April 15, 2019 § 20 Comments
By 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:
- 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.
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.
April 4, 2019 § 20 Comments
By Alexa Weinstein
I TRIED TO WRITE DOWN SOME OF THE GREAT THINGS WRITERS SAID
James Richardson said the short form is like math homework where you don’t have to show your work, you just have to give the answer. He was quoting someone else. Nona Caspers said Lydia Davis surrendered to the way her brain works, which is a kind of rebellion. Kimiko Hahn talked about how, somewhere in a haiku, the language has to wildly explode. Elena Passarello named a few ways to let the audience/reader know the piece is over: you can create a narrative ending or a rhythmic ending, or you can go cosmic (Thelma & Louise, Between the World and Me). James Richardson said most endings are too ending-y, and you should try every line you already have instead of trying to come up with one.
Michael Steinberg said student nonfiction writers deny themselves reflection, speculation, self-interrogation, projection, digression, and confession, even though that’s where the action is. Ana Maria Spagna said we tell readers which things we care about most by describing those things in depth, using accurate visual details. Phillip Lopate said what he meant by an intelligent narrator was an intelligent presenter of the self who proves trustworthy—not as a human being, but as a truth-teller. This requires maturity, which can be developed through extensive reading, which we shouldn’t be afraid to write about (the books we read, not the maturity). In the meantime, while we’re still growing up, bluffing is acceptable. Yi Shun Lai said our reflection on the page should avoid being static, and our speculation should aim to be transparent; it’s okay for both of them to be I-driven, and to stay unsettled.
Sara Jaffe invited us to deliver the gift of wildness. Jonathan Lethem said Robert Musil referred to his book The Man Without Qualities as “a half-finished bridge into free space.” Righteous! Leni Zumas described our strange, wild, private interaction with texts, and our devotion to them, as incredibly difficult to translate and share. In response, people around the room made that noise.
I GOT TIRED AND STARTED WRITING DOWN PHRASES I LIKED WITHOUT WORRYING ABOUT WHO SAID THEM*
(*when people were talking, not reading their work aloud)
who you’re telling • what you stumble on • when we break them • where you came to • why the edges
how it made me feel • how many pages
a whole human estate • a few lines is fine • a list of limbs • a toss in the air
in dialogue with the story • in a small town • in which I was complicit
not containable • not as concrete • not resolve the questions • not made of craft
the larger pattern • the slow fuse • the embarrassing • the line between • the only sensitive one • the one other thing • the unsayable • the falling away
no long speeches
as the plane crashes • as I learned to write
so weird and unique • so enchanting
for the picture • for the end • for taking it
like a sentence • like lying down
to stand in front of • to bank your understanding • to break open the narrative • to blur the line • to be on fire • to be in the world • to be ashamed • to hand this over
more silence • more attention
wants to arise
I PERIODICALLY LEFT THE CONVENTION CENTER TO ROAM MY OWN CITY
At PNCA (Pacific Northwest College of Art), I dipped multi-colored carrots in fancy hummus and peeled a tangerine while enjoying a confusing tribute. Sometimes people were performing the poems of Keith & Rosmarie Waldrop, and other times they were reading from their own books published by the Waldrops at Burning Deck Press. It wasn’t always clear which was which and nobody ever said their own name. In front of me, a kid who was maybe four licked her hands and did her best imitation of a cat. It might have been a dog, though. I’m not great at telling animals.
At Powell’s, I sat between two beloved friend-geniuses, Wheels Darling and Moe Bowstern, for a queer reading called Femme Force: Wendy C. Ortiz, Amber Dawn, Barrie Jean Borich, Larissa Lai, Ariel Gore, and SJ Sindu. I loved this event so much that I can’t really talk about it yet. My devotion is wild and untranslatable.
On the giant tour bus used as the AWP shuttle, I completed two 90-minute loops, running into 11 hotels on each loop to check if somebody was getting on. Usually nobody was. The driver and I talked traffic. The sun was out; I was moving. For this volunteer work, I got the whole conference for free.
At Mother Foucault’s Bookshop, I sat where I like to sit, on the stairs. Books in Arabic were stacked by my feet. I thought about looking at English and seeing only lines and shapes. I thought about myself as a stack of books, sitting on a staircase. The poets from Nightboat Books came on. Allison Cobb described the trees of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn as a net of breathing. Eleni Sikelianos talked about poems as unsearchable engines, a secret hiding place where we can still put things and keep them private. jayy dodd asked us to say HERE and then say NOW, in between each poem, and it turned out I really liked doing this. She wore an amazing purple cape and read a poem that did tremendous things with its hands.
At the Doubletree hotel, I met up with my poet friend Judy Halebsky for the last time. We dipped into the reception for our MFA program and caught up with the only person there I still knew. It was nice to be remembered. Then we went upstairs and sat outside her room, where we could listen for the crying baby while we talked. You can see Mt. Hood & Mt. St. Helens from up there. We could see all the way to 1996. Walking home, I had giant orange sky until the end. I couldn’t tell the difference between the poem/story part and the part that was just human life.
Alexa Weinstein writes, edits, and teaches in Portland, Oregon and can be found online at alexaweinstein.com. Her writing appeared in Essay Daily’s “What Happened on June 21, 2018” project. She has performed her work at Dominican University, Portland Poetry Slam, Northwest Magic Conference, and the Independent Publishing Resource Center (zine release party for XTRA TUF 6.5) and is currently working on a book of essays for live performance.
March 6, 2014 § 3 Comments
Select seat with view of lectern. Check.
Push Voice Memo button on phone. Check.
Scribble panel title in notebook. Check.
I’m ready. So are the five panelists facing me, and so are the 60+ audience members surrounding me. We are the researchers in Room 607.
“It’s a bit of an oddball role,” began moderator Ana Maria Spagna. She described the ethical challenges experienced while researching Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus, in which she explored her late father’s involvement in the Tallahassee bus boycott of 1957. The various people to whom she spoke had different and sometimes conflicting versions of the story, “as well as their own real lives and real pain,” she said. The crux became how to respect those peoples’ privacy, integrity, and culture: “How could I honor their stories and still tell some version of the truth? How could I characterise my relationship with them, because on one hand, these were friends of my late father, and on the other hand, they were subjects of a potential book?”
Many different writers have faced these challenges, said Spagna. “And they’ve approached them — necessarily — differently, both in terms of craft and in terms of ethics.”
Joe Mackall, author of Plain Secrets: An Outsider among the Amish, describing how he framed his intentions with his insular Amish neighbors — “I told Samuel I just wanted to write the truth as I saw it.” Invoking Gay Talese’s “fine art of hanging out,” Mackall told his Amish neighbors, “I’m going to hang around so much that I’m not going to leave on my own accord. So you need to tell me, ‘enough.’ They never did. I was exhausted.”
Amanda Webster, discussing her work in progress, a book about growing up in a gold-mining town in West Australia, attending school with members of the Stolen Generations, Aboriginal children removed from their families by the Australian government — “In Australia, a white person writing about personal Aboriginal stories is typically taboo. Story ownership was a real issue for me.”
What Webster learned:
- Establish your authority to tell the story, and once established be aware that it’s not unassailable authority.
- Establish your stake.
- Be aware that your role is not to provoke further trauma.
- Be mindful of Aboriginal customs.
- Not to plunder these peoples’ lives and then disappear without a trace.
Webster also explained her rationale for and methodology in paying some of her research subjects — “Ultimately, it came back to the refrain we always hear: as writers we should be paid for our work. Shouldn’t these story subjects be paid for their work as well?”
Both Mackall and Bob Cowser Jr. (Dream Season: A Professor Joins America’s Oldest Semi-Pro Football Team) expressed their reticence to change names during the writing process. They acknowledged it was necessary but preferred to completely finish their manuscripts before doing so. “It breaks the spell for me,” said Cowser, “I don’t know who to care about, or where the ground is under me.”
Jo Scott-Coe, author of Teacher at Point Blank: Confronting Sexuality, Violence, and Secrets in a Suburban School, describing her efforts — “I took a great deal of time to shade identities, particularly with the darker material, of which there is quite a bit,” she said, adding that she avoided names by identifying teaching staff by role, and family members by relation. Despite the camouflage, there were readers who recognized themselves.
What she learned:
- The ethics of where or how to camouflage names
- When people react negatively or angrily, it’s not always to debate. Often it is because you have expressed a connection or perception that they disagree with, or that they find offensive, or that they didn’t expect to be expressed by you.
- Essayists cannot always anticipate these reactions, and they’re not always ours to control or evade.
- We are not always in the service of a predetermined message. We don’t know what we will discover.
All of the panelists agreed that the most important “contract” they had with their research subjects was to let them read and vet what they had written.
“Ultimately,” said Scott-Coe, “our byline is our accountability.”
Ann Beman is nonfiction editor for The Los Angeles Review, and prose reviews editor for the museum of americana. She lives with her husband and two whatchamaterriers in California’s Southern Sierra in Kernville on the Kern River, Kern County. Cue the banjoes.