Ana Maria Spagna, Guest Blogger

Michael Steinberg

Greatest Hits: And Some That Weren't Selected Essays and Memoirs 1990-2015 Carmike Press/Seahorse Books Order at https://www.amazon.com/Michael-Steinberg/e/B001IO8DKG

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.


CONTESTS: LITERARY JOURNALS AND BOOKS

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--The Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

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

January 17, 2017

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…)

Blog # 50, Hindrance or Help: How Repetition Can Stop (or Start) Your Writing--Mike Steinberg

June 22, 2016

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

NOTE: Mike Steinberg’s new collection--Greatest Hits and Some That Weren’t--eleven selected personal essays and memoirs on/about childhood, baseball, place, aging, travel, teaching, and writing—is now available from Amazon, or through Carmike Press/Seahorse Books (carmikepress@gmail.com)

Blog # 50, Hindrance or Help: How Repetition Can Stop (or Start) Your Writing
by Mike Steinberg

FOREWORD: I adapted this essay from a panel talk I gave at the River Teeth Writer’s Conference on June 3 in Ashland, Ohio.

The idea for the River Teeth panel grew out of a series of emails between personal essayist, Pat Madden, and myself--over the matter of duplication and repetition in our own (and in other’s) writing.

The issue that came up most frequently in our correspondence was, and I’m paraphrasing: When we recycle/rephrase/reuse our already-published ideas, thoughts, and opinions, when are we plagiarizing, from ourselves; and when does repeating ourselves become a means by which we’re looking from a different perspective? And when we dig more deeply into ideas and issues that we've already written about, does it mean we’re going back to old material; or, could it be that these are materials and ideas we haven’t yet fully explored or exhausted?

These are, I think, important concerns, especially for autobiographical writers--personal essayists and memoirists--as well as those of us that write personal journalism and/or personal/ cultural criticism--which is, I’m betting, almost everyone who might be reading this blog post. In other words, at one time or another in our writing lives, haven’t we all had to deal with this matter?

Here then, is my current take on it.

*
Mostly we authors must repeat ourselves--that's the truth. We have two or three great and moving experiences so great and so moving that it doesn't seem at the time that anybody else has been so caught up and pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and humbled in just that way ever before...and we tell our two or three stories each time in a new disguise--maybe ten times, maybe a hundred, as long as people will listen.
-- F. Scott Fitzgerald

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
--Albert Einstein

I’ll begin with some brief back-story regarding my own struggles with this problem.

I’m primarily a memoirist/personal essayist who also teaches and writes essays on matters of genre and craft. A few years ago, I began to be more aware and then gradually more troubled by the realization that I seemed to be repeating myself in my writing--in both my personal essays and memoirs and in my craft essays as well.

This wasn’t the first time, though. For years, a voice in the back of my head had been nagging away, scolding me really, for having written too much about baseball. And, it’s true; baseball, in one form or another, had been part of most of my stand-alone and book length narratives.

In time, I began to feel, first, a little defensive, then, apologetic--and, finally, more self-conscious and defensive, especially when colleagues, friends and former students would ask what I was working on.

At a point, my self-consciousness turned into an almost inhibiting fear--a fear that perhaps I was destined to become a one-note writer, like those Hollywood actors who’ve played the same kinds of character roles over and over again. Worse yet, what if I’d literally written myself out?

Right around then, I started comparing myself (and with some envy, I admit) to other, more versatile, writers--writers, who, to my mind, never seemed to repeat the same subjects or same concerns in each subsequent work.

We all know how this goes, right? And it’s just what we don’t need
--that is; still another censor sitting on our shoulder, giving us one more reason to avoid our writing.

Up until then, the two other usual suspects (in my case anyway), were a version or variation of either, “I have nothing original or new to say,” or; “who’s gonn’a give a damn about the stuff I write?”

This is, of course, one of the things I make a point of telling my students not to worry about.

Those who can’t write, teach writing--right?
*
It’s way too long of a story to get into here; but, what could have turned into a debilitating writing block, evolved instead (and thankfully) into a larger inquiry on/about the reasons why some writers, like me, tend to work with persistent, recurring themes--with preoccupations and confusions—and, most especially, with obsessions--while others, as I’ve mentioned, seem more capable of pursuing multiple, sometimes contradictory ideas, themes, and subjects--and, in some instances, these same writers will even tackle other forms and genres-all -without seeming to repeat themselves.
*
My inquiry began in earnest with that email exchange with Pat Madden. I was kvetching to Pat one day, telling him that, lately, whenever I wrote about baseball, I felt like I was repeating same thing over and over again (Einstein’s definition of crazy, yes?). Pat’s response was, and I’m paraphrasing, that, according to Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace sometimes despaired that he was simply repeating himself. “And other writers” Pat went on to say, “have talked about this too (with varying emotional responses).”


I was thinking at the time that maybe this actually was a hopeful sign. If writers who were that high on the food chain had similar doubts, then perhaps I was in better company than I’d thought.

“Maybe,” Pat added, “a good idea for a panel might be about how we can repeat ourselves without losing hope; or, how and why, and to what end do we re-envision, or refashion, our main themes in different works?”

And since I’ve started this essay with an epigraph from Scott Fitzgerald, let me pick up on that.
*

While I was looking for a way into this talk, I pulled up a quote that I had stored away for a long time. And it became the epigraph I cited above, the one that reads: “Mostly we authors must repeat ourselves--that's the truth…” etc. Which then, got me to thinking.

Back when I was a graduate student, I chose to write my doctoral dissertation on Scott Fitzgerald’s fiction--the novels and short stories—all 152 of them.

While I was thrashing around looking for a central idea for the dissertation, I began to track a recurring motif, a main theme, if you will--which I referred to as “dream and disillusion.” It seemed to me that it ran through just about all of Fitzgerald’s fiction, and even a good bit of his autobiographical nonfiction.

Even now though, It’s hard to know if I came up with that recurring theme because I was looking for a unifying idea; or, if maybe, even back then, a piece of me already feared the prospect of someday repeating myself in my own writing.

But no matter; what Fitzgerald said in that epigraph seemed to support what Pat had been telling me in his emails, the ones about the other writers who worried that they too were repeating themselves in their work.

And so, I started to look for examples. It came as no surprise that I found far more than I could use in a short essay: comments, for example, by playwright’s and screenwriters; songwriters and visual artists; choreographers, directors, and critics. But because this essay is about repeating ourselves in our writing, I’ll focus on a single author.

For the past few years, I’ve found myself consistently being drawn back to P.F. Kluge’s work. Kluge, who’s primarily a novelist, has talked openly in interviews about a single fascination/attraction that he revisits in his novels.

Here’s a sampling:

About his novel The Master Blaster, Kluge says, it’s “set on Saipan. I was there in the 1960's with the Peace Corps, and I’ve returned many times since. Saipan is one of my islands, part of my life-long fascination with bounded, yet also boundless, places.”

About another novel The Edge of Paradise, Kluge writes, ‘The Peace Corps sent me to the Pacific Islands — Micronesia. The islands stayed with me and I’ve kept returning, checking on places and people I care about.”

He also says that …”my continuing interest in the love/hate relationship between America and the Philippines underlies my second novel (Macarthur’s Ghost), which spans the years from World War II to the Marcos era.”

And he describes The Day I Die, as a “ thriller set in the Pacific islands I saw as a Peace Corps volunteer.”

To which, I’d add, that Season For War, another novel, is set in the turn-of-the-century Philippines.

But that’s not all. Kluge has a produced large body of work. Three other books--Gone Tomorrow, Final Exam, and Alma Mater—a novel and two personal narratives—are not set in the islands but at Kenyon College in Gambier Ohio, where Kluge teaches.

“I love islands;” Kluge says, “Micronesia --Saipan, Palau, Pohnpei-- is full of them. Gambier, Ohio is another kind of island, a small, surrounded place where I live and teach. My alma mater, my current employer. If you live in a place,” Kluge says, “you write about it”

What I take away from his disclosures are that Kluge’s deep fascination with specific locations and geographies, more often than not, becomes the means through which his narrators are best able to explore their most insistent yearnings as well as to interrogate the questions and confusions that provoke and/or animate them most.
*
It’s taken me a long time to come to terms with this. But, and I’m speculating here, I first began to see things a little differently after two separate conversations I’d had with colleagues, essayist/memoirist Renee D’ Aoust and novelist Mick Cochrane, who, like me, are teaching writers.
The conversation with Renee came about when I was, once again, complaining about not being able to move away from writing about baseball.

“I wonder if we have a similar issue,” she said. “I 've tried to quit writing about dance. Years ago, I mentioned this in a college classroom, and a student asked, ‘but if you love it, and do it so well, why would you quit writing about the subject? "
That question, Renee maintains, triggered other thoughts:--such as; “how do we stay with the same subject, but not repeat ourselves? Or; is it okay to repeat ourselves? After all, isn’t writing a way of working things out?”

A while back I remember also asking Mick Cochrane why he writes so much about sports; in his case, it’s also baseball. His answer was, that “I felt permission to write about sports, because Thoreau writes about beans. Melville writes about whales. Poe writes about a bird. So why not me and baseball?”

When I asked him to expand on that, Cochrane said that"...all writers seek dense, complex material over which they have some authority" and that "all writers would probably be wise to engage their obsessive loves, whatever they might be."

In some ways both writers are talking about the same two things: permission and obsession.

I’ve since come around to thinking that a big reason why we repeat ourselves is that the things we write about are governed more by matters of sensibility (and intent) than they are by a predetermined design. In my own case, it means giving myself the permission to follow my obsessions, whatever those might be.

It’s another version of “follow the writing where it takes you,” something I also try to tell my students. And, at the same time, it’s advice I need to keep reminding myself about. (more…)

Blog # 49. I am a Camera by Elyssa East

May 26, 2016

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

6/7/16

--Mike Steinberg’s new collection--Greatest Hits and Some That Weren’t--eleven selected personal essays and memoirs on/about childhood, baseball, place, aging, travel, teaching, and writing—is now available from Amazon, or through Carmike Press/Seahorse Books (carmikepress@gmail.com)

5/26/16 #49. * I AM A CAMERA, Elyssa East

NOTE: Elyssa East’s piece grew out of an AWP panel presentation, “The I or the Eye?: The Narrator’s Role in Literary Nonfiction.”

We know that nonfiction authors—essay/memoirists and writers of personal/literary journalism and cultural criticism--often struggle with finding the right narrator to match the work. Some, for example, situate their narrators at center stage, as participants (the “I”), while others locate their narrators offstage as observers (the Eye).

Be it a piece of writing that focuses primarily on the experience of the self or on more topically based work, how does the writer decide how to craft the narrator/persona that’s the best fit best fit for the subject at hand?

In her craft essay, “I Am a Camera,” Elyssa East explains and illustrates the variety of options, from personal to objective/omniscient she needed to consider before she found the narrative match for her book Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town

MJS

I AM A CAMERA, Elyssa East

“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.” So wrote Christopher Isherwood in his novel, Goodbye to Berlin. “I am a camera,” the critical independent clause, became one of the most famous sentences in twentieth century literature. It also served as the title for both the play and the film based on Goodbye to Berlin, upon which the musical Cabaret is based. But I am interested in this clause because Isherwood’s narrator declares that he inhabits both the stance of a subjective agent—an “I”—and an objective one—the camera or “eye” at the same time. With my first book, Dogtown I eventually found myself wanting to do the same. But I had no idea how to pull this off.

I didn’t start with this ambition. Initially, I wanted to be all camera. In fact, I had wanted to be a photographer but somewhere along the way fell under the sway of nonfiction literature, which won me over for a documentary power that is complementary to but distinct from photography’s. And the camera that appealed to me was different from Isherwood’s “quite passive, recording, not thinking” one. I wanted to be active and critically engaged while still mostly hovering in the background. I believed this was what my subject demanded of me, but it was also what suited my temperament best.

My subject was an abandoned colonial landscape in Massachusetts called Dogtown that painter Marsden Hartley had compared to Easter Island and Stonehenge. I fell into writing about it because of Hartley’s paintings of the area. When Gertrude Stein saw Hartley’s work for the first time she declared, “at last an original American.” And when I saw Hartley’s Dogtown landscapes with their rocks like gargantuan cheese cubes, giant chewed fingernails and a whale rising from the earth I thought at last an original American setting. Like Isherwood with Berlin and Hartley with his paintings, I wanted to create a portrait of a place.

Dogtown, which is not far from Salem, Massachusetts, is known locally for its peculiar tales of colonists experiencing collective hallucinations, its supernatural events, and its post-Revolutionary War population of witches. Today it is an unpopulated wilderness, a ghost town. It should then come as no surprise that some people believed it to be haunted. In fact, I was finding more superstition than fact in my research about this place. Though I knew these beliefs were part of the story—if not the story itself— like an early 20th century photographer trying to take pictures of a ghost, I also wanted to let Dogtown speak for itself.

The story I began to write recounted my journey starting with how Hartley’s paintings leading me to Dogtown. From there I wanted to step back and let the place itself take center stage. But I was immediately challenged by trying to include all of these spirited tales about the traveler (aka me), Hartley, the colonists, the witches, supernatural events, and more; this is only a partial list, but it was already a lot. I found it impossible to make all of my disparate threads cohere.

My readers, who at the time were my fellow graduate students, all repeatedly asked, “What’s in Dogtown for you, Elyssa?” It’s a question that is often asked of writers, especially of writing students by their peers—and it’s one that tends toward the confessional, which is part of why I resisted it. I didn’t want to be an intrusion or imposition upon my subject. What I found in Dogtown was the place itself, which had fascinated me as though I had walked through a wardrobe and landed in a Narnia.

One of the writers who I emulated at the time and attempted to model my efforts after was Joseph Mitchell. If the narrator’s subjective and objective stances appear at opposite ends of the spectrum, Mitchell’s work represents the most extreme “eye.” Part of the excitement of reading his 1940 profile of Mazie, the “bossy, yellow-haired blonde” ticket collector at the Venice, “a small, seedy moving-picture theater” on the Bowery in New York City, is in deciphering how Mitchell’s eye—his alleged objectivity—reveals who he is. We learn highly particular details about the theater, whose principal clientele are “bums,” and even more when Mazie says, “Nobody ever got loused up in the Venice.” (Here, “loused up” is literal). Mitchell’s selection of dialogue captures Mazie and her era perfectly. In this same paragraph, Mitchell goes on to describe Mazie as being in “an elegant mood,” and boasting “that she never admits intoxicated persons.” It’s this juxtaposition of an “elegant mood” with “intoxicated persons” and lice that reveal both Mazie and Mitchell to us. There is plenty of “I” here, or plenty enough for me because Mitchell’s self is revealed by the subjects upon which he trains his gaze (Mazie, Mohawk “skywalker” construction workers, a bearded lady, even New York City’s rats), his juxtapositions, and his particularizing impulses. Mitchell’s narrator still largely disappears behind his subjects, but traces of his presence are palpable in the same way that the shadow of a photographer can sometimes be visible in a photograph. It’s worth noting that Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin was published in 1939, a year before Mazie appeared in The New Yorker. This proximity is not insignificant for these dates also parallel the rise of street photography and its emphasis on depicting every day urban lives.

It was much harder to be a camera or “eye” capturing the diaphanous image of a ghost town and the every day Massachusetts lives that would come to intersect it than I had thought. In literature, a character must have agency and desire and though I would argue that a landscape does possess these qualities they are best dramatized through human agents. In Dogtown, I found my Mazies, but I wanted them to be secondary to the place itself. With a cast of historic and present-day characters, I now had even more material than before. I also still wanted to be considerate of my readers by somehow addressing the question of what was in Dogtown for me.

I had no idea how to assemble this puzzle, but my gut still told me that my place was in the shadows where I could be an “eye” like Mitchell. When I learned that a woman had been murdered in Dogtown and that some people believed the place had influenced her killer, the idea of lurking in the shadows had turned haunting. It also presented a new challenge of figuring out how to include this tragic event in my book.

I knew that the amount of subjectivity or the degree to which I allowed my personal story to creep into the book would remain limited because no drama in my life came anywhere near to this horrific murder and its aftermath. Nor did any of my travails compare to the crippling physical challenges, poverty, emotional losses, and prejudices the Dogtowners faced. But every single lens reflex camera contains a small mirror in its dark interior. I was only able to be an “I” and an “eye” when I looked into Dogtown and saw my own losses reflected back to me. At the time that I was writing, September 11th had just happened and six members of my family had died in less than a year. Dogtown is a haunted place that attracts haunted people and I, in my own modest way, had joined its ranks.

Though I was now more of a presence in the narrative, I still needed a way to weave all of this together into a book, not just a collection of historical tales. I decided to structure the book into chapters that alternated between the murder and stories of Dogtown’s past. While this worked, the result was inelegant because these historical chapters did in fact have some bearing upon the present day, particularly with regards to how people felt about the murder.

A solution came to me from another visual medium: painting. There is a portrait tradition of painting an individual in front of a curtain that opens onto a landscape where various scenes, often biblical or historical, are depicted in the background. The portrait subject serves as commentator on the background scene and vice-versa. I positioned my narrator in these historical chapters by using a similar framing device. I came in at the beginning and end of each chapter to frame it around my own musings and concerns as they related to the chapter material and the central driving question that linked the murder to all of this history: how much can a place influence someone? I then stepped aside so that these individual histories were allowed to take center stage. At the chapter’s end, I returned to link this material to what was happening next. In this way, my narrator became the constant thread that connected all the stories while the stories, in turn, provided commentary on my search for an answer regarding Dogtown’s mysteries.

That is how like Isherwood’s narrator I became a camera recording the elusive spirit of a place as it moved through a painter sketching in a meadow and a witch flinging open her window to curse any man passing by and a man who picked up a rock to kill a perfect stranger one rainy Monday morning. Many drafts passed in which I either occupied too much foreground or background, but that is how my book was eventually “developed, carefully printed, fixed.”

* "I Am a Camera" first appeared in TriQuarterly

Bio note:
Elyssa East is the author of Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town, winner of the 2010 P.E.N. New England/L. L. Winship award in Nonfiction. A Boston Globe bestseller, Dogtown was a New York Times Editors’ Choice and a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. Elyssa’s writing has been published nationwide and in The Best of the Akashic Noir. She’s taught at Columbia, NYU, and Rhode Island School of Design.


Blog No. 48 NEW YORK STATE OF MIND: HOW “PLACE” SHAPES OUR LITERARY IDENTITIES By Michael Steinberg

April 20, 2016

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

5/23/16
*Note: Grist: The Journal For Writers Spring 2016 ProForma writing contest (all genres) offers a $ 750 prize for the winner. Guidelines at
Grist.

5/1/16
* Note: The literary journal Sport Literate posted an interview I did with Bill Meiners, the editor--on/about creative nonfiction. In it, I discussed some matters of genre and craft that might interest readers of this blog. If you'd like to take a look, you can find it at Sport Literate Interview.

Blog No. 48 NEW YORK STATE OF MIND: HOW “PLACE” SHAPES OUR LITERARY IDENTITIES

By Michael Steinberg

Note:
In the last few months I've posted several recent entries on/about the role of “Place” in our teaching (see Archives : # 41-45, Karen Babine’s On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers, and # 47, Robin
Mc Carthy’s What I’ve Come So Far to Tell Them). To extend that dialogue to our writing, here are some of my thoughts on/about how “Place” shapes not only our writing but also our literary identities.

MJS

NEW YORK STATE OF MIND: HOW PLACE SHAPES OUR LITERARY IDENTITIES
1
To a large extent, memoir is about exploring the past as it bears on our current sense of who we are. In my case, what, drives most of my memoirs is a nagging curiosity to try to figure out how that confused kid from New York, that kid whose preoccupation with baseball evolved into an obsession; that kid, an English major who flunked the writing placement test in college; how did he become a literature and writing teacher, then a mid life memoirist? Who and what were his shaping influences?

To examine those questions more fully, I’ve written about my family, my most influential teachers, my mentors, and my coaches—all of whom, I know, had some influence on the teacher/writer I’ve become. But when I took inventory of my autobiographical writings, the one constant in all of those pieces was the presence of New York City.

2

A while back, economic circumstances forced a former writing colleague who’d moved from her native Michigan to Manhattan only to have to move back to Michigan. I knew she loved living in the city, so I was wondering how the unplanned move home had affected her writing. And it got me to thinking.

From the time I was a kid, I’d always wanted to become a writer. But growing up in New York at the same time as when the Beat writers—Kerouac, Ginsberg, and later, Burrows--were all the rage. And frankly, that was very intimidating to the likes of me. My life style and writing weren’t nearly as rebellious and risky as theirs were. And so right away I believed that if I didn't live on the edge, like they did, it meant that I didn't have the disposition or temperament to become a writer. And that feeling was reinforced by the fact that the stories and poems I was submitting to my high school and later on, college, literary magazines were being repeatedly rejected.

In retrospect, I can see that it took more than three decades for that self-deprecating attitude to change. And the change evolved in a very unexpected way. I can say that now because I believe that moving to Michigan had a good deal (paradoxically) to do with that shift.

3

I recall how disorienting it was to always be feeling like a transplanted New Yorker in the Midwest. So, much so, that for my first two decades in Michigan, I escaped to Manhattan every chance I got. And for almost three-plus decades, I seriously considered moving back there.

Like Woody Allen, who claims that he’s “at two with nature,” from the time I moved to Michigan—to attend graduate school--I felt like a displaced New Yorker. To me, the Midwest was a different culture, an alien landscape. It's something I've written a good deal about over the last twenty-five years.

In one of those pieces though, “Living in Michigan, Dreaming Manhattan,” I dug more deeply into that New York-Michigan love/hate relationship. And what I discovered probably should have come as no surprise.

4

For the twenty-five years that I lived in New York, I’d entertained dreams, as I’ve said, of becoming a writer. But in addition to having been intimidated by the Beats, in college I convinced myself that my writing could never measure up neither to that of the writers I most admired in my college lit classes—writers like, Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner--nor to those writers I was reading on my own; Roth, Updike, Malamud, Bellow, to name a few. This self-deprecating attitude pretty much convinced me that the closest I’d get to being a writer was to become a literature teacher--clearly, a surrogate, maybe even a default career. And an identity, I confess, I never fully embraced.

In graduate school, that decision continually troubled me. And so did my self-created persona; the defensive, displaced New Yorker. Largely as a way of overcompensating for both, I exaggerated and overplayed the out-of-place New Yorker role. Which, of course made it even more difficult for me to make peace with my surroundings, and, I might add, to co-exist very easily with several of my midwestern colleagues.

And who could blame them? My attitude and behavior had confirmed their initial perception of me as an effete, condescending, “New Yawker.”

5

Two midlife cornea transplants forced me to take a step back and do some re-evaluating. It was my first brush with my own mortality. If I was ever going to write, I knew it had better be right then. So despite my long-standing fears and self-doubts, that’s what I began to do.

Most of my early writings, I could see, were nostalgic sketches about my childhood and adolescent years. In all of these undeveloped works though, I discovered that New York was much, much, more than a backdrop or stage for those pieces. It was a rich, formidable force and presence; in some ways a dominant character in those personal narratives.

6

After the transplants, it began to trouble me that even though I’d lived in Michigan for some-five years, I still saw myself as a displaced New Yorker. I did the majority of my kvetching about that fact to Bob Root, a colleague who I’d collaborated with on two anthologies, Apparently, Bob gotten pretty tired of listening to me. Instead, he suggested that we co-edit still another anthology--this one, he said, would be composed of work by writers who either lived. or, at some time had lived in Michigan.

Once we got the project going, Bob conveniently dropped out. Deliberately, as I would later find out. But the ploy obviously did work. Because I came away from the project with a renewed sense of the state’s beauty, its cultural heritage, and especially, its rich literary history. I also came away with a deep appreciation for the passion that all of the writers brought to the anthology. Along with Bob Root, they’d inadvertently helped me discover a different Michigan from the one I’d been living in.

I should mention here, that around this same time, I’d bought a cottage in northern Michigan—a place I’d planned to use as a writing retreat.

7

My contribution to the collection that Bob originally proposed was the piece I mentioned earlier, “Living In Michigan, Dreaming Manhattan.” As a way of rendering (and explaining) that midlife reversal, I’ll quote some passages from the end of that piece.

”In my early fifties, just before the I bought the cottage and just before I had the first cornea transplant, my wife, Carole, and I met with Ken Klegon, a financial advisor, to discuss the possibilities of early retirement. In the back of my mind, I was actively entertaining the notion of moving back to New York.

When he finished itemizing our debts, Ken gave us two pieces of advice. One was to pay off our credit cards. Reasonable enough, I thought. But what followed wasn’t quite as easy to swallow.

‘You’re going to have to cut back on those trips to New York.’ he said. And while I was chewing that one over, Ken added, ‘Mike, you’re always complaining about not having enough time to write. I suggest that instead of going to NY, you get your ass up to the cottage and well… write.’

How, I wondered, would I ever manage to give up those trips? Ever since we’d moved here, those New York excursions were a lifeline, my way of reconnecting with my old roots, of reaffirming my sense of who I was.

I whined and kvetched some more. But in the end, I did just what Ken had asked. And seven years later, I was able to take an early retirement. When I got out, I was finishing up two books, neither of which, I’m sure, would have been written had I not had the cornea transplants, had I not built the cottage, and had I not taken my financial advisor’s advice to heart (I’d like to mention here that in college Ken Klegon was an English major).

And just as Ken had predicted, coming up north to write did indeed help temper my feelings of displacement. Yet, I was still worried that I wrote and daydreamed too frequently about my old life in New York.

Other writers, I know, have experienced a similar sense of dislocation. In her anthology, Leaving New York, Kathleen Norris writes that ‘ Willa Cather experienced her best writing years in Greenwich Village from 1912 to 1927, when the most celebrated of her Nebraska novels were published. To do fictional justice to Nebraska,’ Norris says, ‘apparently, [Cather] found it necessary to remain in New York.’ And ex-New Yorker, Leslie Brody, says in her memoir, Red Star Sister, ‘I had to leave New York in order to preserve its poetry.’

This has caused me to speculate. I’m thinking here of something that one of my Michigan coffee klatch cronies once told me. ‘New York,’ he said, ‘is that old girl friend you hope won’t show up one day and, God forbid, start hitting on you. Because just like you, she’ll be middle-aged, and not the young girl you remember.’

And when I’m thinking clearly, I am aware that locales, places, inevitably, do change. Especially a shape shifting, evolving city like New York. Part of Manhattan’s DNA, is, after all, that it’s always reinventing and redefining itself. And I’m not unaware that people can also change. Myself included.

8

“ I’ve lived in New York, in Michigan, and in an imaginary New York. Let’s say I did move back to the city; would I then become nostalgic for my not so glamorous life in East Lansing?

At some level then, I realize that this is about learning to accept the life I have, not the one I fancy. Case in point. A while back, a writer-friend was chiding me about this same conundrum.

‘Haven’t you ever had a fantasy about living in a more glamorous place?’ I asked him.

‘Sure. I’d love to have a pied-a-terre in Paris, a place I could go to whenever I wanted a taste of that life.’

‘ What’s stopping you?’

‘ Well, if I did it’ he said, ‘then it wouldn’t be a fantasy anymore, would it?’ ”

9

“ I’m at my northern Michigan cottage, standing in our living room. I look at the bookcase to my left, and see the shelves that are reserved for my writing. In that long moment, it occurs to me that my mid-life memories of New York are not unlike my early dreams of becoming a writer. And now, some thirty-plus years later, I am a writer; but I’m living in Michigan, where all of that writing got done, and not in New York.

For decades, the New York of memory and imagination has represented an excitement and wonder, the opportunity to be caught up in the whirlwind of a more stimulating, sometimes more enchanting, existence. At the same time my equally self-invented Michigan landscape offers a more grounded, meditative state of being. At different moments, in different moods and phases, I’m alternately drawn to one or the other, sometimes, simultaneously, to both.”

Blog No. 47 What I’ve Come So Far to Tell Them by Robin McCarthy

March 19, 2016

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

Note:

In the past few months, I've been preoccupied with matters of place, especially how place influences our writing and teaching. In fact, I've inadvertently come across this notion in a three different instances and guises. In December and January, I posted Karen Babine's five part essay (# 45) on teaching place-consciousness to beginning writers. And just the other day, I finished preparing a talk on place for an upcoming AWP panel in Los Angeles (Old Neighborhoods, New Locales: How Place Shapes Our Writing and our Literary Identities). In between the two, I happened to read Robin Mc Carthy's fine essay, What I’ve Come So Far to Tell Them in Talking Writing--on/about the approach she takes in teaching place to her freshman comp students.

Robin's essay (reprinted below), is a savvy, practical, and well thought-out teaching piece that should, I believe, be of interest to those of us that teach literary/creative nonfiction to both beginning and experienced student writers.

MJS

* BLOG #. 47 WHAT I'VE COME SO FAR TO TELL THEM by ROBIN McCARTHY

I taught my first comp section in a windowless cinderblock classroom in northern Michigan. It was the fall of 2013. I’d arrived on campus two weeks earlier for an eight-day crash course for new graduate students on how to teach composition. Despite having designed my syllabus and sifted through piles of ice breakers and classroom activities, I began the semester without a vision of the teacher I would be.

I had 25 students, and on the second day of class, a quarter of them were dressed in some sort of camouflage. They were all as uncertain about me as I was about them, and I didn’t win any over when I asked them to write journal entries describing the place they were from.

“Like, where it is? Like on a map?” one asked.

“Sure,” I nodded. “And what’s it like? What’s nice about it? What’s terrible?”

No one responded. They blinked at me blankly.

“Why?” someone else finally asked.

I hadn’t anticipated this question. I had a vague sense of the importance of valuing my students’ backgrounds, but mostly, I was meeting new people and I am wired to relate to people in terms of place. I understand people through origins and destinations and the circuitous routes in between. There was no pedagogical foundation for my assignment; I didn’t really have an answer for them grander than the truth.

“Because I want to know,” I said.

I recalled my position at the front of classroom, my smart skirt and pressed blouse and the syllabus with my name at the top. I was the teacher, and this was school.

“Also, because that’s the assignment. Write about where you’re from. Twenty minutes.”

They leaned back from their tables and slid down in their chairs, dug through backpacks and pulled out laptops. They peered at me doubtfully over screens until, like robotic ants scavenging for memory crumbs on red-checked picnic clothes, they typed. And in that moment, we established the format for the semester’s course: For the next two and a half months, our labor would be writing. Our subject would be place.

• • •

I grew up in Maine and left at eighteen for college. When I left, I didn’t love my home more particularly than any other place. I spent ten years away, between school and work and travel. But when I was 29, I missed home enough to move back. I lived a couple miles from my parents’ house. I ran into my old teachers at the grocery store and complained about tourists and snowfall, cringed at botched New England accents on TV.

In a way, growing up in Maine has spoiled me. I can’t live elsewhere. Not because Maine is better than other places, but because it is so specifically itself—so specifically mine. Sea salt and paper mills and potato farms have left me self-sufficient, proud, and nostalgic for the smell of sunshine on pine. I can’t fully leave my home behind; I am always aching for it.

But when I decided to pursue an MFA in writing, it became clear I was going to have to leave again. I found my way to Northern Michigan University, where I could study in exchange for teaching. The university is located on the southern shore of Lake Superior, in the northwest region of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The nearest major cities are Detroit and Chicago, both between seven and eight driving hours away. People in the U.P. value the natural world in the same way people from Maine do; they love it, and they harvest it, and it is the land that determines their behavior, dictates their anxieties, and warrants their celebrations.

Northern Michigan University is the product of its surroundings. The academic culture reflects a deep connection to the region’s Native American population and the iron mines that brought white immigrants to the area. The school is simultaneously a two-year community college and a four-year university, which means students can earn a certificate in welding or a Ph.D in nursing, and either way, they take the basic composition course I was assigned to teach that first year.

I understood the blank stares and raw anguish when I asked those students about their homes. I got it when Mike Zyburt, who has lived two miles from the university his entire life, told me in his journal: “I’m from Marquette. There is nothing interesting to say.”

“Look harder” was the only advice I could give him. It wasn’t the advice of a teacher. A teacher would have suggested adding sensory detail or writing about a favorite memory, offered concrete stepping stones to a feasible essay topic. I was their teacher later in the semester, when I told them to develop thesis statements and consider point of view. But when I said, “Look harder at where you are from. Tell me everything,” I was not a teacher. I was not even a writer. I was a traveler, homesick for a place I couldn’t be.

• • •

The same week I began teaching that comp class, I walked into my first graduate workshop. Within the first ten minutes, I was told I’d spend the semester writing a novel. I hadn’t planned on writing a novel and didn’t think I had one in me. But I did want an A in the class, and so I started writing about the only place that felt deeply personal: my home in Maine.

I took my own advice to students, harnessing my longing and depositing it onto those pages. I didn’t write about my grandfathers or neighbors, but I wrote about men like them. I wrote about poaching and firewood and diesel engines, pie crust and bait fish and food stamps. I woke early each morning and spent an hour letting the sea spray land on my teacher clothes.

And each time I asked my students for an essay, I asked them to examine their homes. Mike Zyburt eventually wrote about the fence he and his father built around their back yard. Another student gave me the history of a local pottery business, and a third chronicled his distress when the Perkins diner changed hands. Each day, I released a little of Maine into my own work, and my students brought more of their homes into our classroom. We got each other through that first semester.

• • •

It’s been over two years since I taught my first class, and I’ve now asked my students to write about where they’re from countless times. There’s always a predictable resistance. Some of them have moved around and can’t identify a single location as their home. But the most common complaint is that the place they’re from is boring. This upsets me more than the errors that riddle their papers; it’s more dangerous than their strange relationships with cell phones and logic and reality television.

Composition instructors often say we’re teaching students how to think, not just how to write. But I want to teach them how to see, too; how to view themselves as a product of place and experience, how to find value in the quotidian. We will, all of us, spend our lives navigating the distance between the people and places we love most and the circumstances of hearts, careers, ambitions, and bank accounts that carry us away. We all need to be able to tell ourselves why.

At the start of every semester, I tell students that my goal is for them to become better writers and for me to become a better teacher. That’s only part of the truth, however. I want to prepare them for homesickness. When they’re drowning in their own displacement, when all they want is to hear a U.P. accent or know the score of a Lions game, I want them to remember the things about their homes that warrant ferocious longing.

There was that fence you built with your father. There was the time the Perkins closed.

I am preparing them for lives of missing, of longing, of hopeless remembering. I want them to be able to access the comfort of their own stories and to find a way home.

Robin McCarthy's work appears or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, Sonora Review, and the Rumpus, among other journals. She is the managing editor of Passages North and today she misses Maine's ham italian sandwiches even more than Friendship sloops and whoopie pies.

*This essay first appeared in Talking Writing, Jan 26, 2016 Talking Writing

Blog No. 46 "Me, Myself, I: Idiosyncrasy and Structure in Nonfiction" by Michael Downs

February 9, 2016

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

Before you look at Michael Down's craft essay, I would like to recommend an upcoming writer’s conference, writing contest, and writing workshop.

WRITER’S CONFERENCE: River Teeth Creative Nonfiction Writer’s Conference. June 3-5, 2016. River Teeth Creative Nonfiction Writer's Conference

WRITING CONTEST: Solstice Literary Magazine’s Creative Nonfiction Prize Solstice Literary Magazine's Creative Nonfiction Prize

WRITING WORKSHOP: OPEN THE DOORS: Nonfiction workshop with Baron Wormser and Kim Dana Kupperman, Montpelier, Vermont July 27-31, 2016.

Overview: The workshop is geared for writers at any level. The goal is to offer a chance to grow as a writer and bear witness to others’ growth. We invite each participant to start afresh with each piece of writing. Each day for five days, we will present at least two prompts. After a discussion that speaks to what is occurring in the piece, participants use that prompt as a jumping-off point. Then, after a timed writing period, the group reconvenes to read aloud what they’ve written and discuss how their piece relates to the prompt. There will be, over the course of the week, plenty of time to revise pieces.

The group will meet in our house near downtown Montpelier, a very short walk from places to stay restaurants, an art cinema, a bar with over twenty craft beers on tap, independent bookstores, and a number of bakeries and cafes. There is plenty of hiking, kayaking, and swimming nearby

Logistics: The cost for a week is $1,000. Doors open at 9:00 for breakfast; workshop begins at 9:30; and the day runs to 3:30. Participants can sit and write in our house and on the grounds or porch or sit in a nearby café and write there. We’ll be around all day to talk individually with each participant. Participation is limited to six people.

Instructors:
Baron Wormser is the co-author of two books about teaching poetry along with nine books of poetry, a memoir, a novel, and a book of short stories. He has led generative workshops for decades.
Kim Dana Kupperman is an award-winning essayist who has worked as an editor, writer, and teacher for over thirty years.

For information, or to register, please contact Baron Wormser at 802.223.2622 or baronwormser@gmail.com



____________________________

BLOG # 46, "ME, MYSELF, I: IDIOSYNCRASY AND STRUCTURE IN NONFICTION" BY MICHAEL DOWNS

Introductory Note: Whenever I talk shop with other writers, especially about works-in-progress--a personal essay or collection, a book length manuscript of literary/investigative journalism, or a memoir--the conversation invariably turns to matters of structure and shape. Experienced and inexperienced writers alike have to wrestle with things like voice and personae, subject and purpose. But at some point in the drafting process, we know that the success or failure of what we’re writing depends on whether or not we'll find the containing shape, the structure, that is, that best suits the manuscript—be it a work of narrative, lyric, and/or a hybrid form of one sort or other.

How then, does that decision come about? A conscious choice? An unexpected discovery? Maybe some combination of both? And, do we make this decision before we start? During the drafting stage? At some other point in the process?

At the AWP/Minneapolis conference last spring I was part of a panel on/about the various ways in which those of us who write and teach find the structure/shape for our works, both stand-alone pieces and full length manuscripts.

Michael Downs's fine piece below, "Me, Myself, I: Idiosyncrasy and Structure in Nonfiction,” is a reworking of his AWP panel talk. It also appeared in TriQuarterly's Fall, 2015 issue, along with the other four essays that were adapted from the panel. At some point, over the next few months, I'll try to post those on this blog.

MJS

Blog No. 46 "Me, Myself, I: Idiosyncrasy and Structure in Nonfiction" by Michael Downs


To begin, a confession: structure baffles me. This confusion proves as true in essays or books as with wood or brick. My hammer drives crooked nails; my Ikea furniture wobbles. Perhaps once in decades of writing have I found a structure in a first draft and stuck with it. Mozart, I’ve heard, could look skyward and see the construction of his scores unfold. When I look up, I see clouds – gray and indistinct.

Once, I asked a poet, a formalist, do you take pencil in hand intending to write a sonnet – or whatever form? Do you say, “Today, I will write a sonnet”? No, he answered. He wrote his first lines without thought to form, then examined what had just arrived on his page. He studied the shape of the lines, their rhythms, the logic and argument of the subject, then decided what form those lines and subject evoked. If they looked like a sonnet, he tried a sonnet. If they looked mostly like rhyming couplets, he tried rhyming couplets. Those early lines and subject matter were only his material – the sculptor’s marble block – and that material suggested the shape the poem might take.

This essay deals with structure and literary nonfiction, but the poet’s answer suggests that no matter the art or genre, material plays a role in structure. For me, who finds form befuddling, this leads to more questions. What’s the nature of that role? What’s its scope? How might it work? How might it work, especially, given that the material of nonfiction is some actual thing – a murder and a place, or five teenagers’ coming-of-age in a troubled city? This is real stuff. It has its own shape the way everything – a shoe horn, a sunrise, a street protest – has a shape.

Bruno Schulz, the Polish-Jewish art teacher and writer murdered in 1942 by a Nazi, is known best for fiction. But he has this wonderful, Bruno-Schulzian-thing-to-say about shapes and reality. It has to do with reality’s ever-changing form, and it helps explain what nonfiction writers face when considering the influence of material on structure. The material – reality (that shoe horn, the sunrise, the street protest) – isn’t static. Reality, as Schulz writes, “is in a state of constant fermentation, germination, hidden life. It contains no hard, dead, limited objects. Everything … remains in a given shape only momentarily, leaving this shape behind at the first opportunity.”(i)

Adding a Kafka reference to his vision of reality’s shape-shifting, Schultz goes on: “One person is a human, another is a cockroach, but shape does not penetrate essence, is only a role adopted for a moment, an outer skin soon to be shed.” (ii)

So, form or structure, like a snake’s skin or our own, is impermanent but essence is always the same. Consider how the essence of a person remains unchanged whether that person is hammering a nail into a wall – one form – or feeding a child – another form. What is true of people is also true of things, processes, and any reality at all. This understanding gives me, as a nonfiction writer, permission to consider a variety of shapes to explain whatever reality I see. Subject matter suggests a shape, yes, but shape matters less than essence. Shape is artifice, a way to get at essence. Shape can be a product of my mind at work.

This is not to say that shape is arbitrary or immaterial. It’s not. It matters how nonfiction writers arrange their subject matter, because that organization – that structure – is central to how we seek meaning in our subjects. Marion Winik, for example, in her tender work, The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, organizes dozens of loved ones and acquaintances – all dead – into small, neat essays, a graveyard of people for whom she is often the only link, planting mums over this plot, telling jokes at another. Winik does not arrange her dead chronologically by expiration date. Rather, brothers might lie side-by-side, or a friend who was an addict gives thought to another.(iii) Glen Rock’s structure reveals Winik’s mind organizing her dead as if each is a question about living and dying, as if she might find meaning ¬– even in her own death, whenever it comes – if she just arranges her dead in a proper order.

So, structure is artifice. In nonfiction, it’s how a writer seeks meaning through arrangement of a shape-shifting reality. These conclusions make sense, I think, because they mesh with what we know is a defining element of literary nonfiction: idiosyncrasy – those qualities that make us peculiar, eccentric, unique. What makes literary nonfiction literary nonfiction is individual sensibility.

To peruse a bookshelf, though, might leave an impression that idiosyncrasy in nonfiction has to do with voice. On my shelf, I find writers praised for voices that are “unflinchingly personal,” “quirky and delightful,” and “refreshing.” But isn’t structure idiosyncratic, too? Doesn’t each mind seek meaning in a different way, arrange the living room furniture – or an essay’s paragraphs – to suit personal needs, whims, tastes? Similar material suggests one arrangement to Marion Winik, while suggesting a radically different form to Joan Didion. Winik’s meditation on dying involves four dozen or so short essays about as many deaths; Didion’s – in The Year of Magical Thinking – focuses on one.

Combine these assertions, and we can argue that how we shape our material is a defining element of our work, maybe even the most defining element.

But if structure arises out of our idiosyncratic selves, what benefit can one nonfiction writer gain by studying the oh-so-individual structures of others? If structure in your nonfiction is all about you, how can that help me? What will studying your thumbprint teach me about mine? Moreover, that material we’re arranging? In nonfiction, it’s often us: our thoughts, experiences, our journeys toward meaning: idiosyncratic subject matter piled atop idiosyncratic structure. Other writers’ works seems unlikely to be successful blueprints for our own.

An example: I love Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, D.J. Waldie’s lyrical study of the Los Angeles suburb where he grew up and lives. But the book is so idiosyncratic in structure and material, I’ll never write anything like it. Waldie, who shuns cars and walked to his day job, built his book to replicate the pattern of houses that make up his neighborhood. Reading the short numbered chapters – 316 of them over 179 pages – mirrors the act of walking past address after address. (iv) Clearly, Waldie’s singular mind is at work seeking meaning through a structural arrangement his unique material and life suggests. Would a writer who drives to work have translated those suburbs the same way?

Nevertheless, I study Waldie and others, because their idiosyncrasies reveal an astonishing array of possibilities for arranging my own material, most of which I might not use and others that might fit my purposes with slight alterations, but which I’d otherwise never consider. Perhaps the more important benefit is the reminder that when the writer and material both exert influence on structure – when neither dominates the other – the work achieves a power and grace I want in my writing.

When I began what became House of Good Hope (University of Nebraska Press, 2007), I let the material dominate the structure. My subject was the coming-of-age of five friends from my hometown, young men who wanted to escape their grit-and-broken-glass neighborhoods for college, then return to help restore them. That’s what I wrote. Nothing about me. Just them, mostly chronologically. Though the friends proved interesting subjects, the manuscript’s structure was unartful as the transcribed minutes of a city council meeting. Prodded by friendly readers, I added a section about me. That didn’t work, either, proving to be a sixty-page long diversion from the book’s main focus. Not until I threaded my story through theirs did the book’s structure gel. Not coincidentally, that’s also when I realized that the five friends and I shared a quest. The book had found its form – and it’s meaning.

Other times I’m too much in control of structure, ignoring the needs of the material. I have a friend who crafts beautiful essays in which she braids disparate ideas with associative links or emotions, lovely stuff. Recently, inspired by her work, I attempted that structure. You will never, ever read that essay. My subject, an intense morning in my neighborhood involving federal gunmen and an innocent man, didn’t lend itself to the associative, diffused logic of a braided essay. The material, to my mind, wanted another form, which in my experiment I had ignored. During a second draft, I learned that the material wanted to stay focused and tight and tense, mostly chronological with a few flashbacks. I respected that suggestion, and I’m happier with the result, which I hope, like the best nonfiction, seeks and perhaps finds through its structure the essence of some shape-shifting reality; in this case, what happened that morning – not only in my neighborhood, but within me.

______________________________
(i) Schulz, Bruno. “An Essay for S.I. Witkiewicz,” Polish Writers on Writing, edited by Adam Zagajewski. San Antonio, Texas: Trinity University Press, 2007. Essay translated by Walter Arndt and Victoria Nelson. p. 33.
(ii) ibid
(iii) Winik, Marion. Glen Rock Book of the Dead. Berkeley, California: Counterpoint, 2008.
(iv) Waldie, D. J.. Holy land: a suburban memoir. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.

________________________________

Michael Downs's books include House of Good Hope (University of Nebraska Press), winner of the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize, and The Greatest Show (Louisiana State University Press) a collection of linked stories featuring the Hartford Circus Fire of 1944. A former newspaper reporter, he has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Maryland State Arts Council, and the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. He lives in Baltimore and teaches at Towson University.

Blog # 45 THE DOCTOR IS IN, PART 2: SOME FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ON/ABOUT WRITING AND TEACHING CREATIVE NONFICTION BY MICHAEL STEINBERG

January 11, 2016

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

Note: For those who follow this blog, I have two recommendations.

1) A published anthology. AFTER MONTAIGNE: CONTEMPORARY ESSAYISTS COVER THE ESSAYS Edited by David Lazar and Patrick Madden After Montaige:Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays

After Montaigne essentially is a “greatest hits” collection of impressions and opinions on/about Montaigne’s essays--written by many of the genre’s most well known contemporary writers.

2) In December, Ander Monson’s invaluable blog, Essay Daily, Essay Daily ran a series of essays in celebration of the 30th anniversary of The Best American Essays annual anthology. The pieces, by a variety of writers, editors, and teachers, including one by Robert Atwan, the series founding editor, present opinions and commentary on/about each BAE individual issue, as well as offering an overview of the genre’s unexpected growth and evolution from 1986 up through the present issue. You can find all of the essays in Essay Daily’s November and December archives.
MJS

Blog # 45, SOME THOUGHTS AND OPINIONS ON/ABOUT WRITING AND TEACHING CREATIVE NONFICTION, PART 2 BY MICHAEL STEINBERG

This is my second blog entry on/about specific matters of genre, craft, and of writing creative nonfiction in general. You can find The Doctor Is In, Part 1: Some Thoughts About Matters of Craft (Blog # 40), in the June, 2015, Archives

In a July, AWP Spotlight Award interview, AWP Spotlight Award Interview, I was asked several questions. Below are a few answers, along with some recently added thoughts.

AWP: What is the best writing advice that you dispense to your students?

MJS: First, revision/re-seeing is the key to all good writing. At the start, give yourself permission to write badly. Write everything that comes to mind. Reread the (messy) draft, looking for patterns and repetitions. And wherever you find them, cut everything else away and start there. Even when you think a piece is finished, put it away for a few weeks--months, even--and then read it again. If you still think it’s done, send it out.

Second, Robert Frost said, “No surprises for the writer, no surprises for the reader.” Each time you write, you hope to surprise yourself. I’d like to add that, often, my most unexpected surprises, I’ve found, show up in digressions and afterthoughts. Sometimes, those surprises have led me to produce some rich, compelling passages of writing. It’s taken me some time to give myself the permission to cut away most, or even all of the writing, that’s led me to those surprises. Now, when something unexpected, something unbidden, doesn’t show up on the page, it’s a bad writing day.

AWP: What is the best career advice that you dispense to your students?

MJS: When I was a younger writer, I complained a lot to Donald Murray, my mentor, about all the rejection slips I was getting. To which he said: “The acceptances are just as irrational as the rejections.” Murray was right. But I didn’t fully understand what he was getting at until I became an editor of a literary journal.

AWP: Can writing be taught? Why does creative writing belong in the academy?

MJS: Yes, writing can be taught. And yes, it belongs in the academy. But mainly if it’s taught by practicing writers. And if aspiring writers are voracious readers as well. In addition, as teachers and writers, we all know that talent, a predisposition for writing, is important. But we also know that when it comes to our students, we can’t measure or predict the intangibles--things like desire, yearning, passion, curiosity, tenacity, persistence, sheer determination, and hard work. Possessing those qualities--with or without raw talent—is a big piece of what it takes to succeed at writing, or at anything else for that matter.

AWP: Do you feel influenced by your peers to produce a certain type of creative work, or do you feel free to follow your own interests and passions?

MJS: Both. Because I’ve written a lot of pieces where baseball, in one form or another, seems to show up. And so, when peers ask me about that, I often get self conscious and start to worry that maybe I’m destined to become just a “one note” writer,

Also, we’ve all experienced the feeling of believing that we’re neither good nor imaginative enough to become the writer we want to be. Competing and/or comparing ourselves to other writers—peers or the great writers we’ve read--that’s our internal censor talking. A colleague once gave me some advice she tells her students. I’d like to pass it on: “Stop comparing yourself to others,” she said, “you’re the only one who can write this piece.”

There’s also a quote from William Stafford that I use with my students and myself. It goes like this,

"I can imagine a person beginning to feel that he’s not able to write up to that standard he imagines the world has set for him. But to me that’s surrealistic. The only standard I can rationally have is the standard I’m meeting right now…. You should be more willing to forgive yourself. It doesn’t make any difference if you are good or bad today; the assessment of the product is something that happens after you’ve done it."

AWP: What is your favorite thing to do when you should be writing, but just can’t find the motivation?

MJS: Whenever I feel uninspired or unmotivated, I compose emails about writing (especially about matters of craft) and send them to like-minded colleagues and/or former students. I also keep reminding myself that the track record tells me that I’ve done this before and I can do it again.

AWP: What is the greatest compliment that you could ever receive about your writing?

MJS: When someone who’s read my work or heard me read tells me, “Yeah, I’ve felt exactly like that before. Until I read (or heard) your work, I believed I was the only one who thought or felt that way.

#44 Part 5. Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers by Karen Babine

December 16, 2015

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

Note: This is the last installment of Karen Babine's "Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers." If you missed the first four installments, they appear right below this one.

Here's my original introduction to the piece:

This month’s guest is Karen Babine, the founder and editor of the very fine, online magazine, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies assayjournal.com

Karen’s contribution, Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers, is, as its title suggests, a personal, yet very detailed and meticulously researched piece on/about using the essay to teach “place” to first-year-writers. Although it’s aimed at first-year students and freshman composition teachers, this essay, I believe, will be of great value to just about anyone--both experienced and beginners--who teach and write literary nonfiction.

For those who follow this blog, Karen’s essay is a departure of sorts. For almost four years, I’ve been posting personal/teaching essays on/about matters of genre and craft. I've written some and selected guest writer/teachers have written others. Karen’s piece, an expansive essay--a thoughtful, thought-provoking, personal/critical essay. Not only is it an informed, in-depth, study on/about the teaching of place, but it also re-visits an important conversation about teaching writing, about the relationship between creative writing (in this case, literary nonfiction) and composition, and about the writing process itself--a passionate, transformative, approach to writing that began in the 1970’s. The movement included a host of concerned practitioners, rhetoricians and theorists, and beginning teachers of composition. It thrived for almost three decades before being replaced ,in the late 80’s, by a traditional, heavily prescriptive, outdated, methodology, an approach that’s being taught today in most public schools and in many colleges and universities as well.

This essay is a reflective, complex (and a very important, I believe), piece.

The FIFTH segment appears below.

Note: In this and in each subsequent post, I'll include the full list of citations.

MJS


PART FIVE: PRAXIS: USING THE ESSAY TO WRITE PLACE-CONSCIOUSNESS

The active citizenry required of place-conscious education—that it does not simply stay inside the classroom, but finds its way out of the personal into the global context—finds a different expression in a cross-curriculum unit that Sharon Bishop designed between her English class and a biology class at Heartland Community Schools (“Power of Place” 76). Though her unit is designed for her specific high school setting, the concept transfers nicely to a first-year writing classroom, one that considers the Essay an important part of teaching place-consciousness. Collaboration between departments and classes at the college level is rare and difficult. As a result, trying to get my students to understand where they are already using what they are learning in my classes in other classes is essential.

But if the best essays are taking place in the subgenres—like science—collaboration and overlap of disciplines is essential. The opportunities for such are simply greater and the possibilities more intricate at the college level, and it seems a shame not to take advantage of what is present on the UNL campus. My students largely come into my classroom thinking that each subject they have been taught in their K-12 education must remain separate. Combine science and history? For them, it’s unthinkable—but tell that to Stephen Jay Gould. Literature and biology? Absolutely not—so we might as well toss the Annie Dillard. What about UNL’s own John Janovy, Jr., of the biology department, who has published fifteen books, ten of which are creative nonfiction about the Plains? If students learn that writing is only confined to English classes—and if in those English classes there’s a certain definition of what you can write about that teaches students that the place they come from, that the thoughts they have aren’t going to be interesting to anyone else, that’s hugely problematic. But it is also a wonderful opportunity that the Essay can fill.

The point is to teach students different ways to envision their own essays and teach them that there are many, many ways to write an essay—and all of them are “right.” “What the Spaces Say,” by Robert Root, delivered as a 2001 CCCC presentation, presents the function of the segmented essay and how it achieves that purpose:

“Beyond an expanding recognition of nonfiction as a literary genre, the most significant change in the nature of nonfiction in our time has been the sue of space as an element of composition. […] Segemented essays…depend on space, usually expressed as numbers or rows of asterisks or squiggly lines or white breaks in a text, as a fundamental element of design and expression. Knowing what the spaces say is vital for understanding the nonfictionist’s craft and appreciating the possibilities of this contemporary form; it also help us to better understand the nature of truth in the segmented essay.”

It’s one thing to consider space in the context of the outside world of place, the grounding that I require in this particular assignment, but it’s another thing entirely to consider space on the page. David A. Gruenewald writes of the importance of space in place-consciousness: “Just as place cannot be reduced to a point on a grid, neither can space, which has taken on metaphorical and cultural meanings that describe geographical relationships of power, contested territories of identity and difference, and aesthetic or even cybernetic experience” (622).

As we read Mark Tredinnick’s The Blue Plateau for WP3, students are often thrown by the fragmented structure, broken up into little sections that flash and circle each other. Through our discussions, we tease out the idea that there is no other way this book could be structured, because his relationship to the place is fragmented, broken. The structure itself articulates that just when the reader thinks they know a character or has some insight into the Kedumba Plateau, it’s over and Tredinnick moves to something else, which leaves the reader jarred and possibly confused. But that is deliberate—and teaching my students that nothing a writer does is accidental is a wonderful moment. If you’re confused, why would the writer want you confused? If you’re angry, why would the writer want you angry? And then, perhaps most importantly, how can you create the same types of reactions and emotions in your readers?

The discussion of structure within WP2 begins with Michele Morano’s “In the Subjunctive Mood” and Tom Coakley’s “How to Speak About the Secret Desert Wars,” as well as Robert Root’s “What the Spaces Say,” which is a segmented Essay about segmented Essays. The point of this particular day, the Quest of which is “What does it mean to consider the language of a place? And what happens if you can’t put language to it?” we discuss how many different languages the students speak and where they speak them, beyond English, Spanish, or French. We talk about the language of cars and mechanics, we talk about the language of fall in eastern Nebraska and how that’s different from fall in western Nebraska, we talk about how the language of Huskers Football at Memorial Stadium will likely not translate outside of Nebraska.

Michele Morano’s essay is written in the second person, in the form of a grammar lesson. The narrator is teaching the reader how to use the subjunctive mood in Spanish, but it is a gateway to the narrative itself, which is about Morano moving to Spain to escape a boyfriend she is afraid will kill himself. The use of second person, as we discuss, can be off-putting to a reader who has never had that particular experience—but, as we also have discussed many times by this point in the semester, nothing a writer does is accidental, so why would she do this? We talk through it and decide that the reader being told that “you” are doing something, feel a certain way, forces the reader to actually put themselves in that position and imagine what it is like. It takes away the reader’s freedom to feel what they will: Morano tells the reader what to feel, which echoes what she was feeling, the trapped feeling she was so desperate to escape. As we consider the structure of the grammar lesson, segmented and numbered, we consider what we would have lost if the piece had been a straight, chronological narrative. We discuss the subtext that she is not saying and how the structure itself, by providing breaks and white space, allows the reader to breathe, to consider what she has just presented, and then we move on.

Tom Coakley’s essay, “How to Speak of the Secret Desert Wars,” titles its sections with imperatives, turning the piece into a literal How To. We compare the section breaks, how they are used. We consider the function of the white space on the page. We discuss how the sections do exactly what the titles suggest, even those sections that seemingly have nothing to do with war at all. By coming in from a different direction, Coakley makes his point even more strongly. By using some of his sections to speak about things he cannot speak about—and some of the sections to not speak about those things he cannot speak about, he makes his overall point.

At this point, I remind my class that one of the first pieces we read in the class, W. Scott Olsen’s “The Love of Maps,” so the segmented essay is something we’ve been aware of since the very beginning. Getting students to consider space in their Writing Projects has been one of the most difficult premises of teaching the essay. They are so transfixed by the straight narrative form that they cannot conceive of white space, of breaking up the line. But the truth is this: the students who decide to be brave and try this segmented form have written some of the best essays that I have come across in my years of teaching.

ARTICULATION VI: AN ESSAYED CONCLUSION

One of the central tenets of place-conscious education is the active citizenry, the moving of students out of their local context into seeing how their local plays a part in the global, and moving to participating in that conversation. In this particular course, the active citizenry is less political than it is a measure of consciousness. My goal for this course is to give students a way of thinking of place as active, that neither the place nor themselves are passive. Home is not accidental. Community is not accidental. Ashfall didn’t happen by accident and neither did the Sandhills, Omaha or Lincoln or Chicago. The context they are creating themselves is not accidental: they are making choices that form what surrounds them. So it is fitting that the final reading of the semester, as we prepare to discuss the rough drafts of the final Writing Project, is the epilogue to Mark Tredinnick’s The Blue Plateau.

While Tredinnick’s book is ultimately about learning to belong to a place that wants no part of you and failing at it, the overall point of his book is that the attempt is necessary. It is necessary for Tredinnick himself to wonder why he feels connected here, even if the relationship is one-sided. The middle of the epilogue puts all of this into an active language that my students understand well by this point: it is not how long you are in a place that matters—what matters is how you are in that place:

“I must not blame the place, though, for my leaing—not even the town. I was always like this: I plateau. And I plateaued even there. […] Home is a verb—a word that dwells infinitely between those who say it often enough together. Home is the sayer and the said and above all it is the saying. Home is the conversation we make with what, and whom, we say we love; and what it’s about is who we are and always were. Home is a word—sometimes it is a whole sentence—for the ecology of belonging, and it includes deposition and erosion, the wet and the dry and the cold and the windl it includes the making and the unmaking, the coming and the going, and it isn’t always happy. Sometimes it rains, and sometimes it burns, and sometimes it falls and you fall with it. But home runs deep, and it runs hard, and sometimes it runs dry, and once it starts, it never seems to end” (232).

What happens after they leave the classroom? What do they know about place? What do they know about what it means to write an essay? And what have they learned about how place and essay give them a different way of active participation in their world? How has home turned into an active verb for them, rather than simply a noun? Some of this I will never know. But some of it I do. When I ask my students to write a reflection after each paper, the prompt asks them to consider who they might share their essay with. Most have an answer: family members, friends, and such. Almost never do I read a reflection where a student writes that he will never share it.

But there is another way: there are several literary magazines dedicated to publishing undergraduate work. Throughout the semester, I encourage students to send their work to these magazines, to submit their work to the departmental awards in the spring, to try to teach them that even though they may not identify themselves as writers, that is what they are. They may not choose to write for a living—or even for fun—but that does not mean they have not produced a work of writing that other people should read. Some students submit their work, some do not. But the point is that the active citizenry required of place-conscious education offers more outlets than political action. Sometimes the action is literary, sometimes the action is artistic, sometimes it is simply functional, but it is just as much a risk as protesting the Keystone XL pipeline through the Sandhills. Home is a verb, as much an active concept as writing, as much a space worthy of exploration as the page home is written on. (more…)

#44 Part 4, Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers (Part 4) by Karen Babine

December 9, 2015

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

Introductory Note: I've gotten a good deal of positive feedback to the first three parts of Karen Babine's "Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers." This is the fourth of a five installments. If you missed the first three, they appear right below this one. I'll post the fifth installment on December 16, one week from today.

Below. is my original introduction to the piece:

This month’s guest is Karen Babine, the founder and editor of the very fine, online magazine, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies assayjournal.com

Karen’s contribution, Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers, is, as its title suggests, a personal, yet very detailed and meticulously researched piece on/about using the essay to teach “place” to first-year-writers. Although it’s aimed at first-year students and freshman composition teachers, this essay, I believe, will be of great value to just about anyone--both experienced and beginners--who teach and write literary nonfiction.

For those who follow this blog, Karen’s essay is a departure of sorts. For almost four years, I’ve been posting personal/teaching essays on/about matters of genre and craft. I've written some and selected guest writer/teachers have written others. Karen’s piece, an expansive essay--a thoughtful, thought-provoking, personal/critical essay. Not only is it an informed, in-depth, study on/about the teaching of place, but it also re-visits an important conversation about teaching writing, about the relationship between creative writing (in this case, literary nonfiction) and composition, and about the writing process itself--a passionate, transformative, approach to writing that began in the 1970’s. The movement included a host of concerned practitioners, rhetoricians and theorists, and beginning teachers of composition. It thrived for almost three decades before being replaced ,in the late 80’s, by a traditional, heavily prescriptive, outdated, methodology, an approach that’s being taught today in most public schools and in many colleges and universities as well.

This essay is a reflective, complex (and a very important, I believe), piece. And so, I’ve chosen to post one segment each Wednesday for five consecutive weeks.

The fourth segment appears below.

Note: In this and in each subsequent post, I'll include the full list of citations.


FINDING THE MIDDLE VOICE: ARTICULATING DISTANCE

The struggle to articulate why their experiences or thoughts should matter to an outside audience, to people who do not know them and do not know the place they are writing about, mostly comes down to the element of exposition. This is what we felt was missing from Elizabeth Dodd’s piece, ability of the writer to navigate the distance between the self who experienced the event and the self who is writing about the event. This is the important link between valuing an experience as a writer and valuing it as a reader. Mark Tredinnick writes that “the essay depends on a world and on an author: it stretches between them, author and solid earth, speaking of, made of, both of them” (“Essential Prose” 36). He coins the term “middle voice” to speak of the space between the author and the earth—or, more broadly in this context, the student-author and his or her subject. In some languages, the grammatical middle voice refers to the third voice that bridges active and passive voice. Both are apt metaphors to discuss the analysis that exposition provides and universal quality of high exposition.

Teaching students about distance proves to be as difficult—and as simple—as teaching them that their experiences are valuable. Just as Natalie Kusz’s succinct description of nonfiction values “what you know now as a result of what happened,” teaching students that who they were when the experience happened is not the same person who is sitting down at the computer writing of the experience is a process that has proven to be easy in the conversation, but tough in the execution. My students nod in comprehension when I explain this, but the execution on the page takes practice that often spans the sixteen weeks of the semester. One student who wrote about the 2004 Hallam, NE tornado, an F-4 tornado that destroyed a wide swath near her grandparents’ house, a tornado that struck the same day her mother told her she had breast cancer, which resulted in a lovely essay about the language of cancer and tornadoes. My student, who was eleven at the time, knows a lot more now at eighteen than she did at the time, which, when that particular light bulb went on, shifted the draft from merely a journal entry about how she felt at the time into a true Essay that made these two unique events relevant to those who were not familiar with the tornado or had no experience with cancer. It is, as Mark Tredinnick writes in “The Essential Prose of Things,” “That writing self is a mosaic of many selves touched by many parts of the other she engages with; and the words she writes are made not so much by her—or even by all those many bits of her—as by the relationship between herself and the other. This is the kind of self the essayist must be” (37). The point here is that it is in this place that content and craft intersect.

In the Foreword to the 2011 volume of Best American Travel Writing, the eleventh volume in the annual series, series editor Jason Wilson fits the essay—and the necessity of the middle voice—within the framework of his own classroom: “I always encourage them to think about their youthful adventures with as much distance as possible, and to fit their personal stories into the context of the place. ‘Why are you telling me this story?’ I ask them. ‘What makes this your trip and no one else’s?’” (x). At best, place and travel writing are two sides of the same coin and in my classroom, I often do not make the distinction, offering students the greatest chance to find what it is they need to write about without labeling their work one way or another. Wilson continues:

“Perhaps the real measure of success is whether or not these students sharpen their critical eye, learning to look for the sorts of fascinating or idiosyncratic or unexpected or profound moments and experiences that make travel (and life) more meaningful. Meaningful travel…is, of course, open to all of us. Writing about travel in a way that resonates with readers? Well, that’s something else altogether (xi).”

My intention in using the essay, knowing that I will be starting from zero-knowledge in this form, is to teach students to find the exceptional in the ordinary. I want to teach them that it does not matter if they can relate to a topic: the more relevant questions are Is this piece of writing successful? If so, what makes it work? If not, what makes it unsuccessful? What can you learn from this piece of writing that you can use in your own writing? As might be expected, this process takes some time. My students are writers—even if they do not claim themselves as such, I claim them as such.

It is this articulation of the space between the literal elements of the essay as well as the elements of craft that is important and I like the term middle voice for it. Later, Tredinnick writes that “The middle-voiced writer is not separable from what she encounters—is not merely an agent of action, or even of observation. Nor is what she observes reducible to a lifeless object. Each affects and is affected by the other. And the voice we hear belongs to them both; the self of the piece of writing is a self composed of its many figures of participation with the place” (36). Given this, the middle voice acknowledges that part of the page needs to be active, part of the page needs to make sense of that action, some of the page needs to observe and contemplate. None of the elements could survive without the other. The page is as much a place as the ground my students stand on.


ARTICULATION V

During WP2, while we are discussing place and language, we read Kim Barnes’s essay “The Ashes of August,” which teaches us the language of Idaho and the language of wildfires. Even on the first page, as we get a spectacular grounding in light and color and taste (which is bookended in the last paragraph by a wonderful evocation of smell), the reader is told that “the riverbanks are bedded in basalt.” My students and I agree that it means something different to know that your bedrock is basalt. On Tim Robinson’s Aran Islands in Ireland, it means something to know that the bedrock limestone, just as when he writes of Connemara, it means something different to know the bedrock is granite. As Mark Tredinnick writes of the Blue Plateau in Australia, the knowledge of sandstone beneath your feet also tells you what you need to know about what it means to stand here, today, in this particular angle of sunshine.

It means something to know that Barnes’s canyon was formed by volcanoes, as she’s making the point with that one word that her home is a volatile place, formed by fire from its earliest days. As the essay itself is about wildfires that come every August, it means something to know that fire still forms the people who live here, and it begins to answer the question what does it mean to live here, today? What are the layers of meaning? What is our context? What is underneath our feet that affects how we live? And how do we articulate what we cannot see?

And the answer is this: this is how we are connected. A volcano twelve million years ago connects those of us who stand on the Great Plains to those who stand in Idaho and it does not matter if we stand on flat or mountain, water or clay. Because the mud that cakes our shoes at Ashfall in Nebraska can be traced directly back to a specific volcano in Idaho, to a specific moment in time, linked by science, linked by the glass shards of volcanic bubbles when they shattered. (more…)

#44 Part 3, Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers (Part 3) by Karen Babine

December 2, 2015

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

#44 Part 3, Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers (Part 3) by Karen Babine

Introductory Note: I've gotten a good deal of positive frrdback to the first two parts of Karen Babine's "Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers." This is the third of a possible four or five installments. If you missed the first two, they appear right below this one. I'll post the fourth installment on December 9, one week from today.

Below. is my original introduction to the piece:

This month’s guest is Karen Babine, the founder and editor of the very fine, online magazine, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies assayjournal.com

Karen’s contribution, Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers, is, as its title suggests, a personal, yet very detailed and meticulously researched piece on/about using the essay to teach “place” to first-year-writers. Although it’s aimed at first-year students and freshman composition teachers, this essay, I believe, will be of great value to just about anyone--both experienced and beginners--who teach and write literary nonfiction.

For those who follow this blog, Karen’s essay is a departure of sorts. For almost four years, I’ve been posting personal/teaching essays on/about matters of genre and craft. I've written some and selected guest writer/teachers have written others. Karen’s piece, an expansive essay--a thoughtful, thought-provoking, personal/critical essay. Not only is it an informed, in-depth, study on/about the teaching of place, but it also re-visits an important conversation about teaching writing, about the relationship between creative writing (in this case, literary nonfiction) and composition, and about the writing process itself--a passionate, transformative, approach to writing that began in the 1970’s. The movement included a host of concerned practitioners, rhetoricians and theorists, and beginning teachers of composition. It thrived for almost three decades before being replaced ,in the late 80’s, by a traditional, heavily prescriptive, outdated, methodology, an approach that’s being taught today in most public schools and in many colleges and universities as well.

This essay is a reflective, complex (and a very important, I believe), piece. And so, I’ve chosen to post one segment each Wednesday for four consecutive weeks.

The third segment appears below.

Note: In this and in each subsequent post, I'll include the full list of citations.


ARTICULATION IV

For the third Writing Project, my students and I spend a class period at the University of Nebraska State Museum, more familiarly known as Morrill Hall or the Elephant Museum. In the chamber off the main hall, an exhibit of Ashfall: twelve million years ago, a volcano in Idaho erupted in what is called the Bruneau-Jarbidge Event. It dumped enough ash on the Great Plains to create a mudpit out of a watering hole, resulting in a death trap that preserved two hundred different skeletons of animals. Most of my students—even the ones who have generational roots in Nebraska—do not know this place exists, let alone that it is three hours north of Lincoln.

One of my students follows me into the exhibit.

“This is my favorite exhibit in the whole place,” I say to fill the silence.

My student, who only voices his most important thoughts, nods. He then asks if the volcano in question was the Yellowstone eruption—and I am thrilled that he even knew of the Yellowstone caldera eruption—and I almost hate to tell him that it wasn’t, but I have to admit I do not know which specific volcano created Ashfall.

I leave him to wander the museum on his own and I lose myself in the bones of five species of prehistoric horses, three species of prehistoric camels, one species of rhinoceros—the teleoceras major. (There are several species of prehistoric rhinoceros native to the Great Plains.) One rhinoceros skeleton was found nose-to-nose with its calf. Smaller mammals that were the ancestors of the antelope and deer of the Plains, birds and turtles and tortoises and other reptiles that largely remain the same today as they were then.

What makes the bones of Ashfall unique is that the matrix holds them in the same position as their moment of death. Most fossils collapse into one dimension once the flesh has decomposed, once the skeletons have been stripped by the scavengers who take advantage of the opportunity. There is nothing left to hold the bones together and they collapse. If they collapse into a way that keeps the order of bones intact, we say that the skeleton is articulated, as if the order of the bones allows us to speak of them. What is missing when we cannot articulate the bones?

During the next class period, I tell them that the Western Black Rhino has just been declared extinct in Africa. This is place, I tell them. And I wonder how we articulate a place like that, one that no longer knows the Western Black Rhino.

Praxis: Using the Essay to Read Place-Consciousness

When I ask my first-year students to name Great Plains writers (not just Nebraskan writers), I rarely get anything beyond Willa Cather. But the reality is that the Great Plains—just like the Minnesota I grew up in—is wild with writers, one of whom, Ted Kooser, Pulitzer Prize winning poet and former Poet Laureate, teaches in our English department at UNL. How can we expect them to know—and value the writing of place—if we do not teach them? How can we expect them to value the writing of place that they are doing—if we do no teach them that their voices are as valuable as what is already in print? In her article “Sense of Place,” Sharon Bishop writes of proposing, in 1986, to replace the traditional anthology of literature with Nebraska authors in her sophomore English class (66). She complicates the reading of Nebraska literature by asking the students to actively participate in writing the stories of their place (with an oral history project), and the result is the sort of active learning that is so central to place-conscious education. But the idea is larger than a simple syllabus change: the result is that she is teaching her students that literature that matters is still being created in this place, that the students are also participating in the creation of that literature.

Since our first Writing Project in 150 is designed to explore an aspect of a place that the student is connected to—does not have to be home—we are looking at Gruchow for examples of how one writer does that, as well as forms that we can use for inspiration. Phillip Lopate writes that “Eventually, one begins to share Montaigne’s confidence that ‘all subjects are linked to one another,’ which makes any topic, however small or far from the center, equally fertile” (77). We consider W. Scott Olsen’s “The Love of Maps,” which explores all possible answers to the question that starts his essay: “Why are you here?” We talk about answering that question through history, theology, philosophy, weather, and more. We discuss that Judith Kitchen’s short-short “Culloden” is about more than being at Culloden on her birthday. Readings like these emphasize that there is no one right way to know something, that any moment we consider profound in our own lives can be articulated to our readers, so they can share in the experience.

On the day we discuss “What Is Lost and What Can Never Be Lost,” we have read two Paul Gruchow essays out of Grass Roots (“Visions” and “Bones”) and Elizabeth Dodd’s essay “Underground,” from the anthology A Year In Place. It’s easy to write about loss—but it’s not easy to make people care about your loss. Since we are starting the day with “Visions,” about Gruchow’s childhood experience with the ghost of a cowboy in his bedroom and an adult encounter he and a friend have with a grizzly bear who tears apart their camp, we question beliefs and superstitions, growing up, and what do we lose when we put away “childish” beliefs? The cleverly titled “Bones” is about Gruchow’s lifelong obsession with bones. The content itself of these readings is the place-conscious element of the class, as we consider how other people relate to their places, how they form attachments to places and how they forcibly reject attachments.

But neither Gruchow essay is about its subject: “Visions” is not about the cowboy ghost, nor is it about the bear incident. “Bones” is not about bones. “Visions,” as we tease out of our discussion, is about how we make sense of loss: Gruchow is reacting to the loss of childhood curiosity and awe, what he feels like he has been required to give up to become an adult. The scene with the bear is his antidote to that loss—a re-mythologizing that counteracts the myth of the cowboys and Indians by finding awe and curiosity in nature. Does he create a new mythology here, with bears as mythical creatures—charismatic megafauna, a term from ecocriticism I introduce to them—stories we hear but never see ourselves? This is how he makes us, as readers, care about what he is doing, by making the stories he is telling evidence of some larger purpose. In “Bones,” what happens when all that is left is bones? Are the stories gone? How can they be part of something larger, when nobody knows the stories they represent? I want them to see that the Essay form is a perfect outlet for these kind of ideas that we are learning. We read as writers to discern how Gruchow achieves the effect that his content offers and this is the composition classroom element: how does writing work? (more…)

#44 Part 2, Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers (Part 2) by Karen Babine

November 25, 2015

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

Introductory Note: I've gotten a good deal of response to the first part of Karen Babine's contribution, "Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers." This is the second of four installments. If you missed the first one, it appears right below this one. I'll post the third installment on December 2, one week from today; and the final one on December 9.

Below is my original introduction to the piece:

This month’s guest is Karen Babine, the founder and editor of the very fine, online magazine, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies assayjournal.com

Karen’s contribution, Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers, is, as its title suggests, a personal, yet very detailed and meticulously researched piece on/about using the essay to teach “place” to first-year-writers. Although it’s aimed at first-year students and freshman composition teachers, this essay, I believe, will be of great value to just about anyone--both experienced and beginners--who teach and write literary nonfiction.

For those who follow this blog, Karen’s essay is a departure of sorts. For almost four years, I’ve been posting personal/teaching essays on/about matters of genre and craft. I've written some and selected guest writer/teachers have written others. Karen’s piece, an expansive essay--a thoughtful, thought-provoking, personal/critical essay. Not only is it an informed, in-depth, study on/about the teaching of place, but it also re-visits an important conversation about teaching writing, about the relationship between creative writing (in this case, literary nonfiction) and composition, and about the writing process itself--a passionate, transformative, approach to writing that began in the 1970’s. The movement included a host of concerned practitioners, rhetoricians and theorists, and beginning teachers of composition. It thrived for almost three decades before being replaced ,in the late 80’s, by a traditional, heavily prescriptive, outdated, methodology, an approach that’s being taught today in most public schools and in many colleges and universities as well.

This essay is reflective, complex (and very important, I believe), piece. And so, I’ve chosen to post one segment each Wednesday for four consecutive weeks.

The second segment appears below.

Note: In this and in each subsequent post, I'll include the full list of citations.

MJS

ARTICULATION: ON USING THE ESSAY TO TEACH PLACE-CONSCIOUSNESS TO FIRST-YEAR WRITERS (PART 2) by Karen Babine

ARTICULATION III

When I was a sophomore at Concordia College, in Moorhead, Minnesota, I took a literature class in Minnesota Writers, taught by Dr. Joan Kopperud. Despite having grown up in Minnesota, despite being an English major, despite being the student that pestered my high school English teachers, I had no knowledge of the writing of my state. I had no idea that the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature was a Minnesotan. But the larger moment was first reading Paul Gruchow’s Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild in that class, an essayist who was teaching in our English department at the time, and first questioning you can write about Minnesota? and you can write true things about northern Minnesota? and being told a resounding Yes! Seeing that Gruchow not only could write about northern Minnesota—where I was from—but also publish it and win the Minnesota Book Award for it did more for my own writing than any other moment of my writing development. When I started teaching, that moment, attached to sitting in a classroom on the third floor of Grose Hall, and timidly knocking on Paul Gruchow’s office door to have him sign my book, still remains a strong sensory memory.

Translating that moment to my students means finding readings that easily move on the continuum of reading and writing, from Literature to models, from the moment of reading something brand new on a page to writing something brand new, to give students the permission they need—that I needed as a writer—to write about their local places. The readings for the first two weeks of my English 150 semester combine Paul Gruchow’s 1995 Minnesota Book Award-winning collection Grass Roots: The Universe of Home with contemporary examples of the essay. Instead of Montaigne himself, I assign Patrick Madden’s essay “The Infinite Suggestiveness of Common Things” to introduce the idea that the world is full of writing topics and often the best topics are small in size, that there is more to an essay than my students’ own narrow definitions.

Madden writes, “I learned that essays were not stories, did not focus on great adventures or recoveries, were not extraordinary in their subject matter at all. Essayists are keen observers of the overlooked, the ignored, the seemingly unimportant. They can make the mundane resplendent with their meditative insights” (4). When I was a college sophomore, taking a nonfiction class and learning about essays, the important moment was being given permission to write about my grandmother’s famous Swedish rice pudding was an incredible moment, complicating that particular memory with fears over losing my family’s history.

And Alexander Smith, in his 1865 “On the Writing of Essays,” gives that most-important permission about what one can write about:

“The essay-writer has no lack of subject-matter. He has the day that is passing over his head; and, if unsatisfied with that, he has the world’s six thousand years to depasture his gay or serious humour upon. I idle away my time here, and I am finding new subjects every hour. Everything I see or hear is an essay in bud. The world is everywhere whispering essays, and one need only be the world’s amanuensis.”

All I have to do, as an essayist, and in the larger sense, as a college student, is pay attention. We can write about anything.

TOWARDS A PEDAGOGY OF THE ESSAY

Teaching students how to articulate what matters comes in the written form itself, not simply in the pedagogical framework. On the first day of class, I ask my students to define an essay. The five-paragraph-essay, they tell me. Topic sentences. Research. Citations. What we’ll do in here is a different type of essay, I tell them. While English 150 is a composition class, not a creative writing class (though I consider composition to be equally as creative as nonfiction, fiction, or poetry), the essay provides a bridge between various parts of the writing brain necessary to provide an exciting inquiry into a topic, inquiry that is the foundation of Rhetoric as Inquiry. The essay engages both the right and left brains; the essay does not neglect the writer’s craft, and it remembers that language is important, that language is the greatest weapon students possess. When we read Mark Tredinnick’s The Blue Plateau, we discuss the sentence-level brilliance of Tredinnick believing that one must cleave to this landscape. What does to cleave mean? I ask. Even at this late point in the semester, my students are loathe to look up words they don’t know (something they are eager, yes, eager to do after we start The Blue Plateau and consider this particular moment). To cleave means both to bind and to sever, which is exactly the verb that Tredinnick wants here, because he means that to belong to this place, one must do both. The complication and layers that the language provides is something that cannot happen any other way.

Yet the Essay also requires the left-brained activity to establish the relevance to readers, to analyze and articulate why the writer’s ideas should matter to someone other than the writer. My students feel connected to their home, to places that have personal meaning, but the challenge in their own writing is how to make that relevant to other people, so that other people can understand what makes that place important.

This necessity provides an excellent bridge between the personal writing that students may or may not have experience with, the diary-type writings, and teaching them to think outside themselves, as is difficult for this entitled generation of Millenials. If we teachers assign canned essays, that will naturally be what our students turn in. But our students have plenty of perspective, plenty of lived experience in the world that makes what they have to say extremely valuable. The first true requirement of a first-year writing classroom—from both the teacher’s perspective as well as the student’s perspective—is to trust the writing. Push where necessary, but trust the writing. But Bishop points out “That we don’t see students as authors says more about us as teachers, I believe, than it says about students as thinkers” (268). If we as teachers expect more from students, if we give them the freedom to choose the form that their essay most naturally takes, we will not only see an improvement in writing ability, but engagement with the texts as well.

This, I have found, is one of the most difficult things about teaching essays: good essays do incorporate outside context and context comes from many different places (including different parts of the writer’s mind), but requiring research of students that fulfills the department’s Aims and Scopes often causes students to forget everything they already know about writing, simply because they have been taught to fear research, taught to fear citations. Robert Root writes of the “anonymous researcher persona expected of academic writers. Think then what a disengagement the demand for an anonymous, impersonal, universally interchangeable persona invites in our students. It’s tough enough learning to write like ourselves without pretending to be someone else, someone we don’t know, someone better educated and thirty years older” (253). By asking students to conduct research—something they consider a chore and completely divorced from creativity and curiosity—I’ve inadvertently put them back into feeling like their own ideas do not matter. They simply cannot understand—yet—that a research paper and an essay are not mutually exclusive. At this point, they still believe that research is solely confined to the type of writing they have been taught to hate.

If, as W. Scott Olsen advocates in his introductory nonfiction classes at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, an Essay is “the witnessed development of an idea,” that means that even a beginning student, one who has never written an essay like this before, can write an excellent essay, because the only thing to hold an essay back is the lack of movement of the writer’s mind on the page. Natalie Kusz, at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, says that “the fact that the thing happened is not the subject of the piece; what you know now as a result of what happened is the subject of the piece.” An essay cannot simply be a narrative, a story, an anecdote, because everyone has stories and nobody cares about yours—so you, as the writer, have to make them care. We use the terms narrative, exposition, and high exposition to identify these elements that create meaning for the reader. Finding the larger idea in the subject matter is the writer’s job.

My students often say that they hate writing. But they don’t, not really. They hate being told what to write and a formula for writing that allows for absolutely no connection to the materials or their own lives and ideas, forms that eliminate any type of creativity they bring to the process. This type of writing emphasizes that the student’s own creativity is subordinate to the research that teachers often require. In the last several years, I have heard more than once that my students were taught in high school that for every thought or idea they had, they needed to find a source to back it up. In this scenario, there are no original ideas—and they certainly do not originate from the students. As a result, the shift from high school to college writing often involves an un-teaching of certain values, particularly in research. This is why the Essay is so valuable in teaching introductory students, especially in courses that focus on place-consciousness. (more…)

#44 Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers by Karen Babine

November 17, 2015

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

This month’s guest is Karen Babine, the founder and editor of the very fine, online magazine, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies assayjournal.com

Karen’s contribution, Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers, is, as its title suggests, a personal, yet very detailed and meticulously researched piece on/about using the essay to teach “place” to first-year-writers. Although it’s aimed at first-year students and freshman composition teachers, this essay, I believe, will be of great value to just about anyone--both experienced and beginners--who teach and write literary nonfiction.

For those who follow this blog, Karen’s essay is a departure of sorts. For almost four years, I’ve been posting personal/teaching essays on/about matters of genre and craft. I've written some and selected guest writer/teachers have written others. Karen’s piece, an expansive essay--a thoughtful, thought-provoking, personal/critical essay. Not only is it an informed, in-depth, study on/about the teaching of place, but it also re-visits an important conversation about teaching writing, about the relationship between creative writing (in this case, literary nonfiction) and composition, and about the writing process itself--a passionate, transformative, approach to writing that began in the 1970’s. The movement included a host of concerned practitioners, rhetoricians and theorists, and beginning teachers of composition. It thrived for almost three decades before being replaced ,in the late 80’s, by a traditional, heavily prescriptive, outdated, methodology, an approach that’s being taught today in most public schools and in many colleges and universities as well.

This essay is reflective, complex (and very important, I believe), piece. And so, I’ve chosen to post one segment each Wednesday for four consecutive weeks.

The first segment appears below.

Note: In this and in each subsequent post, I'll include the full list of citations.

MJS

# 44
ARTICULATION: ON USING THE ESSAY TO TEACH PLACE-CONSCIOUSNESS TO FIRST-YEAR WRITERS ByKaren Babine

Part 1

ARTICULATION I

On 23 August 2011, the day that a 5.9 earthquake rattled the East Coast, toppled spires and cracked walls at the National Cathedral, I walk into my first class of the fall semester to a bright-eyed group of English 150 (Rhetoric as Inquiry) students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Quake-free, for now. It is 2011, after all, nearly two hundred years to the day after the New Madrid Earthquakes made the Mississippi run backwards, shaking a land not used to being shaken.

I say: our class will focus on place and location this semester.
“What is place?” they ask me.
I say: location is a spot on a map; place is context, everything you bring to that location.
I say: you’re living in a flyover state—what does that mean?
I say: you’re living on the outer rings of the most active seismic zone outside of California—how does that change your view of Nebraska, given the earthquake on the East Coast today?

Some weeks later, we read Tom Coakley’s essay “How to Speak of the Secret Desert Wars,” published first in Fourth Genre and listed as a Notable in the 2011 Best American Essays. Coakley had recently moved from Nebraska to Washington, DC, to work at the Pentagon, and as I was preparing to teach this essay I asked him about the earthquake and Hurricane Irene. It hadn’t bothered him much, he said, but while the West Coast was mocking the East Coast’s reaction to the earthquake, the last time the earth had moved like that at the Pentagon, a plane had crashed into the outer rings of the building.
This is place.

ARTICULATION II: DEFINITIONS AND MOTIVATIONS

It is true that discussions of how the essay can best be used in composition classes is not a new one, but among various critics, the consensus seems to be based in what I consider to be a erroneous definition and use of the term essay and the conversation seems to be the realm of compositionists, not creative writers, who have an equal stake in the discussion. This collapsing of various subgenres of nonfiction is exceptionally problematic for me as a creative writer in a composition classroom, considering that the essay is a form, not a genre, and represents more than the definition of “to try.”

THE FRAMEWORK OF PLACE-CONSCIOUSNESS IN THIS PLACE:

At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the English Department’s Aims and Scopes lay the framework for the three composition classes it offers: 101 (Rhetoric as Reading), 150 (Rhetoric as Inquiry), and 151 (Rhetoric as Argument). Because the Aims and Scopes are broad enough to allow for any pedagogy an instructor chooses, the framework provided by place-conscious pedagogy is an excellent starting point for first-year writers. Additionally, the written requirements are also broad enough to allow exceptionally different interpretations of what can constitute those Writing Projects. The freedom allowed the graduate teaching assistants and lecturers most often assigned these classes results in a very rich body of departmental offerings.

Wendy Bishop, in “Suddenly Sexy: Creative Nonfiction Rear-Ends Composition,” works towards a theory and pedagogy that combines nonfiction and composition, because they share similar goals. Other writers have discussed similar meldings; as I have mentioned, this is not a new discussion. But her questioning looms larger than form: what is important here is that she places the responsibility of creativity, curiosity, and inquiry in the hands of teachers—where it should initially be—and wonders not simply at the forms of the written work, but also at the classrooms that best foster the type of learning teachers want. She wonders,

"How do we teach the pleasures of essay writing and the civic possibilities of prose literatures? How do we create courses that allow writers to define interesting topics of reflection, and how do we create classroom cultures within which the essay needs to be written? We treat the student essayist as we treat ourselves, as essayists and authors of creative nonfiction (271)."

For me, the answer is to combine a pedagogy that requires an active engagement with the students’ own grounded experience with a written form that requires active engagement with the students’ own lived experience. It is through this pedagogical framework, though, that the essay—as a form—functions best, because it provides the opportunity for personal motivation of the student, taking what they know, valuing it, and asking them to take it a step further, back to the place they come from. Robert Root sees this type of motivation as an essential element of nonfiction (and by extension, the writing classroom): “Nonfiction is not simply an option of style or format or attitude; it’s a perspective on the world, and its texts are composed by writers animated by the nonfiction motive” (6) and this distinction is important in a composition classroom, between form and style, purpose and result. He continues,

"Without the nonfiction motive, writers get no internal checks and balances on their own honesty, no incentive to investigate, explore, observe, compare witnesses, and analyze all the evidence, no commitment to comprehend or to extend that comprehension to readers. […] How we approach what we write makes a great difference in what results…a student’s motive in writing is to clear a hurdle or fulfill a requirement or complete an assignment or master a skill rather than to acquire and express knowledge or to share insight and information. The results are often detached, disengaged, insincere. If, among working writers, writing really matters, why wouldn’t “motive” be essential to apprentice writing or novice writing? (7)."

For me, place-conscious pedagogy is a natural choice to facilitate both, and so this particular English 150 course is designed around a theme of Home and Away, a lens through which we develop a way of looking at what surrounds us, physically, intellectually, and emotionally. We explore the ideas of quest, how movement and stasis can lead us to a greater understanding of where we are and who we are—and we use the Essay form to do so. (more…)

# 43 My Other Voice By Sonya Huber

October 15, 2015

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

This month’s guest is Sonya Huber.

When I asked Sonya to submit a blog entry, she sent me “ My Other Voice.” In my note back to her, I said something to the effect of
“What a magnificent personal essay. So, so, human. It’s transparent, reflective, interrogative, analytical, lyrical, speculative--everything that a good personal essay embodies. I could go on.”

In her piece Sonya allows us access to her thoughts (and feelings) on how and why writing helps her to cope, sometimes even to transcend, chronic pain. My guess is that the majority of people who’ll read “My Other Voice,” won’t be facing exactly the same obstacles (chronic pain) as the writer does. And yet, I think most of us will be able to identify with Sonya’s inner struggles, certainly as they relate to our own writing, but even more so as they bear on larger human problems, the kinds of which we all face. And when it comes to the personal essay, isn’t this what we’re all trying to teach to ourselves and to our students?

* PS: in her essay, Sonja’s mentions "Shadow Syllabus," a piece she posted on her own blog; a piece, by the way, that went “viral.” If you're a writing teacher, or, if you've ever taken a writing class, you'll see why.

I’ve included “Shadow Syllabus” below--at the end of “My Other Voice.”

MJS

# 43 My Other Voice By Sonya Huber

One of the things I have always loved about writing is the sheer absorption and physical confrontation with myself. I step into the cockpit, fueled by a beautiful morning bubble of caffeine. The glowing screen dares me and taunts me: Make something out of nothing. Make a sentence that sucks slightly less than what you see in front of you. Make it true, whatever true might me.

Writing has been a solace for most pain in my life, partly because of the focus it requires. The focus of writing leads me to a kind of trance, with the happy side effect of an almost-complete separation from this mortal coil. I forget my body and my surroundings. As I’ve lately confronted more physical chronic pain, the focus of writing often delivers an hour of two in which the aches in my bones are erased.

I’ve enjoyed this physical numbness, and there have been days when writing has been my only relief.

Then there are other days where I am simply not myself. Past that point I inhabit a strange altered consciousness brought on by the pain. Over the past few years I began to worry that the fogginess and ache of autoimmune disease would destroy my writing. This would be a triple loss: shutting out something I do for my job, something I do for joy, and something I do for escape.

As I have done for years, I sit down every weekday morning and aim for my hour-plus at the computer screen. Some days there’s nothing there, but I go to the page even when nothing feels promising, just for the relief of playing with words.

Some days in the last year, all I could make was a blog post. My writing voice on those days felt like it had far less energy, less scope. It seemed obvious: I was not a writer but a woman who in fact could barely string sentences together. Writing with the submerged pain-voice feels like using a pin-hole camera instead of a wide-angle lens.

Last year in such an altered pain state, I gave up on serious writing and wrote a blog post called the *Shadow Syllabus,” kind of a fugue-state reflection on what I think about as an essayist and human while I write syllabi for my classes. I put the piece up on my blog and walked away from the computer, feeling defeated. This was all I could muster for the day, but I was practicing being kind to myself by doing a little and then stopping.

To my shock, the post went viral, linked and shared by various educators around the world, cited and reblogged and so on. Then the next year when syllabi time rolled around again, it started up again.

This has been wonderful but strange, because the Pain Woman who wrote that post doesn’t feel like the woman I know who has been writing with my hands for twenty years, the woman who tries so hard to build essays with complex and multi-layered sentences. Pain Woman has a different voice. She has a kind of messianic confidence that I do not have in my normal writing or even in my normal living, and this is the most shocking thing. The “me” I know or have inhabited most of my life is so ready to apologize for my point of view. I come at my writing sidelong, Midwestern, nerd-female, post-bullying, still gun-shy of ever saying something directly.

Pain Woman gives no shits. Pain Woman has stuff to tell you and she has one minute to do so before she’s too tired. Pain Woman knows things. (more…)

9/10/15, # 42 On the Lyric Impulse: Blizzards, Bricks, and the Glaciology of Purpura by Kathryn Winograd

September 10, 2015

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

9/10/15, # 42, On the Lyric Impulse: Blizzards, Bricks, and the Glaciology of Purpura by Kathryn Winograd

Note: This month’s guest writer is poet, essayist, and award winning writing teacher, Kathryn Winograd

A few years ago, Kathy and I had a mutually informative conversation about some of the what’s and how’s of the lyric essay. A few weeks ago, I saw her piece on the lyric essay on Ander Monson’s fine blog Essay Daily. It triggered some thoughts. So I asked Kathy for permission to reprint it.

Reading Kathy’s piece brought back some old history. In 1999, I founded Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. a journal of literary/creative nonfiction. At the time, the genre was just beginning to gain some legitimacy as a literary form. In those early years, the majority of essays and memoirs we saw were personal narratives. And back then, the handful of lyric pieces we read were crafted by writers who saw themselves primarily as poets. My impression then was that the best of those essays were passionate and moving works, marked by their writers’ facility with, and appreciation for, language and imagery. For the most part, their essays were more like hybrids than than the kinds of traditional (and non-traditional) narratives we were getting.

Today, the genre has evolved and expanded in ways I couldn’t have even dreamed of back then. So much so, that lyric work is now a highly-regarded sub genre on the larger spectrum of literary/creative nonfiction. Kathy’s piece then,---a lyric essay itself—is of particular value not only to writers but to veteran and inexperienced teachers both. In her piece, Kathy explores and ruminates about, among other things, the ways in which the lyric impulse becomes just the right vehicle for expressing the kinds of complex thoughts and feelings--sensations, that is, we’re unable to articulate in strictly narrative terms. In that way, "On the Lyric Impulse"shares a similar sensibility with the celebrated Emily Dickinson poem, “Tell All the Truth, But Tell It Slant.”

MJS

9/10/15 # 42 ON THE LYRIC IMPULSE: BLIZZARDS, BRICKS, AND THE
GLACIOLOGY Of PURPURA
Kathryn Winograd

Warned of, craved, the blizzard finally barrels across the ice dark street. The known world whittles down to black elm, chiseled hoar frost, and my breath against the slim windowpane steams periodic circles of clarity against a gathering snow, a white space.

“I am not a poet,” my student informs me, not by text message or email, but by phone, landline phone. My enthusiasm over the metaphoric possibilities of this student’s obsession with bricks in her narrative on building a new house with her second husband has aroused a knee-jerk reaction⎯and it’s not a good one.

Already this blizzard means something: the white exterior world beyond the cold glass I press my palm hard against. The interior world my breath inhabits, warm with its fireplace flame even as the insistent voice of the anchorwoman ticks off degrees and inches as if the world beyond the window that I cannot yet feel, and the world beyond the self I do not yet know, could be made measurable.

When I wrote Michael Steinberg about an AWP panel I was proposing on what I saw as a gap between the student who enters creative nonfiction from the prose side of the spectrum versus the poetry side, he wrote back, “Strictly speaking, I’m not a lyric essayist. But one of the things I’ve been talking and writing about for years is the connection between memoir and lyric poetry. The essay (and/or memoir) is the story of one’s thinking, the revelation of consciousness. Except for those essayists who reflexively use poetic elements and language in their work, these are missing from most of the MFA work I’m seeing⎯even the very good ones.” The lyric impulse versus the storytelling impulse. The “revelation of consciousness.”

“Back stories,” my student tells me: the neighbors’ bricks she obsesses over, the migrating birds that roost in paragraphs throughout the chronology of her house-building, and those faintest hammer taps of her new husband who “remodeled” the house my student must for now live in, the house he built for his first wife, repaired in places with baling twine.

A leftover house.
“Extra stuff,” my student says.
The real subject matter of her narrative on building a house?
Building a house.

The philologist Max Mueller said that “man, as he develops his conceptions of immaterial things, must perforce express them in terms of material things because his language lags behind his needs.” Figurative language then becomes the vehicle for greater precision of expression; exactitude grows through metaphor, not necessarily through narrative.

“Bricks,” I tell my student.

I assign to the class Lia Purpura’s Glaciology, her “deposition” on glacier and thaw, on X-ray and artifact, on the fallible body and the mind-in-waiting.

“A little shard, small bit taken out of my body and sent off for further study,” Purpura carves so lightly amidst her glacier surge and ice sheets, her “striated stone from Mauritania.” A 650 million year old backdrop to this uncertain moment, to this white space, external and internal: “Bones stacked and bent in the attitude of prayer, the edges honed and precarious.”

“Too much poetry,” my nonfiction students tell me, Purpura’s own hieroglyphics⎯ that “cache of loose details” she resolutely attends to while she awaits the medical world’s verdict⎯ abandoned, they claim, to Orpheus, strummer of the poet’s lyre, though I tell them that even the king of the dead has wept.

“Metaphor,” as the New Critics said, is “not a rhetorical device . . .but a means of perceiving and expressing moral truths radically different from that of prose or scientific statement.” (more…)

8/5/15, #41, Switching Genres Midstream by Mimi Schwartz

August 5, 2015

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

8/8/15, Blog # 41 SWITCHING GENRES MIDSTREAM By Mimi Schwartz

Note: This month's guest writer is Mimi Schwartz.

Mimi Schwartz is a teacher, writer, and scholar who’s been working in this genre for most of her professional life. To my mind, she's one of our most prolific, well respected writer/teachers. Over the years, Mimi's work has played an important role in the genre's ongoing evolution. Just a quick look at her bio note below is testimony to the depth and breadth of her writing.

SWITCHING GENRES MIDSTREAM is Mimi's second contribution to this blog. You can find her first piece, # 22, HALFWAY THROUGH THE STORY, in the Archives, under 8/27/13.

# 41 SWITCHING GENRES MIDSTREAM

When I taught a summer workshop on memoir in Vermont, one of my students was writing about her family, especially her uncle, a big shot in the Mafia. She read an excerpt full of detail, drama and “Breaking Bad” secrets, and we all said: “Forget memoir. Call it fiction!” The decision, safety-wise, was a no-brainer.

Switching genres because of practicality is usually less clear-cut—and it should be. We must weigh: What do we get and what do we give up? Say a sister threatens to sue. Is she bluffing? Say, an agent wants to sign us on if we turn our essay collection into a continuous narrative. Or an acquisitions editor calls to say she’d like to publish our memoir-- but as fiction. Hopefully, agents and editors have the story’s integrity and power at heart. But what if their advice is to satisfy a marketing department or the balance sheet? We must figure out: How much do I want to sell this work? Is the switch worth tons of extra effort? Am I resisting out of fear of killing my little darlings. Or….will I really kill them?

Practical concerns are outside/in pressures, not intrinsic to creating the best work that we can. What I’d like to focus on are the inside-out reasons for switching genres: the realization that the genre we’ve chosen is not serving the story we need to tell. Why? Because the story has changed—and the one we started is now the wrong story.

The catalyst can be a seismic shift of facts, as happened to Helen Fremont in writing After the Long Silence. It began as a novel, based on her parents’ trek across Europe on the eve of World War 11, a story of love, bravery, and adventure, she thought—until she found out the truth about her grandparents. Growing up Catholic in the Midwest, Fremont had been told that they died in an aerial bombing. But in researching the novel, Fremont learned that her grandparents had been murdered in the concentration camps—as Jews.

Making the switch from fiction to memoir was a huge decision. It meant disclosing her parents’ biggest secret and most haunting fears of the Holocasut. Yet, Fremont says, she had to do it:


"In effect, my grandparents and aunts and uncles had been wiped off the face of the earth by fascist regimes. There are no gravestones, or markers, and the generation of eyewitnesses is rapidly dwindling. Holocaust revisionists and deniers increasingly dismiss the fact of the extermination of Jews as fiction or fantasy and I felt it important to add my voice to the record. Fiction no longer served my needs: I realized that I had to write the story, finally, as memoir."



Often we switch genres because “Why am I writing this?” is elusive. We try another genre to enlarge or change our perspective, find a more authentic voice, and hopefully trick ourselves towards the truth.

Novelist Sue Miller describes how this worked for her when writing The Story of My Father, her memoir about dealing with her father’s Alzheimer’s disease. Miller, known for her fiction, wrote what she thought was a promising nonfiction draft and sent it to her agent who found “some of it fascinating, some very moving, and of the rest, she said, ‘It strikes me that it is perhaps of most interest to the writer.”

Miller, taken aback, reread the draft months later and knew she’d have to start again. But first she had an idea for a novel about a death of a parent and it became The Distinguished Guest. She then revisited the memoir and decided the problem could be voice because, as she says, “I was accustomed to using the first person only fictionally—hiding behind an imagined speaker who might be close to who I was, but who wasn’t.” So Miller wrote personal essays “to practice using a non-fictive first person voice in some shorter works that would be less difficult emotionally….” Then she wrote another novel, this one called While I Was Gone. (more…)

6/29/15, #40, The Doctor is In: Some Thoughts about Matters of Craft

June 29, 2015

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

6/29/15, #40, The Doctor is In: Some Thoughts about Matters of Craft

Michael Steinberg

Those who follow this blog know that, in addition to my own posts, I have, for the last few years, invited selected guests--notable writers and teachers, and accomplished former students as well--to send me mini-essays on/about whatever specific matters of craft they wanted to write about. Their contributions have not only extended the blog’s scope and range, they’ve also added a variety of voices, thoughts, and opinions--in other words, some diversity--to the mix.

Last week, as it turned out, I happened to be interviewed three times for three different reasons. It was an atypical seven days, to be sure. During that time, I answered a variety of questions on/about genre, teaching, and the craft of writing. By necessity, some (not all) of my answers were spontaneous, almost off-the-cuff, responses to things I hadn’t thought about before, and issues I want to rethink and/or explore more fully but haven’t yet gotten around to pursuing.

That’s when I came up with the idea to expand the blog--to include some questions that readers might like to ask.

But first, I want to set some boundaries. It’s not possible, of course, for me to respond to every question that’s asked. So when the questions--on/about genre and craft issues--come in, I’ll select a few that a reasonable number people seem to be asking. I’ll treat this as an informal Q and A—a kind of “The Doctor is In”column.

To start off, for this post, I’ll choose some questions and answers from the three interviews I mentioned above. Here are two from the first interview

MJS

#40 THE DOCTOR IS IN, 1

INTERNAL NARRATIVES AND THREE DIMENSIONAL NARRATORS

The following is from “Talking Creative Nonfiction,” an interview I did a few weeks ago for the Solstice Literary Magazine blog. For the full (short) interview the link is Solstice Literary Magazine blog

SOLSTICE : In “One Story, Two Narrators,” a craft essay you wrote for this journal, you talk about how many personal essays/memoirs fall short, because they fail to create an internal narrative to accompany the surface-level events. Why do you think that so many aspiring nonfiction writers struggle with this?

MY ANSWER : “As you say, ‘many writers give us only the surface level events.' That is; the story of what happened. But too often, I’ve found, they don’t comment/speculate/reflect on what those events might mean. And I think that’s partly because they don’t allow themselves permission to write as a fully present “I.” By this I mean, the thinking, feeling, three dimensional “I--” the person, in other words, who goes out into the world every day--and who, in response to specific situations, encounters, and events--reflects, speculates, imagines, analyzes, questions, projects…. I could go on.

To illustrate further, here’s an excerpt from “One Story, Two Narrators”

“I think we can agree that human beings are by nature and predisposition instinctively reactive creatures. In most any situation or encounter we probably couldn’t get through thirty seconds without experiencing and/or utilizing most or all of the reactions listed above.

And so, we need to keep reminding ourselves (as well as our students) that in writing personal narratives, it’s important to render our thoughts and reflections with the same clarity and transparency that we’re able to affect when we’re narrating the details and specifics of our own personal stories.

Because no matter how authentic and convincing the situations, people, and events of those stories are, no matter what subject they’re about, in order to connect more meaningfully with readers, narrators need to allow the reader more frequent glimpses into their thought processes, especially those ways in which they deal with their confusions, fears, doubts, exhilarations, and successes--the qualities, in short, that link us as fellow human beings.” (more…)

Blog # 37. In the Body of the Beholder: Some Notes on Voice by Kim Dana Kupperman

March 17, 2015

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

Note:

This month’s guest, blogger, Kim Kupperman, is one of our most versatile, accomplished, personal essayists.

I first met Kim fourteen years ago when I was teaching in the University of Southern Maine/Stonecoast MFA Program. Since that time, I’ve followed the path of her remarkable career as a writer, teacher, and, more recently, as the founding editor/publisher of Welcome Table, an independent press devoted solely to books of/about the contemporary personal essay.
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Because of our work together at Stonecoast, Kim would most probably claim me as a mentor of sorts. But I believe that I’ve learned at least as much, and quite possibly more from her, about writing and teaching the personal essay than she has from me.

Her piece, “In the Body of the Beholder,” is to some extent a rethinking of what all writers and teachers of personal narratives refer to as “voice.” Although it’s one of most important elements of what we call style, and although I believe that finding the right voice for a given work is essential to that work’s authenticity, still, whenever I try to describe “voice” to colleagues and/or students, I’m never quite certain that I can describe or clearly explain what I mean by the term.

Sometimes I’ll talk about “voice” as the writer’s presence and/or his/her point of view. Other times, I’ll refer to it as the sound of the person who created the work and/or the overall impression we get of the writer behind the work. To be honest, I seem to best understand “voice” as a feeling or as a sense of something palpable, something I can’t quite articulate or pin down.

If you have any of these same hesitations, I recommend that you take a look at Kim’s thoughtful, intelligent, examination of this complex, elusive, matter. Like me, hopefully you’ll come away with a new understanding about what we mean when we talk about (no pun intended) voice.

MJS

IN THE BODY OF THE BEHOLDER: SOME NOTES ON VOICE
Kim Dana Kupperman

Recently, a friend remarked that talking about voice in writing felt to her like talking about God. “We can’t define it, so we talk around it,” she observed. Perhaps this is why “voice in writing”(1) has become a metaphor we’ve used too often to signify too many meanings. As I. Hashimoto points out, voice “is something we can’t discuss and analyze but can only feel or participate in” (Landmark, 76, emphasis mine). Thus, he suggests,

"We should watch out when we slip into easy generalizations about everyone having a “voice” and about “voice” being more important than anything else in writing. We ought to be careful about using vague, metaphoric language simply because we can’t quite put our fingers on something more specific (Landmark, 82).

“Voice is produced by the body,” writes Peter Elbow, who reminds us that having a conversation about voice means that we “import connotations of the body into the discussion—and by implication, [are] interested in the role of the body in writing.”
(Landmark, xxi-xxiii).(2) To examine what voice really is, then, we might start by acknowledging the physicality of sound and that it originates in the body—where emotion is perceived, fed by all the senses and perhaps most of all by that which is heard. (3) As N. Scott Momaday reminds us: “In the beginning was the word, and it was spoken” (Way to Rainy Day Mountain, ix). Sound, as Walter Ong puts it, “situates [us] in the midst of a world” (Landmark, 29). Momaday argues that oral storytelling is one of the most powerful narrative forms; he asks that we consider which sounds are stilled and resound against silence, and which, as Adrienne Rich puts it, are weighted with “the heft of our living.” Thus, Momaday advises us to read aloud (to give sound to) the three voices he uses in The Way to Rainy Mountain so that they “remain, as they have always remained, alive at the level of the human voice. At that level their being is whole and essential” (Way to Rainy Mountain, ix).

Reading aloud—our writing and that of others—and listening to work being read (including our own) is one of the most concrete and effective ways to develop both the physical voice and the ear that hears it (reading aloud is also one of the best ways I know to catch errors in punctuation, syntax, and usage). Paying attention to what the body does when we read aloud provides valuable clues to what the words evoke: Do we sit or stand, slouch or maintain perfect posture? Do we hold our heads in a particular way? How is our weight distributed? Where does tension surface? Do we feel warm or cold? Are we blushing? Are the words clear? Do we want to sleep or go for a brisk walk? How are we breathing? (more…)

Blog # 36. Tribute to Judith Kitchen and Excerpt from her Essay, "Mending Wall"

January 24, 2015

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

Note: After a long, courageous struggle with cancer, Judith Kitchen, essayist, poet, literary critic, and teacher died in early November at the age of 73. I’d like to dedicate this post to her.

I’ll begin with some short email excerpts I sent to her husband, Stan Sanvel Rubin. Stan, a first-rate poet and critic in his own right, along with Judith co-founded the Pacific Lutheran/RainierWriting Workshop, one of our finest low residency MFA programs, a program that Stan directed for 10 years.

In my note, I wrote the following “I've always admired Judith's remarkable, versatile writings as well as her vitality, passion, and dedication to teaching. In the mid-90's, when creative nonfiction was just beginning to emerge as a legitimate literary genre, Judith was one of the first people who wrote, taught, and could speak with authority on/about what we’ve come to describe as ‘creative nonfiction.

I've been recommending and using her anthologies, In Short, In Brief, and Brief Takes in my undergraduate and MFA workshops since the first one came out in 1996. And it goes without saying that today, some eighteen plus years later, I consider Judith to be a pioneer and a highly regarded writer/spokesperson for the genre.”

In his reply, Stan said ‘Yes, she was an early innovator in creative nonfiction/lyric essay-- and, as you suggest, was a unique forerunner in developing a critical language to discuss it as a genre with its own purposes and dignity. She stood staunchly for the creative exploration of truth as an important task and challenge.’

Like most of the writers, teachers, and students whose lives Judith touched, I'll miss her vitality, sense of humor, directness, and her fierce honesty. May her life and work serve as an inspiration for those of us who knew her, as well as for the current and future writer/teachers who'll be encountering her work, hopefully, for many years to come.”

As a lead-in to her piece, “Mending Wall,” on/about the lyric essay (see below) I’d like to quote from an artistic statement that appears on Judith’s website Judith Kitchen

“I don't know where to draw the lines between my thinking life and my art, between one aspect of my being and another. I have published a novel, books of poetry, essays, and criticism. I regularly review the work of others; I have edited three anthologies. I teach; I write. That feels as essential as saying I am right-handed, or that I wear glasses. That I take great joy in my grandsons, I walk on the beach, I secretly sing. My books are perhaps my best statement. They announce my propensity to experiment within a genre, to push at its boundaries as well as to honor its traditions. They testify to my interest in the work of others, my ongoing curiosity about and admiration for what other writers can achieve. They go out on the limb with opinion, and they dare to speak their minds.”

Many readers of this blog, I'm sure, are familiar with Judith's work; others will encounter her writing for the first time. Below, are selected excerpts from *"Mending Wall." (more…)

# 35, Confronting Demons, Staring Down Fears: Transforming Our Deepest Misfortunes into in Literary Works, Part 2,

December 17, 2014

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

FYI:
NonfictioNOW 2015, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff Arizona, 10/28 - 31/15 For guidelines and information, go to
www.nonfictionow.org

Note: This post is Part 2 of a two part entry. If you'd like to read Part 1, see #34 below.
MJS

# 35, Confronting Demons, Staring Down Fears: Transforming Our Deepest Misfortunes into in Literary Works ( Part 2)

If you’re thinking that this is the usual story of dysfunction and abuse, then I’m doing a poor job of telling it.
--Barbara Ehrenreich, Living With a Wild God

In her thoughtful, incisive essay, All in Favor Say I, poet/essayist
Beth Ann Fennelly maintains that “In a memoir, the author’s intentions
are to revisit an event that begs to be better understood…” In addition,
Fennelly says, “w}hen we write memoirs,{we}return to {those}
events armed with a question, often one as simple as, ‘How did this
episode shape the person I’ve become?”

I couldn’t agree more. Writing a literary memoir grows, in large part, I believe, from a writer’s need to examine more closely those influences that have led that writer to become the person he/she is today.

As an editor, writer, teacher (and a concerned reader), I’ve found
that many memoirists, for example, don’t pay enough attention
to how a particularly poignant episode, event, and/or encounter helped
to shape the person they’ve become.

“This crucial question and the writer’s need to satisfy it” Fenelley
claims…. “lie at the heart of memoir.”

How then, you’re probably wondering, does this apply to writing about our demons and fears?

******
When we write about our personal hardships and misfortunes, we do, it’s true, discover unbidden things about ourselves that might in time come bear on how we deal with painful loss and angst-ridden disappointment. But, as I’ve said in part one (#34), we don’t really solve the human problem of how to cope with those troubles just by writing about them. Nor should we expect that the writing will resolve our deepest, most difficult, psychological conflicts.

And so, no matter what we’re writing about, our charge as writers is 1) to try to discover the heart of what we’re writing about, 2) to find the shape (containing structure) that best fits the work, and 3) to arrive at some understanding of the narrative’s larger implications, both for ourselves and for the sake (hopefully) of our readers.

Those who follow this blog know that when I talk about strategies and tactics for crafting a piece of writing, most often I’ll use examples from my own work. But in this instance, I think it’ll be more useful and appropriate for me to cite pointed examples from Joy Castro’s powerful essay, “The Memoir as Psychological Thriller.”

(The essay appeared in full on this blog in July, 2012. If you’d like to read it in its entirety, and I urge you to do so, you can find it below left in the Archives).

One reason why I’m citing Joy Castro’s essay as a model is because it illustrates how the author’s extreme childhood misfortunes became significant influences, catalysts, if you will, that in the end helped her arrive at a better understanding of how she, a young girl who grew up under very harsh, cruel circumstances, became a compassionate, highly-regarded adult writer and teacher.

In addition, Joy’s essay explains how she discovered the tactics and strategies that led her to figure out, what was at the heart of her memoir; as well as uncover both the shape that became The Truth Book’s containing structure, and the compelling, imagistic narrative that allows readers to enter her story and identify with its larger implications.

At the beginning of the essay, Joy tells us that the first hurdle a memoirist often encounters is in selecting “a single narrative….a thread, an arc, a through-line…”from what she describes as “the sheer quantity of our material.” An all-too-familiar dilemma to all memoiriists is it not?

“The solution” she maintains “…..comes in the form of….urgent, unanswered questions about the self.” To which she adds that “this question “is the key, the hook that pulls us through the process of writing the text. It can lead us forward into the draft and provide an organizing principle when we revise.”

Joy goes on to explain that “the two linked questions….that drove the writing {of The Truth Book} were 1) Why did my father commit suicide? and 2) Why did a near-stranger, a new academic acquaintance, tell me that I had no personality?” Furthermore, she says that, “When I sat down to draft, I did not know the answers to both questions…., I did not know if writing would reveal any answers.” She then discloses that “I was desperate for understanding….”

That urgent search for understanding, becomes, I believe, the impetus that allows Joy Castro to “write my way into urgent questions that were, for me, matters of literal life and death…What I discovered,” she says, “is that writing your way into such questions—and leaving aside all the lived experiences that don’t answer them—automatically gives your work unity….shapeliness….” To which Joy adds, “I included only those scenes, images, and insights that spoke (directly or indirectly) to my two key questions. If an episode didn’t help answer them, I didn’t even draft it.” (more…)

SELECTED WORKS

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.

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