Monthly Archives: February 2016

Genre Bending

In writing creative nonfiction, it is impossible to accurately remember every detail of a scenario that you wish to write about. As creative writers, it is our duty to our readers to fill in the gaps when they need to be filled and to make a comprehensive story out of the details that we do remember.

That leads to a bigger question, how much can we rely on our memory? I often wonder if my sister actually dared me to stand on a tree limb when I was eight years old pretending to be Tarzan then pushed me, or if somehow over time my memories have been warped and that’s the only sense I can make of the situation. How do we know we are being honest with ourselves, and is it an injustice to our writing if we are not, or cannot?

I don’t think so. I think the creative part of creative nonfiction comes from bending the truth a little bit. Now, that’s not to say that we can intentionally falsify elements of the past to make the story fit our authorial desires, but I think it’s necessary in some instances to find ways to creatively recreate the past and make meaning of it. I don’t think that it’s ingenuous to bend the genre a little bit to create the best story possible while maintaining the important truths which create the topic and purpose for discussion.

When I think about this, I often think of a song titled “Tiny Glowing Screens Pt. 2” by Watsky. It opens:

“There’s 7 billion 46 million people on the planet

And most of us have the audacity to think we matter

Hey, you hear the one about the comedian who croaked?

Someone stabbed him in the heart, just a little poke

But he keeled over ‘cause he went into battle wearing chain mail made of jokes

Hey, you hear the one about the screenwriter who passed away?

He was giving elevator pitches and the elevator got stuck halfway

He ended up eating smushed sandwiches they pushed through a crack in the door

And repeating the same crappy screenplay idea about talking dogs ’til his last day

Hey, you hear the one about the fisherman who passed?

He didn’t jump off that ledge

He just stepped out into the air and pulled the ground up towards him really fast

Like he was pitching a line and went fishing for concrete”

This, to me, is a perfect example of using the creative form and being imaginative to bend the truth to make it more captivating. It’s our responsibility as creative nonfiction writers not only to tell the truth, but to present it in an interesting way. Rather than just stating fact, we are artists that must compose it into masterpieces. We, as authors, choose the angle from which our readers get to view us, and it is our burden to make sure that we select the best kind of light… and sometimes, that requires a bit of shifting.

Literary Criticism As Creative Nonfiction

Surely there’s a lot of writing about writing, but what sort of artistic liberty and empowerment is afforded through the marriage of creative nonfiction and literary critique?

  1. A launching point – Working off the backbone of some pre-established and thoroughly vetted literary work allows a writer to tailor any particular piece to a message that already “works”. It offers familiarity and context from the instant it is brought into the new work. That advantage is mostly implicit in any intertextual reference, but when adequate focus is dedicated to critique, it is an undeniably explicit sign to the reader that contrast or comparison will follow.
  2. Jury instructions – Any analysis offered by the author in this sub-genre will likely serve as a guide to the reader on what is most important to pay attention to when reading the new work. To some extent, this may allow the writer to be more “subtle”, for lack of a better word, and to provide tangentially related information with some confidence that it can be tied together with use of the analysis. In other words, “here is the evidence, and this is the lens to use in reaching a verdict”.
  3. Accessibility – This can really play out for better or for worse. The choices in cross-textual references can invite readers by their familiarity or completely isolate them. There is some obligation to make the analysis sufficient to avoid the latter, and there may be cause for concern that familiarity may come with insatiable expectations.

The last point begs the important question as to whether this is a tool or a crutch, but that much is the responsibility of the author. For some examples of literary criticism as creative nonfiction – see:

JOSHUA – MAX APPLE

BOOK MARKS – REBECCA MCCLANAHAN

Fact vs. Fiction, that’s why we call it creative

One of the bigger controversies in the creative writing is the dilemma over fact and fiction within the essay. Many people argue if the genre is labeled with nonfiction, everything must be factual, but what happens when you tack on creative in front of it? I am here to explore.

Does it really change the meaning of the story if you call Greg, Jim or change his hair color from gray to brown? It is beyond the human brain’s capacity to remember each and every detail of a scene, therefore when reading or writing a creative nonfiction piece, you must take it with a grain of salt. Everything that is explained may not be entirely accurate but it is for the reader to determine. The importance of this genre lies in the pen of the writer, it is their job to retell their own experiences and modify them as needed.

After browsing the web I found an article where a quote was displayed by Ryszard Kapuściński; “Almost all journalists, except for a handful of saints, do on occasion sharpen up quotes or slightly shift around times and places to heighten effect. Perhaps they should not, but they – we – do.” Why do we constantly strive for absolute perfection, why do we insist that the truth should never be stretched even in a creative atmosphere? These are the pressing questions of the genre. The blogger above agrees that all writers tend to adjust the truth to strengthen the effect of the meaning they strive for.

The point is the question over fact and fiction in the genre of creative nonfiction is subjective. Everyone will have their own opinion but it is important to recognize the genre is unique in the way that it contains both creative and nonfiction elements, and it should be praised for being different!

 

Another take on the question….

When Rules Should be Broken

Young writers are often told by their teachers in grade school how to write.  We are taught that there are set rules on how to accomplish the perfect essay and you must always follow these rules.    As a writer in undergrad this just really bothers me.   Some of the rules that still haunt me are never start a sentence with and or but,  and never use the first person point of view in academic writing.  I often break these rules in my writing and I’m often told by my peers not to do that following the mantra of grade school.  So who’s right here?  Do we follow the rules that were ingrained into us or do we express our own creative selves by breaking them?

 

Anjali Sachdeva a writer, editor and teacher agrees that some rules need to be broken.  In here article “5 Classic Writing Rules We Could Do Without”  she discusses rules that she finds problematic.  Rule 1. Show, don’t tell, is particularly important in the world of creative non-fiction.  How often are we told in class revisions to do this?  For me, its a topic, comment, or point of discussion for every essay we address.  Sachdeva explains that the rule means to describe and give details, rather than just stating what happened.  She also said that the number of times this rule can be implemented, it can also have exceptions.  Most pieces of writing have a combination of “showing” (describing scenes) and “telling” (giving summary).  If we focus on the “show” Sachdeva says “we risk overloading our prose with unnecessary descriptors, or devoting excessive page space to something that would be better dealt with in a few sentences of summary.”  In other words, we need a balance.

 

This makes sense to me.  Pretend you are back in grade school and it is show and tell day.  If we were to show, don’t tell, we would bring in the object, put it on a desk in the front of the class, and that’s it.  According to the rules, this is suffice.  We know that it isn’t though.  If you don’t know what the object is or what it means to the person who owns it, then what purpose does it have?  Let’s turn the tables.  Your a little kid after all, chances are you forgot your object.  Now you have nothing to show but your just going to talk about the object as you stand in the front of the room.  Sounds pretty boring.  You’ll lose your audience and the connection of understanding why this is so important to the writer.   This is why it’s called “Show and Tell” after all. If you do one over the other, it’s just not as good.

 

 

Incorporating the “Interesting Mind”

Recently, while browsing the internet, as my generation is apparently so inclined to do, I ran across an interview conducted by Poets & Writers with creative nonfiction writer Phillip Lopate.

In the interview Lopate is asked if he has any rules or guidelines for writing creative nonfiction. I immediately closed the five other tabs I had open and honed in, deciding that his answer was crucial to my success in class and as a writer. If I ever become comfortable enough to consider myself a writer.

So what did he say?

I’m not going to exactly quote it because 1) there’s a link above that will let you read the entire interview (which I strongly urge you to do) and 2) I’m pretty lazy. But essentially Lopate says that rather than harping on incorporating perfect elements of the craft, the key is a masterful display of consciousness on the page. He claims that it can be quite hard to finesse all these elements of the craft that are often stressed in this genre without an interesting mind. He loves to be able to follow an interesting mind. In this way the play of consciousness becomes the main actor on the page.

This idea fascinates me. I mean we all like to think our minds are interesting, right? The more I think about this concept the more I agree. I am quite new to the world of creative nonfiction, but with each piece I read I discover a new interesting mind. I find myself sitting down to read one essay and finishing the entire collection because the writer has such a deep mind and the ideas they play with in their pieces are so eloquent and profound. And it is enthralling, almost intoxicating, to watch that writer’s mind wander and navigate its way through the piece. Each word is thought over and contemplated careful, each shift in tone or tense is purposeful and powerful, and even the inclusion of white space, or lack thereof, in these pieces is strategic and meaningful. If you think about it, it is actually quite stunning to witness.

It is these moments that make the writing creative nonfiction. This element of unique and interesting minds unfolding on the page, processing different moments in a way only they could have thought to is amazing and is what makes the genre so compelling. Whether it is the story of the dollar you found on the ground the other day or the harrowing tale of your first heartbreak, writers of this genre will make it interesting.

I may have gotten a bit carried away there, but I’d love to hear any of your opinions on Lopate’s “rule.” The interview is pretty interesting itself so feel free to check it out!

 

 

The Best Part of “Believe” is the “Lie”

I took College-English senior year of high school and I never got credit for it, but I should have. Come another, different, senior year—four years later—and I’m still using some of the concepts I learned in Mrs. Marciano’s class. We did Kite-Runner that year, and I struggled through that; you can only imagine my abhorrence when we entered the “Non-fiction” part of the class that would feature another story of the Middle-East, a place that I had absolutely no cares about. I tried to get involved with Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson, but I just couldn’t. Why do I care about non-fiction? Why would I want to read this? The story is sweet, I guess: Mortenson finds a village of (Savages) when he gets lost attempting to climb K-2, the second-tallest mountain in the world. Mortenson documents how the villagers take him in, nourish him, and then how he spends years trying to build schools and other infrastructure in their archaic village. Really, it’s a sweet story, but my 17-year-old self didn’t want to hear it if there weren’t bad guys getting blown up or good guys getting the girl. I didn’t like it, okay?

My predisposition changed when, after we had finished the book, Mrs. Marciano introduced a criticism of Mortenson’s book called “Three Cups of Deceit,” written by John Krakauer who, we were told, was a very famous journalist. Krakauer’s beef started when he donated to Mortenson’s foundation, Central Asia Institute (CIA), but then later found out that the majority of the donations were used to fund Mortenson’s book promotion, not for the humanitarian ventures he claimed it was for. Krakauer mentioned this, but he also suggested that Mortenson wrote a non-fiction book in which he exaggerated the truth of his heroics and participation. Essentially, Krakauer claims that the basic events in Morten’s story that took place— Mortenson stumbling into the village, Korphe, and promising to build a school there— never actually occurred. Additionally, some of the most intense parts of Mortenson’s sequel Stones into Schools turned out to be fabricated or exaggerated as well. While Krakauer acknowledged that the intention of both books was to help the people targeted by the CIA, he claims that Mortenson did not appropriate allocate the funds received and that the story was a disgrace to the non-fiction genre.

At the time of the lesson, back in 2011, I felt ever-so vindicated. This annoying book was being attacked by someone important, not just my friends and I in the back of the classroom. But here, in a non-fiction class, some five years later, I have to wonder what side I stand on. Of course, if people are donating to a cause it is right to be argued that there money should go to where they are told its going, but, I mean, am I supposed to feel offended by Mortenson’s fabrications. I wonder if I am? I just wrote a non-fiction essay. It would have been a lot easier if I could have plowed through some walls of truthiness. My story would have been better, my writing would have been easier. But I didn’t. I stuck to the truth, mostly, because that’s the point of this genre… Mostly… I stuck to the truth mostly. What does ‘mostly’ mean? Well, you see, I forgot somethings, so I added some details where I couldn’t really remember what happened. I also had to smush some characters together, because I couldn’t fit everyone I ever knew into my three-thousand word essay. And, actually, I smushed some of the plot to make it brisk and interesting too. There’s the part where I skipped years and years and years between parts of my story. Oh! And I made up most of the conversations too… But they happened they just didn’t happen when I said they happened, or with who I said they happened with… if I remember right. But, mostly I stuck to the truth.

The truth is subjective. It’s different in everyone’s mind. It’s told by language— which is nothing short of constant metaphor. Sure, I bet someone out there can prove that Greg Mortenson never talked to This villager at that time, the same way I’m sure my girlfriend could tell you how most of my story is substantively and chronologically inaccurate, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. It’s true because I say it is, and you can only prove otherwise if you care so much that you act on the things in my story. In Mortenson’s story, people didn’t walk away with a beautiful tale in their hearts, they walked to their cell-phones and started donating. They did that before they did their research, and then got mad after they had made bad decisions. Mortenson’s story is a story, and we should treat it like one. We have to remember that non-fiction, the way we talk about it, is created by artists and not reporters. While artists sometimes have rhetorical moments, they are not necessarily sources of truth.

Of course, as a reader you’re allowed to avoid the un-truthers. That’s your prerogative. But remember that every story, no matter how true, is grounded in some kind of fiction.

Literary Law – When truth may not set you free

Author Terry Tempest Williams tell us “I write as a witness to what I have seen. I write as a witness to what I imagine.” In my opinion, every personal essay is an experiment taken on by the writer to try and make sense of some sort of idea or event that they feel strongly about. But there is surely a debate about the amount of fiction that should be allowed in a nonfiction piece. So, is what a person imagines fact or fiction? And what does that mean when they go to publish it?

Every writer, no matter the genre, dreams of the day that they will be published. But rules are different for those writing about the truth, especially when the truth involves a sensitive subject such as sexual abuse. If published, the writer could be involved in a defamation lawsuit if the perpetrator can be easily identified and hurts their reputation. Because of this, sometimes authors are urged to change some vital information so that they will be protected. So, my question is, is this fact or fiction? What does changing the information mean when it is a work of creative nonfiction? Is the author protecting themselves or hurting their truth?

Take a look at a conversation about literary law here, and decide for yourselves.

Do we owe our allegiance to memory or the truth?

I recently was telling a friend a story about my kindergarden class– in our art classroom we had an iguana. When I was describing the class pet to my friend I said that it must have been about 10 feet long and that it was much more like a dragon than an iguana.

After some research together my friend and I found out that iguanas can only be about 3 feet long.

Now obviously I didn’t intentionally lie about the length of an iguana to bolster my school system’s reputation. I honestly thought that Iggy the Iguana was that large. In comparison to me as a five year old the iguana probably did seem that large.

Some in the world of nonfiction would say that I would need to go with the researched length of 3 feet in future tellings of the story because that was, in fact, the correct length. They’d say if it isn’t completely true it must be omitted. Personally I think that the 10 foot figure adds something to the story. In a way, a five year old thinking that an iguana was 10 feet long develops character, establishes some nostalgia and relates to common childhood sensations.

I think in creative nonfiction the way that we as writers remember events happening is much more important than what actually happened. That is not to say that the truth should ever intentionally be distorted, but creative and foggy liberty should be allowed. I believe that we owe our allegiance to memory rather than the truth. What do you think?

Wait, Poetry can be Nonfiction?

It is true, folks. Poetry can be a form of creative writing when it comes to nonfiction. I found this article about poetry and nonfiction to be rather interesting. https://www.creativenonfiction.org/online-reading/whats-story-2  I think it is safe to say that many people do not consider poetry a true form of creative writing for nonfiction, but in all reality it truly is. This article points out that poetry is one of the most straight-forward ways of writing something and getting your point across. Poetry always develops a narrow and targeted focus that gets out only the things necessary in it, without all the extra words that are unnecessary. For a nonfiction writer this can be a difficult task to accomplish because people often times get wrapped up in the moment or whatever they may be ranting about and get off track with the main focus of the piece. This is where poetry comes into play and communicates ideas smoothly.