September 11, 2020 § 4 Comments
By Debra Gwartney
I’ve long subscribed to Phillip Lopate’s observation that a central aim of memoir is self-awareness. It’s been my aim when I write memoir, anyway. Questions that spur me on once I start shaping a narrative around my personal life go something like this: what remains unsolved in me about said thorny matter in my past? What is it that I have refused to face or acknowledge about how I acted way back when? Beating myself up over mistakes is not what I’m after—instead, I’m curious about that younger self in an earlier time. What she was up to, and why?
It strikes me, then, that some sort of exterior search—that is, a search for a missing person, or for a place infused with history, or for a particular item that rings in one’s memory—is a useful trope for this kind of self-excavation. I’m thinking, for instance, of Jane Bernstein’s stunner of a book, Bereft, in which she searches through physical and anecdotal evidence for the hidden truth about her sister’s murder. Or Michael Ondaatje’s probe through family legacy and lore in Running in the Family. Or Nina Boutsikaris’ bold investigation into her own chronic illness in I’m Trying to Tell You I’m Sorry. The “I” on the page engages in a pursuit that frames the narrative, while the stuff of memoir (questions about identity, that is) rumbles beneath, gaining traction and depth with each page. The parallel threads—exterior search and interior— spark off each other, inform, and catalyze into dimensions of authenticity and relevancy.
D.J. Lee’s new memoir, Remote: Finding Home in the Bitterroots, is yet another example of the dual search, the outside and the inside. The book begins with news of a woman named Connie who is missing in the Bitterroot-Selway wilderness of Idaho (“If you want to disappear, you go to Idaho County,” the narrator’s mother cryptically announces in the early pages). Connie is irascible, insistent, flinty tough enough that she basically socks any peril straight in the nose. She is the wilderness ranger at Moose Creek Station, way, way into a remote Idaho landscape that is largely uninhabited by humans, one of the last bastions of true wilderness in our country.
Connie has been also, for years, an unlikely guide for Lee in her desire to spade through family history and fill in gaps that have chafed at her for years—an unlikely guide in that Connie cuts Lee no slack, and certainly does not slather her with sympathy; of course that’s exactly the no nonsense direction our narrator most needs as she forges ahead. Except now Connie cannot be located. Her absence, and the many valiant attempts to find this doyenne of the forest, weave through the book, as Lee grows more frightened for her friend and more determined to cast light on the gnarly, unburied truths about her own family. Many of these truths are related to her grandparents, who were early rangers at Moose Creek, a decades-long adventure that nourished her grandfather George but left her beloved grandmother, Esther, nearly eaten alive.
So, it’s actually a flurry of searches we find ourselves in with Remote, layer upon layer complicated by the book’s structure—not a conventional narrative with its string of chapters, but instead a series of vignettes that sizzle with subtle synapses, one to the other. Each individual piece dips into a process of discovery that Lee describes as “braided currents, their true power flowing from convergences.” It’s a form that might be called collage, though as I read the book it occurred to me that this is just how a curious mind would operate, poking around over here, and then over there, digging up this corner and then this other, until a larger picture forms, until the pieces fit together with a satisfying click. Or don’t fit together at all, because isn’t that how life is: ridiculously stubborn about dishing out easy answers.
The search for Connie serves as a frame, but it’s Lee’s search for self that quietly drives the narrative of Remote, as is true for every memoir. Well, every memoir I enjoy reading. She must visit this critical location, Moose Creek Ranger Station, of her grandparents’ legacy, and she must stay long enough and return frequently enough that the generational story can wend out of the past and into the present. Lee develops a renewed perspective on her family’s abiding connection with the Idaho wilderness, and on her years of tug-of-war with a spunky grandmother, and on her decades of tensions with her own gentle mother, and on her desire to fix family wrongs as a mother to her own daughter. These are the relationships that have tested her, shaped her over five-plus decades, and Lee realizes that she can hold tight to certain aspects of the history while finally letting go of that which has festered and ached for too long.
Which is also memoir’s turf: no matter what you devote to it, or how much you desperately want that elusive closure, there is rarely a tidy end to any search.
Debra Gwartney is the author of two book-length memoirs: Live Through This, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and I Am a Stranger Here Myself, winner of the River Teeth Nonfiction Prize. Recent work appears in The Virginia Quarterly Review and Sweet. She teaches in the MFA program at Pacific University in Oregon.
May 29, 2014 § 5 Comments
Following the 20th Anniversary Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference, guest blogger Julie Strauss Bettinger reports what’s new in the genre:
Over Starbucks green tea, author Leslie Rubinkowski and I were talking about the merits of admitting how long you’ve been a writer of the relatively youngish genre of Creative Nonfiction. A fact generally used for building credibility can make you feel so old.
Let’s just say we’ve been around long enough to remember the making of the “godfather,” Lee Gutkind – she as a student at the University of Pittsburgh and me from the earliest CNF conferences at Goucher College in Baltimore. That’s when Gutkind was first defining our art and marshaling its various titles – New Journalism, Literary Nonfiction, and Narrative Nonfiction included – under one identity.
So the 20th Anniversary Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference in Pittsburgh last weekend was a coming home of sorts for some of us. And, yes, there was Gutkind, still defining our art.
Among other things, the CNF conference offered aspiring writers the surprising news that publishers and editors don’t look at the process of rejecting our work as a blood sport (thank you, Dinty W. Moore, for that reassuring statement).
Other high points:
- Literary journal and book editors are awash in submissions. Keep submitting.
- Creative Nonfiction is the fastest growing genre in the publishing industry, surpassing journalism. Besides CNF’s expansion in high school arts and university English departments, specialty courses such as narrative medicine, narrative science and narrative law are cropping up, too. There’s a reason, says Gutkind. “Our brains are wired for story. People remember more facts for a longer period of time when they are connected with story.”
- In the best practices category, simultaneous submissions are OK. No need to include it in your cover letter. But if another publication accepts, it’s common courtesy to notify all others. Preserve those relationships for future submissions.
- Build your platform. Now. Blogs, Twitter, Mom’s bridge club members. Even before your manuscript is complete, as these will establish a fan base.
- Have no fear of the giant Penguin and Random House merger, e-book explosion and Amazon flavor-of-the-month services. Think of them as opportunities. Book editor and agent Emily Loose likes the term “artisanal” vs. self publishing. Says Loose: “Shoot for legacy publishing, but do some self and digital publishing, too. It will add to your platform.”
- Check out Inkshares.com, crowdfunded publishing. Chairman and publisher Larry Levitsky offered an impressive breakdown of how his new business model pays authors higher royalties than traditional publishing houses.
- Regarding common roadblocks in memoir: do not second guess yourself. The event or life experience isn’t as important as what you make of it. Author Jane Bernstein: “Instead of asking yourself, ‘Why should anybody care?’ make them care (through the writing).”
- Stop thinking about what your husband/employer/pet alpaca will think. Tell the story with no limitations. Says Bernstein, “Do not censor yourself, or your story will die on the vine.”
- A lot of stories begin with a question. Enlist the reader; ask them to join you in your inquiry. Switch from “teller” to “inquirer.” Do not expect to find an answer. Your role is to ask questions, not necessarily answer them. Says author Peter Trachtenberg: “Find your question.”
- Publishing in literary journals doesn’t come with monetary compensation (and you can expect to pay a minimal submission fee), but agents and editors peruse them for new talent. Brevity’s Dinty W. Moore offered this translation of the question: “Do you have a book in you?” It really means “Can I make any money off of you?”
Any gathering of writers would be incomplete without a reading. Like an undercurrent, the stories swept us out to sea and we were adrift, then just as swiftly, tossed back on to dry land. Our adventure ended when the reader closed her notebook. We dutifully applauded as we pondered the questions that all good creative nonfiction inspires: Will the stranger who punched Jane in the park ever get caught? Will Mister Essay Writer Guy ever get the girl? Check bestsellers next spring for answers.
Julie Strauss Bettinger received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Goucher College in 2013. She is working with literary agent Joanne Wyckoff on a book about a Hurricane Katrina rescue and Courthouse Therapy Dog named Rikki. Find her at: juliebettinger.com.
May 5, 2014 § 3 Comments
As the 20th Anniversary Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference draws near, Brevity contributor Amy Wright interviews CNF Founder Lee Gutkind about the genre, the journal, and storytelling in the 21st Century:
Amy Wright: Before the term “creative nonfiction” was ubiquitous, someone referred to you as the guy who “does Creative Notification,” as if there were a company that releases starlings to announce you’ve won the Guggenheim. Do you encounter less confusion about the term now?
Lee Gutkind: Of course, much less confusion generally than before, and a growing awareness of the power of true stories in academic and professional circles. The awareness and appreciation is also taking root within the general public—writers and wannabe writers. I can’t tell you—couldn’t count—how many people tell me, quite spontaneously, “I have been writing this way for years—and now I know what it is called!” It makes them feel anchored, as if they belong in and are part of an enlightened community. That said, there remain many readers and writers in the dark. We will light them up!
AW: Have you ever been “creatively notified” of anything?
LG: I have been creatively crucified—which is kind of being notified—by James Wolcott in Vanity Fair who called me “the Godfather behind creative nonfiction.”
AW: On the New York Times Opinionator blog, you say the “challenge and goal of all who write narrative or creative nonfiction” is to recreate a scene from which readers can “learn and enjoy at the same time.” Why do you think the two are aided by scene setting?
LG: Well, not to be overly technical, but “scene setting” is only a part of writing in scenes. A scene has a setting, of course—a place. But it also has a beginning and an ending and an action in between. Something happens, in other words. Good scenes have dialogue and evocative characters and memorable places—all of that and more represent enjoyment, entertainment and a compelling storyline or plot. These story elements bring readers to the plate, so to speak—attracts attention and holds their interest. Especially the reluctant readers—those whose minds are not open to learning about this particular subject or who are simply too busy to focus on something that he or she knows little about. The scene, the story—the elements mentioned here, triggers curiosity and creates interest, which then provides the writer the opportunity to add the learning part—to teach or inform or persuade the reader. (At this point, the reader’s attention has been captured by the scene.) We are talking about a balanced mix of style and substance.
There’s all kinds of interesting research studies now that demonstrate that readers remember more information for longer periods of time when those facts and information are presented within a story. Same thing with ideas that will change a reader’s mind or persuade them to think in a certain way. Why is the personal essay—creative nonfiction—so popular for op-ed pages like the NY Times these days? Because people don’t want to be told what to do or how to think: Writers who write true stories that illustrate their ideas will attract attention and make the desired impact. To use a George W. Bushism—the scene/story is the decider.
AW: But Godfather, surely as editor of Creative Nonfiction you are faced with questions of whether a scene/story lives or dies…how do you decide?
LG: Well, ask yourself: Does it work? Does it achieve your objectives as the writer of your essay, chapter, book? Does it have a beginning and an ending, does it represent an aspect of what you want to say or what you want your piece to say, is it compelling to your reader, will it keep your reader engaged, does it fit in with the overall story line? Remember that writers have a readership—an audience. You are not talking to yourself; rather you are talking to a much larger world and that world is where your words and your scene must resonate.
AW: Your more than thirty books make it enjoyable to learn about such subjects as health care, writing, baseball, and how robots think, but considering you teach at Arizona State University and present at conferences, does that guiding principle also inform your lectures?
LG: How could it not?
AW: I well remember a point you made at the 2013 CNF Conference about an elderly woman who was never far from Frank Sinatra’s side while Gay Talese was shadowing him for a 1966 piece in Esquire. You made Ol’ Blue Eyes toupee keeper a character as you illustrated the process of finding a buried lede. Do scenes/stories present aloud similarly to on the page?
LG: That’s a difficult question with more than one answer. The presentation in public—aloud, in person, etc. and its effectiveness, of course—has mostly to do with the skill of the writer writing the story—the material. But writers, especially these days, need to work to learn to tell their stories to larger groups—in person—either by reading with clarity and feeling or speaking with animation and passion. After all, this is the age of the TED talk, Jon Stewart and Morning Edition—we are sometimes presented with the opportunity for writers to go public and become the three-dimensional person their work demands, whether on paper or in the flesh. This is a new age—it is not your grandmother’s nonfiction anymore. We are not waiting for people to buy our book and reach out to us—we will wait a long time for that; rather, we are bringing our work to the readers.
AW: In You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, you offer a wealth of writing tips, including the necessary “drawer phase” and how to utilize inner point of view. Will this guide inspire your presentation at the 2014 Creative Nonfiction conference?
LG: I am going to start off by discussing the basics of the genre—which includes scenes, as we have noted above, the use of dialogue and description—and some of the “R” words I often talk about in my public presentations and in my writing—research, real life, revision and reflection. I will isolate the elements of a good essay by deconstructing one or two—show attendees the classical structural framework of creative nonfiction. “Structure” is all-important and not often dealt with in the classroom or in books. Later that day, after a presentation on the short form, I will deal with “long form” challenges—from essay to book length. Writing in long form is a different ball game, believe me. The challenges are different and the satisfactions—awesome.