Radio On!

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Many years ago, I spent two weeks in Vancouver at a sort of book publishing boot camp. I can still trace most of what I know about the business of writing back to that workshop.

Well, I’ve just come through a slightly shorter, though possibly more intensive radio experience. My friend Andrew Leland (check out The Organist, McSweeney’s podcast — he produces it) and I are in the process of founding The Missouri Audio Project. We want to tell true stories using sound; to play, think, and allow people we find fascinating to speak for themselves and tell their own tales, in their own words. In short, we want to make audio CNF (creative nonfiction).

We’ve just launched our audio hopes and dreams with a six-day summer radio intensive workshop, August 2-8, 2015, here at the U of Missouri.

The workshop served as an intensive introduction to long-form audio storytelling. It was taught by radio guru Rob Rosenthal,  currently the lead instructor of the Transom Story Workshop. Rob produces the HowSound podcast on audio storytelling for PRX (Public Radio Exchange). We hope to have him back and to open our workshop up to the public next summer! So, stay tuned.

Rob encouraged students to: focus on the story of one person; to look for action; to think about sound; and to think about what would compel listeners. He taught us the basics of recording, script-writing, and editing.

We also learned a thing or two about listening.

The workshop was life-changing: in a very short period of time, we learned a staggering amount. Rob is an amazing instructor: he inspires courage and confidence in his students. All of us (even the journalists amongst us) were working far outside our comfort zones and flying by the seat of our pants. All of us learned; all of us changed.

Over that crazy week of learning like I was 25 again, I produced my first radio piece. It’s about an extraordinary photographer named Shane Epping. You can listen to “Faye, in Pictures” here. It’s a sad, moving story told only through the human voice. Perhaps I’ll expand to other sounds soon, but this piece demanded simplicity.

I can’t wait to do more in sound. Radio on! (as Rob Rosenthal says…)

[Image: Maggie Boyd]

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Unplugging

Bancroft

So, I’m about to start a major rewrite of my new book (again). I keep reminding myself that no one said this was supposed to be easy and that wanting a manuscript to be ready, no matter how hard you do so, doesn’t make it so.

But conditions for the start of the rewrite are in place: in two days, my husband, dog, son and I head north to an internet-free lake in Ontario. After a few days of visits with friends and family, my husband and I will be left alone on the lake with our work and few distractions. A sort of DIY writers’ retreat.

A couple months ago, I heard Michael Harris in discussion about his book, The End of Absence. It’s about technology and about how we are constantly “connected.” Never alone, never quiet. Anyone who knows me will confirm that I don’t carry a smartphone (we gave ours up as a family two years ago, mostly for economic reasons), so in this sense I’m far less connected than most. I thought it was funny to hear how Harris engineered an experiment in unconnectedness by duct-taping his smartphone to the kitchen counter. We still, quaintly, use a landline and our phone still sits on the kitchen counter, attached to the wall behind it. Though we have a cell phone, we rarely know where it is or if it’s charged.

All that said, I am very attached to my laptop, to email and to quick Internet searches. Possibly too attached. The laptop will come to the lake (along with the book drafts on it) but the internet connection will be left behind.

It’s not a stunt, this unplugging of ours. It just happens that the cottage we chose, perfect in every other way, is unconnected. Perhaps that too, in the end will turn out to be a perfect attribute. And though I’m not heading up to the lake to create the conditions for an essay about the internet-free life, I suspect I may have some thoughts about it when I return.

I’ll let you know what I come up with.

[Photo: AKATDOG]

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The Rumpus Wants YOU!

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The Rumpus, along with the Freeman Family, and the Drake University Department of English, is proud to be a part of the second annual Payton James Freeman Essay Prize. Please take a look at the submission requirements below (no entry fee!) and send us your best work.

We invite you to submit outstanding unpublished non-fiction essays of up to 3500 words on the subject of “The Stupid Little Thing That Saved Me.” More here…

[Photo: Jack Lyons]

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It’s Edna Staebler Time Again…Submit!

EdnaStaebler
Edna Staebler Personal Essay contest is on! You may submit essays of any length, on any topic, in which the writer’s personal engagement with the topic provides the frame or through-line. There is no restriction on essay length or subject matter, but the author must be a Canadian citizen or resident. $1,000 prize for the winning essay; all submissions will be considered for paid publication ($250) in the magazine. Entry fee: $40 per submission. Each submission includes a one-year Canadian subscription (or subscription extension) to The New Quarterly.

Details and submissions can be found here.

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In Praise of True/False

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The True/False film festival just wrapped up in Columbia, Missouri, where I now live and teach. It’s four days of back-to-back documentary films showing all over our city’s centre. There are buskers and parties and panel discussions, but the heart of the event is film. I managed to see 8 this year. The highlight for me was Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, which is a sort of follow up to The Act of Killing. Both films examine the perpetrators of massacres in Indonesia in the 1960s. The Look of Silence documents a series of encounters between victims’ families and perpetrators. It’s a thoughtful, quiet and quite excruciating meditation on forgiveness, inheritance, fear, power, confrontation, memory and forgetting. For me, the film was a great gift. I’ve been working on (struggling with) a book on similar themes, if from a different time and place. Oppenheimer has fed my thinking in unanticipated ways.

Other great films I saw included: Bitter Lake, Tales of the Grim Sleeper, and (T)Error

If you’re a fan of doc films or creative nonfiction in any form, consider making the trip to the True/False Film Festival. I promise it will be worth your while.

[Photo: Glenn Rice]

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Writing True: Master Class and CNF Conference

The annual Creative Nonfiction Collective conference is coming up in Victoria, British Columbia (April 23-26, 2015), and I’m thrilled to be giving a Master Class. Registration opened two days ago, and it seems there are only a handful of spots left, so if you want to take part, hurry hurry! (Details below.)

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Master Class

Filling in the Gaps: Dealing with the Unknown and Unknowable in CNF

Any nonfictionist who tries to engage with the past – whether personal or public – quickly discovers that there are limits to what is and can be known. Papers disappear, memories morph and fade, eyewitnesses die. This is true of even the most well documented stories and lives. So what can a writer do when faced with gaps in knowledge and narrative? Should she fill these holes, write around them, or side-step them somehow? In this Master Class, we will explore solutions to the problem of the unknown and unknowable in CNF. We will examine and experiment with the roles of research, speculation, imagination, rhetoric, and writerly ethics in our genre. Participants are invited to bring a problematic gap in their work to discuss and to come prepared to talk and to write!

Julija Šukys is the award-winning author of two books of creative nonfiction: Epistolophilia and Silence is Death. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Missouri where she leads both undergraduate and graduate workshops in creative nonfiction.

Date: Friday April 24th
Location: Inn at Laurel Point
Time: 1:30 – 4:00 pm
Cost: $25 for members; $40 for non-members

 

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Lions in Winter, Eastern Illinois University, Jan. 30 & 31, 2015

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I’m heading to Charleston, Illinois, this weekend to read and to give a craft talk  at the Lions in Winter Literary Festival. Come on out if you’re in the area. I’ll be reading from and discussing the birth of Epistolophilia and what I learned about the ins and outs of archival work in the process.

The Lions in Winter 2015 featured writers are Stephen Graham Jones, 
David Tomas Martinez, Edward Kelsey Moore, Julija Šukys (yours truly), and Jessica Young.

You can find craft talk descriptions and download the program here. 

[Photo: Tambako The Jaguar]

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NonfictioNOW Call for Panels

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Deadline: Sunday, Feb. 2015

We are seeking NonfictioNOW 2015 panel proposals that bring together a group of three to five people to engage insightfully with some of the rich and vibrant contemporary debates around nonfiction

Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff Arizona, 28 – 31 October, 2015

NonfictioNOW is one of the most significant gatherings of writers, teachers and readers of nonfiction from around the world.

NonfictioNOW 2015 will be hosted and presented by Northern Arizona University, with co-sponsors RMIT University’s nonfictionLab and The Writers’ Centre at Yale-NUS College, Singapore. 2015 Keynote speakers include Maggie Nelson, Brian Doyle, Michael Martone and Ander Monson.

We are seeking NonfictioNOW 2015 panel proposals that bring together a group of three to five people to engage insightfully with some of the rich and vibrant contemporary debates around nonfiction. Panel submissions are due on 15 February 2015.

These questions include, but are not restricted to, explorations of:

• Genres and their boundaries and tensions: the essay in its myriad forms (personal, narrative, lyric, collage, interdisciplinary), memoir, forms of immersion writing, history, literary and long form journalism and reportage, travel writing, food writing, hybrids of fiction and nonfiction
• Forms beyond the strictly literary: for example documentary, radio, video and networked (online) essays, graphic memoir
• Regional characteristics and issues in nonfiction writing
• Historical threads of influence, style and discourse, from the long tradition of nonfiction connecting, for example, Seneca, Montaigne, Woolf, Orwell, Geoff Dyer, Chris Marker…
• Issues such as truth and authenticity, fakery and lies, trust and ethics, politics and power — the creative tensions between ‘art’, ‘facts’ and ‘truth
• The poetics of nonfiction
• Representations of self and other in nonfiction

This is an invitation for nonfiction practitioners both within and outside the academy – a rare chance for discussion to extend across these boundaries!

All submissions should be 300 – 750 words, and also include a 150 word précis, and 50 word bio that can be used in the conference program.

When submitting your panel, please include the details of fellow panellists you have already been in dialogue with. Please also think carefully about the chairing of your panel: whether yourself, or another panellist will also chair the session, and clearly state if you need help in finding a chair.

Please also let us know if you do not have fellow panellists in mind, but are interested in becoming a panellist, along with the topic you are interested in exploring as part of a panel. One of the things we hope to do is encourage international connections within panels, so we may be able to link you up with potential fellow panellists from another country.

There will be opportunities to publish coming out of the conference

Prospective panellists are also encouraged to submit more than one proposal, though no more than three. Individuals may appear on a maximum of two panels or readings during the conference. Prospective panellists will be responsible for securing the commitment of fellow panellists to attend the conference if the proposed panel is selected. We will send confirmation to your fellow panellists to confirm their attendance.

Please note that the conference will not be able to pay for the travel or accommodation of panellists. Travel costs will need to be covered by the panelists.

Email submissions to: info@nonfictionow.org

Visit the NonfictioNOW website here. 

[Photo: Nicholas A. Tonelli]

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On Reviewing Books: A Few Guiding Principles

BookReview

I’ve written a lot of book reviews and I’ve read a lot of them too. Book reviews are an important way of engaging with and serving the larger literary community. They are a way of building contacts and establishing your authority. If you are a writer and haven’t yet written a book review, you will doubtless be approached to do so before long.

Book reviews can be tricky for all kinds of reasons. Here are a few guiding principles I’ve come up with to help those just starting out:

1) First and most obvious task: give the reader a sense of what this book is about. The reader needs a summary and portrait of what this object you have engaged with looks like. This needs to be done with a light hand and, as far as possible, with zippy and precise language: quote a bit, but not too much. Usually three good quotes total are enough for a 1200-word review.

A good book reviewer tries to see what an author is striving with for a text, so in your summary, you might want to suggest what that is. This establishes that you’ve spent enough time with the book to talk about it fairly and that you’ve thought of it as a whole. It’s a good idea not only to discuss argument (if you’re reviewing this kind of nonfiction) or plot, but also style, structure, the use of dialogue, or anything else that seems integral and important to the text.

Do not waste time critiquing cover images or drawing attention to elements like an author’s photo, unless you’re trying to make a kind and generous joke. Even so, this is risky, and you must assume that risk of you go that route. Any negative attention to details like these makes a reviewer seem petty, lazy, and unaware of how publishing works (i.e., that writers often have no say on issues like cover images).

Of course, a summary is not a review. Your reader wants to know whether she should read this book. How does it succeed? Where does it falter? What other books does it dialogue with? These elements come next.

2) Establish your credentials as a reviewer, but by doing what you do well; not by telling your reader why they should be impressed with you. This is tricky and you need to be subtle. You do not want to pull out your PhD credentials or your many publishing credits. You must not make the review about you or how smart you are. A book review is not an academic paper – we don’t need to see you apply Deleuze and Guattari or offer up a Freudian interpretation of the text. That’s not establishing your credentials. That’s showing off.

You establish your credentials as a reviewer by displaying thoughtfulness. You display thoughtfulness by taking a writer’s work seriously, by asking good questions and by demonstrating an understanding of the context in which this book operates. You may, for example, want to compare it, though using a light touch, with other titles. Again: this is not an opportunity to show off how well-read you are.

3) A book review should be about the book in question. This may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised. One sure sign of an ungenerous review is when a review ceases to be about the book and becomes a gleeful takedown of an author. It’s really easy to write a mean-spirited review: that’s why the Internet is full of trolls. It’s far more difficult to engage intelligently with a text, especially one that a reviewer might find challenging, for whatever reason.

4) Evaluate the book fairly for what it is. This is related to the idea of trying to see what an author is trying to do. Evaluate the book for what it is, not for what you wish it were. An all too common sin, in my opinion, is criticizing a book for not being the book the reviewer would have written (yet another way of making a review about the reviewer).

Beware of reviewing books according to intellectually dubious criteria. A common example is outlined in an essay by Charles Baxter called  “Owl Criticism.” This line of reviewing goes something like this: This book is about owls. I don’t like owls. Therefore this is a bad book. If you can’t review a book about owls fairly, don’t agree to write the review.

5) Engage the reader on a writerly level. You are a writer, so use your skills. Reviews can be entertaining and smart. They need not be fawning: you may write a critical review, but do so using your full intellect, your linguistic talents, and a spirit of inquiry.

6) This one’s counter-intuitive, but I find it helpful in getting myself out of jams when writing book reviews: admit your blind spots & shortcomings, if only to yourself. This will help you be both more generous and more rigorous. It will also help you avoid the pitfall of writing “Owl Criticism.”

You may find yourself reviewing a book you have no interest in reading. This has happened to me on more than one occasion. Most recently, I agreed to review a book of short stories (I’m a writer of creative nonfiction currently completely consumed by questions about her genre – what was I thinking?…) When this happens, I ask myself: how are my own shortcomings blinding me? Is it possible that this book of short fictions has something to offer a person who loves the form? How has this book succeeded in ways that I’ve perhaps been unwilling to entertain because of my generic preferences? What has the experience of contemplating this book nonetheless taught me about reading or writing? What kind of reader would find this book useful and on what grounds might I be able to recommend it? Finally, what shortcomings would the ideal reader for this book nevertheless discover?

If you’ve asked enough questions of yourself as well as the book you’ve been charged with reviewing and the text still comes up short on redeeming qualities, then perhaps you’ve earned the right to pan it. But here’s what I said to my students on this issue: Just remember that one day, your book too – if you are very lucky – will be reviewed by peers, and karma, as they say, can be a bitch.

How we engage with each other’s work sets a tone for our literary culture. If we want our work to be read with care and attention, then perhaps the best argument for such behavior is to read the work of others in the same way.

Happy reviewing. 

[Photo: litherland; illustration by Ji Lee for the NYT Book Review]

 

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On Research: Examining One Point in the Holy Trinity of CNF

HolyTrinity

The holy trinity of creative nonfiction, I told my students recently, is SCENE + RESEARCH + REFLECTION.

Most of my students get the first scene piece: since high school, they’ve doubtless heard the mantra “show don’t tell.” Generally speaking, showing is not a problem for them, especially those who come from a fiction background.

The third point of the trinity (we’ll come back to the second momentarily), reflection, is more complex and requires an intellectual leap: writers must not only recount the past, but think on the page and interpret the meaning of what they create as they do so. Thus far, the most eloquent argument I’ve found for the necessity of this process in memoir and other forms of CNF comes from Phillip Lopate in “Reflection and Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story” (Fourth Genre 7.1, 2005, pp. 143-156.) I highly recommend it — so much so that I keep foisting this essay into the hands of all my students.

The question is: how do you get from SCENE to meaningful (non-navel-gazing) REFLECTION?

My answer: RESEARCH

By research I mean anything that helps further your understanding of whatever it is that you’re trying to figure out. It can be book or scholarly learning, like exploring the history of Négritude as one of my students has done or by reading Anne Sexton’s archive, as another did (I’ll return to the importance of library research shortly), but it can also be something like going on a train trip to watch how the landscape changes. It can be having a conversation with someone who knows more about a topic than you do (for a example, with a historian or a scientist) or simply standing in front of a painting in a museum. I, for one,  have traveled to places where the people I’m writing about once lived: weird little Siberian villages or forgotten industrial towns in France, for example. This past summer I walked through Lithuanian forests in search of mass graves; I stood and contemplated the house that once belonged to an important “character” in my manuscript.

I think of this kind of work as environmental or perhaps experiential research, but often it is this human gaze and journey and reality (everything on a human scale) that gives CNF energy, gravitas, life, and beauty.

Even if you’re writing about the past, or perhaps especially if you’re doing so, revisiting sites from that past can be incredibly powerful. When I venture to these kinds of places, I spend my time gazing at a building; I collect stones and put them in my pockets to bring home; I pay attention to the insects that buzz around me; I talk to cows; I think about and note change, impermanence; I ask what remains; I watch those around me; I chat with strangers about their lives and homes; I accept every invitation to tea or a meal; I photograph everything I can; I contemplate the sky; I take tons and tons of notes.

To me, all this staring, wandering, and chatting is as valuable as a trip to the library (where I spend a great deal of time too): the trick is to pay attention and record all the details along the way.

But be warned: all this staring and wandering and chatting may only be the first level of research. For example, I have a student who has recently returned from a life-changing trip to Iceland, and he’s now starting to write about it. His first level of research is complete, but  more work lies ahead. The second level and stage of research might mean his going to the library and reading tons about sagas and Icelandic history until this writer has mastered his subject enough to distill and retell with energy and spontaneity. Once this learning starts to belong to him in some way (as family history does) — that is, once he’s achieved a kind of deep learning — then he’ll likely find organic ways of engaging with the necessary literary-historical material and, in turn, of teaching his reader.

When I’m talking about this process of deep learning, I tend to call it “digestion.” You have to let the facts and history work their through you, I say (though I try not to follow the metaphor through to its logical ends, ahem). The research has to become part of you so that you can put it back out onto the page and into the world in a form that won’t fight the story that you’re trying to tell.

This, I believe, is the most difficult aspect of writing good CNF: figuring out how to teach the reader; how to give enough background history, facts, and evidence but without deadening your text.

Once you do the research, you reflect and figure out what the research tells you about the primary journey you’re on: for one of my students, the question is what Anne Sexton’s archives can teach her about a mother’s death. For another, the question is what the slave ships of Nantes have to do with her search for home and belonging.

Research will help you interpret the scenes you write and details you put to paper and it will help you get closer to an answer to whatever question drives you and makes your text vibrate. It will deepen your text and make it larger than your sad little story of loss (I don’t mean to minimize, not at all; we all have these). Most CNF undulates in some way between the big and the small. The writer’s sad little story is the small of the piece: all our mothers will die one day. The reflection and understanding that grows out of research (in whatever form it might take) will constitute the large. It is in going beyond ourselves, beyond our own smallness that we can learn something and then give that lesson over to a reader — what is the big thing that I can learn from my smallness? That’s the great question, gift, challenge, and mystery of CNF.

[Photo: angelofsweetbitter2009]

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