Figure 1. The Garden of Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

Michael Steinberg

Bio Note

Michael Steinberg is the founding editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction.
Steinberg has written, co-written and edited five books and a stage play. In addition, his essays and memoirs have appeared in many literary journals and anthologies.
In 2004, Foreword Magazine chose Still Pitching as the Independent Press Memoir of the Year. And, the Association of American University Presses listed it in “Books Selected for School Libraries.”
Other titles include, Peninsula: Essays and Memoirs From Michigan—a finalist for the 2000 Forward Magazine Independent Press Anthology of the Year and the 2000 Great Lakes Book Sellers Award; and an anthology, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/​on Creative Nonfiction, co-edited with Robert Root, now in its sixth edition.

He has also been a guest writer and teacher at many colleges and universities, as well as at several national and international writers’ conferences, including the Prague Summer Writing Program, the Paris Writers’ Conference, The Kachemak Bay/​Alaska Writers’ Conference, the Geneva Writers’ Conference, and the Chautauqua Writers’ Center, among several others.
Currently, he's writer-in-residence at the Solstice/​Pine Manor low-residency MFA program.


RECOMMENDED CONTESTS: LITERARY JOURNALS AND BOOK PRIZES

Literary Journals

Solstice Creative Nonfiction Prize Solstice.

Fourth Genre Michael Steinberg Essay Prize Fourth Genre.

Missouri Review Editor's Prize Missouri Review.

New Letters, Dorothy Churchill Cappon Prize New Letters.

Crab Orchard Review John Guyon Literary Nonfiction Prize Crab Orchard.

"Talking Writing", a fine online journal for writers is running a contest prize for fiction and nonfiction. For more information, go to Talking Writing.

BOOKS

River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize River Teeth.

Breadloaf/​Bakeless Contest Breadloaf.

AWP Award Series AWP.

MIKE'S SELECTED CRAFT ESSAYS AND INTERVIEWS

CRAFT ESSAYS

"The Person to Whom Things Happened. Finding the Inner Story in Personal Narratives". Prime Number Journal . Prime Number.

"Memory, Fact, Imagination, Research: Memoir's Hybrid Personality". Solstice Lit Mag. Solstice.

"Finding the Inner Story in Memoirs and Personal Essays". From: Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, 5:1, Spring, 2001. Fourth Genre.

"The Multiple Selves Within: Crafting Narrative Personae in Literary Memoir". TriQuarterly.

INTERVIEWS:

Association of Writers and Writing Programs AWP.

Fourth Genre Journal Vol. 12, No. 2/​Fall 2010. Scroll down to the end of AWP Interview. Fourth Genre.



Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

Blog # 76 The Role of Imagination in Interpreting/Understanding the Past by Michael Steinberg

November 19, 2018

Tags: Craft of Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

Blog # 76 The Role of Imagination in Interpreting/Understanding the Past by Michael Steinberg

Note: This month’s piece, “The Role of Imagination in Interpreting/Understanding the Past” is taken from a talk I gave last week at the NonfictionNOW conference in Phoenix. It was part of a panel called “Alternate Histories". MJS

I

…at its finest, nonfiction possesses enormous imaginative reach, transporting us beyond mere testimony or reportage.--Blake Morrison


The first statement from our panel’s proposal is about memoir and interpretations of the past. It pecifically states, “imaginative interpretations better help us understand the past.”

And the example I’ll use is Leap, Terry Tempest Williams memoir/work of cultural criticism, a book that examines Hieronimous Bosch’s painting “Garden of Earthly Delights” and analyzes the author’s Mormon past.

Leap is the kind of personal memoir and literary exploration that chronicles the evolution of the author’s growth of understanding as she confronts and interprets events, acts, and artifacts in the personal, historical, and/or cultural past.

More specifically, in Leap, a spiritual memoir/work of personal cultural criticsm, Williams offers us an extended meditation on passion, faith, and imagination--a meditation that comes out of an almost out-of-body experience she underwent at the El Prado museum in Madrid when she first viewed Hieronymus Bosch's medieval triptych, “The Garden of Delights.”. (See Figure 1 at the left)

Williams explores and examines the painting with intense curiosity, perception, and imagination; and in the process discovers parallels between the artist's prophecies and her own personal experiences as a Mormon and a naturalist.

The painting’s three panels depict vibrant, complex, images of paradise, hell, and earthly delights. Bosch’s painting becomes the catalyst for Williams’s book length meditation on her childhood and the questioning of her Mormon faith, as well as for her reflections on her marriage and her career as a natural history writer.

Poet/memoirist Mark Doty, claims that “Leap’s spiritual, intellectual, and emotional journey”… allows Williams “to examine, at the deepest level, her own Mormon upbringing as well as opening the reader’s eyes to the beauties of the natural world.”

Another commentator on the book writes, “the title, Leap, can even be seen as a metaphor for the leap of faith and imagination that Williams employs to understand and make better sense of her inner (and outer) worlds through art and nature.”

I mention both because later on in Leap, Williams writes,


"This is my living faith, a faith of verbs: to question, explore, experiment, experience, walk, run, dance, play, eat, love, dare, taste, touch, smell, listen, argue, speak, write, read, draw, provoke, emote, scream, sin, repent, cry, kneel, pray, bow, rise, stand, look, laugh, cajole, create, confront, confound, walk back, walk forward, circle, hide, and seek."


It’s a powerful, emotional, statement about writing, about life and love, and about the imagination and the intellect. And it’s also a example, as I said earlier, of how “imaginative interpretations” can change the way we think about the matters we explore by altering our perceptions and understanding of them.

2

It’s all in the art. You get no credit for the living--V.S. Pritchard

A second statement from the panel’s proposal is, “In this panel, we we’ll consider how creative nonfiction can treat the past as both contingent and knowable through imaginative interventions and innovations in form.”

Contingent” means “subject to chance,” “accidental,” “dependent upon.” And as Bob Root writes, “It suggests that through our nonfiction writing we can come to understand that what happened in the past was not as inevitable as it seemed; and that our feelings about situations, people, and events--and our comprehension of them--might also be subject to change.”

In addition to the writing however, I believe that the shaping of a given work is, at least in part, what makes the contingencies of the past “knowable.” And for that, I’ll cite Joni Tevis’s The Wet Collection.

One commentator writes, “Using models as like Joseph Cornell’s box constructions, crazy quilts, and specimen displays, Joni Tevis places fragments in relationship to each other in order to puzzle out lost histories, particularly those of women.”

And another maintains, The Wet Collection is “{s}omewhere between prose poems and historical nonfiction.”

In this essay/memoir collection of lyric prose, the pieces range from Tevis’s concerns with women’s history and the Bible, to her own family history, matters of geology and marginal forms of art.

What’s additionally impressive is Tevis’s arrangement of an eclectic mix of thoughts, stories and facts as a way of exploring the past--as well as, I’ll add, the present and future.

Though the book is wide-ranging and deliberately fragmented, the collection is a collage of interconnected thoughts, ideas, reflections and projections.

It’s a book, in other words, that works as an aesthetic whole, By which I mean that it produces a unified impression of a curious, playful, and probing mind and imagination at work.

When she talks about the contingencies of the past,Tevis, just as Williams does in Leap, makes the past knowable both through the writing and through the way she arranges and shapes the pieces in the book.

As a third commentator on The Wet Collection writes, “Reading this book is like taking a guided tour of an eclectic museum with an imaginative storytelling docent."

3

We must acquiesce to our gift to transform our {past} experience into meaning and value --Patricia Hampl

Transform is, I believe, the operative word here. And Patricia Hampl, I suspect, is using it to describe how in literary memoir, and in other forms of creative nonfiction, the way we use our imagination does indeed change our perceptions, interpretations, and understanding of the past.

When writing about the past, often the catalyst is some sort of personal situation or event. But it has to go beyond that. Which, once again, s where the imagination comes in.

Whatever experience the narrator might have had, whatever it might be that the narrator has to say about him/herself, those stories need to be transformed into something that's meaningful beyond the self’s personal experience. Once a given situation or an event, or possibly even a relationship, has been transformed, at some point then, it stops being about the “I” .

Which is true, I believe, for Leap and The Wet Collection. Where Williams uses a medieval triptych as the catalyst for reflection, projection, and meditation on/about her own past history, Tevis's lyric ruminations on objects, artifacts, and events from the past grow from the way in which she shapes her individual essay/memoirs, in addition to how she arranges the those pieces in the collection.

Let me conclude then, with this quote from the fine fiction writer David Maloof, who says,

"Imagination doesn’t simply mean making things up; it means being able to understand things from the inside, emotions, events and experiences that you haven’t actually been through but that you will have experienced by the time you’ve got them onto the page."

#



Blog# 75 Her Wedding Ring: The Key to Interpreting Cheryl Strayed's "The Love of My Life" by Marion Winik

October 15, 2018

Tags: Craft of Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

Note: *This month guest in Marion Winik, the well-known NPR commentator.

” Lu Chi writes in his classic The Art of Writing, “the whole mountain glistens.” Likewise, a single detail can reveal the meaning and mystery of a scene, an essay, or a book.

The above quote was taken from a panel talk given at the AWP convention in Washington DC two years ago. Marion Winik’s beautifully crafted, incisive craft essay was originally part of that panel whose title was “The Vein of Jade: What a Single Detail Can Reveal in Nonfiction.”

MJS

* Marion Winik’s latest book is The Baltimore Book of the Dead, was just released by Counterpoint.


Blog # 75 Her Wedding Ring: The Key to Interpreting Cheryl Strayed’s “The Love of My Life”
by Marion Winik

Cheryl Strayed published her essay “The Love of My Life,” in the Sun in 2002. It was then selected by Anne Fadiman for Best American Essays, then it became the basis of the memoir of her journey on the Pacific Coast Trail, Wild – though the hike gets just a few sentences in the original piece. And while the memoir encompasses the period of promiscuity Strayed went through after her mother’s death, the essay gives a much more intense version of that experience, transgressive and raw, with harsh, profane language much softened in the bestseller version.

And here’s something interesting. Despite the expanded length of the narrative, there’s a little piece of the story that’s disappeared: the story of Strayed’s losing her mother’s wedding ring.

Yet Strayed’s mother’s wedding ring is the vein of jade, the gorgeous central detail, in “The Love of My Life” – it appears early on, and becomes the focal point at the ending, though I would argue that when Strayed wrote this essay, she didn’t fully comprehend its role.

Here’s the first line of “The Love of My Life.” “The first time I cheated on my husband, my mother had been dead for exactly one week.” Flirting with an unappealing sounding man in a Minneapolis café, “I was raw, fragile, vicious with grief. I would do anything.”

Right away, she begins fiddling with her rings. She is wearing two of them, her own and her mother’s, which she put on at her mother’s deathbed.

Now the two rings are side by side – her connection to her husband and her connection to her mother are contiguous. And in fact, the essay is about how the emotions and obligations of these two relationships spilled into each other, and how for several years of her life, she behaved in a way that betrayed them both.

In the next few paragraphs, she leaves the café with this older man, despite the fact that she feels might be a murderer, and goes to a parking lot behind the building, where he presses her against a brick wall and instead of kissing her bites her mouth so hard she screams. “You lying cunt,” he says, and flings her away from him.

“I stood, unmoving, stunned. The inside of my mouth began to bleed softly. Tears filled my eyes. I want my mother, I thought. My mother is dead. I thought this every hour of every day for a very long time: I want my mother. My mother is dead.”

And with that, she says, was the beginning: the beginning of her life as a slut.

The next part of the essay describes her involvement and debasement with men she referred to by titles: the Prematurely Graying Wilderness Guide, the Technically Still a Virgin Mexican Teenager, the Formerly Gay Organic Farmer, the Quietly Perverse Poet, the Terribly Large Texas Bull Rider, the Actually Pretty Famous Drummer Guy, later Punk Rocker Soon to Be Hopelessly Held under the Thumb of Heroin. Most of these people were men, she explains; some were women.

Attempting to clarify how this came about, she explained that she was not able to enjoy sex with her husband after her mother’s diagnosis. In the middle of intercourse she would start sobbing uncontrollably, while begging him to keep going. “But he wouldn’t. He couldn’t. He loved me. Which was mysteriously, unfortunately, precisely the problem.

“I wanted my mother.

“We aren’t supposed to want our mothers that way, with the pining intensity of sexual love, but I did, and if I couldn’t have her, I couldn’t have anything. Most of all I couldn’t have pleasure, not even for a moment. To experience sexual joy, it seemed, would have been to negate that reality.”

And, apparently, the converse is also true – to experience sexual debasement is to affirm it.

Eventually, she confesses what she’s been doing to her husband and they separate. He starts seeing other women. Cheryl starts doing heroin, gets pregnant, has an abortion. By now three years have gone by. She is 25. By this point in her life, she says, “I had intended to have a title of my own: The Incredibly Talented and Extraordinarily Brilliant and Successful Writer. I wasn’t anywhere close. I was a pile of shit.”

She and Mark file for divorce, and she begins planning her “long walk.” One thousand, six hundred and thirty-eight miles, to be exact. Alone.

Right before she begins her journey, she takes off her own wedding ring and puts it in a box and moves her mother’s wedding ring from her right hand to her left. Then that night, on the way to the trailhead, she pulls over and sleeps in the back of her truck beside a river.

“In the morning, I decided I would perform something like a baptism to initiate this new part of my life. I took my clothes off and plunged in.”
When she gets out of the water, the ring is gone.
“I leaned forward and put my hands into the water and held them flat and open beneath the surface. ... I was no longer married to Mark. I was no longer married to my mother.

“I was no longer married to my mother. I couldn’t believe that this thought had never occurred to me before: that it was her I’d been faithful to all along, and that I couldn’t be faithful any longer.”

So she’s reiterating what she said in the beginning -- faithfulness to her mother consisted of having sex without pleasure, of acting out her grief as self-destruction.
Here’s the final passage of the essay.


"IF THIS WERE fiction, what would happen next is that the woman would stand up and get into her truck and drive away. It wouldn’t matter that the woman had lost her mother’s wedding ring, even though it was gone to her forever, because the loss would mean something else entirely: that what was gone now was actually her sorrow and the shackles of grief that had held her down. And in this loss she would see, and the reader would know, that the woman had been in error all along. That, indeed, the love she’d had for her mother was too much love, really; too much love and also too much sorrow. She would realize this and get on with her life. There would be what happened in the story and also everything it stood for: the river, representing life’s constant changing; the tiny blue flowers, beauty; the spring air, rebirth. All of these symbols would collide and mean that the woman was actually lucky to have lost the ring, and not just to have lost it, but to have loved it, to have ached for it, and to have had it taken from her forever. The story would end, and you would know that she was the better for it. That she was wiser, stronger, more interesting, and, most of all, finally starting down her path to glory.

But this isn’t fiction and losing my mother’s wedding ring in the Tongue River was not ok. I did not feel better for it. It was not a passage or a release. What happened is that I lost my mother’s wedding ring and I understood that I was not going to get it back, that it would be yet another piece of my mother that I would not have for all the days of my life, and I understood that I could not bear this truth, but that I would have to."

I have always thought there was something wrong with this passage, that she’s giving fiction a bad rap. She says that if the story were fiction, losing the ring would symbolize a passage or a release. But in all honesty, in real life it does that, too. It is a passage, it is a release, and she IS wiser, stronger, more interesting, and, as we all know, starting down her path to glory, to the identity she always intended.

But it’s not because she lost the ring – it’s because she told the story of losing the ring.

The only difference between the fictional version she’s mocking and the real version of what happened is the little blue flowers and the spring air. Perhaps it didn’t free her from pain right then and there, but it freed her from the idea of using her body to express pain.

I think it’s significant that she has now taken off BOTH rings, her husband’s and her mothers, and that taking off both of them was necessary to escape the merger of the two relationships that made her think of her mother as her lover and her wife, which she expressed in her life as a slut. She may say the symbols aren’t colliding – I say they are.

When she drives away from the ring in the river, she is driving away from the tyranny of her love for her mother – and driving toward becoming a writer, a reality in which you do ultimately bear the very truth you say you cannot bear.

The transition from using self-destruction and alienated sex as a means of grieving, to becoming a person who tells a story about that, a person who gives her mother her ring and even her marriage a second life on the page – that is the epiphany that gave us Cheryl Strayed, The Incredibly Talented and Extraordinarily Brilliant and Successful Writer.

In 2006 Strayed published Torch, a novelized version of her mother’s death. Wild followed five years later. In the memoir, this incident – the loss of the ring at the beginning of the hike -- has disappeared.

Maybe this is because it’s done its job.



Marion Winik is the author of The Baltimore Book of the Dead, new from Counterpoint, a sequel to The Glen Rock Book of the Dead (2008). A longtime contributor to All Things Considered, she is the author of First Comes Love, Highs in the Low Fifties, and seven other books. Her Bohemian Rhapsody column at BaltimoreFishbowl.com has received the "Best Column" and "Best Humorist" awards from Baltimore Magazine, and her essays have been published in The New York Times Magazine, The Sun and many other publications. She is the host of The Weekly Reader radio show and podcast, based at the Baltimore NPR affiliate. She reviews books for Newsday, People, and Kirkus Review and is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle. She is a professor in the MFA program at the University of Baltimore. More info at marionwinik.com.

Blog # 74 Writers in the Trenches: An Interview with Michael Steinberg

September 20, 2018

Tags: Craft of Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

Blog #74 Writers in the Trenches: An Interview

Note:

This month’s blog is an interview I did for Writers in the Trenches.
Writers in the Trenches is a series of interviews with a variety of writers across the genres. You can find this interview and others on writer Faye Rapoport’s blog, Musings on Writers, Writing, Literature, the Writer’s Life
Fayerapoportdespres.com

MJS


1) Writers in the Trenches:
As the founding editor of the prominent literary journal Fourth Genre, an award-winning essayist, and a teacher in both formal and informal settings, you have played a significant role in the advancement of creative nonfiction as a modern American literary genre. How has the genre evolved since you entered the scene?

MS:
The genre has evolved and expanded greatly since I started the journal in 1999. For the first five-seven years, the majority of our submissions were personal narratives—some segmented, but mostly chronological. And we also ran a handful of lyric essays. Other pieces we accepted were examples of good literary/investigative journalism; strong pieces of personal/cultural criticism. For the most part though, we were reading and publishing Montaignian personal essays and stand-alone literary memoirs.

If you look at a copy of the journal today, you’ll find a different literary landscape. We are, I believe, in the midst of a paradigm shift, one that’s very similar to what we’ve been seeing in the other fine arts--music, visual art, theater, and dance. Representative works of creative nonfiction would include examples of mixed media, graphic; and video essays; cross genre and hybrid/interactive forms, in addition to essays on/about gender, ethnicity, and identity, as well as pieces on/about political, social, and cultural issues and works of scholarship, ethnography, and research. That’s quite a dramatic shift.

2.) Your memoir, Still Pitching, is far more than a baseball story. Many readers are surprised at how much they enjoy the book even if they're not baseball fans. Now, interestingly, you're working on a book that explores that connection between baseball and writing. Can you summarize what you've discovered about that connection in a paragraph or two?

--I make no claims for baseball being a metaphor for life, for writing, or for anything else, really. My speculation is that being a relief pitcher, a closer, for some fifteen years, and then a player/manager for a fast pitch softball team for fifteen others, taught me the value of perseverance, resilience, discipline and determination, among other things (like how to handle the kinds of disappointments that are a part of anyone’s writing life). These qualities, as well as my having both an analytical and imaginative bent, have served me well as a writer—in my case, a writer of personal essays and literary memoirs.

3.) Your personal essay "Chin Music," which was chosen as a "Notable Essay" in Best American Essays 2010, is one of my favorite essays to teach to undergraduates. From the setting to the voice, from the nested structure to the careful balance between scene and reflection, "Chin Music" is rich in literary technique. How long did it take you to write that essay?

--“Chin Music” took some five plus years to complete. In its first incarnation, the entire piece was composed of one long scene that now forms the middle section. It was a description of a confrontation between a young narrator and an anti-Semitic baseball coach.

In real life, the scene might have lasted maybe 30 seconds or a minute; but in early drafts, it was some ten pages long. To increase the tension and immediacy of the scene, the narrator uses only the present tense. Yet, on its own, the piece was no more than one long scene. I knew it needed a frame (a prologue and an epilogue), and a larger point of some sort. So I put the piece away for while.

Over a period of years, I went back to it. And each time, I tried a different frame. But none of them, I could tell, were the right fit. Then a little later on, I had a classroom confrontation with a difficult student. And at some point, I lost my composure As a result, he embarrassed me (and rightly so) in front of my own class. Of course, I was disappointed in myself; but still, I walked away from that encounter knowing that I’d finally found the frame that the piece needed. And once I knew that much, it took me only a couple of hours to write the prologue and epilogue. At the same time, I was also able to connect the new transitions to that long middle scene.

4.) The popular textbook Fourth Genre: Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, co-edited by you and Robert Root, went through six editions. How has creative nonfiction evolved since the initial publication of that text?

Note--I answered this in question one. You might want to combine the anthology and journal by simply mentioning that the anthology came out in 1998 and the journal’s first issue was a year and a half later, in 1999.

5.) I love the title of your most recent collection: Greatest Hits and Some That Weren't. Which ones "weren't," and why?

--The collection’s title has since changed. Now it’s Living in Michigan Dreaming Manhattan.

But here’s the answer to your question:
To my mind, the greatest hits were the personal essay/memoirs that were chosen as Notables in BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS, along with a piece that was chosen for the Missouri Review Editor’s Prize and a couple of others that had won smaller awards and/or were nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The remaining essay/memoirs, “Those that Weren’t,” were works I’d published that didn’t achieve anything more than publication. Which, honestly, for the likes of me, is recognition enough.

6.) One of the things you've often talked about is your satisfaction, as a writer, with being a "voice in the choir." This interview series is for writers in the trenches who struggle to stay inspired, keep writing, and avoid giving in to discouragement. What do you say to discouraged writers who feel as if they will never find "success?"

--This question connects nicely with the last line of my reply to the previous one. Anyone who continues to write knows that rejection and disappointment come with the territory. In fact, both are givens. To expand on that notion a bit, I’m going to cite a quote from the playwright/essayist, David Mamet.

Above my writing desk, Mamet’s quote reads:

"If you intend to follow the truth in yourself--to follow your common sense, and force your will to serve you in the quest for discipline and simplicity--you will subject yourself to profound despair, loneliness, and constant self-doubt. And, if you persevere, the Theater, which you are learning to serve will grace you, now and then, with the greatest exhilaration it is possible to know."

Where Mamet has written “the Theater,” I’ve substituted “the writing life.” And I take his words “persevere,” “discipline,” and “simplicity” to mean the truth that emerges from one’s most honest and unequivocal writing. And that’s is the kind of success that means the most to me.

#

Founding editor of Fourth Genre, Michael Steinberg has written and co-authored seven books and a stage play. Still Pitching won the 2003 ForeWord Magazine Memoir of the Year. An anthology, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction (with Robert Root) is in a sixth edition. He’s a writer-in-residence in the Solstice/Pine Manor College MFA program.


Blog # 73. Re-thinking the Literary Memoir: Some Notes on Patricia Hampl's "Memory and Imagination" by Michael Steinberg

August 19, 2018

Tags: Craft of Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

Note:

“Re-thinking Literary Memoir “ was originally a panel talk I did at the 2017 AWP convention in Washington DC. The panel’s title was “The Vein of Jade: What a Single Detail Can Reveal in Nonfiction. It was about how “the perfect, telling detail” illuminates works of literary nonfiction." In my craft essay, I 've extended “the perfect, telling detail” to include selected passages and scenes.

MJS


Blog # 73. Rethinking the Literary Memoir: Some Notes on Patricia Hampl’s “Memory and Imagination” by Michael Steinberg

Memoir isn’t for reminiscence; it’s for exploration. - Patricia Hampl

Some years ago as part of my preparation for an upcoming memoir workshop, I was rereading Patricia Hampl’s “Memory and Imagination,” a marvelous personal/critical essay I’d first encountered some twenty-five years ago. The original essay was published at just about the same time as the literary memoir was starting to receive more attention.

Back then I remember being struck by Hampl’s inventive approach to composing a literary memoir. And even more so in my current rereading of the essay.

Early on in “Memory and Imagination,” Hampl is discussing the early draft of a short piece, an essay/memoir that, according to her, wasn’t working. She begins by depicting, in very specific detail, a scene from the draft about her first piano lesson.

At the end of the scene–which Hampl describes as “a moment”–she asks herself why she’d remembered that particular incident (the piano lesson) and not other, more vivid, and possibly. more dramatic, childhood stories. She then tells us, “When I reread what I had written just after I finished it, I realized that I’d told a number of lies.”

In my rereading, this is where I became even more curious to find out where Hampl’s essay was headed.

As she reflects on that disclosure, Hampl also questions why she had invented the details of that piano lesson, an incident she says she had no recollection of. Next, she tells us that up until she’d written about that “moment,” she had believed that memoir was “a transcription, a faithful, accurate, rendition of a period or incident” from her past.

I have to admit that back when I started to teach and write memoir, I too believed something similar. And so did my students.

For many years in my memoir workshops, a majority of the autobiographical works, both by experienced and aspiring writers, were, for the most part, straightforward, chronological pieces-- narratives that attempted to reproduce the facts and literal events of a given story. And when I was editor of the literary journal, Fourth Genre, a good number of well-written, even compelling memoirs, that missed the cut, were also chronological and fact-based narratives; works that didn’t dig deep enough and/or go beyond the telling of a given story’s situations and events.

I was thinking about those things as I was reading the next few pages of “Memory and Imagination.” And here is where Hampl began to interrogate her own reasons for writing about the piano lesson. “I must admit,” she says, “that I invented that scene.

But why?” she asks herself–before answering, “Two whys; why did I invent? And then, if a memoirist must invent rather than transcribe, why do I–why should anybody–write memoir at all?”

Hampl’s question stopped me in my tracks. Because as he goes on to say, “It still comes as a shock to realize that I don’t write about what I know. I write in order to find out what I know.”

To which she adds: “That’s why I’m a strong advocate of the first draft. And why it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider what a first draft really is.”

This is the moment in my rereading of “Memory and Imagination” when I seriously began to re-examine my approach to teaching (and writing) memoir.

By “first draft,” Hampl is referring once again to the piano lesson–the scene she’d just described as “invention and lies.” This discovery she tells us, subsequently became the catalyst for her next draft, which she explains, is “an entirely different piece altogether.”

Which of course in retrospect now makes perfect sense.

Hampl goes on to say, “No, it isn’t the lies themselves that makes the piano memoir a first draft...” before adding that, “the real trouble is that the piece hasn’t yet found its subject; it isn’t about what it wants to be about…. what it wants, not what I want.”

Right then, I understood something I’d been feeling for a long time both about my students’ and my own work–something I’d been unable to articulate or pin down.

“The difference,” Hampl maintains, “has to do with the relation a memoirist–any writer, in fact–has to unconscious or half-known intentions or impulses…”

When I’d first read “Memory and Imagination,” I was neither experienced nor savvy enough to make the connection between the works my students were producing and the short piano lesson fragment Hampl was struggling with.

But, some twenty-plus years later, I now understand it. Because in my rereading of her essay, it became clear that Hampl’s disclosure about lying isn’t meant to give students permission to make things up.

Quite the contrary. In addition to expanding their thinking on/about memoir, Hampl is encouraging aspiring memoirists to make fuller use of their imaginations.

A few paragraphs later, Hampl writes, “We must acquiesce to our gift to transform our experience into meaning and value…” before adding, “You tell me your story, I’ll tell you my story.”

“Transform” is the operative word here. And to emphasize it, Hampl ends the segment of “Memory and Imagination” by telling us that, “True memoir is an attempt to find not only a self but a world.”

That last line segues to a more expansive, complex, and philosophical discussion on/about memoir’s range and scope. In the second half of the essay then, Hampl turns her attention to explaining and illustrating memoir’s potential to focus on important human concerns, as well as to engage with larger historical, social, cultural issues.

It seems to me that my sense of memoir as a legitimate form of literature might well have been altered, maybe even have been shaped, by what Hampl had written years ago in “Memory and Imagination.”

And for a long time afterward, those not-yet fully-understood insights continued to inform a good deal of what I’ve learned both about writing and teaching. Now, after rereading the essay, many of those beliefs have been clarified and confirmed.

I say this because shortly after I’d finished “Memory and Imagination,” I could see more clearly what had been missing from both my students’ work and from the “almost’s” we’d turned down at Fourth Genre. Those chronological memoirs I’d been reading were, in effect, first drafts; drafts, in other words, that had been shaped too soon; works, as Hampl had suggested, that haven’t yet “transformed…experience into meaning and value.”

While the overall question of “why write memoir” was what guided my re-reading of “Memory and Imagination,” I could also see that the essay was helping to remind me how important it is for us to learn more about what it means to read like a writer; to read a work from the inside-out; to read, that is, in order to gain a fuller understanding of how and why selected details, scenes, and images serve the writer’s intent, while at the same time contributing to that work’s overall shape and design.

This is, I believe, what Annie Dillard is getting at when she talks what it means to “fashion a text.”

And this is, after all, what all of us--teaching memoirists, essayists, poets, and fiction writers--aspire to accomplish in our own works, at the same time as we’re encouraging our students to do the same.

Michael Steinberg, founding editor of the literary journal, The Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction has written, co-authored and/or edited six books and a stage play. In 2003/04, Still Pitching won the ForeWord Magazine/Independent Press Memoir of the Year. An anthology, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction (with Robert Root) is now in a sixth edition. His latest book is Living In Michigan, Dreaming Manhattan: Selected Essays and Memoirs 1990-2015


#72 “Why Would She Write About That?” by Suzanne Strempek Shea

July 16, 2018

Tags: Craft of Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

Introductory Note:

Patricia Hampl once said (and I’m paraphrasing), “You give me your story, I get mine.”

This month’s guest, Suzanne Strempek Shea, a very fine fiction writer, journalist, and memoirist, picks up on Hampl's notion by using an anecdote from a grade school writing assignment as the catalyst for an essay about finding narratives we're passionate about as well as the importance of connecting readers to those narratives.

In the body of her piece, “Why Would She Write About That?” “Suzanne says, “As writers, we have to go with the great fuel provided by an idea that speaks strongly to us, and we also have to remember to take others along for the ride.”

MJS

#72 "Why Would She Wrtie About That?" by Suzanne Strempek Shea

“Get out your tablets.”

Upon that direction, kids nowadays reach for the ever-present iPad. But in 1970, during seventh-grade English class at my Western Massachusetts parochial school, tablet was nunspeak for those ruled pads of paper with that black-and-white faux-marble cover. The word also meant it was time to write. We’d lift the hinged lids of wooden school desks so old they included a well for ink, and at which many of our parents sat when they’d been our ages. We’d retrieve our tablets, and sharpened pencils, and would begin to write. Once done, we’d be invited stand at what Sister Lucentia called the lectern, and would share our work.


Lectern was in our vocabulary thanks to Sister, but of course we wouldn’t have used the term “work” for our creations, that being where our fathers went off to each morning, dressed in Dickies and carrying lunch in a brown paper bag. We’d also not have used “share,” unless being guilted into relinquishing an extra section of Almond Joy to a classmate, but never as in “Oh, when you shared your work, I was incredibly moved.” So let’s just say that anybody in class brave enough walked to the lectern to read the resulting essay, getting it out of the way before Sister forced every one of us up there in her usual gruff by-the-surname manner.

Seventh grade marked both the first essay I remember writing, and, at that lectern, giving my first public reading. Sure, for an entire year already, I’d been publisher (and reporter and illustrator and designer and distributor) of The Nutty News, a newspaper I created for my parents every Saturday night while they went out polka dancing. So I was published -“Circulation 1”, as noted on the masthead of the copy I left for my parents at the back door, as if the paperboy had been by. But nobody ever had heard me read until the September day I was propelled to the lectern by a freak storm of unusual confidence in both my ability to stand in front of 30 kids, and in what I had written in my tablet.

The assignment had been the usual “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.” I wrote of a family camping trip in Vermont during which I spent a sunny afternoon floating on my back down a stretch of the tree-lined West River. Despite all the stuff my family has held onto over the years (Anyone for the foot-long braid chopped off my head when I craved a mod style during the Nutty News era?), the tablet somehow isn’t in the archives, so I can’t quote. But I do recall describing the rocks in the water, and the effort of dodging them, the joy of lingering in the deep pool at the end of the faster stretch, and hiking back up the shady access road to do it all again. I don’t recall the prose as extremely descriptive, or there being any action beyond the floating and noticing, then the trek up to start another round of it. There certainly was no arc to the story, no realization or resolution, no reaching out to anyone beyond me. Yet the piece felt like something real, a sensation as fresh as the river. Standing up there, I was proud, something we weren’t supposed to be about anything at all, other than, say, being a member of the One True Church.

My vocations had never wavered from horse trainer and artist, so I can’t say this was the moment I knew of my eventual career destiny. But there indeed was something happening as I lifted my eyes from the lines of Bic-blue to the rows of scarlet woolen blazers before me, and to the raised hand of Tad Nowacki, who never, ever raised his hand except to request what usually would be a lengthy visit to the lavatory (another of Sister’s words).

“You want to be next, Nowacki?” Sister sneered, surprised as the rest of us at the possibility.

“Nah. I just want to say it’s no big deal.”

“What?”

“It’s no big deal what she wrote. I float down the Swift every weekend. On an old door. It’s no big deal. Why would she write about that?”

All the kids laughed.

Maybe you were expecting that in a childhood memory of creativity offered to the maws of the masses, and while it did spark an embarrassed blush that by the time I got back to my seat matched my blazer, it’s not what, 48 years later, makes this experience stick in my mind. Neither does the image of gangly Nowacki and his door swirling down our village’s not-so-swift Swift River. It’s that while Sister Lucentia might have made us write essays, via his questions, the kid who usually was staring out the window ended up teaching me something vital about writing: it’s essential for a writer to see a subject as a big deal, and to write it so it might become vital to others. Let me add that though he taught me that then, I caught on fully only through decades of trial and error.

I could have an idea, but was it one that excited me? That question was key. I was a newspaper reporter for 15 years, and have freelanced for the past 23, and not every story I’ve been assigned has made me run joyously to the interview or research. But if I were assigned something up my alley, or – better - if my editor okayed a story I’d pitched because I was wildly interested in it: nirvana. As I tell students now, usually while looking down at a classroom’s gray industrial carpeting, “If I assign you 5,000 words on gray industrial carpeting, and it’s really not your thing, it’s probably going to take you forever to write something even halfway decent. But if gray industrial carpeting is what you love most in this world, you’ll have the piece delivered in about three minutes, and it’ll be great.” Maine writer Lewis Robinson often repeats sage advice he received along these lines: “Write what you can’t shut up about.” And I often repeat Lewis Robinson. If the story idea ignites something in you – excitement, joy, horror, disgust – anything on the high end of the emotion scale – I’m betting you’re going to do a fine job on it. So Tad Nowacki was right on there. The reader wants to share your perspective that the subject is a big deal. But it’s not enough that the piece thrills you alone.

Think of the poor parent proffering a pic of their new and rather run-of-the-mill infant. They’re so in love and are looking at you with hope-filled eyes, asking “Isn’t she the most gorgeous thing?” You see the parent’s besottedness, but you don’t get why. As writers, we have to go with the great fuel provided by an idea that speaks strongly to us, and we also have to remember to take others along for the ride. We need to connect with our readers, and to do so organically, skipping that whole hitting them over the head part. We should ask the question that stymied Tad Nowacki: “Why would she write about that?” If the answer is because you really love pierogi or politics, that’s not enough. If you’re putting a story out there, it’s out there for others to read. So part of the deal is that if there’s something about your idea that shockingly powers you to the metaphorical lectern that is publication of any kind, you’ve gotta leave readers with a doggie bag.

As the literary bumper sticker says, just because it happened to you (or to someone or something else), doesn’t make “it” a story. It’s writing-cliché, but it’s true: the personal must be universal. My float down the river made Tad shrug, maybe because it was my point of view, and one particular place. What if I’d thought to widen it to imagine myself as just one of many kids enjoying that summer pastime, in Vermont, back home in Massachusetts, and wherever else there were rivers to enjoy? It’s totally possible that Tad still might not have felt connected, that maybe he was just a jerk. But making the personal big-deal universal, and solidly illustrating why the story needs to exist can save it from the linty environs of the navel-gazing category. The universal needs to be employed so regularly that you should feel compelled to fund its 401K. It’s at work in my essay about growing up one floor above my maternal grandparents, which gets into plenty of the personal but also looks at the riches resulting from daily contact with another generation, especially with one that began life in another country and for whom emigration was crucial to survival. It’s there in my book about an Irish guidance counselor who began a medical clinic in Malawi in memory of a late son, a story that offers the specifics of her journey but includes those of others who ultimately gave months and years to working there, others who underlined that we all have something to give, wherever we are. In a magazine piece about a draft horse sanctuary, I detailed the backstories of the herd’s members and the effort’s founder, which I feel could mirror those of any beings involved in any circle of rescue and renewal. In my most personal piece of writing, a book on my radiation treatment for breast cancer, I certainly ventured down the various emotional rivers on which I was floating, but heard from strangers that ever-universal honesty made that intimate trip resonate, that I wasn’t alone in wanting to head back to the store to return with the “gift” of cancer, and in having no cheery life lesson I wished as a tattoo.

And I tried to do the same in this piece, which ends as I hold forth a doggie bag I hope will have you pondering what you want to bring to the lectern that is the journal page, the computer screen, the book series. Whatever the project, I urge you to head off at the pass any Tad Nowackis by choosing a subject for which you have passion, and by making room for others as you consider how to write it. Then you can stand proud, the only hands raised belonging to readers genuinely engaged and affected. And that, indeed, is a big deal.

*Tad Nowacki is a pseudonym.
*Suzanne Strempek Shea is not. Learn more about her at suzannestempekshea.com.

Suzanne Strempek Shea began writing fiction in her spare time while working as a reporter at The Springfield (Massachusetts) Newspapers in the early 1990s. She since has published twelve books, including novels, memoirs, biographies and an anthology. Her freelance journalism, creative nonfiction and fiction has appeared in newspapers and magazines including The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Irish Times, Yankee, Golf World, Down East, The Bark, Organic Style and ESPN the Magazine. She was a regular contributor to Obit magazine. Suzanne is a member of the faculty at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program in creative writing and is writer-in-residence and director of the creative writing program at Bay Path University. Previously, she taught in the MFA program at Emerson College and in the creative writing program at the University of South Florida. She has also taught at the Curlew Writers Conferences in Howth and Dingle, Ireland. Suzanne leads the annual summer writing seminar in Dingle offered through Bay Path University’s MFA program in nonfiction. She lives in Western Massachusetts with her husband, the writer Tommy Shea, and their two dogs, Otis and Dot.


#71 Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing by Ned Stuckey-French

June 20, 2018

Tags: Craft of Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

Introductory Note:

This month’s guest is Ned Stuckey-French, one of our most- well-recognized scholar/practitioners of the personal essay.

A few years ago, I read Ned’s piece on/about the personal essay in the fine literary journal, Assay*. At the time, I was so impressed by its scope, breadth, and humor that I asked Ned for his permission to reprint it on this blog.

By combining research with an informal, essayistic, approach, “Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing” becomes one of the most readable and useful pieces on/about the personal essay that I’ve seen in quite some time. To my mind, it’s a must read for any writer or writer/teacher that’s interested in this informal, expansive, and inclusive form.

MJS

#71 Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing - by Ned Stuckey-French

What is any essay? Well, it ain't a 5-paragraph theme-- tell'em what you're gonna tell 'em, tell it to 'em, then tell 'em what you told 'em. The essay is bigger, a messier and more fun than that.

IMAGE 1 - SEE LEFT SIDE BAR

It's so big, in fact, that it is not so much a genre as a galaxy of subgenres. Over the years the word essay has collected its own passel of adjectives: personal, formal, informal, humorous, descriptive, expository, reflective, nature, critical, lyric, narrative, review, periodical, romantic, and genteel. And it keeps collecting them. Now there are radio, film, and video essays. Maybe a map or field of Venn diagrams where all these adjectives meet and greet would be the best way to describe the essay.

Further confusing the situation, however, are the aliases behind which the essay has hid or been hidden: feature, piece, column (or once up on a time, colyumn), editorial, op-ed, profile, and casual. The title of an excellent 1984 piece (or was it an essay?) by Phillip Lopate on the first page of the New York Times Book Review summed the situation up quite nicely: "The Essay Lives--in Disguise".

The essay has also gotten lost under the big tent of terms like literary journalism, new journalism, literary nonfiction, and more recently, creative nonfiction. All of these catchalls are problematic. They lump the essay in with things that it is not and in so doing make an already sprawling genre seem bigger than it really is. Here the adjectives serve not so much to stake out small claims as to pump up that poor, scribbled thing that journalism is said to be, or clarify and legitimize the vast wasteland that has been locked outside the fiction corral by the non-definer that is non-. Scott Russell Sanders is quite good on this. Nonfiction, he points out, is “an exceedingly vague term, taking in everything from telephone books to Walden, and it’s negative, implying that fiction is the norm against which everything else must be measured. It’s as though, instead of calling an apple a fruit, we call it a non-meat."

Adding the adjective creative may well intentioned but is finally of little help. Creative as opposed to what? Destructive? And just how "creative" can we be? James Frey creative, or just John D' Agata creative?

All this fuzziness but especially the essay's proximity to fish-wrap journalism leave it stigmatized as the “the fourth genre.” The critic Suzanne Ferguson has argued, “like societies of people, the society of literary genres has its class system, in which, over time, classes reorganize themselves, accept new members, and cast old members into the dustbin. It has its aristocracy, its middle classes, and its proletarians."

E. B. White longed to be a poet and is known for his children’s books, but was, above all, an essayist. He meant his essays to last and they have, but they were written first on weekly deadlines for The New Yorker, then monthly deadlines for Harper’s, and finally again for The New Yorker when the mood struck him, but he always saw himself as a working journalist. In the foreword to his selected essays, he wrote, “I am not fooled about the place of the essay in twentieth-century American letters—it stands a short distance down the line. The essayist, unlike the novelist, the poet, and the playwright, must be content in his self-imposed role of second-class citizen. A writer who has his sights trained on the Nobel Prize or other earthly triumphs had best write a novel, a poem, or a play, and leave the essayist to ramble about, content with living a free life and enjoying the satisfactions of a somewhat undisciplined existence."

Perhaps another reason for what David Lazar has called the "queering" or "definitional defiance" of the essay has to do with the fact that it had two fathers and so was, in a sense, split at the root. Its first practitioners, Michel de Montaigne and Sir Francis Bacon, who wrote at the turn into the 17th century, conceived of the essay in very different ways. For Montaigne, l’essai was a means of self-exploration, an exercise in self-portraiture, and a way for him to explore, tentatively and skeptically, his own thoughts and feelings; for Bacon, it was a form of “counsel,” a means of instruction, a guide to conduct, a way to test, recognize and appreciate the “truth.” Montaigne’s essays are digressive and shockingly personal. They grew as he revised—elaborating, circling back, and constantly asking himself, “Que sais-je?” or “What do I know?” Bacon’s essays, on the other hand, appear complete and once and for all, polished as a billiard ball. They’re short, aphoristic, tidy and impersonal, though always brimming with opinion and even pronouncement.

Now we have two more adjectives for the essay -- Montaignean and Baconian – which is fine, but if we’re going to bring this queer little hybrid thing further into focus, perhaps we should talk about it in terms of two kinds of writing rather than in terms of two writers, whose work you may or may not know. Let’s lay out a spectrum on which the essay sits (or hovers?) in the middle. This spectrum has nonfiction at one end and fiction at the other, or more specifically, given that the essay is short rather than long, it has the article at one end and the short story at the other. And yes, I understand I’m doing some negative defining of my own here. By saying an essay is neither story nor article, I’m still saying it’s nonfiction and non-journalism, but I’m hoping to be a bit less vague, a bit more comparison-contrast, a bit more precise.

The article is researched, fact-based. It provides information and usually tries to make a point. It is True with a capital T. It tries to be accurate. Its details and quotations are verified and fact-checked. It is a product of interviews, field notes, and memory. As for its form, if it’s a news story, it is likely organized by means of the inverted triangle, with its answers to the five Ws (who, what, when, where, and why) and the one H (how) frontloaded. Its intentions are announced in its headline and spelled out in its lede.

IMAGE 2 - SEE LEFT SIDE BAR

Or if, it's another kind of article--it argues a thesis, and uses footnotes. It is organized by means of a preconceived outline, marching from I. to A. to 1. to a…and so on. William H. Gass, one of our great essayists, has made his living as an academic, and so knows whereof he speaks when he contrasts the essay with “that awful object, 'the article,' of which, he says,


"it pretends that everything is clear, that its argument is unassailable,that there are no soggy patches, no illicit inferences, no illegitimate connections; it furnishes seals of approval and underwriters' guarantees; its manners are starched, stuffy, it would wear a dress suit to a barbecue, silk pajamas to the shower; it knows, with respect to every subject and point of view it is ever likely to entertain, what words to use, what form to follow, what authorities to respect; it is the careful product of a professional, and therefore it is written as only writing can be written, even if, at various times, versions have been given a dry dull voice at a conference, because, spoken aloud, it still sounds like writing written down, writing born for its immediate burial in a Journal."


At the other end of the spectrum is the short story. Unlike the article, the short story is fictional, made-up, a product of imagination more than of research. Hell, they can even include unicorns or hobbits, and be set in the future or a land far, far away. As for their structure, stories don’t always march from “Once upon a time” to “happily ever after.” They may turn metafictional, fold in flashbacks, and surprise in wonderful ways, but generally they follow a single traditional form, one that has been diagramed as inverted check mark. A conflict is triggered, grows increasingly tense and complicated until it finally arrives at a climax, which is followed by a short unraveling, or dénouement. Or, to put it another way: foreplay - orgasm - cigarette.

IMAGE 3. SEE LEFT SIDE BAR

"One has a sense with the short story as a form," says Edward Hoagland, “that while everything may be been done, nothing has been overdone; it has permanence.” It is tidy, original, elemental. It predated even cave painting, argues Hoagland, and is “the art to build from.” It explores the love and grief that hold the tribe together, the war and betrayals that tear it apart. A story is also universal because it is made up and so could be about any of us. This is what Aristotle was talking about when he drew a distinction between poetry and history in the Poetics: “The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular." (more…)

#70 The Certainty of Ambivalence (on Sallie Tisdale’s “We Do Abortions Here: A Nurse's Tale” Harper’s Magazine, October, 1987, 66-70) by S. L. Wisenberg

May 16, 2018

Tags: Craft of Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

Introductory Note:

I’ve known Sandi Wisenberg for almost twenty years. All throughout that time, I’ve been an enthusiastic admirer of her powerful, funny, and diverse body of work. She’s one of the most savvy, most versatile writers I’ve read.

In this multi-layered piece on teaching another writer’s work, Sandi demonstrates what a good personal essay should be. And at the same time, she offers us some useful, important, writing advice--beginning in Part One with this suggestion. "There’s that old rule we learned, and that we teach,” Sandi writes “--when you write about something dramatic, use the simplest, most undramatic language. Be quiet”

Which, in the body of this essay, is exactly what she does.

MJS


The Certainty of Ambivalence (on Sallie Tisdale’s “We Do Abortions Here: A Nurse's Tale,” Harper's Magazine, October, 1987, 66-70) by S.L. Wisenberg

ONE.

How do you write an essay about working in an abortion clinic?
There’s that old rule we learned, and that we teach—when you write about something dramatic, use the simplest, most undramatic language. Be quiet.

Thus:

We do abortions here….

From the very first word, we know that the writer is part of something. Of a group. She is part of a unit. There’s we and there’s us, the readers. It’s obvious whom she’s with.

We do abortions here. It has the ring of rebellion, or am I just imagining it? I imagine the writer standing with her arms folded, at a doorway. And she is not making excuses for the abortions.

There’s a colon, then another quiet assertion: That is all we do.
We’re so used to Planned Parenthood informing us defensively that they do family planning, they provide contraception. They treat stds. But there, where Sallie Tisdale is a nurse, they do abortions and nothing but abortions.

This is all we do.

Can you imagine saying this is language that is calmer, more matter of fact?

There’s another rule, which I tell my students, and you probably do too: If you’re ambivalent about something, write about it. If you already know your opinion, you’ll be strident. Or Manichean, we might say, if we were PhDs. Write about what confounds you, what you’re trying to figure out.

This piece is about mixed emotions, but it’s not about wringing hands over whether abortion and the abortion clinic are necessary. Perhaps there’s a rule three: Ambivalence doesn’t mean that you’re a nervous wreck trying to figure out a large issue in your life and in society. You may have made the large decision, you may be certain that your decision is right, but still have dueling emotions.

She sets up ambivalence in the second sentence, using the singular: There are weary, grim moments when I think I cannot bear another basin of bloody remains, utter another kind phrase of reassurance.

The I. She breaks away, she tells us precisely what makes it difficult—the bloody remains, and the sameness of reassuring, always reassuring, and sounding kind. That is the gist of the essay. She uses the word “basin” three times in the first page of the essay, as it appeared in Harper’s, and xx times throughout, and the synonyms xxx.

But what does she do after those moments? She gets back on the horse. So I leave the procedure room in the back and reach for a new chart.

Like Beckett: You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

And though it’s a new chart, she tells us a paragraph or so down, more directly about the sameness she alluded to before, There is a numbing sameness lurking in this job: the same questions, the same answers, even the trembling tone in the voices.

Later she writes about the sameness of human failure, which brings women to the clinic. Two paragraphs below that she talks about failure again: Each abortion is a measure of our failure to protect, to nourish our own.

There’s a harshness there. We think our own troubles and tragedies are unique. They are not. It’s like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History. We see history as one event after the other. The Angel sees one huge event, never stopping, one catastrophe.

She tells us she enjoys it, most of the time. We laugh a lot here. She’s back to We, after the uneasy and bored and distraught I has wandered off from the united front. It’s nice to be with women all day. I like the sudden, transient bonds…

TWO.

Nobody loves abortion. Pro-choice advocates, of which I am one, talk about wanting abortions that are safe, legal, and rare. Tisdale uses oxymorons and contrasts to convey the ambivalence at the heart of abortion-providing: It is a sweet brutality we practice here, a stark and loving dispassion. A paragraph later: How can we do this? How can we refuse?

THREE.

One of the many things that annoy me in this life is that everyone talks about “narrative nonfiction.” Telling stories. Nonfiction that unfolds like a novel. And yet we go around quoting Phillip Lopate on the essay as an exercise in “self-interrogation” and the essay following “a mind at work.” This piece dares to be expository. The first page is about ideas. It is about specifics, too, and aggregate made up of specific experiences with patients.

There are narrative parts of this essay. The paragraph after the page I handed out tells what a first-trimester abortion consists of, and what Tisdale’s part is in the procedure. “I give a woman a small yellow Valium, and when it has begun to relax her, I lead her into the back, into bareness, the stirrups. The doctor reaches into her…” She provides sensory description—a bright light, the rumble of the machine, the white paper that crackles. She writes about her connection with the woman, what she does, what she says, and the sequence ends with another contrast: “the loss is no longer an imagined one. It has come true.”

The next paragraph she writes about sameness again—and the variety. Precisely because this is not a narrative, Tisdale uses repetition to create unity. A straight narrative might have such glue, but doesn’t need it as much because the chronology holds it together.

What moves the essay forward, what Tisdale uses instead of chronology (or maybe you could call it a chronology of rising intensity), are individual stories and details that move more and more into tragic absurdity, and also get you closer and closer to the reality of abortion. In the first category, There’s the 16-year-old who was raped, and who believes that a baby hatches out of an egg in a woman’s stomach. Later there’s the women who asks if she needs to remove her underpants.

Not much further Tisdale writes that she uses the distancing words “tissue” and “contents” and the women ask directly, How big is the baby? Again, contrasts. She admits she fudges a little: she emphasizes the “bulbous shape” of the embryo. The message: It is not yet a person. But she admits next, In the basin (again) “I see an elfin thorax…its pencilline ribs all in parallel rows with tiny knobs of spine rounding upwards. A translucent arm and hand swimming beside.”

What Tisdale is doing in this essay is daring to look at what she does. She tells a teen-ager that she’s not allowed to look at the fetus, but that’s not really true, either. Tisdale knew she really didn’t want to see it.

And then there are the fetus dreams, which “we all” have. “Fetus dreams” is the title of this essay in Tisdale’s recent anthology, Violation. Harper’s stole her first sentence, which I think is a dirty trick. And lazy.

But back to the fetus dreams: “buckets of blood splashed on the walls; trees full of crawling fetuses.”In another dream, she is the creature that is aborted, sucked out, torn. But instead of this identification with the fetus, she continues to believe in abortion. The dream leads her to think about the alternative to legal abortion: knitting needles, coat hangers. She ends that paragraph with more contrasts: “Abortion is the narrowest edge between kindness and cruelty. Done as well as it can be, it is still violence, merciful violence.”

FOUR.

There are other narrative sections—one describing an ultrasound. Another describing an abortion of a five-month-year-old fetus. She focuses on the eerie sounds: clatter, snap, click, sucking, crinkles, low voice.

Near the middle of the piece, she talks about ambivalence, the lack of. Her colleagues don’t have time to as she puts it “chew over ethics.” But generally there is to be no ambivalence.” Because if there was ambivalence, they wouldn’t be able to do what they have decided to do.

And yet, each medical person has her boundaries: one might refuse to do an abortion after a particular week of gestation, or a particular number of repeated abortions. Her own limit is less concrete: “allowing my clients to carry their own burden, shoulder the responsibility themselves. I shoulder the burden of trying not to judge them.”

But even though the fetus may be humanoid, or as she reports later, “like a little kitten,” it is not human: “The fetus,” she says, “ in becoming itself, can ruin others.”

FIVE.

At the very end she uses one sense for the first time, to gain intensity: Smell. “From the sink rises a rich and humid smell, hot, earthy, and moldering. It is the smell of something recently alive beginning to decay.” Again—contrasts.

She ends by clearly looking at ambivalence, and now she is speaking as the I again: or pledging : “Abortion requires… a willingness to live with conflict, fearlessness, and grief…I imagine a world where this won’t be necessary, and then return to the world where it is.”

In other words, she’s a realist.

SIX.

My late friend John Anderson used to say that anyone is interesting as long as you know what to leave out.

SEVEN.

In workshop a student said, exasperated at questions: Are these things they need to know or want to know?
After all, we were discussing someone’s life.

EIGHT.

Here’s what Tisdale leaves out:

How long she worked in the clinic.
Why she became a nurse.
Whether she’s had an abortion.
Why she applied for a job as a nurse in the clinic.
How old she is.
Did she really quit to work on a book, as her bio says?

Do we want to know?
Do you need to know?
Can you bear to know?

slwisenberg.blogspot.com
S.L. Wisenberg wants you to buy her books and hire her to help you with your writing. She's the editor of anotherchicagomagazine.net


#69 I Teach, Therefore I Essay by Caitlin McGill

April 16, 2018

Tags: Craft of Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

Michael Steinberg I will be the contest judge for the Sport Literate creative nonfiction essay contest. $500 goes to the winner. Deadline is June 6, 2018.
For more information, here's the link www.sportliterate.org then click on Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest.

Note

This month’s guest is Caitlin McGilll, a very fine writer who teaches at Emerson in Boston.

In the beginning of her piece, Caitlins writes, “For me, being an essayist is central to being a teacher." She goes on to say, ”perhaps we should view the class period itself as an essay."

In the body of the essay then, Caitlin talks about how the qualities of the personal essay--particularly exploration, discovery, unexpected surprises, and taking risks--inform her approach to teaching.

Cailin’s piece should interest all of us who teach and write personal essays.

# 69 I Teach, Therefore I Essay by Caitlin McGill

(This piece is adapted from my 2017 essay, originally published in Inside Higher Ed)

“Believe it or not,” I said to my very first undergraduate students, “I write essays, too—you know, because I want to, because…well…it’s fun.” I interlaced my sweaty fingers and gazed out at a swarm of furrowed brows.

After a year or two of teaching first-year writing and arguing that students can write essays “for fun,” too, I realized I don’t only enjoy the essay form; I depend on it—in and out of the classroom. For me, being an essayist is central to, if not inseparable from, being a teacher.

When I first attempted to organize my thoughts on this topic a few years ago, I hadn’t fully embraced that notion. I had no idea where to begin. For several days, I thought about starting, but I kept finding papers to grade or assignments to design or personal essays to revise. I put it off. After plenty of procrastination that I now recognize afforded me necessary time to think, I realized I needed to begin as I do all of my work: I needed to employ the very arguments I’m attempting to make now; I needed to essay—to try, to test out, to examine.

Once I realized this, most of my self-inflicted pressure disappeared. Of course, I thought. I should’ve known. After all, the act of essaying leads nearly all of my work.

Just as writing those thoughts into an essay relieved pressure, viewing teaching as an act of essaying also relieved much of the pressure of stepping on stage before students. I realized I could approach teaching like I could an essay: sure, I always have some knowledge when walking into a course, but I don’t need to know exactly where the class will lead us or where it will end; with a few goals in mind, I can wander and question and fumble in the dark with my students, just as I do with the written word.

*

If essaying demands authentic personae on the page, then it demands we listen to and act on our genuine instincts in the classroom. One’s teaching philosophy, then, is a representation of one’s self.

*

Now, instead of teaching first-year courses I mostly teach creative writing workshops and literature seminars; I rarely need to convince students of the essay’s merit. But my desire to mimic the essay’s endeavors in the classroom remains unchanged.

Essays offer the freedom to ponder an issue that can’t be proven one way or another, and—whether I’m working with twenty-five first-year pharmacy students or three middle-aged writers wrestling homelessness—that’s what I want to happen in the classroom: I want to elicit free and open discussion; I want to create a space to test ideas, to care and be conscientious of others but to also allow thoughts and ideas to flow freely without fear of condemnation, knowing that we might not necessarily prove a theory but that we can start to unravel our ideas together.

My most exciting teaching moments are often unplanned, unexpected gifts my students and I discover together after meandering down uncertain paths. Moments of unrehearsed discovery that keep us coming back for more.

*

These early realizations helped me shed many of my new-teacher anxieties and fears. I became more certain of my ability to shape and expand writers who, when I first started teaching, were often less than a decade younger than me. I began to enter the classroom with several ideas of where I wanted the session to go, hoping my students had done the necessary work to inform themselves on the subjects up for discussion, but once conversation began, I allowed us to wind up somewhere new, somewhere I couldn’t have planned for.

Perhaps, I began to think, perhaps we should view the class period itself as an essay.

*

"The story of an essay or a memoir is really the story of thinking, of your own consciousness," art critic and essayist Daniel Raeburn writes in an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books. “Which requires you, as narrator, to be self-conscious, but not too self-conscious. Not completely self-absorbed. You’re walking a tricky balance beam … You have to be confident in your telling of what happened, but not too confident about what it means. You have to have confidence in your own doubts, if that makes sense. They’re what propel personal narratives."

*

How better to describe the essaying instructor’s responsibility in the classroom? The flexible self-awareness and humble conviction that invites students’ unique voices and interpretations?

Self-conscious, but not too self-conscious. Confident in your telling, but not too confident about what it means. You have to have confidence in your own doubts…

*

Now, I don’t only allow but also hope that classes essay into darkness, knowing that as we fumble we can manage to stay on a path, however obscure.

I admit this might not always work. Some classes yield more fruitful conversation and discovery than others. And that’s okay. (I have to keep telling myself it is.) My own essays frequently find themselves knotted up and incomprehensible and just plain old unremarkable; but usually that means I’ll stumble onto a new writing path soon, maybe two or three drafts down the road. And so, too, a class can get back on track or happen upon a new one. We teachers and essayists are not perfect.

Doesn’t our form demand such imperfection?

*

Each time I taught first-year writing, I began with a cliché: I discussed the etymology of the word “essay.” I knew this was far from novel if not taboo, and that many other instructors were making this move, too, but it felt absolutely necessary then. Can it be clichéd to students if they’ve never heard it before?

I told my students one writes an essay to try to figure something out. And then I told them the part that’s often hardest to sell: we don’t always find an answer after the essay is written; sometimes we find new questions, or something we hadn’t been looking for. And when I told them this is the beauty of the essay, of essaying, I was reminding myself, too.

Now that I rarely have to lay such persuasive groundwork, my most difficult task isn’t beckoning young writers to the genre but instead constantly facing the reality of the genre’s answerless pursuit. How to disseminate advanced techniques without guaranteeing their efficacy? How to tell writers that their devoted time and energy usually doesn’t lead to publication and success? That, more often than not, it leads to rejection and disappointment?

Perhaps most importantly: how to acknowledge this reality while continuing to encourage and inspire?

I can’t guarantee a writer much. But I can and do argue that as long as we possess the extraordinary privilege to write freely, and safely, we can and must continue to essay.

And so I am met again with the essay’s intoxicating irony: the thrilling act of trying on ideas and pursuing unanswerable questions is the very act that often fails and frustrates and disappoints. But now I find myself thinking: doesn’t such failure and disappointment reflect the realities of which we write—and the genre in which we write? Doesn’t that mean, then, that when essaying fails or reveals failure, the pursuit is also necessarily a success?

*

Despite how I might wish every one of my workshop students would fight their fears of failure and brave the lifelong pursuit of writing and publishing, I don’t expect they all will. But I do expect that my allegiance to essaying will ignite a curiosity they sustain beyond our course. That, whether they declare themselves essayists or not, they’ll wander through the world more vulnerable and curious, less anxious about the unknown, and more excited for what they might uncover.

“Get lost and take risks,” I tell them, myself, and my fellow teachers. “Embrace missteps instead of fearing them. Embrace failure as if it’s the goal.”



Caitlin McGill is a St. Botolph Emerging Artist Award winner and Bread Loaf Writers' conference scholarship recipient. She was also the 2014 winner of the Rafael Torch Nonfiction Literary Award. Her essays and flash fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Blackbird, Consequence, Crab Orchard Review, Iron Horse, Vox, War, Literature, & the Arts, and several other magazines. She teaches at Emerson College and is a creative writing workshop facilitator for Writers Without Margins, a non-profit organization intended to expand access to literary arts for everyone, including those marginalized, stigmatized, or isolated by the challenges of addiction recovery, disability, trauma, sickness, injury, poverty, and mental illness. Currently, she is working on a memoir about her family's hidden past, intergenerational trauma, inherited survival mechanisms, immigration, race, class, addiction, and the cost of ignoring our histories. One essay from her book was named a Notable in The Best American Essays 2016. For more information, follow Caitlin on Twitter @caitlindmcgill or visit her website
Caitlin McGill

Blog # 68 In Praise of Silence, Loneliness, and Boredom by Patricia Ann McNair

March 16, 2018

Tags: Craft of Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

*If you’re looking for a fine conference in creative nonfiction, join the community of nonfiction writers in Ashland, Ohio June 1-3, 2018, for a weekend of manuscript consultations, seminars, and readings, all focused on the craft of creative nonfiction. The conference will emphasize essay, memoir, literary journalism, and building the kind of relationships that sustain writers throughout the writing process, from early draft all the way through to book promotion.
http://www.riverteethjournal.com/conference

Featured Guest Speakers: Andre Dubus 111 and Angela Morales
Presenters: Steve Harvey, Jill Christman, Joe Mackall, Dan Lehman, Kate Hopper, Robert Root, Sonya Huber, Michael Downs, Ana Matia Spagna, Richard Hoffman, Tom Larson, and Michael Steinberg

For more information contact riverteeth@ashland.edu
or cbrown@ashland.edu

Note:

This month’s guest is Patty McNair, a first-rate fiction writer/essayist who teaches at Columbia College in Chicago.

Her essay is entitled “In Praise of Silence, Loneliness, and Boredom.”

Most of us know that some of our richest writing emerges when we can retreat from our daily activities and responsibilities and find some quiet time and a quiet place to write.

Patty claims that she found both while she was a writer-in-residence at a small arts academy in northern Michigan, After having lived in Chicago for most of her adult life, Patty writes, “in this space that smelled like summer camp, smelled of forests and bug spray, I got over my fear of silence, of disconnecting.”

In the body of her essay, Patty writes in vivid specifics about how during the three months of her residency, she found “a velvet quiet,” born both of an “inward silence” and “internal listening,” and a feeling of “deep distraction"…by which she means a quiet place where she can listen to “my thoughts, my memories, my questions, my stories…”

For anyone who’s ever yearned for what Virginia Woolf calls “A Room of One’s Own, “Patty McNair’s “In Praise of Silence, Loneliness, and Boredom.” is an essay you’ll have no trouble relating to.

MJS


In Praise of Silence, Loneliness, and Boredom
By Patricia Ann McNair

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

-Pablo Neruda, “Keeping Quiet”

They gave me a tiny cabin in the woods. Living room, bedroom, kitchen and bath. No TV. Spotty internet over a dial-up connection, long distance. I am a Chicago girl who was invited to be Writer-in-Residence at Interlochen Arts Academy, a remarkable high school with boarding and day students from all over the world, students with jaw-dropping talents. Music, theatre, art, filmmaking, dance. Writing. Autumn into winter, short, dark days in Northern Michigan. Quiet. Quiet. Quiet. Silence, really.

I was a little terrified.

My regular Chicago life is two trips a day on the CTA, chatter and noise all around me, sirens and engines and other people’s television sets on too loud in the building next to me—our windows less than a foot from one another—an apartment that is never dark because the streetlights from outside stream in through the blinds and the curtains. Cars drive up and down the street in front of my building all day and night, a huge dog in the apartment above me barks when his people aren’t home, and barks even more when his people are. Our place is underneath the flight pattern for jets coming into O’Hare from over the lake.

I didn’t know silence. I didn’t even know quiet very well. But soon enough, in my cozy rooms with wood-paneled walls and orange shag carpet that held the sand tracked in from beneath the trees, in this space that smelled like summer camp, smelled of forests and bug spray, I got over my fear of silence, of disconnecting. After just a few days, I felt myself yearning toward the velvet quiet.

Then, a week after I arrived and on the first day of classes at Interlochen, September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center was attacked.

Talk about noise.

When I walked through the lanes on campus and under the trees behind the cabins and dorms, I could see the blue flicker of television in the students’ common lounges; I could hear phones ringing from inside the buildings; I could see through their windows, people huddled together talking furiously and sadly. I could hear, I swear, that strange mechanical sound of internet connections made over phone lines, the small bong and screech of them.

Back in my own cabin, though, without a television, with limited internet access, I could hear nothing. I could turn it all off. I did have a radio, and I will be forever grateful to Interlochen Public Radio for its news, for its level-headed reporting. It kept me updated on what I needed to know, when I felt I needed to know it. But when I turned off the radio, like I did for most hours of every day, the silence that filled my cabin allowed me to pay close attention to the story unfolding, to the humanness of it, to the emotional pull of our country’s narrative as it developed over those weeks, those months. In the quiet I could, in fact, listen deep.

I seldom went out then except to teach, to grab a few provisions, to run by myself near the lakes and the wetlands. I never have been more lonely than I was during that time. More immersed in silence, more deeply distracted by my own thoughts, more prone to wallowing in my own self-imposed disconnection and boredom.

I also never have written more than I did during those five months.

I was drawn to “an inward silence,” as Terry Tempest Williams calls it: “a howling silence that brings us to our knees and our desk each day.” Quiet and stillness lead me to the page, like Terry Tempest Williams also said, “Silence is where we locate our voice.”

We know this about silence, I think, and yet, we continue to allow ourselves to be taken out of the silence we crave, the silence we need. The silence our work needs. We compose on a computer because we tell ourselves we type faster than we can hand write—as though this were a good thing, writing faster. And the clack of the keys disturbs the silence in a way no whispering scratch of a pen on paper can. We keep the internet in the palm of our hand now so we can look things up whenever we need to, or at least tell ourselves that (I need to, I need to) as we let go of a sentence in progress because our phones have buzzed, or we really, really must see right this instant if we got a response to that email or how many people liked the photo of our cat we posted on Facebook this morning.

Even now, as I write this, I find myself shallowly distracted, caught up in the daily noise of my regular city life. I want to check my email, to make a list of the things I should do today. I stop to listen to the bus on the street outside, its recording that calls out the route number and the intersection; was that my phone that just dinged? I want to see what the orange man in the white house tweeted this morning, I want to watch the news. I fight the pull of technology and 24-hour information, the lure of laundry and dishes, of student papers and of that lovely hunk of Australian cheddar cheese in the fridge. I am easily, shallowly distracted.

Still, despite my bad habits, I am a fan of distraction. Not the kind I just spoke of, that behavior that keeps us skimming on the surface of things like humming birds, dipping and flitting, dipping and flitting. The distraction I yearn for, the kind I advocate for is something else. Deep distraction, born of quiet. That is what I want.

What I mean: I used to be a runner. For various reasons that include a new titanium hip, I no longer run. Instead, I use one of those tedious machines at the gym. When I used to run, and now when I use the machine, I never put on headphones or listen to music. I listen, instead, to the meanderings of my mind. I listen until (Terry Tempest Williams again) “in silence the noises outside cease so the dialogue inside can begin.” I listen deep and allow (invite?) myself to be deeply distracted by the memories and questions and stories I carry with me always.

Like this: outside the window of the gym where I sweat, teenagers pass by on their way to school. There is a group of girls and a group of boys, and in between the two groups there is a couple, a boy and a girl, hands in one another’s back pockets. When I was in junior high, I remember seeing that gesture for the first time. At the shopping center where I’d go to the Woolworth’s to play with white, pink-nosed mice in their cages, I saw my next-door neighbor with a boy (she was sixteen) and he slid his hand into the back pocket of her jeans. That seemed so intimate and grown up to me, I yearned for that sort of closeness with a boy. What is it about those ages, 13, 16, that make us so eager to be older? My brothers were all older than me, and getting into various sorts of trouble. Roger ran away with the carnival. Don would cut class some Fridays and have parties at our house while our folks were at work. Allen was unhappy and sometimes filled with such an acute sense of otherness that he first attempted suicide when he was just 18. Was this, our bad behavior (I ditched school a lot in high school, too, I took a lot of drugs, even though I was in the drama club and the National Honor Society) connected to the fact that my father died when I was just 15, Roger 17, Don and Allen brand new adults? Maybe, I don’t know. Perhaps. Let me write about that a bit. Let me see what I can figure out.

That is how it works for me.

I think of this…

That reminds me of this…

That makes me think of that…

And that reminds me of this…

And this, finally, moves my pen towards that.

If I had been on my machine with earbuds filling my head with Morning Edition or MSNBC or Fleetwood Mac or “This American Life,” I would not have been able to hear the progression of these deep, internal distractions.

You try:

Turn off the noise.

Think of something you saw this morning or yesterday or this week or sometime recently. Let yourself see the thing, the moment, the interaction, in your mind. Recreate the image.

What does it remind you of? Think about it for a minute. Tell it to yourself in your head. Speak it through. Now what does that remind you of?

And that makes you think of…what?

Don’t write, not just yet. Look. Listen. Tell.

And when the pull of the words, the images, the moments is too strong to resist, when they lead you to the page, follow them. Write. Write. Write. (more…)

Blog # 67 Permission and Disclosure: Handling Revelation in Writing by Randy Albers

February 13, 2018

Tags: Craft of Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

Note:

This month’s guest is Randy Albers, a writer and teacher supreme. For many years, Randy was the Chair of the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College in Chicago where, along with workshops in fiction, he established a substantial number of classes and workshops in creative nonfiction, long before the genre became recognized as a form of literature.

Randy’s essay is about an issue we’ve all encountered; that is, what can and what can't students in our creative nonfiction classes write about. And how can teachers "create an environment where students can find freedom to choose their material and find their most authentic voice."
MJS


*PERMISSION and DISCLOSURE; HANDLING REVELATION in WRITING
by Randy Albers

Some years ago, when I was the Chair of the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College in Chicago, we taught the core fiction and nonfiction classes using the Story Workshop approach originated by former chair, John Schultz.It was an approach meant to create a safe space for experimentation.

This process-rather than product-based approach focused on the development of image and voice. And so it used activities and exercises to establish the widest possible permission for voice and subject matter. It is not enough to tell students to feel free to write about anything, to take risks, to use their liveliest, freest voice, to break whatever rules they might feel compelled to break. In fact, with some students, telling them these things will only make their struggles worse. Instead, teachers have to create an environment in which students can find freedom to choose their material and find their most authentic voice. And teachers also must recognize that the movement past the self-censoring impulse toward authentic freedom does not happen overnight, that students may move through many stages—just as we ourselves may have done. Sometimes, it calls for a Zen-like patience.

A student in one of my creative nonfiction Prose Forms workshops, Marianne, was having trouble early in the semester finding her material. She was one of those students who had learned to play things very safe, a good, dutiful student who did everything that was asked, and who seemed more focused on getting things right than discovering anything new. The first part of this course focused on what we term Personally Observed instances, scenes that may be from a student’s own past memories, something observed directly, or something told to them. Marianne wrote about work, and in truth, work, especially worst jobs, are excellent fodder for essays. But the instances seemed to be going nowhere, and she herself seemed only moderately connected to the material. Her voice was flat, the seeing was not sharp, and she didn’t seem to have an idea of where she wanted to go with that material.

Then, three or four weeks into the term, she read a journal entry about her father who had raised the children alone following the death of her mother. The writing showed more life, and I asked her if she was going to go on with that material. “I don’t think so,” she said. “I just needed a journal entry to read for class.” “Well,” I said, “you might think about going back to it.”

We moved on to Researched Instances in which students were to pick a subject to explore through extensive reading. Marianne termed hers the “death instances,” focusing on what happens to families when a parent dies. When, after a week or so, she wanted to move off of this topic, I asked why, and she told me that she didn’t want to have any of these instances read in class because she was afraid that students might not understand, might think that she was just feeling sorry for herself. I told her that the writing had been getting better, and if she were fearful of revealing too much, she might try some in a fictional third-person, or try writing a series of letters to various family members. I also told her that if she wasn’t ready to delve into this material, that was fine. “But do come back to it,” I encouraged gently.

When she handed in her next instances, I saw that she had indeed decided to stick with this subject and try out my suggestions. She made some headway in what she called a fictional scene, but the real breakthroughs happened in letters. One went to her sister, where she described their mother’s funeral. A second went to her mother, in which she got to her sadness about her death. But the third was the one that revealed more life than at any point so far. Addressed to her father, it started with a flash of anger at him for not being there for her after her mother died and went on to recount scenes where she had needed him but he was nowhere in sight.

A few weeks later, in her first draft of the main essay assignment, she pushed the questioning of her father further, along with some of the results of his absence—feelings of abandonment, occasional acting-out, and so on. After the in-class reading of the draft, the other students asked some questions about her family, as well as about the writing, and I asked a few, too, about her relationship with her father. I didn’t force her to answer on the spot, just wanted her to think about them in a way that might point to her rewrite.

When she turned in the next draft near the end of the semester, I was stunned. The semester’s writing that had started with work instances, then moved to her parenting instances, then to death instances, was now focused almost entirely on father-daughter relationships, and ended with a vivid, straightforward telling of her father often coming into her room at night after her mother’s death, crawling under the covers next to her, and forcing himself on her. She would, she said, feel herself float out of her body, glide upward, and hover close to the ceiling, watching her father’s gropings as if it were happening to someone else. (A not uncommon occurrence, as therapists will tell you.)

Marianne’s movement through the semester, a step forward, a step back, two steps forward, and so on, until she took that daring leap at the end, taught me perhaps better than any other example how important it is for students to test their own limits and move toward overcoming self-censoring impulses at their own speed in order to find permission for meaningful, authentic content and telling.

At any point in the process, if I had discouraged that movement, or had given a message, consciously or unconsciously, that such material shouldn’t be told, or if I had allowed the rest of the students to indicate, in any way, that revealing death or father-abuse stories to the world was not permissible, that they were not fit subjects for essays, might offend, might hurt someone else who had been in a similar situation, or simply might have been told too many times already, Marianne would have quickly retreated down the rabbit hole where she had so often hidden. Instead, she left the class with a newfound confidence in her ability to render difficult material in a way that avoided the maudlin, the clichéd, or the sensationalistic. I have been prouder of very few students.

When I recounted this story during a question-and-answer session at AWP, a very fine poet announced that she never permitted rape stories in her classes because there might be someone who had been raped and they would be rendered uncomfortable, perhaps silenced. While I understand that fear, the focus on the work rather than the person in class helped Marianne get an important story told that would have been banned in this poet’s class.

Marianne existed at one end of the permission spectrum, fighting her own fear of revelation. At the other extreme, we see many students who, suddenly aware that they have received a permission never given to them previously, settle for writing such material in a self-consciously (even proudly) confessional tone—or who simply play for the material’s shock effect on the audience, focusing on graphic details in order to get a reaction without really interrogating the experience or without identifying the elements of good writing that would add depth, lift the language, exhibit the teller’s reflective capabilities. They decide to push the limits as far as possible. You get lots of sex, blood, gore, guts, and veins in the teeth. They mistake attention from the titillated audience as a sign of real value. And as much as the Mariannes, who tiptoe toward touchy material as if walking through a minefield, these students who think to win over their audience with a shock and awe assault have their own issues to deal with in getting to quality writing. And their process may be even more challenging for the teacher to deal with.

Another student, Jim, was writing instances from his childhood, most of which were focused on things like blowing up mailboxes with M-80s. He had been getting away with audience titillation in previous classes, but one day, after reading his work in class and hearing it evoke the usual round of laughter from the audience, I dropped an M-80 of my own. Sensing that there was perhaps something more to this story, instead of joining in the laughter, I asked him simply, “So why do you think you were blowing things up?” He thought for a long moment, brushed his long, shaggy hair out of his eyes, and said, “I was hyperactive.” “Lots of kids appear hyperactive,” I said. “No,” he said. “I mean, I was diagnosed hyperactive. My mother didn’t know what to do with me.” He paused, his customary grin gone, his voice low and full, “She gave me Ritalin every morning. For years.” He seemed on the verge of an important discovery. The rest of the class was watching the interchange silently. Finally, I asked, “And did it do any good? Do you think you needed it?” “No,” he said quietly. “It made life worse.” For the next few weeks, he wrote more memories of struggling in school and at home, and did research on hyperactivity and Ritalin therapy. His essay, which he entitled “I’m No Angel,” moved from the humorous mailbox explosions and other pranks to serious, even powerful moments of reflection on the confusion and stigma he had to deal with during his younger years.

Just as with Marianne, Jim’s process reflected a number of stages. Hers had been a movement toward overcoming self-censorship. His had been a movement in the other direction, from shock, bombast, toward something more meaningful, displaying honest self-examination and thought, something that was not simply an outpouring but rather carried a wider application for his audience. When I had asked him who his audience was, he said that it was anyone with an interest in the subject but especially those who might have gone through similar experiences and were left wanting in some way, feeling that something was wrong with them, that they were always on the outside and seeking acceptance.

The teacher who privileges only one kind of writing, whether it’s the very careful or the very shocking, the dialect-bound or the high style, the humorous or the vein-opening, is sending a message that narrows permission for all and that plays into the hands of those students who would level the class—that is, bring the group to the lowest common denominator, which is to say, their own. There’s a good deal of pressure on the teacher here, above all to resist this leveling. The instructor conveys by everything she or he does and everything she or he does not do that permission is more than something simply to give lip service to. It takes attentiveness in every minute of the class to the nonverbal as well as verbal messages.

Graeme Harper has argued, rightly I think, that our attention must be on the process more than the product in the classroom. Writers have to write their way to truth, and it often takes a long time. “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Forster wrote, a line that Bellow borrowed. We need to help students learn to say it all or they won’t be able to get to what they really think or know. Whether it’s truthful or not doesn’t much matter to me along the way. In fact, as I mentioned, in my Story Workshop class, I have them doing fictional instances along with personally observed or experienced instances, both in order to explore the cross-pollination of fictional techniques in nonfiction that makes nonfiction worth reading and to give them an out if anyone asks them if it’s true. I’d rather have them writing the material than shying away from it because it’s too close to the bone, and this gives them space to experiment.

Let me close with a story that I have always found illustrative and which I sometimes tell my students.

Some years ago, I invited the great Chicago writer, Harry Mark Petrakis, to come to Columbia. He read a short story about a young boy and his Greek Orthodox priest that took place in Chicago’s Greektown. Following that, he read an essay about growing up in the same neighborhood. After the reading, a student asked a question, “Mr. Petrakis, you read what you said was a short story and then what you called an essay. But I didn’t hear any difference between the two. Can you tell us what makes one fiction and one nonfiction?” Harry smiled and allowed as how, for him, the border between fiction and nonfiction was very blurry. “Let me explain,” he went on. “One day, many years ago, I was walking down State Street and went past a Woolworth’s. In front on the sidewalk, they had put a scale—one of those where you’d put in a penny and you’d get a fortune along with your weight. As I passed, I saw a guy standing on it—huge, well over 300 pounds. He was bending to read his weight, and what got me was that he was holding an ice cream cone. It struck me as humorous. I passed on by, but the image stuck with me.

“Later that night, I’m at home with my family, having dinner, and I start telling them about the guy I saw on the scales. But at the crucial moment, as I recounted how I approached, instead of saying that I just passed by and went on my way to the train, I told them, ‘And then, just as I got there, the large man straightened, spotted me, and turned to extend the cone in my direction. “Here,” he said. “Would you mind holding this?”’

“Now, was that true? Did it really happen? No. But it made a better story.”

I have students who say to me, “I am not sure whether my work is fiction or nonfiction. I am using a lot of material from my own experience, but I can’t remember every conversation, and sometimes, when I am focusing on getting it all right, it sounds like bad journalism.” I often tell them, “Just write it. Try some as fiction and some as what you would call nonfiction. And if anyone asks you whether it’s true, you are free to lie. I’ll help you decide later, when you get ready to publish it, whether the contract is going to read ‘fiction’ or ‘nonfiction,’ and how you might have to revise. The main thing right now is just to tell the story— as well as you can.”

And isn’t that what we are all about as writers—finding the best, most promising material for story and telling it as well as we can?

Bio Note:
Randall Albers, Professor and Chair Emeritus at Columbia College Chicago, headed the graduate and undergraduate writing programs of the Fiction Writing Department for 18 years. He founded the Story Week Festival of Writers, received the college’s Teaching Excellence Award, initiated exchange programs with Bath Spa University, and co-founded the International Creative Research Partnership with Bath Spa and the University of Technology, Sydney. Selected fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Chicago Review, TriQuarterly, Writing in Education, Brevity, F Magazine, Briefly Knocked Unconscious by a Low-Flying Duck, and Creative Writing and Education. A Story Workshop® Master Teacher, he has presented at AWP, NAWE, and numerous other conferences on the teaching of creative writing.

*Permission and Disclosure originated as a panel presentation at the 2012 NonfictionNOW conference in Melbourne, Australia.

Blog# 66 "Tip to Memoir Writers: Avoid Lena Dunham Syndrome" by Martha Nichols

January 8, 2018

Tags: Tags: Craft of Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

*This essay was originally published as "What Journalists Can Teach Memoir Writers" in Talking Writing (Holiday 2014 issue).

Note:

This month’s guest is Martha Nichols, founding editor of Talking Writing, one of the finest Internet journals on/about writing, the craft of writing, and the larger human issues that writers discover through their work.

The subject of Martha’s essay, the use of the “I” both in first-person journalism and memoir, is a matter of great importance and interest to myself as well as to other memoirists and teachers. “ I don’t believe,” Martha writes, “that a third-person POV is inherently more objective, and the bias of a first-person account is what makes it ring true,”

But unlike many aspiring memoirists whose use of the “I” is “unexamined,” Martha also maintains that “First- person journalists acknowledge their biases up front, identifying who’s behind the I. “

Using a controversial passage from Lena Dunham’s memoir, Not That Kind of Girl as an example, Martha’s larger point is that the personal is not “a sufficient explanation for why readers should care.” She goes on to say that “I want interpretation, critical thinking, and a bigger view of the world than the interior of someone’s head.”

And while this might not necessarily apply to memoirists that do consciously create wise, intelligent, and reflective narrators, we can all agree that Martha’s point of view is an important reminder that “telling a personal story” is certainly not enough.

MJS

"TIP TO MEMOIR WRITERS: AVOID LENA DUNHAM SYNDROME" By Martha Nichols

I’ve always been an impatient reader. Way back in seventh grade, I searched the La Vista Junior High School library shelves with one goal in mind: a first-person narrator.

I loved stories told by the characters themselves. I relied on them to take me away from the strip malls of Hayward, California. In the early 1970s, I decked myself in orange tie-dyed pants. I wore granny glasses, parting my hair in the middle, a dead ringer for John Lennon. I can’t pinpoint exactly when I picked up, say, The White Mountains. But I know I found John Christopher’s science fiction series in that library. I remember sunlight streaming through utilitarian windows, turning pages, hitting the first-person jackpot: The clockman had visited us the week before, and I had been permitted for a time to look on while he cleaned and oiled the Watch....

As a teenager, I would have said “I” stories were easier reads. Decades later, the adult-me, the magazine writer and editor, says first-person stories feel more real.

I’ve never lost my love of first-person narrators, but the difference now is that I’m hooked by first-person journalism. This semester, I’m even teaching a journalism course with that title, using Joan Didion’s The White Album as one of the main texts. Her personal reportage of the ‘60s and ‘70s has greatly influenced my own attitude toward nonfiction: I don't believe a third-person POV is inherently more objective, and the bias of a first-person account is often what makes it ring true.

“I had better tell you where I am, and why,” Didion says at the start of her essay “In the Islands.” Within the first paragraph, she reveals she’s in Honolulu with her husband and three-year-old daughter, waiting for news of a possible tidal wave. Then:


"We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for a divorce. I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind."


These days, first-person journalism like this is not new. Columns, advice articles, and personal essays by everyone from Didion and Hunter S. Thompson to M.F.K Fisher and John McPhee have long appeared in magazines and newspapers. But with the rise of blogging and the Web, use of the “I” voice is now changing the traditionally omniscient stance of many journalistic features.

Bravo—except there's also a downside to the trend of talking about everything that's ever happened to you ever. Such "aimless revelation," in Didion's tart words, gives personal preoccupations the same weight as universal problems.

First-person journalists acknowledge their biases up front, identifying who’s behind the “I.” More important, though, they link their own stories to larger themes. Didion’s “In the Islands” moves from her personal situation to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel’s privileged history to the Punchbowl—a U.S. military cemetery on Oahu, where she observed graves being dug for American soldiers killed in Vietnam.

First-person journalism helps restrain the pull of TMI when narrating your own life, and it’s my antidote to much of what goes on in creative nonfiction classes. I’m tired of the hothouse quality of many memoirs, especially those in which writers imply "if I remember it this way, it must be true." At worst, revealing private experiences in a public forum invites a nasty kind of voyeurism.

Exhibit A: Lena Dunham. Early this November, right-wing commentators accused the star of HBO’s Girls of sexually “abusing” her baby sister, based on scenes from Dunham’s 2014 essay collection Not That Kind of Girl. In one passage, written from the perspective of her seven-year-old self, Dunham describes her childish curiosity about female anatomy getting “the best of me”:


"Grace was sitting up, babbling and smiling, and I leaned down between her legs and carefully spread open her vagina. She didn’t resist, and when I saw what was inside I shrieked."

It turns out that baby Grace had stuck some pebbles inside herself.

In another scene, Dunham claims she often bribed her little sister for “her time and affection.” Innocent as this is, the offhand comic tone of the following passage is what got Dunham into trouble. She riffs about what she would give Grace:


"Three pieces of candy if I could kiss her on the lips for five seconds. Whatever she wanted to watch on TV if she would just ‘relax on me.’ Basically, anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl I was trying."


The sex-abuse story went viral, picked up by People, ABC News, and other mainstream outlets. Online sites funded by conservative think tanks trumpeted the headlines as if they were a matter of fact, not opinion. After a series of angry tweets—I told a story about being a weird 7 year old. I bet you have some too, old men, that I'd rather not hear—Dunham has ended up apologizing for those parts of the book.

At this point, she has supporters and detractors of every political stripe. The problem is, Dunham is a celebrity, and her essays often feel like information dumps meant to massage her image. She’s a satirical exaggerator and admits to altering some facts. That’s a common practice by memoirists and humorists such as David Sedaris. Yet, the controversy over her essays is not about fact checking, but her point of view.

A wiser first-person voice would have avoided “sexual predator,” a loaded term for many readers. (Never mind that opening her sister’s vagina strains credulity.) That voice might have pondered what Grace thinks about having her body described like this. Dunham’s sister has supported her account of what happened, but in a New York Times Magazine profile earlier this fall, Grace is quoted as saying “most of our fights have revolved around my feeling like Lena took her approach to her own personal life and made my personal life her property.”

Dunham is often lauded (or trounced on) for examining every detail of her existence. In fact, little in Not That Kind of Girl examines why the details matter. I'm not offended by lines like "I've always known there was something wrong with my uterus," but they don't open new emotional vistas, either. When personal essays lack what Phillip Lopate calls the “intelligent narrator," the candor becomes eye-glazing—the aimless revelation of a media star known for her exhibitionism.

The value of a first-person journalism perspective, then, has as much to do with a writing approach as the final product. If you think your job is to talk about more than yourself, then the whole process—from conceptualizing the idea to doing research to interpreting what you discover—becomes richer, deeper, and more self-critical.

Consider Mary Beard. Almost fifteen years ago in the London Review of Books, the British classics professor recounted being raped as a young woman. In that piece, titled “Diary,” she minces no words: “In September 1978, on a night train from Milan, I was forced to have sex with an architect.” More to the point of first-person journalism, she goes on to connect this anecdote to a larger theme:


"What I am trying to highlight is the crucial importance, both culturally and personally, of rape-narratives. For rape is always a (contested) story, as well as an event; and it is in the telling of rape-as-story, in its different versions, its shifting nuances, that cultures have always debated most intensely some of the unfathomable conflicts of sexual relations and sexual identity."


Beard is colorful and outspoken, but she’s a gray-haired academic. Dunham is a hipster celebrity in her twenties, and she isn’t writing for the intellectual elite (even if the New Yorker publishes her on occasion). Yet, Dunham is writing for other young feminists, and that’s where her use of “I” seems so unexamined. She and other writers of her generation assume the act of writing it all down provides catharsis and a new kind of openness—that telling a personal story is enough.

Feminist though I am, I don’t believe the personal is inevitably political. Nor is it a sufficient explanation for why readers should care. I want interpretation, critical thinking, and a bigger view of the world than the interior of somebody’s head. Journalists, for all their flaws, are trained to provide the who-what-where-when specifics of their observations. In a first-person feature, they make clear who the “I” is and why “I” is telling the story. And they approach information sources with necessary skepticism, whether it’s a politician, Mother Teresa, or themselves.

The most powerful essay in Not That Kind of Girl is the one where Dunham admits, “I’m an unreliable narrator.” In that essay (“Barry”), she focuses on a date-rape incident in college, and the fact that she has struggled with remembering or explaining what happened feels authentic:


"I’ve told the story to myself in different variations—there are a few versions of it rattling around in my memory, even though the nature of events is that they only happen once and in one way. The day after, every detail was crisp (or as crisp as anything can be when the act was committed in a haze of warm beer, Xanax bits, and poorly administered cocaine)."


Here, Dunham is a first-person narrator I believe in. Like Beard, she details the ways she constructed and revised her rape story, and the toll this has taken on her.

That’s why I have faith in first-person journalism. I see its potential to illuminate complex issues amid the digital swamp of aimless revelation we're now awash in. All writers’ observations are influenced by their identities and circumstances. When the “I’ voice really conveys who an author is, it’s not just another piece of banal content circulating around the Web. It’s been given meaning by somebody. (more…)

BLOG # 65 Writing About Others by Annette Gendler

December 11, 2017

Tags: Craft of Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

Note:

This month’s guest is Annette Gendler, author of the memoir Jumping Over Shadows.

In July, August, and September, I posted three pieces on/about the pro’s and con’s of using real names in our memoirs. One was by Mimi Schwartz, another was mine, and the third was by Richard Hoffman. Each of us took a somewhat different approach to the issue.

The response to all three was quite lively, intense, and diverse. And so I thought I’d add Annette Gendler’s piece--still another voice and point of view--to the mix.

MJS


WRITING ABOUT OTHERS, by Annette Gendler

Writing about real people is probably the number one issue writers of personal stories, whether memoir, personal essay or newspaper column, worry about. Frank McCourt, for example, was not able to write his brilliant memoir Angela’s Ashes until his mother had passed away. He knew he would have to write about her affair with her cousin, and he knew he couldn’t write about that as long as she was alive.

Waiting until those you want to write about are dead is one option, but if you don’t want to wait that long, how do you navigate the treacherous waters of writing about others, especially if they are family? First of all, you should write first, and worry later. Why? Because you can never predict how people will react. For example, when Joe Mackall, author of the memoir The Last Street Before Cleveland gave the manuscript to his wife to read, he worried how she would react to his portrayal of her. Instead, she got upset at his statement that living in his boyhood neighborhood was the last time he had felt complete. Had he never felt complete living with her? He hadn’t seen that one coming. Nor did I when I shared an essay I had won a prize for with my mother who got upset because she wasn’t in it. No amount of writerly explanation helped.

This brings me to my next point: Keep in mind that most people love being written about. It’s the same phenomenon as receiving your child’s school newsletter: You immediately scan it to see if your child is featured. If not, you lose interest. The first question my children ask, whenever they hear I’ve published something, is “Am I in it?” All of us want to be acknowledged, want to be recognized, want to know that we matter, and being written about is a great affirmation of our relevance.

Often, reactions are indicative of the relationship you have with the person you are writing about. A solid relationship won’t fall apart because of your writing; in fact, your writing might deepen your understanding of each other. On the other hand, a relationship that was rocky before you wrote about that person might blow apart. Mark Doty’s father reportedly didn’t speak to him again after he sent him the manuscript of his memoir Firebird. Sadly, even though their relationship had been precarious up until then, they had just gone through a rapprochement that Firebird apparently destroyed (see Doty’s article in The Writer’s Chronicle, Oct/Nov 2005). So ask yourself: What are you willing to risk?

“People’s lives are more important than my words,” says Judith Barrington in Writing the Memoir. Teresa Jordan, author of Riding the White Horse Home: A Western Family Album, warns: “Writers are users. We use the stories around us. I feel that carries a huge responsibility.” How then does a writer honor this responsibility?

Fictionalizing a true story is not necessarily a way to avoid this responsibility. In an interview with The Writer’s Chronicle (Summer 2005) Susan Cheever, daughter of John Cheever, relates the following:


“My father wrote the story called ‘The Hartleys’ in which a little girl – who's obviously me – goes on a family ski trip – which is in every detail the ski trip we took. The little girl gets killed in the ski tow. That, for me, was far more traumatic than if he'd written a nonfiction piece about that ski trip in which he talked about his fears for the little girl. To me, the fiction is much more dangerous, much more painful for the people who it may be based on, than nonfiction. In nonfiction, at least the writer has some obligation to tell what really happened. […] So, in my family, being fictionalized has been ten million times more painful. That's why, when a student says to me, ‘If I did this as fiction it wouldn't hurt the people so much,’ I say to them, ‘You are wrong. It will hurt them more. Because you as a fiction writer have more power.’”


If you feel you’re treading on thin ice, ask yourself, “Which decision is more life enhancing?” Be selective. Telling all or not telling anything is not the only option. Often the way you shape a story allows you to leave out complicated stuff. For example, by focusing on small moments between her dying son and herself, a student of mine has been able to write her memoir as a series of essays that don’t get bogged down by the larger family story.

When writing about others, the main challenge is to see and portray real people as multi-faceted characters. This can be especially hard if you are writing about a family member who, after all, has a defined role in your life. That person is your father, your mother, your brother. But who is she/he apart from that? What challenges was she/he facing? What motivated him or her? The process of flipping your point-of-view to see a family member as a character in a story can be one of the most rewarding and illuminating by-products of writing memoir. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that we all have our own perspective and can only tell our version of the truth. As Michael Steinberg, author of Still Pitching, once explained to his mother, “I’m writing about my grandfather, not your father.”

As you write about others, don’t show your work to those involved until you have arrived at a final version you can stand behind. If you showed your father a draft and later deleted a passage he really liked, he’d be disappointed. Likewise, it’s not worth possibly upsetting someone with something you’re not sure you’re going to put out there. Share your work only when you as the writer have arrived at your version of the story. Offer to make changes, but reserve the right to tell your story.

Writing is also a collaborative effort, and family members can be great fact checkers. At the very least, they need to know that they are being written about and ideally they need to be comfortable with your portrayal of them. You can, of course, change names to shield their identity, but chances are they will recognize themselves, so always take the high road and involve everyone who’s involved in signing off on the manuscript.
In the end, however, it’s your story and you can’t satisfy everyone. But you can make sure to be satisfied yourself. So at least be behind your own work 100 percent.
________________________________________________________
This essay first appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books, October 3, 2013

Bio:

Annette Gendler is the author of Jumping Over Shadows, the memoir of a German-Jewish love that overcame the burden of the Holocaust. She served as the 2014-15 writer-in-residence at the Hemingway Birthplace Home in Oak Park, Illinois. Her writing and photography regularly appear in Tablet, the Forward, Kveller, the Washington Independent Review of Books and Bella Grace Magazine. She has been teaching memoir writing at StoryStudio Chicago since 2006
annettegendler.com

Blog # 64 INTERVIEW WITH MELANIE BROOKS

November 11, 2017

Tags: Craft of Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

MS Note:

This month’s post (#64) is an interview with Melanie Brooks, author of Writing Hard Stories. The interview (conducted by Donna Talarico) originally appeared in the fine literary journal Hippocampus (HM)
hippocampus magazine

In Writing Hard Stories, Melanie interviewed 18 writers who, as she says in her Introduction, “…have difficult, but necessary and important, stories to tell…{Each}one has something to teach emerging writers, established writers, teachers of writing, memoir readers, or those who have faced or are facing difficult experiences.”

She goes on to say, “The knowledge that we are not alone in the inevitable challenges that emerge when we venture to shape hard life into beautiful art is perhaps the strongest mooring a writer can find …{as well as for} those who cannot tell their stories or who have simply been moved by the stories these gifted writers have told them.”

Melanie concludes by saying that the book is also meant “…for those who cannot tell their stories or who have simply been moved by the stories these gifted writers have told them.”

Readers of this interview, then--particularly those who aspire to write their own books--will also learn how Melanie’s manuscript evolved from a required, stand-alone essay into a book length work.

Blog # 64 INTERVIEW WITH MELANIE BROOKS

HM While a student in the Stonecoast MFA program, Melanie Brooks set out to write a memoir—a story that, once pen was put to paper, stirred up emotions, emotions she hadn’t realized would still be so painful. For help getting through the writing process while reliving these memories, she turned to memoirs about trauma--and then, later, to asking those writers how they make it through their own writing process. What was meant to be an MFA paper turned into Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memorists Who Shaped Art from Trauma.

HM: How did you select the writers—were they people you’ve read in the past?

MB: I was reading a lot of memoirists for my (MFA) program… the original idea for this was not an idea for a book, it was just, “I really wish I could talk to these people.” The writers I initially contacted were writers whose books I had just finished reading...I started to read more memoirs by writers of color and memoirs from people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. But I didn’t want to add a writer just because it was a well-known author; I wanted to read and love that writer’s book and for the book to have spoken to me and to my own experience of trauma in some way. I was grateful for the opportunity to interview eight more amazing memoirists once the book was under contract.

HM: You already answered one of my other questions in the meantime. I was going to ask when you knew you had a book--so it was during your MFA program, and with the encouragement of your mentor.

MB: Yeah, this third-semester project was supposed to be a 30-page paper—a critical analysis paper—and I started writing these profiles, and each one was about 10 to 12 pages, and I just kept writing and thought, ‘these are chapters….I was really fortunate to have a mentor [Suzanne Strempek Shea], who instead of getting bogged down by the number of pages, she was just really excited about them. She was the champion of this project—from the very beginning.

HM: So, as you were doing this, both through the time while you were in the MFA program and then during the additional interviews, what kinds of things did you ask them about?

MB: I detail this in the introduction of the book—and it’s really as much a narrative journey of my doing this as it is talking to these writers. When I started writing my own memoir, my creative thesis, I was really caught off guard by the psychological toll—I did not think that revisiting these memories that were 20 years old, that I’ve lived with and carried with me would feel as terrifying and painful—and [that I’d be] reliving the experience. I was really caught off guard with that. And nobody was talking about that. Nobody was talking to anybody about that.

How did Mark Doty write about the death of a spouse? How did Marianne Leone write about her dead son? How was she able to do these things? I started reading interviews [with these writers], but nobody was asking them those questions. They were asking about craft and writer’s-process-type questions. Nobody was asking the questions I really wanted to know. My biggest question was, “How did you survive this process?” and “How will I survive it?” So all of the questions I asked were very focused on the emotional toll, the coping process, what did it feel like at this stage, what did it feel like at the end, and, selfishly, to have as many people as I could tell me that I would feel better by having done this.

HM: That’s great. A lot of these people you were maybe meeting for the first time, and you were asking tough questions. And maybe why they weren’t asked these types of questions before is because it seemed too invasive. So, what did you do to build rapport to get those people to open up to you? Because there really is a difference in interviewing people: some people just ask the surface questions, but you dug deep. What happened during your process to get ready for that?

MB: I first sent a query email, and I very much personalized them and I made sure I didn’t approach them until I had read their book. In my email, I was very honest about where I was in my process—I just kind of laid it all out there, like ‘I’m a disaster… I’m having a really hard time, and here’s what reading your book has done for me and what I’d like to talk to you about.’

I thought maybe one or two of the writers would write back to me, but every single one of them wrote back saying they’d love to talk to me and thank you for approaching me and talking to me about what my book meant to you. And so that initial query set up that this wasn’t just going to be a surface conversation. I was very intentional in asking such specific questions about their story.

What was so interesting is that there was a moment in probably every interview where one of the writers said to me, ‘you know, I never thought of that before.’ Or, no one has ever asked me that question before. And I think for them, in a sense, there was something to be able to talk about that part of their story that they hadn’t talked about before that was sort of refreshing for them. I felt that by the end of each one of them, I felt I had gotten incredibly close to these writers—they’d shared such intimate details about their process and their stories.

HM: What a great, rewarding experience for your own writing and also to share with other people –but also personally, for you, to have this.

MB: I should add that they knew I was coming to them hoping to leave with something for myself and my own process. I felt very taken care of by them as well in the interviews, that they were just as interested in my story and how I was doing.

HM: What surprised during this process? Did anything unexpected happen in any of the interviews—or within yourself?

MB: I think I was surprised by just how much information the writers shared with me. I was surprised by how detailed their answers to my questions were. I was surprised by the fact that I had expected to sit with them for an hour, hour-and-a-half, but ended up having three-hour afternoons with people. I was surprised by their generosity—looking back I shouldn’t be because I think they were so generous to us with their books. But, you know, you never know. I was surprised by how encouraging it was to really hear from them. Every one of them was like, ‘you CAN do this.’ We will be supporting you. I was surprised that we did get to some very intimate moments and conversations where there were tears or moments of silence.

HM: I think silence is so important. Sometimes we’re just so – talking back and forth – but to just sit back and reflect. What a great moment to share.

MB: Yeah, I was saying how I walked dogs with Mark Doty—my interview with him is excerpted the [winter 2017] issue of Creative Nonfiction. There was a moment where we were talking and I couldn’t speak, and he was kind of off in his mind, looking—and it was just a beautiful setting in a dog park—so there were just some really lovely moments.

MB: They {the writers Melanie interviewed} gave me a sense of mooring; they steadied me in my process. And that’s exactly what I needed, which is exactly why I felt like I couldn’t keep it all to myself.

HM: Yeah! Well, I’m glad you didn’t. This is going to be helpful to so many people, and it has been. I read a few of the other reviews that have been out – and they say your book has such impact.

MB: I hope so. If somebody else can start their process a little less terrified than I was because of this book, then that will make me feel great.

HM: Going along with that, who do you hope reads this book. I mean, I know it could be for anybody who writes creative nonfiction, but who is your target?

MB: I do hope that emerging writers will read it. And writers who have stories to tell but feel like they can’t tell them in some way or who have had some kind of obstacle—I hope they’ll read it. I hope that established writers who still have those kinds of stories to tell would benefit from the wisdom of other peers in the process. I also really think that people who are just struggling will benefit from reading about other people’s journeys. I definitely wrote this for writers, but I hope that people who aren’t writers, who feel like they need to know they’re not alone in their struggles, would read this and find some companionship.

HM: Writing through trauma isn’t necessarily something that I think is talked about a lot… Are there any other resources out there that you turned to? Obviously, there weren’t very many because that’s how this book came about…

MB: The very first seed of an idea for me was when I attended my first AWP, in Boston in 2013; I sat in on a panel called “Writing Past the End.” Kim Stafford was the moderator, and [all the panelists] had written books about a sibling who had either killed themselves or died in some kind of traumatic way, and they were really talking about that kind of emotional journey of writing about that kind of grief. Kim had written a book about his brother Brett, and he had also written an essay after he wrote the book about when he got the galley, and it was called “How a Book Can Set You Free.” So the theme of that panel… I mention this in my introduction—I had asked Kim a question at that panel and totally blew it, and so I wanted a redo—but he talked about giving shape to our traumas, giving shape to our grief. So, for me, it was listening to people talking about that and looking around and realizing that so many of us are needing that.

But [it was] also feeling that tension in the memoir world of people being very careful to designate their memoir as a literary memoir because they don’t want to be clumped into this group of just everybody writing for therapy. And I really try to challenge that notion, that writing is a therapeutic thing—and that there’s nothing wrong with it being that, and that we shouldn’t be afraid of that. I think there needs to be more resources for writers who are writing about really difficult topics.

I do think that we in the writing community need to talk more about trauma writing and how to care of writers as they write through that trauma. I went to a really excellent workshop last year at PEN New England—about writing about trauma. They had psychologists there, they had writing instructors there, they had people who teach writing in high-risk communities. It was a really interesting setting to be a part of. There is a need for this. People want this.

HM: So, your story—your memoir, your creative thesis--is still a hard story, even though you’ve been through all this and have all this new-found knowledge. Do you feel that it’s easier to now?

MB: I feel a lot more equipped to tell it. In the process of writing Writing Hard Stories I finished my MFA—and my creative thesis is about three-quarters of my memoir. It feels close to the end. I was not anywhere near that when I began interviewing these writers. Just sitting with them—with someone who has written this really heartbreaking story and seeing that they were still breathing…. That, for me, was such an encouragement… I never thought I’d get to a place where I’d have my story contained in some way that felt right.

HM: That’s reassuring. You had a difficult story to tell. You went through this process. But now someone can pick up your book and go through the same journey with you…

MB: That’s really important to me. [She explains that there was some debate, early on, about whether she should be a character in the book.] That was a non-negotiable for me. As much as the book is about these writers and their stories, it really was about my narrative of talking to them to, and I really didn’t want to lose that.

HM: One thing another review of your book mentioned was how you wrote that sharing stories can help each other survive. And I see that two ways. One, with your book, you can help people writing about trauma survive their own writing process. But then, ultimately, when those writers’ own stories, perhaps, come out, they’re helping their own readers survive. So it’s almost like this Russian-nesting-doll of survival.

MB: It is, it is. I was thinking to myself as this book was taking shape: These writers, their stories gave me something… and there was some comfort in that connection and understanding. And then when I talked with them, there was a connection. Then I realized that as I started to talk about this book with other people, that there’s a connection for them [with learning about the processes behind the memoirs they’ve read], and then there’s a connection with my journey…

HM: It’s all reinforcing that, ‘hey, we’re gonna be OK.’

MB: There’s that quote about why we endeavor to write a poem, or write a book, or write a symphony… It’s because we want there to be some kind of shared interaction with other people.

HM: Interacting with people—that’s the idea behind Melanie’s book. Writers sharing the stories behind their stories with one writer, who then shares those stories, and her own, with others. Conversations that can heal and inspire, a conversation that’s perhaps just getting started.

What’s next for Melanie? In our interview, she told me that over the next six months she hopes to finish the proposal for her memoir—and finish the memoir itself. To learn more about Melanie Brooks, including finding out about upcoming events, visit her website. Melanie Brooks

The Hippocampus interview ends here.

MS It’s been eight months since the book was published, And as way of expanding the interview, I asked Melanie if she’d talk about some of the more interesting, maybe even unexpected responses, she’s received from readers.

Here’s her response:

MB: So many of the notes I’ve received from readers express that Writing Hard Stories is the book they’ve been looking for to encourage them in their own writing processes. That’s the response I’d hoped for because the words of these writers resonated with me at that same level, and I really wanted to spread their hard-earned wisdom (and I wanted more readers to know about their stunning books). In the many opportunities I’ve had to talk about the book since its publication, I’ve recognized just how much of a hunger there is for this kind of dialogue about the risk and vulnerability inherent in memoir. Both during the Q&A portion of talks or afterwards, people have opened up to me about their own hard stories and their struggles to bring them to the page, often exposing the raw emotions that accompany those struggles. I realize that by embarking on this journey, I’ve opened space for them to share their challenges. My favorite response so far, though, came from an author I met by chance at a literary festival in Newburyport, Massachusetts in April. She’d been to a conference a few weeks beforehand and happened to buy my book from one of the vendors there. She’d read the introduction and opening chapters that day. The next afternoon, she was sitting in a conference session and a woman stood up to ask a question and began to cry as she described some of the difficulties she was facing in her work. Afterwards, the woman who’d bought my book pulled it out of her bag and handed it to the woman in the audience. “I think you need this more than I do, today,” she said. I was profoundly moved by this beautiful story because it so perfectly embodies the reach I want the message in this book to have.

Melanie Brooks is a freelance writer, college professor, and mother living in Nashua, New Hampshire with her husband, two children and yellow Lab. She’s the author of WRITING HARD STORIES: CELEBRATED MEMOIRISTS WHO SHAPED ART FROM TRAUMA (Beacon Press, 2017). Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Creative Nonfiction, Literary Hub, Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Bustle, The Manifest-Station, Hippocampus, the Huffington Post, Modern Loss, Solstice Literary Magazine, the Recollectors, the Stonecoast Review and Word Riot. Her almost-completed memoir explores the lasting impact of living with the ten-year secret of her father’s HIV disease before his death in 1995. Her writing is the vehicle through which she’s learning to understand that impact.

Blog # 63. Who Reads Us? by Nicole Walker

October 10, 2017

Tags: Craft Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

Note:

I heard Nicole's talk a few years ago at AWP. Halfway through, I was thinking about how little we really know about who our audiences are. And as Nicole says, knowing who our audience is can be a tricky business--something that all writers and writing teachers have to think about. Those that read this blog then, stand to learn something useful from Nicole's wisdom and insights on this somewhat thorny matter.

MJS

Who Reads Us? by Nicole Walker

When I first started teaching composition, we had been given some training that told us to remind the students of audience. When I went to college, writing lessons were more trial by fire—the Humanities capital H would make you write four good papers a semester. “Org” which stood, I think for organization and “awk” which stood for awkward were the primary pedagogical notes. But in university land, I was supposed to explain how to make essays less awkward and more organized. I was supposed to drill into students the importance of an audience. In some ways, this was easier in business writing than in composition. In business writing, there were imaginary customers—people who might be interested in the student’s resume or in brochures about wastewater. In composition, as in Humanities, the teacher was the primary audience and what did anyone know about the teacher? Did they like to read papers about marijuana legalization? Did they smoke marijuana? Had they read forty-seven hundred papers about the legalization of marijuana and, even if they had been for it once, the quality of the affirmative papers made them change their positions? In Humanities classes at Reed, philosophy profs, lit profs, history profs, even science profs held sections of small classes. If I was writing a paper about the Iliad for my conference leader, a psych prof, should I bring in Freud or Jung?

The audience idea was tricky too even when I began writing essays in MFA school. Am I writing to an editor of a literary magazine? To my professors? I think, at least at first, I was writing to my MFA colleagues, which is pretty much how MFA written lit gets read and published. We like each other and thus we read each other and the lit mags are read by grad students and published by grad students and that, for the most part, seems to be a good, socialist economy. I like to write for that hyper-literary crowd. When I allude to Kathy Acker, I’m so happy that someone in the world knows what I’m talking about.

But in 2005, I started a blog and, it was sort of geared to the same people—my friends in Salt Lake with whom I’d gone to grad school. Some of them had started a blog. We were essentially blogging to each other. But then, I moved away from Salt Lake and away from my mom and sisters. The blog turned to a different audience that included some non-grad school bloggers and my mom and sisters. Maybe my husband’s mom too. I updated about the job and the job market but also my daughter and the newness of Michigan. Moving was a good way to jar me out of my regular expectations for audience. Orienting my reader, be it my sister or my friend Lynn, to Michigan required good skill at paying attention to small details—the way the birds were different and snow removal was different and the way it stayed light until almost 11:00 p.m. at solstice because of how far north we were and the fact we were at the western edge of the eastern time zone. The weird left turns called “Michigan lefts" that were mainly Utah U-turns.

I tried to adapt a blog post for an essay and found that it didn’t work very well. The blog was more conversational. It didn’t have that extra layer of significance that one gets from an essay published in Triquarterly or Black Warrior Review. It was a time thing, primarily. I imagined people on the internet read fast. They don’t need the underlying significance of Michiganian climate systems and how that relates to deprivation. No. Blog readers seemed to want to know if my daughter Zoe was still eating onions and if the snow would ever melt. I could answer them fast and maybe put up a picture of Zoe eating an onion and the five feet of snow in the front of the house.

“A leisurely amount of time” is a hallmark of literary magazines and click speed click is the hallmark for the internet which is how my friend Rebecca Campbell and I decided to put the 7 Rings project for the Huffington Post. This project was built for speed.

On the first day, someone posted/sent us an image. Then we sent that image to a writer. The writer responded and the very next day, we posted that response. Then, rinse repeat with the writer’s work being sent to a painter. We kept it up for almost fifty days and although we were worn out, Rebecca and I found new audiences in both our painter friends, our writer friends, and our Huffington Post friends. That was in 2010 and we’re still building on that project. Jenny Colville began Prompt Press right after we finished. Kimberly Brooks wants to help us publish the Rings in book borm. Michael Steinberg emailed me the other day to remind me how much fun he thought the rings were. Maybe wide but shallow is the hallmark of the world wide web.

This was a friendly place, connecting more of us, with great speed. Or so I thought until March 7, 2015 when the Arizona governor cut funding to higher ed by 90 million dollars. The cut to my small university was 17 million alone. I started writing letters on my blog—the same blog with the baby who ate onions and the Michigan snow. I wrote a letter a day. I wrote about onions. I wrote about garbage. I wrote about snow all as a way to take whatever angle I could to see if I could penetrate the fortress of hands-over-ears politicians who believe that less education is better for the world. I could make whatever metaphors I wanted. No one was reading. Or, so I thought until the Capital Times came up from Phoenix to interview me about the letters, shocked and surprised I’d written 52 letters with no response from the governor. By the time I’d written 60 letters, the local weekly had picked up the blog as a column and even though the essays are drenched in metaphor and maybe even a Kathy Acker allusion or two, the people who are reading these are primarily not my MFA grad friends although a couple of them do read them which is good because they are my audience and so is the weekly reader and so one day, I hope, is the governor who reads the letter about pennies and thinks, you know, I think we could spare an extra penny on the dollar to get people to go to the university and to write essays for composition and for business writing so they can keep writing until they get to AWP and into the Huffington post and into Flag Live so they can see who their audience is and thank them.

NICOLE WALKER’s is the author of three forthcoming books Sustainability: A Love Story, Microcosm, and Canning Peaches for the Apocalypse. Her previous books include Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg. She also edited Bending Genre with Margot Singer. She’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona where it rains like the Pacific Northwest, but only in July.





Blog # 62. “Love How You Handled My Indecent Exposure Trial, but I’d Never Wear a Pink Shirt to Court.” : On Including/Changing Real Names in Memoirs by Michael Steinberg

August 28, 2017

Tags: Craft Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

August 28, 2017

Blog #62 “Love How You Handled My Indecent Exposure Trial, but I’d Never Wear a Pink Shirt to Court.” : On Including/Changing Real Names in Memoirs

Michael Steinberg

Note: The last two essays, # 60, and 61, “I Didn’t Ask to be in Your Memoir,” by Richard Hoffman and “ What’s in a Name, Really,” by Mimi Schwartz were converted AWP (Washington DC) panel talks about how and why memoirists decide to use and/or change real names in their works. Both Richard and Mimi had very specific ethical and moral reasons/rationales that guided their decisions. My piece, # 62, is also from that same panel. I must admit though, that my own reasons for including and/or changing names are not quite as consistent or certain as are Richard’s or Mimi’s. But, like them, I believe that this is an important concern, one that all mindful memoirists must wrestle with.

MJS

1

Often after reading from a memoir, I’ll get audience questions like: when you’re writing about personal relationships, especially about family members, how do you decide whether to use real or made up names? And do you ever create composite characters?

In response to similar questions, here are some of author Maggie Nelson’s thoughts.


"It’s important that you say everything you need to say first. All the concerns about who’s going to feel affected can come a very far distance down the line when you’ve actually decided what your book is going to contain. Often you need to write out all kinds of crazy stuff so that at the end you’ve got it out of your system. If I didn’t burn through that, then I wouldn’t know what was next, what was underneath."


Good advice, as I learned years ago when I was struggling with that issue in my first memoir, Still Pitching.

My original intent was to write about the various roles that baseball had played (no pun intended) in my development as a teacher and writer. And so, during the early stages I included everything I could recall. The rough draft naturally was a sprawling mess; and it covered far too much time--several decades, in fact.

It was only many drafts later that I discovered the memoir I finally ended up writing. The book, to my initial surprise, covered some ten years of my childhood/ adolescence. And it didn’t turn out to be about writing or teaching.

The narrative, for the most part, focused on a turbulent relationship between myself, the young narrator, and a hard-ass, punitive, high school baseball coach--a Jew, who, for a time, I thought might have been an anti-Semite.

It was a coming-of-age memoir, something, that I never imagined I’d write. Because, in my early fifties--when I began to work on it--I’d already convinced myself that I wanted to write an “adult” memoir.

As it turned out though, all those rough drafts—the major cuts and revisions--led to the realization that this coming-of-age narrative was the memoir I needed to write, not the one I thought I’d wanted to write. Just as Maggie Nelson had suggested, if I didn’t burn through all of that material, I’m sure I wouldn’t have discovered what was “underneath.” Because it was only after I’d written everything out, that I found the memoir’s narrative center and time frame, what Nelson refers to as “the moment of reckoning when you know what you want to do.”

That's when I knew it was time to decide which names to keep, which to change, and which to turn into composite characters. These were, of course, the names of all the people who didn’t ask to be in my book.

Still I postponed that decision until just after I’d signed a contract. Until then, I left all the real names in because they helped me to visualize specific encounters and to recall singular characteristics and specific details--some of which, I thought, I might need to make use of in the memoir.

It was only after I realized that the book would be published (and that some people in it might actually read it), did I seriously start to think about which names I’d keep and which ones I’d change.

2

Though I didn’t make any of those decisions for frivolous reasons, even today I can’t claim that my reasons for including and/or changing names were the result of a firm rationale or even a consciously ethical or moral purpose.

Here then, are a few selected scenarios that illustrate how those decisions came about.

Like a lot of coming-of-age memoirs, the narrative had to include the young narrator’s relationships with those people that had a deep and lasting influence on him--both positive and negative. That is: specific family members, teachers, coaches, his closest friends, a few adolescent girlfriends; and, as it turned out, some classmates he had an active dislike for.

Choosing to keep in the real names of family members was easy. I’d written nothing accusatory or negative about them. In fact, I credit my grandfather (my mother’s father) as being a powerful, positive, influence throughout my childhood/adolescence. I also kept the names of those teachers who I thought had inspired me to keep writing. And I didn’t change the names of my closest childhood/adolescent friends.

I did, however, make-up names for a few teen-age girls who appeared in a couple of pretty awkward sex scenes. And I changed the name of an arrogant, adversarial, high school teammate--a rival who deliberately harassed and subverted me for the years when we both pitched for the high school team. He was an irritating, sometimes maddening obstacle; but I changed his name because, on the off chance that he might ever read or hear about the book, I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing just how much he got under my skin.

Many years later, at a high school reunion, someone I’d also disliked intensely as a kid
--and whose name I changed—made it a point to track me down. And in an angry, accusatory tone, he asked me why I’d hated him so much.

In the book I’d made it clear that back then, I’d resented him for ignoring me and for deliberately excluding me (or so I believed at the time) from the pickup basketball games he hosted at his backyard court. But now, some thirty-five years later, my reasons for disliking him seemed petty and insignificant. So I figured I’d take the high ground. I told him that he was a composite character (not true), one of three neighborhood guys who had backyard basketball courts, and who all thought I wasn’t good enough to play. I could tell right away that he didn’t buy my explanation. Nor did he feel any less anger toward me. Before I'd even finished my explanation, he made up a phony excuse and just pivoted and walked away. But, damn it, he’d asked me hadn’t he? And I think I let him off pretty easily, don’t you?

Why then, you might be wondering, didn’t I change the name of my perverse, mean-spirited, high school coach? It’s true; Coach Kerchman, a Jew himself, had pushed me harder than the other Jewish players. I can still recall how painful and small his public humiliations made me feel.

Sill, I remain ambivalent about him. Was he deliberately punishing me? Or, was he raising the bar, trying in his strangely cruel way to help an insecure kid become a more a more confident, competitive pitcher?

Another reason I didn’t change his name is because everyone at the high school knew (and feared) him. Whatever name I might have made up, they’d have recognized him anyway.

3

If my own reasons for changing/not changing names had no real consistency or moral purpose, neither then did most of the responses I received from readers--especially those readers that knew the coach.

When the book came out, they were split when it came to my portrayal of him. What I’d originally (and naively) expected was a version of: “What a jackass, what a mean -spirited bastard. Why did you let him intimidate and humiliate you ?”

And yes, several who’d once played for him and/or knew him by reputation, did indeed respond that way. But what surprised me was that the majority who knew Kerchman saw him as a coach who’d used a “tough love” approach to motivate an average athlete to get the most out of his limited abilities.

A more unexpected surprise though, was coach Kerchman’s own response. In a letter to the local newspaper, he wrote


"I am writing this letter to let all of Rockaway know that I have bought Mike Steinberg's book, 'Still Pitching.' I have also introduced this book to my children Karen and Barbara, both students at Far Rockaway High School. They loved the book and Mike did a great job."


Well, I thought at the time, maybe it was a good thing to keep his real name in, right?

And few paragraphs later, he added


"In his book, {Mike} placed me in Europe freeing some of the Jewish people at Auschwitz. I served in China/Burma/India (CBI) flying the hump (the Himalayas) as all aerial engineers."


Touché. Still the same old coach. And I deserved it too. Lazy fact checking on my part.

4

A final note: When a reader of Bill Roorbach and Dave Gessner’s blog, Cocktails With Bill and Dave, raised the question of using real or made up names in his memoir, Bill or Dave--I’m not certain which--wrote,


"I find that people loved the stuff I was most afraid to say about them, and took offense at the most minor, surprising things. ‘Love how you handled my indecent exposure trial, but I’d never wear a pink shirt to court.’ "

So, so, true. Because in his letter, Kerchman also wrote,

"….. my name is spelled Kerchman, not Kirschman, If Steinberg was in one of my World History classes, I showed them a map of the Baltic Sea, with the Kerch Strait, Kerch Peninsula and the city of Kerch. My father came from there as an eight year old with his uncle, and at Ellis Island they gave him the name Kerchman. He had no other identification."


Just for the record, in the book I spelled his name correctly, “Kerchman.” So you can draw your own conclusions about that one.

And finally, as I also discovered at the high school reunion, the people I encountered who were most disappointed, most upset, were those that I’d left out of the book. And they made certain to let me know it too. Big time.

So, go figure?




Blog # 61, What's In a Name, Really? Guest Blogger, Mimi Schwartz

July 20, 2017

Tags: Craft Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

Introductory Note

This month's guest blogger is (once again) Mimi Schwartz. Like Richard Hoffman's June/July post, Mimi's essay, "What's in a Name, Really" is adapted from the same March, 2017 AWP conference panel. Readers might want to take a look at both pieces.

Though Mimi offers a somewhat different point of view, her essay deals with a similar issue: how and why memoirists and personal essayists decide whether to use real or made-up names in their work.

Interested readers might want also want to read Mimi's personal essay/memoir, "Lesson From a Last Day"." The piece, about the circumstances surrounding her husband's death, raises very specific questions about the use of real and/or made-up names. Here's the link. Pangyrus.

"Lesson From a Last Day" also appears in her forthcoming collection When History is Personal. University of Nebraska Press, 2018.

MJS


# 61, What’s in a Name, Really? by Mimi Schwartz

A man I know, let’s call him Harry, told me recently what others have said over the years: “I’m worried about you being a writer. I’ll end up in your book!” I laughed. His intuition was good. That morning, in fact, I began writing about a being a widow and he, a.k.a. Harry, appeared in paragraph two. “Don’t worry! I haven’t lost a friend yet!” I assured him—and, mostly, that’s true, because I often avoid real names and change identifying details as needed. I once changed my sister Ruth, always litigious, to Cousin Dora in my book, Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed, and the first time I mentioned Dora, I added this footnote:


"To protect the privacy of friends and relatives I’ve changed names and some locations, but the rest is true, as I see it."


Ruth called me when the book came out, delighted that “I got our family just right.” She was certain that Cousin Dora was really Cousin Anne; I did not correct her.

Most of my readers, I’ve found, don’t care about real names as long as I signal name changes--either with “Let’s call him (or her) XX ” Or with a footnote or with initials. I did get one indignant phone call from my friend, J.L. after she read my essay about having lunch with a close friend Anna, who announces her divorce. “I’ve known you for thirty years,” J.L. said, “and you never once mentioned any friend named Anna!”

“You’re Anna!” I said, “At least part of you.” This was the 1970s when marriages were breaking up left and right. I’d had almost the same conversation with three friends that year, so I combined them for privacy’s sake—and said so in a footnote. “That story was less about Anna and more about me and my marriage.” I said, “ And besides I figured otherwise I’d have no friends left to talk to.” She laughed, saw the light—and we made a date for lunch.

When I write about my immediate family, I use real names because, in memoir, they are my story—and identifiably so. Therefore, I ask those involved to read what I wrote before publication, giving up some editorial power for family peace with those I want to keep in my life. My daughter Julie has corrected her dress size. My late husband Stu once requested that I cut a sentence about his eating Corn Flakes at midnight with a not-to-be-named syrup. All doable requests; in part, because they are reasonable people; in part, because I hear Annie Dillard’s warning in my head as I write: “While literature is an art, it’s not a martial art.” That plus one other rule of thumb has served me well over the years: that whenever I needed to call my husband an idiot, I let him call me a moron, usually through dialogue. Fair is fair.

In Katharine Graham’s Personal History, the rich and powerful sit at her dining room table, people like John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Warren Buffet—all named. We read her book, even fifteen years later, to have a seat at that table, an inside scoop on what these public leaders thought and said off the record.

Memoirs about the infamous should also use real names. In Richard Hoffman’s Half the House, for example, he names the coach, Tom Feifel, who sexually abused him and other boys on Feifel’s soccer team in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The memoir broke the silence of shame; the boys, as grown men, stepped forward, and Feifel went to jail. His real name mattered to bear witness, to expose—and also, as Richard has pointed out to me, to protect the reputations of the other coaches in Allentown at that time.

But using names should not be the default, I realized when one of my students read an essay in class about her gay roommate-- who had not come out. I started to encourage students to ask themselves: Why use a name when it is harmful and there is no good reason? I urged them to change a name and identifying details as needed, and if that undercuts the story’s authenticity, they should share the draft and get permission. Or switch to fiction which creates a “what if” world that let’s you say: “That’s not you. I made it up!”

My friend, a former journalist for The Washington Post, told me he would never invent names or disguise identifying details. He was writing a book about his Amish neighbors at the same time that I was writing a book, Good Neighbors, Bad Times, about Christians and Jews in my father’s German village before, during and after Nazi times. I had decided to rename the village and the people, and he argued against that. “Truth is truth,” he said. ”Names matter.”

“But if there were no great betrayals and no heroics, why not preserve privacy?” I countered, especially when people, often strangers, trust you. That was my concern, and in my book’s introduction, I said this:

“I realized that my subjects, who were in their seventies or older, kept thinking my book was only about the facts: the who, what, when, where and how of their lives. What they didn’t realize, no matter how often I explained, is that I wanted their personalities to come alive on the page so that readers would meet them and discover as I did: who they were in their memories, who they are now, and how they struggled between those old and new selves.”

Closer to his publication date, my journalist friend had second thoughts. He realized that he might cause trouble for his neighbors in the Amish community and decided to give them anonymity. The book is Plain Secrets; the author is Joe Mackall—and I checked with him before using his name. He read the draft, made two small corrections, and said fine, adding that he also changed all the horses’ names “because everyone knew everyone’s horses.”

I didn’t need Joe’s name for this anecdote. ‘My journalist friend’ would have sufficed for me, so I left the decision to Joe. I don’t always do that. If I need that name to tell my story, I do so. I decide case-by-case each time I write.

I wonder how journalists, and their editors, go through this struggle, especially when quoting everyday people who live in dangerous neighborhoods like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. First and last names are often given (I assume they are real); and even if only the first name is used, some identifying detail is often added: he works in a bakery, she teaches school. Sometimes there is a photo. Why put these people at risk? They are not heads of state; they wield no power; their quotes add local opinion and flavor, but do not shape events.

Take the Afghani resident who was quoted in the New York Times about life under the lawless local militias after the American troops pulled out:


“We are shivering with fear,” said one resident, Abdul Ahad. Then he explained: He and his neighbors did not fear the Taliban nearly as much as they did their protectors, Rahimulmah’s militiamen, who have turned to kidnappings and extortion. - “After U.S. Exit, Rough Justice of Afghan Militias”-March 17, 2015.


It was a front-page news story. What if someone in this militia has a cousin in the U.S. who sends him this article, translated? I would have been content with a quotation from an Abdul or even from “a veteran farmer,” or “a grim-faced student.” I didn’t need the full name to trust what he said, especially when there was no consequence for others. His remarks could hurt no one except himself.

I called a friend, John Timpane, Features Editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer to check on the criteria for journalists using real names. Do they worry about people like Abdul Ahad?


“It’s a moral dilemma,” John said, “but we can’t be seen as protecting folks. Our policy is to use real names at all times with a rare humanitarian exception. Otherwise newspapers would lose credibility. If we protect one, why not all?”


Besides, as John pointed out, journalists don’t know these people. Maybe Abdul is a good guy, maybe not. “We don’t know someone’s backstory, and we have a deadline in two hours.” That, I realized, is a big difference between journalists and those of us writing memoir, essays, and narrative nonfiction. We do have time to retrieve and assess the backstory.

The other big difference is that memoir and personal essay focus less on the moment and more on the universality of people and events: to recreate rather than to report, blame or accuse. That’s why in my Pangyrus essay “Lessons from a Last Day” (see link below), I didn’t name the hospital where my husband died, identifying it only as “a small New England hospital south of a big one 30 miles to the north.” (Pangyrus) -
Lessons from a Last Day

There were legal concerns, but more important, I felt that naming one hospital would have cleared the others: “That’s X, but we are Y,” other hospitals could say.

My friend, aka Harry, told me recently that the movie “Whiplash,” is based on the band teacher at the high school my kids attended. The writer, Damien Chazelle, played the drums in the band class and the teacher did have a reputation for being severe and tough; but he was not the sadist in the movie. Chazelle calls his script fiction, making no claim that the real story happened that way. But if the real teacher was as mean and terrifying as portrayed, then I say call it nonfiction, and yes, name him.

It matters, not like the name of my friend—who may be Harry, Bernie or Rob.

Bio:

Mimi Schwartz’s books include Good Neighbors, Bad Times - Echoes of My Father’s German Village, Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed; and Writing True, the Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction (with Sondra Perl). A longer version of this essay appears in Schwartz’s forthcoming book of essays, When History Is Personal (University of Nebraska Press, Spring 2018) that explores the way memoir—i.e. 25 key moments of her life—reveals the history, politics, and culture of the world she lives in.

Blog # 60 “I Didn’t Ask to Be in Your Memoir”: When Real Names Matter and When They Don’t by Richard Hoffman

June 19, 2017

Tags: Craft Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

Blog # 60

Introductory Note:

This month's guest is Richard Hoffman, one of our finest, most versatile writers of poetry, fiction, and literary nonfiction.

Richard’s craft essay “I Didn’t Ask to Be in Your Memoir”: When Real Names Matter and When They Don’t, is adapted from a panel talk he gave at the recent AWP conference in DC.

This is an issue, we all know, that both aspiring and practicing memoirists, as well as teachers of memoir, continually wrestle with. Each panelist from “I Didn’t Ask to Be in Your Memoir”: When Real Names Matter and When They Don’t, talked about how, when, and why they decided to use real and/or made-up names in their memoirs. Together, they offered a variety of ethical and writerly reasons and approaches to this issue. In the upcoming months then, I'll post a few more essays adapted from that panel.

Below is Richard Hoffman's thoughtful, honest, take.

MJS

Richard Hoffman,“I Didn’t Ask to Be in Your Memoir”: When Real Names Matter and When They Don’t

In 1995 I published a book I had been working on for nearly two decades, the memoir Half the House. After much consideration, which I will describe in a moment, I chose to begin that book not with the usual disclaimer one finds in the front of novels, but with what might be called a reclaimer, since it was my purpose to reclaim all manner of lost things, among them the right to be the protagonist of my own story. It spells out the kind of not-fiction it is and sets forth the rules I followed.


“This is not a work of fiction. It contains no composite characters, no invented scenes. I have, in most instances, altered the names of persons outside my family. In one instance, on principle, I have not.”


Now I believe that in a memoir, memory is largely imagination in service to the facts as far as they can be known, so what does it mean to place a real toad in an imaginary garden, to borrow an arresting emblem from Marianne Moore?

Well — and some of you know this — the man I named in that book, a youth sports coach named Tom Feifel, was a serial child rapist who, largely because of the book, was brought to trial, convicted, and some months later, murdered in prison. It was determined that he had had over 400 victims during his long career in my sports-obsessed hometown.

But here’s the thing: I had never intended to use his real name, not during all the years of working on that book. I was not writing for some cathartic or vengeful purpose; in fact, the book, set in an industrial town in Pennsylvania, is about my boyhood in a Catholic blue-collar family with two of my brothers afflicted with a deadly form of Muscular Dystrophy; the account of the sexual assault takes up five pages of the book.

Five pages. It wasn’t important in some sensational way, it was important because it is a secret feature of that kind of boyhood. But as the book moved toward publication, certain ethical questions arose, and they weren’t the ones you might expect.

Right before I turned in the book, I reinserted the coach’s real name; again, with no incendiary motive, but with a growing sense from my few readers, my agent, my editor, of how explosive such an accusation might be. And it occurred to me that there were many, many men volunteering their time with kids, mentoring boys growing up in a pretty brutal place, and I didn’t want to start a witch-hunt, didn’t want to cast a pall of suspicion on the lot of them. Besides, he was simply undeserving of protection, and I determined that I did not owe him silence, did not have to keep his secret. I also came to understand that it was not him I was protecting: I wanted to hide in the realm of art, I wanted to say it, but say it in a way that would not leak out of the book and into the real world, into my real life. I was scared. Every time I thought about it unmediated by some kind of literary aura, I felt 10 years old again. And so, “the reclaimer.”

Ah, but then came the lawyers, the publisher’s lawyers. About a month before publication, I received a letter from Harcourt Brace’s attorneys with a list of names of certain persons mentioned in the memoir from whom I would have to get releases. They included my father, my brother Joe, my aunt — and coach Feifel.

I left for Pennsylvania with the releases in hand. I made them up—three options and a place for a signature:

o “I have read the manuscript of Richard Hoffman’s memoir, Half the House, and I have no objection to its publication.”
o “I have been given the opportunity to read the manuscript of Richard Hoffman’s memoir, Half the House, and I have declined. Nevertheless, I have no objection to its publication.”
o “I do not consent to the use of my name or other identifying characteristics in Richard Hoffman’s memoir, Half the House.”


My brother had read an earlier draft of the manuscript and was helpful in setting me straight about a few dates and other details I’d gotten wrong. He checked the first box and signed. My father and my aunt didn’t want to read it and checked the second box. Both of them read the book after its publication. I was not going to be able to ask the coach, Tom Feifel, to sign such a document, no way, no how, even if he was alive. I knew, however, that he had been arrested twice before for molesting young boys, so I went to the local newspaper looking for records, hoping that would satisfy the publisher’s lawyers. There was a file with his name on it, but whatever had been in there had been removed. I resigned myself to looking for records at the public library the next day, and if I failed, the courthouse.

When I got back to the house, my father handed me a piece of paper with a couple of phone numbers on it. Both were men he knew who had coached with Feifel. “Why don’t you try calling these guys and see what they know?”

The first call was all I needed. I was able to get the year of one of Feifel’s prior arrests, along with the name of the arresting officer. I called him as well. Although retired, he remembered the case well. Both men were angry that Feifel had been sentenced to probation and were willing to put their recollections in writing. The retired officer agreed to send me a copy of the police report.

It was enough to allow the book to go forward, as long as I was willing to amend the contract to indemnify Harcourt Brace, which I did.

And so, this question is not a simple one — it turns out that there are multiple stakeholders if you will; there’s of course you the author, there’s the person you have drawn as a character, that person’s family and loved ones, the real-world community you are both a part of, the record, the public record, and others whom you don’t yet know, like the 400 boys and men who came forward after the arrest, like the literally thousands of men on 5 continents I have spoken to since the book’s publication who told me the book helped heal them of shame and encouraged them to speak up.


So I am suggesting to you NOT that I was so big and brave, I’m suggesting that what happened contains a lesson and that lesson is this: most of our concern about naming names, a concern which we couch in ethical terms, is rationalization and the result of a shaming injunction, a sneering gaslighting, that serves to protect people who do not deserve protection: why make hoods for nightriders? Why pixelate the faces of hatred? Naming atrocities and the people who commit them is the beginning of justice.

*
In the second memoir (and there will soon be another to complete the trilogy) Love & Fury, I explored the story of my current family, including my wife and grown children and then infant grandson, all of whom are represented undisguised.

This offered a different set of issues, and I chose to adhere to a hard line between writing and publishing. In fact, if there’s any advice I have to give, it is to keep those two processes as separate as possible. I wrote with little concern for how my wife, and my kids, would react; at least I tried to. What made that possible was the deal I had struck with all of them, that when I was finished — not while I was writing — I would allow them to read and respond and that I would take their concerns to heart. I did not promise them veto power.

These are people I love and who love me, so I felt on pretty solid ground, even writing about dark moments, failures, mistakes. At the eleventh hour, my family became my collaborators, arguing their differing versions of events, wondering if I might just shift the emphasis a bit in one of the scenes, if I could just choose a different adjective here and perhaps include a mitigating circumstance they felt I’d omitted. It was not easy conversation, but it was built on trust, and in fact the process strengthened that trust. By the time the book was published the conversation was all about who would play who in the movie!

So, it’s a question of tact relative to your own continuing friendships, alliances, and family relationships, tact and trust, and in fact this respect for how the people in the story see themselves, makes for a more emotionally truthful book. What’s more, most people, in my experience, object to things they construe as assaults on their vanity, things that make them wince or smart, and not, surprisingly, to their failures so long as those failures are part of a story that honors their struggle.

To portray someone trying to do right, to stay afloat, to ride out the storm, grants that person dignity, agency, character. People want their struggles to be seen. People want to be visible, and not only in studio portraits with a row of fake books and a flag in the background, they want to be visible and appreciated for their struggle. They want to be respected: look at that word’s entymology! They want to be seen, given a second look, appreciated.


RICHARD HOFFMAN is author, most recently, of the memoir Love & Fury, which was a finalist for the New England Book Award from the New England Independent Booksellers Association. He is also author of the celebrated Half the House: A Memoir, just reissued in a new 20th Anniversary Edition in 2015, with an introduction by Louise DeSalvo. His poetry collections are Without Paradise; Gold Star Road, winner of the 2006 Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the 2008 Sheila Motton Award from the New England Poetry Club; and Emblem. A fiction writer as well, his Interference & Other Stories was published in 2009. A past Chair of PEN New England, he is Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College

signature-reads.com/2014/06/rebreaking-the-bone-of-ones-life-story-richard-hoffman-on-love-fury

assayjournal.com/confronting-our-fears--richard-hoffman

mjsteinberg.net/blog.htm?post=948001

masspoetry.org/richardhoffman

solsticelitmag.org/content/richard-hoffman-interview

solsticelitmag.org/interview-with-richard-hoffman

masspoetry.org/pwwp/#pwwphoffman

masspoetry.org/stateofpoetry/#sophoffman

richardhoffman.org/category/interviews

ourmaninboston.wordpress.com/2015/12/21/a-man-for-all-seasons-richard-hoffman

olsticelitmag.org/five-questions-for-richard-hoffman-on-memory-race-and-family

Blog # 59 The Third I: Character, Narrator, Author in the Personal Narrative by Guest Blogger Lad Tobin

May 4, 2017

Tags: Craft Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

Note: This month's guest is writer/teacher Lad Tobin.

Lad's craft/teaching essay, "The Third I: Character, Narrator, Author in the Personal Narrative" grew out of a 2015 NonfictionNow panel entitled "The I and the EYE: How Writers of Literary Nonfiction Choose Their Narrators."

Writers of literary nonfiction all know that choosing the right narrator/persona is a crucial decision. It's an issue that several contributors to this blog have written about. That decision is an important concern as well to those of us that teach classes in literary/creative nonfiction.

Some writers, we know, will place their narrator(s) at center-stage, (the internal, autobiographical "I"); others, whose narrators are witnesses, observers and/or reporters, tend to favor more distant vantage points (the "Eye").

Lad's essay describes how he discovered the right fit, the "multidimensional I," the narrator, as Lad describes it toward the end of the essay, that is "... most able to both tell and interpret the evolving narrative."


MJS


The Third I: Character, Narrator, Author in the Personal Narrative

Lad Tobin

Years ago I published a personal essay, “You Virtually Can’t Get There from Here,” about the problems I have trying to reconcile my expectations of travel with my actual experiences. Here’s how the essay started:

I am at a writer’s conference in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Looking around the room at the opening session, I suddenly realize I do not know a single soul and I have made a terrible mistake coming here. I had looked forward to the trip for months, had imagined it would be a turning point in my career, had fantasized about meeting people who had read—and loved!—my work. But now it hits me: I have been as naive as a schoolboy, as naive in fact as the schoolboy in the James Joyce story who spends his week waiting to go to a fair to buy a gift for a girl who, he suddenly realizes, doesn’t even know he exists.

In this one moment, I see it all: I will be lonely and miserable for the whole conference. Determined to prove that prophecy correct, I talk to no one for the first days, eat every meal on my own, and spend my time resenting all the people who seem to be having a hilariously good time.

Looking back at that essay now, I find myself wondering who exactly is that “I” sitting in that room acting so neurotically self absorbed. Of course, in a very real sense, he is me: I did attend that conference and did feel those embarrassing emotions. But I find myself wanting to say that he is only me at a particular point in time and from a particular point of view and in the role of performing a particular service in a particular essay. That’s a lot of qualifiers, I know, but to try to sort out the ongoing confusion about the nature and trustworthiness of first-person narrators, we are going to have to go beyond the usual binary categories, such as reliable/unreliable, now-narrator/then-narrator, person/persona.

Some of that confusion is built in: as writers of personal essays, we want our readers to trust that the “I” on the page is a real person writing about real events, but we also want to be granted the poetic license to craft a coherent and satisfying text. Given the inherent difference between the randomness and banality of life, and the need for dramatic tension and coherence in a well-made essay, a certain amount of selective editing is inevitable. (Joan Didion calls this process “the imposition of a narrative line on disparate events.”) My sense, though, is that we do little to help explain this tension when we as writers bristle at readers who question the accuracy or trustworthiness of our narratives, but bristle just as hard when those same readers assume there is no gap between the “I” in the essay and the “I” who crafted the essay.

Meghan Daum, for example, bemoans “The Joni Mitchell Problem,” the assumption by readers and critics that they know what a writer or musician is really like based on her first-person confessions. This assumption, according to Daum, equates the self on the page with the self who created the work and, thus, “speaks to the inability of most people to tell the difference between putting yourself out there and letting it all hang out.” Speaking on Mitchell’s behalf, as well as on her own, Daum seems exasperated that readers could ignore the art of the confessional essay and the constructedness of the confessional self. The revelations she offers in her essays, she says, “are not confessions. Not even close. They’re events recounted in the service of ideas. My aim was to judiciously choose and arrange episodes that might build upon one another and add up to something interesting enough to warrant the time it takes to read about them.”

I certainly understand and share much of Daum’s frustration: I have often felt the urge to remind readers that the neurotic, self-absorbed “I” in my essays is not exactly the same “I” who wakes up in my bed and in my body each morning. To be sure, I share plenty with that first-person narrator: I also am an anxious over-thinker who has complicated relationships with his parents, who has spent lots of time in therapy, who loves New Orleans music, Indian food, sports statistics. At the same time, since I’m aware that no real person is coherent enough to hold an essay together or compelling enough to hold a reader’s attention, I am always amping up some parts of my personality while tamping down other parts. As Philip Lopate explains, for a personal essay to work, a writer has to be willing and able to turn him- or herself into a “literary character.”

Most writers and teachers of personal narrative have long relied on binary categories—author/literary character, person/persona, then-narrator/now-narrator—to make clear the distinction between the “I” who is essentially the character in the action of the narrative and the “I” who is the essayist reflecting on that action. It’s a helpful distinction because it reminds readers and writing students that it’s not enough to just write down what happened: a writer of personal essays needs to construct an “I” capable of playing, moving between, and ultimately integrating the narrative of action she is constructing and the narrative of thinking about those actions.

However, in trying to clarify that distinction, we often overlook the equally real and important third “I” of the personal essay: the one who has created both of the other two. It may be tempting to think that, while the acting “I” is a literary character, the reflecting self is the writer’s true or present self, but the truth is that the reflecting self on the page is no less a construction than the acting self (we might also call these the narrating and narrated selves). That is, both are representations of the self that we as authors employ to play particular roles for particular purposes.

The problem, then, in describing the first-person speaker in a successful essay—and particularly in a segmented essay that moves between times and perspectives—is that the seemingly simple “I” is standing in for so many different parts of the self. Fortunately, though, creating and embodying a multidimensional “I” (and reading and making sense of someone else’s multidimensionality) is less complicated in practice than in theory, since we are all used to embodying different roles and perspectives throughout the day. In other words, we are all expert at moving back and forth between our past and present selves, our professional and personal selves, our more heartfelt and more ironic selves.

It is this expertise that allows readers to understand that the “I” in a personal narrative represents someone making a truth claim (“What I am telling you now actually happened to me”) and putting on a performance (“But I’m telling you about this experience in a way that amps up its entertainment and/or its polemical value”). What allows these potentially conflicting roles to successfully coexist is, first, a strategic moving back and forth between showing and telling, between scenes in which the narrated “I” is in the action and scenes in which the narrating “I” stands to reflect on the action or sometimes even to reflect on the reflection. In the essay about my travel experiences, for example, I move between confessions about my neurotic, self-absorbed emotions to reflections about the absurdity, significance, and implications of those emotions. It’s clear, of course, that the “I” in the action knows less than the reflecting self, but it’s equally clear that the reflecting self, who seems only to be figuring things out on the page, knows less than the author who created “him.” By juxtaposing one with the other, I am able to both tell and interpret the evolving narrative. Similarly, if an essay is well constructed and the various “I”s are well developed and successfully integrated, a reader is able to accept the essay as both a truth claim and a work of art.

This, too, sounds more complicated in explanation than it is in practice. We all grow up expert at knowing that the “I” who is telling us a story both is and isn’t the literal person who is speaking to us or whose name is on the title page. In The Uses of Enchantment, his book about how classic fairy tales can help young children make sense of the world, Bruno Bettelheim explains that from a very early age children experience certain magical elements of a story as symbolically rather than literally true. He gives an example from “The Three Little Pigs,” in which the pigs who build the houses out of sticks and straw are eaten (at least in the traditional version) while the brick-building pig survives. Bettelheim argues that, while this story may seem overly violent or traumatic to be appropriate for children, even a very young child understands on an unconscious level that the three pigs are actually three stages of the same pig. Given this understanding, Bettelheim, argues, the child can simultaneously experience the fear and sadness of the loss of the first two pigs and then the joy and relief of their ultimate survival as parts of the third pig.

I’m suggesting that readers of personal essays experience a multidimensional “I” who is simultaneously character, narrator, and author in this same way—as different roles or stages of a single person. For this reason, I think we ought to be less critical of readers who assume that the “I” on the page is also the “I” who authored the essay. After all, we have asked our readers to trust and believe us, to suspend disbelief when we amp up or tamp down parts of ourselves. It seems a little mean-spirited then to turn around and say, “Oh, you thought that ‘I’ on the page was actually me? How naive!”

Again, I am not exempting myself from any this. As I reread that introduction about my narcissistic fantasies at the writer’s conference, I feel an urge to add a footnote: “I am not quite—or always—this neurotic in my everyday life.” But I realize that a footnote of that sort not only would make my essay less entertaining, it would also make it more pedantic. Readers who are willing and able to enter into our essays and accept the multidimensional “I” that we have constructed on the page as real should not be chastised for their naivete, they should be thanked for their trust.

* This essay originally appeared in TriQuarterly (May 2016)

Lad Tobin’s personal essays have appeared in The Sun, The Rumpus, Fourth Genre, New Orleans Review, Full-Grown People, and The Norton Reader. He is the author of two books of creative nonfiction about teaching creative nonfiction: Reading Student Writing: Confessions, Meditations, and Rants and Writing Relationships. He teaches at Boston College.

Blog #58 Who's Minding Your Inner Loudmouth? by guest blogger Tom McGohey

April 6, 2017

Tags: Craft Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

Note:

I take some special pride and pleasure from the fact that this month's guest, Tom McGohey, is a former student that showed up in an introductory writing class I taught several decades ago.

Tom's craft essay, "Who's Minding Your Inner Loudmouth?" addresses a concern that, over time, has become something of a running motif on this blog. The matter I'm referring to is what Tom describes below as "the relationship between a writer’s persona and his or her personality in real life." In other words, the question he's raising is this: "...are we our words?"

In the piece, McGohey offer us several different examples of what he means: excerpts from the works of journalist Joe Flaherty, a columnist for The Village Voice, in the 70s, as well as illustrations and commentary from both himself and other writers. Tom considers all of this in relation to what he refers to as the larger connection “between a writer’s persona and the cultural context in which that persona is formed or operates."

MJS

#58 Who's Minding Your Inner Loudmouth? by Tom McGohey

It’s 11p.m., do you know what your inner loudmouth is doing? Is he popping off again? Is he making you look good or is he embarrassing you? Should he be encouraged, celebrated, awarded a prize for his convictions, his swaggering voice, or should he be stifled, silenced, erased from the pulpit of his page, or if preserved, stashed in a folder and buried beneath a pile of embarrassing pronouncements at the bottom of a drawer labeled, “False Starts & Other Obnoxious Railings That Once Sounded Like a Good Idea”?

“Inner loudmouth” is a term Ben Yagoda uses in his splendid book on style, The Sound on the Page, to describe the persona writers create (release? unchain? de-gag?) when they compose. The term evokes image of an overly precocious imp confined in your chest, kicking at your sternum, demanding entrance to your esophagus, and access to your tongue, where he will perform a buffoon’s ballet, reciting outrageous lines you wouldn’t dare utter yourself in polite society. He can be useful that way, offering candid, sometimes provocative, even offensive opinions and images, swirling and looping across the page like graffiti that, in some circles, could be considered great art, and in others, juvenile scrawlings that deface the landscape.

Yagoda explores the relationship between a writer’s persona and his or her personality in real life: are we our words? Would we acknowledge, much less embrace, our inner loudmouth outside the privacy of our homes, beyond the door of our writing rooms?

For example, consider the case of Joe Flaherty, a columnist for The Village Voice, in the 70s, where, upon the death of former heavyweight boxing champ, Sonny Liston, he published a journalistic eulogy titled “Amen to Sonny.” While readily conceding the seedier side of Liston’s life – former mafia thug, ex-con – Flaherty also expresses sympathy for a man used and abused by a corrupt sport and in a larger cultural conflict over the evolving role and image of a black man during the Civil Rights Movement. Flaherty loves to skewer what he considers the pious and often hypocritical pronouncement of self-righteous guardians of liberalism. That attitude is on full display in the following passage describing the leadup to Liston’s title fight with then champion Floyd Patterson:

“He [Liston] arrived at a time when hopes of integration were high in the air, and Patterson and Ralph Bunche were everybody’s prototypical black men. I can’t recall anyone I know (with the exception of the Philadelphia-based writer Jack McKinney) who publicly wanted Liston to beat Patterson for the heavyweight championship. In Patterson’s corner were clustered Jimmy Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Pete Hamill, and the NAACP (which didn’t even want Patterson to give Liston the fight because of what Liston would do to the ‘Negro image’). As Ali murdered the myth of the sixties, so Liston was the pallbearer of the fifties’ liberalism. He embodied what they didn’t want to recognize – that our streets spawn a sea of Sonnys. Like the song, ‘Night Train,’ to which he jumped rope, he was that underground fear we wouldn’t face – the menacing black man who invaded the subway of our souls at four in the morning. In short, Sonny was a badass nigger.

That last line about knocked me out of my chair. Man oh man, you couldn’t get away with that today, I thought. Hell, I can’t believe he got away with it then!

In the preface to his collected columns, Chez Joey, Flaherty writes, “A lesson for young journalists: in your early rounds forget the body and go for the head.” A pugilistic metaphor that sums up Flaherty’s persona in writing and in life; a perfect match of form and content, style and personality, Yagoda would probably say. Not much difference, if any, between, style and personality of Flaherty, who was a NYC dockworker and who as a reporter for “Village Voice” sometimes brawled, in print and with fists, with subjects, and who managed the mayoral candidacy of Norman Mailer, another brawler in word and deed. Flaherty certainly goes for the head in “Amen to Sonny,” not Liston’s head or Patterson’s, though he bloodies the latter’s nose with sarcastic jabs, but the collective head of boxing and liberals, white and black, who saw the match as a Manichaean bout between “good” and “bad” Negroes.

But what are we to make of that line about “badass nigger[s]”? Strictly in terms of structure, it’s a well-crafted paragraph, suggesting Flaherty knows exactly where’s he’s headed and he can’t wait to get there and smack pious hypocrites and his readers with such a provocative, if not outright offensive line. But you also get the sense of a writer overly pleased with his own sarcasm, a loud-mouth show-off seduced by his own persona who likes to pontificate himself. In this case, has the bravado of the persona exceeded the judgement of the craftsman?

To answer that question some historical and sociological context in matters of race is required. Unbeknownst to me, the term “bad / badass nigger” has had a fairly long and complicated history in America, particularly in sports, stretching back to days of Jack Johnson, the black heavyweight boxing champ in early 1900s who infuriated whites with his mocking, defiant attitude. Scholars such as John Hoberman, author of Darwin’s Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race, and Gerald Early, author of The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature, and Modern American Culture, have written extensively about the term. James Baldwin uses it in his powerful essay “A Report from Occupied Territory.”

So, “bad / badass nigger” is an acknowledged trope by both black and white writers, though with different connotations depending on context. In general, though, the term refers to a fearsome black man who threatens or intimidates or diminishes white authority. Does this semantic precedent justify or excuse a white sports writer using it? Do we assume that Flaherty is consciously employing a sociological term, or even subconsciously using it, as if the term were a fairly common one, at least for those who spend a lot of time thinking and writing about black people, whether athletes or intellectuals or average citizens being rousted and beaten by racist cops? Does Flaherty assume his readers will recognize this trope? If so, is he assuming too much knowledge in his audience? Would Village Voice readers of 70s have recognized the term, much less its complex connotations?

Let’s give Flaherty the benefit of doubt and say he was familiar with progressive criticism of race relations in America, may have even read Baldwin, whose essay was first published in The Nation in 1966. As a native New Yorker and a reporter he was certainly aware, on some level, probably more detailed than typical urban dweller, of grim conditions in “occupied” Harlem. Even a casual reading of a handful of Flaherty columns quickly reveals that, for all his graphic and smartass outrage and mockery, he was a very well-read man. His pieces are littered with high-brow literary references and metaphors. Regardless. Let’s grant him a higher intention than shock or knee-jerk, juvenile banter / taunting. Does he go too far? Is it enough to assume, or hope, that audience will hear the ironic quotation marks around inflammatory language? Whatever his persona – satiric and highly literate, cultural commentator or rude-crude, blunt troublemaker – when does a writer’s persona go too far? When should a writer stifle his “inner loudmouth” clean up his ethos for the sake of a less offensive pathos or logos?

My purpose here is not to defend or condemn Flaherty for offensive language, but to consider the connection between a writer’s persona and the cultural context in which that persona is formed or operates.

Indulging one’s inner loudmouth is seductive, at times even addictive, potentially leading to offensive or just plain obnoxious prose that undermines content. I need look no farther than my own writing for evidence of this mercurial “condition,” shall we call it, for it does suggest a disorder one might find in the official Psychiatric DSM. Admittedly I often write first and foremost to entertain myself, not for rhetorical effect or for “meaning” or message. I’m ethos first and logos last; hell, at times I’m all ethos, and what little logos I consciously craft is swallowed up by my loudmouth ethos: my style, caterer of my persona (or vice versa?) devours my content. The inner loudmouth thinks that most anything that tumbles out of its oral cavity is by default endlessly witty and a benefit, socially and morally, to anyone who reads it. (I’ve been living in the South for 30 years, and have lost track of the number of times my partner, God love her country-girl soul, has made excuses on my behalf for bewildered folks unsure of how to take some snarky comment: Don’t mind him, that’s just his smartass Yankee sense of humor. Email correspondence, I find, is particularly problematic for me, as I refuse to use emoji’s to explain my intentions; such reading aids strike me as a sniffy kind of post-traumatic trigger-warning: Too little, too late. )

I’ve had this problem with editors of literary journals, as well. In response to a personal essay I wrote about a guy so protective of his cat that he mounts a mission to destroy a neighborhood cat bullying his precious pet, one editor wrote that though they liked the piece, they weren’t sure how to take the tone: Was it supposed to be absurdist? Hell yes, I wanted to shout. Isn’t it obvious? Apparently not. An editor at another journal said the essay had provoked a contentious debate among the staff: some found it poignant, others found it offensive. To which I thought, Can’t it be both? A tension between tones of sympathetic and disturbing was the effect I was working for. Frankly, I thought it was the strength of the piece. So far no editor has embraced my hybrid-aesthetic of sincerity and sarcasm. The piece remains, sadly, unpublished. And I’m left to consider the distinct possibility that what I lack in my writing at times is a deft sense of touch and proportion. You can do anything, as long as it works, right? Right?

To my knowledge, there’s no template for touch in writing. It’s kind of like phrasing for a singer: you either got it or you don’t. I recognize it in other writers, and I’ve gotten to a point that what I admire most in any writer is the ability to modulate tone or, as Yagoda says, “the sound on the page.” But Yagoda does offer a pretty good taxonomy of style in the Chapter “Tendencies of Style”: “Competence, Iconoclasm, Extroversion, Feeling, Single-mindedness, Tension, and Solicitousness.” I would argue that any number of these qualities, separately and in combination, apply to Flaherty. When he calls Liston a “badass nigger,” he’s exhibiting iconoclasm, extroversion, and feeling. Solicitousness, however, does not seem high on his list of concerns, although he does make concerted efforts throughout the column to generate sympathy for Sonny, arguing that “he should be judged in context. He was better than the sport he practiced and the men who rule it. In fact, he was one of boxing’s most legitimate sons. When greed, hypocrisy, and corruption complete their ménage a trois, a Sonny Liston will always be plucked from the breach.” So the tension for Flaherty is that between iconoclasm and solicitousness. His sense of touch, stinging though it may be, lies within that tension.

Yagoda states, “Beware ‘Biographical Fallacy’: the assumption that you know a person when you know only his or her writing.” And illustrates the point with Adam Gopnik’s “Law of the Mental Mirror Image: we write what we are not. It is not merely that we fail to live up to our best ideas, but that our best ideas, and the tone that goes with them, tend to be the opposite of our natural temperament.”

Sounds good to me. Except according to Wilfred Sheed, writing in the introduction to Chez Joey, such laws did not apply to Flaherty:

“The man you meet on the page is precisely the one you meet in real life, and not some literary persona cooked up for the occasion. … When Joe does strike a pose, it is strictly for laughs or some other esthetic effect. His major distinction, in a field where showing off is mandatory and where marginal idiosyncrasies are cultivated like sick plants, is that he is always himself. … Joe’s contribution to New Journalism is a strict emotional precision, based on a lacerating self-awareness. … All this could be pretty painful if it wasn’t so funny. Joe may be cursed with the liverish eye of a satirist, but he is twiced blessed with the heart of a clown. … He isn’t mad at anybody, only operatically outraged, and this is the great strength in his writing. Yet his laughter can be as merciless as another man’s rage.”

So where does that leave us? I’ve raised more questions than I’ve answered. In the matter of giving voice to one’s inner loudmouth, I prefer to defer to the wisdom of Virginia Woolf, in her essay “The Modern Essay”: “Never to be yourself and yet always – that is the problem.”

Bio note

Despite flunking two of three required freshmen writing courses, Tom McGohey went on to earn an MFA in Creative Writing at UNC-Greensboro, and to teach Composition and direct the Writing Center for twenty years at Wake Forest University. He is retired now, living in Southwest Virginia. His work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Thread, and Sport Literate, and has been selected as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is pleased to have the opportunity to submit another assignment, forty years later, for the old mentor who inspired him to write while making up one of those F’s.

Blog #57, Actual Facts by guest blogger Nicole Walker

February 28, 2017

Tags: Craft Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

Note: Nicole Walker's short piece on/about the differences between how journalists and writers of creative nonfiction use facts is particularly timely, especially in light of the current dispute about what distinguishes "alternative" facts from "real" facts.

Actual Facts is an essay that should appeal to the genre's teachers, writers, and editors.

MJS

#57, Actual Facts, Nicole Walker

I just got back from a quick trip to see my family over President’s Day Weekend. We sold our car to my nephew and drove it up to him. As usual, it was super fun to see my family although they are much better at having fun than I am, so I came back exhausted. Plus, traveling on the weekends during the semester is plain impossible. I had to work both of the days I was there, finishing some revisions to an essay coming out in March. The essay is actually about my sisters and how they are politically like-minded but go about persuading people in different ways. My sister Paige teaches AP Environmental Biology at the public school in Salt Lake and persuades her students to pay attention to gametes. My other sister, Valerie, is the National Sales Manager for a TV Station in Boise. She persuades people by reminding them they are beautiful. Neither of them has a huge agenda, but I’d argue that paying attention to the world around you and to be kind would be their combined philosophies, although they advocate for those ideas in different ways.

I was writing about their similarities and differences for this essay that I asked them to read and they were like, “No, that’s not true! I did not teach 8th grade for four years, I taught it for one year.” And “No, I didn’t say that your boobs remind me of turtles. Frogs. It was frogger boobs.” So I emailed the editor and asked him to change those details and my sisters rolled their eyes as they usually do when I say I write “creative nonfiction” because they tease me that “creative” means I can make up anything I want.

I tell them no, that’s why I had them check the essay. They don’t like it when I lecture so I didn’t tell them the deeper definition of creative nonfiction. I tell my students the nonfiction uses facts as a springboard to creativity. I also tell them, we’re not journalists. We aren’t going for objectivity. We’re actually going for subjectivity. The difference between creative nonfiction and journalism is that you want bias in your creative nonfiction. That said, it’s your responsibility to define and be clear with your bias. You can do that several ways. You can begin with a disclaimer. You can write in short, poetic, syncopated lines. You can use research and cite your sources in a regular font and then imagine the effects of that research in an italicized font. You can use the word “perhaps” or “maybe” or the subjunctive or conditional tense. You can, like John D’Agata, begin your book About a Mountain by listing a numbers that the senators used on C-SPAN to show how truly unfacty numbers can be. Senators pull any number out of the air to suit their agenda to argue about transporting nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain: “Yucca’s projected total cost of $24 billion” and “$27 billion” and “$38 billion” and $46 billion” and $59 billion” and “at least 60 billion” and “100 billion” and “too much” and “we have no other choice.” The whole book is about the facile way people use numbers and statistics as if numbers emblematize the purist meaning so when John D’Agata uses numbers fast and loose, he’s doing it within an established context of fast and loose.

I steer my students away from writing fast and loose with the facts not only because they lose credibility but also because there is something very empowering about facts. You can rely on facts to provide you the biggest bounce to your creativity. I just wrote an essay on the difference between Australia’s possums and the United States’ opossum. What is more exciting than the difference between that O?

In the media, we have descended into ‘alternative facts’ which means now I have to go around and defend my genre all over again. Creative nonfiction isn’t alternative facts. It isn’t even using facts creatively. It is using facts to spur imagination. That imagination is saturated in bias but that bias is noted in every word choice, font, disclaimer, verb, and voice. All people have biases. Here are mine, we say. Alternative facts pretend there are no biases. Alternative facts claim real journalism. But real journalism doesn’t use the I. It weighs and investigates. It informs and substantiates. It is the foundation and to build or create or make anything from it, it has to be stable.

NICOLE WALKER is the author of three forthcoming books Sustainability: A Love Story, Microcosm, and Canning Peaches for the Apocalypse. Her previous books include Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg. She also edited Bending Genre with Margot Singer. She’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona where it rains like the Pacific Northwest, but only in July.

Blog # 56 On Secret Engines, Cross-pollination, and Repeating Ourselves Again by Ana Maria Spagna, Guest Blogger

January 17, 2017

Tags: Craft Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

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.”

MJS

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.

Blog #55 Call (Me) the Midwife, Sometimes, Jo Scott-Coe, Guest Blogger

December 19, 2016

Tags: Craft Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

Blog # 55 Call (Me) the Midwife, Sometimes by Jo Scott-Coe

Introductory Note:

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.

MJS

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.



Blog # 54 Finding Form by Tarn Wilson, Guest Blogger

November 17, 2016

Tags: Craft Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

Introductory Note:

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

MJS


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.

Blog #53 Of Rats, Whiskey Priests and Half-Crazed Grandfathers, Joe Mackall, Guest Blogger

October 16, 2016

Tags: Craft Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

Blog # 53

Of Rats, Whiskey Priests and Half-Crazed Grandfathers,
Joe Mackall, Guest Blogger


Note:

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.

MJS

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.

Blog # 52 Addressing the Dual Selves in the "Eye and the I", Jessica Handler, Guest Blogger

September 13, 2016

Tags: Tags: Craft Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

Note:

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.""

MJS

# 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.

Bio note

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.

www.jessicahandler.com

BLOG # 51 SENSORY INTERROGATION ANNE MARIE OOMEN July 23, 2016

July 23, 2016

Tags: Craft Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

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.

MJS

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.

Sensory Interrogation

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.

The Logistics

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.

The Questions

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…)

BOOKS

e.g. Fiction, History, Magazine Articles, etc. goes here
Memoir
“My favorite book of the year. An astonishing look at the pains of growing up.”
--Dan Smith, WVTF Virginia, Public Radio
Collection/Anthology
“Wherever readers look, they’ll find a different essay, a different voice, a different Michigan.”
-- Crab Orchard Review
Anthology of/on Creative Nonfiction
“Offers the most thorough and teachable introduction available to this exciting genre.”
--John Boe, Editor, Writing on the Edge
Stage Play
"An evening of energy, hot music, laughs and sheer entertainment." Lansing State Journal
Teaching/Writing
"Root and Steinberg will be on the shelf near my desk that holds the most important books about the teaching of writing." -Donald Murray, A Writer Teaches Writing and Write to Learn
Literary Journal
"Fourth Genre is the Paris Review of nonfiction journals." Newpages.com
Writing/Teaching Text
The Writer’s Way is the best book I’ve found yet for teaching first quarter Freshmen their first English writing sequence….” Dr. Sheila Coghill, Moorhead State University.

Quick Links