May 9, 2013 § 17 Comments
A guest post from Andrea Badgley:
If someone read a sentence like, “the shortstop threw the ball to first base,” parts of the brain dedicated to vision and movement would light up.
“The way that you understand an action is by recreating in your vision system what it would look like… and recreating in your motor system what it would be like to be that shortstop, to have the ball in your hand and release it,” Bergen says.
Your vision system and your motor system react to language. In other words, as Bergen explains, “When you encounter words describing a particular action, your brain simulates the experience.”
This is the key element that got me excited as a writer and a reader – that language creates a virtual reality. They didn’t go into it on the show, but presumably when your mind interprets words, it doesn’t just form images and motor reactions, but good writing may also trigger physiological responses, such as the release of adrenaline or endorphins. Like when Shirley Jackson terrifies me, makes my heart race, and triggers the fight (keep reading) or flight (hide the book behind others on the shelf) response with The Haunting of Hill House. Or when Natalie Goldberg does the opposite – relaxes my muscles, lowers my blood pressure, and cloaks me in calm – with her gentle language in Long Quiet Highway.
So what does this mean for creative nonfiction writers? These findings are the essence of the author’s adage, “Show don’t tell.” They explain why showing works and telling doesn’t. When we tell a story in the form of “this happened, and then this happened,” we’re not giving the reader much to work with.
Alice went to the window and got mad when she saw Tom had showed up.
What experience can the brain simulate from that? Not much. “Went” and “got mad” don’t trigger specific images that give the mind traction for launching a virtual reality. But if we use strong verbs, if we show Alice’s stride, if we describe her anger with a facial expression:
Alice strode to the window and scowled when the chauffeur opened the car door and Tom stepped out.
The reader’s brain has specific images to work with, like “strode” and “scowled,” that conjure not just visual cues, but emotional cues as well. The reader will likely experience a more vivid simulation with the second sentence. Maybe there will even be a reaction – a little fluttering in her heart as her mind braces for a confrontation.
From a big picture standpoint, these findings are thrilling because they show why good writing moves us, why we crave it, why we are driven to create and consume it. Language is not just for communicating, as bees communicate the location of a flower patch through the waggle dance. Human language is also for evoking feeling, for connecting us through common crises, for teaching us how others have lived. For suggesting significance beneath the surface of it all.
As the NPR piece explored, the brain can make sense of something that doesn’t exist – a flying pig, in their example – by extrapolating and inferring meaning through language cues. With creative writing, we are able to simulate experiences the reader has never had, or trigger ones that she has. If we write well, especially as creative nonfiction writers, we are able to create a virtual reality that links a 21st century executive with the struggles of a 19th century slave, or a modern 7-year-old with a pioneer prairie girl, or a gregarious extrovert with the inner workings of an introvert.
If we use language well, we make it possible to understand each other. We transmit an awareness. If the reader’s mind feels that femur splintering, she will have compassion.
If we write well in our creative nonfiction, we share the human experience. If we write well, we gift the gift of empathy.
Andrea Badgley holds a B.S. in Ecology, but left that field to raise children and write. Her work appears in the Southern Women’s Review, and has been honored with the Freshly Pressed blogging award by the editors at WordPress.com. She grew up on the coast of Georgia and now lives with her husband and two children in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia. She writes creative nonfiction on her blog at andreabadgley.com.
May 8, 2013 § 1 Comment
The thinking goes like this: short forms are worthy of a long weekend. Iota, the newest of the New England conferences, has a unique little focus: short writing. Iota celebrates and inspires an economy of words in a largesse of place. We’ve recruited Sven Birkerts (essays), Arielle Greenberg (poetry and hybrid forms), and Lewis Robinson (fiction) to spend four days working with participants on how to say more with fewer words. Write in the morning, then attend workshops and cross-genre discussions in the afternoon.
Iota takes place at the Roosevelt Campobello International Park, the former home of Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt. Campobello Island is just across the narrows from Lubec, Maine, the easternmost town in the United States. So while you’re exploring the boundaries between prose and verse, you can explore the line between these two communities as well.
And…yes….there will be lobster.
May 8, 2013 § 2 Comments
A guest review of Love & Salt: A Spiritual Friendship Shared in Letters, from Brad Modlin:
At the conclusion of grad school, Jessica Mesman Griffith and Amy Andrews took a risk: they decided to be friends. They “barely knew each other” but in the final days of school, recognized the beginnings of a powerful bond. Inspired by a promise between the Biblical figures Naomi and Ruth, the two vowed to grow closer together even as they moved geographically apart. So they wrote letters.
Love & Salt: A Spiritual Friendship Shared in Letters is the collection of those letters. Entirely epistolary, the book begins during Lent, when Amy is preparing to convert to Catholicism and Jess is sponsoring her from hours away. Rather than giving up chocolate, each woman commits to handwriting a letter a day to the other.
Hence the letters from the beginning are personal discussions of faith. What does it mean to be Catholic? Amy wonders. And Jess, Catholic from the cradle, wonders that too. Each woman is honest about both doubts and belief, and the reader soon draws the parallel between the risk of their friendship and the risk of committing to a God whom neither woman can ever fully know.
Such discussions could easily have become so insular or heavy that they dragged the memoir down, but the letter format creates 1) an intimacy that makes the reader an insider and 2) an immediacy that allows thoughts that are heavy and light to occur almost simultaneously. Today’s doubt or sadness is replaced by tomorrow’s levity.
That immediacy also helps to depict the texture of their faith lives. They make lofty plans, but the next day they fall short of them. Jess means to make grand 5:00 am prayers like a saint, but instead she—in an action that endears her to me—hits the snooze button until she’s running late to work. She writes:
I must face the fact that I’m not a nun but a wife and a working girl…[T]he real challenge is not to love and desire God when I’m prostrate in the dust but when I’m in an excruciatingly dull meeting on the tenth floor [at work], or when I’m eating dinner in a chain restaurant with my mother-in-law.
I expect to get from point A to point B and not have to look back [, but] the believer goes over the same ground again and again, the same cycle of the hours, the same cycle of the liturgical year, the same doubts, the same sins, the same reminders.
The circle image reflects the book as a whole—as together the two friends learn and relearn lessons and re-endure spiritual seasons, some of them tragic. While the 360 page-count may give some would-be readers pause, the cyclical nature of experience requires it. Besides, the pages are sprinkled with so many lyrical sentences and beautiful, succinct ideas that you’re glad for the book’s length.
If you’re like me, you’ll end up writing your own little letters in the margins of theirs and, every two or three pages, underlining a moment you want to come back to. Such as when Jess writes:
Today while procrastinating at work, I was reading the Gospel of John, and I got stuck on the verse “For God so loved the world…” This may be all I have in common with God, but I do so love this world—and I don’t just mean my family or the majesty of creation, but the Boston song that’s on the radio as I write this.
Brad Modlin’s poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction have appeared in Denver Quarterly, Indiana Review, The Florida Review, The Pinch, and River Teeth, among others. He holds an MFA from Bowling Green and is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at Ohio University
April 30, 2013 § 8 Comments
I write in defense of the ordinary life. Two common impulses in writing autobiographically—what happened to me is important; what happened matters because it happened to me—are problematic, since very few of us experience dramatic, statistically rare events during our lives, and yet all of us experience, well, something. When I begin an essay, or find my way into a subject autobiographically, the qualities of my experience or character don’t really matter in and of themselves. I try to recognize what in my unique experience might be, in the recollection of and in the telling, emblematic of something larger, something not exclusive, something recognizable. With each essay, I begin with something that matters to me. Then I begin to consider, How might this matter to you? By which I mean, How might it matter?
“We only store in memory images of value,” says Patricia Hampl. Some days I believe this. Here are two tableaux from my adolescence, one wide-view, one close-up. The first: when I was a kid my dad would slip me a dollar or so each Saturday and off I’d go on my allowance walk. I’d head up Amherst and cut through the apartments toward Wheaton Newsstand, where I’d happily withstand the crossfire between Topps baseball cards and Penthouse Forum, clear plastic wrapper versus brown paper, and, clutching my Cherry Smash soda, head toward Barbarian Bookstore across Georgia Avenue to peruse old paperbacks and men’s magazines in the musty aroma of oldness. After a stop at Wheaton Plaza, or Highs for a Slurpee, I’d wind back toward home, slowly, always wanting to put off my arrival, prizing, without knowing why, my aloneness.
The second: at the family dinner table one night, the usual cheerful din made by the eight of us, and in memory I jump-cut to my mom, her eyes wet, her face red, pushing away from the table and blurting out, “Maybe if I had a broken arm, you could see how much it hurt!” and dashing upstairs to her bedroom. We’d ignored her migraine headache, or made light of it, or something equally awful, until she was forced to make a highly uncharacteristic dramatic scene. Dismal silence and grief reigned at the table afterward.
Who cares? That these separate events from my childhood linger in me doesn’t make them subjects; it renders them private material, sentimentally stoked in the dark of my memory and imagination. To elevate them from common, trivial memory, I hope to discover (if I’m lucky) what about them might be representational. Wallace Stevens explored the contours of a metaphor, declaring that “An ordinary object slightly turned becomes a metaphor of that object.” What more ordinary an object is there than myself? It’s the charge of the autobiographical essayist to turn himself slightly, to alter his gaze so that it faces a direction other than inward, to merge with language and another’s self to produce something fresh, startling, and vividly human.
If, after Stevens, I turn myself slightly during my allowance walk, I’m the explorer, the wanderer, a boy crossing from childhood to adolescence (from Reggie Jackson to Marilyn Chambers) beginning an exile from innocence that’s repeated everywhere: a journey from the bright, unlimited sun of childhood to the dimmer, more complicated afternoons of adulthood. At the dinner table that night, after mom fled upstairs, what of that? I can see if I look again that the child in that moment is deepened by dimension: a solipsist, unhappy to learn that he was cruel, and at the same what it feels like to be ashamed. How intricate and surprising and complex it is to love.
Essayists like to quote this line of Vivian Gornick’s, and for good reason: “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.” Those quoting her often overlook Gornick’s next sentence: “For that, the imagination is required.” This isn’t the imagination that we associate with a fiction writer conjuring up invented experience; this is the imagination required to see actual experiences as threads in a larger fabric, experience that until it is shaped in language and reflection remains private, the equivalent of the scrapbook or Instagram photo that means so much to me, yet so little to you.
I once wrote about an incident when I was ten and stole a cheap plastic ring from a boardwalk store in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where my family was staying on vacation. Recently I read Gary Wills’s slim biography of St. Augustine and happened upon Wills’s account of a young Augustine stealing pears from an orchard. Both gestures—mine and the future Bishop of Hippo’s—were petty and inconsequential, boys’ malfeasances. Is it extraordinary or ordinary, the way two people separated by centuries, continents, and circumstances (not to mention less tangible characteristics) overlapped in a surprising, graphic way? Someone might accuse me of comparing myself to St. Augustine; theology will say that he becomes extraordinary, but in that moment he’s an ordinary teen. What I feel I’m doing is recognizing something emblematic in unrelated gestures of two wandering youths.
Perversely, the goal of an autobiographical essayist is both to dramatize the personal and to shed personality. I don’t mean that an essayist’s personality shouldn’t be present, far from it, but by the end of the essay the particulars of her personality—the moving parts that got the writer and the reader this far—should blur and morph into that abstract silhouette of the human, an outline into which the reader might fit, too.
Joe Bonomo’s new book is This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began, a collection of essays. His other books include AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (33 1/3 Series), Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found, Installations (National Poetry Series), Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band, and Conversations With Greil Marcus (edited). He teaches at Northern Illinois University, and appears online at No Such Thing As Was (www.nosuchthingaswas.com).
April 25, 2013 § 2 Comments
JW: What do you like about writing flash nonfiction? What do you think works better in flash nonfiction compared to what works in longer pieces?
Brenda Miller: I like the way flash nonfiction is so contained. I can feel myself settling in quite quickly and making myself at home, like a guest who’s treated as part of the family. There are no awkward niceties, no tours of the house; instead I bustle right in and throw down my things, put my feet up on the table, and start either laughing uproariously with my host or settling in for a deep talk. Do you know how it feels when you see an old friend you haven’t spoken to in years, but it feels like you take up where you left off without missing a beat? That’s how writing a flash piece feels to me. Because of this, a flash piece, for me, needs to emerge organically from a an unexpected image or be triggered by a line of poetry that rings in your ears. It can’t be thought out too hard (or at all) ahead of time. You need to just walk through the door. You need to welcome whatever you find there and greet it with all your attention, lean in for the kind of hug that happens between old friends. Not the brief embrace. Not the nice pat on the back. The heart-to-heart hug. A hug that hums.
JW: In one of the many pieces you’ve published in Brevity, “Swerve,” why did you choose to write that in the second person, and what do you think this does for the piece?
Brenda Miller: I can’t say that I “chose” to write “Swerve” in the second person, because the form demanded it. My writing buddies and I assigned each other to write an apology to someone or something in our past. So I started out writing it to an old boyfriend about something trivial, but it ended up in the end being an apology to that young self who put herself in danger. I couldn’t have thought through that transition ahead of time; it had to happen through the details that emerge through written remembrance.
JW: What is your favorite flash nonfiction piece that you have ever written?
Brenda Miller: That’s a tough one. I love them all. But “Swerve” is definitely up there because it does so much in a short amount of time. It also has that element of surprise for me as the writer, and I hope for the reader as well. It showed me something I hadn’t quite articulated before. And it validated for me the power of starting with the small detail–something I tell my students all the time, but a truth I need to continually enact for myself.
Brenda Miller is the author of Listening Against the Stone: Selected Essays (Skinner House Books 2011), Blessing of the Animals (Eastern Washington University Press 2009), and Season of the Body (Sarabande Books 2002). She co-authored, with poet Holly J. Hughes, The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World (Skinner House Books, 2012). She is also the co-author of Tell it Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, 2nd Edition (McGraw-Hill, 2012).
Justin Weller is an undergraduate English major at Ohio University.
April 24, 2013 § Leave a Comment
There is hardly a writer alive who hasn’t day-dreamed about being interviewed by the perceptive and insightful Terry Gross, reaching that uber-intelligent, thoughtful, discerning (and book-buying) Fresh Air audience. Well, watch out what you wish for, writer friends.
Check out this article over at The Rumpus, wherein Martha Bayne talks about the difficulty of talking, why it’s different from writing, and what it’s like to mess up a Fresh Air opportunity.
“It was a disaster. I was nervous, inarticulate, and defensive. I realized, around minute five, that there was a vast chasm between writing about something so very personal and talking about it with someone who I did not know and was, no matter how gentle, totally intimidating. After the fact I likened it to a really awkward, inappropriately intimate job interview. I did not sleep all night and when, the next day, the producer e-mailed to say that, yeah, that didn’t go so well and we’re not going to be able to use it, I felt nothing but a pure wash of relief.”
Read the whole essay at this link, and then turn off your phone, in case the Fresh Air producers decide to call.
April 23, 2013 § 14 Comments
A guest post from Jordan Wiklund:
Unless you’re writing about your dog in some way that’s significant, no one cares about your dog.
Really, they don’t.
This lesson was brought home to bear last week as I struggled to pare down a 2,800-word essay to something I could read in 10-12 minutes at a local Pank invasion of Minneapolis. Up late on Monday, on Tuesday, on Wednesday and Thursday, how the hell am I going to do this was the question I kept repeating as I trimmed a word here, a clause there, but not at the pace I needed. I was nowhere near an essay of manageable length for a brief, boozy reading. The only things I had managed to do was give myself a cold and deplete our stash of wine, whiskey, and Goldfish crackers.
Late on Thursday, though, I was close. I timed myself reading (as all responsible readers should do), and even blazing through it, still clocked in at 13.30, 14 minutes. No good.
I called my wife away from her own work. She was busy charting patients, tracking the health and healthcare of a dozen nameless people, something arguably much more important than, well, listening to her husband navigate through another hurried reading at the kitchen table.
“Take notes,” I said, “tell me what isn’t working.” Dear God let this work.
I read the piece. Rachel had already heard portions of it several times, but I asked her to lock in. As I read, eyes flitting to the timer beside me, she only made a few brief scribbles on a nearby notepad.
“It’s good,” she said, “and I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but…” She paused.
“You’re not going to hurt my feelings,” I said. No one knows this better than her.
“Does anybody really, I mean, I know he’s important to you, but does anybody really care about your dog?”
“I-DAMN-WELL-CARE-ABOUT-MY-DOG!” I shouted. An improbable April snowstorm whirled outside, and visions of Tundra, the old family Siberian, danced in my head.
Except I didn’t shout–I didn’t say that at all. She continued, explaining that though she knew and remembered my old husky, as I knew and remembered my old husky, the audience won’t know nor remember my old husky. They won’t know him, she said, so why is he in there? Can you get to the point of that husky-as-lead-in-clause without, well, the husky-as-lead-in?
“Yer darned tootin’,” I said. Cut.
“And the extended subway station description?” Cut.
“And why you’re good friends with Matt? I think they know enough about him.” Cut.
“And that whole paragraph about neighborly vengeance as a child? The turf wars between that 8-year-old neighbor and you and your brother?” Holy crap, cut that shit. Cut it all.
Sometimes the least likely audience is the most useful. Editing your work down to the sentences and ideas that move the narrative forward is a tricky business, but a necessary one. You don’t need to kill all your darlings, but most of them should probably go. Your readers won’t know them, and they certainly won’t miss them.
Everyone cares about the points you’re trying to make. Or they will, if you’ve done your job as a writer.
Everyone cares about a well-paced narrative, about explicit prose.
No one cares about puffery. No one cares about dancing with unnecessary detail, about the over-stimulated pageantry of storytelling, about the verbose, grandiose, perpetual tarantella of–
Right. I forgot to take the garbage out, and our kitchen is a mess.
No one cares about your dovetailing details. No one cares about your dog.
Jordan Wiklund is a writer and editor from St. Paul. His essays have been featured or are forthcoming from Pank, Fourth Genre, Versus, and elsewhere. Tweet him @JordanWiklund, or find him at the St. Paul Curling Club or Eagan wiffleball fields, depending on the season. Ask him about his dog.