Michael Steinberg's Blog--The Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction
February 9, 2016
Before you look at Michael Down's craft essay, I would like to recommend an upcoming writer’s conference, writing contest, and writing workshop.
WRITER’S CONFERENCE: River Teeth Creative Nonfiction Writer’s Conference. June 3-5, 2016. River Teeth Creative Nonfiction Writer's Conference
WRITING CONTEST: Solstice Literary Magazine’s Creative Nonfiction Prize Solstice Literary Magazine's Creative Nonfiction Prize
WRITING WORKSHOP: OPEN THE DOORS: Nonfiction workshop with Baron Wormser and Kim Dana Kupperman, Montpelier, Vermont July 27-31, 2016.
Overview: The workshop is geared for writers at any level. The goal is to offer a chance to grow as a writer and bear witness to others’ growth. We invite each participant to start afresh with each piece of writing. Each day for five days, we will present at least two prompts. After a discussion that speaks to what is occurring in the piece, participants use that prompt as a jumping-off point. Then, after a timed writing period, the group reconvenes to read aloud what they’ve written and discuss how their piece relates to the prompt. There will be, over the course of the week, plenty of time to revise pieces.
The group will meet in our house near downtown Montpelier, a very short walk from places to stay restaurants, an art cinema, a bar with over twenty craft beers on tap, independent bookstores, and a number of bakeries and cafes. There is plenty of hiking, kayaking, and swimming nearby
Logistics: The cost for a week is $1,000. Doors open at 9:00 for breakfast; workshop begins at 9:30; and the day runs to 3:30. Participants can sit and write in our house and on the grounds or porch or sit in a nearby café and write there. We’ll be around all day to talk individually with each participant. Participation is limited to six people.
Baron Wormser is the co-author of two books about teaching poetry along with nine books of poetry, a memoir, a novel, and a book of short stories. He has led generative workshops for decades.
Kim Dana Kupperman is an award-winning essayist who has worked as an editor, writer, and teacher for over thirty years.
For information, or to register, please contact Baron Wormser at 802.223.2622 or firstname.lastname@example.org
BLOG # 46, "ME, MYSELF, I: IDIOSYNCRASY AND STRUCTURE IN NONFICTION" BY MICHAEL DOWNS
Introductory Note: Whenever I talk shop with other writers, especially about works-in-progress--a personal essay or collection, a book length manuscript of literary/investigative journalism, or a memoir--the conversation invariably turns to matters of structure and shape. Experienced and inexperienced writers alike have to wrestle with things like voice and personae, subject and purpose. But at some point in the drafting process, we know that the success or failure of what we’re writing depends on whether or not we'll find the containing shape, the structure, that is, that best suits the manuscript—be it a work of narrative, lyric, and/or a hybrid form of one sort or other.
How then, does that decision come about? A conscious choice? An unexpected discovery? Maybe some combination of both? And, do we make this decision before we start? During the drafting stage? At some other point in the process?
At the AWP/Minneapolis conference last spring I was part of a panel on/about the various ways in which those of us who write and teach find the structure/shape for our works, both stand-alone pieces and full length manuscripts.
Michael Downs's fine piece below, "Me, Myself, I: Idiosyncrasy and Structure in Nonfiction,” is a reworking of his AWP panel talk. It also appeared in TriQuarterly's Fall, 2015 issue, along with the other four essays that were adapted from the panel. At some point, over the next few months, I'll try to post those on this blog.
Blog No. 46 "Me, Myself, I: Idiosyncrasy and Structure in Nonfiction" by Michael Downs
To begin, a confession: structure baffles me. This confusion proves as true in essays or books as with wood or brick. My hammer drives crooked nails; my Ikea furniture wobbles. Perhaps once in decades of writing have I found a structure in a first draft and stuck with it. Mozart, I’ve heard, could look skyward and see the construction of his scores unfold. When I look up, I see clouds – gray and indistinct.
Once, I asked a poet, a formalist, do you take pencil in hand intending to write a sonnet – or whatever form? Do you say, “Today, I will write a sonnet”? No, he answered. He wrote his first lines without thought to form, then examined what had just arrived on his page. He studied the shape of the lines, their rhythms, the logic and argument of the subject, then decided what form those lines and subject evoked. If they looked like a sonnet, he tried a sonnet. If they looked mostly like rhyming couplets, he tried rhyming couplets. Those early lines and subject matter were only his material – the sculptor’s marble block – and that material suggested the shape the poem might take.
This essay deals with structure and literary nonfiction, but the poet’s answer suggests that no matter the art or genre, material plays a role in structure. For me, who finds form befuddling, this leads to more questions. What’s the nature of that role? What’s its scope? How might it work? How might it work, especially, given that the material of nonfiction is some actual thing – a murder and a place, or five teenagers’ coming-of-age in a troubled city? This is real stuff. It has its own shape the way everything – a shoe horn, a sunrise, a street protest – has a shape.
Bruno Schulz, the Polish-Jewish art teacher and writer murdered in 1942 by a Nazi, is known best for fiction. But he has this wonderful, Bruno-Schulzian-thing-to-say about shapes and reality. It has to do with reality’s ever-changing form, and it helps explain what nonfiction writers face when considering the influence of material on structure. The material – reality (that shoe horn, the sunrise, the street protest) – isn’t static. Reality, as Schulz writes, “is in a state of constant fermentation, germination, hidden life. It contains no hard, dead, limited objects. Everything … remains in a given shape only momentarily, leaving this shape behind at the first opportunity.”(i)
Adding a Kafka reference to his vision of reality’s shape-shifting, Schultz goes on: “One person is a human, another is a cockroach, but shape does not penetrate essence, is only a role adopted for a moment, an outer skin soon to be shed.” (ii)
So, form or structure, like a snake’s skin or our own, is impermanent but essence is always the same. Consider how the essence of a person remains unchanged whether that person is hammering a nail into a wall – one form – or feeding a child – another form. What is true of people is also true of things, processes, and any reality at all. This understanding gives me, as a nonfiction writer, permission to consider a variety of shapes to explain whatever reality I see. Subject matter suggests a shape, yes, but shape matters less than essence. Shape is artifice, a way to get at essence. Shape can be a product of my mind at work.
This is not to say that shape is arbitrary or immaterial. It’s not. It matters how nonfiction writers arrange their subject matter, because that organization – that structure – is central to how we seek meaning in our subjects. Marion Winik, for example, in her tender work, The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, organizes dozens of loved ones and acquaintances – all dead – into small, neat essays, a graveyard of people for whom she is often the only link, planting mums over this plot, telling jokes at another. Winik does not arrange her dead chronologically by expiration date. Rather, brothers might lie side-by-side, or a friend who was an addict gives thought to another.(iii) Glen Rock’s structure reveals Winik’s mind organizing her dead as if each is a question about living and dying, as if she might find meaning ¬– even in her own death, whenever it comes – if she just arranges her dead in a proper order.
So, structure is artifice. In nonfiction, it’s how a writer seeks meaning through arrangement of a shape-shifting reality. These conclusions make sense, I think, because they mesh with what we know is a defining element of literary nonfiction: idiosyncrasy – those qualities that make us peculiar, eccentric, unique. What makes literary nonfiction literary nonfiction is individual sensibility.
To peruse a bookshelf, though, might leave an impression that idiosyncrasy in nonfiction has to do with voice. On my shelf, I find writers praised for voices that are “unflinchingly personal,” “quirky and delightful,” and “refreshing.” But isn’t structure idiosyncratic, too? Doesn’t each mind seek meaning in a different way, arrange the living room furniture – or an essay’s paragraphs – to suit personal needs, whims, tastes? Similar material suggests one arrangement to Marion Winik, while suggesting a radically different form to Joan Didion. Winik’s meditation on dying involves four dozen or so short essays about as many deaths; Didion’s – in The Year of Magical Thinking – focuses on one.
Combine these assertions, and we can argue that how we shape our material is a defining element of our work, maybe even the most defining element.
But if structure arises out of our idiosyncratic selves, what benefit can one nonfiction writer gain by studying the oh-so-individual structures of others? If structure in your nonfiction is all about you, how can that help me? What will studying your thumbprint teach me about mine? Moreover, that material we’re arranging? In nonfiction, it’s often us: our thoughts, experiences, our journeys toward meaning: idiosyncratic subject matter piled atop idiosyncratic structure. Other writers’ works seems unlikely to be successful blueprints for our own.
An example: I love Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, D.J. Waldie’s lyrical study of the Los Angeles suburb where he grew up and lives. But the book is so idiosyncratic in structure and material, I’ll never write anything like it. Waldie, who shuns cars and walked to his day job, built his book to replicate the pattern of houses that make up his neighborhood. Reading the short numbered chapters – 316 of them over 179 pages – mirrors the act of walking past address after address. (iv) Clearly, Waldie’s singular mind is at work seeking meaning through a structural arrangement his unique material and life suggests. Would a writer who drives to work have translated those suburbs the same way?
Nevertheless, I study Waldie and others, because their idiosyncrasies reveal an astonishing array of possibilities for arranging my own material, most of which I might not use and others that might fit my purposes with slight alterations, but which I’d otherwise never consider. Perhaps the more important benefit is the reminder that when the writer and material both exert influence on structure – when neither dominates the other – the work achieves a power and grace I want in my writing.
When I began what became House of Good Hope (University of Nebraska Press, 2007), I let the material dominate the structure. My subject was the coming-of-age of five friends from my hometown, young men who wanted to escape their grit-and-broken-glass neighborhoods for college, then return to help restore them. That’s what I wrote. Nothing about me. Just them, mostly chronologically. Though the friends proved interesting subjects, the manuscript’s structure was unartful as the transcribed minutes of a city council meeting. Prodded by friendly readers, I added a section about me. That didn’t work, either, proving to be a sixty-page long diversion from the book’s main focus. Not until I threaded my story through theirs did the book’s structure gel. Not coincidentally, that’s also when I realized that the five friends and I shared a quest. The book had found its form – and it’s meaning.
Other times I’m too much in control of structure, ignoring the needs of the material. I have a friend who crafts beautiful essays in which she braids disparate ideas with associative links or emotions, lovely stuff. Recently, inspired by her work, I attempted that structure. You will never, ever read that essay. My subject, an intense morning in my neighborhood involving federal gunmen and an innocent man, didn’t lend itself to the associative, diffused logic of a braided essay. The material, to my mind, wanted another form, which in my experiment I had ignored. During a second draft, I learned that the material wanted to stay focused and tight and tense, mostly chronological with a few flashbacks. I respected that suggestion, and I’m happier with the result, which I hope, like the best nonfiction, seeks and perhaps finds through its structure the essence of some shape-shifting reality; in this case, what happened that morning – not only in my neighborhood, but within me.
(i) Schulz, Bruno. “An Essay for S.I. Witkiewicz,” Polish Writers on Writing, edited by Adam Zagajewski. San Antonio, Texas: Trinity University Press, 2007. Essay translated by Walter Arndt and Victoria Nelson. p. 33.
(iii) Winik, Marion. Glen Rock Book of the Dead. Berkeley, California: Counterpoint, 2008.
(iv) Waldie, D. J.. Holy land: a suburban memoir. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.
Michael Downs's books include House of Good Hope (University of Nebraska Press), winner of the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize, and The Greatest Show (Louisiana State University Press) a collection of linked stories featuring the Hartford Circus Fire of 1944. A former newspaper reporter, he has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Maryland State Arts Council, and the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. He lives in Baltimore and teaches at Towson University.