Definitions: Nonfiction’s Ugly Ducklings

April 23, 2019 § 3 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.
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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.

Talking Back

April 18, 2019 § 10 Comments

Many of us have sat in the classic writing workshop: the class reads a piece, a discussion happens, the writer keeps their head down and doesn’t talk. At the end of the conversation, the author might get to ask a couple of questions for clarification, or perhaps say something about their intention in writing the piece.

This can be useful—it’s good for writers to learn to listen to critique without defending against it, or pushing back with “what I meant to say was…” because if it’s not on the page, we didn’t say it. It can also be traumatic, especially if the class misinterprets a point in the story and spends the whole time arguing about a meaning that doesn’t matter.

In playwriting, authors often have help. The “dramaturg” is a writing coach/researcher/helper/challenger who assists the playwright. In post-performance discussions, or after rewrites in rehearsal, the dramaturg often leads the discussion, making sure the author’s concerns are addressed. The dramaturg asks follow-up questions, gets audience members and actors to clarify points, redirects the discussion if “how you should write this” starts bubbling up, and afterward, helps the writer process and apply the feedback that’s most helpful to their work.

Writing teachers do some of the same work leading workshop, but often, their job is focused on keeping the workshop moving as a whole, rather than being an individual writer’s advocate. Sometimes, workshops go off the rails or turn into a pile-on, leaving the writer bruised and defensive, or questioning their writing ability rather than the impact of a specific essay. Without an active mediator, it’s hard to truly receive feedback and weed out what’s helpful from what was a tangent in the discussion.

At Lithub, Beth Nguyen argues for a sea change:

Perhaps it’s time—way past time—to rethink how we workshop. To make it less a test of endurance and more a space of open discussion. Perhaps it’s time to undo the silence of workshop, to let students be part of conversations about their work rather than mere witnesses.

When she began teaching nonfiction, she discovered a key issue. The space of discussing memoir and essay is even harder, because in critiquing the work, there is always some element of talking about the author. Nguyen points out that with cultural and racial context missing between writers and readers, this can be a terrible experience for the author, particularly for underrepresented students.

I was also tired of workshop spending so much time talking about a plot point or logistical matter that could easily be cleared up by simply asking the writer what was intended. So one day I did just that: started asking the writer what they meant. And the entire workshop shifted. The mood lifted. The writer and the rest of the workshop could talk about intention—what carried through and what didn’t. The writer could engage in process during workshop.

When we unsilence workshop, when we invite students to participate in the discussion of their own work, everything changes: the writer is no longer passively accepting comments. Rather, they become who they should be: the creators and navigators of their own work.

The workshoppers, in turn, are asked to do less prescribing (I want to see more of this; I want this or that to happen; I didn’t want that character to be here) and more questioning. Why did you use first-person? How important is the sister character supposed to be? Instead of a typical old-school workshop comment such as “I want to see more about the mother,” there’s a question: “We don’t see much about the mother—how important of a character is she?” The former is a demand; the latter is an opening.

When the writer gets to talk about what they’re trying to do, they discover something more about what they actually are doing. Almost always, they reveal information that they’d been holding back. In other words, their talking within workshop, rather than at the end of it, helped them process their own process.

In her classes, Nguyen further incorporated the writers’ agency (and the role of the dramaturg) by encouraging students to set the tone of the discussion they wanted to have. Her writers submitted their work for discussion with an added statement of what they hoped to cover, including areas in their work of particular concern in this draft. And,

On workshop day, the writer who was “up” began discussion by talking about how they wrote the story. Where ideas came from, why they wrote it, what they were trying to do. They got to set the stage for their own workshop.

Nguyen writes about how this method sometimes blends with classic “author-doesn’t-talk” workshop style, and what benefits she’s seen in her students work, and her own, from opening up the discussion to include the author. Many of us seeing frustration in our students—and ourselves—can benefit from talking more in workshop.

Read Beth Nguyen’s whole essay at LitHub.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

Writing the Quotidian

April 15, 2019 § 20 Comments

Iris Print Image 2By Iris Graville

Quotidian.  I read that word in an essay I critiqued during my first semester in my MFA in writing program. I had to look it up.  Ironically, it’s a fancy word for something that’s not, well, very fancy.  Here’s how the New Oxford American Dictionary defines it:

quotidian |kwōˈtidēən|
adjective [attrib.]

  • of or occurring every day; daily : the car sped noisily off through the quotidian traffic.
  • ordinary or everyday, esp. when mundane : his story is an achingly human one, mired in quotidian details.

While this word hasn’t become a regular part of my vocabulary, its meaning resonates for me.  Apparently it does for some other writers as well.

Patrick Madden wrote in praise of “Quotidian Nonfiction” in Issue #44, Spring 2012 – Creative Nonfiction:

I prefer, in both my writing and in my reading, meditative material that considers the quotidian, that pauses and ponders, moving slowly, calmly—the kind of work that would never incite a controversy, work that balances intellect and emotion, with perhaps a bit of spirit.

Madden, an essayist and writing teacher, claims to lean toward quotidian nonfiction “because my own life so rarely excites even me; I could never win over readers through shock or exoticism.”

I know the feeling.  It crops up often for me as I write personal essays and especially did so as I drafted my memoir, Hiking Naked (okay, that might not sound very quotidian, but the title is mostly a metaphor). My life has been shaped by ordinary experiences of birth, loss, work, parenting, friendship, and spiritual seeking. Experiences described by many of the synonyms that the New Oxford lists for quotidian:  typical, middle-of-the-road, unremarkable, unexceptional, workaday, commonplace, a dime a dozen.  In short, “nothing to write home about.”

And yet, I do write about these everyday experiences.  I’m compelled to craft essays about community, listening, patience, simplicity.  I’m led to tell the stories of “ordinary, everyday” people whose voices often aren’t heard.  Patrick Madden attests to the value of such writing:

This, for me, is the placid beauty of the best creative nonfiction writing: the opportunity to settle one’s buzzing mind for a few brief moments, to meditate on a focused subject, to escape the plangent assaults of the beeping, blinking world and find respite in the thoughts of another human being… I think we have a right to (and a hunger for) art that is quieter, more enlightening and uplifting.

Fortunately, an abundance of nonfiction writers create the kind of quiet and uplifting art that many of us yearn for.  One of them, Ana Maria Spagna, was my thesis advisor at the Whidbey Writers Workshop. She taught me in the classroom how to tell my story through well-crafted scenes, settings, and characters, as well as through her own “quiet” writing (such as her essay collection, Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness).

Another is Scott Russell Sanders, who I studied with one summer at Fishtrap on the Zumwalt Prairie in northeastern Oregon. I had met Sanders at my first residency in my MFA program and have become a devoted reader of his writing. Work that springs, as he explains in Writing from the Center, from accepting “the material that my life had given me, and… learning to say as directly as I could what I had to say.”

 Also on my list of quotidian writers are Kathleen Dean Moore , Brian Doyle, and Brenda Miller. All of them practice what Madden urges:

 …each of us, I dare say, can do with a little more wonder in our lives, can benefit by shunning the artificial and superficial to spend more time contemplating the quotidian miracles that surround us.

What quotidian miracles surround you? Perhaps it’s time to write about them.
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Iris Graville is the author of three nonfiction books: Hands at Work, BOUNTY, and a memoir, Hiking Naked. She lives on Lopez Island, WA where she publishes SHARK REEF Literary Magazine, writes essays and blogs, and teaches. Sometimes you’ll find her on the interisland ferry, working on a new essay collection about the Salish Sea, climate change, and Washington State Ferries.

The Writing Conference in Your Living Room

April 9, 2019 § 4 Comments

“That’s it, Bob! I need to re-order the material thematically instead of chronologically!”

Not everyone gets to AWP, and even those who did can be overwhelmed by the sheer size of the event. How much you take home in professional growth is often tied to your willingness to self-promote and talk to strangers, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Even smaller writing conferences mean spending on registration, airfare, hotel and food, which quickly adds up.

If only there was somewhere to get expert writing and publishing advice and make professional connections…but in pajamas, and with coffee that didn’t cost $8.

That time has come.

Many of you attended Village Writing School’s online Memoir Summit last year, watching agents, coaches and writers giving prerecorded interviews and presentations on writing and selling memoir. One of the things that struck me was how many genuine professional connections were built: writers connected through the event’s Facebook group; agents and editors offered to respond to queries specifically from attendees. And it was all free!

April 25-29, Village Writing School presents a Literary Agent Summit, covering trends in publishing, first-page tips and tricks, reviews of real queries and first pages, how to make your book stand out in the slush, and more. Maybe you’re not yet at the submission stage, but demystifying the agent-getting process and learning about publishing means that later, you’re not going to type “The End” and then say “Um….now what?” Plus, I’ve often had key realizations about my manuscript when I try to recast an element as an agent suggests—I may not use their literal suggestion, but trying an idea always open doors.

As with last year’s memoir summit, the Literary Agent Summit will be free online for a week before becoming a pay-per-view. During that week, you’ll be able to watch the interviews and presentations wherever you are, whenever you like.

Speakers include:

  • Katharine Sands at Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency
  • Jennifer Grimaldi at Chalberg & Sussman
  • Madelyn Burt at Stonesong
  • Jennifer Unter at The Unter Agency
  • Laurie Chittenden at Tessler Literary Agency
  • Emily Keys at Fuse Literary
  • Eric Myers at Myers Literary Management
  • Andy Ross at The Andy Ross Literary Agency
  • Amaryah Orenstein at GO Literary
  • Kelly Peterson at Rees Literary Agency
  • Lynnette Novak from The Seymour Agency
  • Leslie Zampetti from Dunham Literary, Inc.
  • Editor Nettie Finn from St. Martin’s Press
  • Editor Melissa Singer from Tor/Forge

There’s also an option to add a paid query or first page review, a pitch critique, or a 15-minute meeting with an agent.

Village Writing School has grown quite a bit from its small Northwest Arkansas beginnings, and now reaches writers all over the world with free and affordable online courses and content. So many of us can’t dash off to every conference we’d like to—take advantage of this collection of industry experts dashing over to you.

Register here.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

The Things I’ve Done to Avoid Writing THIS Page

March 29, 2019 § 7 Comments

Sherilyn Lee has been traveling away from home since 2016 to provide hands-on caregiving for her family and loved ones. She started #sherilynwritesapage to overcome the isolation of caregiving, to face her grief of several losses, to witness the kindness and joy in her world, and to remain connected to her writing practice. She handwrites a single page in a Canson Mix Media spiral bound sketchbook daily and posts it to her Instagram feed (@sherilynwrites).

z sherilynwritesapage

Sherilyn Lee is the Poetry Editor at Angels Flight • literary west and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Nonfiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. She is currently working on a memoir about being a road warrior caregiver — providing full-time care for four loved ones within eighteen months in three different locations — none of whom live near her home in Los Angeles. Her clips are at sherilynlee.com and she blogs daily on Instagram as @sherilynwrites.

 

Writing, Mindfulness, and Two Ways of Seeing

March 20, 2019 § 12 Comments

elaine1By Elaine van der Geld

I have always been terrible at drawing. I’d planned to drop art after the mandatory 9th grade course, but then, in our last year of high school, my best friend talked me into signing up for 12th Grade Art. She was talented— effortlessly drawing portraits while I mucked around with stick figures, but I was interested enough in theory and history that I figured I’d scrape by.

We landed an amazing teacher who wore black leggings and Doc Marten’s everyday. She was fresh off of a three-year job teaching art to juvenile offenders and did not expect us to possess any particular talents or skill, but neither did she stoop to assigning dumb activities, as previous art teachers had. Instead, she invested time in teaching us to be artists, which, for her, meant teaching us how to see.

On the first day she held up a landscape painting and asked us to sit quietly and observe the colours. After a couple of minutes she asked us the colour of the trees. We said, “green.”

“And what else?”

One person ventured, “forest green.”

“And what else?” our teacher said, a keen smile on her face.

“Moss green?”

“And?” She looked so hopeful we had to keep going, but, frankly, the whole thing seemed silly. The trees were green. Lots and lots of shades of green.

Finally, somebody said, “blue.”

“Show us,” the teacher said.

The girl hesitantly pointed to a couple of spots where, as if by magic, navy blue suddenly popped off the canvas. How had I not seen that?

The teacher proceeded to show us a painting of an apple, a sparrow, a lake. Each time, the pieces started out looking simple—the apple was red, the sparrow brown, the lake blue. Then, slowly, we’d come to see straw yellow, maroon, jade.

The world cracked open. Prior to that, I’d gone through life seeing only the straightforward colours of a crayon drawing. Now I could see as Rembrandt had, or, if not Rembrandt, then Bob Ross.

When we finally got to the actual art-making, we started with figure drawing, using live models. We were not to draw the model per se. In fact, if we did that, we were doing it wrong. This was a relief—it bought some time before anyone discovered the fact that I could not draw. We started with timed gesture and line drawings. Volunteers climbed up on a wooden platform and struck various poses. Sometimes they’d hold for 30 seconds before moving into the next one, other times they’d hold for a few minutes. We were to look at the model, rather than the page, keep our hand moving, and, most importantly, we were to look— really look. At first we were told to notice the shades and light. Then we were to notice line. Then we could put it together. We would do 10, 20, 30 drawings a class. They were quick, partially finished things with only abstract resemblance to the model. We were to keep our hands and bodies loose, move quickly, making true marks on the page.

**

I’ve since called that class, “the one year I was good at art.” No longer reaching for what I expected to see, but instead, putting down what I actually saw, the drawings improved. I no longer automatically kept the whites of the eyes white, but noticed the way light hit on the sclera, iris, pupil. Amazingly, after a couple of months I could draw reasonable portraits simply by focusing on lines and the light and dark planes of a face.

At the time, I was also taking creative writing, and immediately put my new sight to work in stories, boring down into specific surface details. When characters or settings fell into cliché, I’d use pictures to get down accurate, yet surprising, details. There, too, it was a revelation.

**

Twenty years later, when starting mindfulness practice, I remembered that art class. It occurred to me that while the artist’s eye allows us to see the external world, the mindful eye allows us to see the internal world.

In mindfulness, practitioners are invited to observe the way the mind works, without judgment or resistance; how thoughts leap from one to the next to the next in tangents, but also how emotion lives and moves in the body. The simple act of sitting with what is, the observation of granular detail, the separation of what one expects from what exists were all familiar. Mindfulness requires us to attend to the world of external detail, but also invites us into the rich world of internal detail by noticing the workings of our own minds and bodies.

The body scan, a cornerstone of mindfulness, revealed my internal world, just as Grade 12 Art revealed the external world. In a body scan, you start at one end of your body, noticing how it feels, spending time with whatever is there— hot, cold, numb, sore, itchy, whatever, just noticing. Not resisting, not wishing it were any other way, but simply feeling it. Then move on to the next body part, going through bit by bit until you’ve felt your whole body.

The body scan helps me find fresh descriptions for interior states. Instead of writing clichés about how my heart pounded or breath caught, it reveals the other, more surprising, ways emotion moves in the body. How vulnerability tingles in the shoulders, or how fear bolts down the hips.

When writing, small, mindful pauses help when I need to access some interior state. I close my eyes, get quiet, and breathe. It takes less than a minute, but in that time I often find a step forward. The mindful pause helps me to sustain attention and maintain access to wilder, unconscious, creative states when I’m getting tired or lazy and want to settle into easy, automatic clichés. When editing, it helps me to cut through to small details, to a moment’s essence. I simply close my eyes and sit with the scene. With memoir, I try to re-experience how it felt in the body.

The artist’s eye and the mindful eye grant authors clear-eyed vision of both inside and outside, revealing, in the quiet, the places where the two meet.
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Elaine van der Geld’s fiction has recently been published in Kenyon Review online. Her nonfiction writing has been shortlisted for the EVENT Creative nonfiction award and has been published in Off Our Backs. She works on the editorial board of PRISM International, and is currently pursuing an MFA at the University of British Columbia. Find her on Twitter: @elainevan.

 

Revision is More Than “Just Editing.”

March 18, 2019 § 4 Comments

2019-02-19_1214By Katey Schultz

One of the most challenging hurdles I’ve faced as a writing teacher is persuading a writer that learning how to work with their imagination is a necessary skill if they want to become their own best editors. What I’m talking about is the difference between the writer who wants to live forever in that hum-buzz-state of generating new work, versus the writer who has matured to realize that generation is only one small part of the process. Slowing down enough to “search for the sentence that says the thing you had no idea you could say, hidden inside the sentence you’re making,” as Verlyn Klinkenborg says, is where I personally have the most fun, but it’s an invisible process. How do you teach something you can’t see? How do you articulate a decision you may not even realize you made?

One approach I’ve had some success with is teaching a superstructure for flash fiction and flash nonfiction that I call the present moment ~ flashback ~ present moment structure (how’s that for imaginative?). Working as Writer-in-Residence for Fishtrap in the Oregon public schools, teaching adults at Interlochen Center for the Arts, and MFA candidates in several low-res programs, all have resonated with this approach and a fair number have also been able to “turn a corner” in their own work as writers, finally embracing that revision isn’t just “editing” and it most certainly isn’t boring, either. No, revision is re-visioning, and if we listen to what the structural components of our drafts are telling us, we can revise more confidently as we take our stories where they most need to go.

Here’s a link to a brief video that’s part of an ongoing series of flash craft lessons headlining my blog right now. Learn about the present moment ~ flashback ~ present moment superstructure and how each component builds toward what Stuart Dybek aptly calls the moment when a character’s “yearning shines forth.”
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Katey Schultz is the author of Flashes of War (stories) and the forthcoming novel, Still Come Home, both published by Loyola University Maryland. Ten years ago, she founded Maximum Impact, which provides transformative online curricula for writers, helping them articulate their best work through mentorship and high-touch online classes. Learn more at www.kateyschultz.com or follow @kateyschultz

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