Category Archives: teaching, education

To plan or to plunge?

What a nude “gesture sketch” class taught writer Rachel Howard.

Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn.  Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one.

—Basho, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Sketches

Annie Dillard's self-portrait sketch.

Annie Dillard’s expressive self-portrait sketch.

Rachel Howard’s essay on “gesture writing” in The New York Times interests me for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve taken two writing classes from her through Stanford’s online continuing studies offerings, and she’s a generous teacher and a true prose artist who has published a memoir about her father’s murder and is completing a novel. Second, her essay concerns one of those core writing issues that is challenging to discuss and which I’ve gone back and forth about on this blog: the role of the conscious or critical mind versus the unconscious or intuitive mind in initial creation.

Rachel’s insight favoring the intuitive arrived after she started posing as a nude model for drawing classes. She was impressed by a teacher who urged his students to capture her essence in the pose rather than to try to make their sketches representational. Rachel explains:

This “gesture” idea was fundamental. In painting classes, where I held the same pose for three hours (with frequent five-minute breaks, thank God), the paintings that looked most alive were built on top of a good gesture sketch, a first-step, quick-and-dirty drawing in which many crucial decisions about placement, perspective and emphasis were made intuitively.

In a gesture drawing, a whole arm that didn’t matter much might be just a smudgy slash, while a line that captured the twist of a spine might stand in sharp, carefully observed relief. The “gesture” was the line of organic connection within the body, the trace of kinetic cause-and-effect that made the figure a live human being rather than a corpse of stitched-together parts. If you “found the gesture,” you found life.

This quick impressionistic approach helped her, she says, find the essence of a scene she’d been struggling with in her novel. Abandoning her keyboard, she sat on the floor with a notebook and saw the scene unfold fast and clear in her mind. She jotted new dialogue, suddenly seeing and capturing a new point of view as well. In Peter Elbow’s terms in Writing With Power, Rachel experienced the scene. And when a writer does that, the scene lives because its details are both organic and relevant—what the writer or participants really would see and feel—rather than being laboriously descriptive and feeling somehow false or dead.

Elbow speculates that effective images tap more of the writer’s memory fragments, thus becoming vivid images rather than abstract ideas or conceptions. He notes that one drawing technique forbids the artist to look at the paper but to pour all energy into seeing, and explains:

The drawings people produce when they can’t look at their paper are very instructive. They are liable to have obvious distortions of one sort or another. But they usually have more life, energy, and experience in them than drawings produced when you keep looking back to your paper and correcting your line and thereby achieving more accuracy. They give the viewer more of the experience of that torso or apple. . . .

If you want your words to make a reader have an experience, you have to have an experience yourself—not just deal in ideas or concepts. What this means in practice is you have to put all your energy into seeing—into connecting or making contact or participating with what you are writing about—into being there or having the hallucination. And no effort at all into searching for words. When you have the experience . . . you can just open your mouth and the words that emerge will be what you need. (In the case of writing, though, you will have to revise later.)

Writing With Power (discussed much on this blog, along with his other work, as the linked words suggest) is a brief for process-based writing. Elbow’s theories apparently have done much good in schools because beginning writers are taught that their first drafts can be messy, and should be, and that writing is steadily refined instead of arriving flawless the first time. In contrast, what I and many writers do—compose and edit at the same time, polishing each sentence and passage as we go—he calls “the dangerous method.” That’s because, in his view, the critical, editing mind is different from and hostile to the creative, holistic one.

Recently I wrote here about stylist Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing, in which he argues that there isn’t such a split, and that in struggling to perfect each sentence—he “auditions” and rejects many—the writer discovers her material and brings it to life. Even as the Times offers Rachel’s essay, it’s running a new one by Klinkenborg, another of his small wonders—only 386 words—about the mounted head of a mule deer, shot by his father during their Colorado years, that he’s been lugging around his whole life. His essay interests me because I’m a fan, because of its remarkable compression, and because I’m vacationing in Colorado right now.

This apparent schism between Rachel and Verlyn’s process of composition relates to the everlasting argument in creative writing between “plotters,” who plan everything, and “pantsers,” who plunge in and proceed by the seat of their pants. I think most writers work in the middle; they do both, if not initially then eventually. Notice that Rachel had a complete draft, at least of that problem scene, when she retreated with her notebook. One might even surmise that her intuitive fix worked because she’d already gutted out the scene; she knew it cold from more plodding work.

Who knows? But the fun and the key is finding out what works for you.

After I posted this I realized maybe I’ve muddied the water in equating Elbow’s dangerous method—editing as you create—with planning your structure. A writer might polish each sentence as she goes even if she doesn’t know where she’s going in terms of plot or structure. Also, in Rachel’s example she already knew what was happening in the scene—she’d previously created it—just didn’t like how it was playing out. So she sat and riffed, seeing it fresh. But it was not in that sense initial creation.

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Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, NOTED, revision, teaching, education, working method

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

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

Reading Rilke again at Eastertide

Spirituality, authenticity & Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.

Sunrise, Double x

A work of art is good if it has grown out of necessity. In this manner of its origin lies its true estimate: there is no other.

Letters to a Young Poet

As a broody kid, growing up in a Florida beach town and grieving my family’s exodus from our farm in Georgia, I found a library book by a guy about his hobby farm. I loved it, probably sensing how both my father’s and my own loss might be redeemed. I shared it with Dad. When I asked him what he thought he said, “I think he wanted to write a book.” Nothing else—Dad was always as concise as a telegram—but I grasped the devastating judgment in his unsparing remark.

Rilke cover

Writers trying to wrest from their guts that necessary, handmade, human thing called art, which involves (among other things) seeking to see more clearly their lives and those of their fellow humans, might enjoy Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. It’s a slender book, some forty pages, with many admirers and much resonance. Rilke was only twenty-seven, already becoming famous in Germany as a lyric poet, when in 1903 a boy in a military school wrote to him for advice. Rilke had spent five miserable years himself in the same school. His precepts, delivered over an eight-year period, float free of whatever experience or thought process produced them. Yet his judgments feel no less true for lacking explanation.

That’s for you to fill in—you with your private inner inquiry into gender, artistic authenticity, human nature, spirituality, and the concept and definition of what might be termed God.

A key Rilke passage:

Perhaps there is over everything a great motherhood, as a common longing. The loveliness of the virgin . . . is motherhood foreboding and preparing itself, uneasy and yearning. And the mother’s beauty is serving motherhood, and in the old woman there is a great memory. And in the man too there is motherhood, it seems to me, physical and spiritual; his begetting is also a kind of birth-giving, and it is birth-giving when he creates out of his innermost fullness. And perhaps the sexes are more akin than we suppose, and the great renewal of the world will perhaps consist in this, that man and maiden, freed from all false feelings and perversions, will seek each other not as opposites but as brother and sister, as neighbors, and will unite as human beings to bear in common, simply, seriously and patiently, the heavy sex that has been laid upon them.

This is strikingly reminiscent to me of Virginia Woolf’s notion of artistic androgyny with which she concludes A Room of One’s Own, and Rilke’s ideas elsewhere mirror her concept in her essay “Moments of Being” of authentic presence. Everywhere he confirms, completes, and foreshadows manifold later spiritual insights. It appears, for instance, that another German mystic, Eckhart Tolle, owes Rilke a great debt, especially in Tolle’s profound spiritual synthesis A New Earth.

Like Tolle, Rilke advises inner communion instead of identification with ego and form: “What is needed is, in the end, simply this: solitude. Going into yourself and meeting no one for hours on end,—that is what you must be able to attain. To be alone, as you were alone in childhood, when the grown-ups were going about, involved with things which seemed important and great, because the great ones looked so busy and because you grasped nothing of their business.”

Unlike Tolle, he refers directly to God, though only twice and in a most contemporary and Tolle-like way. For Rilke, God appears to arise not from knowledge or even from faith but from intimations from the lost realm of childhood:

And if it dismays and torments you to think of childhood and the simplicity and stillness that goes with it, because you can no longer believe in God who is to be met with everywhere there, ask yourself . . . whether you have after all really lost God? Is it not much rather the case that you have never yet possessed him?

Rilke touches upon the adult task of defining God for yourself:

As bees collect honey, so we take what is sweetest out of everything and build Him.

Of course Rilke wrote to a presumed believer in a time of presumed belief. The important ideas of Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud were afoot but hadn’t yet crushed humans’ self-confidence. Nor had we yet put ourselves through two world wars and the Holocaust. After all that, unbelief and hostility to God and religion—and a pervasive doubt about our own species’ worth—became understandable. I have friends and family members across the spectrum, from those who become enraged at the mere mention of “God” or “religion” to those who dispense Jesus’ name like iodized salt. Just more evidence of humans’ long struggle against their own riven nature: a violent simian substrate; a gentler group mind from a long and at times Edenic evolution among extinct human-like ancestors; and greedy individual egos that arrived with the emergence of our shiny, anxious, hypersexual new species only 200,000 years ago.

Humanity’s puzzle and core dilemma—What does it mean to be human?—Rilke touches upon directly or by implication everywhere in Letters to a Young Poet as he works out for himself and for his acolyte his answers. This is all we can ask of any writer, his sincere testimony, expression seemingly driven by some personal necessity—for Rilke, necessity being art’s acid test. We crave the authenticity concentrated in the fruit of someone’s honest emergency. Oh, the struggle by writers to make something authentic from the necessity that impels them!

And the world’s listeners still draw near to lovely songs, like Rilke’s, that seem true.

///

Austin Kleon has an excellent blog post about the more writerly aspects of Letters to a Young Poet. 

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Filed under essay-expository, honesty, modernism/postmodernism, MY LIFE, NOTED, religion & spirituality, 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

The truthiness obsession at AWP

High interest in creative nonfiction swamps small rooms.

Way Out x

Guest Post by Janice Gary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gary, Janice, Goucher 04 Grad x

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

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Filed under creative nonfiction, honesty, teaching, education

AWP: Day One

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

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

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

Guest Post by Janice Gary

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

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

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

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

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

Janice Gary

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

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Filed under creative nonfiction, MFA, teaching, education

A cheap trick that slays readers

Hairy Canary x

Jill Talbot’s braided essay & Lee Child on creating suspense.

It’s difficult for most people to verbalize the ways in which they disappoint themselves and others. The personal essay and the memoir demand that it be written down, perhaps even read aloud to others. The genre, I tell my students, is not for everyone. If you’re not comfortable with looking closely at where you have gone wrong or at least trying to find out why, you’re not going to be a good essayist.

—Jill Talbot, “Creating Nonfiction”

Jill Talbot is an acclaimed essayist and nonfiction theorist. Her braided essay “Emergent” has just appeared in the Paris Review, and I commend it to you. I predict you won’t be able to stop reading it because you’ll see what Talbot couldn’t see, the terrible danger that she and her young daughter were in. Multiple questions drive it forward as she lets the reader see what the apparent problem was even as she was oblivious to it in the wake of her move and her daughter’s seemingly separate issue. You’ll want to know how it comes out. And I love the way the essay’s braided structure deepens the foreground story and makes it seem even more real, more textured like life. Her memories and worries continue along with the slowly unfolding disaster, just as they surely do. This chilling story embodies so much more than its abundant explicit content.

In her essay “Creating Nonfiction” Talbot addresses the so-what-why-should-we-care issue I’ve been writing about:

In writing essays, you have to be more loyal to the art than the experience that created that art. A good place to start is by choosing an appropriate persona. It’s not enough to be an “I.” As I ask my students, Who are you for this piece? Because I believe that is the relationship between the persona and the essay. An essay demands a certain persona to achieve what it sets out to do. One of the ways I introduce the idea of persona is by making a list on the board of each of my varying personas, including ones like professor, mother, smoker, runner, writer, lover, seventies music aficionado.

Notice what this implies: You as a narrator are standing at least somewhat outside experience, delivering wisdom or at least testifying as to meaning. Talbot makes this explicit a little later:

When a student wrote about being raped at the age of twelve by her cousin, her workshop group grew visibly reticent from across the room. I usually stay out of workshops unless the group needs a new direction or an essay affords me an opportunity to make a point that will help all of the writers, but here, I purposefully broke in to remind them they were responding to the writing, not the written rape in any innovative or intriguing way. If an essay doesn’t bring a new voice or approach to its subject matter, don’t write it. If you write the essay as a surface catharsis, a confession, or for attention,  the  significance  is  yours  only. What makes an essay move  beyond the telling is when a reader, with or without  a similar experience, can  recognize  a humanistic  truth emerging  from its words.

• • •

Part of the narrative puzzle: Ask a question to make readers care.

If you’re still reading, I must’ve hooked you with that “cheap trick” line. Sorry for making you feel craven and unclean, but I had to try it. And it’s not really cheap so much as comparatively easy and effective; we pose questions naturally but like all impulses in writing this move can become more effective when we use it consciously.

I’ve mentioned in a writing class a few times this semester how important narrative suspense is. That’s an overt or implicit question that keeps the reader reading. Overt questions like, “I couldn’t figure out why I’d acted that way,” propel the reader forward, as do implicit questions. How will the relationship come out? Does he live or die? Did her eating disorder get better? As we know, Verlyn Klinkenborg says in his new book on writing (reviewed) that implication is one of writing’s most powerful qualities because it lets readers grasp and figure out some of the narrative’s pieces for themselves.

Now suddenly I’ve remembered that, in December, a short New York Times essay by Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher series, addressed this issue. “A Simple Way to Create Suspense” mentions only fiction, but it applies directly to nonfiction as well. Child says posing a question can seem almost unfair because it works so well. I’m all for what works, however easy, because writing is concentrated thought and hard enough. And memoir always faces this “So what?” issue. He says you can make readers care by asking a question, since humans are compelled by curiosity about how questions are answered:

Readers are human, and humans seem programmed to wait for answers to questions they witness being asked. I learned that fact in my first job. I worked in television production from 1977 until 1995, and the business changed radically during that time, mainly because of one particular invention. It was something that almost no one had in 1980, and that almost everyone had in 1990, and it changed the game forever. We had to cope with it. We had to invent a solution to the serious problem it posed.

(You notice I haven’t told you what the invention was yet? I implied a question, and didn’t answer it. You’re waiting. You’re wondering, what did almost no one have in 1980 that almost everyone had in 1990? You’re definitely going to read the next paragraph, aren’t you? Thus the principle works in a micro sense, as well as in a macro one. Page to page, paragraph to paragraph, line to line — even within single sentences — imply a question first, and then answer it second. The reader learns to chase, and the momentum becomes unstoppable.)

What almost no one had in 1980 and almost everyone had in 1990 was a remote control. Previously, at the end of a segment or a program, we could be fairly sure the viewer wouldn’t change the channel on a whim, because changing the channel required the viewer to get off the sofa and cross the room. But afterward, changing the channel was easy, which was very dangerous for an audience-hungry station.

So how did we respond? (Notice the structure here? Wait for it!) We started asking questions before the commercials, and answering them afterward.

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Filed under braids, threads, craft, technique, evolutionary psychology, memoir, structure, teaching, education, workshopping

The ‘So what?’ dilemma

Craft as conduit to art & Brenda Miller’s seminal essay on form.

Adverse Camber x

If a writer is any good, what he makes will have its source in a realm much larger than that which his conscious mind can encompass and will always be a greater surprise to him than it can ever be to his reader.—Bret Lott, “Against Technique”

I read many student personal essays, memoirs, and literary analyses. I’m not one who bashes student writing, says kids today can’t write—the vast majority of even freshmen are competent writers, especially of essays for teachers. What they’re not is professional writers. Nor do most aspire to be.

But then, while I try myself to emulate a professional’s ability, I’m a student too. Isn’t any writer? I believe that the cure for what ails us aspirants and our flawed efforts lies largely in craft. And craft also addresses the implicit and sometimes explicit curse that vexes memoirists and personal essayists, “So what?” That is, Why should we care about your life? Why should we care what you think? These challenges are fellow travelers with the bitter and ignorant “navel-gazing” charge that faces even bestselling memoirists.

My guest post on this issue, on how memoirists can tell their stories in ways that interest a general audience, appears on my friend Shirley Hershey Showalter’s blog on memoir. Much of my lengthy post discusses a seminal essay by Brenda Miller, “A Case Against Courage in Creative Nonfiction,” which appeared in the AWP Writer’s Chronicle of October/November 2011. Miller, editor of Bellingham Review, emphasizes craft’s role in helping writers turn the raw material of their lives into shapely, publishable stories. Form, the various elements of the craft of presentation, she says, protects writers from the pain of their own revelations, delights readers, and transforms one human’s experience into art.

And it does seem almost magical, really, the way one writer can interest us with her account of her divorce while another’s tale bores or angers. Yet most essays Miller receives as an editor, including over 400 each year as entries for the Annie Dillard Award in Creative Nonfiction, fall short. She says:

[U]nfortunately, most of these pieces do bore us, most of them announcing themselves as yet another rendition of “this happened to me, I’m being brave, please listen.” This earnestness makes us sigh and turn to the next piece in the stack. We don’t really want to hear what happened to this stranger.

I can’t help but smile at this pro’s tough love—and she is a pro, Miller having won six Pushcart Prizes herself—even though I know she or her weary posse has rejected my own hopeful submissions for the Dillard Award. Thankfully the models she cites as successes in her essay are ones that I and other hopefuls might learn from. For instance, Miller praises an essay that’s helpfully available on line, Sherry Simpson’s concise “Fidelity,” which cuts back and forth in its braided structure between a bear, which is threatening Simpson and her husband during a wilderness canoe trip, and her displeasure with her mate. In Simpson’s essay one can see how craft imposed on raw experience makes the essay not only interesting but more real, more lifelike. We can easily grasp that even when threatened by grizzly—maybe especially then—a person might still brood about her hubby.

So, craft.

This blog has been mostly about craft, even though craft isn’t the most important thing about writing. The self that produces art and its intent are what’s crucial. A paradox about art, however, is that craft is all we can really discuss. It’s what we can teach and work at. And anyway, craft is the path to art.

Of course, technique by itself is hollow if enshrined. Often to me writing seems simply a struggle with the self, the practice of craft pressuring what’s in the self that engenders art to come forth. This is the real mystery, ultimately, not how it’s done but that it’s made to exist and why. This is a spiritual matter and seems too personal and too various to address directly in a group setting or format; it lurks in the resonant negative spaces, the white spaces, of our discussions.

So we talk about craft, the necessary conduit, the way in.

See also my post from 2008, “Between Self and Story,” about writing’s deeper or spiritual dimension and its relationship to craft.

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Filed under blogging, braids, threads, craft, technique, Dillard—Saint Annie, essay-personal, memoir, religion & spirituality, structure, teaching, education

Truth and beauty redux

Nonfiction faces challenges in writing from another’s point of view; but do the genre’s constraints limit its claims to art?

A version of the post below first appeared January 20, 2009. I was thinking about it because I re-read Tim O’Brien’s revered short story “The Things They Carried,” and read for the first time Ron Hansen’s immortal short story “Wickedness,” both of them very essayistic. And O’Brien’s, anyway, is often claimed by practitioners of creative nonfiction because it seems autobiographical. It is based on his experience as a soldier in Vietnam, though the central arc about a young officer leading his platoon is surely fictionalized heavily if not completely; Hansen’s story is based on a mythic blizzard that (apparently) hit Nebraska round about 1888.

There is no reason whatsoever—in theory—that nonfiction cannot do the same thing these stories do, with their deeply subjective third-person omniscient points of view. Tracy Kidder has approached it and some others; for Among Schoolchildren he spent a year in a third-grade classroom, watching, and then interviewed the teacher every day about what she’d been thinking when, say, little Johnny acted out just before recess.

But this approach requires such intimate and exhaustive interviewing and cooperation that, in practice, one can see why God created fiction . . . It’s simply too much work and too hard for most writers, and they cannot shape the key characters the same way a fiction writer can to serve her ends.

• • •

I’ve touched often on the issue of truth in nonfiction, but the latest scandal, involving a fictionalized Holocaust memoir, impels me to return. (Oprah keeps falling for these stories that are too good to be true. Truth often is stranger than fiction but it’s seldom as shapely.)

I tell students these are three reasons for honesty:

 Practical: A nonfiction writer will destroy his credibility and career by lying. This is an embarrassing reason, as it’s so utilitarian, but perhaps compelling to sociopaths.

 Moral: You made an implicit promise that details, scenes, characters, and dialogue wouldn’t be invented or embellished. Recreated, yes, and clearly selected and filtered through a particular consciousness, but not conveniently made up.

 Aesthetic: Nonfiction’s art often flows out of the rough places where writers don’t have what they need. They must explore that on the page or conduct more research. Immerse. Writer and writing theorist Robert Root made an interesting point about this in his essay “This is What the Spaces Say”:

The issue of truth, which seldom surfaces in other literary genres, perplexes nonfictionists. We begin in reality, in the hope of achieving some better understanding of the actual through writing. The inventions and manipulations of character and plot that are the hallmark of the novelist’s creativity are the barriers of the nonfictionist’s psychology; the willingness to settle for the fictionist’s ‘higher truth through fabrication’ negates the nonfictionist’s chances of even visiting the vicinity of the kind of earthbound and actual truth that is nonfiction’s special province. The truth is hard to know, and it’s hard, ultimately, to explain, perhaps especially about our own lives, what we experience as participants, what we observe as spectators.

My three rules are simple statements about this slippery issue. Do such rules—any rules—diminish nonfiction’s claim to art?

I know a painter, a man who’s spent his long life blessedly staring at southern Ohio’s hills, who told me he doesn’t invent details. No flowers by the gate if there weren’t. And that picturesque old wooden gate was truly that, not a shiny modern metal one. I should have asked him why, though I thought I knew: a representational painter who invents might insert iris blooming when the rest of the painting says High Summer. Sure, a crafty dauber could add daylilies. But soon there’d be no end to it and he’d lose the essence of what he was trying to capture. Inauthenticity would creep in.

My friend’s aesthetic, based in honoring objective details subjectively seen, gropes toward and honors a larger truth or feeling—something he’s sensed and which he’d violate at some unknown peril to his art. We understand more than we know. His creative acts include choosing the scene and deciding where he stands—the point of view. And the painting itself is literally and metaphorically impressionistic, what he sees.

Nonfiction’s (few) rules similarly do not interfere with artistry—there’s more to art than that; consider the edicts that result in sonnets. Although my visual friend has made himself a strict rule akin to nonfiction’s imperatives, his landscapes are glowing art.

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Filed under fiction, honesty, Persona, Voice, POV, poetry, subjectivity, teaching, education