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

#85 Writing the Bad Guys: Compassion and Nonfiction by Guest Bloggr Gail Griffin

#85 Writing the Bad Guys: Compassion and Nonfiction

 

Intro:

 

Gail Griffin's essay, "Writing the Bad Guys: Compassion and Nonfiction" wrestles with the aesthetic and moral issue of how to humanize evil or reprehensible characters. As she writes, "The moral feeds the artistic here. As nonfiction writers we can create believable characters from real people only if we see them as people."

MJS

 

    

 In 2010 I published a book that anatomizes a 1999 student murder-suicide at Kalamazoo College, where I taught for 36 years. It was a new kind of project for me as a nonfiction writer: my first book-length narrative; my first crack at synthesizing so many different kinds of sources, from police report to interviews to archival records to academic research far afield of my own discipline. I had also never really faced one of the more challenging tasks for a nonfiction writer: how to write a "bad guy" who is, or was, a real person.

 

That person was Neenef Odah, a 20-year-old Iraqi-born student from Seattle. On the night following the college's Homecoming Dance, where he saw his ex-girlfriend, Maggie Wardle, dancing with another guy, he lured her to his room, pulled out the shotgun he'd hidden there for ten days, shot her and then, as they say, turned the gun on himself.

 

Maggie was easy to write. Her family and many friends spoke to me about her; I had access to scrapbooks full of photos, awards, and art work; and she was recognizably kindred to a certain female student I had known well over my years on the job: very bright, ambitious, empathic, gregarious, talented, struggling to negotiate the path opened to her by second-wave feminism while still anxious to have the validation of a boyfriend. Neenef played that part for eight months, though he was clearly ill-equipped; when she looked to the other fish in the sea, he was needy and demanding, unable to let her go. An old story, one that far too often ends as this one did.

 

Neenef posed a much greater challenge to me as a writer. I had far less access to him—his friends were more reticent, his family understandably unresponsive to my enquiries; and he brought with him a cultural background that was alien to me. He was also, of course, a murderer, and a suicide; his interior life was a dark tangle. The exchanges via Instant Messenger pulled from his and Maggie's computers by the police offered a gold mine, revealing him to be inarticulate, emotionally stunted, and aggressively manipulative. But where did that leave me? I had to make a character out of him, and a character isn't a collage of symptoms.

 

From the get-go, comprehending Neenef had been a top priority for me. It may sound ironic at first when I say that as a feminist, I was much more interested in investigating the perpetrator than the victim. After 20-plus years of learning and teaching about violence against women, I was sick to death of hearing about women's behavior and how it did or did not encourage male violence. It seemed obvious that to get a grip on violence against women, the object of scrutiny needed to be the perpetrator: What makes a suicidal young man want to eliminate the woman he believes he cannot live without? How is he like or unlike other men who are violent to women?

 

I did my best, working what George Eliot would have called my "moral imagination" overtime to see my way into Neenef's hopeless desperation. My treatment of him often features in readers' responses to the book. I've been complimented on being "fair" to him. Some of Maggie's relatives think I was entirely too fair, insufficiently damning. Some people who know me have been surprised that I didn't make him out to be more of a monster.

 

These responses have made me think again about Neenef and ponder how we view those among us who do monstrous things. I was thinking about this at this year's AWP conference, during a session on nonfiction. The conversation turned to the question of empathy: How integral is it to writing true stories about other people's lives, even when they do something despicable? At one point Ana Maria Spagna spoke, offering a distinction between empathy and compassion. Empathy requires feeling with someone, participating alongside them in their life. Compassion is an acknowledgement of someone's humanity, including all their actions.  If empathy sends me out of myself into someone else, compassion is a larger embrace, bringing someone back into the fold as part of the human community.

 

But this embrace should not be confused with forgiveness, or even with understanding, per se. On the contrary, compassion says, "In your monstrousness, you are one of us. We recognize you." Thus it acknowledges that the horrific acts we like to term "inhuman" or "subhuman" are, in fact, wholly human. To estrange them by categorizing them as beyond the human is to delude ourselves, compromising our understanding of ourselves in all that we're capable of. I don't remember ever feeling empathy for Neenef as I wrote.  I found him, frankly, appalling. But I recognize compassion in my version of him, because I strove to make him fully human.

 

Compassion is not "fairness," and when I'm congratulated for being "fair" to Neenef I'm uneasy. "Fair" is simply the wrong word here. It suggests giving credibility to his "side of the story," or piling up his good points to balance the scales somehow.  Either one of those strategies makes me shudder. To make him human, on the other hand, I paid attention to his suffering, as an abused child; to his loneliness and cultural alienation on a Midwestern, mostly white campus where he was bombing academically; to the cold shadow of a punitive, demanding father; and to the ways in which his outlandish attempts to deny Maggie Wardle her life before he actually took it do not isolate him but in fact connect him deeply to our own patriarchal culture.

 

This is, for me, the moral challenge of writing other people. We want to make our bad guys recognizably human, of course, because otherwise they don't succeed as characters, fictional or otherwise. But to do so we are called upon to open ourselves to the fullest notion of their humanity. The moral feeds the artistic here. As nonfiction writers we can create believable characters from real people only if we see them as people.

 

Which seems obvious enough. Yet as I've thought about it, living in the acidity of our current culture, it's seemed to me that extending our imaginations to grant the bad guys their personhood has become not only increasingly difficult but increasingly unacceptable. So-called "cancel culture" makes it easy, sometimes mandatory, for the bad guys to get Xed out—swept off the board, expelled from the "us" of human community. It's left to those of us who write about them to draw them back into the human realm--the only place where they can be truly known for who they are.

 

GRIFFIN AUTHOR BIO

 

 

Gail Griffin is the author of four books of nonfiction, including "The Events of October": Murder-Suicide on a Small Campus and the forthcoming Grief's Country: A Memoir in Pieces.  Her award-winning essays, poetry, and brief nonfiction have appeared in venues including The Missouri Review, The Georgia Review, Fourth Genre, New Ohio Review, and Solstice, and in collections including Fresh Water: Women Writing on the Great Lakes. She lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

 

 

 

 

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#84 Stories and Stars by Guest Blogger Beth Richards

#84 Stories and Stars by Guest Blogger Beth Richards

 

Intro

 

 "Stories and Stars" depicts how Beth Richards' late night meditation on the stars leads to her discovery about the importance in writing of "the give and take of associating and shaping."

 

"Neither action is more important than the other" Beth says.  "Both are essential for writing the accurate, but most especially for writing the true."

 

MJS

 

 

I am standing in the brisk night air on the western flank of Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland. Most days I begrudge the shift from daylight to darkness but this day, at nearly 11 pm, I am willing a persistent patch of twilight blue to be gone. It is a rare clear night on the island, and I am waiting for the stars to come out. At 10:30 pm I can see the moon and a few faint points of the Dipper. At nearly 11:30 I mutter, "Oh, I give up" to the still-light sky and go inside.

 

When I step back outside, around 3 am, I look up and reflexively duck. The stars seem so close I'm afraid I'll bump my head on them. The blue twilight is gone and the velvety night is a tapestry of planets and constellations. The Milky Way is slathered across the dome of the sky. The resident cuckoo, who has migrated from Africa under these same stars, plucks her two notes. She and I seem to be the only ones up.

 

I think that I expected to stand under the stars and commune with the Celtic druids and the Christian anchorites who for centuries inhabited the nearby stone huts. We share the wonder of this brilliant sky, after all. But what I think about, as my eyes dart back and forth trying to capture the twinkling of uncountable stars, is driving home drunk.

 

Not recently, thank you. I was about 19. My cousin and I had been hanging out in a local South Florida bar, and we were headed back to her house because we'd spent all our money drinking Chivas on the rocks. I disliked Scotch then (still do) but the words "Chivas on the rocks" were such a pleasure to roll off the tongue, and the smoky-sweet liquid helped me forget myself for a while.

 

That night, as we slowly turned down a side street, two starry blazes of light crossed our path. They belonged not to the sky but to a leopard. Full grown, at least six feet from nose to switching tip of tail, it stalked at the end of its leash, which was held by its owner, a wealthy socialite who amused herself by keeping exotic animals. She walked the leopard between 2 and 3 am. I'm guessing she figured that if someone like me said, "I saw a lady walking a leopard," people would say, "Sure…and how much Chivas did you drink?"

 

That night, I ducked when I saw the big cat's eyes. Why? Perhaps the same reason I ducked when I saw the stars above Inis Mór: A recognition of the immensity of everything surrounding me. An acknowledgment of my small place in the cosmos. My lot is less likely predator and more likely prey.

 

Ah, the places our minds lead us and the speed with which we travel through time and space. When my students tell me that they are "free associating," they mean that they're writing down a bunch of things that don't make sense, ideas that don't have an obvious narrative thread or purpose.

 

"Not yet," I tell them. But I encourage them to trust that part of their brain, those neurons always knitting a web of meaning between two seemingly disparate memories or events. Let your brain and your heart and your memory do their work, I tell them. Then use your craft. First you'll make sense for yourself—although you may never uncover all the mysteries. And then you'll use your tools so that the associations make sense for others, as well.

 

I'm sure I've told my students any number of useless things, but I do know that I've never told them this process is easy. I've been writing a while now, and I still don't completely understand how this happens—how I move from that flash of deep emotion or recognition to slowly build and shape the sinews that will connect what and how and why I feel. I've also never told my students that this process is certain. I'm not yet sure where my craft will lead me as I try to connect my instinctive, primeval response to two such different events, more than 40 years apart. I know that my first inclination is to make a list of similarities. Certainly many sparkling things—close by and far away—have drawn my attention over the years. But that would be obvious, and too easy. So I will try to move beyond the path of least resistance to something more, leading myself into memory and the webs of time, and into the emotions always lying underneath. Ultimately, the stars I saw may slide under a bank of clouds. That leopard may disappear into the bougainvillea. But what will make the writing—whatever that writing becomes—come together is the practice of craft: shaping a narrative, asking probing questions, challenging assumptions, always asking not just "how?" but "why?"

 

An island man I walked with said that all stories are true; some are perhaps a bit more accurate than others. I join that ancient storytelling dance, the give and take of associating and shaping, which lives through this ancient island, and in all of us. Neither action is more important than the other. Both are essential for writing the accurate, but most especially, for writing the true.

 

 

Beth Richards is a north Florida native who lives and works in Connecticut. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Solstice Literary Magazine: A Magazine of Diverse Voices, the Crooked Letter anthology, Coming Out in the South, and the Talking Writing anthology Into Sanity. She is a graduate of the Solstice MFA in Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College and teaches at the University of Hartford.

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Blog #83 Let's Remarry the "I" and the "Eye" by guest blogger Mimi Schwartz

Intro:

 

In this month's blog post, Mimi Schwartz's "Let's Remarry the 'I' and the 'Eye,' " Mimi makes the case for remarrying the authorial 'I' with the 'Eye' of observation and analysis in school and academic writing.

MJS.

 

                               Let's Remarry the 'I' and the 'Eye'

                                                    By Mimi Schwartz

 

 

In the middle of The Origin of the Species, Charles Darwin writes this about his pigeons:

 

 "Believing that it is always best to study some special group, I have after deliberation, taken up domestic pigeons.  I have kept every breed which I could purchase or obtain and have been most kindly favored with skins from several quarters of the world...."

 

Evidently in 1859 an anecdote using 'I' three times in twenty-six words was acceptable in a major treatise involving observation and analysis.   Not so by the 20th century when ' I' became "pronoun non-gratis" in the world of ideas and research. 

 

"Never use I " was a mantra in academia, business and journalism, as if the eye of observation could think and assess by itself. No wonder the passive voice held sway! Had Darwin published his theory of evolution a century later, his editor would surely have said, "Cut the pigeons!"

  

In the 1970s, when I started teaching, a movement was underway to challenge the rhetoric that separated 'I' from 'Eye.'   Led by Janet Emig, Don Murray, Steve Judy, Peter Elbow and others—we writer/educators developed a pedagogy that encouraged student writers to do what veteran writers actually do.  Let them write to discover meaning inductively—without rigid thesis statements and five-paragraph proscriptions. Let them find an authentic voice by valuing their own thoughts. Let them experience how the subjective 'I' and the objective 'Eye' can work in tandem, not just in "creative writing"—but in analytic essays.  Let them study models that combine analysis and passion, such as poet and literary critic, Alicia Ostriker, does in her essay on Adrienne Rich:

 

"She wrote angry poems, love poems, poems of hope and despair, poems of terror and courage.  Her own and others.  Yes, she wrote feminist poetry and lesbian poetry, and was adored and attacked for it.  Yes, she wrote of 'the suffering hidden in plain sight: in America and in the world…'  She inspired two generations of American poets.  Inspired their writing.  Changed their lives.  Our lives.  My life."

 

We reformers were optimistic. From middle school English to college comp, the 'I' was making headway against its rival pronoun 'one.'   The pedagogy of "Think before you write!" was being challenged by the practice of veteran writers like E.M. Forester asking: "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" And the power of revision was enhanced by writers such as James Michener, who would readily admit:  "I have never thought of myself as a good writer… But I am one of the world's greatest rewriters."  School writing was embracing discovery on the page—not just repeating what you already know (or pretend to know).

 

And then it stopped.  By 2012, my grandchildren, attending good public schools in New Jersey and Massachusetts, told me their English teachers warned them to never use 'I" except in personal essays because "no one cares about your opinion. It's not about you, but what experts say."  You couldn't use 'I believe', they assured me, "because you have to sound as if this is what everyone thinks."

 

What happened? Why this regression to anonymity and proscription? I did a Google search for "What makes a good essay?" and discovered SparkNotes advice for improving SAT essay scores.  Using two student essays about failure, it compared a top-scoring #6 to lower-scoring #4 .

 

#6 began:

"Learning the lessons taught by failure is a sure route to success (THESIS STATEMENT). The United States of America can be seen as a success that emerged from failure: by learning from the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, the founding fathers were able to create the Constitution, the document on which America is built."

 

#4 essay began:

"Failure can sometimes lead to success. Many Internet commerce businesses have learned from the terrible failures of the dot.com boom and bust, and today are in much stronger …positions than they were just a few years ago." 

 

I liked this second with its hint of a person behind the words—and its use of active verbs and words like "sometimes," indicating a mind at work. But it turns out that "sometimes" is what got this writer into scoring trouble.  The  #4 essay, according to a SparkNotes' assessment, " …is not resoundingly clear from the start. The thesis statement is vague and makes the essay wishy-washy, which makes it weaker overall than the #6's unwavering start."  (Italics are mine.) No wonder we live in an age of polarization and the inability to compromise! What else is possible without "sometimes?" Montaigne would have scored a #2 on the SATS.  Thoreau and Joan Didion too!

 

The SAT essay test has subsequently shifted its focus to essays that analyze texts, but the same online advice lingers. Pre Scholar's five tips include: avoid using first person statements like "I" and "My" along with too much informality as in:

 

"I think that Sam is super persuasive in this article cause she's just so passionate.  It made me feel kinda bad that I don't really monster it up in my everyday life."

 

Much better to be multisyllabic and formal as in::

 

"Lindsay's passionate defense of how drawing monsters allows us to laugh at our personal foibles' causing her audience to put themselves in her shoes and empathize with her position."

 

I was glad to see that 'we' had replaced 'one,' but wished they included an example like Ostriker's, to show the authoritative potential of "I think" when responding to literature.

      

Outside the classroom the pendulum is swinging back to reuniting the  'I' and 'Eye' in nonfiction.   In 2015 Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature for Voices of Chernobyl, a collection of  "I" voices that were captured not in short journalistic quotes or authorial paraphrasing, but in long, raw, experiential accounts of how it felt to individuals:

 

"At the morgue…they couldn't get shoes on him because his feet had swelled up.  They had to cut up the formal wear too because they couldn't get it on him.  It was all—wounds.  The last two days in the hospital I'd lift his arm and meanwhile the bone is shaking, just sort of dangling, the body had gone away from it."

 

It was the first Nobel Prize for nonfiction won as literature in half a century. Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, called Alexievich's work "a history of emotions- a history of the soul, if you wish."  New Yorker book reviewer, Philip Gourevitch, wrote:  "What she is doing, there's a lot of art in it….She has a voice that runs through her work that's much more than a sum of the voices she's collected."

 

Art. Voice. Soul. In Nonfiction. Would that SAT evaluators take note!

 

Nonfiction fusions of  'I' and 'Eye' regularly make the bestseller list with books such as Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which is steeped in research, interviewing, and an 'I' as investigative narrator. Edmund de Waal's The Hare with the Amber Eyes weaves family research into first-person narrative.  All of Tracy Kidder's books from Soul of a New Machine on use a strong authorial presence, whether or not the 'I' is used overtly.  And The New York Times Sunday Review regularly publishes Op Ed essays that tell personal stories to make a larger social or political point, as do TED talks, podcasts and blogs--all combining ideas and personal experience.

 

So why not in our academic classrooms? Some educators blame the rise of computerized essay evaluations that are not programmed to score, say,  a pigeon anecdote.  Others note teacher wariness of the inappropriate 'I'' as in:

 

"I think this poem stinks.  It doesn't tell me anything.  I don't like poetry, period."

 

But rather than ban the "I," why not force it to explain itself? What exactly is distasteful in this poem?  How is the poetry you hate different from song lyrics you like?  Let's insist on examples that defend the position. Let's require interviews with friends and experts to learn what they think on a topic and incorporate a few responses as direct quotations. And please,  encourage a few "sometimes."

 

When I was conducting interviews in Germany for my book Good Neighbors, Bad Times, I relied on the 'I' to question, contradict, and be confused.  Before the interview, I'd write what I expected to find; afterwards, what I did find, including reactions to people and places, the more sensory details, the better.   I'd record every interview and transcribe it word for word without interpretation, and what amazed me was how little of my personal impressions matched the transcription.  Did he say that? I totally forgot.  It was the tension between affect (how the room struck me, who the person reminded me of) and transcribed fact that led me towards the truth of the experience.  I've been using this technique ever since, all the while keeping in mind writer Leigh Hunt's caveat:

 

"There are two worlds: The world that we can measure with line and rule, and the world that we feel with our hearts and imagination.  To be sensible of the truth of only one of these is to know truth by halves."

 

Let us remarry these two worlds in academic nonfiction so the authorial 'I' can work openly with the 'Eye' of observation and analysis. Writing quality and commitment would improve. Plagiarism would become more difficult because one person's  'I' is always unique. And because writers would feel their opinions did matter, they would learn to make their case with more writing power to engage both writer and reader.

 

Or so I believe.

 

BIO 

Mimi Schwartz's creative nonfiction books include When History Is Personal (2018); the award-winning Good Neighbors, Bad Times- Echoes of My Father's Germany Village; Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed; and Writing True, the Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction, co-authored with Sondra Perl. A version of this essay first appeared in the print edition of Writing on the Edge. For more information, go to http://www.mimischwartz.net

 

 

                                            Works Cited

 

Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, London, John Murray, 1859, Chapter 1.

 

Ostriker, Alicia. Unpublished panel talk, "Remembering Adrienne Rich." Associated Writing Program:Seattle, 2014.

 

 SparkNotes SAT Test Prep;  October, 15, 2015.

Note: This website has been revised to accommodate changes in the SAT essay exam of 2016, now focused on literary criticism.

 

Alexievich, Svetlana. Voices of Chernobyl.  Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2015.

 

Schwartz, Mimi. Good Neighbors, Bad Times, Echoes of My Father's German Village. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.

 

Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Broadway Books, 2010.

 

De Waal, Edmund. The Hare With the Amber Eyes.  London: Macmillan, 2010.

 

Gourevitch, Philip. "Nonfiction Wins a Nobel." The New Yorker  8 October, 2015

 

Hunt, Leigh. The Farmer's Wife. Vol. 36 (1933), p.72.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Blog #82 A Tribute to Floyd Skloot by Michael Steinberg

Blog # 82, A Tribute to Floyd Skloot by Michael Steinberg

 

To my mind, Floyd Skoot is one of this country's finest, most prolific writers of personal essays and memoirs. This blog post is from a recent AWP tribute panel on/about Floyd's life and work.

MJS

 

                                                       1

 When John Domini invited me to be on an AWP tribute panel for Floyd Skloot, I said yes in less than a New York minute. It's a high honor to talk (in this case, write) about Floyd Skloot as a writer. colleague, and friend.

 

There's no doubt in my mind that Floyd is one of our finest, most accomplished, and prolific personal essayist/memoirist.

 

The body of his major nonfiction works includes 5 books:

 

The Night-Side

In The Shadow of Memory

A World of Light

The Wink of the Zenith

Revertigo

 

Reading and studying Floyd's work had inspired me to keep going during a time, just before the turn of the century, when the personal essay and memoir were pretty much on the fringes of the larger literary conversation.

 

In addition, Floyd's works back then had educated me about the existence of good literary journals—magazines like The Gettysburg Review, the Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, and Boulevard, among several others.

 

Not only did this offer me places to find good literary nonfiction, it has also provided me with venues in which to submit my own work. And in addition, reading these journals influenced me quite a bit when I founded my own literary journal, Fourth Genre back in 1999.

 

Just as a personal note, several years ago I found out that both of us grew up only miles apart on Long Island in the 1950's, and that our high schools competed in sports against one another. So, we have all that back history in common as well.

 

After a brief email correspondence, Floyd and I finally met back in 2004, just after the publication of In The Shadow of Memory.  Floyd and his wife Beverly were living at the time in Amity, just outside of Portland—in a unique, round house way up on a hill that Beverly had built in 1993.

 

We exchanged and signed books for one another; and one of the things he wrote in a follow-up email has stuck with me to this day.

 

In talking about writing, Floyd said,

 

The slow, steady accrual of accomplishment by dint

of passion and intelligence and careful management

of what one is given {is} {t}he way most

people have to learn to succeed.      

 

It's a good example, I think, of the philosophy that's guided his own life and writing. And it is, I think, an appropriate segue to the next part of this essay.

 

                                                           2

 

I can't remember the last book that taught me so

much, and so well, about what it means to be human.

 

     --James Gleick (writing about In The Shadow of Memory)

 

Skloot turns personal catastrophe into literary reflection.    

     --Booklist

 

In addition to these epigraphs,, the first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry for Floyd reads as follows:

 

Floyd Skloot is an American poet, novelist, and memoirist who has

often written about the search for meaning through personal loss,

about love and memory, and the struggle for coherence in a

fragmented world. Some of his work concerns his experience with

neurological damage caused by a virus contracted in 1988.      

 

That's all true; but Floyd's work adds up to so much more than that. And so I'd like to elaborate on the two epigraphs and the Wikipedia entry. Which is to say, that I'll talk about some of the ways in which Floyd has managed to turn his deepest misfortunes into powerful. compelling, and deeply human literary works

 

I often tell my memoir students that writing about their emotional and psychological traumas won't heal their pain or soothe their wounds. Nor will it reverse the losses or remove the sorrows and regrets. It doesn't, in other words, alter the reality of what happened and how. And it shouldn't.

 

I then invite them to read some of Floyd's works. And as those works demonstrate, far from being a literal retelling or a re-experiencing of what really happened, the hard earned writing that emerges from Floyd's impulse to explore and try to comprehend his darkest moments is often an unexpected, and gratifying, surprise.

          

I say that because 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 make some human sense out of our difficulties and sufferings.

 

And Floyd's work indeed does just that.

 

In combining language, thought, and imagination in the ways that he does, Floyd is attempting to transform his most threatening fears and devastating setbacks into something meaningful, and in many cases, something beautifully wrought--namely, that is, a fully realized, convincing piece of writing in which he struggles transparently and honestly to make some larger sense out of personal suffering, loss, and emotional chaos.

 

I'm reminded here of something Virginia Woolf said—and I'm paraphrasing: Woolf writes that "putting feelings into words takes the pain away." "Making a scene come right," she says, "making a character come together—there is no greater pleasure."

 

These citations, I hope, will help to explain why Floyd Skloot is such a skilled and gifted  writer of literary nonfiction.

 

In closing, I'd like to quote from the Preface of Floyd's book, The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer's Life.

.

In it Floyd writes,

 

The Wink of the Zenith is the fourth memoir I've written in the

twenty years since getting sick. But it's the first that isn't

about being sick or reassembling myself in the aftermath of

a neurological calamity, or finding my way back into the

world as a disabled man. It's about the shaping of a writer's

life, about the forces that made me the sort of person who

could only deal with what happened to him by writing about it.     

 

  

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Blog #80 By Hand, By Heart by Guest Blogger Melissa A. Goldthwaite

Blog # 80 By Hand, By Heart by Guest Blogger, Melissa A. Goldthwaite

 

Note:

 

* When I first saw Melissa Goldthwaite's essay last spring in the Kentucky English Bulletin, I knew I wanted to reprint it on my blog. It's about the value of writing handwritten responses to student work--an important human connection that's well worth preserving.

 

MJS


I remember the handwriting of every teacher I've ever loved from elementary school to graduate school: fluid or crabbed, spidery or squiggly, loopy or angular. The slanted script of one middle-aged professor mirrored the way she walked: head pushed forward, bent toward the future. Another teacher's printed scratch was as messy as his hair, as untucked as his shirt. I can picture my teachers' penmanship as easily as I can see their faces. I know the work of their hands by heart.

 

Throughout more than a quarter century of school, I looked forward to the days papers were returned. Unlike many classmates, who flipped to the back page to glance at the grade, I always tucked the paper in a folder, put it in my book bag, and waited until I was in a quiet place, door closed, and I could read and reread each comment. I did the same when letters came in the mail.

 

I remember few of the substantive comments from these teachers. What I remember are the odd terms and the emotional tenor: the single exclamation point when I used "allowed" instead of "aloud"; the words "We'll see" next to a thesis statement (I recall how pleased I was to find in the comments a note about how I'd convinced this initially skeptical reader); the five messy stars and words "This poem is a barn burner!"; the penciled smiley faces and "boy howdy!" The exclamation point next to an error communicated the same message as a cross-out and correction, but it made the point differently. "Boy howdy" and "barn burner" were phrases I'd never heard, but I understood that I'd done something well by the bigger letters, the exclamation points, the stars or smiley faces.

 

Years ago, when I read a Washington Post article claim that "with most states adopting new national standards that don't require such instruction, cursive could soon be eliminated from most public schools," I didn't think first about the many historical documents—from the Constitution to the Declaration of Independence—written in script. I thought of my teachers—and my students. I thought of various slants and loops and scratches. I thought of cross-outs and white-outs and the grayed litter of erasures. I called to mind the script and print and faces of the people whose writing had shaped my own and those whose writing I seek to shape.

 

I thought of the conversations I have with my students' writing, the interaction in margins. Sometimes, it's painful. There are days when I labor for something positive to say before listing areas that need work. Sometimes, it's exhilarating—stars and wows and yes! Sometimes: tears—tears of exhaustion, tears from being moved by an image so perfect I will remember it for years.

 

Responding to student writing is the most time-consuming part of my job. I spend hours most days bent over my desk or dining room table, or sometimes (back aching from the task) slightly reclining in a zero gravity chair, papers in my lap. Hand writing comments (not to mention the time spent waiting for Wite-Out to dry when I fix my own errors) is anything but efficient.

 

I often listen to my colleagues and other teachers talk about ways of making responding to student writing more efficient. Many digitally record their comments, praising apps such as JING, which allows them to make audio or video comments. They tell me it's a time saver and allows students to hear their tone. It's more personal, they tell me. I believe them, but I have never tried the app. Others praise rubrics: the ease of simple checkmarks in boxes. Other colleagues, who exclusively respond on computers or tablets, tell me how much time they save by cutting and pasting. I believe them.

 

Yet I don't want a cut-and-paste relationship with my students. I want to respond to each person as an individual. Of course, I do sometimes write the same instruction in the margins. Yet in those cases, the writing instructs me. If I write a similar comment eight times in a stack of twenty papers, I am reminded there's something I need to do a better job of teaching.

 

I realize how old fashioned I must sound. But I'm no Luddite. I compose on both laptop and desktop computers, sometimes while walking on a treadmill; I respond to student emails on my iPhone and iPad; I listen to audio books on my phone; I keep both paper and electronic calendars; I return calls on my Apple Watch, always reminded of Maxwell Smart on his shoe phone or the Jetsons on their video phones as I ask Siri to make the call and I speak to the screen on my wrist. I embrace many technologies. But I wish to do so mindfully, to weigh what is gained and what is lost when I choose one technology over another.

 

There are certainly gains to moving to digital comments: online responses can save paper; typed or recorded responses prevent students from having to decipher handwriting; video and audio responses allow students to hear the teacher's tone; some teachers may write more in-depth end comments electronically.

 

My own responses to student work increasingly take a hybrid form. For some students, I write marginal comments in blue ink and a long typed end comment. For others, I type a letter and sign my initials at the end. If cursive is no longer taught in many schools, I imagine there are some students who cannot understand my handwritten comments, so even my handwriting has become hybrid: somewhere between printing and cursive. I'm making the shift, even as I resist it.

 

I still handwrite sympathy cards to students and colleagues who have lost a loved one. I also teach a course in epistolary writing in which students read poems, memoirs, stories, and essays composed as letters. I bring in greeting cards, stationary, and postcards, inviting students to write to their loved ones. On National Writing Day, I asked my creative nonfiction students to write tiny personal essays on postcards and send them out. One student reported, "When my mother got the postcard, she called me in tears." For many students, these handwritten notes are a literacy they've never encountered. I have to teach students where to put the address, where to place the stamp.

 

Recently, I invited one of my former teachers, Bill Roorbach, to do a reading and class visit at Saint Joseph's University, where I teach. He drove eight or nine hours from Maine to Pennsylvania. Before he came to class, we visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art. As I stood over sketchbooks and ephemera in display cases, Bill took photos of art on his phone, texting the pictures to his artist wife, Juliet. He didn't have to sketch what he saw, describe it in words, put it in the mail, wait several days for it to arrive, wait for a response. Juliet responded immediately. Such immediate exchanges made possible by technology can strengthen relationships as much as a letter. Still, I want the letters, handwritten.

 

In the Asian Art gallery, I stared at pages from the Qur'an, an intricate illuminated manuscript. I remembered the day I handed back papers and one young woman held a page of my handwritten comments up to the light. "Wow," she said, "your writing is beautiful. It looks like Arabic script." I wish.

 

In my office, just before he visited my class, Bill picked up an enormous volume—over 1,000 pages—of Sylvia Plath's letters.

 

"There's a Plath exhibit now at the National Portrait Gallery," I said, pulling out my phone. I showed him photos from the exhibit: letters—both handwritten and typed, Plath's typewriter, self portraits she'd painted, her girl scout uniform, typed drafts of poems with handwritten corrections, sketches, and her actual ponytail from when she was an adolescent.

 

He turned the hefty volume over and said, "There won't be books like this published much longer. People don't write letters anymore." He paused and looked up. "Well, you do."

 

I showed him The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, facsimiles of her handwritten poetry. I also have the typed versions; her writing can be hard to decode. The experience of reading Dickinson's handwritten poetry is utterly different from reading the same poems typed. The editor of these volumes, R. W. Franklin explains that Dickinson's "poems resist translation into the conventions of print. Formal features like her unusual punctuation and capitalization, line and stanza divisions, and display of alternate readings are a source of continuing critical concern" (ix). I sit with her poems far longer while trying to decipher her handwriting, noticing how she often didn't fully cross a lowercase "t" or seeing how the marks editors often translate as full, strong dashes are barely larger than periods, tiny marks on the page. I feel the poems differently when I read the facsimile. I'm relieved to have both versions.

 

Bill read to my class that afternoon, using my copy of his memoir Temple Stream. The book was bursting with colorful Post-it flags, marked with my handwritten comments in purple Sharpie. He'd taken a picture of the book earlier. After class, a couple students asked him to sign their books. One student, who'd purchased an electronic copy of the book, asked the author to sign his laptop.

 

At my kitchen table later that day, I asked Bill to sign copies of his latest collection of short stories for my friends, the ones to whom I still write handwritten letters. He drew a big heart on each title page, marked a line through his typed name, signed his name, wrote individual inscriptions—each slightly different. Seeing his handwriting brought me back to the first class I took from him in 1996, a creative nonfiction workshop. I learned to write scenes in that class. I can still see it: "More scene!" a spray of words like graffiti across a brick wall of type.

 

Works Cited

 

Dickinson, Emily. The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson. Edited by R. W. Franklin vol. 1, The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1981.

 

Shapiro, T. Rees. "Cursive Handwriting is Disappearing from Public Schools." The Washington Post, April 4, 2013, Washington Post.

 

* This essay was originally published in the Spring, 2018 issue of the Kentucky English Bulletin

 

Melissa A. Goldthwaite, professor of English, teaches rhetorical theory and creative writing (poetry, creative nonfiction, food writing, nature writing) at Saint Joseph's University. Her books include The St. Martin's Guide to Teaching Writing, editions five, six, and seven (with Cheryl Glenn); Surveying the Literary Landscapes of Terry Tempest Williams (co-edited with Kate Chandler); The Norton Pocket Book of Writing by Students; The Norton Reader, thirteenth and fourteenth editions (with Peterson, et al.); Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal (co-edited with Jennifer Cognard-Black), The Little Norton Reader: 50 Essays from the First Fifty Years; and Food, Feminisms, Rhetorics. Goldthwaite's work has also been published in journals such as College English, Reader, and Writing on the Edge and in numerous books. She earned her MFA in creative writing (1997) and her PhD. (2001) from The Ohio State University.

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Blog # 79 The Action Figures Collection by Guest Blogger Joan Frank

Note:

 

Joan Frank is one of our finest, most prolific writers of fiction and literary nonfiction. And her essay The Action Figures Collection is an homage to those writers whose "graciousness and kindness… seems shockingly to…. transcend…. even the street-level grime of the writing life—the thousand-and-one frustrations and jealousies, the scraping and scrabbling…"

 

It is indeed something that all of us who struggle with our writing need to be reminded of.

 

* I've also just learned that Joan Frank's latest essay collection Try to Get Lost: Essays on Travel and Place has won this year's River Teeth Prize for Nonfiction. The University of New Mexico Press will publish the book next year.

 

MJS

 

Blog # 79 The Action Figures Collection by Gues Blogger Joan Frank

 

In an essay for American Theater magazine, playwright Craig Lucas ("Prelude to a Kiss") described finding himself, some years ago, in the middle of a kind of personal renaissance, having just received a wonderful award.

 

Lucas had been given the Greenfield Prize. That meant a $30,000 stipend and a writing residence at a place called the Hermitage, in Englewood, Florida. His life, he cheerfully admitted, was a mess at the time: his marriage done, his work dead-ended. Though he'd overcome alcoholism and addiction, he wasn't sure, at 60, "what kind of character I wanted to play in my third act."

 

The retreat and cash prize gave him what every writer craves: time, space, financial stability. He could sort himself out and make new work. In what feels like a report or evaluation of this windfall experience, his essay tries to convey "the one big surprising thing I learned in my year of reading, contemplation and conversations with the Hermitage staff and fellow artists."

 

I re-read his essay several times, struggling to summarize for myself that "one big surprising thing." I sensed that Lucas wrote the piece in a heightened state. That is to say, he was quite high—a recognizable art colony high, that supremely fertile, alert, all-pores-open period when the very air seems to vibrate and the imagination with it. During that time, delicious possibilities rise to the surface like glistening golden carp, promising to coalesce into something brilliant (if we can just string together the words to finesse the job).

 

Lucas was high on the exquisite freedom and peace of a solitude that's supported and protected by like-minded others, un-impinged-upon by interruptions and demands. He felt he was glimpsing, during that high, What It All Means, and he tries in this essay to tell us:

 

"Self-knowledge ... Trust in others, time, process ... Humility and gratitude [are key] in gaining mastery ... I can't afford the luxuries of self-pity and resentment, privileging me and my work over others."

 

Bad reviews, he adds, "are like weather ... a permanent condition of being an artist." (Lucas had been receiving unfavorable notices for the work that followed "Prelude.") In fact, he declared, bad reviews have freed him "to write what I might otherwise have feared to say."

 

"Art models freedom," he notes, "but you must choose it—and keep choosing it."

 

That got my attention.

 

"We are what we do, not what we say, feel, or intend," he adds. (Italics are mine.)

 

Lucas sensed that the constant trick of making art is to resist being dragged under by "gossip and schadenfreude." Act in aggressive opposition to those reflexes, he suggests. Better art will follow.

 

When I read this essay, it both touched and bothered me. I understood its circumstances and admired its earnestness. Lucas's urgency, surely hard-earned, was inspiring. Yet from experience I know how that foamy, effervescent high in artistic retreat (with all its passionate revelations) can evaporate as we return to the daily, as we resume trying to fit writing into the interstices of life—ducking the slings and arrows.

 

I also recognize that art that matters—rather, art that winds up mattering, since time is the only real arbiter of that—can come from awful people. The books we write are not us, finally—for better and occasionally for worse.

 

But lately I've begun to suspect that Lucas may be onto something—something almost chemical—about "contributing to the common good" and "acting in opposition" to mean or petty reflexes.

 

Believe me, I'm the last person I'd expect to hear saying this.

 

After more time in the life than I like to concede, I've only recently started to figure out (slow learner) that my crabby, covetous fretting hasn't done much to help my work's success. My work has helped my work's success (combined with a near-rabid determination to send it out to as many pairs of eyes as may be willing to glance at it). Increasingly, in fact, my habitually gloomy attitude strikes me as stale, boring, cumbersome, and—most interestingly—completely irrelevant. Of no use at all.

 

At the same time, we've all noticed over the years that there are writers out there whose generosity and kindness are so notorious as to form a legendary piece of their identities. That is, their graciousness seems to so shockingly transcend (even disprove) the street-level grit and grime of the writing life—the thousand-and-one frustrations and jealousies, the scraping and scrabbling—that we remember them for it.

 

You've doubtless met some of the people I'm talking about. The encounter always feels astonishing. They look you in the eye. They offer clear, sensible words of encouragement, and they appear to mean it. They follow through with the help they pledged or the favor you requested. They cheer for you when good things happen for your work. And they seem to manage all this without visible strain, guilt-mongering, or similar complexities—whatever else they may be doing—year after year.

 

In short, their integrity seems real.

 

Lucas grasped that this mind-set (and behavior) works as an antidote to almost everything that can bring us down about the writing life—everything that can make us waste precious time questioning ourselves, and it.

 

Therefore, I want to be like those writers. Or at least bear them in mind, talismanically.

 

Something along the lines of a bumpersticker: What would (name inserted here) do?

 

What if it helped us, as artists, to keep a sort of private roll-call of these exemplars in the backs of our minds—like a collection of those action figures we used to play with as kids, hopping them around on furniture, giving them voices (though of course the mortal models for these figures have well-established voices), telling stories with them?

 

The writers I'm thinking of are in no way, let me hasten to add, Pollyannas. They know the game; they've seen all the cycles. They've wished for the same things we've wished for, that the life parses out so grudgingly: recognition, critical approval, a bit of money. They've even encountered rejection--imagine!

 

So when I propose this, I don't mean to candy-coat the difficulties and random weirdnesses of the life. Also, I do not imagine I can fool the universe into thinking I'm a nice person. The universe is certainly smarter than that―and being a nice person, as noted earlier, doesn't automatically make good art. (Jane Smiley quipped recently, in a list of writing tips, that "you cannot know human variety and maintain good manners at the same time.")

 

What I have in mind is re-routing a reflex. Even if those stellar models have been faking it all this time, something gets sparked by that. Function follows form, to a stupendous degree. We are what we do. So whether inside or outside of the haven of an artistic retreat, no matter how my curmudgeon instincts protest, I'll try more, in days ahead, to hold in mind the words and deeds of my action figures collection.

 

I, too, am curious about how that third act turns out.

 

*Joan Frank www.joanfrank.org is the author of eight books of literary fiction and a book of collected essays. Her forthcoming collection, WHERE YOU'RE ALL GOING: FOUR NOVELLAS, won the 2018 Mary McCarthy Prize for Fiction. Her last novel, ALL THE NEWS I NEED, won the 2016 Juniper Prize for Fiction. Her book of essays, BECAUSE YOU HAVE TO: A WRITING LIFE, won the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award. She lives in the North Bay Area of California.

 

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Blog # 78 The Book Proposal and the Elephant by Guest Blogger Maureen Stanton

Blog # 78 The Book Proposal and the Elephant

Note:

This is an adaptation of my presentation at Nonfiction Now 2018 in Phoenix, AZ, on a panel called, “Pitching It: The Pros and Cons, Ins and Outs of the Nonfiction Book Proposal.” I’d assembled the panel because, since I first sold a proposal in 2009, I’d been asked many times by fellow writers for advice, or to share my proposal. Back in 2009 when I was crafting my first proposal, I’d found little detailed information, and few models. There was a mystique to the process, as if it were carefully guarded insider information. Now, there are many book proposal guides online--including a template called “The Eazy Schmeazy Nonfiction Book Proposal Template”-- but still, few offer specific details. (The “Eazy-Schmeazy” part is the template; the hard part is filling the blanks with your book idea in a way that will inspire an editor to offer you a contact.) So in the spirit of demystifying the nonfiction book proposal process, I wanted to share some of my experiences.

*
I’ve sold two book proposals, the first for a work of literary journalism, Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: An Insider’s Look at the World of Flea Markets, Antiques, and Collecting (Penguin, 2012) and the second for a memoir, Body Leaping Backward: Memoir of a Delinquent Girlhood (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, forthcoming 2019). But failure was the reason I decided to try to sell a book by proposal in the first place. I had already written two books—a memoir (not the one mentioned above), and a collection of essays, and though each had been finalist in a national contest, and my essays had won awards, I could not sell either manuscript. The memoir went out with two different agents, and I sent the essay collection to nonfiction contests and to many independent and small presses. The process of writing and attempting to publish these two manuscripts represented over a decade of my life. With my next book idea, I thought--maybe I should see if I can sell the idea before I spend years writing a book that will never see the light of day.

A friend had generously shared a copy of her successful proposal, so using that model I drafted a proposal for my book idea—an immersion journalism work that takes readers behind-the-scenes in the subculture of flea markets and antiques (which I called Everything Rich and Strange, but which the publisher ultimately called Killer Stuff and Tons of Money). My then-agent took the proposal out and got a few nibbles, but no offers. Afterward, he stopped returning my phone calls and emails, so I officially broke up with him. After four years of work on the flea market book, I had to decide whether I should stick with this project, or move on to something else. In my heart I knew I had a good story, one that hadn’t been told from an immersion perspective, in a literary style. So I kept writing.

Meanwhile, I sent the proposal to a few other agents. One said I didn’t have a book, just a long article. Another said it needed a different structure—like “boy meets bottle” or “the history of glass” – my focal character collected antique glass and ceramics. I’d quit my first career at 35 to write, and lived on a subsistence income, and had no health insurance for a decade before I’d found a teaching job. At 49, I’d started to think that maybe I didn’t have to be a writer. Maybe my writing life was not meant to be. I was entertaining thoughts of joining the Peace Corps, and had downloaded the application. I’d always wanted to do that, and I discovered that they accept older people.

One day I heard myself giving advice to a student about a memoir. Start in medias res, I’d said; start with a compelling emblematic anecdote. Saying those words triggered an aha moment in me; I realized that I hadn’t taken my own advice in my proposal. I changed the beginning, or the “hook,” and sent the revised proposal—with only the first two paragraphs changed--to another agent. She loved the proposal, sent it out, and within a few weeks I had several offers, and then a contract. (And I missed my opportunity to join the Peace Corps.)

I believe that much of the success of the proposal was the new hook. Below is the original opening of the proposal, followed by the revised opening. Side by side, it’s clear which hook is more compelling:

First Version 2007 (Didn’t sell)

Why would a man spend $464,500 on a single table, basically pieces of wood nailed together (a William and Mary dressing table, c. 1730 from Salem, Massachusetts)? Why would a woman who admittedly never made it to church services instead “religiously” wake at dawn to comb the flea market every Sunday? If you overheard a man say, “I got weak in the knees when I saw that,” would you imagine he was speaking of an 18th century bottle that once held bitters? Why do fifteen million viewers tune in every week–and have done so for eleven years running--to watch people parade junk from their attic on Antiques Roadshow? Why do flea markets persist across cultures and across time? The Bermondsey flea market in London opened in the 13th century and is still operating eight-hundred years later.

Second Version 2009 (Sold)

Curt Avery tiptoes through his own backyard, ducking beneath the kitchen window so that his wife, Linda, doesn’t seem him carrying under his arm--like a recalcitrant child --a three-foot-long, custom-forged tin lobster-ship weathervane. Like an inverse-thief, he is smuggling valuable objects into his house. Antique weathervanes are suddenly a “hot” category–Polo Ralph Lauren executive, Jerry Lauren, just bought a five-foot-tall American Indian weathervane at Sotheby’s for over five million dollars. Avery tucks the oxidized green, slightly dented weathervane inside the door of his basement–there is no other room now that boxes fill the entire space floor to ceiling, an impenetrable mass of stuff. Years ago, there was a pool table in this room, and place for the kids to play. Now, you open the door and are faced with a wall of cardboard boxes.

While I was ecstatic to have a book contract, this anecdote about the hook is also a caveat about selling the “sizzle,” as marketing gurus say. During the process of shopping the proposal, editors I spoke with asked me about the focal character’s marriage, if that storyline would “play through the book,” or if the hoarding would be a story line. The opening, while more dynamic, tilted the angle of the book. I had to walk a fine line when talking to editors because these were not major themes of the book; I didn’t want to invade the privacy of my focal character, or tell stories for which he hadn’t given me permission. He was the guide through this subculture, but the book was not a biography, per se.

Selling a glimpse of a book through a proposal, in that case, meant that my vision for the whole book did not align exactly with the acquiring editor’s vision. My editor wanted a Friday Night Lights type book, full of drama and a strong narrative arc. I wanted a book like Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, more of a tour d’horizon of a subculture. My editor had asked to see the first third of the book when I’d written it, but I was afraid he would discourage the direction in which I was taking the narrative. I worried that disapproving comments from him would block my writing, or weaken my faith in my vision, so I didn’t show him any pages until I’d completed a draft, until I’d laid out my vision entirely on the page.

This strategy, though necessary to my writing, excluded him from the process, and as a result, I think it dampened his enthusiasm for the book. After the first draft, we had a tug of war about the amount of “research bits” between the scenic moments. He wanted zero; I wanted a lot. In the end, we struck the right balance, and the book is better for my editor’s influence and wisdom. But selling the idea on proposal had helped to create a somewhat fraught process. A proposal offers a partial glimpse of a book, and so it can be like that Buddhist parable about three blind men describing an elephant; after touching one part of the beast—trunk, flank, or tail--each man had a wildly different idea of the “elephant.”

I’m not complaining, just cautioning. I’m thrilled to have secured contracts from proposals, and to know my hard work would result in published books (though I still hope my first two manuscripts will be published someday). The bottom line is that the book proposal represents your vision for your book, and that’s something to honor.


Maureen Stanton is the author of Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: An Insider’s Look at the World of Flea Markets, Antiques, and Collecting (Penguin Press, 2012), winner of the Massachusetts Book Award in Nonfiction, and Body Leaping Backward: Memoir of a Delinquent Girlhood (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, forthcoming 2019). Her essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, such as Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Creative Nonfiction, New England Review, Florida Review, and have received the Iowa Review award, the American Literary Review award, the Thomas Hruska award from Passages North, and a Pushcart Prize. She teaches creative writing at the UMass Lowell. Her work can be sampled at: Maureenstantonwriter

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Blog #77 How to Make a Cake out of Cupcakes: or How to Turn Your Essays into a Book by Steven Church, Guest Blogger

Blog # 77

How to Make a Cake out of Cupcakes: or How to Turn Your Essays into a Book*

Note:

This was written for a panel at the 2015 NonfictionNow Conference in Flagstaff, Arizona titled, "Hydra-Headed Memoirs and Well-Connected Essays: Negotiating Your Book-Length Nonfiction Thing." As an introduction, I mentioned that I'd written this after, first, hearing yet again that my own "book-length nonfiction thing," was too fragmented and associative and didn't have a unifying narrative line; and, second, after thinking a lot about the challenges of teaching in an MFA program, where we focus on teaching students how to write great essays and then, in their last year, expect them to submit an entire unified "book-length nonfiction thing," but we offer very little instruction on how to actually do that, how to turn that "bag" of essays into a unified book or memoir.

--Steven Church

How to Make a Cake out of Cupcakes: or How to Turn Your Essays into a Book

Step 1: Learn to bake, from scratch, a couple of really good cupcakes—perfect little cakes that share the same basic form and thematic structure of a larger cake, the complete idea for which hasn’t actually formed completely in your head yet, but which exists just beneath the surface of your waking thoughts. Start small. If necessary, pay a lot of money to take some classes and spend two or three years studying how to make a really delicious cupcake from bakers who have made a lot of cupcakes. Learn to appreciate the cupcakes of your peers. Begin to develop a critical appreciation for “cupcakeness.” Teach Freshmen how to make bland, mostly flavorless cupcakes, and spend countless hours assessing the quality of these cupcakes. Mention in casual conversation at parties or to your undergraduate students, that Montaigne was the father of cupcakes.

Step 2: Share your small successful cupcakes with other people who are learning to make cupcakes. Enter them in cupcake contests and post pictures of them on social media. Test your cupcakes against public opinion, subject them to criticism, and make sure they hold up well under scrutiny. Don’t get too excited about the relative success of your cupcakes, but enjoy the feeling of acceptance, and ignore the few people who don’t like your cupcakes. Keep working to perfect your own unique recipe, what some people will call your cupcake, “voice.”

Step 3: Decide that, due to the relative success of your cupcakes, you’d like to make a whole cake, a real cake that a lot of people could eat, something popular with cake-lovers who can afford to buy an entire cake and do so, regularly--perhaps the kind of cake-lovers who host a popular TV show or write cake reviews and organize entire clubs dedicated to cake-loving. Commit to this idea of a whole cake and, when that idea terrifies you, reproduce those small, successful cupcakes again and again, editing out any mistakes and responding to the smallest criticisms from your audience. Make sure those cupcakes are absolutely perfect. Then hide them away in small cupcake cabinets where nobody will eat them.

Step 4: Stay up late. Wake up early. Work on new recipes. Try different flavors. Look admiringly at your cupcakes. Stare at them. Move them around on a plate. Try unique arrangements of your tiny cakes. Stack them up, or spread them out randomly on the table. Put two different cupcakes next to each other, playing around with the juxtaposition of their flavors, because juxtaposition is cool. Take the frosting from one cupcake and put it on another one. Cut a couple of them in half and throw away everything but a suggestive fragment of the original cupcake. But eventually you’ll have to resist the urge to revise your cupcakes further. You’ll have to ignore the nagging thought that, perhaps, you actually enjoy collections of cupcakes as much or more than whole cakes. Don’t listen to the voice in your head telling you that whole cakes are overrated, even if David Shields says, “Cupcakes are dead. Long live the anti-cupcake.” Put your cupcakes back in the container. Leave them there and focus, instead, on teaching other people how to make really great cupcakes.

Step 5: Wait a month. Or two. Or twelve. Or until it’s summer and you have some time to work on this idea of a cake you have. Then pick up your cupcakes again, peel off the wrappers, and hold them in your hands. Marvel at their completeness, their perfect melding of form and function, their manifestation of your refined idea of “cupcakeness.” Post something on Facebook or Twitter about “cupcakeness.” Draw a picture of the larger, whole cake you want to make and tape it to the wall above your desk. Pay other people to talk to you about your idea for a cake. Attend conferences and panels where other cake-makers talk about their successful whole cakes. Taste other cakes that seem similar to the one you want to make, but don’t eat too much or you’ll just decide that your cake has already been made and what’s the point anyway.

Step 6: Take all of your cupcakes—all the different flavors--and cram them together into a big pile of crumbly cake and frosting. Step back. Look at the mess you’ve made. Try not to weep. Instead, using your hands, try to mold the crumbled individual cupcakes into something that resembles a whole cake, but which will actually more closely resembles something from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Still, you must cling to the belief that the cupcakes are like clay and that you can just break them apart and re-shape them into a full-size cake, into something that other smart, professional cake-lovers can look at and say, “Yes. That is a cake,” so you keep squeezing the mess of cupcakes, pressing it into different forms and shapes; but nothing seems to work, and it keeps falling apart in your hands. Sometimes you think maybe you have enough material to make two whole cakes, so you try that for a while until your hands are sticky and everything is all mixed up. This doesn’t work either, but you keep doing it for a few months or a few years; and when other people ask what you’re working on, you tell them, “Oh, you know. Just this cake,” and when they ask what kind of cake, you say, “It’s kind of hard to describe.”

Step 7: Wash your hands, rinse, and repeat.

*This essay has been previously published by Assay and Brevity.

Steven Church is the author of six books of nonfiction, most recently the collection of essays, I'm Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: on Work, Fear, and Fatherhood. He edited the recently released anthology of essays, The Spirit of Disruption: Selections from The Normal School and he is a founding editor of The Normal School: a Literary Magazine. He coordinates the MFA Program at Fresno State
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Blog # 76 The Role of Imagination in Interpreting/Understanding the Past by Michael Steinberg

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MJS

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wanted my mother.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe this is because it’s done its job.



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

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