Craft & Teaching Resources: Creative Nonfiction

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Here’s a list of books to use when teaching CNF. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s a good start. This list originally grew out of a discussion by members of the Creative Nonfiction Collective (CNFC). Members of “Essaying the 21st Century” (on Facebook) have added to it as well. If you have suggestions, feel free to send me a note or add a comment. 

Atkins, Douglas. Tracing the Essay

Barrington, Judith. Writing the Memoir

Birkerts, Sven. The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again

Bradway, Becky and Hesse, Douglas, eds. Creating Nonfiction: A Guide and Anthology

Castro, Joy. Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family

D’Agata, John, ed. Lost Origins of the Essay

–, ed. The Next American Essay

DeSalvo, Louise. The Art of Slow Writing

–. Writing as a Way of Healing

Fakundiny, Lydia, ed. Marcela Sulak and Jacqueline Kolosov. The Art of the Essay

Forché, Carolyn and Gerard, Philip. Writing Creative Nonfiction: Instruction and Insights from Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs

Gornick, Vivian. The Situation and the Story.

Gutkind, Lee, ed. In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction

–. You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

Iversen, Kristen. Shadow Boxing: Art and Craft Creative Nonfiction

Kaplan, Beth. True to Life: 50 Steps to Help You Tell Your Story

Karr, Mary. The Art of Memoir

Kidder, Tracy and Todd, Richard. Good Prose, the Art of Nonfiction

Lazar, David, ed. Truth in Nonfiction: Essays

Lopate, Phillip, ed. The Art of the Personal Essay

–. To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction

MacDonnell, Jane Taylor. Living to Tell the Tale

Miller, Brenda and Paola, Suzanne. Tell it Slant

Moore, Dinty. Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide to Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction.

–, ed. The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field

–. The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction.

Rainer, Tristine. The New Autobiography

Root, Robert. The Nonfictionist’s Guide.

Roorbach, Bill. Writing Life Stories

Silverman, Sue Williams. Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir 

Sims, Patsy. Literary Nonfiction: Learning by Example

Singer, Margot and Nicole Walker, eds. Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction

Sulak, Marcela and Jacqueline Kolosov. Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres

Thompson, Craig. Blankets

Tredinnick, Mark. The Land’s Wild Music

Williford, Lex and Michael Martone, eds. Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Work from 1970 to the Present

Yagoda, Ben. Memoir: A History

Zinsser, William. Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir

–. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction.

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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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Crafting the Personal Essay: QWF Writers’ Workshop (Montreal)

Number 8. by antonw

Eight Thursdays, 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. (October 4 to November 22, 2012)
1200 Atwater Ave., Suite 3, Westmount
Workshop leader: Julija Šukys
Workshop fee: $155 for QWF members; $175 for non-members
For more information, or to register: 514-933-0878 or julia@qwf.org

***

“Every man has within himself the entire human condition.” – Montaigne
(And every woman too.)

A wandering, open form, the personal essay is most successful when it takes its reader on a journey of discovery. Personal essays explore everyday life, revealing larger truths in the process. As such, the best essays appear to be about one thing but are really about something entirely different. They put the writer’s “I” at centre stage, are conversational, candid, and revelatory. In a tone that ranges from comic to self-deprecating to melancholic, the personal essayist asks: What is it that I don’t know and why? What have I learned and how?

Personal essays are a strong stand-alone form, but they are also a great way to work through big questions at the heart of a memoir, autobiography or work of creative nonfiction. If you’re finding yourself stuck inside (or frozen before the blank first page of) an unruly book manuscript, and you can’t see a way through, consider joining us. A well-thought-out essay may provide you with a road map, and we may be may be able to help you come up with one.

This workshop will primarily focus on participants’ writing. We will work through your texts, and figure out how to make them better together. This workshop is an opportunity to move early drafts forward and to work through ideas. You need not have a finished text to join the workshop (a good idea will suffice), but you should be prepared to work toward producing something to share with your peers. Participants will take turns submitting a personal-essay-in-progress (or a piece of a larger work that you’d like to transform into a stand-alone personal essay) to the workshop for discussion. That text should be no shorter than 1 000 words; no longer than 5 000.

Good writers read, so in addition to workshopping, we will examine a series of exemplary personal essays by writers like Virginia Woolf, Natalia Ginzburg, and Carlos Fuentes, and identify together the techniques and devices that make them work.

Finally, we will talk about finding homes for essays. Where can we read them? Where can we publish them?

Suggested Text: The Art of the Personal Essay. Ed. Phillip Lopate.
(**This is an encyclopaedic volume of essays that will keep you coming back for years. Our readings will come from this volume, so I strongly suggest that participants purchase it in advance.)

Julija Šukys is the author of two books of literary nonfiction, Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė (2012) and Silence is Death: The Life and Work of Tahar Djoaut. Her personal essays have appeared in The Globe and Mail, Feminist Formations, Lituanus, and elsewhere.

[Photo: antonw]

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Litvak Studies Institute Contest: East European Roots

The Summer Literary Seminars-Litvak Studies Institute Jewish Lithuania/Litvak Experiences Program announce a new non-fiction contest: East-European Roots: New Writing on the Old World, held this year in affiliation with Tablet Magazine, the leading online magazine providing a “new take on Jewish life,” and judged by Philip Lopate. The theme for the contest is Eastern European Histories: People’s Roots and Ancestral Heritage. The contest is open to everyone.

The contest winner will have their work prominently featured online in Tablet Magazine. Additionally, the winner will receive free airfare, tuition, and housing to our 2011 SLS/LSI Jewish Lithuania/Litvak Experiences Program. Second-place winners will receive a full tuition waiver for the 2011 SLS/LSI Jewish Lithuania/Litvak Experiences Program, and third-place winners will receive a 50% tuition discount.

A number of select contest participants, based on the overall strength of their work, will be offered tuition scholarships, as well, applicable to the 2011 SLS/LSI Jewish Lithuania/Litvak Experiences Program. Read the full guidelines below.
Details here.

Litvak Studies Institute (LSI) and Summer Literary Seminars announce their joint 2011 Jewish Lithuania program in Vilnius.

It will take place July 31-August 13. Core faculty includes: Regina Kopilevich, Vytautas Toleikis, Efraim Zuroff, and a number of other distinguished individuals (TBA). The program will be held in parallel with the SLS-Lithuania program, and will share with SLS such eminent writers-in-residence as Ed Hirsch, Robin Hemley, Joseph Kertes, and Rebecca Seiferle.

[Photo: ~Liliana]



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How I stopped resisting and returned to the first-person

I keep going back to that month I spent at the Banff Centre for the Arts almost four years ago. Never before had I been treated with such generosity and respect (one of the Literary Journalism program’s mentors jokingly warned us not to get used to it, since never again would we be treated this well). The resources were humbling: everything to foster creativity and work was provided. So when I couldn’t deliver the quality of text I’d set out to write during my tenure there, I felt deep humiliation.

But my failure at Banff ended up teaching me about what kind of writer I am. What’s more, that failed text has finally (finally!) transformed itself into something good.

I travelled to Alberta in the summer of 2006 to write a 10,000 word essay on a librarian who hid Jews in a Lithuanian university library during the Shoah. I had my story, my archival documents to cite, and my ideas about what form it should take: above all, I wanted to keep myself out of the essay and avoid using the first-person voice.

Since I had written my first book in a quirky first-person, I was determined to try something new. I wanted to write something “straight”: to tell a story that deserved to be told without mucking it up with theatrics or by inserting myself into the narrative. It seemed like a good plan, and I stuck to it. At the end of four weeks of painful essay extraction, I submitted my final product.

The essay was a disaster. Clunky and lifeless. Even I had to admit it, so once I came home, I kept working on it, wrestling with it and trying to diagnose the problem.

Only after hundreds of drafts over many months, and a grudging return to the first-person voice, did the text begin to work. The story found its traction and my central character (the librarian) gained colour.

Why? What is it about the first-person voice that is so powerful? And why are we so suspicious of it?

Years ago, I was thinking about pitching something to the Chicago Public Radio show This American Life, and looked at their website for guidelines. One line from their description of what makes a good story has stayed with me. It’s now gone from the site, but it went something like: “We look for stories that appear to be about one thing, but that are actually about another.”

This is what the first-person voice is best at.

It’s easy to sneer at the glut of memoirs of the past decade, and to discredit the genre as somehow dishonest or narcissistic, but autobiographical texts and personal essays that really work are always about something bigger than the person writing them.

The best first-person texts flirt with navel-gazing, but are redeemed by insight, artistry, self-criticism, and honesty. By telling a story about their own singular lives, skilled autobiographers and personal essayists inspire revelations. In other words, these texts not only reveal something about the person writing them, but also about the one reading them.

My Banff essay didn’t work when it was just about my librarian, and began to gel only when I found the something else it was really about. Ultimately, the essay came to tell a love story between a researcher and her subject, and the ways in which a pregnancy disrupts this imagined relationship. This story that appeared to be about a Holocaust rescuer was actually about writing and motherhood.

After more rejections than I care to admit to, the essay (now called “Pregnant Pause: On Ona Šimaitė, Research, Writing and Motherhood”) has found its home in a journal called Feminist Formations, formerly the National Women’s Studies Journal. It will appear very soon, in a matter of weeks. I’ll let you know when it happens.

If you’re interested in thinking more deeply about the first-person voice, or simply in reading some top-notch texts, take a look at Phillip Lopate’s edited volume, The Art of the Personal Essay. It’s a massive, brick-sized tome, and will keep you inspired and interested for years to come.

[Photo: DelosJ]

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