July 31, 2014 § Leave a comment
In April 2013, Nichole Bernier’s novel The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D told the story of two women, one revealed entirely through her journals, found after her death. A reader asked her, with the current popularity of blogs, weren’t journals a bit dated?
In Writer’s Digest, Bernier responded:
Certainly blogs have become enormously popular: personal and professional blogs, hobbyist blogs, blogs about illness, health and parenting. But have they taken the place of writing people used to keep for themselves privately? In this age of everyone trying to have their platform, are blogs to journals what banks are to money that used to be hidden in mattresses?
In a thought-provoking article, she discusses blogs, journals, first-person essays and the public and private faces of self-expression.
July 30, 2014 § Leave a comment
An interview with a contemporary creative nonfiction pioneer and Brevity contributor, Judith Ortiz Cofer. Full link after this brief excerpt:
I began writing creative nonfiction before the term existed. In my first autobiographical collection of essays and poems, Silent Dancing, I gave myself permission to do what Virginia Woolf recommended to writers of nonfiction: follow the tracks of memory to one’s “moments of being.” I have been following my tracks ever since I discovered how satisfying it is to delve into this malleable genre. The creative nonfiction essay can take almost any form: you can weave it, braid it, make it into a collage. For me it is a vehicle for exploration, not only of myself, but of any subject that interests me.
July 29, 2014 § 9 Comments
By Allison K Williams
I am still married. My friend is still my friend. My lover is still my lover, and then he is not. Scroll up, and we are paying bills, or shopping, or sneaking around. Scroll down, we are fighting, or consoling each other on unhappy affairs, or breaking up over another woman. Zoom out, past the glow of the screen and my fingers on the keyboard, and all of it’s gone. I am in another life.
Now, I sort out themes and carefully choose incidents for a better sense of tension—tension! My God, there was tension!—my temporal continuity notes in all-caps, places to fill in more details highlighted yellow, the color of cowardice. I stall on a section for days, I don’t want to go there. I write forward instead, discover what should be in the past, what is missing from the path, and put it there. Cut-and-paste, so much easier than living it, so much scarier to revisit in words that route that thrilled me when I didn’t know what lay ahead.
Memoir is a rare country. Making the map of personal experience, writing the guide that says, This was five stars and everyone should do it. Don’t waste your time on that, is not unlike rappelling. The more control you have, the less compelling it becomes. The straight guidebook, detached, evaluative, arranged by area or chronology, is a dry thing (I snorted once, “‘Enjoy Chowpatty’s sights but don’t eat the vendors’ food?’ What is this, Fodor’s Travel For Scared Old White People?”). And yet the writer must never lose the rope entirely—the ramblings of a diary are indecipherable, plotless, sans perspective. Only your little sister wants to break the lock and see.
The middle trail is perilous. Step here, where you cannot see the path. Let go of the safety tether. Pack thoroughly, by all means, but remember that the beginning of the Appalachian Trail is scattered with cast-iron frying pans, winter-weight parkas, packets of extra food. Too heavy. Unneeded on the journey—until crisis, when the memory of your preparations must buoy you through the tangle of knowing not just how you felt, but what happened.
You must grudge to write memoir. If things had turned out exactly right, as your due, there would be no story to tell. You must know that you grudge, and that here, unlike your diary, you are probably not a hero (If you are a hero, let someone else write you). You earn the right to write the pettiness, the silliness, the nasty selfishness of others, as you write your own.
My ex-lover calls, out of the blue. I do not want to talk to him. But as the end of the draft approaches, I know, I have to say what was good about you.
Allison K Williams is Social Media Editor of Brevity. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. She is also a freelance editor. She tweets @GuerillaMemoir.
July 28, 2014 § 1 Comment
Selections from the New Yorker’s archives are free this summer, which got me into an obsessive bout of clicking and downloading. I’d recently seen a compendium of good lists of what to read, and then as I read through, I realized the lists’ personal essay and memoir selections were a bit sparse. So here are some good ones I found… heavy on the McPhee, of course, and only back until 2007.
July 28, 2014 § 5 Comments
I started listening to podcasts because I was commuting from Kalamazoo, Michigan to Waynesville, Ohio every weekend. Five hours each way, and Beyoncé’s a boss but there’s only so many times in a row I can belt out Single Ladies before my passengers start to complain (twice). Enter This American Life, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, and the
skull-pounding nightmare delightful folksiness of Prairie Home Companion.
As I’ve become a radio storyteller and producer, I’ve started listening to podcasts more carefully. Radio producers thrive on making a signature sound for their own shows, a unique style that’s the equivalent of “voice” in written work. If you’re looking for inspirational approaches to structure, viewpoint and story, check out these listens. The links below take you right to the episodes, or click on the podcast title to get to their homepage, where you can subscribe in the audio service of your choice.
If you’re writing hybrid or braided essays:
Radiolab mixes anecdote, conjecture, expert testimony, historical fact and contemporary experiments to tell the stories behind science. Their narrative style is a great example of mixed genres coming together to tell a single story.
Episodes to start with: Rodney vs Death, Colors, and Are You Sure? (This one is a three-story episode. Be aware that the third story–which is one of the most incredible stories I’ve ever heard–is not kid- or work-safe)
If you’re having trouble plotting, or want to amp up your humor:
Snap Judgment has a young, quirky feel, and weaves sound design into storytelling that’s often live. They’re a great listen for sequential stories with surprising endings. If you’re trying to nail down an “…and I learned that…” ending without sounding trite, Snap’s stories can help. If you’re trying to up your humor, they’re often very funny, too.
If you can’t figure out whether an incident is a story, or are struggling with finding dramatic movement in a reflective essay:
Third Coast International Audio Festival has its own podcast series, but something that’s served me well is the recordings of workshops and panels at their biannual convention. In particular, check out the “Pitch Perfect” and “Pitch Panel” sessions. After listening to several in a row, I was able to start distinguishing what was a story and what was a vignette or an observation even before the panel responded to the pitcher.
Start with: Pitch Perfect Session 2 from the 2012 Conference
If you’re approaching a difficult topic:
Love+Radio producer Nik Van der Kolk is a master of revealing a nonfiction story like a mystery. His use of low-fi sound and recordings that would be considered “flawed” by other shows is fascinating. Listen to the way information is slowly revealed to suck the listener right in before they shy away from the topic.
One to start with: Jack and Ellen (Most of Love+Radio is not kid- or work-safe. Again, incredible story, put in your earbuds or have grown-up passengers)
Happy listening–and if you’ve got a favorite podcast or episode, post a link in the comments–I’m always on the lookout for a good listen!
July 25, 2014 § 4 Comments
By Shuly Cawood, a blog post reprinted with her kind permission:
This morning, while trying to think of titles to my essay (and coming up with nothing but corny ones), I decided to lace up my running shoes and head out the door. That’s because I do some of my best “writing” when I am not writing at all. Often, ideas come when I am running or walking (or in the middle of a drive or standing in the produce section). I need to be startled into ideas: they come when I least expect them to, or when I start focusing on something else—say, not tripping over a stick. If I stare at the door, they do not knock. I have to look away, even go away, for them to whistle their way in.
Some tips on making this work for you:
- Always have a notebook and pen. I have a mini-notebook that can fit in my pocket, and a mini-pen, but I never take these running. I keep them in my purse, though, at all times.
- For walking, running, or sports in general, if you have a cell phone, use the recorder on it. Most phones have them. There are voice-to-text apps, but that is too fancy for me. I just use the basic recorder that came with my phone. I also use a note-taking app that allows me to type my ideas into a note.
- Try not listening to music when running/walking. This distracts me. Instead, I think about the writing issue, then let my mind wander and notice the maple tree leaves shifting in the breeze, and the sweep of clouds on indigo sky. This way, the writing issue percolates in the background.
So, full disclosure here: While running this morning, I did not in fact think of any new titles to my essay-with-no-name. I did get three miles of (slow) jogging in, but that’s not all. I did figure out what topics to research on a different essay I have been struggling to expand. Not what I expected, but that’s the whole point.