Take Two: What is Creative Nonfiction?

A while back, in response to a question posed by a friend, I posted a few thoughts on what constituted creative nonfiction. Since then, I’ve been trying to think a bit more systematically about the genre, and to unpack my own writing process.

In that first entry, I cited Lee Gutkind, the editor of the journal Creative Nonfiction. Here too, I will turn to him, and a really lucid essay in which he breaks the genre down into components he calls the “5 R’s.”

Gutkind’s schema is pretty snappy and it makes sense to me. According to his model, the building blocks of CNF (I really like this abbreviation, and have started using it) consist of:

1) Real life

2) Research

3) Reading (not only research materials, he says, but masters of the genre and masters in general)

4) Reflection

5) (W)Riting

Gutkind’s is a pretty good description of how I work, though I might add one more R: “Rencontre,” by which a mean a somewhat mystical sounding meeting of past and present.

My work, for what it’s worth, tends to grow out of triangles. At the first of my three points, I have a fragment of the past; on the second there’s me in my here and now. The triangle’s third point is the the sense-making process between past and present, between my content and my perspective. The third point, in other words, is the point of the whole endeavour.

I always begin with a story (often a life) I want to tell, usually using an artifact like letters or diaries. Like, Gutkind, there’s always a real-life aspect to the research: I seem to get a better handle of how to make sense of worlds past by moving through the present. So, even though it’s not the same thing to go through Siberia by train in 2010 as it was in 1941, the trip nevertheless stimulates the imagination and raises questions.

Next, come research, analysis, and finally learning.

The best CNF doesn’t simply tell a story, but takes the reader on a transformative journey. And the easiest way to accomplish this as a writer is actually to learn something.

So, what are the components of my mode of CNF?

1) Story (This is my content, the first thing that tells me that there’s an original story to tell: a collection of letters or an untold life.)

2) Journey (I’ve not yet written anything half-decent without recounting a journey of discovery. Travel and observation are essential to my process. This is where detail and narrative drive come from for me.)

3) Questioning (Once I’ve got my content and have completed a journey of discovery, the important questions start to arise. I begin to figure out what the point of the story I’m trying to tell will be, and why not only I, but a reader, should care. Gutkind calls this stage Reflection.)

4) Research (Once I have a series of questions, I head to the library in search of answers. I read anyone and everyone who might be able to help. Much of this never actually makes it into the bibliography, but that’s OK.)

5) Learning (In some ways this is the hardest part, but it’s the piece that will make a CNF book worth a reader’s time. In order for the reader to learn, the author has to transform him- or herself in some way. For this reason, writing CNF requires humility. You can’t assume you know everything. If you do, there’s nowhere to go and nothing to learn.)

I continue to write at every stage in the process. Some parts of it are easier than others — journeys tend to write themselves, but incorporating research seamlessly can be like pulling teeth. I call that stage “writing through the pain.”

Weirdly, the final stage of learning often happens of its own accord. If you travel, watch, read, write and think for long enough, you’re bound to learn something. The trick is to listen carefully enough to hear what it is, and to write it down before it escapes.

So, if learning is the hardest part, how is it that it happens of its own accord?

Because you can’t cheat, fake or rush it. You have to do the work and put in the time for learning to come about. But when the point of the whole damn thing suddenly (that is, after months or years of work) reveals itself to you, and your manuscript seems to tell you how to finish it, writing becomes its own reward.

And then, for a moment, it may even seem easy.

How does your process work? Do the 5 R’s describe what you do?

[Photo: troycochrane]

Share

2011: A Few Thoughts at the Dawn of a New Year

It’s quiet in the house for the first time in days. No feet pounding up and down the stairs, no pleas for more tv, no guitar strains floating up from the basement, and no more hacking cough or sneezing from the nasty cold that visited us. The holiday’s over, and we’re back to work. Sean’s in the classroom today, Sebastian’s at daycare, and I’m back at my desk. Normally, I love a silent house, but today it feels a bit melancholy, so I’m taking a few minutes to readjust and reflect.

2010 was a good year for me as a writer. It was the year I finished and sold my second book — that manuscript that had been so difficult to complete. It was the year of my breaking into newspapers with personal essays, of my trip to Siberia, of winning my second Canada Council grant, and of the appearance of a hard-fought essay. I read some wonderful books over those twelve months, and found a clarity and momentum in my work that sometimes surprised me.

Finally, 2010 saw the birth of this blog. I began it timidly and almost apologetically, but soon found myself enjoying the platform and the discipline it required.

Personally speaking, 2010 was the year my son was three, a magical in-between-baby-and-personhood age, where children say and observe the most amazing things. In this regard, it was one of many beautiful linguistic and emotional gifts. Of course, it was also the year I lost my beloved maternal grandmother, so there’s a sadness overlying that time too.

But I made some very good friends in 2010: writers, poets, and wonderful women whose presence I’m very grateful for in my life. And it was the eleventh New Year that I celebrated with my husband, and for that too I am thankful and a bit humbled.

For 2011, I hope for continued clarity, continued productivity and maybe even a completed third manuscript. Certainly a good essay or two, maybe a few more friends.

As for my personal life: parents around here call the period of childhood we’re about to enter the “f**king fours.” Hold on to your hats. We’ll see how it goes.

Happy New Year.

I wish you health, happiness, productivity and twelve months of beautiful linguistic and emotional gifts.

[Photo: toastforbrekkie]

Share

On the Dying Tradition of Letter-writing

I’ve been working with letters as literary artifacts for just over a decade now. As a graduate student, my attraction to letters was instant. The very first time I sat down with stack of yellowing missives, I was hooked, and never looked back.

I work with letters because I like the intimacy they afford. Piecing a story together through an unexamined correspondence is a way to tap into untold stories and to break new ground. Reading letters also gives me a glimpse into the ways in which people meld writing and life and make sense of their time on earth. And I’m interested in the ways the big and small combine in letters — how, for example, a letter can give a ground-level view of historical events.

But as we increasingly eschew handwritten letters on paper for electronic correspondence, the materials I use for my research are becoming a bit of dinosaur. I myself have boxes of love letters written on lined notebook paper from when I was a teenager, but mine may be the last generation to be able to say this.

And as I embark on the writing of my third book — my second to use letters as a primary resource — I realize that it’s time to start reflecting not only on what letters say, but on what they are.

I’ve never really cared all that much about physical objects in my work. Whether I read a second-hand copy, a library copy, or a first edition of Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, as long as all the pages are intact, it’s all the same to me. It’s why I could never be an art historian, because the value of objects that interest me has little to do with money, or physical uniqueness.

But now I see that it is no longer enough simply to consider the content of the letters I work with. Because letters are on their way out as a cultural practice, I will inevitably have to start reflecting more seriously on their physical form, the way they travel from sender to recipient, and how the process of letter-writing differs from or in some ways resembles the way we communicate today.

National Public Radio has kick-started this thinking process for me. It’s currently doing a series on the United States Postal System, which is apparently in deep crisis. As part of its Postal series, NPR has curated an on-line exhibit of interesting pieces of mail, called “Mailed Memories: Your Cherished Letters.”

The exhibit includes images of an annual cake-package sent by post, a posthumous birthday card, and a postcard sent to a kid by Allen Ginsburg that was originally addressed to John and Yoko. The last piece in the exhibit is my contribution: a 1947 postcard sent from Siberia to the US by my grandmother. Its tagline: “Finally, a letter from mom.”

It is indeed a cherished piece of mail, and I’m honoured to have it used as part of the piece. You can see the exhibit here.

I rarely write letters anymore myself, and wonder if others do. Share your letter-writing and -receiving stories with me through in the comments section. I’m interested to know about your writing life.

[Photo: Sea Dream Studio]

Share

Writing in a Time of Pestilence and Pain: A Few Thoughts in Anticipation of American Thanksgiving

La varicelle, as it’s called around these parts, or chicken pox to us English speakers. Our doctor confirmed it this morning. Despite my son’s vaccine against it, the virus has taken hold, though perhaps not as firmly as it might have otherwise.

As I write, my red-spotted boy colours beside me with his new markers, picked up at the pharmacy with his prescription. There’s nothing like sickness to make you appreciate your good health and the time you have to work under more normal circumstances. The coughing and sneezing of the past few weeks have been a good reminder to me that, when the body fails, a life of the mind is hard to sustain.

If I want my mind to function, I have to honour my body.

I’ve always had a bad back, and if I write for too long without taking the time to go to my yoga classes, it isn’t long before the pain takes over and saps all my attention. I learned this the hard way some ten years ago, when I sat at my desk from dawn till dusk, seven days a week, five weeks in a row, to finish my dissertation. By the end of it, I could barely walk. Poor me.

But recently, I’ve been trying to think about my back pain differently. I’ve started thinking of it as a gift.

I inherited my bad back from my father, who in turn got it from his mother. And when I speak to my cousins and aunts, we are all surprised hear that we have the same issue. Back pain binds us together in the present, but it also gives us a link to the past – to the grandmother who connects us all, and who inevitably had a whole different relationship to pain.

The fact is that my back pain is but a shadow of what my grandmother went through. Whereas I have the luxury of taking a break and heading to yoga class when I feel my muscles acting up, my grandmother had no such choice. Whereas I have the time to think about this pain, to manage it, and to turn it into a text if I can find the right words, my grandmother had to grit her teeth and keep going.

There were calves to feed, cows to milk, logs to chop, and there was no rest for her aching back. On the farm where she worked (for nothing), in a place she had been exiled to against her will, back pain would have meant something very different to her: pure suffering and an external manifestation of what must have been happening inside her.

This coming weekend (as long as the pox allow – our doctor is hopeful), my son and I will travel to meet with my cousins, their children, and my aunt. Darius, who travelled with me to Siberia to find my grandmother’s village, will come up from San Francisco to meet us on his holiday weekend, and has planned a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner for the occasion.

As I raise my glass to toast the harvest and the gathering of my grandmother’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren for the purpose of hearing stories about and looking at pictures of the place she was exiled, I will remember my minor annoyances. And I will be thankful for the pox and the pain.

Because my trials are so small, I know I am blessed. In this troublesome back of mine, I will always carry of piece of my grandmother.

[Photo: Sara Björk]

Share

Postcard from Siberia

Pictured above is one of my most cherished possessions. It’s a 1947 postcard sent from my grandmother in Siberia, addressed to her husband and children. It was sent to a town in Massachusetts where we had relatives, though at the time my grandfather and his kids (my father among them) were living in the UK. My grandmother wrote their church’s address from memory, I think, and sent it off as a kind of Hail Mary attempt to reach her loved ones.

Amazingly, it made its way out of Stalinist Russia and into the hands of distant cousins in the US. From there, the card found its addressees: my father, my two aunts and grandfather. It was the only moment of communication my grandmother had with her children between 1941 and 1955, when regular correspondence between Siberia and the West became possible.

The back of the postcard reads:

1947.II.16

My Dear Children Birutėlė, Janutė, Algutis and Antanukas [the latter, her husband, is addressed as one of her children, because she had told Soviet authorities her husband was dead],

It made me indescribably happy to learn that you were alive and well. I’m healthy, I work on a farm. In my thoughts and in my heart I am always with you.

The priest, my uncle, is still alive and lives in Liepalingis [Lithuania], as before.

Write to me, all. I await your letters.

Your mother,
Ona Šukienė.

After weeks of working my way through my travel notes from Siberia, I’m now back to my archives: reading my grandmother’s letters, and travelling in my mind across languages, time, space.

My grandmother wrote letters to her children from Siberia from 1955 to 1958, then from Soviet Lithuania from 1958 to 1965, when she joined her family in Canada. The above card marks the first step in their long process of return to one another. For me, now, it marks the beginning of my next stage of writing.

While working through my Siberian travel notebook over the past few weeks, I wrote a great deal in a very short span of time. It was going so well that I didn’t dare stop, question, or even re-read too much. In fact, I was working so fast that I  became uneasy, and started bracing myself for the other shoe to drop.

Well, crisis averted. With the complex tasks of weaving past with present and of melding my life with that of another back in my sights again, the familiar feeling of wading through mud has returned. Writing hurts again and the book resists.

All is well with the world in this regard.

Onward. (Squish.)

[Photo: J. Šukys, Ona Šukienė’s Siberian postcard from 1947, private collection]

Share

Siberia! Siberia!

I’m home.

Two cousins and I spent fourteen days travelling from Lithuania to Siberia’s Tomsk region, in search of the neighbouring villages of Brovka and Bialystok where my grandmother lived in forced exile and worked on a collective farm for seventeen years (for a time she lived in one village, then in the other).

We found both villages (Bialystok still very much alive; Brovka now defunct), plus so much more along the way.

Siberia surprised me at every turn. It was both gentler and at times more desperate than I’d imagined. The journey was worth every minute and every kopeck.

In Tomsk we marvelled at stilettoed women strolling through the city with their babies, and were awed by the beauty of Tomsk’s Catholic Church perched up on the city’s one hill. The nearby Sisters of Charity welcomed us warmly and glowed with joy, all the while telling harrowing drunk tank tales. Six nuns minister to the city’s alcoholics.

We had many local companions and guides without whom the journey from Tomsk north to Bialystok would have been impossible: there was Vasily, the museum director, born and raised in the village; Svetlana, our guardian angel, daughter of a Lithuanian exile, and generally the coolest Siberian you’ll ever meet; 79-year-old Anton who took us into his house and fed us from his kitchen garden; Dusya, Anna and Nina, who shared their memories of our grandmother; and Maria who showed us hospitality with a potato and egg fry that we ate straight out of the skillet plonked down in the centre of the table, Siberian-style.

All this, plus my impressions of Moscow suffocated by wildfire smoke, our deportation from Belarus and resulting mad-dash through Copenhagen’s airport in a race to catch up to our train, and of the still Siberian landscape under the blue shutters and fences of Russian villages, will unpack and reformulate itself into a book over the next year or so.

I’ll share what I can as I work.

To all those who helped along the way: Spasibo bolshoe. Ačiū.

This is only the beginning.

[Photo: M. Angel Herrero]

Share

Travelling light

As I pack my bag for Siberia, I realize how long it’s been since I travelled light.

The last time was ten years ago when I went to India and Nepal. My friend Anna and I went for three weeks, each carrying a modest bag containing a sheet, mosquito net and a few articles of clothing.

People around us balked at the idea of our going so far for such a short time. But I had a sense then that if I didn’t seize that opportunity, it would be a long time before it returned.

I was right.

The freedom, money, time and fearlessness of that Indian summer have never combined in the same magical way again. Since then, I’ve travelled a lot, but have felt very heavy indeed, dragging books, cats, an entire household behind me en route to another postdoc or teaching position.

I used to be an expertly light traveller, having started when I was only a teenager. I’d work some weekend or summer job for just long enough to buy plane and train tickets, plus scrape together a bit of pocket money, then take off with a friend.

That’s what you’re bringing?” my dad asked the night before one such trip.

I was seventeen and heading off for nine weeks with a small pack borrowed from my cousin for the train trip through Europe that everyone was doing back then.

“Why, do you think it’s too big?”

“No,” he answered, laughing. “Just the opposite. I’m wondering how you’ll survive.”

I came back happy, healthy and strong. And having learned a ton.

Travelling light isn’t just about stuff. To do so, you have to believe that world will take care of you, that it will lend you things you need but didn’t bring, and that it will teach you how to be in the place that you are.

This trip, I’m going to try to recapture some lightness.

My plane takes off Thursday.

[Photo: Rachel Giese]

Share

On the kindness of strangers

For the past week I’ve been sending badly written Russian emails to strangers all over Siberia. In them I explain that I will be arriving in Tomsk with my cousin in August by train, that we are looking for the village where our grandmother lived and worked for seventeen years, that I am a Canadian writer of English-language books, and that I would appreciate any help they could offer in locating Brovka.

Amazingly, some of these strangers respond.

This is not the first time I’ve imposed myself and my odd sense of what’s worth writing about on people I don’t know. I’ve arrived in small American towns asking strange questions about saints’ relics, place-names and local history and I’ve shown up in French villages inquiring after long-forgotten WWII prison camps.

Perhaps it’s because I’m obviously harmless and seem a bit naive. Or maybe it’s just because I’m genuinely interested in hearing stories about these out-of-the-way places. But strangers tend to be kind and generous to a writer looking for a story, and people from forgotten parts of the world want to share what they know.

So, over the last week I’ve struck up a friendship with a woman in Tomsk who is the president of the region’s Lithuanian friendship society. Her father was a Lithuanian exile who married a Volga German, also exiled to Siberia. Svetlana was born in town on the Mongolian border and moved to Tomsk to study at one of the city’s five universities.

She has already done a great deal of research on my behalf: making phone calls and passing on information to archivists (more kind strangers) who have taken it upon themselves to search for traces of my grandmother amongst old census documents. We write to each other in different languages: I, in Lithuanian, and she, in Russian. We manage to understand one another, and there is a warmth to our communication that I would never have predicted, though perhaps should have, bound as we are by the memory of exile.

For Svetlana, exile has become home. She lives in Siberia not because she must, but because it is where she was born, where she studied, and where she works.

I can’t wait to meet her. I suspect she’ll have a lot of stories to tell.

[Photo: Daniel Gasienica]

Share

Siberian photographs: on home and exile

A couple months ago I took my son to visit my Aunt Birutė to talk about family history and my grandmother’s exile. She gave me some extraordinary photographs during that visit, including several from Siberia. More than I expected.

One small photograph, dated 1957, shows my grandmother’s house. Made of logs and with a straw roof, it stands on fenced property. Both look bigger than I would have expected. I’d always imagined the house surrounded by forest, but the land all around her house is flat.

Another shows my grandmother and her sister Magrieta standing in the garden, up to their knees in lush leaves. They wear matching shirts and skirts made from fabric sent in care-packages by faraway daughters. On the back, in Magrieta’s handwriting: “The cabbage garden, beyond it that you can see the potatoes and fence.” I’m struck by how happy my grandmother looks in these photographs: strong and ruddy, she could be an early American pioneer. (In the above photograph my grandmother sits on the left. She has several teeth missing, knocked out in an accident with a combine harvester.)

For the last few weeks, I’ve been singing a new song to my son Sebastian at bedtime. We call it “The Bird Song.” I learned it at summer camp as a child.

Like birds returning home
Lead us too, oh Lord.
From the sad road of exile,
Gather us up.

The song was written by my grandmother’s generation about returning to the place they fled or were forced to leave. Now, as I sing my son to sleep, it is these photographs of my grandmother in her cabbage garden that appear in my mind’s eye.

Home: I wonder if it felt like a homecoming when my grandmother returned to Lithuania after seventeen years. Can there be home without family? Her children were grown and far away; it would be another seven years before she saw her family again, when she emigrated Canada. But is family enough to restore home? Surely this country wasn’t home either: the language and customs remained strange to her until her death.

Did exile rob my grandmother of her home in more fundamental way than mere displacement? By taking her away by force, did her captors kill the very possibility of home?

Most people still die within a few kilometres of where they were born. Not so for my grandmother. Not so for many of us who move often and far either by choice or necessity. So what are the ties that bind the landless far from loved ones?

What is home to the exiled?

[Photo: Ona and Magrieta in Brovka, Siberia, 1957. Photographer unknown]

Share

Life-blood: Piers Vitebsky

Piers Vitebsky, The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia. Houghton Mifflin, [2005] 2006.

When I told my aunt that I wanted to go to Siberia to find the village where my grandmother (her mother) was exiled for seventeen years, her immediate reaction was: “you can’t do that! you can’t go there!”

Since then, she’s changed her mind, and though I don’t think she would ever considering striking out into the tundra to find Brovka herself, she is now one hundred per cent behind the idea of my making the journey.

But her initial reaction got me thinking about how we imagine Siberia.

For my family, Siberia is not a place, but a catastrophe. It’s a trauma of the past: a scar that marks every member of our family more or less visibly. And in this sense, my aunt is right: you can’t go back there.

So, when I decided that my next big project would be about Siberia, I wanted to start thinking about it as a real place, and to try and see it through different eyes.

Even though the tundra, the permafrost, and the mines of the region have served as a place of banishment, punishment, death, and exile for hundreds of years, the place has another significance.

For its indigenous people — the Eveny, Chukchi, Sakha, and many others — Siberia is home.

Piers Vitebsky is an anthropologist at Cambridge University, and his book, The Reindeer People, tells of his many journeys to Siberia, where he lived with Eveny reindeer herders. Together with them, he travelled, ate, slept, and made offerings of vodka to the gods.

After reading this book, I became fascinated not only by the herding life, but by anthropologists. From his book, Vitebsky appeared to be adventurous and gregarious: so different from the vast majority of literary scholars, philosophers, or philologists I’ve encountered, who tend to be tortured, introverted, and socially awkward (myself included). And on top of it all, Vitebsky was a good story-teller.

Who knew anthropologists were so cool?

He starts by giving quick historical overview of the Eveny people, followed by a warm account of their present lives.

Then, just when you’re wishing you too could live a nomadic life, he hits you with reality: alcoholism and suicide, environmental disasters, gender inequities, economic hardship, racism, the ambiguous relationship of the herder communities to the gulag system, and the death of their native languages.

Perhaps the bravest moment of the book, from a writer’s standpoint,  is when Vitebsky brings his wife and two children to spend a summer with him among the herders. The conflicts that arise are funny and instructive: they force the anthropologist to see things he’d never noticed before. Not every family would survive this kind of test, but to their great credit, the Vitebskys return home to England intact.

Scholarly and informed, Vitebsky’s book is absolutely accessible to a non-academic audience. It’s a good text to pick up if, like me, you want to see Siberia through a new lens.

[Photo by ugraland]

Share