Honesty and Bravery in Creative Nonfiction Workshop Commentary

February 21, 2022 § 9 Comments

By Laura Johnsrude

I love workshopping creative nonfiction pieces with other writers, around a small table, in a small room. (Ah, remember those small rooms?) I enjoy focusing on craft and style and I’m delighted when revision choices slap me in the face.

Nothing will annoy me so quickly, though, as around-the-circle workshop commentary being derailed by an earnest participant’s “you’re so brave,” or “I admire your honesty.” No matter that the speaker is heartfelt, moved by the power of the piece, the statements about the author—instead of the work—risk diverting the conversation to personal anecdotes and echoed praise around the room. Digressions about similar experiences can suck up a large slice of the author’s allotted critique time.

I’m not dissing such conversations. One of my favorite activities is meeting writer-friends at coffeeshops to discuss essays-in-progress, to bemoan the limits of memory, and to exchange story ideas. 

But this essay is about constructive commentary of a piece of creative nonfiction writing.  

Before paying for a writing workshop, I’ve always looked for cues that the experience will be fruitful, will include productive criticism guided by an experienced author and/or educator. I look for descriptions about how the commentary experience will run, whether the plan includes language that is both useful and kind: what works well for me; what works less well for me; I am unclear about. I feel fortunate because most of my paid workshop leaders controlled the conversations expertly, redirecting wayward discussions.

But I remember uneasy moments. I recall the look on my friend’s face—a friend with a chronic illness—when a reader told her she was brave, as feedback to my friend’s essay about some singular bodily discomfort, some daily hardship. My friend’s face froze, hardened, as we hung there waiting for our workshop leader to redirect the room, which she did. The author’s bravery (or cowardice) was immaterial to the craft assessment of her piece. Placing value on an author’s “good” character—her strength—is a fraught rubric. What if the author’s piece is about something repugnant, undignified, disturbing? What if the content or craft choice of the essay involves evasion, or the narrator’s helplessness, or shame? My guess is the reader would have said, “I admire your honesty.” Only a slight pivot, still focused on the author, not the language.

And there’s another rub—that an essay reveals personal and intimate details does not mean that it is well-written. Many of us have read raw and unguarded essays not yet revised beyond a first draft, but the author might merit the adjectives “brave” and “honest.”

No way to know.

Workshop feedback complimenting an author’s bravery and honesty implies an elevated relative worth of such unveiling, over essays revolving around the ordinary, the everyday.

Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote a delightful essay around his habit of chewing gum, “Letter of Recommendation: Gum,” by shaping his images and language into a tight, compelling story.

I admire Knausgaard’s microscopic attention to sensory detail and use of scene to reflect on a moment when his habit made him feel small.

And that brings me to another argument against using the word “honest,” regarding the writer, in a venue designed to comment on the writing, either in a workshop or even in a book review (which is published criticism). I hadn’t considered that “honest” might be a loaded word in a creative nonfiction book review until I found myself stumbling over it, recently, as it implies some unlikely insider knowledge about whether the author has revealed everything, held nothing back, and it places a preferred value on doing so. Unlike “accuracy,” in evaluation of straight nonfiction writing, “honesty” is neither here, nor there, as creative nonfiction literary criticism. We can employ more appropriate terminology to admire how writers shape language to share painful and intimate details, or to portray habits, routines, or the microscopic analysis of a body part—a belly button, a hammertoe, a tattooed broken ankle.

No creative nonfiction writer reveals everything. We all choose what to include in a piece, select words and phrases that sound best, depict the memories that are most powerful. We vary sentence length to convey tone, or control pacing, or to end the last paragraph with a punch. We shape the story to suit the goal. We dip in and out of the present to bring in threads from long ago, and we employ metaphorical songs or images—the ones we decide will serve the piece. We intentionally shave the sections that don’t work, the tangents that swerve too far off course. The boring bits. We don’t tell the truth about which family member was unhelpful during our recovery because we don’t want to hurt their feelings. We don’t reveal our misgivings about a neighbor, even though the wariness is pertinent. We don’t interview everyone who was there, at the bedside, when our mother died, or when our daughter had a seizure. We tell our truth in whatever way we choose to do so, revising and rearranging the paragraphs until the essay lands, thump, as a finished whole.

We write creative nonfiction, not nonfiction, you see.

When you read my essay, please tell me what works best for you, what doesn’t work so well for you, and tell me what bits are unclear. Tell me when the voice is inconsistent, or the tense changes are distracting, or the pace slows down so much that your mind wanders. Tell me if my piece lacks depth, or if my reflections seem unexplored. Tell me which sensory details made you sigh, which lines you won’t forget, which metaphors are fresh and exciting.

But during workshop, please don’t tell me I’m brave. And don’t tell me I’m honest. Honesty is too high a bar for me. My focus is on the language, crafted to tell a truth, or many truths.

But not every truth.

__

Laura Johnsrude is a retired pediatrician living in Louisville, Kentucky. Her piece, “Drawing Blood,” was published in the spring 2018 issue of Bellevue Literary Review and won Honorable Mention for the Fel Felice Buckvar Prize for Nonfiction. Her essays have been published in Fourth Genre, Hippocampus, The Spectacle, Please See Me, Minerva Rising, and in The Boom Project anthology, and her book reviews have been published in Good River Review. Publication of her piece, “Losing Flesh,” in Under the Gum Tree is forthcoming. Find her on Twitter: @LauraJohnsrude

Learning My Place

October 22, 2020 § 24 Comments

by Heidi Croot

My friend, a fellow writer, waved for help.

A literary journal had just rejected her short story. The editor’s comments troubled her. She wanted to know what we had to say, the seven of us in the same cherished writers’ group.

“I’m usually eager to take an editor’s advice,” she told us, “but if I try to fix what the editor identified as problem areas, I risk losing the tone and voice I was going for.”

We knew her story—about a woman who meets a 13-year-old boy for the first time in tragic circumstances—having shared our feedback weeks earlier. “It’s ready,” we told her. “Put it out there.”

But the editor found the woman’s “awkwardness” with the boy “unconvincing.”

“Send me the story,” I said. “I’ll re-read it while standing in the editor’s shoes.”

Which I did.

The editor’s shoes did not fit.

I could not detect in the female character one grain of awkwardness. Quite the opposite. I saw a woman with a hardscrabble past and a broken relationship with her parents, who likes this 13-year-old kid all right, but feels no need to cater to him. She observes him closely and speaks to him like an adult. Casually serves him his first-ever cup of coffee. Lights a cigarette, because she is simply being herself, with no apologies.

The boy responds in kind. He makes no extra effort to impress her. He navigates the encounter on its own terms.

In the poignant final scene, the woman delivers, in practical, straight-up terms, some hard-won advice. Topped out with emotion, the kid promises to heed her warning.

I liked the woman’s cool demeanor. Her honesty. Her brusque talk. “She relates to the kid with respect and authenticity,” I reported to my friend. “She’s raised him to her level instead of talking down.”

I spoke the words many a conflicted writer yearns to hear: “Pay no attention to the editor.”

But I had missed something crucial.

A fellow colleague—another professional editor—saw the female character as emotionally stunted because of her own dysfunctional childhood and therefore unable to engage “appropriately” with the kid.

I was dumbfounded. What was going on here? Why was my interpretation so unlike theirs?

I read the story again.

A divine light did not shine down on me. I could not see the woman as flawed.

My friend, the writer, came to my rescue.

“You were an only child and your parents spoke to you as an adult,” she said, drawing on what she knew from chapters from my manuscript. “So that’s what you picked up. And you weren’t wrong. Your own experience pointed to it being a plus, and not awkwardness.”

Holy Hannah. She was right. I’d had a plain-dealing mother with a traumatic past who prided herself on delivering hard truths with no regard for any age I might be, using the full range of her Latinate vocabulary. I didn’t mind. It was just how things were done.

On some unexamined level, I knew readers brought their own background and experience to a story. But now I had witnessed myself responding in real time, in a way completely at odds with two other respected writers.

My next thought was, My feedback had failed my friend.

“Nope,” she told me. “That’s the beauty of having different people look at a piece of writing. Everyone sees something different.”

Fair enough. But wouldn’t competing takes on a narrative confuse a writer?

“It doesn’t matter what was in my mind when I wrote the story,” said my friend, echoing Beth Kephart in her luminous Brevity craft essay, Circus Act. “Once we release our art to the world, it doesn’t belong to us anymore.”

But if I’m supposed to be providing actionable feedback, don’t I have an obligation to switch off my personal lens, so as not to throw the writer off her game?

“Why would you want to switch it off?” asked my friend, whom I was appreciating more and more by the minute. “Bring on the different perspectives. Your opinion may differ from everyone else’s, but that difference is important.”

But…

But nothing.

Besides, I had just proved that finding this particular off-switch was, for me at least, impossible.

And that’s when another piece of familiar wisdom snapped like a magnet to my frontal lobe—something I’d reminded others of a million times, almost as if I knew what I was talking about.

From writer and creativity mentor Austin Kleon: “Take what you can use, and leave the rest.”

My friend ended up passing on both the editor’s feedback, and mine. She gave what both of us had to say due consideration, but ultimately what we told her didn’t fit. She knew, when faced with conflicting interpretations of her work, that her only obligation was to herself.

As readers, we have a similar freedom.

Our obligation as reviewers is to share our unique perspective with an open heart.

To hope that we will crack a window for the writer, and to accept if we do not—in the spirit of the wild, free, creative winds that press for entry at the windows of all writers.

Best of all, to enjoy her story exactly the way my life and temperament led me to interpret it.

_________________________________________

Heidi Croot is an award-winning business writer, published in numerous trade publications. Her creative writing has appeared in Linea magazine and the WCDR anthology Renaissance and has been a finalist with The Writers’ Union of Canada, The Malahat Review, WOW! Women on Writing, Tulip Tree Publishing, and others. She lives in beautiful Northumberland County, Canada, and is working on a memoir.

Tips for Giving Feedback in Nonfiction Writing Groups

June 22, 2020 § 18 Comments

HannBy Sue Hann

  1. Respect each other’s privacy. Although someone might be writing about very personal things, this does not mean that you have free rein to ask all about their lives.

 ‘So spill!’ Faye says to me, seconds after we are introduced. ‘What’s the dirt you’re writing about? I’m going to find it all out anyway, that’s what we’re here for right?’ She laughs at her own joke.

‘Oh, I’m writing about the body,’ I say vaguely, taking a step back, hoping that will suffice. Shouldn’t we at least start off with the weather and how bad the transport links are in this part of town? 

  1. Engage with the text on its own terms, don’t try to suggest how you would have written the piece.

 ‘I would have written this as a poem,’ Faye says at the first feedback group, flicking through my manuscript of two thousand carefully chosen words, describing the ache of an early miscarriage. I look around the group, hoping someone else will chip in and break her flow. The others look down, unwilling to interrupt Faye. We are all playing at being polite.

‘Yeah, I definitely thought you could have turned that into a poem,’ she nods, agreeing with herself, ‘Cut that right down’.

  1. Don’t forget that your role is to encourage the writer to write their own story.

‘Hmm,’ she continues, ‘And I’m just not sure if this is universal. Not everyone wants to be a mother?’ Her voice rises in upward inflection. ‘Like, what does this say to men? Or to LGBTQI+?’

I try my best to remain neutral in my face, though my bones are murderous.

‘It’s meant to be a memoir,’ I don’t say.  I remain silent.  I am following the rules of How to Receive Feedback.

  1. Pay attention to what is written and what is not. Subtext is important.

‘And this stars thing’ she says, ‘Well, it’s just a bit of a cliche really, isn’t it? Looking at the stars and thinking about your loss?’

Kris is meant to be chairing today, but he says nothing. Slumped on his chair, his face is expressionless, and I have no idea if he is even in the room. Faye is enjoying holding the floor, now that she has her teeth sunk in deep, the taste of blood has invigorated her. The subtext is clear: Faye does not like me. Her feedback is the gun under the table, the knife in the back, the torpedo in the water.

  1. Remember to point out the parts you like, as well as the parts you think need more work.

‘Yeah, and on that note, I just didn’t think that the grief was portrayed that accurately’.

‘I mean, I thought the emotions weren’t really what you’d expect’.

Apparently, even my own feelings are failing her test. I scan the room, wondering, hoping that someone else might have a different or even constructive opinion.

‘I thought it was incredibly moving actually,’ said Mark. ‘And I’m a man,’ he adds, softening the parry with a smile, as he pushes his trendy glasses up his nose.

  1. The key to giving constructive feedback is empathy.

Bouyed up by Mark, and taking hold of the gap he created in Faye’s monologue, I try to wrestle the discussion back from Faye: ‘I’d really like to hear some specific feedback on the structure. Did it work for people?’

‘Mmm,’ says Kris, finally coming to life.  ‘It’s got to have an arc. It’s got to have some movement’ he says, scrunching his nose, lips dragging downward. ‘We already know that you can’t have kids, from this early chapter, so that’s not much of an arc…’

Wait, did he really just say that? My mind is behind, still emerging from its protective coma brought on by Faye’s kicking.

Kris steeples his hands in front of his face, while looking at the ceiling.

‘Maybe the movement is whether you and your husband stay together?’ he says as if it’s the plot of the BBC soap opera EastEnders that he is talking about, and not my marriage.

The circle of heads turn to look at me. One of them glances at my ring finger.

  1. Try to end the feedback group on a positive note.

The session ends at last, a merciful release. Faye stands and stretches. ‘That was really fun! I enjoyed that! I can’t wait to submit next week,’ she says. I gather up my things, mumble my thanks to the group for their feedback, while simultaneously thinking that I can’t imagine ever writing another word again.  Almost touching my shoulder, hand hovering mid-air, she stage-whispers into my ear ‘Just make it universal, yeah?’
___

Sue Hann’s fiction and non-fiction has been published in Popshot Quarterly, as well as online journals including Ellipsis Zine and Litro. She lives in London with her partner and a problematic number of books.

 

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