Today’s Lesson: What’s Missing
August 22, 2016 § 8 Comments
Two recently released creative nonfiction anthologies, Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with the Writers (Excelsior Editions, 2016) and I’ll Tell You Mine: Thirty Years of Essays from the Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program (University of Chicago Press, 2015) offer a stunning array of contemporary creative nonfiction writing, and coincidentally both offer candid interviews with the writers about inspirations, challenges faced, and decisions to fully realize these works. Such frank conversations can lead to teachable moments in the classroom. In this two-part blog post, Jeanette Luise Eberhardy and Debbie Hagan not only examine these anthologies, but also lessons to be learned.
Part One By Jeanette Luise Eberhardy
When I teach creative nonfiction writing to art students, they are most interested in two skills: omission and perhapsing. The skill of omission, examined by John McPhee in an essay in the New Yorker (2015), asks the writer to carefully consider what details are excluded. Art students relate omission to their understanding of negative space—that space on the page that remains after a mark is made. They recognize that marks or thoughts that are omitted may reveal more about the messy business of living. The skill perhapsing also considers what is missing. Perhapsing, introduced by Lisa Knopp in a craft essay in Brevity (2009), gives the writer a way to wonder about circumstances in a nonfiction narrative without making up facts. The word perhaps (or other phrases such as could have been or may have been), signals to readers that the writer has left the realm of direct observation or documented research. Omission and perhapsing allow the writer and reader to explore the space between the known and the unknown in the context of the ever-evolving self. A new book of essays considers the mysterious nature of the vast territory between the known and the unknown: Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with the Writers, edited by Jen Hirt and Erin Murphy. In this anthology, the layers of experience are represented in a wide variety of forms including segmented and lyric essays, blog posts and personal narratives, graphic essays, as well as the definition essay. Here I will focus on essays that experiment with using omission and perhapsing to open up writing and to enlist readers’ participation in this conversation on celebrating life.
The complicated work of examining the impact of omission is addressed by writer Faith Adiele in her definition essay, “How to Make Sense of the Postcolonial Nation-State: A Definition Essay Using Material Lifted Almost Entirely from the Internet as Annotated by the Author, Herself a Nigerian American.” Adiele uses material from the internet to examine instances of “cultural appropriation and stolen narratives” on Nigeria. Adiele, born to a Nigerian father and a Nordic-American mother, assesses what is omitted from the definitions of Nigeria by striking a line through the original internet text (and leaving it in her essay). By making explicit the implicit biases, she invites the reader to actively participate in a conversation on the extent of inaccurate information about Nigeria. She creates a more truthful story about Nigeria to preserve diversity with respect for the generations that came before her as well the generations that will follow her.
In the essay “Kestrel Avenue,” writer Cheryl Strayed also explores the relationship between the skill of omission and the on-going nature of shifting perceptions. Strayed compares a newspaper article on a bank robbery she wrote at age eighteen with this essay written twenty-eight years later. The earlier newspaper report left out the fact that her family knew the bank robber. Her eighteen–year–old self did not want to admit this knowledge. In the interview following her essay, Strayed identifies the tension between knowing and refusing to know. We know that at the heart of any “refusing to know” is the fear of loss. A few years before the incident, Strayed’s family provided shelter to the bank robber when he was passing through town. What was the loss Strayed did not want to face? Readers may wonder and consider their own peculiar fears around loss and withholding knowledge. The students that I teach are most interested in Strayed’s last question in the interview: “What role does omission play in truth-telling?”
The skill of perhapsing also plays an important role in transforming truth into art. In “The Third Step,” Sheryl St. Germain begins her essay on doubt by perhapsing what sort of day it was when her friend’s son was killed on his motorcycle. “A sunny day? Blue skies? Trees budding? First fragile flowers in bloom?” This particular use of perhapsing introduces the humble feeling of not knowing while the writer participates in a funeral service in a church where she no longer believes its creed. Perhapsing helps to make visible her struggle with conflicting needs: wanting to believe in something, showing compassion for the dead son, respecting the grieving family, and acting with integrity with herself. Perhapsing opens the space to reflect on these conflicting needs. This may be why students acknowledge the impact of perhapsing more than any other skill they learn during my creative nonfiction writing courses.
More subtle forms of perhapsing are shown in the space between word and images in Kristen Radtke’s graphic essay “The City of the Century” where a young woman reflects on photos she and her friends stole from an abandoned cathedral. Through research on the internet, the main character discovers the photos are from a memorial service for a twenty-four-year-old urban explorer who was run over while trying to take pictures of an oncoming train. Drawn images of ruins of the church, railroad tracks, and the young woman who discovered the photos accompany this text: “I stare at the pictures for a long time to draw conclusions that are not mine to draw.” The space between the panels may prolong the opening of readers’ perceptions and suspend simplistic notions they might entertain about what it means to feel vulnerable in this moment. Together images, words, and the space between panels create an artistic bridge that helps the reader imagine the many layers of this experience. In the interview after the essay, Radtke explains that image, word, and space play off each other and express the feeling that “we don’t always get things right,” which can lead to a “much richer dialogue.” Perhapsing in all its forms offers the opportunity to deepen this dialogue in a more authentic way. And isn’t this what the writer hopes for—a genuine conversation with the reader?
The use of space is also important in the segmented essays in this collection. For example, in Dinty W. Moore’s essay “Tooth and Claw,” compassion is explored in many forms: a neighbor who tenaciously controls the growth of dandelions in her grass (using a sewing scissors) while she cares for her husband who had a massive stroke a few years earlier; the writer’s interest in growing Italian dandelions; the rugged nature of this plant with its important healing properties. The space between each segment in Moore’s essay leaves room for reflection and permits readers to make their own meaning.
While I teach a variety of skills in creative nonfiction writing—using evocative objects for central images, creating mind maps to exercise the skill of conceptual blending, experimenting with sequencing information, and building scenes with dialogue—students have taught me that omission and perhapsing help them to realize and remember this truth: we see more than we understand. At the end of one semester, a student said, “Now I can look for the skills and techniques in other writing. I especially look for perhapsing to see what it brings to a piece. I like seeing what was added and imagining what was left out.” Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with Writers offers new opportunities to consider the way we hold conversations with our experiences and with our readers.
Jeanette Luise Eberhardy, PhD, MFA, designs educational experiences for students, artists, and professionals on crafting stories for meaningful work. She has delivered her Storyforth seminars in Egypt, Sweden, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and the U.S. At the 17th Annual Women’s International Conference in Berlin (2014), Eberhardy gave the opening address Your Story Matters to 800 women business leaders. Eberhardy serves as program director, 1st Year Writing, and assistant professor at Massachusetts College of Art and Design.