Monthly Archives: April 2015

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Truth in Nonfiction But Were Afraid to Ask

This post nicely sums up a lot of what we’ve been talking about this semester: is fact different from truth? How can anything be completely factual in CNF if nearly everything is, inherently, subjective and based off of memory?

The article gives shout outs to Scott McCloud (our comic theorist) and John D’Agata as well. Take a look–it might come in handy as you revise your last major writing project!

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Nonfiction for the Writer

It was my brother who got me interested in writing. He’s always been an insatiable reader and as kid I would always follow his example and build on it, so I started reading everything he was finished with. It’s hard to describe what was going through my mind as I turned each care-worn page, the closest comparison I can make is that it was like falling in love. I couldn’t put the books down and I tore through them at a pace that both shocked and delighted my family. My brother and I would talk about all those fictional worlds we had been through for hours on end and compare our interpretations and theories for what was to come next. After reading so many books and feeling the complex emotions they brought me, there was no way I wouldn’t want to be a part of the enigmatic world of authors, so I began trying my hand at fiction.
The results as of now have been mixed. Last year I attempted to become a Creative Writing major and join the fiction workshop, but was turned down. It hurt, in fact it had me depressed for quite some time. Fiction has always my preferred genre, but the rejection had shaken me and I was caught at a point of indecision. Before freshman year I had never written nonfiction, and my one experience hadn’t left me feeling very confident. But walking down the hill to my dorm on a windy fall day, I was reminded of my high school track team, of the feel I got when I sprinted. I got back and just started writing it, wondering why those particular memories had stuck with me. What was their significance? Why would those experiences stick out so much? It was only after I finished the piece that I realized the freedom I felt while sprinting was a lot like the feeling I have when I feel inspired to write. I submitted that piece and here I am now, in a nonfiction workshop.
When I write I feel like I’m suspended in midair on a powerful wind. There is no outside noise, and all the pressure I feel in life seems to vanish for a while. All that matters is motion, moving forward along the path that is being filled in before me. That piece was a sprint, the track being stitched together with each memory that fell into place. I remembered things I hadn’t till then, things that made me rethink memories I had previously been so sure of. It was a strange feeling, but also exhilarating.
For me writing and reading have always been a means of expanding my perspective. Through stories I could learn about experiences I may never have, and through my own writing I could explore idea or concepts that had been on my mind. For a long time I thought these were things that could only be accomplished through the freedom unique to fiction. But, nearing the end of the nonfiction workshop, I can say that is no longer the case.
Nonfiction is exploration, but it’s of a much more inward inclination. That should have been obvious, but before going through the process of trying to create order out of fragments from my memory, I didn’t realize exactly what it entailed. It’s difficult, much more than I had ever thought, but it’s also an amazing experience. I feel like I’m working my way through a series of dark tunnels, trying to map my way through it all and make sense of the structure. But even when you come back to a familiar tunnel, you’ll always be surprised to see how it connects to one you had thought was completely unrelated. You keep going, bit by bit, and eventually that map has become a sort of portrait. It doesn’t always come together like you’d think, there aren’t usually clear endings, and contradictions run wild, but if nothing else this course has taught me that even uncertainty has its place. Because sometimes life just doesn’t make sense.
Writing nonfiction is a struggle for me, in part because I just have a bad memory, but also because it asks us to look at ourselves and our lives critically. As a writer, you’re obliged to tell the truth as best you can when putting together an essay, even if it means showing that you didn’t always do things perfectly or that life hasn’t always been fair to you. The essay demands that level of honest, of understanding. But I believe it is because of this acknowledgment that we can grow from our essays, and that readers can take something genuine away from our reflections. We cannot change the past, but we can also find meaning in it. For me, this is the goal of my essays. To understand myself just a bit better, despite the difficulties.

The Literary Home

In my view, there are few conversations about art more useless than “Is this piece of writing literature?” (perhaps just next to “What is art?”) The debate about whether something is literature–a word that has no set definition, even within the world of academics–is subjective and steeped in pretentiousness. Even worse, it reminds me of the conversations we’ve already had on the differences between fiction and nonfiction novels as genres, something that gets me very frustrated.

So, when presented with the question of whether Bechdel’s Fun Home can be considered literature, I am forced to offer my own subjective opinion: yes, it is literature. And that is because literature is a meaningless term that can be applied to any sort of writing, no matter the quality.

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Shifted Perspective on Research

When I began my journey as a writer, I was in high school. During our presentations in senior AP Literature, I would present articles I wrote and tell everyone I was going to be a journalist. My teacher, a resigned journalism major at Queens College, would nod and smile, with a certain way about her eyes that I now recognize as hope and admiration and perhaps pride. It was the innocence she admired, the fresh hope that was yet to be tainted with disappointment. The innocence of a high school student before stepping out into the real world and realizing that dreams are not fairy tales, but rather blood and sweat and grueling hours of mental breakdowns in front of blank pages.

My first day of classes, I walked into my journalism writing class and was told about the cold-hard facts I was meant to be taking down. The professor made it sound as though my voice, my adventure, my investment in a story had no business within the telling of it. I went back into my dorm, sat on my bed, propped open my laptop, and dropped the class. There was no place for me in journalism then.

I am reminded of my high school self. Fresh faced and excited about my future as a journalist. I remember her, shy and hidden within books at the library, I remember her quiet and afraid to speak. I am convinced that she was deluded. She was never going to be a journalist. I cannot help but be embarrassed for her because she was the only one that didn’t know that the world was not going to be nice—or easily conquered; because she stood in front of an entire class, smiling, and unknowing.

But that girl found something that did fit her. Something that she could mold and shape and throw herself into. Something that could mold and shape and grow in her.

The word journalism has such an edge to it. I’m a journalist. Official and authoritative. I’m a journalist: I’m a badass. While I don’t disagree, I am tentative of the title “Creative Writer”. The word creative seems like a compliment people give little kids when they get A’s for effort. “Oh, that’s very….creative.” And that’s what I think people sometimes feel when I tell them I’m a Creative Writing major. But I want to clarify that I am extremely defensive of this title. That when I say “I’m a Creative Writing major,” I also want to say “isn’t that great?” As in, isn’t it great that we have creative in our title? That we are shameless and proud and that creativity is cherished and admired and celebrated. Isn’t it great? Well, isn’t it?

Writing creatively is hard. It doesn’t have instructions or confines. Before you begin writing, you can’t say I’m going to get from A to B and I’ll be done, because on the way to B, you might get lost and find cooler paths that lead to places like C or M. And that’s alright, because in certain ways you are not guiding the work, it is guiding you.

In my non-fiction Creative Writing Workshop this semester, I found myself struggling with my research paper. I had absolutely no idea how to go about researching things in an interesting manner. I mean, I was no journalist. But as I got more into my subject matter, I grew excited. For my research, I had gone to a retreat somewhere downstate and written down journals describing my experiences, took recordings, and learned about the history of the place. I immersed myself in my research. The retreat had begun as an investment in experience, and after thinking more about it I decided it would serve dual purposes. Knowing that I was going to turn the experience into a story made it much more vivid for me. I was more alert to detail—awake to the beauty around me.

What had started as a dreaded assignment: how am I going to research something and make it relevant to my life? Turned into an eye opening journey. I actually enjoyed researching things. What? I came to realize that research could be fun, and the kind of research that I dislike is the kind that drones on with topics that are portrayed to be boring and uninteresting. The kind of research I enjoy consists of creativity, it allows information to be communicated and understood, while still being entertaining.

I guess the message here is that I was looking at journalism with a one-track mind.  That maybe I just hadn’t learned about the beauty behind the cold-hard facts; the effort and adventures that are required to bring them about, before I decided they were not for me. But, I would not have learned that I like research without Creative Non-Fiction. In the end, this path has led me to discover many things about myself that I would not have known otherwise. There are freedoms in Creative Non-Fiction that allow for discovery and growth. Freedoms that relate to voice, structure and detail. This is not to say that journalism does not leave room for discovery and growth, but that different kinds of individuals find themselves comfortable in different kinds of structures. I am sure I will be researching plenty during my time as a writer—people, places, animals, science, and otherwise, but this research will be communicated in the ways I wish, not in structures that are forced upon me.

The Illustrated Memior

Learning that Alison Bechdel took 7 years to complete her graphic memoir Fun Home was important when it came to the interpretation of the illustrations. It is reported that Bechdel spent so much time on this project because she posed for each scene, photographed herself, and then drew the scene from said photo. Because of this, the reader can infer that none of her panels where made haphazardly. In fact, they’re very accurate to the imagery Bechtel intended to convey.

Alison Bechdel is afforded more literary freedom through the use of illustration. She seamlessly jumps between time periods because with the aid of theses pictures the reader is not left wondering whats going on. It is due to the use of illustration that she is able to easily maneuver through themes such as father-daughter relationship, lgbtq+, feminism, and appearance vs reality.

On a different note, upon applying the critical lens of knowledge and power from Interdiciplinarity by Joe Moran, one could do a close reading of the power hierarchy in Bechdel’s house. A close reading of this fashion would reveal the exploitation of personal power by Alison’s father as he courts teenage boys or punishes his children for interfering with the perfection of his house.

Bechdels graphic novel is unique in its structure due to the use of illustrations. Though the use of these illustrations Bechdel almost rubs her imagery in the readers face saying “look at this, this is how I remember it looking”. And it is through these illustration that Bechdel honors the art of memoir. There is hardly a better way to memoir because with pictures it becomes a lot harder to forget how things looked tasted and felt at the time.

Format Only Reinforces Literary Status

I think that Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home most definitely qualifies as literature.  From a basic perspective I don’t believe its Tragicomic standing removes its literary aspect, but actually enhances it. On one basic level, children’s lit is full of comics and pictures, but it remains literature. I think the only reason that anyone would be hesitant to award literary qualification is if they believe comics cannot aid in telling a story, and a true one at that. Fun Home tracks one woman’s exploration of her identity within the confines of her father’s death/suicide, in an insightful thought provoking manner. The visual aspect of the piece functions as a form of symbolic words, it sometimes conveys something that would be too difficult to explain. On the first page we see a young Bechdel interacting with her father, in what would take more than a page to explain we see and understand when our eyes meet page. Their relationship is one of reluctance, her father lays on the floor reading, and is hesitant to lift his daughter up above him and play. Bechdel’s face is obscured the whole time, which hints at come sort of coming complexity, while their physical parallel position hints at their later similarities in life.

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Squares and Rectangles

What is literature? A book? An essay? Poetry?

The Oxford English dictionary defines literature as: familiarity with letters or books; knowledge acquired from reading or studying books, esp. the principal classical texts associated with humane learning; literary culture; learning, scholarship. On, literature is defined as: writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features, as poetry, novels, history, biography, and essays.

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Art, Literature, A Rock, and a Hard Place.

Without hesitation, Fun Home is clearly literature, and a brilliant example of it. Alison Bechdel does a phenomenal job developing her characters and their relationships with each other through the use of words, leaving the setting to be described through the use of visuals. Although a visual depiction is present, her writing is a necessary and effective tool in telling her story. Various definitions of the word “Literature” that I found online defined them differently. While one definition described it as “written works,” another said that literature is simply “books and writings.” Alison includes visuals in her memoir, but only as supplementary tools to help her achieve the best representation of her memory. An example of this would be her house. She could have used words to describe all of the rooms throughout the house, carefully describing each item in the house that was interesting, but instead chose to show drawings of the house and her presence in the house. Doing so allows her to let readers interpret the house and how she reacts to different parts of it by simply analyzing each picture, and how the narration above or within it correlates with the scene on that page. Continue reading

Structure Matters

“Where is the line between art and literature/creative nonfiction?”

All literature is art, but not all art is in the form of literature.

All creative nonfiction is art, but not all creative nonfiction has to be in the form of literature. A painting of a historical event could be considered creative nonfiction but not literature.

Bechdel’s Fun Home happens to be a piece of art, literature, and creative nonfiction all at the same time. Art implies an aesthetic aspect, and Fun Home is definitely aesthetic by both its graphics and its language and literary devices. Bechdel’s graphics and story-telling is able to touch the reader on an emotional level and convey meanings that are so much more than on-the-surface and informative. Motifs, metaphors, satire, humor, the structure of the story, and the vulnerability that drips through in the story all make the reader’s experience an artistic one. Continue reading