April 22, 2014 § Leave a comment
Our friend Dan Lehman at River Teeth offers a comprehensive, nuanced, and honest look at how editors make their decisions, with helpful detail on River Teeth‘s active and intuitive process. Here is an excerpt, followed by a link to the whole article:
Fifteen years into this journey, an important thing readers should know about River Teeth is that its two editors once worked at magazines and newspapers where we shaped content and nurtured writers. Hence our love for factual writing that soars in interesting ways. Beyond that, we love clustering great essays and literary reporting into the soul and rhythm of each issue … At heart we always ask two questions: Is this the sort of piece I would want to call the other editor in the middle of the night to say we have to have? And would we die if we saw this piece in someone else’s journal and knew we could have had it for ourselves? Those are the criteria, nothing else really. As we wrote a few issues ago, we will publish the work of friends and acquaintances (even ourselves) if it meets those standards. Only then. That’s all. That our two Best American essays come from writers with close ties makes our case. Both were among the best dozen or so essays in this or any other year; it would have killed us to see them win those prizes for someone else. And we confessed that fact in writing before the prizes were won.
We know all this sounds more than a little intuitive, even presumptuous, and quite a bit less than arm’s length. That’s the nature of love, we guess.
April 21, 2014 § 22 Comments
A guest post from author Jon Magidsohn:
I don’t like this trend. With the countless available web-journals, online newspapers and e-rags, there is ample opportunity for writers to have articles published. Yet more frequently what I’m seeing amounts to little more than glossy top-ten lists.
Here are examples from five different websites that all ran on one day:
- 10 things you should never say to a woman
- 5 myths about introverts and extroverts at work
- 7 floor lamps you didn’t think you needed
- 10 unique uses for vanilla
- 30 ways to make yourself miserable.
These essays come across as (A) checklists of things we should know, (B) inventories of things other people know, or (C) something we don’t want to know but because it’s been translated into a simple, comprehensive list we’ll scan through it anyway.
So after careful consideration, here are ten reasons why making a list is not writing:
- It provides an escape outlet. If anyone challenges, derides or disagrees with the list, the author can simply blame the topic rather than the composition. It’s just a list after all. It’s practically irrefutable.
- It appeases editors. It’s printable. I get that. Editors love running pieces that are graspable and have widespread appeal. These days an article is even more attractive if it guarantees comments and shares. But that doesn’t necessarily make it good writing or, for that matter, worth reading. In fact, if you have any sense at all you’ll stop reading this right now.
- It’s too easy. Writing, by its very nature, is supposed to be difficult. An author must work in isolation, fraught with doubt about every word, wringing blood from each sentence like a victorious gladiator. A list often seems like a first draft; an agenda with items ticked off.
- It discourages the reader from actually reading. It’s as simple as glancing at the NHL standings on the sports page. Readers just want to scan down to the end of the list to see if what they thought should be on the list is actually on the list.
- It’s catering to the video generation. Not that there’s anything wrong with people who grew up in arcades and rushed home to watch MTV. I’m sure they can all read books and stuff. But now that Pac Man has evolved into Call of Duty and Madonna into Miley, it may be safe to say our once vast spans of attention have been significantly depleted. We crave rapid-fire information. Newscasts have banners scrolling across the bottom of the screen with a different news story than the one being discussed. And the weather. And stocks. And the latest on A-Rod. When watching your favourite sitcom you are constantly being reminded about what’s coming up next. Patience and one-thing-at-a-time are now as archaic as the horseless carriage or spats or the Slinky.
- It’s a quick fix. Nobody seems willing, or has the tolerance, to spend time reading or writing stories with full paragraphs and some kind of narrative. If we can’t get the gist of what the author is saying in ten bullet points, then it’s probably not worth our time.
- It’s cheating. For non-fiction essays, it’s a great excuse to avoid unnecessary introspection or evidence of painstaking investigation. You might not even need to write complete sentences. As a bonus, when you’re piling up the word count, you need only make a few more additions to the list with variations on the theme. You might gain two or three hundred more words and six bullet points out of it.
- It’s lazy. It’s repeating the same things using different words. It’s saying things over and over again with a slight alteration each time. Synonyms are wonderful things. Believe me, I know. I’m lazy. Simply by admitting I’m lazy I’ve managed to add more words to this point about being lazy and extended this exciting essay about how easy it is to write things that everyone will want to read without actually saying anything original or clever.
- It’s boring. And overdone. And as a media trend it’s likely to run its course and eventually give way to something else like point-form notation or charades or Esperanto.
- It’s a nice round number. Reason enough to make a list. Any list worth its salt would be happy to have ten points. How can you have a ten point list with only nine points? That would be silly.
Jon Magidsohn is originally from Toronto, Canada. He’s written about fatherhood for dadzclub.com, the Good Men Project, Today’s Parent and Mummy and Me magazines. He’s also been featured on Chicago Literati, Mojave River Review, Full Grown People, What’s Your Story?-Memoir Anthology (Lifetales) and currently publishes three blogs. He’s been an actor, singer, waiter, upholsterer, sales representative, handyman and writer. He and his family are now in Bangalore, India, where Jon writes full time. www.jonmagidsohn.com
April 17, 2014 § 3 Comments
A guest post from Alexis Paige:
As a teenager when I thought “writer,” I imagined berets, rooms wispy with smoke, lithe fingers craned over typewriters, and international intrigue. Someone might have told me then that I was mixing up writer with spy. Someone might have told me it would never again be Paris in the 1920s. That it was 1991 in America and women wore absurd shoulder pads (like lipsticked linebackers), Bel Biv Devoe had not one, but two, hit songs on the radio, and every time I flipped on the news a fem-bot was talking about Clarence Thomas and pubic hair. My stand-out success as a writer had been a paper on Jane Eyre that my AP Women’s Studies teacher mimeographed and passed around to the class, and which I wrote the night before it was due. Under extreme duress.
Surely I had an undiagnosed mental disorder, for I could not simply sit down with one clean sheet of paper and write out a tidy, alpha-numeric outline and then follow said outline as I typed merrily for a reasonable window of time and during which I did not chew pens or sit in various weird bird postures in my chair. As I began the paper (if began is the right word for spending an hour choosing which notebook or journal to write it in, and another looking up mental disorders in the encyclopedia), I tore out sheet after sheet of the same bumbling intro paragraph. The discarded sheets littered the floor around my chair, next to an exploded pen, a thesaurus, and class notes that were written in two separate notebooks and in the margins of various vocabulary handouts. Perhaps I kept my feet up in the chair because the mounting paperwork felt like circling sharks, the floor like dangerous waters.
I radiated pride (and fake humbleness) as the teacher handed out my star paper, throughout which I had parroted the prior week’s vocab words (ignominy, bildungsroman, Byronic hero), but other than this one glittering paper, I had no reason to believe I could be a writer. I resisted writing, for one. I was undisciplined, only got in the chair once the conditions became so dire that I was like a NORAD analyst pulling the overnight shift. Yes, I was a strong student and loved to read, but my research papers were hopelessly disorganized, my arguments muddied, and I had written only a few short stories, bad Mother’s Day “poetry,” and some clever mix-tape titles. The short stories all starred “Alex,” a bumbling, suburban white girl who jogged by one “Sean O’Henry’s” house incessantly, and who spent untold hours listening to Prince tracks while making prank phone calls from the mission control center of her best friend’s bedroom. At the time, I thought fiction meant changing people’s names but leaving the soundtrack intact.
Further, I was so averse to clutter and paperwork that instead of writing phone messages for the priest at the church where I worked afterschool (Our Lady of Teenaged Hormone Repression, I believe it was called), I just memorized the names and numbers of the callers. Even if I could find the pink tablet on which I was supposed to take the messages, beneath the Hoarders-esque piles, I wouldn’t have written them down and added to the mess. (Almost no one called anyway, except Father Tom from our sister parish across town, The Virgin Mary’s Cherry, or Sister Deirdre from CCD, the Catholic education program we just called Central City Dump.) Father Joe would poke his head in to the office, and I would say, “So and so called,” and he would nod through the dust motes and slouch away into the caverns of the rectory. And then I would call around to all the girlfriends I had left only hours earlier at the end-of-sixth-period bell, to bitch about the clutter and speculate on the movements of one Sean O’Henry. Years later when I worked at a law office (as a FILE CLERK), the records room gave me the vapors, with its groaning cabinets and files like disembowelment wounds. Ghastly.
The point is somewhere in my heady staggering toward becoming a writer, I overlooked a central necessity: paperwork. Literal reams. Triplicate backups of printer cartridges. Piles of papers stacked all over your apartment that, despite how neatly arranged, yip and swipe at your attention constantly. Sticky notes written in semi-conscious cursive unintelligible the morning after. Stacks of books: the I-can’t-believe-you-never-read-X-stack; the stack to understand the how-can-you-never-have-read-X stack; the hopeless-bourgeois-climber stack; the stack to escape from the seriously-you’ve-never-read-X-and-call-yourself-an-intellectual stack; and finally, the books on your bedside table, the your-mother-doesn’t-even-love-you-lullabies-for-self-esteem stack.
So it probably shouldn’t have surprised me when the wheels fell off of my already tenuous sanity last week as I found myself searching for notes on a scene that I had written, oh some time fall? winter?, and which suddenly seemed urgent. This was the scene that was going to crack open my book. This was the Kafka ice axe scene, which had emerged brilliant and fully formed one morning while I inhaled a muffin and prepped for teaching an 8 AM composition class. Naturally, I marked its arrival on a sticky note and stuffed it in the back of whatever book I happened to be reading in fall? winter? The sticky/ scrap note situation in my life is dire, and don’t even get me started on the dust motes.
But even worse is the situation on my laptop, with its too-many and probably-redundant files of essays, memoir, and what-have-you. (It’s an emerging genre, okay? It’s an offshoot of flash transcription, okay?!) There are no fewer than I-have-no-fucking-idea-but-prolly-at-least-a-dozen drafts of my memoir-in-progress saved on my desktop and on various thumb drives, all with increasingly hysterical names:
and, finally, 2014KILLYOURSELF.doc.
So how can a writer manage all the minutiae and paperwork?
The hell if I know.
I wish I had some practical advice that would change your writing life—the 12 habits of highly productive people, the writerly equivalent of the perfect t-shirt fold, some filing system, a clever mnemonic. But I still have my oak tag journals from second grade. I still have every school notebook, every diary, every boozy journal I ever wrote in—all stuffed in one grandmotherly valise, which I only call a valise because everything sounds better in French. And for drafting I use what can only be called the Hot Mess Method.
My best advice?
Accept the hot mess, make tidy stacks once in a while, chew as many pens as you need to, write anyway.
Alexis Paige’s work has appeared in Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, Ragazine, 14 Hills, and on Brevity’s blog. Winner of the 2014 New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Prize, she also received a recent Pushcart Prize nomination and a feature on Freshly Pressed by WordPress. Twice named a top-ten finalist of Glamour Magazine’s essay contest, Paige holds an MA in poetry from San Francisco State University and is pursuing an MFA in nonfiction from the Stonecoast creative writing program
April 16, 2014 § 5 Comments
Our managing editor, Sarah Einstein, sits down with fellow graduate student Kelly Sundberg to discuss her essay “It Will Look Like a Sunset,” which appeared in the April 1st edition of Guernica Online. “It Will Look Like a Sunset” is a lovely, very intimate portrait of Sundberg’s marriage to an abusive man and the mixture of love and fear that made up her experience:
Sarah: The essay has gotten quite a response, particularly on MetaFilter, where it’s currently ranked the second most popular post of the week and has nearly 200 comments. Many of these responses are from women sharing their own stories. Can you talk a little bit about how this essay and your blog Apology Not Accepted, which also talks about surviving an abusive marriage, have impacted how you feel about both your experience and also about what it means to write publicly about that experience?
I started writing publicly as a response to what I felt was a lack of accessible stories like mine. A few months after I left my ex-husband, I was running on a treadmill, and a pop song came on with the line “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.” I remember feeling a terrible sadness when I realized that I was not stronger. The platitude hadn’t worked out the way it was supposed to for me. I had compulsively searched the internet for stories about domestic violence, but much of it wasn’t recognizable to me. The authors weren’t grappling in the way that I was grappling. They weren’t angry in the way that I was angry. They weren’t grieving in the way that I was grieving. Most of the stories I read were redemptive narratives, and they glossed over what happens when someone leaves an abuser. The journey doesn’t end the day the victim leaves; it only begins. In many ways, my life grew harder in the wake of leaving the relationship. I wanted to try to write an honest account of what I was struggling with because I suspected that I wasn’t the only one. I wrote the first draft of “It Will Look Like a Sunset” while sitting in my bed after my son had gone to sleep. I wrote it in one sitting, and I was crying the entire time, but after I finished it, I slept through the night for the first time in months. I felt unbound, as though I was no longer required to keep his secrets. I was empowered after years of powerlessness. In response to my writing, many people have called me brave, but I don’t feel brave. These words were trapped inside of me, and they needed to be let out.
I wrote the blog in much the same way. The blog was a reaction to the failure of the legal system to protect me or get justice on my behalf. When his court case was egregiously mishandled (over a year after he had been arrested), I had to struggle with the same feelings of powerlessness that the abuse had caused. I learned first-hand that, when it comes to domestic violence, the problems in our legal system are endemic because the people within the system are so disillusioned that they often stop trying to help the victims. I was struggling with feelings of powerlessness and anger, and I decided to put a voice to those feelings in a public forum. I didn’t know if anyone would read the blog, but I wanted to assert my agency in that way. It turns out there was a hungry audience for this subject matter. Thousands of people have read the blog.
Sarah: I think every memoirist struggles with what to share and what to hide. It must have been a difficult decision to publish this piece and to begin speaking publicly about abuse on your blog, particularly because you still co-parent with your ex-husband. Can you talk a little bit about that decision-making process and about where you draw support for it and, perhaps, where you have encountered resistance to it?
Yes, that has been the hardest part, not because I think I’m doing anything wrong, but because people are very judgmental about mothers, and so, if they are going to choose to condemn a woman, attacking her parenting is an easy target. I think it’s important for people to realize that my son was there. He was the first witness to his father’s violence. He knows what happened. When we moved out, he told me that his predominant memory of us as a family was of “Daddy yelling, and Mommy crying.” He was seven years old and has a memory like a steel trap. There is nothing I can do to protect him from that reality. What I can do is empower myself and empower other women to show him that abuse is never okay. I am fortunate to have many cheerleaders in my life who have encouraged me to keep writing, to keep stripping away the shame of toxic family secrets, and to move on with a life of honesty. I have strong friendships, and I have a writing group on Facebook with some of my best friends from my MFA program (including you, Sarah!) We call ourselves the Dance Fight Writing Group, and the members of that group are always my first and safest readers for any piece. They know how to give me honest feedback without ever criticizing my personal life or decisions.
Sarah: One of the things that struck me, and many readers, about the piece is that it remains clear throughout that you loved your husband and many of the descriptions of your time together could still fairly be called loving. That complexity is so difficult for writers to manage, and you’ve done it so well, that I was wondering if you could talk for a minute about the craft issues involved in creating that kind of balanced tension?
The common mantra in nonfiction is that writing shouldn’t be therapeutic; the therapy needs to come first. I think that’s generally true, but when I started writing this essay, I hadn’t worked through my issues yet. Nonetheless, I felt compelled to write the essay. I asked a friend, a poet, if he thought I should wait to write about the abuse, and he pointed out to me that I might not want to revisit those feelings later. He was right. I’m glad I started this essay when I still felt disoriented by the abuse because if I wrote this essay now, it would be very different. I don’t love my ex-husband anymore, and I don’t have as much sympathy for him—it would be difficult for me now to render the loving scenes so lovingly—so the first issue in crafting the essay was timing.
The next thing that I knew I needed to do was to segment it. The essay needed a balance of loving affection and brutality. I wanted to portray the see-saw of love/violence that is symptomatic of abusive relationships, as well as the dissociation that accompanies domestic violence. I was existing in two very different realities, and I had convinced myself that only one of those realities was authentic. A fragmented structure was the only possible way for me to write the essay.
The essay went through multiple revisions. My writing group read it, then Dinty W. Moore gave me feedback and encouraged me to add the final scenes from Idaho, and finally, Katherine Dykstra, the nonfiction editor from Guernica, took me through a heavy editing process. The original essay had some more lyrical components that didn’t fit into the revision. They were some of my favorite lines, and I miss them, but they didn’t fit within the context of the new draft. Once the lyrical components, which had been the connective tissue were gone, we actually had to cut and paste the crots in order to re-achieve that balance. It was a big task, and I’m grateful for Katie’s sharp eye and dedication to the final product.
Sarah: I know your current project is a book of linked essays entitled Demolition, and that many of the essays in it cover events during your marriage, but that the abuse is not an overt theme of the work. Could you tell us a little bit about that project, and about how you feel your public revelations about your marriage might impact the revision process, if at all?
I wrote Demolition in the three years during my MFA. When I started the book, the abuse was infrequent, and when I finished the book, the abuse was escalating, so I hadn’t even acknowledged to myself that I was being abused. Still, the essays are dominated by latent themes of violence. The title essay is an essay about a Demolition Derby that parallels the destruction going on in the arena to the destruction going on in the interpersonal relationships in the stands. The book itself is modeled after a demolition derby with three sections: The Herby Derby: Small and Volatile, The Powder Puff: Contained Violence, and The Championship Round: Everyone Wins/Everyone Loses. There is a babysitting essay with a thread where a girl role plays with her Barbie’s to show her father punching her mother. Threads of violence, like those ones, extend throughout the entire manuscript.
Even though there are no public revelations about abuse in the book, it is very much a book about loss of innocence, and so I don’t have any plans to revise it to make the abuse more explicit or acknowledged, because at the time, I didn’t think of it as abuse. If anything, I would think of my book Demolition as a perfect example of the tension-building stage in the cycle of violence. Ideally, the book will work in tandem with the project I’ve just undertaken about surviving abuse. I think they can complement each other and give a deeper, richer understanding of the experience of gender violence.
April 15, 2014 § Leave a comment
Quotidiana connoisseur Patrick Madden guest blogs on his (almost) tour of Montaigne’s Tower:
The first goal on the Madden Family European Road Trip Vacation (after my semester directing a study abroad program in Madrid) was my own pilgrimage to Montaigne’s tower in the Perigord region east of Bordeaux. We arrived after a long day in the car and were surprised to find a chain blocking the entrance. Turns out the site was closed not just on Mondays, as David Lazar had warned me, but on Tuesdays as well. After a few minutes of pleading in fake French, I got to speak to the gardener, who spoke English, and who graciously led us on a tour of the grounds, including some wild- and tame-life encounters (birds, lizards, a snake, and several donkeys). I told him how I was a disciple of Montaigne, wrote my own essays, was editing a book paying homage to the master essayist. He said he wasn’t much for reading Montaigne, but he sure liked caring for the plant life around his place. Laurent’s patience and kindness were extraordinary, and as my family turned finally to leave, he gave me, a lifelong teetotaler, a bottle of Chateau Michel de Montaigne wine (2001 vintage). In all, it was an utterly pleasant afternoon, despite my getting so close but failing to visit the tower.
The way I figure, I can take this thwarted pilgrimage two ways. I can be disappointed, upset, what have you, or I can do like an essayist and use what really happened to my benefit. Like Alexander Smith said of Montaigne:
Each event of his past life he considers a fact of nature; creditable or the reverse, there it is; sometimes to be speculated upon, not in the least to be regretted. If it is worth nothing else, it may be made the subject of an essay
Or as Paul says (in my paraphrased appropriation):
All things work to the good of them that love the essay.
When I set out, I had hoped to see with my own eyes the inscriptions in the beams of Montaigne’s library. Sure. But had I joined a regular tour, I’d never have met Laurent. I’d have been processed through the attraction like so many glassy-eyed high-school kids. I’d have paused and examined, yes, and I’d have taken some pictures, but I did those things anyway, from outside the walls, and one of the things I considered is this:
That there’s something appropriate about being stymied in an essayistic quest, because essays were never about completing things; they distrust the very notion of tidy endings. Much better, it seems to me now, that I missed the dusty tower and instead strolled the grounds with the gardener, who, like the Great Dead Man he and I serve, contains within him the entire human condition.
And, as my friend Brent Rowland pointed out, with my Rush T-shirt on, “this is the most Pat Madden of all Pat Madden photos ever taken.” When I go back in a few decades, trying to make it in the tower, I’ll be sure to carry a volleyball for the picture, so I can out-Pat-Madden even this one.
April 14, 2014 § 1 Comment
Creative Nonfiction magazine’s marketing associate Jennifer Stewart guest blogs on the merits of smaller, more intimate, more accessible conferences, now that the annual AWP Extravaganza packs in upwards of 13,000 writers. (Jennifer makes a more specific pitch for CNF’s own smaller conference, just a little over a month from now, on the CNF website, in an article entitled “Ten Reasons Why You Should Attend CNF’s Writers’ Conference.”)
You have bills to pay. You have a job demanding your attention. You have writing, of course, and never enough time to do it. Bottom line – why should you spend good money to travel somewhere else to listen to other people talk about writing?
Despite the financial cost and the travel time, going to conferences is a vital part of being a writer. This probably isn’t new information to you, so we won’t even need to mention the usual things people say about conferences, the networking and the panels and the (occasional) open bars and the stories resulting from that open bar that you will wittily deliver to friends back home. And while you can get plenty of those experiences at a big conference like the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, which can be a delightful (if somewhat overwhelming) experience, there are myriad other writing conferences around the country, many of which can offer a more intimate and focused experience.
I would also argue that you can get more out of a smaller conference, which provides more intimacy and more face time with attendees and presenters. Likewise, smaller conferences, because of the intimacy they breed, invite more honesty, more guard-down talk about publishing, and what’s really going on. It’s a rapidly changing environment and the role of the author in the process is expanding. Smaller conferences are a good way to get a feel for this fluidity, and perhaps some inspiration for how you can make this dynamic work for you.
Some of these smaller conferences can be considered half conference, half writing retreat; some focus on what’s trending in publishing. The best ones, perhaps, offer a little something of everything. Here are four good reasons to invest in a conference this year:
- Inspiration — Because conferences take us out of our daily lives and plunk us down in unfamiliar territory, they can be energizing, even if (sometimes perhaps especially if) you have a disagreement with a presenter, writer, or speaker. This is energy you can translate to the page. Some conferences even help people along by offering workshops, boot camps, or individual writing sessions. These sessions force you to get words out, because, well, people are watching. Writer’s block disappears when you realize you might be THAT writer, the one who couldn’t start the assignment. Which leads us to the next point:
- Accountability — If you go to even a few conferences, you’ll realize that this writing world, this literary world … it’s small. That brunette you talked to at AWP last year, whose name you couldn’t remember even if a firing squad was involved? You’re going to run into her again. And when you do, you want to be able to say, “Yes! I’ve written the essay I told you I was working on.” So just in case she’s at the conference, you’ll draft that essay, so help you, you will.
- Camaraderie — Social media is great; of course it is. And who could live without email? But electronics can’t compete with face-to-face interaction. Suppose that brunette tells you about submitting to this new trendy literary magazine she found out about on Twitter. They rejected her. You tell her about how you submitted to a different trendy new literary magazine and your work was also rejected. Maybe you go on to tell each other about a contest or a call for work and eventually you both get published and it would never have happened if not for (insert conference name here). This sounds like networking, but really, that’s just a fancy way of saying, “make friends who work in your industry.” It happens quite naturally at a conference. And this can, perhaps, be most helpful in the agent arena.
- Access — You can, of course, meet agents at bigger conferences, but at a smaller conference you often get more face time with them, and you can even arrange this in advance. Some conferences offer manuscript critiques with agents and editors, which means they read your work before they ever see you. You are automatically off the slush pile, and you are likely to get a more thoughtful and detailed response, even if it’s still a rejection. In other words, smaller conferences offer meetings with agents that have the potential to speed up the publishing process.
We should stop thinking of attending a conference as a luxury, or as penance for being a writer. Writing conferences do good. They can be fun. And perhaps most importantly, they help writers be writers. And we need all the help we can get.
Jennifer Stewart is the founder and director of Burlesque Press, which hosts the annual Hands On Literary Festival and Masquerade Ball in New Orleans, and publishes The Burlesque Press Variety Show. Jennifer was also the winner of the 2010 Faulkner Wisdom prize for Novel in Progress for her novel Wanton Women.
April 10, 2014 § Leave a comment
It is The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre Week here on the Brevity blog. Earlier this week we posted an interview with one of the anthology’s editors, Sean Prentiss, and an excerpted chapter of the book from John Rovner. Today, in our final installment, a follow-up interview with Sean’s co-editor Joe Wilkins, conducted by Steve Coughlin.
JW: A craft book is by adjectival definition a book that explores a particular craft. We’re lucky in the creative writing world in that our craft is the very medium of which most books get built, so our craft books—I’m thinking here of some of my favorites: The Writing Life, The Situation and the Story, Burning Down the House—both explain and model; we get to hear about and hear how we might craft a deeper, more powerful piece of writing. All this is to say, I don’t think there are many limitations on creative writing craft books. The books I mentioned above contain chapters and sections that read like personal narratives or lyric investigations and chapters and sections that much more explicitly outline how to (or how not to) go about the craft of writing. With The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre, we’ve tried to honor that tradition by gathering essays that are coming at craft from all different directions. Some, like Kim Barnes’s “The Art and Absence of Reflection in Nonfiction: What is the Why?,” are more proscriptive. Others, like Lia Purpura’s “Advice” and “On Writing ‘Advice’,” dodge and feint, attempting to spin the reader’s usual notions of craft around.
I am fascinated by the technique in nonfiction of the composite character. At what point does the combining of characters and the framing of narrative push an essay into the genre of fiction?
JW: For me, it all depends on the story. Does the frame fit the story? Does it allow the story to truly become itself? The same kinds of questions apply, I think, for composite characters or time compression or many of the other “controversial” techniques in creative nonfiction. Ander Monson, Bob Shacochis, Nancer Ballard, H. Lee Barnes, Erik Reece, and other writers included in The Far Edges speak not exactly to but through these questions, helping us as writers fixate not on the controversy but on the fundamental reasons—from nonfiction as translation to nonfiction as a unique space of literary witness—we might choose to write true stories the way we do.
As nonfiction continues to experience more innovation, do you have any concerns or reservations of form taking precedent over content?
JW: I don’t mean to be glib, but I’ll just say, nope. Think about a sonnet or an epistolary novel: the form doesn’t take precedence over or constrict—it allows. Though as creative nonfiction writers we do have the obligation to toe the line of truth as best we can (though I’d argue that obligation, too, is a kind of form that allows rather than constricts), I think the vast and varied forms we’re seeing in contemporary memoirs and essays are fascinating and exciting—and, very often, true.
JW: Okay, this is my assignment answer: go read Robin Hemley’s “Lines That Create Motion,” Sean Prentiss’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Nonfiction Mind: A New Philosophy for Understanding Truth and Creative Nonfiction,” and Judith Kitchen’s “Gone A-Sailing: A Voyage to the Edge of Nonfiction (in which I Follow My Own Exercise for Writing about a Photograph),” all of which are included in The Far Edges, and report back to me.
What excites you most about the future of nonfiction?
JW: Last semester, in my literary nonfiction class, one of my students wrote a smart, challenging, heartbreaking essay partially built around standardized test questions she’d invented. My student is of Native Hawaiian and white ancestry, and with her essay she really got a hold of so many powerful questions: Who am I? Who are my people? Where do I belong? That essay excited me, as did so many others I read in that class, as have many of the memoirs and essays I’ve read in the past year. Nonfiction is simply at an exciting moment in its history. All kinds of powerful stories are being told in all kinds of striking ways.
Joe Wilkins is the author of a memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing up on the Big Dry, winner of the 2014 GLCA New Writers Award and a finalist for the 2013 Orion Book Award, and two collections of poems, Notes from the Journey Westward and Killing the Murnion Dogs. He lives with his his wife, son, and daughter in western Oregon, where he teaches writing at Linfield College.
Steve Coughlin‘s poems, essays, and stories have appeared in the Gettysburg Review, New Ohio Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, Pleiades, Seneca Review, and Slate.com. He has never won a Pushcart Prize.