure, narrative arc, and writing style.

Writing memoir was hard! I went into the process thinking it would be easy, since I already knew how to write and had journalism experience. I had no idea what memoir really entailed. This is where an MFA would have been beneficial. For me, it was more of a trial-by-error process with some feedback along the way from trusted readers and writers who pointed me in the right direction. This is also probably part of the reason why the writing of the memoir took so long. I was about five years into the writing of my memoir before I really figured out how to ditch the journalistic voice.

Each of your linked essays has a structure, but so does the overall work, which moves toward the depiction of your father’s death and the devastating effect of his loss on your family. How did you envision the overarching structure of We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down?

Structure was something I played around with quite a bit. For a long time the manuscript consisted of separate essays, many of which were written as stand-alone pieces that I had submitted to journals and contests. When I was figuring out how to put them all together, I came across information about the three-act structure. I bought a couple of writing books that were more screenplay-oriented. When I read them, that was really a breakthrough moment. My story doesn’t fit neatly into the three-act formula, but I did use it as a loose organizational structure.

I’m interested in your persona in the book as the storyteller who clearly exists beyond the action, in the writer’s “now,” yet who allows the character of you “then” her moments. Was this a natural impulse or did you have to work out where you stood as the narrator?

I hear a lot about this in writing books, writing classes, etc. But to be honest, I didn’t know a lot about narrator perspective as I was writing the book. I guess I wrote in a way that felt natural to me. In the process of revising and getting feedback, readers helped me refine the perspective. But it was not anything I planned out before I wrote—“OK, what perspective do I use here? The now-perspective? The then-perspective?” That would have made me feel that I was overthinking things and the result may have been stilted.

Your book’s tone, or maybe some would call it voice, is impressive, deftly balanced in terms of diction, mood, and the content of what’s being expressed; it feels both controlled, in terms of conscious intent, and pleasantly colloquial or natural, seemingly offhand. How did you work this out?

The “voice” question! 🙂 When I was in writing classes, discussion about voice drove me crazy, mostly because I had no idea what the teacher was talking about. Voice was always a nebulous, confusing, abstract topic. I didn’t know what my voice was or how to achieve a voice. After a while, I gave up trying to define it. When discussion would come back to voice or when I would read about voice in a writing book, I tuned out because I would get frustrated. I stopped thinking about it and just wrote.

My answer here relates to the one above. I wrote in a manner that felt natural to me. When I reread something that I had written, if it sounded strange or clunky or inappropriate to the topic, then I revised. I could flag some of that, and my friends who had read my drafts flagged some of it, too.

Both of these questions together make me realize that maybe there’s something to be said for not knowing too much about craft, at least in the beginning stages of writing. If I had taken a lot of writing classes and really studied things like narrator’s perspective and voice, I probably would have become mired down in those details just because that’s my personality. I’m sure studying craft deeply helps a lot of writers, but I think it probably would have just made me more anxious during the writing process.

We all have favorite memoirs, but do you have favorites that taught you moves you needed for your own memoir essays?

 You and I have talked about this one before, Richard—Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home was a major influence upon my writing. I bought it when in came out in 2006, mostly because I was interested in the fact that she spent part of her childhood in a funeral home. I was blown away upon my initial reading and read it probably eight more times over the years. My copy is marked up and I spent weeks poring over it and writing down a map of its narrative flow. I haven’t come across a more perfect example of memoir both structurally and also in terms of inner/outer story. She also is simply a brilliant, smart writer, but her intelligence doesn’t come across as fake.

A couple of Midwestern-based memoirs also were influential. My dear friend Nicole Helget—also based in Mankato—wrote a beautiful, lyrical memoir, The Summer of Ordinary Ways, in 2006. Her story takes place in a town not far from where I grew up, so her memories of growing up in a rural area where a certain darkness permeated lives was very familiar. In terms of pure literary style, very few people do it better than Nicole.

I also enjoy Debra Marquart’s A Horizontal World, a story about growing up as a farmer’s daughter in North Dakota. As I was writing my memoir, I was curious as to how people wrote about rural places in a way that can be engaging to all readers. I have always been concerned that my story may be too “regional,” and I wanted to see what it was that made a writer break out of those confines and how he/she was able to tap into a larger story, even though the root of the story was Midwestern.

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Filed under Author Interview, essay-narrative, journalism, memoir, MFA, REVIEW, structure, 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

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

About writers’ conferences

When I was farming, at first it surprised me how much farmers love conferences—just like everybody else. Isolated most of the time, farmers liked to get together, have a learning vacation, stay in a motel with a pool for the kids. I already knew they’d adopted the digital world, its message boards and email lists. Just like writers, whose own conferences bear a striking similarity—though lacking booths devoted to kelp meal and artificial insemination.

The mother of all writing conferences, AWP, is a fearsome thing. Last time I went, a few years ago, there were 8,000 writers, students, teachers, editors, agents, and publishers milling about. The only way for a soul like me, timid as a sheep on a daily basis, to enjoy such a confab would be if I had a book coming out. Or was speaking on a panel. Or had more friends than I do.

AWP’s panels, often witnessed from a great distance, are great, however. Famous or mid-career or baby writers burst with helpful insights for their listeners. I still refer to the notes I took. I was ripe for it, which is the only way to saddle up for AWP. I also remember being jammed shoulder to shoulder in presentation rooms.

And being shut out of others. And the crowds at elevators. And the trashed basement feedlot.

The best writing conferences . . .

Joe Mackall, Robert Atwan, and Dan Lehman at the River Teeth Nonfiction Conferene, May 18-20

. . . are small writing conferences. At the end of May, I attended the River Teeth Nonfiction Conference, in Ashland, Ohio. The fine literary magazine River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative is published there, at Ashland University, which also is home to a new but strong and emerging low-residency program in poetry and creative nonfiction.

River Teeth’s was a hugely helpful conference. It fostered involvement and intimacy and collegiality. The speakers gave fresh presentations, packed with ideas. The headliners included Robert Atwan, Bob Cowser Jr., Jill Christman, Hope Edelman, Walt Harrington, Michelle Herman, Kate Hopper, Sonya Huber, Dan Lehman, Joe Mackall, Dinty W. Moore, Ana Maria Spagna, and Sarah M. Wells.

They engaged with attendees during their sessions and also at social hours. Everyone sat together at meals. Friends and presenters tended to sit together, sure, but there was room for you. It felt like all of us were buddies, really. People who shared the same passion. The energy was infectious.

Attendance came with an hour-long writing consultation, and I was humbled by the insight and generosity of my mentor, Ana Maria Spagna. Others whose work was critiqued told me the same thing. My fellow attendees were an impressive group from across the nation who generated more excitement. I left with new tools, new buddies, and inspiration.

Watch for River Teeth’s next conference—planned to be an annual event.

Midwest Writers Workshop, July 26-28, Muncie, Indiana

Indiana is known for peonies, thunderstorms, and fat sycamore trees. And for its cuisine: fried baloney, corn on the cob, pie made with Crisco. Like Missouri, it’s a state of small towns, everybody more or less equal, united by religion: basketball. Indiana is really a cool state, like Maine. Well, not cool, but nice, and that’s uber cool, actually. And it’s a state known for spawning some great writers and musicians. As a once and maybe future Hoosier—I lived in the cultural oasis of Bloomington for thirteen blessed years—I know these things.

I read about MWW on the Hoosier writer Cathy Day’s blog. Let’s face it, it’ll be broiling out there in those cornfields around Muncie. But that has the virtue of concentrating your mind. And thankfully, there are no misty mountains, rocky seacoast, or lobster to distract you.

There are one-day intensive sessions on genre and about thirty on aspects of craft. There’s also a big emphasis on getting published and pitching agents; Jane Friedman will discuss digital publishing. Sorry for the late notice here—manuscript consultations are closed—but this conference is one to consider, now or next year.

Paulette Bates Alden’s workshop

Boutique gatherings take writers’ meetings to their highest level. This October, my friend Paulette, author of a critically acclaimed memoir and a book of short stories, will teach an intimate workshop on book-length fiction and memoir at the Madeline Island School of the Arts in Northern Wisconsin. The dates are October 8–12th.

“We’ll be tackling the usual suspects,” says Paulette: voice; structure; what to put in and what to leave out; how to find what the book is really about; where to start; how to work through drafts; and how to complete the work.

October seems a long way off, but Paulette says lodging on the island fills up fast. For writers’ groups, there is a group discount if four or more sign up.

Why conferences matter

Like any artists, writers need to gather to teach and nurture each other. Each writer and each generation must learn the very same things, lay the same base from which to work. The instructors along the way are many. They’re eager to help, even if that means instructing you indirectly through rejection. To enter the guild, a writer is taught and vetted by so many teachers, mentors, friends, editors, agents, and publishers. They beat the craft into your body. All this effort and hobnobbing is about reaching readers, mere civilians, lovers who may be comparatively ignorant about craft and certainly of its details that writers must absorb.

Going to conferences is part of a writer’s literary apprenticeship and maybe citizenship. Of course the ideal is that eventually most of one’s teachers reside in books themselves—you study work that does what you’re trying to do. By then the craft has been internalized, freeing your art. Maybe you’ll go to teach others who are coming up. To chat with peers and commiserate, to discuss subtle aspects of craft and art’s almost incommunicable ones.

Get thee to a conference and meet your tribe.

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Filed under MFA, teaching, education, workshopping

There’s something about memoir

. . . and what writers rarely admit about rejection & revision

I have a lot of friends who are fiction writers, and they all told me that writing a memoir is different—and hard.—Darin Strauss, in The Washington Post

Darin Strauss became a memoirist with Half a Life, reviewed here, after publishing three acclaimed novels. I came across his admission above just after a scholar/essayist/travel writer who was visiting our campus told me, when she heard I was writing a memoir, “Memoir seems really hard for some reason. I had two friends start them and give up. They went back to writing fiction.”

I don’t think memoirs are harder to write than fiction. They’re kin to novels, but escape a novelist’s first monumental task: picking a point of view. All the same, for fiction writers, a memoir would be a new learning curve—probably also steepest because of point of view. That seems a given in memoirs, who is telling the story, but it isn’t, at least in terms of the writer’s persona. Sure it’s you, but which one? Where does s/he stand in relation to the story? How does the writer now make sense of the action then? What else besides the foreground story is going on with the narrator? (These are all just ways of asking, Who is telling this story? That question seems all-important in memoir.)

No wonder, as I’ve struggled to get this right myself, I’ve written so much here about persona in nonfiction. No wonder there’s a craft panel on this every year at AWP. The narrator must let readers in, seduce them, confide in them, treat them as friends. But ask nothing from them except that they keep turning the page. He, in my case, must know more than the earlier version of him who’s staggering through the life depicted. I think we desire a wiser narrator because we evolved not only to receive meaning in stories, we evolved to expect a survivor with perspective to tell about the hunt or the battle.

Washington Post writer Ron Charles, who caught Strauss’s admission about memoir’s difficulty for his fiction-writing friends, also wrote down Strauss’s elaboration:

     He offered a simple rule to the MFA students in the room: “If you’re writing a memoir, don’t say, ‘I.’ Say ‘she.’ You’ll have a much clearer sense of the character. When you say ‘I,’ you’re defensive. When you say ‘she,’ you’re more objective. The problem with too many memoirs is that you can feel the author trying to forgive himself in every paragraph.”

 (This surely is wise advice for achieving narrative distance, though presumably the writer goes back and changes everything to first-person viewpoint—not an inviolable rule for memoir but close to it, for practical purposes).

So . . . there’s something specifically hard about memoir that has to do with the closeness of the writer to her material, which is an aspect of herself. But an age-old writing issue also applies: a writer can think his book or essay or story is working when it isn’t, not yet.

We all know the story about scorned writerly brilliance. We’ve always heard it about novels and now we hear it about memoirs: the writer pounds out her guts at the keyboard; she writes a masterpiece and the world rejects it. Over and over! She persists in sending it back out, though, and after sixty-seven brutal refusals an editor or agent finally gets it. Finally. What’s seldom mentioned in such a scenario is how s/he kept working on the book after each rejection. Making it better, making it different. The book or story that finally was accepted and published—after more revisions—wasn’t what s/he started pitching an eon ago. When s/he thought it was ready. But it wasn’t.

I think this is true for others because it’s been true for me—but I am a slow learner and stubbornly capable of not hearing good advice the first (or second) time. Wiser writers than I who lack experience in a new genre vet their narratives with writer friends or in workshops. Some pros, no doubt, can smell insufficiency in their own work. I suspect that most of them, however, also air such doubts with their tough writing posse. But writing is so strange, a black art, that the tendency of friends is to urge you on. Anyway, in the end, each writer labors alone.

Poet Mary Karr has said her remarkable bestselling memoir Lit, reviewed here, took seven long years to gel. This was despite her having written two previous celebrated memoirs, The Liar’s Club and Cherry. The reason, she said, was because she kept trying to get her account of her marriage and divorce to feel right. She threw away 500 pages in which her ex-husband was an angel and as many again in which she was the wretch. Finally she hit her balance.

Each type of book, and surely each book, has its own challenges. The learning curve is a big U, after all. Our performance goes way down before it rises when we tackle something big and new. And any book is big and new. It is, in fact, novel. The difficulty of getting a book right may be why being “an author” still means something.

Whether the writer is getting rejected and keeps rewriting, or has the insight to plug away in silence, like Karr, until the manuscript is truly ready, sticking with it is called “learning to love the process.” Karr, speaking for herself, was less sunny: “It was so horrible.”

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Filed under evolutionary psychology, fiction, memoir, MFA, Persona, Voice, POV, revision

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

Review/Q&A: Alethea Black on ‘Lovely,’ faith & fiction, essays & cutting to bone

Clouds over Melbourne Beach, Florida

I can only speak for myself, but there’s something about writing at night that feels . . . sneaky. There’s an outlaw quality to it, combined, oddly enough, with a sense of being safe. It has an anaerobic, subterranean feel; it’s as if I’m working beneath the soil, toiling in secret, trying to cultivate something hidden and occult.—Alethea Black, “Essay to be Read at 3 a.m

 I Knew You’d Be Lovely by Alethea Black. Broadway Books, 238 pp.

I read Alethea Black’s short story collection I Knew You’d Be Lovely last January, at my sister’s beach condo in Florida, and again recently here in Ohio, parceling out a story a day to savor. These are funny, sexy, wise stories; some are sad, yet somehow they’re always hopeful.

Maybe my favorite story, perhaps partly because I read it first, on line at Narrative magazine, and imprinted on its tough beauty, is “The Only Way Out is Through.”  The story is about a man trying to help his angry, disturbed son by taking him on a camping trip. The boy is suicidal, too, it turns out, and their trip is one long crisis. The narrative features an unusual flash-forward, deftly handled, that’s as thrilling as it is surprising.

The story’s title comes from a poem by Robert Frost, “A Servant to Servants,” in North of Boston. The poem is narrated by a weary, depressed rural wife—terrified by the specter of madness in her family—who’s tending to upscale vacationers, lodged in cabins her husband built, and also feeding and cleaning after his coarse four-man road crew who board in their house.

Here’s the passage from Frost’s poem:

By good rights I ought not to have so much

Put on me, but there seems no other way.

Len says one steady pull more ought to do it.

He says the best way out is always through.

And I agree to that, or in so far

As that I can see no way out but through—

Leastways for me and then they’ll be convinced.

A neat feature of I Knew You’d Be Lovely is that Black included Author’s Notes in the back on twelve of the thirteen stories, and says about “The Only Way Out is Through” that she had to put her head down and cry a couple times while writing it.

The story not so illuminated by commentary is “Someday is Today,” and it’s explained by the collection’s dedication, in memory of Black’s brother in law and to her widowed sister and their four daughters. Black might have written the story as an essay (see her essay about being a night-owl on the Narrative site), but her bent seems to turn to fiction, and this lyrical story, unbound by strict allegiance to whatever the literal facts, sustains a remarkable depth of feeling.

In “Someday is Today” an unnamed woman arrives to help in the wake of the death of her unnamed sister’s husband, and she struggles to comfort her sister and to care for the couple’s three young girls. Sorrow, the visiting woman-narrator says, has made the widow “a little girl again,” the girl she knew when they were growing up. But there’s new tension between them, partly because the single woman doesn’t know how to care for children and partly because she can’t share the depth of her sister’s grief. And also because she’s religious and her sister isn’t.

The sister’s overwhelming loss, her husband killed suddenly in his prime by a staph infection, comes during the couple’s massive house deconstruction:

     My sister has found some comfort in the widow boards on the Internet. One of them has a list of Ten Helpful Hints for Getting Through This Most Difficult Time in Your Life. Hint Number 7: Learn to Expect the Unexpected. “Expect to cry at odd times: At the sight of a couple holding hands, at the sound of the doorbell ringing.” The bit about the doorbell got to me. As if, somewhere in your psyche, some part of you thinks he’s come home—and then remembers. My sister doesn’t wait for the doorbell. After the girls are asleep, she walks the stone path to the empty house, lies down on the floor of what used to be her master bedroom, and wails. I hear her. I don’t join her; I don’t know how to join her. When the doctor delivered the final news, I put my hand against her back. “Don’t touch me,” she said quietly.

As the children’s mother keens, their wacky aunt teaches them words far beyond their abilities—orientation and omniscient; she buys them whatever they want at House of Pancakes, bounces with them on a trampoline, and endlessly re-watches with them The Sound of Music. Auntie tells them an age-inappropriate but very funny joke.

Despite her rapport and love for the girls, this sensitive woman balks when asked to agree to take them if her sister dies young like her husband. And though she’s allowed to talk to the children about God, when she reveals that she anointed her dying brother in law with blessed oil and said to him words by Annie Dillard (from Holy the Firm)—“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us . . . There never has been”—her sister is furious.

I realize I’ve picked the collection’s two heaviest stories to highlight. But the scenes here between the well-meaning aunt and her young nieces are tender and funny (which only makes the situation more heartbreaking), and the story is so perfect and suffused with such profound emotion that it is life-affirming and inspiring.

Alethea Black

Alethea Black, hard at work—maybe not: the sun is shining.

I Knew You’d Be Lovely, only nine months old, is already in its fourth edition. Black worked on the collection for many years, having committed only after college to writing, and the stories reflect this time investment in evidence of what Dillard once called the “richness of the years.” Yet they don’t feel overworked—quite the opposite. There are moments and snatches of conversation that are so real and apt that you just know Black pounced on them in real time.

Which isn’t to say they aren’t deeply imagined. Even when the outcome of a story is improbable, as when a beautiful young doctor leaves a party with a man she’s just met, possibly bound for bed, it is believable in part because you want to believe. Another of those stories is “Good in a Crisis,” about a young high school English teacher, who, questioning her calling, tracks down the cool high school teacher she’d had a crush on. “He sometimes had a little BO, she remembered, which Ginny’s adolescent self had found oddly sexy. Mainly, though, he had the peculiar beauty of a person in love with what he does.”

I say improbable, but it’s not that—unlikely?—no, not that either: some events are just unusual, while falling within the range of human possibility. As in the collection’s title story, in which a lovely woman wangles a ménage a trois for her boyfriend, as his birthday present, with herself and the lovely woman he may already be having an emotional affair with.

These stories are all really about love, I guess, and anyone who has been there knows that love is transcendent: earthbound rules don’t fully apply. Many of Black’s characters are young, college-age to about ten years out, and they’re lucky people, the type who were enrolled in gifted and talented classes in grade school, who were slotted into AP classes in high school, and then shuttled off to the Ivy League. Take the top three percent of that group, for wit and overall brilliance, and you have the general demographic.

I don’t mean this as a criticism—quite the opposite. There are so many tales of mere sorrow, ordinary angst, and the seedy underbelly.  I Knew You’d Be Lovely offers wit, humor, and artistry that cast a hopeful morning light on life’s turning points and its tragedies.

Alethea Black answered some questions for Narrative:

I’ve read that you decided you wanted to be a writer two years after you graduated from Harvard College. What was your major? Do you wish you’d majored in something different now that you are a writer?

I was a literature major, but I opted out of writing a thesis in the end, and received my degree in General Studies. I was not at all on my game in college, and spent a lot of time sleeping. I thought the desire to write was completely dormant in those days, but one of my suitemates recently said that I told her I wanted to be a writer, so I guess it was there even then. I don’t wish I’d chosen a different major; I don’t think I could be anything other than a writer.

I Knew You’d Be Lovely took you a decade and a half from start to publication. What was the most important thing you learned about writing during that time?

It’s true, this book was a 15-year pregnancy. I think the most important thing I’ve learned is the power of economy—never say with twenty words what you can say with two. When I look at early drafts of my work, the thing I notice most is how unnecessary some sentences are.

To ask a dumb question: why does writing a book commonly take so long? Or, more precisely, why do some of your stories take so long—what happens in that time, those years, that makes them at last complete?

No such thing as a dumb question! I think writing often takes a long time because you’re learning how to do it as you go. (And of course you’re living your life and working your day job as you go, too.) As to how you know when a story is complete, that’s one of the great unanswerables. When I give readings from LOVELY, I still find words to cut. But I do think it’s fully itself. When the sculptor Alexander Calder was asked, “When do you know a sculpture of yours is finished?” he said, “When it’s time for dinner.”

You’ve published poetry and essays but fiction has been your focus. Do you think the habits of art that fiction cultivates are different than for nonfiction? For instance, your story “Someday is Today,” based on your brother in law’s death, could have been a lovely, resonant essay instead of a lovely, resonant story.

I’ve come to think that fiction and nonfiction are more alike than I ever used to realize. When I wrote “Essay to be read at 3 a.m.” for Narrative magazine, I kept being surprised by how much fun it was. I had no idea that nonfiction could be every bit as inventive and lyrical and mysterious as fiction. You’re bound by facts, but you’re still free; in fact sometimes it’s the limitations that liberate you.

What are you reading these days and how does your reading affect your writing?

I’m a very slow reader and I’m always reading about ten different things at once. I love the New Yorker cartoon where the man is pointing at his bookshelves and saying: “On the left are the ones I haven’t finished, and on the right are the ones I haven’t started.” On my nightstand right now are A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson; The Human Line by Ellen Bass; Corpus Christi by Bret Anthony Johnston; The Stormchasers by Jenna Blum; Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov; and a guidebook called Just Enough Italian. I sometimes give myself a moratorium on buying any new books until I finish the ones I own, but I never stick to it.

You mention your religious faith on your website. Do people react differently to you or to your stories if they know you are religious? Faith in any kind of God isn’t very popular these days.

Faith isn’t fashionable, no. But what a small thing life would be if my goal were to fit in. I don’t know if my religious beliefs (I’m a progressive Catholic) influence the way people respond to my stories, but they do seem interested in that side of things when I give readings. I’m always happy to answer their questions because it’s as strange to me as it is to anyone; if you’d told me fifteen years ago that I’d now be someone who talks openly about Jesus, I would have fallen off my chair laughing. Before my book came out, a friend advised me to take the “God” tab off my website because it would hurt my career. But I have to say, whenever I’m on an airplane in turbulence and I feel like the end is near, I’m always glad I spoke openly about what I believe. Faith has brought me so much joy; it would feel selfish to keep quiet about it.

You’ve said you put your “own MFA” equivalent program together. Could you elaborate on what you did and what you learned?

My home-school MFA? I read a lot of books about writing, such as Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer; Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird; Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write; Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way; and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. I learned so much from Natalie Goldberg that I thank her in my Acknowledgments.

Through many hours of revising, I learned that if there’s a section of your story that depresses you to look at, you should cut it. If there’s a word that feels fancy or a character’s action that feels forced, cut. If there’s a paragraph where you can feel how hard you’re trying, cut. Cut anything that feels writerly or show-offy or self-conscious. Cut anything that doesn’t keep the ball moving. That really great metaphor that does nothing to advance your story? Cut.

If you have doubts about something, more often than not it should go. If it was really meant to be there, it will suggest itself anew when you look at your story with fresh eyes, perhaps after you’ve let it rest for a month. I always assume that my reader is smarter, wittier, and a better dresser than I am, and I don’t want to bore him. My cardinal rule is to keep things interesting or call it a day.

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