Michael Steinberg's Blog--The Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction
Blog # 56 On Secret Engines, Cross-pollination, and Repeating Ourselves Again by Ana Maria Spagna, Guest Blogger
January 17, 2017
Note: This month’s guest, Ana Maria Spagna, is a wonderful writer and teacher of literary nonfiction.
At the River Teeth Writer’s Conference last spring, Ana Maria, myself, Pat Madden, and Hope Edelman were on a panel entitled “When Writers Repeat Themselves: New Disguises or Fresh Approaches?” Several months ago, I posted my panel talk-turned-essay ( Archives, June 2016) on this blog. And this month, I wanted to run Ana Maria’s piece--also from that same panel.
In one way or another, the notion of repeating ourselves is something that most writers-- especially we autobiographical writers—must contend with. When, for example, are we recycling old materials and when are we re-seeing with fresh eyes? When are we self-plagiarizing and when are we digging more deeply into issues and ideas we’ve covered but haven’t yet fully explored?
In her essay, Ana Maria writes about how, in the process of working on what she calls “a kid’s novel,” she discovered that she was writing about the same material she’d already covered in her previous book Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus--a work of literary journalism/personal-cultural criticism.
Once you’ve read the piece, you’ll understand why Ana Maria says that she was initially embarrassed by that discovery; and why, by the end of her essay, she is able to write: “So what have I learned? In a nutshell: Repeating ourselves? I’m for it. Writing the same material in different forms or genres? I’m for it.”
On Secret Engines, Cross-pollination, and Repeating Ourselves Again
Essayist Steven Church likes to say that each of us has a “secret engine” in our writing, the burning question or experience that pops up again and again in our work. Even when we think we’ll never write about it, we do. Even when we think we’re done writing about it, we’re not.
My dad died when I was 11 years-old. The event shattered my world, of course, but I very rarely spoke of it. By the time I turned thirty I’ll bet I’d only told a handful of people, and I’d told even fewer how he died: he went out jogging one night, had a heart attack, and fell on the sidewalk. I certainly had no intention of writing about it.
Then, one day, I did. Without knowing it. I started writing about a crush I had on a running coach when I was a very little girl. The opening of the piece—one of the few I’ve ever written that kept its original opening from first draft on—has a playful near-fictional feel. Only it wasn’t fiction, and as I wrote, my dad kept creeping in: how he quit smoking to start jogging with me, how when I quit running, he built me a high jump pit. Each time he appeared on the page, I’d get freaked out and put the essay back in the proverbial drawer, so it took me over a year before I was able to let to the story unfold. Here’s a passage from the near the end. During the medal ceremony at the high jump state championship for fifth grade girls, I’m once again thinking about my old running coach.
"There, I thought, I did it without you. See! See! I did all by myself. I thought this even though it was patently untrue. And while I was thinking this, right in the middle of it, my dad jumped over the railing. He vaulted actually, like a younger more agile version of himself, and he sprinted across the track nearly interrupting a race in progress. He lifted me in his arms and spun me around as if I’d scored the winning touchdown I remember it clearly and I remember it with something like regret, something like shame, for the way that memory, like love, sometimes clings to all the wrong things."
In the end, of all the essays in my first book, Now Go Home, “Long Distance” is the one that holds up best, and after writing it, I had this self-satisfied feeling like: Well, I never need to write about that again.
I didn’t understand how secret engines work.
Fast forward a few years. I stumbled upon a short blurb online about my dad’s involvement in the Tallahassee Bus Boycott, a little-known event in the early civil rights movement. He’d never spoken about it, so if I wanted to learn more, I’d have to find people who knew him. Now, the important part of the story at this point is that I could never have started this research if I hadn’t written “Long Distance.” I had crafted the experience and my feelings about it into something that felt whole and right, and doing so freed me up to think about him in new ways. As, for instance, a young activist, maybe even a hero.
I had no intention of including myself in what eventually became Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus. I wanted to write history, or maybe biography, but the more I researched, the more my own skepticism got in the way. For one thing, when my dad was arrested, he jumped bail. Even though blacks from the movement told me over and over that as a white guy in the white jail he’d have been killed as a so-called “nigger lover,” I refused to believe. I was too angry at him. Why? Clearly not because of what happened in 1957, but because of what happened in 1979. So I’d have to go there. Again. I’d have to meld my story with his story, memoir with history, and this time I’d have to include more details from the night he died. We were home alone together, and he told me he was going running against doctor’s orders, and I tried to stop him but could not. He said, “Don’t tell Mom.” So I didn’t. I hadn’t. For thirty years, I carried a staggering burden of guilt. Writing it down alleviated it, healed me in a way. And here’s the thing: I couldn’t have done it without the research. Doing the historical research opened up the possibility of writing the personal scene, and writing the personal scene offered new understanding of the history. Neither would be half as good without the other. I told myself I had learned the value of cross-pollination.
But even that is not the end.
Writing Test Ride was hard, excruciating at times. So sometimes, when I needed a break, I worked on a novel about a 14 year-old girl snowboarder. I told everyone the novel was a fun diversion, something completely different. I’d work on Test Ride, then work on the kid’s book, then go back to Test Ride. After Test Ride was published, I pulled out the novel to polish it up and to my utter shock—how had I not seen this?—it was all about a girl and her activist father. In other words this was the exact same story. Again. I was mortified. I shoved the manuscript back in the proverbial drawer. People asked about it, and I said just didn’t work out.
Last winter I started missing those characters, so I went looking for permission to repeat myself. Again. It didn’t take long perusing the bookshelf to find Cheryl Strayed writing about her mother’s death in the fine novel Torch (2006) a decade before writing about it again in Wild (2013) or to reread Mary Karr’s poetry collection Viper Rum (1998) and see that it covered much the same ground—finding sobriety and religious faith—as her memoir Lit (2009). If writers that good could do it, I decided, I could, too.
So I went back to the kids’ novel, and here’s what I found. First, the fictional father is a surprisingly rich and three-dimensional character, flaky but funny, obsessed but also loving, someone a reader can care about. Why? Because in fiction, I wasn’t mired in the myopic “I”—the real scarred-up me—I had to give him a back story and motivation, which unlocked a door to imagination, and as a result, to empathy. But there was an even bigger discovery. The novel’s climactic scene finds the main character out snowboarding with her dad when he falls and has a heart attack (honest to god, how had I believed I was writing a different story?) but – spoiler alert! – she saves him. She drags him off the mountain and he lives.
Any amateur psychologist can explain the value of writing that scene. I rewrote my past! For a long time, I believed writing the real scene (“Don’t tell Mom”) is what freed me to write Test Ride, but maybe writing this fictional scene did. Certainly the opposite is true, writing Test Ride gave me the burning motivation that drives the rescue scene in the novel. And “burning” is the key. The energy of that scene, the energy of the entire book—The Luckiest Scar on Earth to be published by Torrey House Press on February 14—comes from the deepest place in me.
I’m still not entirely over the embarrassing fact that, all these years later, I still apparently need to write about my father’s death again and again, but I’m in awe of the writing process, the healing it spurs in all of us, writers and readers alike. So what have I learned? In a nutshell: Repeating ourselves? I’m for it. Writing the same material in different forms or genres? I’m for it. Allegiance to the secret engine? I don’t think we have a choice.
Ana Maria Spagna is the author of five award-winning nonfiction books including Now Go Home, Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus, and Reclaimers. She lives and writes in the North Cascades and teaches in the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles. www.anamaliaspagna.com.
December 19, 2016
Blog # 55 Call (Me) the Midwife, Sometimes by Jo Scott-Coe
In the past, I’ve posted a handful of craft/teaching essays on/about the differing functions of research:.
The first is my essay The Role of Research in Writing Personal Narratives; (see # 6 in the archives below); another is # 37; Kim Kupperman’s The Body of the Beholder: Some Notes on Voice. In this piece, Kim cites Peter Elbow and others’ research on voice to support her own views: and #44, Karen Babine’s Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First Year Students--an essay that combines research-based materials with Karen's experience of teaching place to freshman writing students.
This month’s craft/teaching essay, Jo Scott Coe’s Call Me the Midwife, Sometimes, is about how doing two kinds of research in her investigation of a murder led her to discover not simply the facts and artifacts (what Jo refers to as “first-time research”), but perhaps the even more important human story that lies beneath the facts and artifacts.
Blog # 55 Call (Me) the Midwife, Sometimes by Jo Scott-Coe
As my new book, MASS: A Sniper, a Father, and a Priest, heads to press, I am reflecting on the different roles we play when delivering nonfiction stories. Metaphors about writing are imperfect, discursive, and overlapping, but they can still help us understand our aesthetic approach and our ethical position. Lately, I’ve been thinking more about indirection, waiting, and partnership in nonfiction. I’m thinking about the difference between writing as a surgeon and writing as a midwife.
Nothing about MASS came easily. It involved nearly five years of intense research about the religious milieu into which Charles Whitman was born and raised before committing his shooting rampage at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966. I studied mid-century American Catholicism and the seminary training of priests. The work required a lot of first-time digging to develop a portrait of Whitman’s ordained and troubled friend, a clergyman who had all but disappeared before he died, more than thirty years ago.
I usually experience nonfiction research as a kind of archaeology, a methodical excavation. But that metaphor was not precise enough for all of the work of MASS. At times, I had to act as a narrative surgeon, armed with proverbial knives and saws and oxygen masks, a mind-map of contingencies and if/then charts in my head. I also had to muster a fierceness of purpose and focus because the story was breached and tangled within institutional as well as individual histories. The process felt taboo, unwieldy, even dangerous, as if I were fighting against nature or HMO policy to revive what had been preemptively discarded as disposable tissue.
Like surgeons, sometimes nonfiction writers have to “take” or “get” the story. We insert ourselves and schedule procedures, roll our sleeves, wash our hands up to the elbow, and dig in. It’s a big mess before it gets better. We try to keep it sanitary.
But just as “excavation” eventually yielded its usefulness as a way of understanding, “surgery” yielded to “midwifery.” Near the end of my work for MASS, I stumbled into and completed a long-form investigative essay that explored the perspective of Whitman’s wife, Kathy Leissner, whom he killed the night before the tower shootings.
No one had told her story before. “Listening to Kathy” took approximately six months to complete—a much more compressed timeline, relatively speaking, with a process no less rigorous than the first. But I understood that the story had come to me. Not out of a fog or a trance or on the back of an eagle, but because a source decided to share and I was available after months of parallel surgical practice.
Kathy’s eldest brother and I had interacted when I was finishing MASS. I had contacted him with a very narrow area of interest: did he have memories of the priest who presided over his sister’s wedding in 1962? We exchanged letters, emails, and talked on the phone, and then I didn’t meet him in person for another year.
He had already received all manner of polite and oddball inquiries across the five decades since his sister was murdered. At one point, he shared a story about someone sidling up to him long ago in a restaurant and making light conversation until, then, abruptly declaring: “I already know a lot about you.” Who knows whether this person was another writer angling for a story, or someone obsessed with Whitman’s crime, or a researcher working on behalf of someone else. But Kathy’s brother didn’t stick around to find out. He summarily walked away. I would have, too.
It’s difficult enough to connect with strangers about tough subjects as a writer even when you’re open and friendly. But the scene described to me was haunting because it smacked of the young surgeon at a cocktail party, playing god, a little too enamored of his own specialty—body parts rather than people—and a lot too proud of his BMW. It was a cautionary tale, I think, for all writers doing research: Don’t make it weirder than it already is.
Perhaps because of all the work I’d already struggled with in examining the trauma before and resulting from the UT shooting, I understood that Kathy’s was not a story to be “gotten” or “grabbed.” Treating Kathy as a “possession” was in fact the core of her husband’s attitude, emboldening him in the end with the toxic permission to take her life.
When Kathy’s story eventually came—that is, when her brother decided he was ready to share it, and that he wanted to work with me—her material tumbled into my professional care all at once. I was charged with reviewing and studying never-before seen primary documents, including letters and photographs, and speaking with surviving friends and family members who had not agreed to interviews before.
Like MASS, “Kathy” required first-time research. But my surgical skills and knowledge were secondary in bringing forth the story at all. None of that would have mattered unless her brother had trusted me, which meant that he would help me help him bring the story forward. We tend to see midwives as lesser-skilled medical assistants in the birthing room. But that fails to recognize different kinds of necessary expertise. In order to be born, Kathy’s story required me to be ready to be ready, more narrative partner than technician.
I have been asked since “Listening to Kathy” first appeared in Catapult: How did you “get” this material? How did you “get” this access? While I understand these questions in the spirit within which they’re offered, I also cringe a little. They reduce the labor—only possible as a result of evolving mutual trust and collaboration—to an individual conquest or a feat.
A larger question may be: Why should artifacts and memories protected and preserved for half a century be shared with anyone? I don’t know the answer. I can’t offer a formula or a certification that qualified me to be on the receiving end. I can say I am sure this wasn’t entirely up to me—that’s probably the key.
Some stories must be yanked, sliced, sewn, and sawed at. In the messiest cases, scars heal after complications or linger because deeper wounds have been disturbed. But sometimes we may actually be invited to bring material forward for public understanding, to expand the discourse on a subject that may have seemed to be closed.
The journey from MASS to “Listening to Kathy” taught me the difference between the story that didn’t want to be saved and the story that was dying to be written. Each one required something different of me. As writers, we would do well to consider when to begin with the scalpel and when to hold back external tools, attending first to the humanity of the sources who reveal themselves. Reflecting on this choice may make the difference between discovering a story and losing it forever.
Jo Scott-Coe’s latest book is MASS: A Sniper, a Father, and a Priest (forthcoming from Writ Large Press). Her memoir in essays, Teacher at Point Blank (Aunt Lute), was listed as a Great Read by Ms. Magazine. Her nonfiction has appeared in Talking Writing, Catapult, Assay, Superstition Review, Salon, Cultural Weekly, Luna Luna, River Teeth, Ninth Letter, The Los Angeles Times, and many other venues. She has also had Notable listings in Best American Essays. Jo works as an associate professor of English at Riverside City College in Southern California. You can find her on Twitter @joscottcoe and on FB @teacheratpointblank.
Here’s the link:
Listening to Kathy.
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.
October 16, 2016
Blog # 53
Of Rats, Whiskey Priests and Half-Crazed Grandfathers,
Joe Mackall, Guest Blogger
In January1999, the inaugural issue of issue of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, the literary journal I founded, came out. Some three months later, Joe Mackall and Dan Lehman, both at Ashland University, founded River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative. These were the second and third literary journals devoted exclusively to the genre we’re now calling creative nonfiction. In fact, Creative Nonfiction Lee Gutkind’s journal preceded both Fourth Genre and River Teeth by some four years. And today, all three journals are still actively engaged in helping to shape an ongoing, evolving conversation about the genre.
Back in 1999, neither Joe or I could have predicted just how diverse and inclusive the genre would become. Nor could we have imagined just how many first-rate literary writers not only have made the form their own, but also have expanded its scope and possibilities.
When I was a graduate student, and during the early years of my teaching career, with few exceptions (The Paris Review comes to mind) the editors of many literary journals were as often or not, scholar/teachers and/or literary critics.
Which is not the case with many of our very best contemporary literary journals. For the past twenty-plus years, a good number of editors are first and foremost teaching writers. And to my mind, one of the very best writer/editor/teachers is Joe Mackall, who also to my great delight agreed to be this month’s guest blogger.
Joe’s bio note below gives us just a small sample of the fine books he’s written. But if you look further, you’ll find the many, many workshops and talks he’s presented as well as the impressive number of essays on/about matters of genre and craft—many of which, including this month's post, ”Of Rats, Whiskey Priests and Half-Crazed Grandfathers,” ,are of great value to those of us who write and teach this form.
This month I’m delighted to feature Joe’s The piece first appeared in Assay’s special conference issue. The piece is from a recent Nonfiction Now panel on structure and shape—an important part, maybe the most important part, of what we do. It's something we’ve discussed in previous posts. And something we'll continue to talk more about in forthcoming posts.
For a look at all five of those essays go to
Assay Journal and take a look at Hydra-Headed Memoirs & Well-Connected Essays.
Blog #53 Of Rats, Whiskey Priests and Half-Crazed Grandfathers, Joe Mackall, Guest Blogger
Whenever I’ve spent too much time wondering if what I’m writing is an essay or memoir or literary nonfiction or anything else really, bad things start to happen. First I’ll stare at the screen as if it’s a divine oracle, and what I need to do is wait patiently for the answers to all my writing problems. When that fails, I gaze out my office window, watching the squirrels, wondering how they all stay so damn busy.
But on bad days before I can move my fingers on the keyboard, my rat brain kicks in. The rats fill my mind with unpretty thoughts. They sound something like this: Oh, my god, maybe I’ve said all there is to say about the passing of time in one ten-page essay, too many writers far better than I have exhausted the terrain of family and ancestors and descendants, maybe I’m writing a collection of essays, oh, my god, the only thing worse than a memoir on how becoming a grandparent has upended my life is a collection of essays about how becoming a grandparent has upended my life. Won’t reading essays about some bald-ass middle-aged white guy becoming a grandfather be a lot like looking at pictures of an acquaintance’s grandkids? Oh, they’re so cute. Oh, he has your nose. Oh, what does she call you? Oh, who gives a shit? Maybe I can use the biggest lie in nonfiction publishing to my advantage: It’s a memoir in essays. Sure, nobody would see through that sophisticated masquerade. Maybe there’s no point in writing at all. Who’s going to be reading books in ten years anyway? Goddamn Kindle. Screens everywhere you look. iPad this. But then, just as I’m about to break down and weep, out of the dark and dank alleys populated by the rodents, the sad, disillusioned, yet kindly and often wise priest who lives in my brain turns a light on. The rats scurry, vanish. And then I hear his sonorous voice: Just write what you need to write, my son, goddamnit. It’s all about that. It always has been.
I’m beginning to believe that the worst thing about writing is publishing, or at the very least publishing too soon. Even giving a reading from a book not yet finished can be damaging, at least for me. The book I’m working on now I’m calling personal nonfiction in an attempt to stop trying to wrest essay from memoir or condense as yet unrealized sections of memoir into essays. The problem arises when I’ve tried to excerpt some of the manuscript for a reading or for publication.
At that point, I’ve tended to force the issue, fashioning essays out of what was longer and less defined material. Now I have four pieces, two have been published and two have been read in public. All four seem “complete,” as if I’ve said everything I’ve needed to say about the subjects of those similar but separate pieces. This is where I found myself a few months ago. For all my work, I could not write anything else on my book. An imaginary brain priest can only do so much. I had the four “complete” pieces at the beginning of the book and then a mass of writhing, squirming half-baked thoughts for the next two hundred pages.
So I did what every sensible nonfiction writer would do: I started work on a novel. But this didn’t solve the problem. All the unanswered questions of my nonfiction book were still unanswered. All the dread and anxiety that overtook me upon becoming a grandparent did not go away. I needed to get back to my book. I needed to move myself toward understanding, but I still could not get past the fact of these published sections.
I know the old whiskey priest is right. He and I share a working-class background. We know not a single bricklayer, for example, ever looked at a problem with a wall and said: That’s going to be too much work to fix. I’ll just have five-foot ceilings in this house. I love those other walls I’ve built. Those walls say it all. People will be sitting down reading their Kindles anyway, so what’s the point of an eight-foot ceiling. No, a bricklayer would solve the problem. She’d tear down the whole damn wall and start over if that’s what it took. Bricklayers do not truck in rats. That’s the nature of craft. "
I’ve been so busy entangling myself in the terms of art that I’ve ignored the work of craft. So I got to work. I’ll offer a couple of paragraphs from one of my “published-too- soon-essays” to give an idea of the subject matter and my attempt to get back to what Sonya Huber has called" a book-length nonfiction thing."
“I can’t exist more than a few days without seeing my granddaughters. My whole way of being wavers in their presence. My dark disposition begins to lighten up. I’ve figured out some of it. After a quarter century of loving all the same people, I’ve fallen in love with somebody new. I’ve loved my children all of their lives and my wife every day for nearly thirty years, but now there’s new love. Perhaps my heart’s tectonic shifts have shaken my psychic geography. I have two new people to love, two new people to see the world through, to share life with, to worry about, to fear for in a time when I sometimes can’t recognize my own country and when the world’s people appear easily connected electronically and so dangerously disconnected in just about every other conceivable way."
“I often feel as though I’m moving toward the edge of a foreign
land, the plains of an emotional dystopia. I know it’s connected in ways I don’t fully understand to life as a grandfather and as a man in his fifties, life as an American in a country increasingly polarized, fracked, outsourced, droned, downsized, gunned down, teetering on the dream-edge of itself. As a writer, editor, a full, tenured professor, I have work I love and am still young and coherent enough to do. I also know what’s out there waiting for me: impotence, probably; incontinence, likely; senior moments, and then, surely, no moments at all. I have a great family, a wife I cherish, three loving children, two wondrous granddaughters. My father’s alive and well and lives a couple miles from me. My granddaughters too live only minutes away. Yet just beyond all this peace and love I perceive the vague existence of foreboding or surrender or something I’ve not allowed myself to imagine. I’m gazing through paradise and seeing into the shadow of the fall.”
What I’m going to try in order to break out of my essay/memoir/literary nonfiction funk is reach into the shadow life of the words in these paragraphs. For example, how much of my anguish stems from my “dark disposition”? I need to pull out that thread and stretch it across the bolt of the bigger story. I also need to free write on the nature of familial love. What specifically is it about the world that I now fear? If it’s not a better place than it was in what ways am I implicated? What about this changing America? Is it changing or am I just getting older? How the hell did going to a movie become dangerous? If this doesn’t work, I’ll start teasing out words whose larger meanings seem to resonate. Words like “foreboding,” “surrender,” “paradise,” “the fall.” I’ll begin asking questions of my own material. Did my own grandparents feel any of this? How has grandparenting changed? What about the role of grandparents through time and in other cultures? Is anybody else as messed up as I am about this, or does everybody just whip out smart phones and finger-push faces of tiny strangers in front of people who don’t care?
Once I start taking on all of these ideas, start doing the necessary work of unpacking these essays, I can get back to the book-length thing. It will be a mess, but it will be mess worth the work.
And then just when I start to think I may just be ok after all, I recall this paragraph:
“I realize my reaction to becoming a grandfather is not typical, perhaps not even normal. A few confessions: I resisted getting new carpet in our library because my granddaughters had crawled upon the old. I’ve let Ellie, the oldest, cover every inch of my bald pate with Strawberry Shortcake stickers. I mourned the day she stopped watching the Wonder Pets. I still miss Linny, Tuck and Ming-Ming, too. I’ve tucked a small blanket into my belt and, having been transformed into a princess by Ellie, danced around our living room, spinning until dizzy, my blanket billowing around me like a jeweled ball gown on a hippo prancing and pretty in a field of poppy.”
Joe Mackall is the author of Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish and The Last Street Before Cleveland. Co-editor of River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and on NPR’s “Morning Edition.” He teaches at Ashland University.
September 13, 2016
This teaching blog on/about issues of genre and craft is approaching its fifth year; and while all the contributing writers, myself included, choose to write about whatever concerns they might have on/about our teaching and writing, a basic concern is --one I've noticed that keeps coming coming up regularly--about narratives and narrators. For the most part, the larger issue is about how and why personal essayists, as well as writers of memoir, personal literary journalism, and personal/cultural criticism, decide what the right fit is between our narrator(s) and what it is we're writing.
This is a matter, I believe, that's shared by most of us who teach in the genre. In her essay below, Jessica Handler approaches it in a somewhat different way. In her essay below, she explains how, both in her own writing as well as in her teaching, she distinguishes between the "Eye" and "I," narrators that she refers to as "dual selves.""
# 52 Addressing the Dual Selves in the “Eye and the I”, Jessica Handler, Guest Blogger
If we accept the fact that in the memoir and the personal essay, the “I” pronoun represents the contemporary self, the self doing the writing and the ruminating, then for me, the “eye” is that same earlier self, the self who’s experiencing past events.
The “I” considers and makes coherent narrative of what the “eye” saw, and
for the duration of the time at the desk, the making of the art, these
dual selves have to co-exist. Sometimes that desk can be a crowded place.
I’d like to address this approach to the “Eye/I” in my own work. I’d also like to offer some examples of how/why it encouraged me to use the “Eye/I” as an area of exploration for student writers new to exploring the idea of the author’s self as both narrator/protagonist.
I teach undergraduate, graduate, and adult education classes; and I’m consistently surprised by the number of student writers at all levels who struggle with the freedom and responsibilities of using that “I” pronoun.
We’re socialized to be hyper-aware that the use of “I” and “me” are bragging, dominating a conversation, and calling undue attention to the self. But if we’re writing creative nonfiction, particularly essays and memoirs, whose story is it but mine, me, I? Of course there’s balance involved, but it’s the recognition of how to welcome and best use that working area within “freedom + responsibility” that I consider that area of exploration.
We are, as Joan Didion writes in her 1968 essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” “well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be…”
I’m an experiential learner, which makes me particularly loyal to practicing experiential teaching. Writing my first book, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir (2009), led to my first concrete engagement with the “Eye/I.”
So, the memoir: I am the oldest of three sisters, and by the time I was thirty-two, I was the only one living. My younger sister Susie died of leukemia when she was eight and I was ten. Our youngest sister Sarah was born with a rare white cell disorder called Kostmann’s Syndrome, which is, in broad strokes, the opposite of leukemia. She died at 27. Our father was a civil rights attorney in Atlanta in the 60s, so we were as a family faced with the question of how to help others when we can’t help our own.
When I was an adolescent I’d begun writing my way into my story. It was a means of verifying for myself that I was present, alive, and living through an experience or a series of experiences. I wrote in journals, recording the most ordinary moments of my family’s life and mine. How my mom and I went to the grocery store. How my sister had brain surgery and my boyfriend made a stupid joke about it. I was. in fact. creating an “I” and “eye” without realizing it.
Other parts of our family’s chronicle existed in photographs, report cards and letters-- and outside of my own resources, in newspaper articles and libraries. As an adult writer, the availability of these items led me to physically, emotionally, and in many cases, sensually re-experience the “eye” that pure memory could not provide. Example #1 is that I kept so much of those ephemera.
Another example: when I was ten, not long after my sister Susie died, my father took my mother, my sister Sarah, and me – along with another family who were his best friends - on vacation to Jamaica. When I tell this story now, people sigh with delight imagining a family healing in a Caribbean paradise. In those days, Jamaica wasn't the tourist destination it is now, and even if it had been, none of us were ready for fun.
Thirty some years later, when I wrote about my family's trip, I kept seeing myself as a child, gagging over the ackee at our Jamaican breakfast table. My “eye” came back full force. That breakfast had tasted to me like burnt motor oil, it looked like runny eggs with big black spots, and it smelled like talcum power.
Was it really as bad as I remembered? I had been in an understandably
terrible frame of mind the summer I was ten, but simply writing about a
bad taste wasn’t a narrative, or even a scene. I wanted to test the difference
between the ten-year-old me (the “eye”) and the adult me (the “I”).
So I printed a recipe from the Internet, went to an international market,
bought canned ackee (there was none fresh where I live) and cooked a
facsimile of that breakfast. I ate it. And in that act, where I compared the
“eye” and the “I,” the writer me created an experience that I could write
about not only with some depth and conflict but also with the deliberate intent of making meaning and sense out of that experience– there’s that “I” on the page, claiming what’s true for her.
I’d say that doing the research is an experiential way of entering that possibility space, re-experiencing the “eye” through the lens of the “I.”
In order to create a narrative, sometimes, while I was cooking and eating, I wrote in double-entry notebooks. On one side of the line, notes about the facts—what, for example, I had in my hand– or in my mouth at the time. And when I was researching; I wrote notes on the other side, notes that described the questions, the emotional turmoil, the joys and surprises, I was feeling--along with the free associations that arose with each item. I also collected thousands of pages of medical records; I hunted down diaries and photos; and I revisited key locations.
The “eye” of me then and the “I” of me at the time of the writing were each
deeply affected, but differently--the “eye” by living this twenty year experience in real time; and the “I” by understanding that genuine, effective, and honorable writing about the experience would require a commitment to creating a narrative about the act of self examination.
That’s the experiential aspect of the “Eye/I.” And it’s also the permission I give both to myself and to my students.
In his essay, “Looking For My Family,” Ian Frazier explains that after his parents’ deaths, he catalogued their papers and the detritus of two lifetimes; neckties, purses, postcards, into what he called “The Mom and Dad Museum.” His method in crafting “Family” was to “look for artifact that suggested narrative.”
Writers of personal essays and memoirs can take something useful from Frazier’s approach. It’s his way of acknowledging that the passage of time is less about nostalgia and, in this particular case, more of an opportunity to create friction within a plot.
“How it felt to me…” Joan Didion writes. Which me is she considering? In this case, the “eye” – the me of “then.”
How, I ask students, did “it” feel to you, that wedding, that funeral, that
Boring afternoon on the intercity bus, that time you careened down a park side hill with your brother on a red Flexible Flyer? This inquiry, along with giving them sufficient time to write, allows students to open up, look inside, and meet themselves coming round again. Still another example of how we, as writers, can develop more substantive narratives.
Writing creative nonfiction, as we know, involves much more than plot. It allows us to examine and evaluate the effects of an important subject, and in that way, it operates on two levels; a nominal level, which is the surface, or basic storyline, and a substantive level, the real pulse that runs beneath the storyline.
Knowing this can help us better understand the difference between the “Eye/I.” The “eye” shows us the nominal story, and the “I” extracts and develops the substantive story. It is in the substantive writing that the author of an essay or a memoir does most of her real work; and it’s also where the reader locates the heart of the piece.
Writing about the self means that, for the duration of the writing, you can’t really separate the two selves. Think of the Russian nesting doll, the matroyshka doll. The outer shell is the writer self, and the inner dolls are the ‘eye’ selves.
Without the inner pieces, that doll is empty.
Jessica Handler is the author of Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief (St. Martins Press, December 2013.) Her first book, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir (Public Affairs, 2009, University of Georgia Press, 2015) is one of the “Twenty Five Books All Georgians Should Read.” Her nonfiction has appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Drunken Boat, Newsweek, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, The Washington Post, and More Magazine. Honors include residencies at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, a 2010 Emerging Writer Fellowship from The Writers Center, the 2009 Peter Taylor Nonfiction Fellowship, and special mention for a 2008 Pushcart Prize. Featured as one of nine contemporary Southern women writers in Vanity Fair magazine, she learned to never again wear couture. She teaches at Ogellhorpe University in Atlanta.
July 23, 2016
NOTE: The craft essay below is by Anne Marie Oomen, an extraordinarily gifted writer/teacher who I've known and taught with for almost thirty years. Anne Marie's intriguing, ground- breaking essay uses guided prompts and specific exercises and examples to illustrate the various ways in which sensory recall helps shape the early stages of our composing process.Her essay will be of value to teachers at all levels as well as to inexperienced and seasoned writers alike.
BLOG # 51 SENSORY INTERROGATION, ANNE MARIE OOMEN
July 23, 2016
As a memoirist, I can muck about aimlessly in whatever memory haunts me, significant or insignificant, for so long that I lose momentum and drop the draft before I know anything about that memory other than that I have it by the tail and don’t know what to do. Meaningful, even transformative, memories float in my mind, strangely foggy, lacking a truer, writerly or crafted meaning. I want meaning; I can’t find it. Yet these fragments stay and stay, worry me like the tongue to the chipped tooth. They want to be story. If I can develop them, they will shape my page-persona, and in some cases, my very being. But I am slow. I need a process to fill out the memory, to slow me down so I’m not racing for meaning before I discover what I actually hold in that obsessive brain of mine. I need a more efficient means of focus. In this, I am not alone. Getting memory from the mind to the page is often a challenge for the developing writers in my classes as well. Early drafts tend to be flat, vaguely abstract. Of course, they are early drafts, but if we could launch a little further along in the process, if we could mine what we didn’t know that we knew, it might be like touching skin; if not, it is like touching paper. Only one is warm.
As brain science has evolved in the last decades, it has proven that some of our old school teaching practices were effective for reasons we couldn’t then articulate except in philosophical terms. One successful reclamation is sensory recall. In short, parts of the brain coordinate with sensory experience: the more engaged, the richer the recall, and often, the richer the writing. Those odd neurological patterns, those banks of brain cells that shimmer with change and replication, those encoded reports—they hold the secrets that open not just memory but initiate the journey to both meaning and narrative. When I discovered what so many writers before me have also discovered: that the senses led straight to my working memory, the memory that initiates story and enriches it enough to suggest a path to larger meaning, things got easier. The problem with this? Simply saying to myself, and to my young writers: Use sensory language. That is about as helpful as reminding a child to tie her shoes before she has learned.
Over the last two decades of teaching and writing memoir with both adults and young artists, I refined a particular process for getting to the senses. I gave it a dubious name: sensory interrogation. Even twenty years ago, I knew the term was politically weighted and carried more serious connotations, yet despite its darker meanings, it worked for me because of its abrasive feel. That abrasion of memory—its nervy psoriasis—kept me asking: why this memory? Why not the one my sibling has? What’s behind the thing we carry, the rub of the mind, that scabbed over identity? Initially, sensory interrogation prodded a truth I didn’t know, or more often, didn’t want to know. For me, getting the senses to the pages of memoir asked: What am I hiding from myself? And secreted in the sensory recall were the just-starting-to-be-visible answers, as well as fine ways to draw in readers. Eventually, as Steven King claims, sensory language builds a relationship with the reader because it makes it easier for them to read our minds.
Put simply, interrogation is sensory recall: simple, obvious, familiar, and addressed in many textbooks. It places the senses first. I used the word “interrogation” to describe a specific set of pointed questions for getting to the sensory experience, for producing language that leads. Before I incorporated sensory recall into my early process, I tended toward narrative summary. That places action first. It’s the synopsis of the movie, not, as Jack Kerouac would have it, the movie of the mind.
I observed in my students a similar impulse, to summarize what happened—often with admirable style or voice, but we we were miles from meaning, and the potential for metaphor and figurative language was also delayed. Even dramatic action mutes in summary, denied forward motion by our unwillingness to harness the senses immediately. Was there an efficiency I could find with sensory questions? I examined how I thought when I entered the scattered realm of memory, and over time, I developed a set of questions that were sensory specific, but also uniquely phrased to initiate deeper recall. Through this interrogation, answers for how to shape the narrator and the narrator’s intention often surfaced more quickly. This shortcut did what process should do: make it easier. Gornick, Hampl, Root and Steinberg, in more sophisticated terms, have led us in this work but I like to think I’ve added some twists.
First, I talk about transformative moments. I explain these are moments where something existed one way before it happened, and another way after it happened. I offer examples: first car, first kiss, childbirth(s), deaths of a loved/hated one, winning or losing, wedding, coming out, break-up, divorce, court verdict, accidents, moments of synchronicity, a car, a scar, a broken bone. The essence: an internal shift. I/You were changed. I ask them to avoid a long time period, and instead to zero in on moments of the time period. So for instance, not the entire year in the Peace Corp, but the moment when, in the village, the water bubbled up from the new well for the first time, and you saw what it would mean to the child water-carriers who had previously walked for miles in the heat.
Next, on each of three plain white (no lines) five by eight cards, participants write a phrase that suggests one of those transformative moments from their lives, a moment they want to write about because they know it carries weight, but they don’t know its secret yet. One on each card. Why three total? Because finding the one to write about raises the stakes, but as William Stafford suggests, having three lowers the stakes, takes the pressure off. If one moment doesn’t work or, as is more often the case, turns out to be too hot, then the alternative is right there, not to worry. Choose one of the others. And why a card? Because it needs to be small enough to be utterly non-threatening, and big enough to fill satisfactorily. With the card, I am saying two things to my students and to myself: Don’t be scared andLook how much you have. Most know that, but the card makes tangible the belief.
Then I ask writers to study the “moments” on the three cards, letting their minds range, and find the one they want to investigate now. I tell them that maybe they will feel some energy around this particular card. They usually know right away. I ask them to focus on that one, and to turn the others over for now. I tell them that if this one gets too hot or goes cold, just choose another. The only way to do this wrong is not to do it.
I ask them to take some quiet breaths. I tell them I am going to ask a series of questions that will help open memory of this moment. I ask them not to copy the questions I ask, but to list short answers, just fast first-come responses to the questions. I tell them to avoid complete sentences. Just list. I tell them they may fill both sides of the card, but for now to avoid prose. I set the timer on my phone to 45 seconds after each question, but I watch them, and if a question seems to be keeping heads down, I give them another fifteen or thirty seconds before I ask the next question.
Why I Ask the Questions
Lists of sensory questions exist in many fine texts—because sensory recall is not an uncommon practice. As expected, the questions cover the usual five senses. These texts help, but the problem is logistics. Too much on the desk. Too much to distract. Because when I read, a text is guiding me instead of a human voice—I don’t explore sensory recall with deep discipline. I am scanning the page. I drift among the questions, and maybe I eventually get to some breakthrough, but it is not an efficient process. (This may be my attention problem—though I see it often in my students.)
So with memory and a small pale card as tools, I loose writers from personal distractions by asking the questions aloud, in a group, in a timed setting. I use voice to release writers from interference; there’s no text, no going back to reading. They have only to think and write the response. Perhaps a quiet human voice also instills a release from the interior judgments that can halt writing. It’s just a voice, just a card, just a moment. By acting as facilitator, and freeing them from the formal page, I become more like a benevolent meditation guide—though those who know me will smile at that.
By the way, the guidance I’m offering for them, I am also offering to my own mind. I always have cards of my own. I always have a memory to play with. I don’t always get the quality they do because guiding demands attention, and I am timing. That said, I was taught to write with the class by Mike Steinberg in the eighties. He said it prevents us forgetting what it’s like to be student. It reduces the ego: I will learn memory work along with them. He was right. It has served me well.
First, I ask writers to think of the moment’s place and to stand inside that place, wherever it was. I ask them to just be in that past place, looking around in the space. I tell them to relax about what they can no longer remember, and just feel around in the memory. It doesn’t matter if the space is interior or exterior. Emily Dickinson says, Tell all the truth, but tell it slant. Since I never argue with Emily, my sensory questions assume a slant.
1. My first question is not what does it look like. That question asks too much to start and launches sentences when I want just touchstones for the mind. My first question is both more ephemeral and precise: What was the light like?
I stumbled on this first question because artist friends discuss light the way writers discuss language. Writer friends tell me it’s common in memory, but it’s such a given, it gets overlooked or automated—on a bright day in March. The light of memory is rarely mined for meaning, but what it offers is meaningful: not just time of day, but words that suggest mood, and make writers look at, ironically, something that is not quite there—thus launching discovery, a process of seeing through to something unseen. It’s a sideways question that may suggest or contradict mood, a feeling-light moment, an atmospheric translucence toward meaning.
Forty-five to sixty seconds pass. I can hear them breathe.
2 My second question goes like this: Observe that light falling on objects around you. Reach out and touch one object in the place. What is the texture of the thing? Just describe the feel of it, not the thing itself. If writers need more help with this, I tell them the thing may be anything from wall to rain, from tabletop to shoestring, from hotpot to I phone. Just list.
3 I stay with the objects, but enlarge the space. I ask them to list other things that are important to this moment. Inside or outside, small or large, it doesn’t matter; list a few things that are there. Then I add, what are the dominant colors? This question enlarges the visual in color. We often miss color in early drafts. Later, when they refer to this card, color will be one of the sensory details that sticks. Like an expressionist painting.
4 Things move more quickly now. I say, There are sounds in this moment, but one sound rises above the others and that sound is significant. This sound might define the moment. It can be quiet or loud. It can be a voice, a noise, anything from a growl to a violin. Describe its tenor. Describe it in such a way, I would want to imitate it. Again, this invites metaphor and descriptive language. (more…)