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

# 34 Confronting Demons, Staring Down Fears: Transforming Our Deepest Misfortunes into Literary Works . Part 1

11/8/14

Note/Update

Because of deadlines and commitments (life-its-own-self, right?) for almost three months I haven't posted anything new on the blog--until today.

In addition to the post below, I've listed links to some very fine sites on/about the essay--Assay, The Humble Essayist, Modern Times, Quotidiana, The Essay Review, and Diagram (See Quick Links below right)

# 34 Confronting Demons, Staring Down Fears: Transforming Our Deepest Misfortunes into Literary Works

This is Part One of a Two Part post. I’ll post Part Two during the first week of December.

1
Prologue
When I was a beginning writer, I attended a summer writer’s conference workshop where one of the students, an undistinguished writer, so I thought at the time, presented a draft about how on a camping trip he was hit by lightening. Unlike his other work, this draft was vivid, compelling and filled with evocative details and specifics, all of which clearly described how terrifying this near death incident was. So much so that you could almost feel his confusions and fears.

The workshop leader, a somewhat acerbic writer, saw this as a teaching moment. He said something to the effect of “…you should all hope that you’ll get hit by lightning some day.” At the time, I was irritated by what seemed to be such a flip, mean spirited, response. I even thought that he was being deliberately perverse. Most of the others in the class had, as I recall, similar reactions.

That goes to show you how much I knew about writing (and teaching) back then. Now, some twenty years later, I think I understand what he was trying to teach us--about writing.

As writers (and teachers) of autobiographical works, we know that our own as well as our students’ most compelling work can (potentially) emerge from the impulse to stare down and write about our most fearsome ghosts and demons. In workshop we refer those demons and ghosts as “hot buttons.”

“Hot buttons” can range from serious misfortunes--traumas like abuse, incest, life threatening illnesses, major disabilities, and devastating losses (like the death of a child, partner, close friend, and/or parent)--to less foreboding, but still deeply painful moments of humiliation, shame, and regret.

But just as writing about emotionally upsetting experiences can generate some very powerful, absorbing work, it can also produce straightforward personal narratives that consist largely of direct confessions and disclosures.

I’ve found that when my students write about deeply unsettling misfortunes, the writing (at least at first) tends to read like a litany of “here’s what happened to me” grievances. And the group’s collective responses are almost always sympathetic with the writer’s difficulties.

It’s a humane impulse, to be sure. Given the fragile nature of the content, those kinds of responses--and understandably so--are honest expressions of compassion and concern. As a result though, sometimes the class turns into a group therapy session. Which creates a dilemma for the workshop leader and students alike.

I say this because those responses—as empathetic as they might be--aren’t really dealing with the writing itself. In that setting, the group, it seems, rarely offers the kinds of specific suggestions--approaches and strategies--that can help the writer think about how to shape his/her thoughts and feelings into the kind of a fully dimensional, well crafted narrative that most of us—novices and experienced writers alike—are (or should be) hopeful of producing.

As writers and writing teachers then, we have to keep reminding ourselves that writing about a life is a very different undertaking than living a life. And this disparity, it seems, is an ongoing problem that many of my students—undergraduate and graduate alike--have to wrestle with.

How then can we create a workshop environment in which, without sacrificing our humanity, we’re still helping fellow writers and would-be-writers to find shape and meaning in their adversities and misfortunes?  Read More 

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