Making Room for Both the Reflective and the Narrative Essay

June 26, 2017 § 22 Comments

zz lynette bentonBy Lynette Benton

I often get excited about a call for submissions, especially if I have an essay in my files waiting, I feel, for just that opportunity—until I notice that only narrative personal essays will be accepted. It seems an increasing number of the personal essays published lately are narrative in form; some publications actually specify personal narratives, rather than simply personal essays.

What are we talking about when we describe a personal essay as narrative? It’s a first person essay that’s also a true story. Like a fictional story, a narrative personal essay can “recount a string of events,” as essayist and editor Joseph Epstein writes in his Forward to The Best American Essays 2014. As in a fictional story, a narrative personal essay includes an inciting incident (or catalyst), conflict, obstacles placed in the path of the main character (or, in the case of a personal essay, the narrator), a climax, and a resolution.

Oliver Sacks’ gripping personal essay, “Bull on the Mountain,” is narrative in form. Sacks describes his face-to-face encounter with an enormous white bull seated on a path in front of him when climbing a mountain alone in Norway. Sacks tried to flee “in blind, mad panic,” and in so doing, seriously injured himself. The essay contains an inciting incident (the meeting with the bull), obstacles confronted by the narrator (getting himself, despite his bum leg, back down the mountain before darkness and extreme cold set in), a climax (just as it seems Sacks will pass out and in all probability die, hunters catch sight of him), and the tale is resolved (Sacks is rescued).

On the other hand, a reflective personal essay is true first person writing that explores a topic or idea, without being required to follow a narrative arc, include a climax, or come to a conclusion. In fact, it is notably inconclusive. Essayist Phillip Lopate, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, considers personal essays the “incomplete or tentative treatment of a topic.”

He goes on to point out the personal essay’s “digression and promiscuous meanderings,” which I consider the hallmark of reflective personal essays. Roaming in the wake of the writer’s seemingly disordered thoughts, even down blind alleys towards apparent dead ends, feels comfortably like my own mental journeying. In the narrative form the essayist tells what happened—instead of inviting readers to make of his mental journey what they will.

A major difference between narrative and reflective personal essays could be that the former appears incident driven, the latter, idea driven. That’s not to say that either form excludes the other; narrative personal essays explore ideas and reflective personal essays frequently contain anecdotes—stories, like small gems—nestled in the platinum of the wandering prose. In Zadie Smith’s “Joy,” originally published in New York Review of Books in 2013, Smith departs from her contemplation of the differences between pleasure and joy to tell a story about an evening she spent on drugs in a night club. She circles back to conclude that one has pleasure, while one enters joy.

In narrative personal essays, I often feel rushed to arrive at and over that pesky narrative arc that looms like a hurdle on an otherwise level path; There’s the unfolding of the plot and the determined trot towards the climax and resolution. An email from an editor made it clear where his interest lay. “I’m looking for stories where something happens,” he wrote. [Italics mine.] The writer of the narrative personal essay is discouraged from wondering, meandering, or doubling back to poke at inchoate thoughts, or to reconsider questions that refuse to be easily, even glibly, settled.

In “The Personal Essay: A Form of Discovery,” His introduction to The Norton Book of Personal Essays, Epstein writes “Literary forms, like stocks, rise and fall, not in value of course, but in prestige.” Might the reflective personal essay be on its way out? Will there no longer exist room in our nonfiction universe for both narrative and reflective personal essays? Though I’ve enjoyed many narrative personal essays, such as the chilling “Angry Winter,” by Loren Eiseley, my deepest appreciation is reserved for the reflective personal essay. Am I to be deprived of this type of essay, which I not only enjoy reading, but write? I guess I’m also asking: Has the personal essay evolved beyond me? Is it time for me to pack up my pen and go home?

I cut my teeth on reflective personal essays written in the 1930s through the 1960s, decidedly less hurried times. Essays from that era feel relaxed and loosely structured, like the casual suits men wore in nineteen forties movies set in Hollywood or Havana.

Among my favorites is Natalia Ginzburg’s He and I, first published in 1962. In it, Ginzburg employs repetition, counterpoint, and hyperbole to describe the ways in which she is inferior to her almost preternaturally astute and accomplished, though rather imperious, husband, only inserting glimpses of his weaknesses after we’re just about convinced he possesses none.

A more recent reflective personal essay that I cherish is Daphne Merkin’s, My Kingdom for a Scarf, first published in The New York Times in 1991. In this essay, Merkin has left a favorite scarf in a New York City taxi she’s just alighted from. Her efforts to retrieve or replace the scarf are unsuccessful. Losing the scarf leads her to new insights. She writes, “[I]t should be clear …that we’re not talking scarves. We’re talking loss.” The scarf only symbolizes that idea. So does a glove she lost. The heart of the essay lies in her memories of and tallying up of losses in her life. Merkin offers no climax or resolution. She simply tells us at the end, “When I am dead …I suppose I shall not care about the red suede glove I dropped in Central Park 15 years ago.” Then, emphatically, “Meanwhile, I want everything back.”

I like the way reflective essays begin in one place, and we readers have no idea where they might take us, and I bet that sometimes the author might not know either. The text is a winding road, with unexpected detours and surprises around corners that once were hidden from view. Joan Didion said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, …and what it means.”

And yet a writer and writing coach, who specializes in nonfiction informs me that some essayists confess that, “their essays mimic the randomness of thought, while they structure the essay during the revision process…deliberately to achieve this effect.” That may be true, but the reason I apply my pen to reflective personal essays is that, like Didion: I’m not sure what I think or what I mean until I write it out.

Why is the narrative personal essay in vogue right now? Is it because of a belief that readers (and perhaps editors) abhor a state of uncertainty, preferring to be led along a discernible path to a firm conclusion? If so, shame on the writer if she’s not at all sure of the answers to the questions she’s implicitly raising in her essay.

Is this preference, if it is a preference, for narrative personal essays a result of our shortened attention spans? We no longer have the leisure of previous centuries, as Dinty W. Moore notes in his Crafting the Personal Essay. Do readers want us writers to just get on with it? Or is it simply that we humans are “wired for story” as Lisa Cron writes in her book by that title?

Perhaps I have reason to be hopeful. Many fine publications remain open to either treatment—narrative or reflective. But I still wring my hands over my personal essay writing. Perhaps what I fear is not only the demise of the reflective essay. It’s possible my apprehension stems from the way I experience my own life. Like reflective essays, my life’s got enough doubt and doubling back to evade all my attempts to force it into anything remotely like orderly certainties.

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Lynette Benton’s essay, “No More Secrets and Silence,” was awarded first place in the 2016 Magic of Memoir Contest and subsequently published in the Magic of Memoir anthology. Excerpts from her memoir, My Mother’s Money, earned finalist status in the 2014 memoir writing contest sponsored by She Writes Press and Serendipity Literary Agency. Her nonfiction has appeared in numerous print and online publications.

A Story for the Taking

June 19, 2017 § 17 Comments

Ksiddell

By Kathleen Siddell

You try but it’s not quite right.

You try again.

And again. You feel like it’s almost right but not quite.

It doesn’t feel difficult. At first, it’s fun. You delete a word here, add a different phrase there. You cut and paste and cut and paste whole paragraphs. You like puzzling a story together. You like how suddenly the image will emerge.

Unless it doesn’t.

Then you work slowly and deliberately. You force sentences together because they seem like they should go together. When you step back, you know something is wrong. The picture is unclear, fuzzy, or distorted. You move sentences around some more but they all seem like the same shade of blue. Dull and obvious. Writing is no longer fun.

 So you stop.

You try a different angle. You scroll down. Hit return over and over and over. In the endless white space, you start again, this time with the reds, splashing new ideas onto the page to see what splatters.

A mess.

You clean it up. Backspace.

Back in the white space. This time it feels empty and hopeless. Still, you try.

You find inspiration in black and white with someone else’s name on the cover, someone smarter, more talented. Someone who is not you. You read and read and get lost. You forget who is who and remember only the words. The words are more important than the names. The picture more important than the pieces.

You believe this so, you try again. You try while you drive to work, chewing words like gum to see what will stick and what must be spit out. You write a phrase on the scrap of paper you found in your purse at the red light. There is a stain on the paper but the words don’t care.

When the words start to drain from your fingertips, you vow not to stop. You will not stop to look at the picture you are forming.

Until you do.

It’s not so bad. You take a step back. You think more critically. Maybe it is so bad. The page is filled. Maybe this is all that matters. But you know it’s not. A page can be so full, it blurs grey.

But this page is clear. Black and white letters you hope will read in color.

You’re not sure, so you try again. You try and believe, try and believe, and somewhere in the cycle, you believe you have formed a picture that tells a story. You believe you have created depth without sacrificing clarity.

You stop and submit because you forgot it doesn’t matter if anyone sees what you’ve done.

But you don’t really believe that. Why else would you spend your time agonizing over all these letters? You forget that you write because you can’t not.

“Unfortunately, we are overwhelmed by the quality of submissions.”

An opposite of submission is resistance. There is a resistance between the story you want to tell and the story you have told. But was it almost good enough? How much resistance is there? You’ll never know.

But maybe you do know.

Because you keep trying and believing.

You believe the picture is one people might like. You remember it doesn’t matter if people like it. You ask yourself if you like it.

You do.

But you’d like it more if other people also liked it. Because part of what drives your fingers to the keyboard is other people.

Why is that?

Why does it matter? You know you keep saying it doesn’t when really it does. You feel resistance between what you say and how you feel.

You try to release this tension onto the page; the page that is black and white and full of color.

You don’t know if they’ll see what you see. Maybe it was never really your story in the first place. Maybe it wasn’t your story but A story. Their story. The story. But here it is.

For the taking.

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Kathleen Siddell is a sometimes writer and high school teacher. She, her husband, and their two boys have spent the past 4 years living in Asia. You can find her essays on The Washington Post, Mamalode, The Write Life and elsewhere.

The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life

June 15, 2017 § 2 Comments

Gentle Readers, you may have noticed our Brevity Editor-in-Chief’s new book, The Story Cure. Perhaps you’ve even been moved to hop over to Amazon or pop in to your favorite indie bookstore to pick it up. Or maybe you’re still wondering, what the heck is this book all about?

Over at HuffPo, “certified writing geek” Stephanie M. Vanderslice has the dish.

What I appreciated most was Moore’s personal take on the most essential elements of the major prose project: the primal story or the problem of the heart, and the invisible magnetic river. The problem of the heart is the primal element of the story, the human current that runs deep within its core that pulls the reader in and makes them care about it, makes them unwilling to put it down. The invisible magic river is, likewise, the current that carries this story and that every single element of the work—”word, element, scenes, snippets of dialogue, reflection,” should be drawn toward.

Vanderslice and Moore talk about keeping the focus on the reader, and the advice Dinty W. Moore now would give his younger writer self. Her interview is a fast, thoughtful read–check out the whole conversation here.

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and hosts the Brevity Podcast.

Finding Your Writing Fix in Online Classes

June 14, 2017 § 10 Comments

x rae_mosaicBy Rae Pagliarulo

I’ll admit it — I’m a little bit of a conference junkie. I love using writing as an excuse to go places and meet people and yes, take a little time off work. I go every year, without fail, to Hippocamp, situated right in the middle of charming Lancaster (and filled to the brim with other CNF lovers like me), as well as the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, a small–but–mighty conference that lets poets take over Salem for a weekend of words and witching. So earlier this year, when I first learned about the Iota Conference, where Penny Guisinger has been hosting weekends of writing on the beautiful and scenic coast of Maine each summer. I was instantly wooed. I cyber-stalked the Iota website, trying desperately to come up with ways my hectic schedule might allow for it, but no matter how many things I rearranged, I couldn’t make time with a brand new job and several other immovable commitments to contend with.

Right around the time I was seriously considering having some of my organs harvested so I could afford a last–minute trip to Iceland for NonfictioNOW (be careful not to search for the conference attendees’ posts on social media — you’ll die of jealousy), I saw that Iota was starting a new online component. I could get my fix with a short class about an interesting topic, AND I could stop researching the value of a black-market spleen? It was a no–brainer.

The key to success in online learning lies between two things that are notoriously hard to control — technology and humans. Without easily navigable technology that makes logging in, communicating, and accessing resources simple and intuitive, as well as a group of people who are dedicated to remaining engaged — posting in the discussion boards, responding to their classmates’ questions, ideally paying attention to the class for more than an hour per week — you’ve got little more than a good idea and a WiFi connection. Thankfully, the class I decided to take from Iota Online had both. For four weeks, myself and nine other writers dove into Writing Flash Creative Nonfiction with Penny.

Each week, Penny posted a link to a YouTube video lecture and uploaded a handful of readings that supported the week’s focus. For a short course, it was comprehensive — we looked at the form itself and what was possible within it, and discussed situation, story, scenes, revision, and the senses. After reading the pieces each week, we discussed them, argued about their merits, and sang their praises. The discussions could have landed flatly, after each person uploaded their paragraph-long summary. But our instructor, even from afar, was able to be diligent about challenging us, asking questions, and suggesting additional readings or craft articles. It kept the conversation moving, and it kept me from mentally logging out of the course site after my “assignment” was done. I wanted to keep talking, and debating, and finding new authors to obsess over. The interactions I had on that message board mimicked the ones I craved as a conference junkie, but were somehow better. Here, I could debate the finer points of sensory detail and sentence structure with a New England psychologist, a Midwestern academic, a European expat artist, and a Canadian freelancer — and no one would know if I wasn’t wearing any pants.

At first, I was afraid that I would have trouble finding things to write about. I tend to be a tad long-winded when it comes to my CNF (which is why I was drawn to this course in the first place). What if I couldn’t rein myself in enough to keep it under 1,000 words? But by reading a TON of great flash CNF, I started to process my thoughts in short, vivid bursts, looking for brief but undeniably rich moments where before, I might have seen pages of exposition. Stories that seemed impossible to tame (too much backstory! all that context!) suddenly boiled down to handful of telling moments — watching a movie with a crush, looking for Christmas lights in a dingy basement, shoveling snow on a Saturday. With feedback from my generous classmates, and personalized feedback from Penny, I kept honing those brief moments of light and color into what they were meant to be — flashes.

Writing itself is the ideal activity for distance learning. Diverse opinions from new writers and readers are what make my work stronger. But it’s not always feasible to take a week off work and travel to a conference or residency. Online writing classes do the hard work for me — they collect individuals who are passionate about writing and share an interest in learning this new thing (scene work, dialogue, speculation, character development, whatever), and create a space where we can gather. Interestingly, having all our feedback posted publicly seemed to encourage my classmates and I to dig deeper with each subsequent week. By reviewing each other’s insights on a single person’s work, we could agree on an excellent point, and more importantly, offer unique insights that would complement what had already been addressed.

In a somewhat surprising way, I was able to access this jolt of creativity and energy — the kind I usually only find at conferences — without leaving home. At moments when I craved a change of scenery, I committed to completing my Iota classwork at a coffee shop or collective work space, where I felt able to focus completely without worrying about the laundry, or the bills on the table, or the many, many teen dramas I have yet to binge on Netflix.

Maybe it was poetically appropriate for a flash CNF class to be brief, but it was clear that by the end of our four-week class, my colleagues and I had barely scratched the surface, and better yet, we’d all gained this new toy that we wanted to keep playing with. In the end, I was left with pieces of writing that made me more excited than I’d been since I finished my MFA thesis. I couldn’t wait to get them out into the world. So far, they’ve been to a couple of readings, been submitted to a handful of online magazines, and helped me gain admission into – you guessed it – a writing conference.

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** Iota’s upcoming classes are now open for registration.
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Rae Pagliarulo holds her MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College. Her work has been featured in Full Grown People, Ghost Town, bedfellows, New South, Hippocampus, The Manifest-Station, Quail Bell, and Philadelphia Stories, and is anthologized in The Best of Philadelphia Stories: 10th Anniversary Edition. She is the 2014 recipient of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize and a 2015 Pushcart Prize Nominee. Rae works as an editor for online magazines, and as Development Director for a Philadelphia arts nonprofit.

A Response to Jia Tolentino’s “The Personal-Essay Boom is Over”

June 12, 2017 § 15 Comments

zoeBy Zoë Bossiere

A couple of weeks ago, a piece by Jia Tolentino came out in The New Yorker called “The Personal-Essay Boom is Over.” The title alone was enough to deluge social media feeds with writers stepping forward to defend the vitality of the personal essay in spite of the article’s assertions, or otherwise agreeing with Tolentino that the personal essay is, in fact, “dead.” The only problem is, the article isn’t actually about what we writers know as the personal essay at all, but rather a separate subgenre of nonfiction called the “confessional essay.” If we want to get even more specific, Tolentino’s article is talking specifically of the confessional essays typically printed in online “women’s” publications such as xoJane, Jezebel, Salon, and others. To compare the personal and the confessional is a common false equivalence, and a great underestimation of all that first-person nonfiction writing encompasses.

I can recall one of my first nonfiction professors drawing a line on the board, labeling its two ends “Self” and “World.” From there, we students worked to fill in the line with subgenres of nonfiction such as memoir, journalism, personal essay, critical essay, and so on. Every subgenre has a place on this spectrum, and the personal essay, I learned, falls squarely in the middle. Contrary to what many might believe, the personal essay is not a self-absorbed, naval-gazing reflection pool. Rather, the signature of the genre is its use of the self to comment on something larger than. The personal essay cannot, by nature, be strictly personal, as that would delve into “confessional” territory.

A confessional essay focuses exclusively on the self, usually in the form of an anecdote—“This one thing that happened to me this one time.” One convention of the genre is to explore taboo subjects (incest, rape, the female body) to grab reader attention, which some have likened to the writing equivalent of internet “clickbait.” I appreciate how Tolentino addresses the practice of publishing such sensitive material as potentially exploitative, writing that “so many women wrote about the most difficult things that had ever happened to them and received not much in return” except harassment from strangers. This is undoubtedly one of the hazards of the confessional genre, and one that editors who publish such stories should be aware of. I disagree, however, that this kind of essay holds no currency in a world where even the most innocuous statements on Facebook and Twitter can and are interpreted as in some way political.

While Tolentino remains critically neutral in her article, relying on quotes from those she interviewed to do most of the hard-hitting for her, it’s clear the current trend is to lambaste the confessional essay (again, under the false moniker “personal essay”) as narcissistic or “too personal.” But I’m here to remind you there’s really nothing wrong with writing like that. After all, writers like David Sedaris have built a career on essays that might be labeled “confessional” if he were a woman. And we love David Sedaris. So what’s the problem?

According to Tolentino: “Put simply, the personal is no longer political in the same way it was” before the election. Before Donald Trump. Historically, though, there’s always been a reason why the public thinks women should not be writing, and least of all about their own experiences, which as young girls we learn are somewhat trivial to the rest of the world. Movies centered around the lives of female protagonists are routinely dismissed as “chick flicks” and stories showcasing the ways women can be strong are dubbed exclusively “for girls” as though they have nothing to offer any other audience. Tolentino says herself that the writers of the confessional essay are almost exclusively female, so to say that the personal is no longer political seems like just a new way of telling women to shut up about themselves because there are more important things in the world to talk about.

If the nonfiction spectrum has taught me anything, it is this: The world is large. The self contains multitudes. Of course there is enough room on the internet for the personal and the political to be happening simultaneously. And during a time when women and immigrants and people of color can see the effects of the current administration in their day to day lives, to say otherwise is absurd.

But frustratingly, implicit in articles like Tolentino’s is the sense that men who write about their experiences are writers, while women who do the same are simply selfish. This is an idea women have been rallying against for a long time, as Claire Vaye Watkins wrote in “On Pandering” and Rebecca Solnit in “Men Explain Things To Me.” These essays remind us that for some, it will never be a good time for women to freely write and publish about their own lives without offending the current political or social climate. But I have a sneaking suspicion that the people who say that no one wants to hear about your lost tampon when there’s a crazy man in the oval office are the same people who wouldn’t want to hear about it anyway.

And though Tolentino claims to be among those who like the genre but “aren’t generally mourning its sudden disappearance,” she does admit to missing the prevalence of the confessional essay on the internet, writing that, personally, “I never got tired of coming across a writerly style that seemed to exist for no good reason.” Of everything I’d read in Tolentino’s article, this gave me most pause. To make a value judgement about the existence of the confessional is to categorically dismiss all of the writing, and therefore all the writers, within the genre. In truth, the fact that women are driven to write essays like these is good reason enough.

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Zoë Bossiere is an incoming Ph.D candidate at Ohio University where she will study creative nonfiction. Works and significant life events can be viewed at zoebossiere.com.

The Congenitally Wonder-Addled Brian Doyle

June 5, 2017 § 6 Comments

By Susan RoweSusan Bruns Rowe

The first time I met Brian Doyle I was at a writers’ conference pretending to be a writer. I chose his workshop because he had a kind smile, a well-groomed beard. Describe your first kiss! he shouted from the top of the class. He walked the aisles. He urged us to add details—saliva, braces, that awkward matter of the tongue. I sat paralyzed, eeked out three vomitable sentences. Time’s up, he said with glee. Then he asked us to share our work. Out loud. I kept my eyes glued to my paper, covering it like a grade-school spelling test. “I’d like to hear from someone who hasn’t shared yet,” he said standing inches away. Blood thrummed in my ears. My pulse was a fast staccato. Hands shot up. Not mine. There was no way.

The next time he gave a reading in my hometown. I sat with twenty other people in the basement of a musty Civilian Conservation Corps cabin reserved for “smaller” literary events. He took us on a quest for the perfect Pinot in a picturesque vineyard. You could see the sun in his eyes, how he savored each word in his mouth like wine. I was a college magazine editor by then, too, and he spent a morning with me, spouting ideas, advice, experience, while I scribbled. Six months later I sent him the issue to which I had given laborious birth. “Better,” he said. “Now concentrate on the writing . . . make it literary, make it leap off the page, make it tell a story on which a thousand others can stand.”

Every one of his emails was its own literary delight. He thought verbs should be “funky colorful unusual engines. Twist a noun into a verb.” Nouning he called it. He made no apologies for his self-described Herculean sentences (“I say happily go and read some Robert Louis Stevenson and Edward Gibbon and Plutarch and see how the masters play with the pacing of a long passage.”) But his real art was to write from the heart. During my editor days, he ended every email by conferring blessings on my babies. I decided to send him a short piece I’d written about my youngest child. “Oh my gawd,” he emailed back. “That’s superb. That is honest with a capital H and O. Seems to me the pieces that are most tumultuously honest about the way joy and pain are identical twins are the pieces that come closest to catching the truth of the mysterious awful gift of it all, you know?”

I gave up editing to write. Things went downhill. I worked for six months on an essay I thought would be perfect for his magazine. I spent six days on the cover letter. He emailed back within an hour of receiving it. “Thanks,” he said. ” I don’t think it’s quite for us.” A year later, I sent him another piece, which he also rejected—this time with a hand-written note. I was making progress. About this time, I couldn’t open a magazine without Brian Doyle staring back at me. I borrowed a friend’s copies of The Christian Century. There was Brian Doyle. I ordered a single copy of Orion. There he was. He appeared in every other issue of The Sun. I used his proems, essays, and books in my writing classes, apologizing to students for yet one more example of writing from Brian Doyle. All of us longed to craft a single melodic sentence like Doyle did.

Last spring I interviewed him for an article about writers who approach writing like play. I’d had Brian in mind when I pitched it because he was always experimenting with form and language. He once wrote that the essay “is the most playful of forms, liable to hilarity and free association and startlement . . .” I asked him if he brought those qualities to his writing. “Hmm—I do think it’s true,” he said, “and immediately think of my sister saying I am congenitally wonder-addled because I got spectacles at age 7 and have never recovered from that wash of wonder. I suppose I am also sort of addicted to the salt and swing and song of the American language, which is a bruised dusty lewd brave vibrant language, and trammeling it carefully seems disrespectful to me, as long as I am clear. I never know where a story or an essay or a proem is going to end up, or even go, quite—I just start, and I have in mind that I want to write like people talk and think, in loose-limbed free piercing entertaining ways, and things go from there, sometimes utterly to the dogs.”

When the article came out, I’d heard about Brian’s illness. I sent him an email. I didn’t hear back. I wrote him a card telling him he was my writer hero, that he inspired me to write beyond my ability, that something happened in that workshop two decades ago that made me want to be a writer for real. I choked up, made mistakes, had to cross out words. “You can’t send him a card with cross-outs,” my husband chided. So I rewrote it. Without cross-outs. And it was much shorter. I left out all the stuff about heroes. I didn’t want to sound like a stalker or like maybe there wouldn’t be more rejection notes or articles in which I plumbed his writing genius. I’m not sure Brian remembered me from the hundreds, maybe thousands of other writers he helped over the years, but I don’t care about that. I wish, though, I’d sent him that card with the cross-outs and the mushy stuff about writer heroes. I wish I had.
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Susan Bruns Rowe teaches memoir and creative nonfiction at The Cabin and The Osher Institute for Lifelong Learning in Boise, Idaho, and recently joined the editorial staff of Literary Mama. Her writing has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Penny,  and The American Oxonian. She has an MFA in creative writing from Boise State University.

** For more on the salt and swing and song of Brian Doyle, see his seven dusty lewd brave vibrant Brevity essays and our recent Podcast episode.

Painting the Snake: Ambient Accuracy in Creative Nonfiction

May 29, 2017 § 20 Comments

snakeBy Jan Priddy

The sound crew working on a film is careful to record ambient sound—the faint traces of traffic and wind and birds or elevators and footsteps and air conditioners—the barely audible noises in the background of any location. Even a very quiet place is not silent. Later, if a line of dialogue must be rerecorded or the interruption of a plane roaring overhead corrected, layering in ambient sound is necessary to ensure continuity for the filmgoer. Ambient sound is the kind of stuff we notice only when it is missing.

Most of us have done it, at least in an early draft. We piece together our bits and pieces and want to call them finished before we fully understand the story we are telling. We do not know enough to tell the truth. Sometimes that is the result of inadequate research. However we define nonfiction, creativity should not come at the expense of accuracy. Superficial research leads to shallow prose. Authenticity is achieved through the subtle layering of ambient knowledge.

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More than forty years ago, a friend at the University of Washington was taking a class on scientific illustration. Her first homework assignment was to illustrate a bird. Pamela, who already had a Biology degree, chose her model from a display in the Burke Museum on the NW corner of campus. The taxidermy grebe in a diorama of coastal waterfowl had the great advantage of holding perfectly still while she made preliminary sketches and recorded colors and feathers.

Her completed illustration was a beautiful and detailed but otherwise incorrect representation of the Western Grebe. As it turned out, no living grebe ever positioned itself in the upright manner she depicted. Her portrait was of taxidermy, not life. She thus perpetuated another’s error.

Getting things right often requires that the writer know much more than what fits on the page. Ask any great writer. Novelist Molly Gloss, known for her science fiction and historical novels, noted recently that she researches a thousand facts in order to locate the one telling detail that lends authenticity to a scene. Writers of nonfiction and poetry might do well to follow her example.

Too often details in poetry and nonfiction can be traced directly to Wikipedia, and the writing is both limited and flawed because the writer has failed to pursue the richness of fact beyond the abbreviated online version.

My father, a research librarian for the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, taught me a lesson about research. My elementary teacher encouraged me to use the various encyclopedias in the local library to research a report. He insisted that encyclopedias were useful only as overviews leading to more reliable sources. He took me to the card catalogue of Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington. He taught me to use an index, to draw reasonable conclusions from diagrams and illustrations, even those with captions in Norwegian. I learned the difference between primary and secondary sources and that I must never under any circumstances rely on the accuracy of those writing outside their specialty. Find the facts, he said, and like a good scientist (or journalist), confirm my sources with more research.

Today such research is far easier. We have access to images and texts from all over the world, libraries and journalism, film and even people. The writer seeks truth, and superficial research leads to missteps. A recently published poem perpetuates several common misunderstandings concerning a nineteenth century event. The author’s only source was likely Wikipedia, and while the Wikipedia entry is mostly correct, the poet did not have enough ambient knowledge to avoid misrepresenting what is found on that page.

It is not enough to gather factoids and vocabulary, and not enough to find dates and names. If we hope to make meaningful and authentic observations, if our readers are to trust the stories we recount as true, then we must pursue truth beyond what seems most obvious. Our understanding must be encyclopedic, not limited to scanning a few inches of an encyclopedia.

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For her next illustration, my friend Pamela went to the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle where the live Emerald Tree Boa was a gorgeous green and neatly draped in a series of concentric loops across a branch. Its head rested precisely in the center like a goddess wearing a broad and elegant collar of its own body. Pamela drew sketches from various angles and went home to work on her illustration. Then she panicked: What if the position of that snake was a fluke? What if, as with the taxidermy grebe, she wasted days creating a flawed representation? Back to the zoo she went. On her second visit, both Emerald Tree Boas in the exhibit had arranged themselves across branches in that same symmetrical manner. Zoo personnel confirmed the pose was characteristic of the species.

It is tempting is to make our task easy, to trust immediate impressions, but there is no excuse for errors resulting from a failure to look past the first link on Google. We need to know more than what shows at first glance. We need knowledge of what is just behind and beside our subject and the faint trace of footstep and birdsong carried through the air. We need to earn our authority not only with well-chosen words but with truth.
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Jan Priddy’s work has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and publication in journals such as the Brevity blog, The MacGuffinCALYXWork MagazineRaven ChroniclesThe HumanistNorth American Review, and anthologies about running and race. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, she lives and teaches in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon.

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Illustration:

Emerald Tree Boa (Corallus caninus) at San Diego Zoo (side view) photo by Reino Baptista, free use available through Wiki Commons, 2015

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