The Dance Between Fiction and Nonfiction

May 15, 2019 § 2 Comments

castro-photo-1In her insightful craft essay, “Genre as a Vessel for Presence,” in our May 2019 issue of Brevity, Joy Castro explores the slow-dancing, inseparable relationship between fiction and nonfiction:

Both fiction and nonfiction can weave history, myth and legend into their narratives; both can investigate the limits of form. Both, at their best, are rooted in risk. My creative nonfiction is highly shaped and always already subjective, necessarily reliant on my faulty memory, idiosyncratic perceptions, evolving interpretations, and changeable feelings. My fiction, on the other hand, includes a great deal of accurate research, statistics, real places, the actual price of half a muffaletta at Central Grocery in New Orleans. A recently published short story is factually accurate in almost every respect, but its mood is entirely different from the way I felt when it all was happening. During the events, I felt bliss, but the story is sad. In the most intimate and important sense, then, the text falsifies what happened. Yet a neutral observer could testify to its truth.

That’s just a bit of Joy Castro’s wisdom and analysis. Read the full craft essay here.

Genre as a Vessel for Presence

Intertwingled: The Hazards of Writing Others’ Secrets

May 8, 2019 § 15 Comments

glennBy Joanne Lozar Glenn

The older I get, the longer I write, the more secrets I seem to carry.

Some of these secrets are mine. But the deeper I dig into the stories I want to tell, the more I realize that many of these dark places are hopelessly intertwingled with those of others.

Recently, for example, I asked a friend to give me feedback on a brief memoir piece I’d drafted. In it, I formatted certain sentences and paragraphs in grey ink—my code for text that might or might not be included. It’s how I keep the writing open, allow possibility. My friend read one of these greyed-out sections, said this is the heart, that it has to be included, that it is what makes the rest of it real.

Yes, that passage was full of drama. Night. Police. Search parties. That passage was also surely the most searingly painful event of a certain relative’s life.

I took it out. The piece is still unfinished.

And that is how my writing is going these days. It’s a road full of hazards, full of flashing yellow reflectors warning of danger ahead.

Whose reality do I accept: the writer who said all of us end up selling our families down the river anyway or the one who said “sometimes real love is refraining from telling some truths”? Trying to stand tall in the midst of so much tension—the need to write what I lived and felt, the fear of usurping others’ experience as my own, the battle between speaking truth in the service of the story and laying further hurt at the feet of those I love—is crushing.

Sometimes it seems the only option is to mute my pen.

Still, I build scenes. Erase them. Rise from the desk and walk to the kitchen. Return to all the secrets waiting for me in the dark, looking for even the smallest glimmer of light.
____

Joanne Lozar Glenn is an independent writer, editor, and educator who develops education- and business-related content and leads destination writing retreats. Her book Memoir Your Way: Tell Your Story Through Writing, Recipes, Quilts, Graphic Novels, and More (co-authored with five other writers) was published by Skyhorse Press in September 2016, and her work has appeared in the Northern Virginia Review, Peregrine, Brevity, Hippocampus, Under the Gum Tree, and other print and online journals.

On Pens and Needles

May 7, 2019 § 5 Comments

z HedwigBy Mimi Jones Hedwig

Whenever I feel the impulse to lose myself in the absorbing process of making something, I choose one of two activities: knitting or writing. Both give me comparable — and abundant — rewards. Yet I have to resist knitting, or I’d do it all the time. And I have to push myself to write, because I almost never want to do it.

They are similar in many ways. Both are more or less solitary pursuits – although knitting circles have thrived since antiquity, and writers’ groups offer relief from the isolation of the labor, as well as support and guidance.

Both create something complex out of something simple – a strand of yarn, a strand of words.

Both yield a tangible product: an expanse of fabric, a sheaf of pages.

Both require dexterous fingers, an alert brain, a certain bravery to venture into something untried and difficult.

Both involve making intricate patterns: configurations of stitches that become a structure of yarn, configurations of words that become a story, essay, novel.

Each discipline requires attention to the smallest element: the formation of each stitch, the exact number of stitches; the choice of each word, the right number of words to convey the essence with no excess.

With knitting and writing both, there is a great deal of craft to learn. Both take diligent effort and practice, ideally daily.

Both require patience. There’s the size of the projects, for one thing: it takes a enormous amount of time and effort to make an adult-scale garment or a book-length work. Also, sometimes you have to rip out, or throw out, huge tracts of fabric or words because, in knitting, you may have made a fatal mistake too far back to be fixed, or, in writing, an idea, a plot line, a character, is remaining inert, stalling the whole project. You may have to repeat the process of destruction and re-creation several times.

Sometimes each discipline demands philosophical resignation. You stash the problematic knitting attempt in a closet along with other UFOs (UnFinished Objects), maybe to take it apart someday and use the yarn for another project. In the same way you may shelve a seized-up novel or story or memoir, hoping to gain insight into how to get it running at some future time, but possibly winding up stripping it for parts.

But … all these similarities notwithstanding, knitting and writing have some essential differences:

With knitting it is not so much the product that pleases me, as the process – the satisfyingly repetitive motions, the feel of the smooth wooden needles, the texture of the yarn, the sense that the colors I’m working with are seeping through my skin to enliven or calm my inner state. Sometimes I put the finished sweater, scarf or shawl in a drawer and never think to wear it. Often I give my knitted items away, to keep them from engulfing the house as kudzu does the Southern landscape where I live.

With writing, however, both process and product are important. I want to perfect the work; I relish the painstaking labor of revision, of searching for and finding the exact word or phrase or image to express my meaning, my vision. And then, when I have made the work as flawless as I can, I feel a need to show it to the world and have people respond to it.  Writing is, after all, an act of communication; I can’t know if I have done it successfully unless readers tell me that they understand and appreciate what I have written, and, even better, that my story made a difference to them. I long to heft my published book in my hand, to open it and breathe in the confirming scent of paper, ink and glue, to display it on my bookshelf  — and, in time, to add several others bearing my name on their spines.

Other people’s reactions to my knitting don’t affect me much.  What I create is not self-revealing because I didn’t invent the stitches or the patterns I follow. True, I am responsible for the choice of colors and fibers, the selection of a particular pattern, but my sense of self-worth is not bound up with the final product.

Thus, there’s safety in favoring knitting over writing as my creative outlet. I never sit paralyzed, despairing, needles stilled, yarn slack, at a complete loss as to how to go on. No one has ever pronounced my knitting unconvincing. Cliché. Flat. Stilted. Uninvolving. No one has ever suggested that another knitter could have done a better job than I in executing a particular concept. My knitting has never made me cry, or want to stick pins in an effigy of someone, or get drunk.

A reasonable person might ask, why, then, should I put myself through the difficulty and occasional devastation of writing? Why not just knit my way to creative bliss?

The answer is that, in the best moments, writing gives me rewards that knitting never could: The absorption of bringing into being from nothing a world, characters, a sequence of events. The happy surprise when the story or a character takes off, independent of my intentions, in a compelling new direction. The marvel of coming to an insight that seems pregnant with power to change my life.

With knitting, I have the satisfaction of practicing one of the most complex and beautiful crafts ever devised by humans. But with writing, on rare and exhilarating occasions, I feel that I’m sharing in the creative power of God.

___

Mimi Jones Hedwig held senior editorial positions at Redbook, Family Circle, and Reader’s Digest magazines before quitting full-time work to devote herself to writing. Her articles have appeared in all the aforementioned publications, as well as McCall’s magazine and Angels on Earth, a publication of the Guideposts media group. She lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and is presently working on four novels and a memoir, as well as innumerable sweaters, scarves and shawls.

 

It’s Not About the Words

May 1, 2019 § 9 Comments

Pamela JaneBy Pamela Jane

Years ago I took a story seminar with renowned screenwriting teacher, Bob McKee.  The large New York auditorium was packed.  Not only screenwriters, but novelists, children’s book authors, and editors of all genres had come to hear McKee lecture about the art of writing and storytelling.  I could hardly wait for him to reveal the secret ingredient to telling a great story.

McKee walked out on stage and stood for a moment, his intense gaze scanning the audience.  Everyone was silent, waiting for him to begin.

“Writing,” he announced finally, his eyes penetrating under his bushy gray eyebrows, “is not about the words.”

Yes! I thought.  McKee had articulated something I had always sensed.  Words do not have the power in themselves to transform our experience, or make sense of the chaos and disorder of life.  Only story can do that.

During the two-day seminar, McKee went on to say that good storytelling is about characters, conflict, and emotional impact.

“No matter how beautiful your writing is,” he told us, “if the story is no good, it sucks.”

Recently I discovered the truth of McKee’s claim for myself when I sat down to write a children’s book – a Christmas sequel to a rhyming Halloween book published the year before.  Although the new manuscript wasn’t due for several months, I couldn’t wait to get started.

It was easy to slip into the holiday spirit on a gray November morning as I sat down with pen and paper by the glowing wood stove. This was going to be so much fun!  But after several hours of scribbling random rhymes, I started to panic. The story was not working.  The idea of a Christmas sequel (suggested by a fan of the Halloween book), was a huge mistake!  Why had I and, more importantly my editor, thought I could pull it off?

My husband maintains that panic is part of my writing process.

“You always panic,”  he says, “and then you figure out a way to make it work.”

If he’s right, I have to really truly panic.  I can’t announce, “Oh, great, I’m panicking – this is just part of my writing process!”  I have to honestly believe that what I’m attempting is impossible.

Which is exactly how I felt as I sat staring down at the jumble of disconnected rhymes.

This was not part of my writing process!  My editor had mistakenly placed trust in me, I thought with dismay.  There would be no Christmas sequel, no story for the artist to illustrate, no festive holiday book signings.

Having a book contract in hand is a great feeling  – unless you can’t deliver.  The words were tripping me up, tying me (and themselves) in knots, obstructing and protesting at every turn.  I could picture them marching along, holding up signs: “Sentences on Strike!” “Equal Pay for Adverbs,” “No Storyline, No Work.”

Wait!  That’s what was missing – storyline!  In my eagerness to begin writing, I’d forgotten all about the story.  My Halloween book had a natural storyline in the building excitement of all the monsters getting ready to go trick-or-treating.  But the Christmas story required an entirely different narrative.

At that point I crumpled up everything I’d written and threw the whole mess into the fire.  Then I started working out a plot.

Bob McKee was right.  A good story demands strong characters, conflict, and emotional impact.  (It also helps not to panic.)  But writing is also about the words – just not initially.  Once I tossed out the aimless rhymes and got the story going, the words stopped protesting and hopped on for the ride.

___

Pamela Jane is an essayist and children’s author. Find her @austencats.

Definitions: Nonfiction’s Ugly Ducklings

April 23, 2019 § 6 Comments

bennettBy John Randolph Bennett

Definitions get a bum rap, probably because we all remember the clunkers we’ve seen (and perhaps written ourselves) in high school papers, superfluous definitions arriving with all the grace of a Zamboni machine blundering into the opening moments of a figure-skating competition.

You know the kind of definitions I’m talking about:

“Shakespeare’s play Macbeth is a tragedy. Merriam-Webster (Eleventh Edition) defines tragedy as: ‘1. A disastrous event. 2. A serious drama typically describing a conflict between the protagonist and a superior force (such as destiny) and having a sorrowful or disastrous conclusion that elicits pity or terror.’”

But definitions have their uses, not only in ensuring that the reader and the writer are both working from a common understanding of key terms, but also, in some cases, even aiding the writer with topic discovery and the organization of form.

Let’s dismiss the Zamboni stereotype right away. Dozens of sleek definitions gracefully skate by us in our reading every day. We appreciate them, even if we don’t pause to reflect that we’re reading definitions.

Thus, in a New York Times editorial about the near extinction of a porpoise in Mexican waters: “The vaquita (its name is Spanish for ‘little cow’) is a toothed whale and the smallest of all cetaceans; a full-grown female can measure just five feet and weigh only 75 pounds.”

Or in the middle of a New Yorker article about the madrigals of Gesualdo: “The madrigal, a short secular piece for a small group of voices, became the favorite vehicle of musical Mannerism.”

Or nearly leading off a Bloomberg article about the LIBOR benchmark: “Global regulators decided to move away from the London interbank offered rate – a vital part of the financial system given that it’s linked to, at last count, about $350 trillion of loans, derivatives and other instruments across various currencies – after prosecutors found that banks around the world manipulated it.”

If you want to get persnickety about definitions and how to write them – and I do – it’s helpful to go back to the source (Aristotle), who is nicely summarized by a textbook author (Corbett). In his Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, Professor Edward P.J. Corbett points out that Aristotle, with a biologist’s flair for taxonomy, suggests we put the thing to be defined “into a genus or general class and then give the differentiae or the specific differences that distinguish the thing from every other thing comprehended in the same general class.” That is, the structure of a definition is genus differentiae.

To write a definition, then, you begin by asking to what genus or general class of things a particular thing belongs. The genus for vaquita is “whale.” For madrigal, it’s “piece” of music. For LIBOR, it’s financial “rate.”

Once you’ve laid this foundation, go about with elaborations that build out the definition, making it more specific; distinguishing, for example, a vaquita from a blue whale and a madrigal from a motet. (Merriam-Webster defines a motet as “a polyphonic choral composition on a sacred text usually without instrumental accompaniment.” Note that the genus in this definition, “choral composition,” is already more specific than the genus in The New Yorker’s definition of a madrigal: a “piece.” The genus can be as precise or abstract as needed.)

Aristotle suggests four types of differentiation or “causes” for use in definitions: the material (what a thing is made of), the formal (what form a thing takes), the efficient (what force or agent brings a thing about), and the final (what purpose a thing has).

Thus, a car is a four-wheeled (formal cause) vehicle (genus) used for personal transportation (final cause). In contrast, a truck is a multi-wheeled (formal cause) vehicle (genus), sometimes consisting of a cab and one or more trailers (formal cause), used for hauling goods, sometimes over long distances (final cause).

In everyday writing, it’s not always necessary to include all four causes. We omitted auto and truck manufacturers as efficient causes above, and you probably didn’t mind. Nor are all four causes always relevant. The New York Times’ definition of vaquita focuses on the whale’s formal aspects. Any sense of its final cause would be theological speculation.

If you find yourself stuck trying to begin a piece of writing, try falling back on Aristotle’s formula. It’s a good way to get relevant words down on the page, even if those words don’t make it into your final draft.

(A few years ago, I was tutoring a high-school student who suffered from writer’s block. We took to beginning our sessions by him dashing off definitions of terms that I selected at random: the Boston Red Sox, Dunkin Donuts, David Bowie, and so on. It’s not a bad way to limber up.)

There’s another occasion for returning to Aristotle’s formal approach to definitions. If you’re writing about a topic, particularly under deadline, and you set down its origin, its form, its source, and its purpose, you’ve probably done a decent job of framing your discussion. After all, you’ve concisely described your topic and identified its distinguishing aspects or categories. Not bad for a sentence or two of work.

Precise, revelatory, and organizationally useful: Examined closely, definitions, those ugly ducklings of prose, turn out to be fast-flying swans.
___

John Randolph Bennett is the very definition of a busy freelance writer with lots of short deadlines and a massive TBR pile. He lives with his family in southern New Hampshire. Follow him on twitter @randolphbennett and read his occasional blog posts at www.johnrandolphbennett.com.

On Visuals in Creative Nonfiction

April 17, 2019 § 24 Comments

Hanel_author photo_1_3x4

Rachael Hanel

By Rachael Hanel

One question I often ponder as I read creative nonfiction: Why don’t more books include visuals?

I’m a big fan of the ones that do, such as Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi, Body Geographic by Barrie Jean Borich, and Memory of Trees by Gayla Marty. I’m not talking about full-on graphic nonfiction, such as Fun Home by Alison Bechdel or March by John Lewis. I’m talking about primarily text-based books that use visuals to enhance and supplement the story.

My memoir includes a photograph to start each chapter. I was inspired by The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch, where photos at the beginning of each chapter add to the book’s evocative mood. As I was writing my memoir, I had clear images in my head of family photos I had looked at for years, which had sparked my imagination about my family. I wanted my readers to experience a spark of imagination as well.

I had always heard that it’s expensive for publishers to include photos in books, so that’s why it’s not often done. When I sat down with my editor as we talked about getting the book ready for publication, I was shy in asking about the inclusion of photos. I wanted the photos so badly; I was afraid he’d turn me down. Much to my surprise, he said: “No problem. Sounds great. Let’s do it.” He said as long as photos are black and white and printed on the same page stock as the rest of the book, there’s no added cost.

I primarily teach media writing classes at my university job, but on occasion I also teach multimedia and design classes. In my first career as a newspaper reporter, I was taught to think visually—what photos or illustrations can pair with news stories? Can a portion of the text be better expressed through a photo or infographic? Twenty years later, that thought process still guides my work, and I often require my students to include multimedia alongside their written assignments.

When I read nonfiction and visuals aren’t provided, I find myself doing Internet searches for photos. I’m sure I’m not the only one. These people are real, and I want to know what they looked like. Susan Orlean’s description of John Laroche is one of the most perfect descriptions ever written: “John Laroche is a tall guy, skinny as a stick, pale-eyed, slouch-shouldered, and sharply handsome, in spite of the fact that he is missing all his front teeth.”

Her description only provoked curiosity—I just had to find out what this strange-looking man really looked like.

In fiction, I don’t want illustrations. The point of making up people and places is to be imaginative, and part of the fun for me is to take a written description and try to imagine it for myself. I don’t want illustrations in Lord of the Rings or Pillars of the Earth. That’s also why I want to read a book before seeing the movie—the visuals of the movie will ruin my imagination.

But if people and places are real, readers don’t have to invent them for themselves. So why not be provided visual evidence of the real thing?
___

Rachael Hanel is an assistant professor of mass media at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She’s working on a narrative biography of Camilla Hall, a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army who was killed by Los Angeles police in May 1974. Find her on Twitter at @Rachael18 or Instagram at @rachael_hanel.

A Review of Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style 

April 12, 2019 § 16 Comments

brownBy Nancy Kay Brown

I am reading this morning and find myself delighted with this dear book. Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer.

Yes, I called it dear. A language usage book? I thought I’d read and mark and set it aside, but it’s not that kind of grammar, usage, style book. Its a book of stories from a copy editor, a job that I would never, could never, do, but today appreciate with new eyes and ears. Listen to this, “As one of my colleagues once described it: You’re attempting to burrow into the brains of your writers and do for, to, and with their prose what they themselves might have done to, for and with it had they not already looked at each damn sentence 657 times.” So true. We need those fresh eyes, with smart minds like his attached.

We do need to expose what we write, whether it be a blog, a letter, oh my, or email, report, or story, to others’ eyes and minds. A proofreader locates errors in punctuation, spelling, word usage, grammar, and format. My mother has always been mine, whether invited or not. She can’t help herself. Yet, a copy editor seems to do it all. The copy editor has to know the piece, listen to the tone and voice, and select better ways to say something, different words and phrases, using the writer’s style and tone. The copy editor can be a change maker, a deal breaker and a heart breaker too. Mr. Dreyer tells stories of arguments on the page between writers and copy editors, including one writers response, scrawled in the margin next to a copy editor’s suggestion: “write your own fking book.” I would never do that, or would I?

The thing I want to tell you, before I get back to my Dreyer, is that in Chapter 1, he presents us a challenge. Go one week without using, he clarifies, not while talking, but writing, these 12 words or phrases:

very
rather
really
quite
in fact
just
so
pretty, as in, “pretty tedious”
of course
surely
that said
actually

He calls them Wan intensifiers and Throat clearers. I’m going to try it for a week. See any in that list that you overuse or hold precious or maybe want to dump? I am guilty of a few; especially troublesome is “ just.”

I heard an interview with Dreyer on NPR and he suggested that we surely must figure out a better way to make a point. Shall I try?  Instead of “just” I will use only, solely, merely, be more clever, clearer. My week starts now.

Benjamin (I became a first-name friend after merely two chapters!) is fine with a reader closing his book after his challenge, once accepted. I continue reading, though. I am enjoying his conversational tone, shared delight with language, and the assurance I get from him. He’s on my side, our side, to assist us in being the best we can be by sharing his insights, magic, and not so magic tricks.

I have so much more to tell you, but let Benjamin do it. I can hardly wait for Chapter 12, The Trimmables. He wrote that for me.

Thank you, Benjamin Dreyer. Random House found a gem in you, sir. Thank you for caring enough to have this conversation with us.

__
Nancy Kay Brown recently completed Fallen From the Nest for the third time: a memoir about a grandmother raising the children of her son, from whom she’s fallen out of love. Her stories and essays appear in Brain, ChildFull Grown People and an anthology for rural youth, Fishing for Chickens, edited by Jim Heynen. Her blog, Letters to Montana, is available at NancyKayBrown.com

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