Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Prefacing Fiction Label of Marina Keegan’s “The Ingenue”

The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories is a collection of pieces of the late Marina Keegan’s creative writing. Readers are prefaced with the sectioning of Keegan’s works, separated into two genre-specific halves. “The Ingenue,” a short story telling of a young couple’s waning relationship, is contained in the book’s fiction section. “The Ingenue” reads as a short story simply due to its preceding label. Reading the piece and lacking the knowledge of its basis in fiction proves a different experience.

Keegan recounts specific incidents preceding the narrator’s split from her boyfriend through comprehensive characterization via dialogue and description. The piece’s opening line, “The biggest fight in my relationship with Danny regards his absurd claim that he invented the popular middle school phenomenon of saying ‘cha-cha-cha’ after each phrase of the Happy Birthday song-an idea his ingenious sixth-grade brain allegedly spawned in a New Jersey Chuck E. Cheese and watched spread rapidly across 1993 America with an unprecedented rapidity,” utilizes the first person perspective to immediately introduce Danny and create a personal atmosphere- one containing a seemingly realistic disagreement between Danny and his narrating girlfriend.

Keegan continues her piece with minimal, yet effective descriptions of characters, mirroring the structure of a non-fictional conversation. “There were six of us. Danny, the bearded Noah, the delicate Eric, the old artistic director, and Olivia, whom I hated,” realistically describes the story’s major characters and presents readers a believable and seemingly factual insight into their fictional backgrounds.

Keegan’s use of dialogue also adds to the nonfictional quality her short story presents, providing conversations realistic in nature. The dialogue,“ ‘Show her the one with the square penis!’ Olivia laughed, and we all lunged up a banister less staircase… ‘It’s not that funny,’ Ricky, the artistic director, was as drunk as the rest of us,” provides witty banter and furthers the visual of the story’s beach house setting (“banister less staircase”). Although a nonfiction piece would most likely eliminate the reminders of character descriptions within the dialogue tags (“…the artistic director”), the dialogue proves realistic and unadjusted from a factual conversation.

Keegan furthers the seemingly nonfictional quality of her piece with self-description, displayed in a passage recounting the similarities between the narrator and her boyfriend, “We were so compatible, really. Really just so compatible in a number of ways. We had the same favorite band, the same exact one, and I used to act too, in college. We bonded over this at a party were we first met- some mutual friend of a friend and I had walked into an unlocked bathroom to reveal him rinsing with the apartment owner’s Listerine.” The use of repetition (“…really. Really just so compatible…”), (“…the same favorite band, the same exact one…”), fragment sentences, (“Really just so compatible in a number of ways”), and detailed retelling of a party, conveys the feeling of an actual conversation the narrator may have had. The conversation acts as if it is convincing an outside party (or perhaps the speaker herself), of the rationale behind the decision to date Danny, enhancing the realistic quality of the piece.

“The Ingenue” makes use of the first person perspective, minimal and effective character descriptions, and characterization via outer and inner dialogue, to create a seemingly nonfiction piece. Reading “The Ingenue” without prior knowledge of its basis in fiction would most likely result in the believing of the piece’s nonfiction nature. Prefacing the piece with a fiction label prevents readers from experiencing the piece on a more personal level, and reading this piece without its preceding label may provide readers a reading more applicable and relevant. “The Ingenue” creates an atmosphere that seems to be based in nonfiction and would be assumed, most likely, that its basis is in fact, had it not been prefaced with a fiction label.

Non-fiction elements in Eileen Duggan’s “The Tides Run up the Wairau”


In an initial reading of Duggan’s poem, “The Tides Run up the Wairau,” the poem appears to fiction through the use of poetic language. The poem tells the story about a woman dealing with a troublesome love, and she compares this love to that of a raging body of water. This comparison initially gives the poem it’s fiction qualities, however, on a closer look, there is fact in this fiction.

Love appears in the forms of Cook Strait and the Wairau River, each having prominent roles in the poem, “The Tides Run up the Wairau”, by Eileen Duggan. The presence of these bodies of water are significant to the poem because they represent heartbreak and longing; difficulties of love. Despite the poetic and symbolic meanings of water, the comparison of water to love has elements of truth. Duggan argues in the poem that the harsh bodies of water symbolize these emotions of love. The first recognizes the similarities between the Wairau’s difficult headwaters and a speaker’s inability to openly express her love, while the second points out the relationship between the Wairau River and Cook Strait, in which love is equivalent to a river fighting against the tides of the sea. Cook Strait, located at the southernmost point of the northern island of New Zealand, is considered to be the roughest and most unpredictable body of water in the world. It feeds into the Wairau River, whose headwaters are difficult to traverse.

The use of water shows how love comparable to the tides of an ocean or a river: gentle and and calming at times, but also rough and difficult, and seemingly impossibly to fight. The speaker of the poem seems to be addressing a lover whom she express her love for. However, this lover refuses to leave her, and the speaker cannot seem to fight off the lover’s pursuits. Here, this supports Duggan’s first observation about love. The general idea shows a conflicted heart and how the speaker is struggling through inner turmoil with a persistent lover. Just like a river’s unpredictable current, so is the speaker’s journey through love.

For the second case, the Wairau symbolizes the speaker while Cook Strait symbolizes the lover. The river, despite it’s own strong currents, cannot fight against the might of the ocean. The figurative meaning reveals the speaker who, like the river, cannot fight against the powerful tides of love. The idea that love is easy is a misconceived concept that has plagued the minds of many, where it is, in fact, the polar opposite. “The Tides Run up the Wairau,” is substantial proof that love comes with a variety of problems, and that not all of them are conquerable. 

“The tides run up the Wairau,” makes reference to Cook Strait, the ocean in which the river feeds into. The river fights against the Strait’s tides, and this conflict also reflects the conflict that is occurring in the Speaker’s heart. Her heart is “running salt,” which entails that she is crying and heartbroken over this situation. In the second stanza, this conflict becomes evident when the speaker says, “I cannot love you”, however, the lover’s “tide of love,” is persistent, and the speaker cannot fight it. The emotional pain that affects the speaker, such as the memories of him which linger in her mind, implies that difficulties lie in the past. She uses the phrase, “salt of pain”, to reveal to readers how the lover’s presence and affection causes this inner turmoil, like rubbing salt in a wound. On a closer look, the Wairau river in “The Tides Run up the Wairau” can also represent the state of mind of the speaker, and how weak and hopeless she feels towards the lover, whose love is represented by the sea’s powerful tides. She cannot fight the lover’s affections, which is like the river fighting the tide.  Concluding the said tale of love, the speaker weeps because fighting this lover’s affections for her is like a river fighting against the tides of the sea.

The line, “For though I cannot love you,” is interesting because it focuses on the mental state of the speaker. It is already known that the speaker, despite having obvious attractions towards her lover, cannot seem to express her love for him. In fact, even though she is heartbroken in doing so, she fights against his tides of love. Her inability to tell the man she loves her feelings reveals to readers that maybe, she doesn’t know how to. This questions the idea of expressed and unexpressed love. Sometimes love is truly felt but cannot be expressed through words. A love that has no words appears in many pieces of romantic literature, as well as in real life. This type of love is seen throughout Duggan’s poem. The speaker obviously has feelings for the lover, since her heart is crying for him. However, there is some element that seems to prevent her from expressing her love, instead causing her to fight her lover away. The speaker, since she cannot openly express her love, tries to push her lover away to protect him from the outside element. In this case, she is expressing her love by trying to protect him. The speaker loves the lover so much that she’s willing to sacrifice a potential future with him to protect him from an outside presenceThe type of love the speaker of Duggan’s poem is going through is tormented love. The torment she goes through is both internal and external. She fights with herself to push the lover away, despite loving him, as well as fighting with the lover himself. We see tormented love in real life, which is also another reason why this poem has non fiction aspects to it.

Duggan, in her poem “The Tides Run up the Wairau,” gives an accurate definition of an aspect of love with her symbolic use of turbulent bodies of water. The use of the Wairau River and Cook Strait to symbolize the struggles in love helps readers understand the concept of a tormented love. The inner turmoil the speaker goes through, as well as the fight to push away a lover to protect him provides the definition that love is not easy and does have it’s problems. Like the ocean, love is gentle, but also dangerous

Finding Fact in Fiction in Mansfield’s “Bliss”

On the surface, the short story “Bliss” by Katherine Mansfield focuses on the seemingly trivial life of a typical middle-class woman preparing for a dinner party. At first glance, the piece reads like a fictional short story because it is told through a third-person perspective and deals with a sort of love-triangle-esque relationship between the characters. However, through the purposeful implementation of punctuation, such as em dashes and exclamation points, Mansfield creates a significant dichotomy between female and male speech patterns that grounds the piece in reality and gives it a non-fictional element. Most of these literary tools that Mansfield employs are conveyed through the dialogue between the characters, which are realistic and believable because they mirror stereotypical language one would expect from a middle-class housewife and her neglectful, unfaithful husband. Stereotypical examples of feminine speech as frantic and trivial displayed by the central character, Bertha, are juxtaposed with strong, collected, more masculine speech, therefore illustrating women as as submissive and erratic, whereas men are depicted as authoritative and more stable, mentally and emotionally. The oppressive relationship between men and women, where women are encouraged by society to act as men’s objects, is only outlined by Bertha’s contrived happiness and treacherous relationship with Pearl, the woman whom she, at first, has a hidden obsession with until she learns that she is having an affair with her husband. The situations presented in the story mirror the reality of the male-dominated society that still exists today, an environment in which women struggle between their internal thoughts and external selves, often putting themselves in competition with other women for male attention.
Although on the surface the story seems to follow the fictional story of Bertha, the naive, dainty wife, and her changing feelings towards her husband, there is much more occurring beneath the surface that brings truth and factuality to the fiction genre. In drawing a distinct line between male and female speech patterns, Mansfield is commenting on the strict limitations placed on women by the men who control them in society. On one hand, Harry is a symbol of masterful authority, described by Bertha as “extravagantly cool and collected” (Mansfield 150). On the other, Bertha’s character is categorized by short, passionate outbursts. The frequent use of em dashes throughout the story as well as exclamatory punctuation and repetition serve as archetypes of female speech. For instance, referring to her baby daughter, Bertha exclaims, “You’re nice — you’re very nice! … I’m fond of you. I like you” (147), repeating the same words and sentence structure adds a childish, almost unsophisticated tone. Bertha’s choppy breathless exclamations outline her submissive role whereas Harry’s small talk, sarcastic jokes, and self-assuredness contribute to his powerful masculinity. Whenever Bertha speaks, her dialogue is accompanied by verbs such as “stammered”, “murmured”, or “breathed” (148, 153), which are usually attributed to a state of befuddlement. Meanwhile, when Harry speaks, particularly to his wife, verbs like “rapped out” are used, as if he were some military man barking out orders (147). Gender-specific speech patterns in the story serve the purpose of making women look foolish or unreasonable, not to be taken seriously, while heightening the dominance of men.
Because Mansfield builds off of real human speech patterns and translates them to written word, there is an element of realness in her work that blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction. Because Bertha cannot understand her own complex feelings and reactions to discovering her husband’s infidelity, her emotions are reproduced in breathless, repetitious sentences. The broken syntax, which is layered with em dashes and exclamation marks, make the language seem real and spontaneous, as if someone were thinking out loud and onto the page. Mansfield transports us inside of Bertha’s mind, revealing her insights moment by moment as they happen. All of these elements make this fictional short story feel like free, indirect discourse.

In Plain Sight

I had never really put much thought into what genre a memoir would be categorized in. I spent a whole semester reading powerful women’s memoirs last year and still it never dawned on me that what I was consuming was in fact creative nonfiction. The memoir seems to have recently become the next logical step in a career for many people who live life in the spotlight to some degree.

The topics can range from political power, the lessons learned through life or a specific events like illustrated in I am Malala. I find it interesting that given the number of memoirs being produced and the clear market of readers that the topic of creative nonfiction is not as present. Obviously now looking at the 5 memoirs that line the bookshelf in my living room I can see how the authors used life experience to provide insight or a critique. It seems to me that creative nonfiction is not gaining the recognition it deserves given what it is allowing so many authors to produce- though it should be pointed out that many of the authors are visitors to the genre.

Creative nonfiction has not been discussed in any of my English courses until this year. It seems to me that it is a specific genre that one must be invited into by those who have ventured into it before. When I think of the way that memoirs make use of the genre it appears that they could be a great jumping off point for learning about and even becoming a writer of creative nonfiction. Many memoirs are a collection of personal essays. Unlike other texts these can be arranged in any order or visual presentation and that idea of structure is a principle of the genre. These are life experiences that are being placed on the page so inevitably the use of the first person “I” will make an appearance. As someone who writes primarily for academics it can be a strange feeling putting the “I” on the page, but a memoir could help expose a writer to that and provide a level of comfort with the form. The language and tone that is used in memoirs is often not the same as in a traditional novel. It truly depends on the memoir but from my experience it can be relaxed. The author does not feel that they need to persuade or convince you of what they say because it is real.

The popular and literary memoir are on the rise and that in turn continues to fuel the debate over memory and the notion of truth, but another debate is creeping into my mind. Is the rise in pop culture icons and celebrity memoirs helping or hurting creative nonfiction. Does it want to be associated with those works or is there a boundary being crossed with how creative nonfiction is being used?

Putting the Nonfiction in Creative Nonficiton

Creative nonfiction is the hybrid of writing genres. It wants voice and the “I” on the page but it is not just thought up stories. The stories are grounded in some truth. These works all include an element of research. It’s easy to think that a personal story about a past experience does not require research but it can. Research is the practice of investigation and study of material to establish facts and reach new conclusions. Most recently writing in the style of immersion journalism and immersion memoir I thought that those were the most logical areas of creative nonfiction to use research but it is in all creative nonfiction. The creative approach in this genre and the various structures displays research in a nontraditional way. I often think of it as quotes and statistics that support the personal thought on the page. In this genre there are no rules for research it is up to the writer to decide what and how they use the truth.

Research is truth, and whether it is directly present on the page or included in the way a memory of the past is shaped for an essay it is providing the truth necessary for creative nonfiction. This truth can emerge from a variety of areas. There are several specific types of research most frequently used. First, the investigation for further understanding of a topic on the Internet or in a database. Second there is the informational interview, where you ask questions to establish facts and gather details. The third place where research can be conducted is in your own life. By looking back at photographs, visiting forgotten places, or recalling major events are providing information that can be used to create new conclusions about what you are writing.

This genre is not rigid like that of typical journalism or even academic writing. It welcomes anyone to the genre and I would know, as this is my first experience writing creative nonfiction. The way it uses a journalistic and poetic approach together can mask the incorporation of research but nonfiction needs this element. Lee Gutkind founder of literary magazine Creative Nonfiction discusses the role of research in the overall process of writing within this genre and it can be a helpful point of research before writing.

I found an interesting piece on Brevity that I thought showed an interesting slant to including research check it out here!


He said, She said

When I think of non-fiction writing, I have always thought of personal stories. Writing that the author needs to get out and into the world. But it had never occurred to me until recently that this type of writing doesn’t necessarily have to be done by the perspective of the writer. There are many sides to non-fictional writing, and ways to show them. For example, if I want to tell a story about my alcoholic father, I can chose to write it from my first person perspective; “I could smell the fresh shot of Jack Daniels on his breath the second he walked in the door”, or second person perspective; “you hear the stumbling of your father walking in at 2:00am”, or even third person; “The smell of alcohol was tormenting. The anticipation grew immensely waiting for the tormentor to arrive”. Each perspective provides it’s own insight for the reader. Many more examples of perspective are given here showing how nonfiction can be just as creative in providing different perspectives into the stories we tell. Our stories through nonfiction writing do not have to be, and are not meant to be our own once they are told. Different perspectives and points of view can help share the stories with the readers in more inclusive ways.

The Ethics of Disclosure

Creative Non-Fiction is, by definition, rooted in reality, or at least “truth”. Because CNF writers are constantly working with reality, they are constantly faced with the ethical dilemma of disclosing the experiences of others. New journalists, especially struggle with these situations. For example, in New Orleans, a Harvard Law grad and former law clerk had her work removed from a journal because it disclosed sensitive or confidential information regarding a death penalty trial. They defense attorney sought a court order, preventing the author from publishing the story anywhere.

One writer, commenting on the case said, “Unfortunately, neither this news article or the essay itself are enough to judge whether she broke confidentiality agreements. It’s a good essay, but I did find myself wondering how she learned certain things. If it was from news articles and interviews the lawyers had done publicly, then she’s good. If not, then I’m not a fan of using privileged information as she did. A court case may be the only way to discover how exactly she learned what. Until then, this looks like a great case to teach, discussing how the essay makes us think and feel about such delicate legal issues.” – Nels

Another writer commented to the same effect, “Whatever the ultimate resolution of the situation, it illustrates the ethical/moral component of writing “creative” non-fiction. The mere fact that an essay is “beautifully-written” doesn’t overshadow how the content was obtained and developed.” – Bob Shea

However, this ethical question is not restricted to matters of law, national security, and areas where confidentiality is an explicit policy. The ethics of disclosure also applies to subject matter where the writer has absolutely no legal obligation not to write about it. For example, writing about traumatic events in someone else’s life, when they have not chosen to disclose those details, requires a conscious approach.

In a blog post called “The Danger of Disclosure”, Roxanne Gay writes the following:

“In 2010, an eleven-year-old girl was gang raped in Cleveland, Texas, a story I first heard about when acquaintances discussed the case on social media. Then the New York Times published an article about the assault—specifically, about how it had affected the town. Oh, how the article lamented for that poor, poor town and the young men whose lives had been irrevocably changed.

The language used in the article, the language used to refer to a vicious rape—the actual crime in question—was so careless. It was the first time I had ever felt so moved by a story and a complex set of social circumstances that I needed to write my way through it. I felt obligated to respond as a woman, as a writer, as a human being.”

It seems Roxanne Gay found the original report to be exploitative in their eagerness to politicize the rape and to carelessly put the narrative before the sensitivity of the information. In some instances, it may be sufficient to remove or change names and specific locations. But, if a story is big enough, one writer’s restraint does no good when another writer chooses to disclose the same event. Further, in compensating by removing names, we find a new problem, as we struggle for balance between “fact” and “truth” in an attempt to respect the sensitive nature of the story. Both of these instances really serve as a case study of the ethical dilemmas at the heart of this genre.




Technology and Creative Nonfiction

As the world continues to modernize, technology has become ever-present in our lives. Inherently, our means of communication have changed as technologies have been introduced to us. Not only that, but the ways in which events and accounts are recorded and shared has also changed. That being said, the entire genre of creative nonfiction has been altered by technology. Memory is now in competition with social media and news outlet accounts of events. It can be hard to find the truth among thousands of different accounts of one instance. Some of our deepest, most heart-wrenching conversations have been held over text, completely erasing the author’s ability to describe time and space of face-to-face conversation. Our encounters with each other may be diminishing, and even though we have the greatest access to communication we’ve ever had, some would say that we are at the greatest disconnect of all time. In some ways, technology has impeded our ability to write powerful nonfiction pieces.


However, technology has also introduced certain benefits to authors. Can’t remember specifically what a place looked like? Odds are, you can find it on Google Maps street view. Can’t remember what a speaker said verbatim? The speech may have been recorded and uploaded to the internet. Can’t find a juicy descriptor? Online thesauruses will solve your problem in seconds. Students nowadays can write and submit entire essays on their phone. Writers can jostle down observations in their iPhone note pad and refer back to them when crafting a piece.


Whatever your take, however you look at it, technology has certainly changed the way in which we write. I would say creative nonfiction is the genre most significantly impacted by the exponentially increasing role of technology. As part of the 21st century tech era, we as writers must find a way in which we can balance technology in our craft as a writer. It’s up to the individual the extent to which they choose to rely on technology to alter their writing process. There are ways in which we can make it work for us, making the genre stronger and more robust than ever.

Putting the “C” in CNF

Often we as a society try to place our finger on the overwhelming ambiguity that is creativity. It is difficult to pinpoint. I have struggled with the question myself, trying to describe such an indescribable phenomena.

That is until recently when I watched (or read, I don’t quite remember) a piece on the general sense of creativity—where it comes from, how it happens and who posses it. Somewhere within the piece they referenced that creativity is like the wind. I thought to myself how perfect that is. And, rather than try to struggle for my own example, I decided the saner route of recognizing the near perfection of this example (creative of me, I know).

Creativity really is just like the wind. It isn’t something that we can see. Sure, you look outside of your window and say, “Oh, it’s windy today,” but not because you see gusts and more because you see its effect on something else. You do not see the wind blow, though you do see the tree sway in the sky and the leaf float above the also shivering grass. In the same sense you do not see creativity, but see a piece of art taking shape or a body of writing showcasing plot and character. Creativity is invisible, though its effect on other things is quite visible.

I think this kind of invisible stronghold that creativity can have on art is important, and important for creative nonfiction. At the base of it all, nonfiction is just a retelling of something that has already happened. It’s the creative part that welcomes art in.

The concept goes well with the first draft of a CNF piece. Many writers that I know just like to sit down and pour themselves onto the keyboard. And those first drafts still come out wildly, and sometimes surprisingly creative. There weren’t deliberate attempts to be creative, or super self conscious thoughts to be creative, but the product, though far from being done, has glimpses of creativity within it. It is the tree blowing in the wind.

Can’t Write, Won’t Write

Writer’s block is such a frustrating experience which is sure to ail you more than a few times if you are a writer.  Even now as I am sitting here, I am having a hard time getting the words out, why is that?  Why can it be so hard to actually sit down and write?   I recently talked with a man who told me he couldn’t write anything for years and that the experience physically hurt him.  The process of writing can be as cathartic to a writer as yoga is to a Buddhist, so I understood completely where he was coming from.  And what caused his writer’s block? He didn’t know.

To me, writing is like therapy and my computer is the most cost-efficient psychologist anyone can find.  However, whenever I try to write a nonfiction piece on a particular rough experience I had, I get blocked.  I can write the story, but writing it well is my problem.  I start to think about how others will perceive my piece.  Is it universal enough?  Is it whiny? Or is it just beating down a path that is so brutalized no one cares to walk down it anymore?

I ran across an interview between Elissa Bassist and Cheryl Strayed who talked about this particular issue.  The interview is a follow-up to an interesting story where Strayed’s advice to Bassist clears her of her block and she is able to write a book.  At the time, Bassist was concerned about “how does a woman get up and become the writer she wishes she’d be?”  Strayed replied that “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. You need to do the same. … So write, Elissa Bassist. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a mother#$%^*.”  I laughed because I remember a particular writing professor of mine advising our class to do just that.  Of course, its not always that easy.

The two writers talk about the distractions of social media possibly playing a part, but mostly how writer’s block is still a mystery even to veterans of the field.  Is getting rid of writer’s block as easy as throwing away your ego, or is it more than that? Is it something deeper that none of us can figure out?