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.”
* 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
Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction
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.
Blog #74 Writers in the Trenches: An Interview
This month’s blog is an interview I did for Writers in the Trenches.
Writers in the Trenches is a series of interviews with a variety of writers across the genres. You can find this interview and others on writer Faye Rapoport’s blog, Musings on Writers, Writing, Literature, the Writer’s Life
1) Writers in the Trenches:
As the founding editor of the prominent literary journal Fourth Genre, an award-winning essayist, and a teacher in both formal and informal settings, you have played a significant role in the advancement of creative nonfiction as a modern American literary genre. How has the genre evolved since you entered the scene?
The genre has evolved and expanded greatly since I started the journal in 1999. For the first five-seven years, the majority of our submissions were personal narratives—some segmented, but mostly chronological. And we also ran a handful of lyric essays. Other pieces we accepted were examples of good literary/investigative journalism; strong pieces of personal/cultural criticism. For the most part though, we were reading and publishing Montaignian personal essays and stand-alone literary memoirs.
If you look at a copy of the journal today, you’ll find a different literary landscape. We are, I believe, in the midst of a paradigm shift, one that’s very similar to what we’ve been seeing in the other fine arts--music, visual art, theater, and dance. Representative works of creative nonfiction would include examples of mixed media, graphic; and video essays; cross genre and hybrid/interactive forms, in addition to essays on/about gender, ethnicity, and identity, as well as pieces on/about political, social, and cultural issues and works of scholarship, ethnography, and research. That’s quite a dramatic shift.
2.) Your memoir, Still Pitching, is far more than a baseball story. Many readers are surprised at how much they enjoy the book even if they're not baseball fans. Now, interestingly, you're working on a book that explores that connection between baseball and writing. Can you summarize what you've discovered about that connection in a paragraph or two?
--I make no claims for baseball being a metaphor for life, for writing, or for anything else, really. My speculation is that being a relief pitcher, a closer, for some fifteen years, and then a player/manager for a fast pitch softball team for fifteen others, taught me the value of perseverance, resilience, discipline and determination, among other things (like how to handle the kinds of disappointments that are a part of anyone’s writing life). These qualities, as well as my having both an analytical and imaginative bent, have served me well as a writer—in my case, a writer of personal essays and literary memoirs.
3.) Your personal essay "Chin Music," which was chosen as a "Notable Essay" in Best American Essays 2010, is one of my favorite essays to teach to undergraduates. From the setting to the voice, from the nested structure to the careful balance between scene and reflection, "Chin Music" is rich in literary technique. How long did it take you to write that essay?
--“Chin Music” took some five plus years to complete. In its first incarnation, the entire piece was composed of one long scene that now forms the middle section. It was a description of a confrontation between a young narrator and an anti-Semitic baseball coach.
In real life, the scene might have lasted maybe 30 seconds or a minute; but in early drafts, it was some ten pages long. To increase the tension and immediacy of the scene, the narrator uses only the present tense. Yet, on its own, the piece was no more than one long scene. I knew it needed a frame (a prologue and an epilogue), and a larger point of some sort. So I put the piece away for while.
Over a period of years, I went back to it. And each time, I tried a different frame. But none of them, I could tell, were the right fit. Then a little later on, I had a classroom confrontation with a difficult student. And at some point, I lost my composure As a result, he embarrassed me (and rightly so) in front of my own class. Of course, I was disappointed in myself; but still, I walked away from that encounter knowing that I’d finally found the frame that the piece needed. And once I knew that much, it took me only a couple of hours to write the prologue and epilogue. At the same time, I was also able to connect the new transitions to that long middle scene.
4.) The popular textbook Fourth Genre: Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, co-edited by you and Robert Root, went through six editions. How has creative nonfiction evolved since the initial publication of that text?
Note--I answered this in question one. You might want to combine the anthology and journal by simply mentioning that the anthology came out in 1998 and the journal’s first issue was a year and a half later, in 1999.
5.) I love the title of your most recent collection: Greatest Hits and Some That Weren't. Which ones "weren't," and why?
--The collection’s title has since changed. Now it’s Living in Michigan Dreaming Manhattan.
But here’s the answer to your question:
To my mind, the greatest hits were the personal essay/memoirs that were chosen as Notables in BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS, along with a piece that was chosen for the Missouri Review Editor’s Prize and a couple of others that had won smaller awards and/or were nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The remaining essay/memoirs, “Those that Weren’t,” were works I’d published that didn’t achieve anything more than publication. Which, honestly, for the likes of me, is recognition enough.
6.) One of the things you've often talked about is your satisfaction, as a writer, with being a "voice in the choir." This interview series is for writers in the trenches who struggle to stay inspired, keep writing, and avoid giving in to discouragement. What do you say to discouraged writers who feel as if they will never find "success?"
--This question connects nicely with the last line of my reply to the previous one. Anyone who continues to write knows that rejection and disappointment come with the territory. In fact, both are givens. To expand on that notion a bit, I’m going to cite a quote from the playwright/essayist, David Mamet.
Above my writing desk, Mamet’s quote reads:
"If you intend to follow the truth in yourself--to follow your common sense, and force your will to serve you in the quest for discipline and simplicity--you will subject yourself to profound despair, loneliness, and constant self-doubt. And, if you persevere, the Theater, which you are learning to serve will grace you, now and then, with the greatest exhilaration it is possible to know."
Where Mamet has written “the Theater,” I’ve substituted “the writing life.” And I take his words “persevere,” “discipline,” and “simplicity” to mean the truth that emerges from one’s most honest and unequivocal writing. And that’s is the kind of success that means the most to me.
Founding editor of Fourth Genre, Michael Steinberg has written and co-authored seven books and a stage play. Still Pitching won the 2003 ForeWord Magazine Memoir of the Year. An anthology, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction (with Robert Root) is in a sixth edition. He’s a writer-in-residence in the Solstice/Pine Manor College MFA program. Read More
Blog # 73. Re-thinking the Literary Memoir: Some Notes on Patricia Hampl's "Memory and Imagination" by Michael Steinberg
“Re-thinking Literary Memoir “ was originally a panel talk I did at the 2017 AWP convention in Washington DC. The panel’s title was “The Vein of Jade: What a Single Detail Can Reveal in Nonfiction. It was about how “the perfect, telling detail” illuminates works of literary nonfiction." In my craft essay, I 've extended “the perfect, telling detail” to include selected passages and scenes.
Blog # 73. Rethinking the Literary Memoir: Some Notes on Patricia Hampl’s “Memory and Imagination” by Michael Steinberg
Memoir isn’t for reminiscence; it’s for exploration. - Patricia Hampl
Some years ago as part of my preparation for an upcoming memoir workshop, I was rereading Patricia Hampl’s “Memory and Imagination,” a marvelous personal/critical essay I’d first encountered some twenty-five years ago. The original essay was published at just about the same time as the literary memoir was starting to receive more attention.
Back then I remember being struck by Hampl’s inventive approach to composing a literary memoir. And even more so in my current rereading of the essay.
Early on in “Memory and Imagination,” Hampl is discussing the early draft of a short piece, an essay/memoir that, according to her, wasn’t working. She begins by depicting, in very specific detail, a scene from the draft about her first piano lesson.
At the end of the scene–which Hampl describes as “a moment”–she asks herself why she’d remembered that particular incident (the piano lesson) and not other, more vivid, and possibly. more dramatic, childhood stories. She then tells us, “When I reread what I had written just after I finished it, I realized that I’d told a number of lies.”
In my rereading, this is where I became even more curious to find out where Hampl’s essay was headed.
As she reflects on that disclosure, Hampl also questions why she had invented the details of that piano lesson, an incident she says she had no recollection of. Next, she tells us that up until she’d written about that “moment,” she had believed that memoir was “a transcription, a faithful, accurate, rendition of a period or incident” from her past.
I have to admit that back when I started to teach and write memoir, I too believed something similar. And so did my students.
For many years in my memoir workshops, a majority of the autobiographical works, both by experienced and aspiring writers, were, for the most part, straightforward, chronological pieces-- narratives that attempted to reproduce the facts and literal events of a given story. And when I was editor of the literary journal, Fourth Genre, a good number of well-written, even compelling memoirs, that missed the cut, were also chronological and fact-based narratives; works that didn’t dig deep enough and/or go beyond the telling of a given story’s situations and events.
I was thinking about those things as I was reading the next few pages of “Memory and Imagination.” And here is where Hampl began to interrogate her own reasons for writing about the piano lesson. “I must admit,” she says, “that I invented that scene.
But why?” she asks herself–before answering, “Two whys; why did I invent? And then, if a memoirist must invent rather than transcribe, why do I–why should anybody–write memoir at all?”
Hampl’s question stopped me in my tracks. Because as he goes on to say, “It still comes as a shock to realize that I don’t write about what I know. I write in order to find out what I know.”
To which she adds: “That’s why I’m a strong advocate of the first draft. And why it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider what a first draft really is.”
This is the moment in my rereading of “Memory and Imagination” when I seriously began to re-examine my approach to teaching (and writing) memoir.
By “first draft,” Hampl is referring once again to the piano lesson–the scene she’d just described as “invention and lies.” This discovery she tells us, subsequently became the catalyst for her next draft, which she explains, is “an entirely different piece altogether.”
Which of course in retrospect now makes perfect sense.
Hampl goes on to say, “No, it isn’t the lies themselves that makes the piano memoir a first draft...” before adding that, “the real trouble is that the piece hasn’t yet found its subject; it isn’t about what it wants to be about…. what it wants, not what I want.”
Right then, I understood something I’d been feeling for a long time both about my students’ and my own work–something I’d been unable to articulate or pin down.
“The difference,” Hampl maintains, “has to do with the relation a memoirist–any writer, in fact–has to unconscious or half-known intentions or impulses…”
When I’d first read “Memory and Imagination,” I was neither experienced nor savvy enough to make the connection between the works my students were producing and the short piano lesson fragment Hampl was struggling with.
But, some twenty-plus years later, I now understand it. Because in my rereading of her essay, it became clear that Hampl’s disclosure about lying isn’t meant to give students permission to make things up.
Quite the contrary. In addition to expanding their thinking on/about memoir, Hampl is encouraging aspiring memoirists to make fuller use of their imaginations.
A few paragraphs later, Hampl writes, “We must acquiesce to our gift to transform our experience into meaning and value…” before adding, “You tell me your story, I’ll tell you my story.”
“Transform” is the operative word here. And to emphasize it, Hampl ends the segment of “Memory and Imagination” by telling us that, “True memoir is an attempt to find not only a self but a world.”
That last line segues to a more expansive, complex, and philosophical discussion on/about memoir’s range and scope. In the second half of the essay then, Hampl turns her attention to explaining and illustrating memoir’s potential to focus on important human concerns, as well as to engage with larger historical, social, cultural issues.
It seems to me that my sense of memoir as a legitimate form of literature might well have been altered, maybe even have been shaped, by what Hampl had written years ago in “Memory and Imagination.”
And for a long time afterward, those not-yet fully-understood insights continued to inform a good deal of what I’ve learned both about writing and teaching. Now, after rereading the essay, many of those beliefs have been clarified and confirmed.
I say this because shortly after I’d finished “Memory and Imagination,” I could see more clearly what had been missing from both my students’ work and from the “almost’s” we’d turned down at Fourth Genre. Those chronological memoirs I’d been reading were, in effect, first drafts; drafts, in other words, that had been shaped too soon; works, as Hampl had suggested, that haven’t yet “transformed…experience into meaning and value.”
While the overall question of “why write memoir” was what guided my re-reading of “Memory and Imagination,” I could also see that the essay was helping to remind me how important it is for us to learn more about what it means to read like a writer; to read a work from the inside-out; to read, that is, in order to gain a fuller understanding of how and why selected details, scenes, and images serve the writer’s intent, while at the same time contributing to that work’s overall shape and design.
This is, I believe, what Annie Dillard is getting at when she talks what it means to “fashion a text.”
And this is, after all, what all of us--teaching memoirists, essayists, poets, and fiction writers--aspire to accomplish in our own works, at the same time as we’re encouraging our students to do the same.
Michael Steinberg, founding editor of the literary journal, The Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction has written, co-authored and/or edited six books and a stage play. In 2003/04, Still Pitching won the ForeWord Magazine/Independent Press Memoir of the Year. An anthology, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction (with Robert Root) is now in a sixth edition. His latest book is Living In Michigan, Dreaming Manhattan: Selected Essays and Memoirs 1990-2015
Patricia Hampl once said (and I’m paraphrasing), “You give me your story, I get mine.”
This month’s guest, Suzanne Strempek Shea, a very fine fiction writer, journalist, and memoirist, picks up on Hampl's notion by using an anecdote from a grade school writing assignment as the catalyst for an essay about finding narratives we're passionate about as well as the importance of connecting readers to those narratives.
In the body of her piece, “Why Would She Write About That?” “Suzanne says, “As writers, we have to go with the great fuel provided by an idea that speaks strongly to us, and we also have to remember to take others along for the ride.”
#72 "Why Would She Wrtie About That?" by Suzanne Strempek Shea
“Get out your tablets.”
Upon that direction, kids nowadays reach for the ever-present iPad. But in 1970, during seventh-grade English class at my Western Massachusetts parochial school, tablet was nunspeak for those ruled pads of paper with that black-and-white faux-marble cover. The word also meant it was time to write. We’d lift the hinged lids of wooden school desks so old they included a well for ink, and at which many of our parents sat when they’d been our ages. We’d retrieve our tablets, and sharpened pencils, and would begin to write. Once done, we’d be invited stand at what Sister Lucentia called the lectern, and would share our work.
Lectern was in our vocabulary thanks to Sister, but of course we wouldn’t have used the term “work” for our creations, that being where our fathers went off to each morning, dressed in Dickies and carrying lunch in a brown paper bag. We’d also not have used “share,” unless being guilted into relinquishing an extra section of Almond Joy to a classmate, but never as in “Oh, when you shared your work, I was incredibly moved.” So let’s just say that anybody in class brave enough walked to the lectern to read the resulting essay, getting it out of the way before Sister forced every one of us up there in her usual gruff by-the-surname manner.
Seventh grade marked both the first essay I remember writing, and, at that lectern, giving my first public reading. Sure, for an entire year already, I’d been publisher (and reporter and illustrator and designer and distributor) of The Nutty News, a newspaper I created for my parents every Saturday night while they went out polka dancing. So I was published -“Circulation 1”, as noted on the masthead of the copy I left for my parents at the back door, as if the paperboy had been by. But nobody ever had heard me read until the September day I was propelled to the lectern by a freak storm of unusual confidence in both my ability to stand in front of 30 kids, and in what I had written in my tablet.
The assignment had been the usual “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.” I wrote of a family camping trip in Vermont during which I spent a sunny afternoon floating on my back down a stretch of the tree-lined West River. Despite all the stuff my family has held onto over the years (Anyone for the foot-long braid chopped off my head when I craved a mod style during the Nutty News era?), the tablet somehow isn’t in the archives, so I can’t quote. But I do recall describing the rocks in the water, and the effort of dodging them, the joy of lingering in the deep pool at the end of the faster stretch, and hiking back up the shady access road to do it all again. I don’t recall the prose as extremely descriptive, or there being any action beyond the floating and noticing, then the trek up to start another round of it. There certainly was no arc to the story, no realization or resolution, no reaching out to anyone beyond me. Yet the piece felt like something real, a sensation as fresh as the river. Standing up there, I was proud, something we weren’t supposed to be about anything at all, other than, say, being a member of the One True Church.
My vocations had never wavered from horse trainer and artist, so I can’t say this was the moment I knew of my eventual career destiny. But there indeed was something happening as I lifted my eyes from the lines of Bic-blue to the rows of scarlet woolen blazers before me, and to the raised hand of Tad Nowacki, who never, ever raised his hand except to request what usually would be a lengthy visit to the lavatory (another of Sister’s words).
“You want to be next, Nowacki?” Sister sneered, surprised as the rest of us at the possibility.
“Nah. I just want to say it’s no big deal.”
“It’s no big deal what she wrote. I float down the Swift every weekend. On an old door. It’s no big deal. Why would she write about that?”
All the kids laughed.
Maybe you were expecting that in a childhood memory of creativity offered to the maws of the masses, and while it did spark an embarrassed blush that by the time I got back to my seat matched my blazer, it’s not what, 48 years later, makes this experience stick in my mind. Neither does the image of gangly Nowacki and his door swirling down our village’s not-so-swift Swift River. It’s that while Sister Lucentia might have made us write essays, via his questions, the kid who usually was staring out the window ended up teaching me something vital about writing: it’s essential for a writer to see a subject as a big deal, and to write it so it might become vital to others. Let me add that though he taught me that then, I caught on fully only through decades of trial and error.
I could have an idea, but was it one that excited me? That question was key. I was a newspaper reporter for 15 years, and have freelanced for the past 23, and not every story I’ve been assigned has made me run joyously to the interview or research. But if I were assigned something up my alley, or – better - if my editor okayed a story I’d pitched because I was wildly interested in it: nirvana. As I tell students now, usually while looking down at a classroom’s gray industrial carpeting, “If I assign you 5,000 words on gray industrial carpeting, and it’s really not your thing, it’s probably going to take you forever to write something even halfway decent. But if gray industrial carpeting is what you love most in this world, you’ll have the piece delivered in about three minutes, and it’ll be great.” Maine writer Lewis Robinson often repeats sage advice he received along these lines: “Write what you can’t shut up about.” And I often repeat Lewis Robinson. If the story idea ignites something in you – excitement, joy, horror, disgust – anything on the high end of the emotion scale – I’m betting you’re going to do a fine job on it. So Tad Nowacki was right on there. The reader wants to share your perspective that the subject is a big deal. But it’s not enough that the piece thrills you alone.
Think of the poor parent proffering a pic of their new and rather run-of-the-mill infant. They’re so in love and are looking at you with hope-filled eyes, asking “Isn’t she the most gorgeous thing?” You see the parent’s besottedness, but you don’t get why. As writers, we have to go with the great fuel provided by an idea that speaks strongly to us, and we also have to remember to take others along for the ride. We need to connect with our readers, and to do so organically, skipping that whole hitting them over the head part. We should ask the question that stymied Tad Nowacki: “Why would she write about that?” If the answer is because you really love pierogi or politics, that’s not enough. If you’re putting a story out there, it’s out there for others to read. So part of the deal is that if there’s something about your idea that shockingly powers you to the metaphorical lectern that is publication of any kind, you’ve gotta leave readers with a doggie bag.
As the literary bumper sticker says, just because it happened to you (or to someone or something else), doesn’t make “it” a story. It’s writing-cliché, but it’s true: the personal must be universal. My float down the river made Tad shrug, maybe because it was my point of view, and one particular place. What if I’d thought to widen it to imagine myself as just one of many kids enjoying that summer pastime, in Vermont, back home in Massachusetts, and wherever else there were rivers to enjoy? It’s totally possible that Tad still might not have felt connected, that maybe he was just a jerk. But making the personal big-deal universal, and solidly illustrating why the story needs to exist can save it from the linty environs of the navel-gazing category. The universal needs to be employed so regularly that you should feel compelled to fund its 401K. It’s at work in my essay about growing up one floor above my maternal grandparents, which gets into plenty of the personal but also looks at the riches resulting from daily contact with another generation, especially with one that began life in another country and for whom emigration was crucial to survival. It’s there in my book about an Irish guidance counselor who began a medical clinic in Malawi in memory of a late son, a story that offers the specifics of her journey but includes those of others who ultimately gave months and years to working there, others who underlined that we all have something to give, wherever we are. In a magazine piece about a draft horse sanctuary, I detailed the backstories of the herd’s members and the effort’s founder, which I feel could mirror those of any beings involved in any circle of rescue and renewal. In my most personal piece of writing, a book on my radiation treatment for breast cancer, I certainly ventured down the various emotional rivers on which I was floating, but heard from strangers that ever-universal honesty made that intimate trip resonate, that I wasn’t alone in wanting to head back to the store to return with the “gift” of cancer, and in having no cheery life lesson I wished as a tattoo.
And I tried to do the same in this piece, which ends as I hold forth a doggie bag I hope will have you pondering what you want to bring to the lectern that is the journal page, the computer screen, the book series. Whatever the project, I urge you to head off at the pass any Tad Nowackis by choosing a subject for which you have passion, and by making room for others as you consider how to write it. Then you can stand proud, the only hands raised belonging to readers genuinely engaged and affected. And that, indeed, is a big deal.
*Tad Nowacki is a pseudonym.
*Suzanne Strempek Shea is not. Learn more about her at suzannestempekshea.com.
Suzanne Strempek Shea began writing fiction in her spare time while working as a reporter at The Springfield (Massachusetts) Newspapers in the early 1990s. She since has published twelve books, including novels, memoirs, biographies and an anthology. Her freelance journalism, creative nonfiction and fiction has appeared in newspapers and magazines including The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Irish Times, Yankee, Golf World, Down East, The Bark, Organic Style and ESPN the Magazine. She was a regular contributor to Obit magazine. Suzanne is a member of the faculty at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program in creative writing and is writer-in-residence and director of the creative writing program at Bay Path University. Previously, she taught in the MFA program at Emerson College and in the creative writing program at the University of South Florida. She has also taught at the Curlew Writers Conferences in Howth and Dingle, Ireland. Suzanne leads the annual summer writing seminar in Dingle offered through Bay Path University’s MFA program in nonfiction. She lives in Western Massachusetts with her husband, the writer Tommy Shea, and their two dogs, Otis and Dot.
This month’s guest is Ned Stuckey-French, one of our most- well-recognized scholar/practitioners of the personal essay.
A few years ago, I read Ned’s piece on/about the personal essay in the fine literary journal, Assay*. At the time, I was so impressed by its scope, breadth, and humor that I asked Ned for his permission to reprint it on this blog.
By combining research with an informal, essayistic, approach, “Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing” becomes one of the most readable and useful pieces on/about the personal essay that I’ve seen in quite some time. To my mind, it’s a must read for any writer or writer/teacher that’s interested in this informal, expansive, and inclusive form.
#71 Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing - by Ned Stuckey-French
What is any essay? Well, it ain't a 5-paragraph theme-- tell'em what you're gonna tell 'em, tell it to 'em, then tell 'em what you told 'em. The essay is bigger, a messier and more fun than that.
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It's so big, in fact, that it is not so much a genre as a galaxy of subgenres. Over the years the word essay has collected its own passel of adjectives: personal, formal, informal, humorous, descriptive, expository, reflective, nature, critical, lyric, narrative, review, periodical, romantic, and genteel. And it keeps collecting them. Now there are radio, film, and video essays. Maybe a map or field of Venn diagrams where all these adjectives meet and greet would be the best way to describe the essay.
Further confusing the situation, however, are the aliases behind which the essay has hid or been hidden: feature, piece, column (or once up on a time, colyumn), editorial, op-ed, profile, and casual. The title of an excellent 1984 piece (or was it an essay?) by Phillip Lopate on the first page of the New York Times Book Review summed the situation up quite nicely: "The Essay Lives--in Disguise".
The essay has also gotten lost under the big tent of terms like literary journalism, new journalism, literary nonfiction, and more recently, creative nonfiction. All of these catchalls are problematic. They lump the essay in with things that it is not and in so doing make an already sprawling genre seem bigger than it really is. Here the adjectives serve not so much to stake out small claims as to pump up that poor, scribbled thing that journalism is said to be, or clarify and legitimize the vast wasteland that has been locked outside the fiction corral by the non-definer that is non-. Scott Russell Sanders is quite good on this. Nonfiction, he points out, is “an exceedingly vague term, taking in everything from telephone books to Walden, and it’s negative, implying that fiction is the norm against which everything else must be measured. It’s as though, instead of calling an apple a fruit, we call it a non-meat."
Adding the adjective creative may well intentioned but is finally of little help. Creative as opposed to what? Destructive? And just how "creative" can we be? James Frey creative, or just John D' Agata creative?
All this fuzziness but especially the essay's proximity to fish-wrap journalism leave it stigmatized as the “the fourth genre.” The critic Suzanne Ferguson has argued, “like societies of people, the society of literary genres has its class system, in which, over time, classes reorganize themselves, accept new members, and cast old members into the dustbin. It has its aristocracy, its middle classes, and its proletarians."
E. B. White longed to be a poet and is known for his children’s books, but was, above all, an essayist. He meant his essays to last and they have, but they were written first on weekly deadlines for The New Yorker, then monthly deadlines for Harper’s, and finally again for The New Yorker when the mood struck him, but he always saw himself as a working journalist. In the foreword to his selected essays, he wrote, “I am not fooled about the place of the essay in twentieth-century American letters—it stands a short distance down the line. The essayist, unlike the novelist, the poet, and the playwright, must be content in his self-imposed role of second-class citizen. A writer who has his sights trained on the Nobel Prize or other earthly triumphs had best write a novel, a poem, or a play, and leave the essayist to ramble about, content with living a free life and enjoying the satisfactions of a somewhat undisciplined existence."
Perhaps another reason for what David Lazar has called the "queering" or "definitional defiance" of the essay has to do with the fact that it had two fathers and so was, in a sense, split at the root. Its first practitioners, Michel de Montaigne and Sir Francis Bacon, who wrote at the turn into the 17th century, conceived of the essay in very different ways. For Montaigne, l’essai was a means of self-exploration, an exercise in self-portraiture, and a way for him to explore, tentatively and skeptically, his own thoughts and feelings; for Bacon, it was a form of “counsel,” a means of instruction, a guide to conduct, a way to test, recognize and appreciate the “truth.” Montaigne’s essays are digressive and shockingly personal. They grew as he revised—elaborating, circling back, and constantly asking himself, “Que sais-je?” or “What do I know?” Bacon’s essays, on the other hand, appear complete and once and for all, polished as a billiard ball. They’re short, aphoristic, tidy and impersonal, though always brimming with opinion and even pronouncement.
Now we have two more adjectives for the essay -- Montaignean and Baconian – which is fine, but if we’re going to bring this queer little hybrid thing further into focus, perhaps we should talk about it in terms of two kinds of writing rather than in terms of two writers, whose work you may or may not know. Let’s lay out a spectrum on which the essay sits (or hovers?) in the middle. This spectrum has nonfiction at one end and fiction at the other, or more specifically, given that the essay is short rather than long, it has the article at one end and the short story at the other. And yes, I understand I’m doing some negative defining of my own here. By saying an essay is neither story nor article, I’m still saying it’s nonfiction and non-journalism, but I’m hoping to be a bit less vague, a bit more comparison-contrast, a bit more precise.
The article is researched, fact-based. It provides information and usually tries to make a point. It is True with a capital T. It tries to be accurate. Its details and quotations are verified and fact-checked. It is a product of interviews, field notes, and memory. As for its form, if it’s a news story, it is likely organized by means of the inverted triangle, with its answers to the five Ws (who, what, when, where, and why) and the one H (how) frontloaded. Its intentions are announced in its headline and spelled out in its lede.
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Or if, it's another kind of article--it argues a thesis, and uses footnotes. It is organized by means of a preconceived outline, marching from I. to A. to 1. to a…and so on. William H. Gass, one of our great essayists, has made his living as an academic, and so knows whereof he speaks when he contrasts the essay with “that awful object, 'the article,' of which, he says,
"it pretends that everything is clear, that its argument is unassailable,that there are no soggy patches, no illicit inferences, no illegitimate connections; it furnishes seals of approval and underwriters' guarantees; its manners are starched, stuffy, it would wear a dress suit to a barbecue, silk pajamas to the shower; it knows, with respect to every subject and point of view it is ever likely to entertain, what words to use, what form to follow, what authorities to respect; it is the careful product of a professional, and therefore it is written as only writing can be written, even if, at various times, versions have been given a dry dull voice at a conference, because, spoken aloud, it still sounds like writing written down, writing born for its immediate burial in a Journal."
At the other end of the spectrum is the short story. Unlike the article, the short story is fictional, made-up, a product of imagination more than of research. Hell, they can even include unicorns or hobbits, and be set in the future or a land far, far away. As for their structure, stories don’t always march from “Once upon a time” to “happily ever after.” They may turn metafictional, fold in flashbacks, and surprise in wonderful ways, but generally they follow a single traditional form, one that has been diagramed as inverted check mark. A conflict is triggered, grows increasingly tense and complicated until it finally arrives at a climax, which is followed by a short unraveling, or dénouement. Or, to put it another way: foreplay - orgasm - cigarette.
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"One has a sense with the short story as a form," says Edward Hoagland, “that while everything may be been done, nothing has been overdone; it has permanence.” It is tidy, original, elemental. It predated even cave painting, argues Hoagland, and is “the art to build from.” It explores the love and grief that hold the tribe together, the war and betrayals that tear it apart. A story is also universal because it is made up and so could be about any of us. This is what Aristotle was talking about when he drew a distinction between poetry and history in the Poetics: “The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular." Read More
#70 The Certainty of Ambivalence (on Sallie Tisdale’s “We Do Abortions Here: A Nurse's Tale” Harper’s Magazine, October, 1987, 66-70) by S. L. Wisenberg
I’ve known Sandi Wisenberg for almost twenty years. All throughout that time, I’ve been an enthusiastic admirer of her powerful, funny, and diverse body of work. She’s one of the most savvy, most versatile writers I’ve read.
In this multi-layered piece on teaching another writer’s work, Sandi demonstrates what a good personal essay should be. And at the same time, she offers us some useful, important, writing advice--beginning in Part One with this suggestion. "There’s that old rule we learned, and that we teach,” Sandi writes “--when you write about something dramatic, use the simplest, most undramatic language. Be quiet”
Which, in the body of this essay, is exactly what she does.
The Certainty of Ambivalence (on Sallie Tisdale’s “We Do Abortions Here: A Nurse's Tale,” Harper's Magazine, October, 1987, 66-70) by S.L. Wisenberg
How do you write an essay about working in an abortion clinic?
There’s that old rule we learned, and that we teach—when you write about something dramatic, use the simplest, most undramatic language. Be quiet.
We do abortions here….
From the very first word, we know that the writer is part of something. Of a group. She is part of a unit. There’s we and there’s us, the readers. It’s obvious whom she’s with.
We do abortions here. It has the ring of rebellion, or am I just imagining it? I imagine the writer standing with her arms folded, at a doorway. And she is not making excuses for the abortions.
There’s a colon, then another quiet assertion: That is all we do.
We’re so used to Planned Parenthood informing us defensively that they do family planning, they provide contraception. They treat stds. But there, where Sallie Tisdale is a nurse, they do abortions and nothing but abortions.
This is all we do.
Can you imagine saying this is language that is calmer, more matter of fact?
There’s another rule, which I tell my students, and you probably do too: If you’re ambivalent about something, write about it. If you already know your opinion, you’ll be strident. Or Manichean, we might say, if we were PhDs. Write about what confounds you, what you’re trying to figure out.
This piece is about mixed emotions, but it’s not about wringing hands over whether abortion and the abortion clinic are necessary. Perhaps there’s a rule three: Ambivalence doesn’t mean that you’re a nervous wreck trying to figure out a large issue in your life and in society. You may have made the large decision, you may be certain that your decision is right, but still have dueling emotions.
She sets up ambivalence in the second sentence, using the singular: There are weary, grim moments when I think I cannot bear another basin of bloody remains, utter another kind phrase of reassurance.
The I. She breaks away, she tells us precisely what makes it difficult—the bloody remains, and the sameness of reassuring, always reassuring, and sounding kind. That is the gist of the essay. She uses the word “basin” three times in the first page of the essay, as it appeared in Harper’s, and xx times throughout, and the synonyms xxx.
But what does she do after those moments? She gets back on the horse. So I leave the procedure room in the back and reach for a new chart.
Like Beckett: You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.
And though it’s a new chart, she tells us a paragraph or so down, more directly about the sameness she alluded to before, There is a numbing sameness lurking in this job: the same questions, the same answers, even the trembling tone in the voices.
Later she writes about the sameness of human failure, which brings women to the clinic. Two paragraphs below that she talks about failure again: Each abortion is a measure of our failure to protect, to nourish our own.
There’s a harshness there. We think our own troubles and tragedies are unique. They are not. It’s like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History. We see history as one event after the other. The Angel sees one huge event, never stopping, one catastrophe.
She tells us she enjoys it, most of the time. We laugh a lot here. She’s back to We, after the uneasy and bored and distraught I has wandered off from the united front. It’s nice to be with women all day. I like the sudden, transient bonds…
Nobody loves abortion. Pro-choice advocates, of which I am one, talk about wanting abortions that are safe, legal, and rare. Tisdale uses oxymorons and contrasts to convey the ambivalence at the heart of abortion-providing: It is a sweet brutality we practice here, a stark and loving dispassion. A paragraph later: How can we do this? How can we refuse?
One of the many things that annoy me in this life is that everyone talks about “narrative nonfiction.” Telling stories. Nonfiction that unfolds like a novel. And yet we go around quoting Phillip Lopate on the essay as an exercise in “self-interrogation” and the essay following “a mind at work.” This piece dares to be expository. The first page is about ideas. It is about specifics, too, and aggregate made up of specific experiences with patients.
There are narrative parts of this essay. The paragraph after the page I handed out tells what a first-trimester abortion consists of, and what Tisdale’s part is in the procedure. “I give a woman a small yellow Valium, and when it has begun to relax her, I lead her into the back, into bareness, the stirrups. The doctor reaches into her…” She provides sensory description—a bright light, the rumble of the machine, the white paper that crackles. She writes about her connection with the woman, what she does, what she says, and the sequence ends with another contrast: “the loss is no longer an imagined one. It has come true.”
The next paragraph she writes about sameness again—and the variety. Precisely because this is not a narrative, Tisdale uses repetition to create unity. A straight narrative might have such glue, but doesn’t need it as much because the chronology holds it together.
What moves the essay forward, what Tisdale uses instead of chronology (or maybe you could call it a chronology of rising intensity), are individual stories and details that move more and more into tragic absurdity, and also get you closer and closer to the reality of abortion. In the first category, There’s the 16-year-old who was raped, and who believes that a baby hatches out of an egg in a woman’s stomach. Later there’s the women who asks if she needs to remove her underpants.
Not much further Tisdale writes that she uses the distancing words “tissue” and “contents” and the women ask directly, How big is the baby? Again, contrasts. She admits she fudges a little: she emphasizes the “bulbous shape” of the embryo. The message: It is not yet a person. But she admits next, In the basin (again) “I see an elfin thorax…its pencilline ribs all in parallel rows with tiny knobs of spine rounding upwards. A translucent arm and hand swimming beside.”
What Tisdale is doing in this essay is daring to look at what she does. She tells a teen-ager that she’s not allowed to look at the fetus, but that’s not really true, either. Tisdale knew she really didn’t want to see it.
And then there are the fetus dreams, which “we all” have. “Fetus dreams” is the title of this essay in Tisdale’s recent anthology, Violation. Harper’s stole her first sentence, which I think is a dirty trick. And lazy.
But back to the fetus dreams: “buckets of blood splashed on the walls; trees full of crawling fetuses.”In another dream, she is the creature that is aborted, sucked out, torn. But instead of this identification with the fetus, she continues to believe in abortion. The dream leads her to think about the alternative to legal abortion: knitting needles, coat hangers. She ends that paragraph with more contrasts: “Abortion is the narrowest edge between kindness and cruelty. Done as well as it can be, it is still violence, merciful violence.”
There are other narrative sections—one describing an ultrasound. Another describing an abortion of a five-month-year-old fetus. She focuses on the eerie sounds: clatter, snap, click, sucking, crinkles, low voice.
Near the middle of the piece, she talks about ambivalence, the lack of. Her colleagues don’t have time to as she puts it “chew over ethics.” But generally there is to be no ambivalence.” Because if there was ambivalence, they wouldn’t be able to do what they have decided to do.
And yet, each medical person has her boundaries: one might refuse to do an abortion after a particular week of gestation, or a particular number of repeated abortions. Her own limit is less concrete: “allowing my clients to carry their own burden, shoulder the responsibility themselves. I shoulder the burden of trying not to judge them.”
But even though the fetus may be humanoid, or as she reports later, “like a little kitten,” it is not human: “The fetus,” she says, “ in becoming itself, can ruin others.”
At the very end she uses one sense for the first time, to gain intensity: Smell. “From the sink rises a rich and humid smell, hot, earthy, and moldering. It is the smell of something recently alive beginning to decay.” Again—contrasts.
She ends by clearly looking at ambivalence, and now she is speaking as the I again: or pledging : “Abortion requires… a willingness to live with conflict, fearlessness, and grief…I imagine a world where this won’t be necessary, and then return to the world where it is.”
In other words, she’s a realist.
My late friend John Anderson used to say that anyone is interesting as long as you know what to leave out.
In workshop a student said, exasperated at questions: Are these things they need to know or want to know?
After all, we were discussing someone’s life.
Here’s what Tisdale leaves out:
How long she worked in the clinic.
Why she became a nurse.
Whether she’s had an abortion.
Why she applied for a job as a nurse in the clinic.
How old she is.
Did she really quit to work on a book, as her bio says?
Do we want to know?
Do you need to know?
Can you bear to know?
S.L. Wisenberg wants you to buy her books and hire her to help you with your writing. She's the editor of anotherchicagomagazine.net
Michael Steinberg I will be the contest judge for the Sport Literate creative nonfiction essay contest. $500 goes to the winner. Deadline is June 6, 2018.
For more information, here's the link www.sportliterate.org then click on Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest.
This month’s guest is Caitlin McGilll, a very fine writer who teaches at Emerson in Boston.
In the beginning of her piece, Caitlins writes, “For me, being an essayist is central to being a teacher." She goes on to say, ”perhaps we should view the class period itself as an essay."
In the body of the essay then, Caitlin talks about how the qualities of the personal essay--particularly exploration, discovery, unexpected surprises, and taking risks--inform her approach to teaching.
Cailin’s piece should interest all of us who teach and write personal essays.
# 69 I Teach, Therefore I Essay by Caitlin McGill
(This piece is adapted from my 2017 essay, originally published in Inside Higher Ed)
“Believe it or not,” I said to my very first undergraduate students, “I write essays, too—you know, because I want to, because…well…it’s fun.” I interlaced my sweaty fingers and gazed out at a swarm of furrowed brows.
After a year or two of teaching first-year writing and arguing that students can write essays “for fun,” too, I realized I don’t only enjoy the essay form; I depend on it—in and out of the classroom. For me, being an essayist is central to, if not inseparable from, being a teacher.
When I first attempted to organize my thoughts on this topic a few years ago, I hadn’t fully embraced that notion. I had no idea where to begin. For several days, I thought about starting, but I kept finding papers to grade or assignments to design or personal essays to revise. I put it off. After plenty of procrastination that I now recognize afforded me necessary time to think, I realized I needed to begin as I do all of my work: I needed to employ the very arguments I’m attempting to make now; I needed to essay—to try, to test out, to examine.
Once I realized this, most of my self-inflicted pressure disappeared. Of course, I thought. I should’ve known. After all, the act of essaying leads nearly all of my work.
Just as writing those thoughts into an essay relieved pressure, viewing teaching as an act of essaying also relieved much of the pressure of stepping on stage before students. I realized I could approach teaching like I could an essay: sure, I always have some knowledge when walking into a course, but I don’t need to know exactly where the class will lead us or where it will end; with a few goals in mind, I can wander and question and fumble in the dark with my students, just as I do with the written word.
If essaying demands authentic personae on the page, then it demands we listen to and act on our genuine instincts in the classroom. One’s teaching philosophy, then, is a representation of one’s self.
Now, instead of teaching first-year courses I mostly teach creative writing workshops and literature seminars; I rarely need to convince students of the essay’s merit. But my desire to mimic the essay’s endeavors in the classroom remains unchanged.
Essays offer the freedom to ponder an issue that can’t be proven one way or another, and—whether I’m working with twenty-five first-year pharmacy students or three middle-aged writers wrestling homelessness—that’s what I want to happen in the classroom: I want to elicit free and open discussion; I want to create a space to test ideas, to care and be conscientious of others but to also allow thoughts and ideas to flow freely without fear of condemnation, knowing that we might not necessarily prove a theory but that we can start to unravel our ideas together.
My most exciting teaching moments are often unplanned, unexpected gifts my students and I discover together after meandering down uncertain paths. Moments of unrehearsed discovery that keep us coming back for more.
These early realizations helped me shed many of my new-teacher anxieties and fears. I became more certain of my ability to shape and expand writers who, when I first started teaching, were often less than a decade younger than me. I began to enter the classroom with several ideas of where I wanted the session to go, hoping my students had done the necessary work to inform themselves on the subjects up for discussion, but once conversation began, I allowed us to wind up somewhere new, somewhere I couldn’t have planned for.
Perhaps, I began to think, perhaps we should view the class period itself as an essay.
"The story of an essay or a memoir is really the story of thinking, of your own consciousness," art critic and essayist Daniel Raeburn writes in an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books. “Which requires you, as narrator, to be self-conscious, but not too self-conscious. Not completely self-absorbed. You’re walking a tricky balance beam … You have to be confident in your telling of what happened, but not too confident about what it means. You have to have confidence in your own doubts, if that makes sense. They’re what propel personal narratives."
How better to describe the essaying instructor’s responsibility in the classroom? The flexible self-awareness and humble conviction that invites students’ unique voices and interpretations?
Self-conscious, but not too self-conscious. Confident in your telling, but not too confident about what it means. You have to have confidence in your own doubts…
Now, I don’t only allow but also hope that classes essay into darkness, knowing that as we fumble we can manage to stay on a path, however obscure.
I admit this might not always work. Some classes yield more fruitful conversation and discovery than others. And that’s okay. (I have to keep telling myself it is.) My own essays frequently find themselves knotted up and incomprehensible and just plain old unremarkable; but usually that means I’ll stumble onto a new writing path soon, maybe two or three drafts down the road. And so, too, a class can get back on track or happen upon a new one. We teachers and essayists are not perfect.
Doesn’t our form demand such imperfection?
Each time I taught first-year writing, I began with a cliché: I discussed the etymology of the word “essay.” I knew this was far from novel if not taboo, and that many other instructors were making this move, too, but it felt absolutely necessary then. Can it be clichéd to students if they’ve never heard it before?
I told my students one writes an essay to try to figure something out. And then I told them the part that’s often hardest to sell: we don’t always find an answer after the essay is written; sometimes we find new questions, or something we hadn’t been looking for. And when I told them this is the beauty of the essay, of essaying, I was reminding myself, too.
Now that I rarely have to lay such persuasive groundwork, my most difficult task isn’t beckoning young writers to the genre but instead constantly facing the reality of the genre’s answerless pursuit. How to disseminate advanced techniques without guaranteeing their efficacy? How to tell writers that their devoted time and energy usually doesn’t lead to publication and success? That, more often than not, it leads to rejection and disappointment?
Perhaps most importantly: how to acknowledge this reality while continuing to encourage and inspire?
I can’t guarantee a writer much. But I can and do argue that as long as we possess the extraordinary privilege to write freely, and safely, we can and must continue to essay.
And so I am met again with the essay’s intoxicating irony: the thrilling act of trying on ideas and pursuing unanswerable questions is the very act that often fails and frustrates and disappoints. But now I find myself thinking: doesn’t such failure and disappointment reflect the realities of which we write—and the genre in which we write? Doesn’t that mean, then, that when essaying fails or reveals failure, the pursuit is also necessarily a success?
Despite how I might wish every one of my workshop students would fight their fears of failure and brave the lifelong pursuit of writing and publishing, I don’t expect they all will. But I do expect that my allegiance to essaying will ignite a curiosity they sustain beyond our course. That, whether they declare themselves essayists or not, they’ll wander through the world more vulnerable and curious, less anxious about the unknown, and more excited for what they might uncover.
“Get lost and take risks,” I tell them, myself, and my fellow teachers. “Embrace missteps instead of fearing them. Embrace failure as if it’s the goal.”
Caitlin McGill is a St. Botolph Emerging Artist Award winner and Bread Loaf Writers' conference scholarship recipient. She was also the 2014 winner of the Rafael Torch Nonfiction Literary Award. Her essays and flash fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Blackbird, Consequence, Crab Orchard Review, Iron Horse, Vox, War, Literature, & the Arts, and several other magazines. She teaches at Emerson College and is a creative writing workshop facilitator for Writers Without Margins, a non-profit organization intended to expand access to literary arts for everyone, including those marginalized, stigmatized, or isolated by the challenges of addiction recovery, disability, trauma, sickness, injury, poverty, and mental illness. Currently, she is working on a memoir about her family's hidden past, intergenerational trauma, inherited survival mechanisms, immigration, race, class, addiction, and the cost of ignoring our histories. One essay from her book was named a Notable in The Best American Essays 2016. For more information, follow Caitlin on Twitter @caitlindmcgill or visit her website
Caitlin McGill Read More
*If you’re looking for a fine conference in creative nonfiction, join the community of nonfiction writers in Ashland, Ohio June 1-3, 2018, for a weekend of manuscript consultations, seminars, and readings, all focused on the craft of creative nonfiction. The conference will emphasize essay, memoir, literary journalism, and building the kind of relationships that sustain writers throughout the writing process, from early draft all the way through to book promotion.
Featured Guest Speakers: Andre Dubus 111 and Angela Morales
Presenters: Steve Harvey, Jill Christman, Joe Mackall, Dan Lehman, Kate Hopper, Robert Root, Sonya Huber, Michael Downs, Ana Matia Spagna, Richard Hoffman, Tom Larson, and Michael Steinberg
For more information contact email@example.com
This month’s guest is Patty McNair, a first-rate fiction writer/essayist who teaches at Columbia College in Chicago.
Her essay is entitled “In Praise of Silence, Loneliness, and Boredom.”
Most of us know that some of our richest writing emerges when we can retreat from our daily activities and responsibilities and find some quiet time and a quiet place to write.
Patty claims that she found both while she was a writer-in-residence at a small arts academy in northern Michigan, After having lived in Chicago for most of her adult life, Patty writes, “in this space that smelled like summer camp, smelled of forests and bug spray, I got over my fear of silence, of disconnecting.”
In the body of her essay, Patty writes in vivid specifics about how during the three months of her residency, she found “a velvet quiet,” born both of an “inward silence” and “internal listening,” and a feeling of “deep distraction"…by which she means a quiet place where she can listen to “my thoughts, my memories, my questions, my stories…”
For anyone who’s ever yearned for what Virginia Woolf calls “A Room of One’s Own, “Patty McNair’s “In Praise of Silence, Loneliness, and Boredom.” is an essay you’ll have no trouble relating to.
In Praise of Silence, Loneliness, and Boredom
By Patricia Ann McNair
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
-Pablo Neruda, “Keeping Quiet”
They gave me a tiny cabin in the woods. Living room, bedroom, kitchen and bath. No TV. Spotty internet over a dial-up connection, long distance. I am a Chicago girl who was invited to be Writer-in-Residence at Interlochen Arts Academy, a remarkable high school with boarding and day students from all over the world, students with jaw-dropping talents. Music, theatre, art, filmmaking, dance. Writing. Autumn into winter, short, dark days in Northern Michigan. Quiet. Quiet. Quiet. Silence, really.
I was a little terrified.
My regular Chicago life is two trips a day on the CTA, chatter and noise all around me, sirens and engines and other people’s television sets on too loud in the building next to me—our windows less than a foot from one another—an apartment that is never dark because the streetlights from outside stream in through the blinds and the curtains. Cars drive up and down the street in front of my building all day and night, a huge dog in the apartment above me barks when his people aren’t home, and barks even more when his people are. Our place is underneath the flight pattern for jets coming into O’Hare from over the lake.
I didn’t know silence. I didn’t even know quiet very well. But soon enough, in my cozy rooms with wood-paneled walls and orange shag carpet that held the sand tracked in from beneath the trees, in this space that smelled like summer camp, smelled of forests and bug spray, I got over my fear of silence, of disconnecting. After just a few days, I felt myself yearning toward the velvet quiet.
Then, a week after I arrived and on the first day of classes at Interlochen, September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center was attacked.
Talk about noise.
When I walked through the lanes on campus and under the trees behind the cabins and dorms, I could see the blue flicker of television in the students’ common lounges; I could hear phones ringing from inside the buildings; I could see through their windows, people huddled together talking furiously and sadly. I could hear, I swear, that strange mechanical sound of internet connections made over phone lines, the small bong and screech of them.
Back in my own cabin, though, without a television, with limited internet access, I could hear nothing. I could turn it all off. I did have a radio, and I will be forever grateful to Interlochen Public Radio for its news, for its level-headed reporting. It kept me updated on what I needed to know, when I felt I needed to know it. But when I turned off the radio, like I did for most hours of every day, the silence that filled my cabin allowed me to pay close attention to the story unfolding, to the humanness of it, to the emotional pull of our country’s narrative as it developed over those weeks, those months. In the quiet I could, in fact, listen deep.
I seldom went out then except to teach, to grab a few provisions, to run by myself near the lakes and the wetlands. I never have been more lonely than I was during that time. More immersed in silence, more deeply distracted by my own thoughts, more prone to wallowing in my own self-imposed disconnection and boredom.
I also never have written more than I did during those five months.
I was drawn to “an inward silence,” as Terry Tempest Williams calls it: “a howling silence that brings us to our knees and our desk each day.” Quiet and stillness lead me to the page, like Terry Tempest Williams also said, “Silence is where we locate our voice.”
We know this about silence, I think, and yet, we continue to allow ourselves to be taken out of the silence we crave, the silence we need. The silence our work needs. We compose on a computer because we tell ourselves we type faster than we can hand write—as though this were a good thing, writing faster. And the clack of the keys disturbs the silence in a way no whispering scratch of a pen on paper can. We keep the internet in the palm of our hand now so we can look things up whenever we need to, or at least tell ourselves that (I need to, I need to) as we let go of a sentence in progress because our phones have buzzed, or we really, really must see right this instant if we got a response to that email or how many people liked the photo of our cat we posted on Facebook this morning.
Even now, as I write this, I find myself shallowly distracted, caught up in the daily noise of my regular city life. I want to check my email, to make a list of the things I should do today. I stop to listen to the bus on the street outside, its recording that calls out the route number and the intersection; was that my phone that just dinged? I want to see what the orange man in the white house tweeted this morning, I want to watch the news. I fight the pull of technology and 24-hour information, the lure of laundry and dishes, of student papers and of that lovely hunk of Australian cheddar cheese in the fridge. I am easily, shallowly distracted.
Still, despite my bad habits, I am a fan of distraction. Not the kind I just spoke of, that behavior that keeps us skimming on the surface of things like humming birds, dipping and flitting, dipping and flitting. The distraction I yearn for, the kind I advocate for is something else. Deep distraction, born of quiet. That is what I want.
What I mean: I used to be a runner. For various reasons that include a new titanium hip, I no longer run. Instead, I use one of those tedious machines at the gym. When I used to run, and now when I use the machine, I never put on headphones or listen to music. I listen, instead, to the meanderings of my mind. I listen until (Terry Tempest Williams again) “in silence the noises outside cease so the dialogue inside can begin.” I listen deep and allow (invite?) myself to be deeply distracted by the memories and questions and stories I carry with me always.
Like this: outside the window of the gym where I sweat, teenagers pass by on their way to school. There is a group of girls and a group of boys, and in between the two groups there is a couple, a boy and a girl, hands in one another’s back pockets. When I was in junior high, I remember seeing that gesture for the first time. At the shopping center where I’d go to the Woolworth’s to play with white, pink-nosed mice in their cages, I saw my next-door neighbor with a boy (she was sixteen) and he slid his hand into the back pocket of her jeans. That seemed so intimate and grown up to me, I yearned for that sort of closeness with a boy. What is it about those ages, 13, 16, that make us so eager to be older? My brothers were all older than me, and getting into various sorts of trouble. Roger ran away with the carnival. Don would cut class some Fridays and have parties at our house while our folks were at work. Allen was unhappy and sometimes filled with such an acute sense of otherness that he first attempted suicide when he was just 18. Was this, our bad behavior (I ditched school a lot in high school, too, I took a lot of drugs, even though I was in the drama club and the National Honor Society) connected to the fact that my father died when I was just 15, Roger 17, Don and Allen brand new adults? Maybe, I don’t know. Perhaps. Let me write about that a bit. Let me see what I can figure out.
That is how it works for me.
I think of this…
That reminds me of this…
That makes me think of that…
And that reminds me of this…
And this, finally, moves my pen towards that.
If I had been on my machine with earbuds filling my head with Morning Edition or MSNBC or Fleetwood Mac or “This American Life,” I would not have been able to hear the progression of these deep, internal distractions.
Turn off the noise.
Think of something you saw this morning or yesterday or this week or sometime recently. Let yourself see the thing, the moment, the interaction, in your mind. Recreate the image.
What does it remind you of? Think about it for a minute. Tell it to yourself in your head. Speak it through. Now what does that remind you of?
And that makes you think of…what?
Don’t write, not just yet. Look. Listen. Tell.
And when the pull of the words, the images, the moments is too strong to resist, when they lead you to the page, follow them. Write. Write. Write. Read More
This month’s guest is Randy Albers, a writer and teacher supreme. For many years, Randy was the Chair of the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College in Chicago where, along with workshops in fiction, he established a substantial number of classes and workshops in creative nonfiction, long before the genre became recognized as a form of literature.
Randy’s essay is about an issue we’ve all encountered; that is, what can and what can't students in our creative nonfiction classes write about. And how can teachers "create an environment where students can find freedom to choose their material and find their most authentic voice."
*PERMISSION and DISCLOSURE; HANDLING REVELATION in WRITING
by Randy Albers
Some years ago, when I was the Chair of the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College in Chicago, we taught the core fiction and nonfiction classes using the Story Workshop approach originated by former chair, John Schultz.It was an approach meant to create a safe space for experimentation.
This process-rather than product-based approach focused on the development of image and voice. And so it used activities and exercises to establish the widest possible permission for voice and subject matter. It is not enough to tell students to feel free to write about anything, to take risks, to use their liveliest, freest voice, to break whatever rules they might feel compelled to break. In fact, with some students, telling them these things will only make their struggles worse. Instead, teachers have to create an environment in which students can find freedom to choose their material and find their most authentic voice. And teachers also must recognize that the movement past the self-censoring impulse toward authentic freedom does not happen overnight, that students may move through many stages—just as we ourselves may have done. Sometimes, it calls for a Zen-like patience.
A student in one of my creative nonfiction Prose Forms workshops, Marianne, was having trouble early in the semester finding her material. She was one of those students who had learned to play things very safe, a good, dutiful student who did everything that was asked, and who seemed more focused on getting things right than discovering anything new. The first part of this course focused on what we term Personally Observed instances, scenes that may be from a student’s own past memories, something observed directly, or something told to them. Marianne wrote about work, and in truth, work, especially worst jobs, are excellent fodder for essays. But the instances seemed to be going nowhere, and she herself seemed only moderately connected to the material. Her voice was flat, the seeing was not sharp, and she didn’t seem to have an idea of where she wanted to go with that material.
Then, three or four weeks into the term, she read a journal entry about her father who had raised the children alone following the death of her mother. The writing showed more life, and I asked her if she was going to go on with that material. “I don’t think so,” she said. “I just needed a journal entry to read for class.” “Well,” I said, “you might think about going back to it.”
We moved on to Researched Instances in which students were to pick a subject to explore through extensive reading. Marianne termed hers the “death instances,” focusing on what happens to families when a parent dies. When, after a week or so, she wanted to move off of this topic, I asked why, and she told me that she didn’t want to have any of these instances read in class because she was afraid that students might not understand, might think that she was just feeling sorry for herself. I told her that the writing had been getting better, and if she were fearful of revealing too much, she might try some in a fictional third-person, or try writing a series of letters to various family members. I also told her that if she wasn’t ready to delve into this material, that was fine. “But do come back to it,” I encouraged gently.
When she handed in her next instances, I saw that she had indeed decided to stick with this subject and try out my suggestions. She made some headway in what she called a fictional scene, but the real breakthroughs happened in letters. One went to her sister, where she described their mother’s funeral. A second went to her mother, in which she got to her sadness about her death. But the third was the one that revealed more life than at any point so far. Addressed to her father, it started with a flash of anger at him for not being there for her after her mother died and went on to recount scenes where she had needed him but he was nowhere in sight.
A few weeks later, in her first draft of the main essay assignment, she pushed the questioning of her father further, along with some of the results of his absence—feelings of abandonment, occasional acting-out, and so on. After the in-class reading of the draft, the other students asked some questions about her family, as well as about the writing, and I asked a few, too, about her relationship with her father. I didn’t force her to answer on the spot, just wanted her to think about them in a way that might point to her rewrite.
When she turned in the next draft near the end of the semester, I was stunned. The semester’s writing that had started with work instances, then moved to her parenting instances, then to death instances, was now focused almost entirely on father-daughter relationships, and ended with a vivid, straightforward telling of her father often coming into her room at night after her mother’s death, crawling under the covers next to her, and forcing himself on her. She would, she said, feel herself float out of her body, glide upward, and hover close to the ceiling, watching her father’s gropings as if it were happening to someone else. (A not uncommon occurrence, as therapists will tell you.)
Marianne’s movement through the semester, a step forward, a step back, two steps forward, and so on, until she took that daring leap at the end, taught me perhaps better than any other example how important it is for students to test their own limits and move toward overcoming self-censoring impulses at their own speed in order to find permission for meaningful, authentic content and telling.
At any point in the process, if I had discouraged that movement, or had given a message, consciously or unconsciously, that such material shouldn’t be told, or if I had allowed the rest of the students to indicate, in any way, that revealing death or father-abuse stories to the world was not permissible, that they were not fit subjects for essays, might offend, might hurt someone else who had been in a similar situation, or simply might have been told too many times already, Marianne would have quickly retreated down the rabbit hole where she had so often hidden. Instead, she left the class with a newfound confidence in her ability to render difficult material in a way that avoided the maudlin, the clichéd, or the sensationalistic. I have been prouder of very few students.
When I recounted this story during a question-and-answer session at AWP, a very fine poet announced that she never permitted rape stories in her classes because there might be someone who had been raped and they would be rendered uncomfortable, perhaps silenced. While I understand that fear, the focus on the work rather than the person in class helped Marianne get an important story told that would have been banned in this poet’s class.
Marianne existed at one end of the permission spectrum, fighting her own fear of revelation. At the other extreme, we see many students who, suddenly aware that they have received a permission never given to them previously, settle for writing such material in a self-consciously (even proudly) confessional tone—or who simply play for the material’s shock effect on the audience, focusing on graphic details in order to get a reaction without really interrogating the experience or without identifying the elements of good writing that would add depth, lift the language, exhibit the teller’s reflective capabilities. They decide to push the limits as far as possible. You get lots of sex, blood, gore, guts, and veins in the teeth. They mistake attention from the titillated audience as a sign of real value. And as much as the Mariannes, who tiptoe toward touchy material as if walking through a minefield, these students who think to win over their audience with a shock and awe assault have their own issues to deal with in getting to quality writing. And their process may be even more challenging for the teacher to deal with.
Another student, Jim, was writing instances from his childhood, most of which were focused on things like blowing up mailboxes with M-80s. He had been getting away with audience titillation in previous classes, but one day, after reading his work in class and hearing it evoke the usual round of laughter from the audience, I dropped an M-80 of my own. Sensing that there was perhaps something more to this story, instead of joining in the laughter, I asked him simply, “So why do you think you were blowing things up?” He thought for a long moment, brushed his long, shaggy hair out of his eyes, and said, “I was hyperactive.” “Lots of kids appear hyperactive,” I said. “No,” he said. “I mean, I was diagnosed hyperactive. My mother didn’t know what to do with me.” He paused, his customary grin gone, his voice low and full, “She gave me Ritalin every morning. For years.” He seemed on the verge of an important discovery. The rest of the class was watching the interchange silently. Finally, I asked, “And did it do any good? Do you think you needed it?” “No,” he said quietly. “It made life worse.” For the next few weeks, he wrote more memories of struggling in school and at home, and did research on hyperactivity and Ritalin therapy. His essay, which he entitled “I’m No Angel,” moved from the humorous mailbox explosions and other pranks to serious, even powerful moments of reflection on the confusion and stigma he had to deal with during his younger years.
Just as with Marianne, Jim’s process reflected a number of stages. Hers had been a movement toward overcoming self-censorship. His had been a movement in the other direction, from shock, bombast, toward something more meaningful, displaying honest self-examination and thought, something that was not simply an outpouring but rather carried a wider application for his audience. When I had asked him who his audience was, he said that it was anyone with an interest in the subject but especially those who might have gone through similar experiences and were left wanting in some way, feeling that something was wrong with them, that they were always on the outside and seeking acceptance.
The teacher who privileges only one kind of writing, whether it’s the very careful or the very shocking, the dialect-bound or the high style, the humorous or the vein-opening, is sending a message that narrows permission for all and that plays into the hands of those students who would level the class—that is, bring the group to the lowest common denominator, which is to say, their own. There’s a good deal of pressure on the teacher here, above all to resist this leveling. The instructor conveys by everything she or he does and everything she or he does not do that permission is more than something simply to give lip service to. It takes attentiveness in every minute of the class to the nonverbal as well as verbal messages.
Graeme Harper has argued, rightly I think, that our attention must be on the process more than the product in the classroom. Writers have to write their way to truth, and it often takes a long time. “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Forster wrote, a line that Bellow borrowed. We need to help students learn to say it all or they won’t be able to get to what they really think or know. Whether it’s truthful or not doesn’t much matter to me along the way. In fact, as I mentioned, in my Story Workshop class, I have them doing fictional instances along with personally observed or experienced instances, both in order to explore the cross-pollination of fictional techniques in nonfiction that makes nonfiction worth reading and to give them an out if anyone asks them if it’s true. I’d rather have them writing the material than shying away from it because it’s too close to the bone, and this gives them space to experiment.
Let me close with a story that I have always found illustrative and which I sometimes tell my students.
Some years ago, I invited the great Chicago writer, Harry Mark Petrakis, to come to Columbia. He read a short story about a young boy and his Greek Orthodox priest that took place in Chicago’s Greektown. Following that, he read an essay about growing up in the same neighborhood. After the reading, a student asked a question, “Mr. Petrakis, you read what you said was a short story and then what you called an essay. But I didn’t hear any difference between the two. Can you tell us what makes one fiction and one nonfiction?” Harry smiled and allowed as how, for him, the border between fiction and nonfiction was very blurry. “Let me explain,” he went on. “One day, many years ago, I was walking down State Street and went past a Woolworth’s. In front on the sidewalk, they had put a scale—one of those where you’d put in a penny and you’d get a fortune along with your weight. As I passed, I saw a guy standing on it—huge, well over 300 pounds. He was bending to read his weight, and what got me was that he was holding an ice cream cone. It struck me as humorous. I passed on by, but the image stuck with me.
“Later that night, I’m at home with my family, having dinner, and I start telling them about the guy I saw on the scales. But at the crucial moment, as I recounted how I approached, instead of saying that I just passed by and went on my way to the train, I told them, ‘And then, just as I got there, the large man straightened, spotted me, and turned to extend the cone in my direction. “Here,” he said. “Would you mind holding this?”’
“Now, was that true? Did it really happen? No. But it made a better story.”
I have students who say to me, “I am not sure whether my work is fiction or nonfiction. I am using a lot of material from my own experience, but I can’t remember every conversation, and sometimes, when I am focusing on getting it all right, it sounds like bad journalism.” I often tell them, “Just write it. Try some as fiction and some as what you would call nonfiction. And if anyone asks you whether it’s true, you are free to lie. I’ll help you decide later, when you get ready to publish it, whether the contract is going to read ‘fiction’ or ‘nonfiction,’ and how you might have to revise. The main thing right now is just to tell the story— as well as you can.”
And isn’t that what we are all about as writers—finding the best, most promising material for story and telling it as well as we can?
Randall Albers, Professor and Chair Emeritus at Columbia College Chicago, headed the graduate and undergraduate writing programs of the Fiction Writing Department for 18 years. He founded the Story Week Festival of Writers, received the college’s Teaching Excellence Award, initiated exchange programs with Bath Spa University, and co-founded the International Creative Research Partnership with Bath Spa and the University of Technology, Sydney. Selected fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Chicago Review, TriQuarterly, Writing in Education, Brevity, F Magazine, Briefly Knocked Unconscious by a Low-Flying Duck, and Creative Writing and Education. A Story Workshop® Master Teacher, he has presented at AWP, NAWE, and numerous other conferences on the teaching of creative writing.
*Permission and Disclosure originated as a panel presentation at the 2012 NonfictionNOW conference in Melbourne, Australia.
*This essay was originally published as "What Journalists Can Teach Memoir Writers" in Talking Writing (Holiday 2014 issue).
This month’s guest is Martha Nichols, founding editor of Talking Writing, one of the finest Internet journals on/about writing, the craft of writing, and the larger human issues that writers discover through their work.
The subject of Martha’s essay, the use of the “I” both in first-person journalism and memoir, is a matter of great importance and interest to myself as well as to other memoirists and teachers. “ I don’t believe,” Martha writes, “that a third-person POV is inherently more objective, and the bias of a first-person account is what makes it ring true,”
But unlike many aspiring memoirists whose use of the “I” is “unexamined,” Martha also maintains that “First- person journalists acknowledge their biases up front, identifying who’s behind the I. “
Using a controversial passage from Lena Dunham’s memoir, Not That Kind of Girl as an example, Martha’s larger point is that the personal is not “a sufficient explanation for why readers should care.” She goes on to say that “I want interpretation, critical thinking, and a bigger view of the world than the interior of someone’s head.”
And while this might not necessarily apply to memoirists that do consciously create wise, intelligent, and reflective narrators, we can all agree that Martha’s point of view is an important reminder that “telling a personal story” is certainly not enough.
"TIP TO MEMOIR WRITERS: AVOID LENA DUNHAM SYNDROME" By Martha Nichols
I’ve always been an impatient reader. Way back in seventh grade, I searched the La Vista Junior High School library shelves with one goal in mind: a first-person narrator.
I loved stories told by the characters themselves. I relied on them to take me away from the strip malls of Hayward, California. In the early 1970s, I decked myself in orange tie-dyed pants. I wore granny glasses, parting my hair in the middle, a dead ringer for John Lennon. I can’t pinpoint exactly when I picked up, say, The White Mountains. But I know I found John Christopher’s science fiction series in that library. I remember sunlight streaming through utilitarian windows, turning pages, hitting the first-person jackpot: The clockman had visited us the week before, and I had been permitted for a time to look on while he cleaned and oiled the Watch....
As a teenager, I would have said “I” stories were easier reads. Decades later, the adult-me, the magazine writer and editor, says first-person stories feel more real.
I’ve never lost my love of first-person narrators, but the difference now is that I’m hooked by first-person journalism. This semester, I’m even teaching a journalism course with that title, using Joan Didion’s The White Album as one of the main texts. Her personal reportage of the ‘60s and ‘70s has greatly influenced my own attitude toward nonfiction: I don't believe a third-person POV is inherently more objective, and the bias of a first-person account is often what makes it ring true.
“I had better tell you where I am, and why,” Didion says at the start of her essay “In the Islands.” Within the first paragraph, she reveals she’s in Honolulu with her husband and three-year-old daughter, waiting for news of a possible tidal wave. Then:
"We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for a divorce. I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind."
These days, first-person journalism like this is not new. Columns, advice articles, and personal essays by everyone from Didion and Hunter S. Thompson to M.F.K Fisher and John McPhee have long appeared in magazines and newspapers. But with the rise of blogging and the Web, use of the “I” voice is now changing the traditionally omniscient stance of many journalistic features.
Bravo—except there's also a downside to the trend of talking about everything that's ever happened to you ever. Such "aimless revelation," in Didion's tart words, gives personal preoccupations the same weight as universal problems.
First-person journalists acknowledge their biases up front, identifying who’s behind the “I.” More important, though, they link their own stories to larger themes. Didion’s “In the Islands” moves from her personal situation to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel’s privileged history to the Punchbowl—a U.S. military cemetery on Oahu, where she observed graves being dug for American soldiers killed in Vietnam.
First-person journalism helps restrain the pull of TMI when narrating your own life, and it’s my antidote to much of what goes on in creative nonfiction classes. I’m tired of the hothouse quality of many memoirs, especially those in which writers imply "if I remember it this way, it must be true." At worst, revealing private experiences in a public forum invites a nasty kind of voyeurism.
Exhibit A: Lena Dunham. Early this November, right-wing commentators accused the star of HBO’s Girls of sexually “abusing” her baby sister, based on scenes from Dunham’s 2014 essay collection Not That Kind of Girl. In one passage, written from the perspective of her seven-year-old self, Dunham describes her childish curiosity about female anatomy getting “the best of me”:
"Grace was sitting up, babbling and smiling, and I leaned down between her legs and carefully spread open her vagina. She didn’t resist, and when I saw what was inside I shrieked."
It turns out that baby Grace had stuck some pebbles inside herself.
In another scene, Dunham claims she often bribed her little sister for “her time and affection.” Innocent as this is, the offhand comic tone of the following passage is what got Dunham into trouble. She riffs about what she would give Grace:
"Three pieces of candy if I could kiss her on the lips for five seconds. Whatever she wanted to watch on TV if she would just ‘relax on me.’ Basically, anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl I was trying."
The sex-abuse story went viral, picked up by People, ABC News, and other mainstream outlets. Online sites funded by conservative think tanks trumpeted the headlines as if they were a matter of fact, not opinion. After a series of angry tweets—I told a story about being a weird 7 year old. I bet you have some too, old men, that I'd rather not hear—Dunham has ended up apologizing for those parts of the book.
At this point, she has supporters and detractors of every political stripe. The problem is, Dunham is a celebrity, and her essays often feel like information dumps meant to massage her image. She’s a satirical exaggerator and admits to altering some facts. That’s a common practice by memoirists and humorists such as David Sedaris. Yet, the controversy over her essays is not about fact checking, but her point of view.
A wiser first-person voice would have avoided “sexual predator,” a loaded term for many readers. (Never mind that opening her sister’s vagina strains credulity.) That voice might have pondered what Grace thinks about having her body described like this. Dunham’s sister has supported her account of what happened, but in a New York Times Magazine profile earlier this fall, Grace is quoted as saying “most of our fights have revolved around my feeling like Lena took her approach to her own personal life and made my personal life her property.”
Dunham is often lauded (or trounced on) for examining every detail of her existence. In fact, little in Not That Kind of Girl examines why the details matter. I'm not offended by lines like "I've always known there was something wrong with my uterus," but they don't open new emotional vistas, either. When personal essays lack what Phillip Lopate calls the “intelligent narrator," the candor becomes eye-glazing—the aimless revelation of a media star known for her exhibitionism.
The value of a first-person journalism perspective, then, has as much to do with a writing approach as the final product. If you think your job is to talk about more than yourself, then the whole process—from conceptualizing the idea to doing research to interpreting what you discover—becomes richer, deeper, and more self-critical.
Consider Mary Beard. Almost fifteen years ago in the London Review of Books, the British classics professor recounted being raped as a young woman. In that piece, titled “Diary,” she minces no words: “In September 1978, on a night train from Milan, I was forced to have sex with an architect.” More to the point of first-person journalism, she goes on to connect this anecdote to a larger theme:
"What I am trying to highlight is the crucial importance, both culturally and personally, of rape-narratives. For rape is always a (contested) story, as well as an event; and it is in the telling of rape-as-story, in its different versions, its shifting nuances, that cultures have always debated most intensely some of the unfathomable conflicts of sexual relations and sexual identity."
Beard is colorful and outspoken, but she’s a gray-haired academic. Dunham is a hipster celebrity in her twenties, and she isn’t writing for the intellectual elite (even if the New Yorker publishes her on occasion). Yet, Dunham is writing for other young feminists, and that’s where her use of “I” seems so unexamined. She and other writers of her generation assume the act of writing it all down provides catharsis and a new kind of openness—that telling a personal story is enough.
Feminist though I am, I don’t believe the personal is inevitably political. Nor is it a sufficient explanation for why readers should care. I want interpretation, critical thinking, and a bigger view of the world than the interior of somebody’s head. Journalists, for all their flaws, are trained to provide the who-what-where-when specifics of their observations. In a first-person feature, they make clear who the “I” is and why “I” is telling the story. And they approach information sources with necessary skepticism, whether it’s a politician, Mother Teresa, or themselves.
The most powerful essay in Not That Kind of Girl is the one where Dunham admits, “I’m an unreliable narrator.” In that essay (“Barry”), she focuses on a date-rape incident in college, and the fact that she has struggled with remembering or explaining what happened feels authentic:
"I’ve told the story to myself in different variations—there are a few versions of it rattling around in my memory, even though the nature of events is that they only happen once and in one way. The day after, every detail was crisp (or as crisp as anything can be when the act was committed in a haze of warm beer, Xanax bits, and poorly administered cocaine)."
Here, Dunham is a first-person narrator I believe in. Like Beard, she details the ways she constructed and revised her rape story, and the toll this has taken on her.
That’s why I have faith in first-person journalism. I see its potential to illuminate complex issues amid the digital swamp of aimless revelation we're now awash in. All writers’ observations are influenced by their identities and circumstances. When the “I’ voice really conveys who an author is, it’s not just another piece of banal content circulating around the Web. It’s been given meaning by somebody. Read More