Honesty and Bravery in Creative Nonfiction Workshop Commentary
February 21, 2022 § 9 Comments
By Laura Johnsrude
I love workshopping creative nonfiction pieces with other writers, around a small table, in a small room. (Ah, remember those small rooms?) I enjoy focusing on craft and style and I’m delighted when revision choices slap me in the face.
Nothing will annoy me so quickly, though, as around-the-circle workshop commentary being derailed by an earnest participant’s “you’re so brave,” or “I admire your honesty.” No matter that the speaker is heartfelt, moved by the power of the piece, the statements about the author—instead of the work—risk diverting the conversation to personal anecdotes and echoed praise around the room. Digressions about similar experiences can suck up a large slice of the author’s allotted critique time.
I’m not dissing such conversations. One of my favorite activities is meeting writer-friends at coffeeshops to discuss essays-in-progress, to bemoan the limits of memory, and to exchange story ideas.
But this essay is about constructive commentary of a piece of creative nonfiction writing.
Before paying for a writing workshop, I’ve always looked for cues that the experience will be fruitful, will include productive criticism guided by an experienced author and/or educator. I look for descriptions about how the commentary experience will run, whether the plan includes language that is both useful and kind: what works well for me; what works less well for me; I am unclear about. I feel fortunate because most of my paid workshop leaders controlled the conversations expertly, redirecting wayward discussions.
But I remember uneasy moments. I recall the look on my friend’s face—a friend with a chronic illness—when a reader told her she was brave, as feedback to my friend’s essay about some singular bodily discomfort, some daily hardship. My friend’s face froze, hardened, as we hung there waiting for our workshop leader to redirect the room, which she did. The author’s bravery (or cowardice) was immaterial to the craft assessment of her piece. Placing value on an author’s “good” character—her strength—is a fraught rubric. What if the author’s piece is about something repugnant, undignified, disturbing? What if the content or craft choice of the essay involves evasion, or the narrator’s helplessness, or shame? My guess is the reader would have said, “I admire your honesty.” Only a slight pivot, still focused on the author, not the language.
And there’s another rub—that an essay reveals personal and intimate details does not mean that it is well-written. Many of us have read raw and unguarded essays not yet revised beyond a first draft, but the author might merit the adjectives “brave” and “honest.”
No way to know.
Workshop feedback complimenting an author’s bravery and honesty implies an elevated relative worth of such unveiling, over essays revolving around the ordinary, the everyday.
Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote a delightful essay around his habit of chewing gum, “Letter of Recommendation: Gum,” by shaping his images and language into a tight, compelling story.
I admire Knausgaard’s microscopic attention to sensory detail and use of scene to reflect on a moment when his habit made him feel small.
And that brings me to another argument against using the word “honest,” regarding the writer, in a venue designed to comment on the writing, either in a workshop or even in a book review (which is published criticism). I hadn’t considered that “honest” might be a loaded word in a creative nonfiction book review until I found myself stumbling over it, recently, as it implies some unlikely insider knowledge about whether the author has revealed everything, held nothing back, and it places a preferred value on doing so. Unlike “accuracy,” in evaluation of straight nonfiction writing, “honesty” is neither here, nor there, as creative nonfiction literary criticism. We can employ more appropriate terminology to admire how writers shape language to share painful and intimate details, or to portray habits, routines, or the microscopic analysis of a body part—a belly button, a hammertoe, a tattooed broken ankle.
No creative nonfiction writer reveals everything. We all choose what to include in a piece, select words and phrases that sound best, depict the memories that are most powerful. We vary sentence length to convey tone, or control pacing, or to end the last paragraph with a punch. We shape the story to suit the goal. We dip in and out of the present to bring in threads from long ago, and we employ metaphorical songs or images—the ones we decide will serve the piece. We intentionally shave the sections that don’t work, the tangents that swerve too far off course. The boring bits. We don’t tell the truth about which family member was unhelpful during our recovery because we don’t want to hurt their feelings. We don’t reveal our misgivings about a neighbor, even though the wariness is pertinent. We don’t interview everyone who was there, at the bedside, when our mother died, or when our daughter had a seizure. We tell our truth in whatever way we choose to do so, revising and rearranging the paragraphs until the essay lands, thump, as a finished whole.
We write creative nonfiction, not nonfiction, you see.
When you read my essay, please tell me what works best for you, what doesn’t work so well for you, and tell me what bits are unclear. Tell me when the voice is inconsistent, or the tense changes are distracting, or the pace slows down so much that your mind wanders. Tell me if my piece lacks depth, or if my reflections seem unexplored. Tell me which sensory details made you sigh, which lines you won’t forget, which metaphors are fresh and exciting.
But during workshop, please don’t tell me I’m brave. And don’t tell me I’m honest. Honesty is too high a bar for me. My focus is on the language, crafted to tell a truth, or many truths.
But not every truth.
Laura Johnsrude is a retired pediatrician living in Louisville, Kentucky. Her piece, “Drawing Blood,” was published in the spring 2018 issue of Bellevue Literary Review and won Honorable Mention for the Fel Felice Buckvar Prize for Nonfiction. Her essays have been published in Fourth Genre, Hippocampus, The Spectacle, Please See Me, Minerva Rising, and in The Boom Project anthology, and her book reviews have been published in Good River Review. Publication of her piece, “Losing Flesh,” in Under the Gum Tree is forthcoming. Find her on Twitter: @LauraJohnsrude
Such a helpful piece. You are so brave (just kidding :)) This will be useful for all CNF writing groups. Thank you for writing it.
Thank you for this. I agree that talking about the author is not helpful when the point of the discussion is words, not the person writing them. However, I remind writers and readers that all writing selects what and how much to tell, that creative nonfiction is not unique in choosing what to include and what to leave out.
I really liked this essay as it gave me a new perspective on those words “honest and brave” for criticism. Thank you, Laura!
Straight talk — in this blog post and at the writers’ group table. Love it.
I admire (and appreciate!) your honesty!
Another thing I dislike in writers’ groups is the comment, “‘That’s the best thing you’ve written!” How deflating is that?!
Excellent! As a new-ish writer, who is also new to writing groups, I appreciate the perspective in your essay, Laura.
Thanks for helping me define meaningful feedback. I may share your “Tell me, tell me” paragraph with the writer’s in my group.
“Brave” or “honest” could be opening comments but the review shouldn’t stop there. There is a qualitative benefit to a nonfiction piece being honest – revealing honest, if uncomfortable, emotions or history – but feedback that stops there reflects the lack of bravery and honesty among workshop participants.
Astute commentary that I will further examine. And I agree with what you wrote, as well. I appreciate how well you remain zeroed in and how this slashes extraneous verbiage. The last three sentences were clear and incisive– just what I needed to hear.
Thank you for this – among the comments you mentioned I also always get, “You have great stories, you really have the stories.” Well, thanks, but that doesn’t tell me if I have written those stories well. Or if they are worthy in their current form to try and publish.