Listening For The Truth

August 6, 2014 § 13 Comments

By Allison K Williams

Oliver Typewriter, known as the "Iron Butterfly" for the overhead strike motion of the type arms

Oliver Typewriter, known as the “Iron Butterfly” for the overhead strike motion of the type arms

In my head, real writers wake up, head to the typewriter, and happily pound away until their word count for the day is complete. Then, emotionally depleted but happy, they retire to the lounging sofa for the afternoon.

There’s something wrong with this picture. For starters, there’s a typewriter in it.

It’s also (based on every writer I know) completely inaccurate in every other way, too. A big lie that I’ve told myself.

Everyone sweats. Everyone slogs. Everyone feels alone and sad, and like they must not be a “real writer” because “real writers” have a different/superior/classic process.

I finished a memoir and got an agent and spent a month at loose ends. There was a lot of lounging sofa, but not a lot of word count.

I felt like a loser. Like I’d probably never write anything again. That was it, my last good idea, spent. And of course from there I shame-spiraled into the book will never sell the agent just felt sorry for me and now she and her interns spend Casual Fridays hoisting Oreo-tinis and reading out choice bits of my manuscript in funny voices. (Michelle, please don’t tell me if that’s true. Let an intern tell me.)

So I screwed up my courage and asked a writer I respect a lot, “What do you do after you’ve written a book?”

“Mooch around the internet, work in my garden, look out the window, and think about how I’ll never write anything else ever again.”

Oh.

It’s not just me.

Know what?

It’s not just you, either.

There is no magic process that “real writers” do. You are a “real writer” when you write. You are still a “real writer” when you’re not writing, when you’re sitting and listening for words to come. Maybe your listening is taking long walks, or watching cat videos, or reading wonderful books you admire or reading trashy books that entertain you. For me, listening is hanging out on the lounging sofa and imagining a little room. I wait in the room, and my ideas are people coming to me with problems. I listen until someone shows up with a problem I want to solve.

I listen for the truth to show up, so I can tell it.

(P.S. I own the Oliver Typewriter above, and I sometimes turn it to the wall when I imagine it’s silently judging.)
____________________________________
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.

Resurrecting the Murky Past

August 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

brokenphoto-1-212x300When Ann Churcher set out to write a memoir of her childhood in Malawi:

The first thing I discovered was how much, how very much, I’d forgotten. And how very much more I’d never known – things that I should have known – or understood. The problem was compounded by waiting to write it until both my parents were dead. There was no one to ask, ‘What kind of lavatory did we have in the bush?’ ‘Did we drink milk from African cows?’ ‘Did I never play with the local children?’ And if not, ‘Why not?’

I’ve had to rely on my scribbled notes, my disjointed ‘snapshot’ memories, old dog-eared black and white photographs and a great deal of research. Fortunately, I throw little away.

In a blog post at Women Writers Women’s Books, Ms. Churcher describes the process of painstakingly reconstructing her half-remembered life, and how she transformed her version of the truth into memoir.

Read the whole thing.

Throwback Thursday: Are Blogs the New Journals?

July 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

nichole-bernier-author-writerIn 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.

Read it here.

The Malleable Genre

July 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

silent-dancing-coferAn 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.

Read the full interview at the Prairie Schooner blog.

The Grudge: On the Journey of Writing Memoir

July 29, 2014 § 44 Comments

By Allison K Williams

climber
Words on the page.

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.

The NYer Archive, Redux

July 28, 2014 § 1 Comment

Make_a_ListMany thanks to Sonya Huber for assembling this excellent list:

Literary Picks from the New Yorker

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.

READ Sonya’s list here.

 

Listen Up!

July 28, 2014 § 6 Comments

RadioI 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.

Start with: The California Confederacy, Like a Virgin, and Seeking Asian Female

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!

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Teaching Resources category at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 10,206 other followers

%d bloggers like this: