Today’s Lesson: Writing Is Art

August 24, 2016 § 8 Comments

zz iowaBy Debbie Hagan

In part two of this two-part blog post on teaching creative nonfiction using newly released essay anthologies, Debbie Hagan discusses I’ll Tell You Mine: Thirty Years of Essays from the Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program (University of Chicago Press, 2016) and how it motivated her to create a show-and-tell lesson on revision and encourage students to think of writing as art.

Last semester I tried something new and a bit risky with my students. Actually it was an old idea, but I’d never summoned up the courage to actually try it. Then I read a new creative nonfiction anthology, I’ll Tell You Mine: Thirty Years of Essays from the Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program. In a roundabout way, this book supported ideas I’d wrestled with for years about revising and rewriting. Even more it pushed me to actually try this idea.

For eight years, I’ve been teaching basic writing to budding artists at a small art school in New Hampshire. Because they are reluctant writers, I tailored my classes around their interests. We read about art, looked at art, used art as writing prompts, and compared art making to writing. While they enjoyed free writing exercises, they hated rewriting. They considered it a waste of time.

My aha moment came while reading I’ll Tell You Mine. I figured this would be just “the best of” NWP essays, but it was far better. Hope Edelman and Robin Hemley curated this volume of innovative writing by tracking down eighteen essays that began at NWP, but were reworked and rewritten years later. Most helpful to me were the writers’ candid “after” comments. They traced the essay’s many steps, from the initial idea, to technique decisions (form, voice, tone, and point of view), to feedback, and then, ultimately, to revision. I found the writers’ comments insightful, because as thrilling as writing can be, truth is, it can also be a slog.

“One Blue Note,” by Marilyn Abildskov, is sort of a love letter to a Japanese salaryman who discovers the meaning of life by opening his own jazz club. The writer reveals that the early drafts left her discouraged. “I was trying to write about the place in a journalistic way, rather than the way I experienced it: impressionistically,” she says.  Around this same time, she discovered a new fact: jazz is built around three notes. These two new thoughts helped her re-envision the essay: how to start, what to say, and where to focus. All this reworking resulted in a hypnotic essay built around the evocative nuances of jazz and language. About the process, Abildskov concludes, “Timing is everything, isn’t it? And readiness.”

Debbie Hagan

Debbie Hagan

Readiness…yes! Essays must be unraveled. It can take a week, a month, a year, or six years in the case of Michelle Morano, who wrote “Grammar Lessons: The Subjunctive Mood.” Her essay began in a bar discussing difficulties she’d had with the French subjective tense. The first draft came in a rush. Phillip Lopate read it, liked it, but admitted it didn’t hold up well in “re-reading.” The reader didn’t gain anything new the second time around, he said, and pushed Morano to dig deeper, build stronger resonances, create more meaning. After six years, she did it. Her essay appeared in the Best American Essays 2006.

It’s a slightly different story with Ryan Van Meter, who says, “I know I want to write an essay when I find a contradiction within myself, usually within a personal experience I want to figure out—an event with a beginning, middle, and an end.” In “Things I Will Want to Tell You on Our First Date But Won’t,” he struggled with form.  Van Meter wanted to write about the contradiction between his desire to date (being single after eight years), but not wanting to spend the first date reliving the past.

Van Meter tried various forms—first a monologue, then an open letter. Susan Lohafer, NWP workshop leader, suggested that if he wanted to borrow a form, he should use it “to its fullest potential.” That’s when he settled upon a list.

By the time I’d finished this book, I couldn’t wait to dig out my languishing essays. Also, I imagined tooling these ideas into a lesson about revising/rewriting. That’s when I decided to try this idea I’d been mulling over. I would share with students a first draft of one of my essays.

Immediately a legion of demons descended upon me. I never show first drafts to anyone. I’d just as soon parade in front of my class in my underwear than show my unfinished work. My students are killer critics: There’s nothing special about John Updike; Annie Dillard is such a bore; Susan Sontag does nothing but talk in circles. I could hear what they’d say about me: She’s not much of a writer if she has to rewrite this seven or eight times.

This is what had stopped me from doing this exercise before. This time, I pressed on. I knew writers far better than I had rewritten the same essay—sometimes for years. I realized, there’s no shame in digging deeper, adding new thoughts, revising ideas until they’d reached their full potential.

By my own example, I wanted students to see that writing in drafts is a lot like sketching. A mark is laid, then another. The artist tries one angle, then another. The artist plays with shadows and light. A sketch may evolve into painting or may forever stay in the sketchbook. It’s like journaling, capturing thoughts to see where they might go.

In class, I passed around both the first and finished drafts of my essay, while my heart pounded wildly in my chest. One of my students read the first draft and stumbled over some of the rougher spots. I pointed this out: “When you read your work aloud, you can hear the spots that need more polish.”

I read the final draft. For the first time all semester, no one talked or sneezed or played with their cell phones. All eyes were on me. When I finished, there was long, gaping silence, which sort of scared me. I waited for one of them to make the first move. The girl who had read the first essay spoke slowly: “It’s as if each word was chosen for a purpose.” Yes!

Another student added, “This is way beyond anything most of us were taught in high school.” Yes! We’re creating art.

Artist John Berger, in his 1953 essay, “Drawing Is Discovery,” described art making in this way:

For the artist, drawing is discovery. And that is not just a slick phrase, it is quite literary true. It is the act of drawing that forces the artist to look at the object in front of him, to dissect it with his mind’s eye and put it together again; or, if he’s drawing from memory, that forces him to dredge his own mind, to discover the content of his own store of past observations.

Substitute writing for drawing. The writer must look, think, draw connections, and go back over the work again and again. That’s how we discover what’s true. That’s how we understand what it means to live and survive on this crazy planet. This is exactly what I wanted students to understand.

Right now I’m in the throes of working on my fall syllabus. This year I’ll be teaching a similar class, Thinking, Making, Writing, also aimed at art students, but this time at Boston’s Massachusetts College of Art and Design. I’m going to try the same exercise this semester, but I’ll ask students to bring in their sketchbooks. Together we’ll share what it means to create art.

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Read Part One: Today’s Lesson: What’s Missing
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Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and former editor-in-chief of Art New England. Her work has appeared in Hyperallergic, Brain, Child, Boston Globe, Dime Story, and elsewhere. She looks forward to teaching this fall at Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

 

 

The Far Edges: Interview with Sean Prentiss

April 8, 2014 § 5 Comments

Sean Prentiss

Sean Prentiss

An interview with Sean Prentiss, one of the editors of The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre, a new anthology of craft essays published by Michigan State University Press. Steve Coughlin interviews Prentiss on his motivation for putting The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre together and his thoughts on what to expect as this genre continues to expand and be redefined:

Where did you come up with this idea and how does it differ from other creative nonfiction anthologies?

SP: When I was in graduate school at the University of Idaho in 2006, I loved the discussions about creative nonfiction that we’d have in Mary Clearman Blew’s Techniques of Creative Nonfiction. But it often seemed as if it was just our class talking to ourselves, we were dancing in tight circles. There was no larger conversation going on that we could be a part of. There were no articles written about the pedagogy of creative nonfiction that we were aware of. So we had nothing to push us further into a discussion on what creative nonfiction is or where it could go or how it could challenge itself.

That void made me want to find the splintered conversations going on in classrooms and bars and conferences and bring them together in a collection that creative nonfiction writers could gather around and join in with.

And what we were going for here is to find the newest conversations, the ones farthest away from the center. So our writers do not wrestle often with the more traditional ideas. Instead, they linger of the edges.

What are some of the important conversations The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre explores and why are these conversations important in a larger context?

Prentiss_Wilkins.inddSP: Our authors explore a wide range of conversations, which is one of the fun things about this anthology. It meanders across and deeper into so much of creative nonfiction. Mary Clearman Blew leads us into her entry into creative nonfiction, which allows us to see how our view of creative nonfiction has evolved in the few decades since creative nonfiction has been taught on campuses. Brenda Miller, Ander Monson, and Jon Rovner all look at how technology affects creative nonfiction. Nancer Ballard and Bob Shacochis examine the use of time in creative nonfiction. Erik Reece writes about the need to bear witness in our writings. Lee Barnes, Joe Wilkins, and I delve into different corners of memory. And Kim Barnes and Brevity‘s Dinty W. Moore examine why we write and how to boil that reason to the surface of our writings.

These conversations are important because they allow writers more space to play, more styles to write within, more borders to explore, more questions to ask, more answers to contemplate.

How could this anthology supplement the classroom experience for creative writing students?

SP: When I taught senior level creative nonfiction classes, I often had to piece together readings for my students. I kept looking for a single text that advanced students (seniors or grad students) could read that would create a semester’s worth of dialog on creative nonfiction and re-shape how they write creative nonfiction. So this book is designed to fill that niche.

Judith Kitchen offers an essay that is also a writing prompt on speculation. Robin Hemley teaches us about interpreting life. Joy Castro shares her beautifully written essay, “Grip,” and then she explains how and why she wrote “Grip.” So the reader gets an insider’s view of writing, gets to live in the mind of the writer.

How has creative nonfiction evolved over the last few years and what directions do you anticipate it going in the future?

SP: It has moved away from memoir told chronologically, which is what we studied a lot in grad school. Back then, creative nonfiction felt as if it was static, as if there was little room to explore. You started at the beginning of your story and created scenes that carried you to the end.

But that has been blown apart. We have so many experimental slivers of creative nonfiction popping up. The lyrical style that Lia Purpura writes about in her essay “Advice and on Writing ‘Advice.'” The use of translation of a life that Hemley writes about really explodes biography. The heavy use of speculation to arrive at truth that Kitchen delves into. The research heavy essay that Nancer explores. The mythologies of memory that Lee Barnes writes about.

What excites you most about creative nonfiction? What are some potential concerns you have for the genre?

SP: I am excited for the growth within creative nonfiction. There is so much room for so many styles of writers. And that didn’t always seem to be the case.

I’m excited about the new discussions going on in the other anthologies and in magazines and lit journals, all the new pedagogical ideas being discussed. It’s as if we are watching creative nonfiction transform from a teenager to an adult. Individually, I’m excited for our discussions on memory and truth.

I have no concerns about creative nonfiction. I have had plenty of arguments with friends about creative nonfiction—what it is, what it can do, and where it should go. At the end of those debates, I might not agree with my friends’ ideas. But I love the space these disagreements allow. These spaces allow for new styles of creative nonfiction and new ideas on what creative nonfiction is and where it can grow.

Steve Coughlin‘s poems, essays, and stories have appeared in the Gettysburg Review, New Ohio Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, Pleiades, Seneca Review, and Slate.com. He has never won a Pushcart Prize.

NonfictioNOW 2015

December 3, 2013 § 5 Comments

iStock_000006012664Small_CROP-300x168Good news from our friend Robin Hemley:

I’m delighted to announce the next NonfictioNOW Conference will be held in October of 2015 at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona. It’s official! Stay tuned in the months to come for requests for panel proposals and other important information.

The precise dates have yet to be set, but planning has commenced.

A New Yorker in Melbourne: On Creative Nonfiction, a Conference, a Hired Bicycle

December 4, 2012 § 9 Comments

A guest post from Elizabeth Kadetsky:

vintage_bicycle_121.

Day One—in which I rent a bicycle for the week.

The bike shop guy, like bike shop guys everywhere, is tattooed, scruffy. In an offhand in gesture, he flicks a tress of hair from his face. Then he says: “Now don’t forget a light if you’re riding at night.” He speaks in a Melbourne accent, which proves to be not Crocodile Dundee so much as evening news in London spoken with an upturned smile. I think, what an orderly city. He winks, changing shape in my imagination from bike shop guy to upstanding citizen, a man wielding rules.

But I’m a New Yorker. I don’t follow rules. “Nice tattoos,” I comment as I skulk out with my municipal-government sanctioned helmet strapped to my handlebars.

“Don’t forget the helmet!” he adds cheerily.

I learn several facts about the city of Melbourne during my first hours from the vantage of two wheels:

• the government subsidizes bicycle helmets

• subsidized helmets can be bought for five dollars at 7-Eleven

• nobody doesn’t wear a helmet (on a bike)

• bikes, between the white lines in bike lanes, act like cars, whereas in America we act like pedestrians on wheels, aka like adolescents tripping on acid at a rock concert

• this is not New York

• no one plays squirrel with pedestrians

• cyclists wait patiently at traffic lights—between the white lines of the bike lanes, before the white lines of the crosswalks. No one hops to the sidewalk to cut a corner.

2.

Perhaps it’s my being a New Yorker that caused me to notice, first, about Melbourne, its rules.

Caveat: I understand that there’s nothing more irritating than a New Yorker writing in a condescending manner about other, presumably lesser, cities. Please permit me my malingering. By essay’s end, the author is sure to meet her comeuppance.

Confession: In New York, I often ride the wrong way down a separated bike path on First Avenue from my apartment—on East Twelfth Street—to Houston Street—twelve blocks south. Here, the path becomes two-way. I do this in order to avoid going an extra block out of my way to ride down Second and then return all the way back to First, but in fact I’m never alone in this scofflaw activity. There is always a whole pack of us, pushing against traffic.

And yet: every time—every time—someone shouts at me. Of course, they’re right—it’s annoying, but this is New York. I’ve gotten yelled at so often I can tell from a block’s distance who will do it. It’s always a white guy. Always. “Go back to Brooklyn!” I mutter under my breath. “This is Manhattan.” If it happens in Brooklyn, I mutter, “Go back to Minnesota!” I’ve been riding like this since I was a messenger at age fifteen—when the dispatcher instructed me to lie about my age to get the job. “Sweetie, it’s how we do things,” he said. There were many open secrets in our city: underage drinking, smoking pot on the street, hopping the subway turnstiles after the 7pm cutoff for the free schools pass.

I grew up in a New York City of chaos. Isn’t it that innate chaos, at least in part, that makes New York the most artistic city in the world? Just sayin’.

3

And yet. Melbourne was so pleasant. The slang was so welcoming and cheerful. New York slang, its accent is noxious. Then there’s rhyming Cockney, which is a sort of mean joke on anyone who’s not gritty enough to be Cockney—totally impenetrable. Melbourne slang seemed to be about evoking childhood, eating brekky and playing footie and wearing bluey jackets. A local told me that in general the language followed the rule of shortening—Mels for Melbourne, totes for totally, uni for University. I wondered if in this young nation—founded as a Commonwealth only little over a century ago, in 1901—it was the language of children that was celebrated.

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Day Three—in which a New Yorker ponders issues of entitlement

For her opening address at the NonfictioNow Melbourne conference, Cheryl Strayed read her magnificent “Write Like a MotherFucker” Dear Sugar column, which is about entitlement:

Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.

After, I coasted down the pleasant slope along the western edge of the Melbourne Museum grounds down from Gertrude Street (Did people call it Gertie”? I asked myself). Sunshine angled across the path at its customary 10 degree-angle, casting that alluring, Southern Hemisphere gleam on the tarmac. Humbled by possible repercussions from rule-breaking—fear of fines, arrest, the uncertain rights of a foreigner on alien soil—I’d begun following them.

And I wondered, In New York, why was it always white men who sneered at me when I broke the rules?

Then I understood, in a flash: my rule-breaking on the bicycle annoyed people because it was an entitled behavior. I wasn’t afraid of retaliation from the cops—me: articulate, white, neither an immigrant nor paperless nor poor. What did I have to fear? Entitled rule-breaking annoys people who are following the rules themselves, who must ask, I’m following the rules, why doesn’t she?

I stopped for a light. Stopped—grounded to zero velocity, though there was not a single impediment racing along the cross-street. Not a pedestrian, not a car. I stayed between the lines. And a revelation came to me: my rule breaking rankled white men in particular because of their entitlement. They are working hard to overcome their own sense of privilege in order to not break rules, as I was here in Mels. It’s difficult, when you’re used to walking through the world in a different manner. What a slap in the face, to see someone flaunt a restriction brazenly. Enraging. To follow rules is to eat your entitlement.

5

In which I ponder, as a writer of nonfiction, how to balance a desire to break rules against the problems of entitlement?

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At NonfictioNow, we celebrate the breaking of rules. Nonfiction is a genre that defies categories, embracing its the relative lack of them versus the older modes: fiction with its Freytag’s Pyramid, Poetry with its sestina.

The Australian writers in particular at NonfictioNow seemed adept at locating organic forms for content. Theresa Meads read a lyric essay in which visual content interplayed against repeated fragments of poetic prose. Panel titles referenced “The Margins,” “Picturing the Essay,” “Audio-Visual Experiments,” “Landscapes: Broken, Extreme, Constructed,” “Memory, Image, Trauma,” Nonfiction Poetry,” “Graphic Narratives”, “Fiction in Nonfiction”, “Lies Damn Lies.”

How was it that this celebration of manifold and perhaps not-yet-even-invented iterations of form should take place in a city of rules? The Australians seemed the conference’s more adept rule-breakers. Perhaps I was missing something.

7

Nonfiction is formless, boundless, a place to invent, explore.

“I no longer believe in great man thinks. I no longer believe in great man sits in a room alone and writes masterpiece.” —David Shields, in a talk on James Agee

“A significant component of the postmodern world is the collapse of perception between what is real and what we perceive to be real.” —Brandon Schrand, in a talk on lyric style

“We know not which to be charmed by, the author or the man” —Patrick Madden in a talk on “the faceblanket,” citing  William Hazlitt citing Montaigne

“We don’t have enough crazy books anymore.” —Robin Hemley

“Theme of conference: Nonfiction is a medium that can and should—must, perhaps?—convey our postmodern reality. It must rewrite the contract with the reader. This is why (why?) nonfiction is the genre best poised to grapple with questions of truth, non-truth, irreality.” —me, in my notebook

8

It was night. I waited for the light at Gertie Street. The Australian author Helen Garner had just given a talk, in which she cheered our American Janet Malcolm for having been vindicated, back in 1994, in the famous libel suit brought against her by Jeffrey Masson. I remembered a headline about the trial from the time, reading, more or less, “Do Speakers Really Say What Is Between Quotation Marks?” Would that they could, I remembered the text, with its throwing-up-of-hands, its shrug. A sea change. “Just How Sacrosanct Are the Words Inside Quotation Marks?”—I remembered another headline. I heard, as, during the conference, David Shields had quoted Robin Hemley quoting Pico Iyer, “The indelible sound of a brain trying to make sense of something.” Perhaps that brain was my own.

The traffic light asserted its boorish red. I pushed the wheel toward the white line, but only the nose of the beast crossed to the liminal other side. I leaned forward. The base of the wheel touched the line, then crossed it. Streetlamps gleamed in the hemispheric mist. There was not a soul. My helmet chafed. I stood on the pedal, pushed. And I flew, headlong, into the unknown.

Elizabeth Kadetsky’s essays have appeared in the New York Times, Santa Monica Review, Antioch Review and elsewhere. A 25-year practitioner of Iyengar and Ashtanga yoga, she lived in India as a Fulbright scholar and wrote a memoir about her studies with the yogi BKS Iyengar, First There Is a Mountain, published in 2004 by Little, Brown, and forthcoming in rEprint from Dzanc Books.

This Essay Does Hot Yoga

November 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

Bernarr Macfadden (1868-1955)

The fine folks at Ninth Letter have been having some fun with Robin Hemley’s essay “Study Questions for the Essay at Hand: A Speculative Essay” and with a contest asking essayists to respond in kind.  And so they did.

Here’s judge Patrick Madden’s take on the two winners, with links:

So I chose two. One hews closely to Hemley’s questions, even satisfying our curiosity about Bernarr MacFadden, and the other comes at the prompts indirectly, surprising with asymptotic relationships, sometimes making us wonder, or search for, the thread tying the derivative work to the original. But maybe that’s the shining characteristic that convinced me that these essays were the winners: that they do not seem derivative at all. They seem strong enough to stand on their own, to be read even without “Study Questions for the Essay at Hand.” Is this a betrayal of the whole purpose of the contest? Perhaps, but I hope not. If so, then the winners have succeeded at that age-old essay characteristic: subversion.

What’s certain is that I was enchanted by them both, the one for its centrifugal force out of narrative and the other for its erudition in answering the fundamental meta-questions arrived at through Hemley’s particulars. “A Response to Hemley in Eighteen Parts” seems, from the get-go, to have its own agenda, but one can sense the sideways conversation it makes with the questions, at times approaching quite closely, at other times keeping its distance. In all, it’s a confession of callousness in the face of a grandmother’s death, but even that explanation oversimplifies the emotional trajectory of the piece.“Nineteen Ways of Looking at an Essay,” though, has no central narrative of its own. Instead, it spins away from Hemley by taking on Xavier de Maistre and Jorge Luis Borges, playing its own linguistic and organizational games, one-upping the original by an additional question followed by a prompt for new writing. The energetic reader is thus invited to continue the experiment yet further, to respond to the response. I hope someone takes that challenge.

This Essay Needs Your Help

September 8, 2012 § 1 Comment

From Philip Graham, Nonfiction Editor at the Esteemed Ninth Letter:

Ninth Letter is proud to sponsor our first online essay contest with the publication of Robin Hemley’s essay, “Study Questions for the Essay at Hand: A Speculative Essay.” Hemley’s essay seems to be going through an identity crisis, asserting and contradicting itself in an attempt to understand its own existence, as it throws eighteen questions out to a silent world. Plaintive, aggressive, wistful, quizzical and coy, this essay needs your help, needs its questions answered.

So, here’s Ninth Letter’s proposal, gentle reader. Respond to the eighteen questions of Hemley’s essay–interrogate it, argue with it, hold its hand, whisper to it, whatever you wish.

Patrick Madden, the sterling author of the essay collection Quotidiana (and founder of a website of the same name, which serves as an indispensable compendium of 383 public-domain essays, will serve as our discerning judge. The deadline for all entries is October 15, 2012. We’ll republish Robin Hemley’s essay with the winner’s responses on the Ninth Letter website, and throw in a year’s subscription to our magazine to boot. And who knows, maybe we’ll have more than one winner. Hemley’s essay seems to need a lot of advice  . . .

Immersion Contest Winners

June 17, 2012 § 4 Comments

Houston, we have lift-off, and landing, and three winners for our immersion nonfiction contest celebrating Robin Hemley’s new craft guide, A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel.

We were unsure how many would participate — immersion in 500 words sounds like a contradiction if not an impossibility — but we were wrong, as usual, and received 50 splendid entries, all of them surprising and unique.

Immersion, by the way, is defined as involvement in something that completely occupies all the time, energy, or concentration available. Types of immersion writing within these broad categories include: the Reenactment, the Experiment, the Quest, the Investigation, and the Infiltration.

Now Robin has judged, and we have our three winners.  We will debut their winning entries right here on the blog over the coming week.  Stay tuned!

 

Immerse Yourself, Briefly: A Contest

April 9, 2012 § 20 Comments

To celebrate Robin Hemley’s new book, A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel, we are launching a quick contest.  You have one month, until May 11th, to immerse yourself, in something.  If it is water, be sure that you can swim. If it is honey, watch out for bears.

Here are the details:

For centuries writers have used participatory experience as a lens through which to better see the world at large and as a means of exploring the self. Immersion writing encompasses Immersion Memoir (in which the writer uses participatory experience to write about the Self), Immersion Journalism (in which the writer uses the Self to write about the world), and Travel Writing (a bit of both: the writer in the world and the world in the writer).  Types of immersion writing within these broad categories include: the Reenactment, the Experiment, the Quest, the Investigation, and the Infiltration.

Immersion, by the way, is defined as involvement in something that completely occupies all the time, energy, or concentration available.

So, choose one of the immersion modes and knock yourself out, except we are only allowing you 500 words.

Yes, you heard us right: 500 words, or fewer.

Robin Hemley, Director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at Iowa, and celebrated author, will be the judge. First prize is a copy of A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel and $50, second prize is a signed copy of the immersive The Accidental Buddhist, and third prize is a showercap.  All three winners will be published on the Brevity blog.

Deadline May 11th, 2012.  Mail your entries to brevitymag(at)gmail.com with Immersion as the first word in your subject heading.

AWP 2012: Immerse Yourself

March 3, 2012 § 5 Comments

By Kate Fox

F128  The Writer in the World: A Look at Immersion Writing / Robin Hemley, Melissa Pritchard, Joe Mackall, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, and Christopher Merrill

After the recent brouhaha over John D’Agata’s approach to creative nonfiction, I was amazed when not a word about it was mentioned in this session. Instead, Robin Hemley began by identifying earlier writers—Nellie Bly, James Agee, Barbara Ehrenreich and others—who have used themselves as a “conduit” for experiential, participatory writing. He then cited three types of immersion writing:

•  Immersion Journalism

•  Immersion Memoir

•  Immersion Travel Writing

though he was quick to state that these categories are meant to be useful, not binding; the boundaries among them are permeable.

Stephanie Elizondo Griest, who has written about “life in the Communist Block after the Marxist meltdown,”—specifically, Russia, Beijing, and Mexico—was the first to present. She spoke of encountering a bias in publishers toward memoir over direct reportage, and as a result, had to alter her work to introduce more of herself into the narrative to attract publishers. She then addressed the ethical landmines involved in writing creative nonfiction, specifically exploiting and/or profiting from someone else’s story. As a sort of antidote to these landmines, Griest holds to five tenets:

1.      Learn the language of the people you’re writing about. For her this meant intense study of Russian, Chinese, and Mexican, though she admits she still had to use interpreters to overcome the distance between the language she had learned and the colloquial/regional dialects.

2.      Live the life of the people you’re writing about. You must have intimate contact; you must live among them as they live.

3.     The “subjects” or people you are writing about are always right. This assumption grants the compassion and understanding you need to treat people with respect.      

4.   Share the work before it is published. You must give the people you’re writing about a chance to respond to the work.

5.      Writing these stories is a privilege, not ownership. You must be clear on who owns the story—they do.

Joe Mackall was next, and though I’ve known Joe since at least 2001, I didn’t realize he was so drop-dead funny. He talked about writing about the Shettlers, an Amish family, in Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish, and said up front that his wife threatened, “If you screw up our friendship with these people, you are in deep trouble.” He also described being terrified of both Amish draft horses and riding in Amish buggies (“You people drive too damn fast around the Amish!” he declared to the audience). To Mackall, the “outsider” in his subtitle says it all: there was no way he could be anything other than an “infiltrator,” one who provides a window on what they allowed him to participate in, so that his role was more of a benevolent docent and a justifier of a misunderstood subculture. Mackall echoed Griest’s tenet of sharing the work with those being written about, though he was surprised at what the Stettlers took issue with. The things he worried about, they seemed to see as the provenance of the writer. But when he noted the shabby conditions of a brother-in-law’s barn, they asked for that part to be removed, and when he estimated a hog’s weight at 200 pounds, Samuel Stettler corrected him, saying it was closer to 300 pounds—and Mackall knew he was the better judge. According to Mackall, “Immersion is negotiation.”

Christopher Merrill gave perhaps the best—and most harrowing—example of true immersion, citing Christopher Hitchens’ willingness to undergo waterboarding to dispel the Bush Administration’s claim that it was not torture, but simply “extended interrogation.”

He then cited Elisabeth Bishop’s poem “At the Fishhouses” as the best template for the way active description should work—its tripartite structure of a faithful account of the details, then a reflection upon those details that finally allows the “true” meaning to emerge. As he explained, “Any moment, if you pay enough attention to it, will act as a hologram for meaning and truth.”

As another Brevity blogger bemoaned, I have overshot my 500-word limit, so I will conclude with two anecdotes I thought were quite resonant for different reasons. Griest underscored the “danger” of immersion writing by telling about a “blind date” she was supposed to have with a local in Mexico. He showed up drunk, after midnight, with several drunk friends in tow, inviting her to “come and party.” As she said, no one in her right mind would even consider going. But as a memoirist, she tended to think, “If I get out of this alive, this is going to be great!”

Then Melissa Pritchard spoke of walking through—I believe it was India’s—brothel district, where 12-15 years olds were on display and being sold for sex. And she thought she was “handling it all right” until she saw that some boys had a young brown bear on a leash and were torturing it to make it dance. In the middle of all of these children being sold, she cried at the dancing bear—though she realized later that it certainly wasn’t the only thing that made her cry.

Kate Fox is a writer/editor in Athens, OH

Schtick Lit: My Life as an Immersion Memoirist

October 26, 2011 § 5 Comments

A guest post from Kelly Kathleen Ferguson, author of  My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself:

When I put on a prairie dress and climbed into my car to retrace the pioneer journey of Laura Ingalls Wilder, I had no idea what I was doing, much less how I might write about the experience. As the book developed, people wanted a description of what I was writing in three words or less. My go-to label became “humorous narrative nonfiction.” Then I read Robin Hemley’s discussion of his book Do-Over! In which a forty-eight-year-old father of three returns to kindergarten, summer camp, the prom, and other embarrassments and learned to call my book an “immersion memoir,” which he describes as when a writer “creates a kind of framework to actively engage in experience and memory.”

Nellie Bly could be considered the first writer who made situation manipulation famous when she faked her way into Bellevue’s mental ward. George Plimpton practiced with the Detroit Lions and sparred against Sugar Ray Leonard. In 1961, John Howard Griffen traveled the South in blackface and wrote Black Like Me. More recently, A.J. Jacobs has forged an entire career with books ranging from The Year of Living Biblically to My Life as an Experiment. (I’ve noticed “the year I _____” set-up is popular).

A less flattering name for immersion memoir is “Schtick Lit,” implying that the genre relies on gimmick to generate interest, and my initial conception of the Laura trip might have tipped over into this territory. My idea was to travel Borat style, (i.e., in character) pretending to be this kooky woman who really thought she was the reincarnation of Laura. By the first gas station stop, I knew this would never work. I didn’t have enough chutzpah to keep up the act. And why should I? Borat struck me as the worst sort of gimmickry, not to mention mean. Duping people for a cheap laugh struck me as against the spirit of the Little House books I loved.

As it turned out, wearing the dress for a twelve-day road trip was hard enough. On day one, when I zipped up the back and tied my bonnet strings, I learned my first lesson about how costume would change my experience—going out in public alone in prairie garb activated intense social anxiety. Discoveries unfolded from there. I encountered Amish women in prairie dresses and felt like an imposter. I stood on a prairie and learned that bonnets function like sunglasses—and blinders. Children ran towards me. Children ran away from me. Often, people pretended to flat-out ignore me.

At times I questioned (and still do) the “gimmick” of the dress (every time I zip up for a reading). But I know my interactions with people would have been different if I’d worn jeans and a t-shirt (and in the same way, the dress changes what happens at my readings).

So, how to escape the schtick when tackling your own immersion memoir? Hemley defends immersion by explaining that all memoirs and novels have a structure. Okay. Even so, in my case, the road trip provided structure. I didn’t have to wear a prairie dress. The key to me, then, is the sincerity of intention. I (stubbornly and perhaps naively) believe the reader can smell a phony. Bly really wanted to know what was going on in Bellevue. Plimpton loved and excelled at sports. I have had a genuine and lifelong obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder.

A few tips:

  • Be genuinely curious about your immersion and what it might yield.
  • Don’t pre-judge what might happen and take copious notes on what does happen.
  • Comedic potential doesn’t hurt but the piece can’t be slapstick.
  • The experience should have potential for a meaningful discovery.

I was going to write even more “shoulds,” such as “you can’t just go and stare at a fig tree,” but then there’s always the writer who could go and stare at a fig tree and write about it in a way that would transform all fig-tree staring to come. Ah, I miss you David Foster Wallace.
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Kelly Kathleen Ferguson is the author of My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself, and at work on her PhD at Ohio University.

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