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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



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.

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? right)

Seasoned writers and teachers know that the specific situations, people, events, and encounters that have instigated and/or contributed to our personal hardships are raw materials for exploration and discovery; and, finally for shaping an evolving narrative. And yet in my experience as a workshop leader, that very suggestion often comes across (as it did to me in the workshop I described above) as if it’s a deliberate insult or affront.

As a matter of fact, a number of my students have said--and I’m paraphrasing here—“How can you be so callous and insensitive? How can you say that my deepest traumas and most painful losses are ‘raw materials?’”? Those things have really happened to me, to my family,” they’ll claim; and “whenever I think or write about them I’m forced to re-live all that suffering and anguish.

Valid concerns, to be sure. But I'm thinking here about a comment Virginia Woolf once made to someone, an interviewer perhaps, who’d asked her if it wasn't too depressing and painful to write about the kinds of disturbing, unsettling experiences she evokes so powerfully in her best work. Her alleged response was something to the effect of, how getting the specifics, the precise details and the most crucial scenes to work was actually exhilarating, not depressing.

Well then, here’s my teaching moment.

Woolf’s comments, I believe, inadvertently point out the differences between what my colleague, Bill Roorbach calls “being the writer at the desk” as opposed to being the person who’s re-living the real misfortunes that he/she is writing about.

Roorbach here is suggesting that the “writer at the desk” is a version of the adult narrator, the narrator, that is, who’s creating and crafting the story. That narrator, I have to point, is not the former or younger self who lived through all that emotional chaos.

In The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick writes, “The persona in a nonfiction narrative is an unsurrogated one…Out of the raw material of a writer’s own undisguised being a narrator is fashioned…This narrator becomes a persona….what it selects to observe and what to ignore are chosen to serve the subject.”

That last phrase “to serve the subject” highlights the difference between writing a straightforward narrative that’s composed mainly of confession and disclosure (in other words a “here’s what really happened to me” story) and crafting a narrative and narrator that best suit the story being told. That awareness and that distance--both in real and emotional time-- allow us to bring a fuller, more experienced, and wiser (hopefully) self to the writing.

It would follow then, that whatever confession and disclosure the writer includes in the narrative ought to be designed not simply to take us through the events and what they felt like, but, more importantly, to reflect on and speculate/interpret what those events and feelings mean.

I often tell my students that writing about their emotional and psychological wounds wont heal their pain or mend the scars. It doesn’t reverse the losses or take away the sorrows and regrets. It doesn’t, in other words, alter the reality of what happened and how.

Yet I believe that if we honestly interrogate our darkest experiences as well as mine our anxieties and fears in service of what Annie Dillard describes as “fashioning a text,” we’ll at least be giving ourselves a chance, perhaps our only chance, to redeem our sufferings and losses.

What I mean to say is that by using language, thought, and imagination to shape a piece of writing, we’re attempting to transform our most threatening fears and devastating setbacks into something meaningful, and in some cases, even beautiful--namely, a fully realized, coherent piece of writing in which the narrator struggles transparently and honestly to make some larger sense out of all that suffering, chaos, and confusion.

Far from being a literal retelling or a re-experiencing of what really happened, the hard earned writing that emerges from the impulse to explore and try to comprehend our darkest moments is often (for us as writers) an unexpectedly gratifying experience--a paradox that I’ll talk more about in Part Two.


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