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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CNF Conversations: An Interview with William Bradley

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William Bradley, Fractals. Lavender Ink, 2015. 

William Bradley’s work has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including The Missouri Review, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Fourth Genre, and The Bellevue Literary Review. He regularly writes about popular culture for The Normal School and creative nonfiction for Utne Reader. Formerly of Canton, New York, he lives in Ohio with his wife, the Renaissance scholar and poet Emily Isaacson.

About Fractals: In his seminal book The Fractal Geometry of Nature, Benoit Mandelbrot wrote, “A cauliflower shows how an object can be made of many parts, each of which is like a whole, but smaller. Many plants are like that. A cloud is made of billows upon billows upon billows that look like clouds. As you come closer to a cloud you don’t get something smooth, but irregularities at a smaller scale.” In this collection of linked essays, William Bradley presents us with small glimpses of his larger consciousness, which is somewhat irregular itself. Reflecting on subjects as diverse as soap opera actors, superheroes, mortality, and marriage, these essays endeavor to reveal what we have in common, the connections we share that demonstrate that we are all fractals, in a sense—self-similar component parts of a larger whole.

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Buy the book here. 

Julija Šukys: In Fractals you write of your numerous battles with cancer. It’s about remembering and forgetting; about scars both physical and psychological; about a loss of and then a return to faith (in another form). Finally, this book is also a kind of love letter to the women in your life: to your mother and wife who have sat beside you as you weathered storm after storm.

Thank you for talking to me about your book.

Fractals is a great title for an essay collection. A fractal is, of course, a never-ending pattern that repeats across different scales. Here, we see big and small essays, each of which circles similar but not identical territory to its adjacent texts. The collection has a looping structure or, as Benoit Mandelbrot described it, a cauliflower-like one. Can you talk a bit about how you pulled these pieces together and came to a final form? What was your guiding principle? Did you write any of the essays specifically for the collection? Can you tell us about essays that didn’t make the cut?

William Bradley: I didn’t know about fractals at all for the longest time. I was a very poor math student when I was a kid—it took me five years to get through three years of high school-level math because I kept failing—so I think maybe other people knew this stuff before I did. But once I did read someone referencing fractals, I started reading up on them even more, because I found the idea of the small thing containing the aspects of the larger thing kind of fit in with a belief system I was kind of clumsily assembling for myself—it seemed like it was Montaigne’s idea of each of us carrying the entirety of the human condition expressed in mathematical terms. So I loved that. I also loved the idea of each essay being a fractal, every book being a fractal. Once I started learning about fractals I started seeing them everywhere.

The book itself has taken many forms before I found the one that worked. Once upon a time, it was a much more conventional cancer memoir. I sort of gravitated away from memoir and towards essays in graduate school, though I didn’t realize I should be writing an essay collection and not a memoir for another several years.

I started writing an essay about fractals while also working on the cancer memoir, but it gradually seemed to me that some of the “chapters” in the memoir would work better as distinct essays, and that a lot of the “connective tissue” linking them together was actually pretty bad. So I got rid of that, and suddenly they seemed to have more in common with the essay about fractals—“Self-Similar” in the collection.

I do have other essays that at one point might have been part of the collection, but ultimately didn’t seem to belong. Some of these were more political, or were kind of off-puttingly angry, or just kind of argumentative. I’m working on another essay collection focused on masculinity and violence right now, and some of those seem to fit better with that collection.

In “Nana,” you explore the issue of writing and silence in a really thoughtful way. I’d like to have you share some thoughts on writers’ responsibilities to loved ones and ancestors.

“Nana” starts out:

I had promised my mother I wouldn’t write an essay about her mother until the old lady died. . . . [S]he made me promise that I would not reveal to the world that my grandmother had once, over a breakfast of coffee and English muffins, wished out loud that I would die in order to teach my mother a lesson about grief.

Just as we think you’re going to spill the beans (and you sort of almost do…), this essay ends up being about not writing the threatened piece (except that in not writing it, you’ve also already written it!). Can you talk a bit about negotiating with the dead and how you determine which silences to break, which secrets to keep, and which wounds it’s best to leave undisturbed? Do you have other ground rules for writing about your family, about your wife Emily, for example?

My biggest rule is that my essays are about myself—I don’t usually try to tell other people’s stories. Other people appear in my stories, but the reflection should always be about my relationship with them, my thoughts about them. So I might write about an experience my wife and I share, but I wouldn’t try to write about her relationship with her beloved grandmother, because that’s her story to tell.

But generally, I don’t think I need anyone’s permission to write about my own thoughts. That’s why “Nana” is written the way it is—all these things I don’t really know about my grandmother, but suspect may be true. In fact I recently talked to my mother about this essay and learned that I got most of it right, but some of it wrong—my grandmother did not find her father-in-law’s dead body, the way I thought she had. But her frustration with her husband’s refusal to talk about his suicide was real. But again, the essay really winds up being about my own desire to spare my mom’s feelings rather than the story of this troubled woman who said really mean things to people.

I didn’t actually set out to write an essay about my relationship with my mom when I started writing about what my grandmother said, but I actually learned a lot about myself as I was writing that very short essay.

You use the word “chrononaut” in your collection. I love this word – it suggests an image of writer as time traveler, but also as adventurer. “Cathode,” the essay that felt most like a trip back in time was for me, was amongst the most gutting in the collection (it felt like we were spying on a past version of you). In this piece you look back at a friendship – a not-quite-sincere friendship – with a boy in your youth. So much is intriguing about this text: its lack of resolution, its questioning of memory, and of the facts. The reader gets a sense of how the past versions of ourselves can seem foreign when we look back on them (ourselves). It’s infused with cringe-worthy regret and maybe even shame. Very powerful.

How did the essay come to be so short – was this its original form or did you whittle it down from something larger? Do you think its power comes from its form? (I do…)

Oddly enough, given the essay’s preoccupation with memory, I don’t remember how I went about writing “Cathode.” I think maybe some magazine or journal had a call for essays about memory, and I came up with this idea of my memory being like an old television set where the picture slowly came into view. But I also think I was probably trying to imitate Nabokov, who wrote about memories being projected onto a movie screen.

And yeah. That essay’s really about my own shame at how cruel I could be as a kid, even though I thought I was the hero of the story I was writing for myself. I think most boys are probably similarly cruel—even when we see someone in pain and know we should offer some type of support or comfort, we don’t because we don’t want to become the ones who are picked on or ostracized. Or at least that’s how it felt for me.

It was definitely designed to be short. I don’t think the idea of the television image that sort of bookends the essay would work if I’d put, like, 3,000 words between those sequences. And it’s true that I don’t really remember much of the event—just the image of this sad boy making an obscene gesture at the kids who are supposed to be his friends, and the feeling that I should have been nicer.

Why did you call this text “Cathode”?

I don’t really remember why I titled the essay “Cathode,” but I suspect it was because I liked the idea of my memory working like an old cathode ray tube television set, like the one I’m watching towards the end of the essay. I do remember looking up old television sets and how they worked, and obviously something about the word “cathode” appealed to me. I think because it’s something I associate with a past that I’m sometimes nostalgic for but that I know wasn’t actually better than the present moment (in much the same way that cathode ray televisions are not, in fact, better than the LCD and plasma screen televisions we have today).

Given the book’s obsession with the pop culture I watched on old television sets– soap operas, game shows, horror movies– it seems kind of appropriate for the entire book, too, though I admit that idea just occurred to me because you asked about it.

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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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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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The Stepmother Tongue: A Report from the AWP

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Last night I returned home from the AWP Conference in Minneapolis, an annual gathering of writers, teachers and professors of writing, as well as publishers, editors and printers. It’s three days of nonstop talking, listening, browsing of books, and (for some) overindulging in drink and food. I’m still at a stage in my career and thinking where I can’t pass up the chance to learn more about my field or to hear the writers whose work I love read and speak in person, so, for three days, I rushed from panel to panel from morning until early evening. (Thank goodness for the bag of snacks I carried!) The nonfiction selections at AWP tend to be particularly good, so I really immersed myself in my beloved genre.

The online journal Assay has been publishing reports on conference panels. Included amongst these is the panel I chaired, “The Stepmother Tongue: Crossing Languages in Creative Nonfiction.” Sophia Kouidou-Giles’ generous and nuanced take on what we discussed starts like this:

What challenges do authors that work in a second language, English being primary, face in the creative process? Panelists crossed linguistic and geographical borders, and transitioned into English from Lithuanian, Spanish, Cuban, Yiddish, Serb Croatian, and Greek. They discussed their experience in a rich, personal way, from the perspective of acquiring a second language (Julija Sukys,) or using an ancestral language (Ruth Behar, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, Jennifer Zoble, and Joanna Eleftheriou.) Continue reading…

The highlight of the thinking/listening part of the conference for me was a panel called “Everyday Oddities: Natural Fact and the Lyric Essay.” Panelists included: Colin Rafferty, Chelsea Biondolillo, Brian Oliu, Christopher Cokinos, Joni Tevis. You can read about it on Assay.

[Photo: J. Maughn]

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It’s Edna Staebler Time Again…Submit!

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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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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

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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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