Michael Steinberg's Blog--The Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction
November 17, 2016
This month’s guest blogger is Tarn Wilson, a first-rate memoirist, essayist, and creative writing teacher.
* I first heard Tarn’s talk “Finding Form” at last year’s NonfictionNow conference in Flagstaff, Arizona. It was part of a panel on/about structure. In fact, my last month’s post, Joe Mackall's essay, came from that same panel.
As a writer, editor, and teacher, I’ve always believed that finding the right form/structure for either a stand-alone piece or a book length-work is the writer’s most fundamental, important challenge.
Those familiar with this blog know that I’ve posted perhaps more craft/teaching essays on matters of structure, what Annie Dillard describes as “fashioning a text.” than I have on any other aspect or element of our craft.
And to my mind, one of the wisest, most accessible (and inclusive) pieces is Tarn Wilson’s “Finding Form.” In describing her own struggles to find the right form for her memoir The Slow Farm, Tarn speaks directly and with great empathy and respect to writers--novices and experienced alike--and to teachers of literary nonfiction; including high school, college (undergraduate and graduate), and adult education.
*Last winter, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies published all five essays. The link is Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies
Blog # 54 FINDING FORM BY TARN WILSON
I’m going to make an assumption. You either have pages of non-fiction material, yet to find a form—or like me, you’re a nerd obsessed with anything related to the writing process and structure. To get us started, I’ll begin with some highly simplistic and arguable definitions:
Essay - the exploration of a question or an idea, which may include personal experiences to support the thinking.
Memoir – a personal story, which may include reflection to deepen the meaning.
Of course, our nonfiction writing exists on a continuum. How, then, in our writing, do we choose the ratio of reflection to story? How do we find our form?
To help us think about these question, I’m going to share some lessons I learned in the process of writing my memoir, The Slow Farm, the story of my early years with my hippy parents, living off the land in British Columbia.
First lesson: Don’t be in a hurry. I wrote the first draft, if you could call it that, in my mid-twenties. It was autobiographical fiction. I sent it to the only writer I knew, who noted a few lines she liked, but let me down gently with this spare, wise advice. “Don’t be in a hurry.” I read between the lines: the book was not yet a book. Slowly, I realized I’d chosen to fictionalize because—while I had vivid memories of childhood—I did not yet understand their significance. I’d used fiction to force resolutions I’d not yet earned. I needed more time to listen to the material, to trust I’d discover the reasons the memories were rising in me. So I started writing and writing and writing, as honestly as I could, a new prompt almost every day, resisting the urge to settle on form too early.
Second lesson: Find some boundaries. My whole childhood had been complicated and unusual—and I was trying to write it all. The story was too big and unfocused. Since almost every writing exercise I gave myself, no matter where it began, ended with my time on Texada Island, I decided I’d focus on those years my parents were attempting their counter-culture experiment. (This required I cut the first third of my book, writing I’d labored over. It took a full day of alternatingly walking and lying on my back on my bed arguing with myself before I finally had the courage to let it go.) But I was pleased my story was now bound both geographically and by time.
The next stage taught me a number of lessons about finding form. In those early years when I was first drafting, I was reading nature writers and as well as memoirs of spiritual journeys: Annie Dillard, Kathleen Norris, Gretel Ehrlich, Terry Tempest Williams. I started to see my story in a cosmic or mythological framework. I reflected on the fluid nature of memory. I learned about the geological history of the region and imagined the islands of the Pacific Northwest rising from the sea. I linked my story to the story of Genesis and to the nature of creativity itself – form coming from formlessness. I linked my story to the Garden of Eden: my parents’ search for a perfect wilderness, which couldn’t last. I used that as a frame and opened each chapter with a quote from Genesis or writers on the nature of creativity and story.
When I gave my new pages to my first readers, they were not interested in any of my fabulous abstract pondering. They only cared about the little moments in which I seemed to have accurately captured a child’s point of view. I seemed to have stumbled upon a voice, not the literal voice of a child, but a voice true to a child’s consciousness.
Eventually, again, and with much pain, I cut my philosophical reflection, leaving me with a spare book, brief vignettes from a hippy kid. (All those abandoned passages—more pages than made the final version—were not wasted. They just sunk underground, invisibly informing the themes and structure.)
In the process I learned this about myself: I tend to go abstract – to obsess over meaning, patterns, and making connections. In my writing (and probably in my life), I had to become more grounded, to tie my stories to place and time and specific details.
As I did, I realized I’d been using intellectual meanderings to distance myself from the difficult emotions that would arise when I was fully immersed in a scene. I had to write toward what scared me, toward the emotion in the story. Lesson learned: Notice your strategies for avoiding discomfort and work against your default tendencies.
Lesson four: Pay attention to your readers. I was exploring so many directions—and so actively trying to avoid what was painful—I couldn’t recognize when I’d hit on something true. This is where my new group of other beginning writers came in. They didn’t yet have much expertise, but they could tell me when they thought the writing was alive, and they all pointed to the same passages.
Lesson five: Voice can lead you to form. Those passages then guided the shape of the book. It evolved into short chapters, in a child’s perspective, with vivid sense detail, similar to the beautiful book House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.
But then I had a problem. A child’s point of view is, by nature, limited – especially the ages I was covering—four through six. The story seemed suffocating insular, lacking any history, cultural context, or sense of how the story had shaped me as an adult. But any time I tried to weave in context and reflection, those passages were a jarring intrusion into the child’s world.
By this time I’d enrolled in an MFA program, so with the help of my mentor Judith Kitchen, we devised a solution. Between each chapter, I included an “artifact” which reveals some context to the reader: quotes from the counter culture books my parents were reading, song lists and lyrics, historical time lines, photographs, excerpts from letters, newspaper clippings. Instead of guiding the readers to an evaluation of my parents’ choices, I asked them to actively engage. To myself, I called this absence of reflection “gaps”: space where I invite the reader to make meaning.
Of course, I made conscious decisions in how I juxtaposed the artifacts. For example I placed a line from Summerhill’s A Radical Approach to Childrearing that argues against the teaching of table manners next to a scene in which I was ashamed I didn’t know social niceties. I placed the line, “I do not think that seeing sexual intercourse would have any bad effect on a self-regulated child” next to an unsettling sexual incident.
And I do develop themes around learning, idealism, and acceptance, but in the end, I make few evaluations on my parents’ choices or how they’d shaped me. (I knew I’d achieved my goal when in the same week one reader accused my parents of being abusive and another enthused about the freedom and love they’d provide me.)
But there was a cost to the choice to cut most reflection. Most best selling memoirs are shaped like novels. They included big plot events, which lead, in the last third of the story, to a climactic turning point when a writer has a psychological insight, which leads to an improved life—or at least some hard-earned wisdom. My story had veered from that model. I knew that meant it would be difficult to find a publisher. Even worst, though, I feared that my book was boring and irreparably flawed, maybe not a book at all.
Then I stumbled upon an article by the poet and memoirist Mark Doty, published in Poets and Writers: “Bride in Beige.” He observes that people who work primarily in other genres come to memoir with a “habitual way of making meaning.” He says journalists “understand reality as something that can be corroborated: facts can and must be checked.” Essayists follow a line of inquiry. Novelists, he says, are concerned with the creation of the narrator as a character, in relationship with other characters. (I’d add that the novelists have contributed to the expectation that a memoir follow a predictable redemptive story arc.) Poets, though, are after “a representation of how it feels to live.” I realized that although I did not think of myself as poet, I was writing from that sensibility. I was aiming to capture what it felt like to be alive as a child in a place and time.
His frame gave me more confidence in my choices. Those readers who expected a journalistic or novelistic structure might be disappointed, but I was poet. Who knew! Lesson learned: Form grows from your intentions.
My meandering mess had been paired down to a tight story with minimal reflection and has been far better received by a wider audience than I’d ever hoped. In the years since, however, I’ve written nothing but essay, gorging myself on the reflection I’d denied myself. Now, I’m starting a new memoir (I think), with the familiar fear and uncertainty, wrestling again with voice and form. So, I’ve written this for you. But I’ve also written this for me, to remind myself.
Lesson seven. Begin again at the beginning. Don’t be in a hurry.
Tarn Wilson is the author of the memoir The Slow Farm. Her essays appear in Brevity, Defunct, Gulf Stream, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, River Teeth, Ruminate, South Loop Review, and The Sun, among others. She is a graduate of the Rainier Writing Workshop and teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area.