Repost: “The Perils of the Perfect Past. The New Past, According to Social Media”

Loving this post by Daphne Strassmann

Like most people these days, I willingly deposit bits of myself online every day, through shopping, commenting on friends’ photos, posting pithy quips, and engaging in my newly found hobby of reviewing recent purchases. Isolated, these activities are disconnected material; woven together, they make me part of a new, vast community of casual storytellers. Despite their careless, seemingly ephemeral character, however, these stories have a new flavor of permanence, and material has never been so easily accessible to writers. Sites like Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram remind us and our followers where and how we have been, all the while creating parallel universes through our daily posts. The vast and specific nature of our online information has the capacity to behave as a spontaneous external hard drive to our own memories. We can have—increasingly, can’t escape having—instant access to our past, seemingly bypassing the natural remembering process. Our hippocampus, it seems, can live on the web.

Of course, future accessibility to the information we etch online, especially on social media, will vary depending upon who does the archiving. Yet as data storage becomes less expensive, the capacity capabilities grow and so does the amount of information held online. After all, in order to serve our needs, the web must have infallible and non-perishable memory.

Certainly, this trove of online information will be a tantalizing and highly useful resource for future biographers and narrative nonfiction writers. And yet, for the memoirist, a source of indelible online information could be problematic.

Digital omnipresence shortens and stunts the distance to remembering—the crucial engine for memoir. Molded in the narrative nonfiction writer’s hands, memory creates stories and feeds a compulsion to reflect on, understand, and validate personal experiences. The organic experience of remembering is still enveloped in mystery. Memoirists have a soft spot for that mystery, but we should concede that digital content will make the past, in some ways, less mysterious.

Some, like Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, author of Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, see the infallible memory of the web as a big problem: “Because of digital technology, society’s ability to forget has become suspended, replaced by perfect memory.” Alas, memoir informed by perfect memory would, I fear, lose its sensory appeal. Web memories might alter the memoirist’s process, not only by providing infallible instant memory but also by usurping our own natural recollection processes.

Mayer-Schönberger also argues that that our online interactions make us feel watched and that, even if we are not in fact under surveillance, the sensation of being watched leads us to self-censor. In fact, writers online are often being watched—or, at least, seen—by readers. This, too, is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, social media, in particular, can help writers find a wider audience—that “platform” publishers are always talking about. Ideally, this audience will be invested in the work—but it could also be dissonant from it. For better and worse, the web arms us with accidental connections.

Of course, if you’re writing about your contemporaries, odds are good they’re hanging around online, too, and maybe also watching you. Those characters—who in an earlier time might have been lost to us—travel across oceans and different decades to engage passively with our own recollections. They can disagree with our memories, question them, and, over time, even change them. They are unwelcome guests on e-mail, Facebook, or through the dream-like images of Instagram. We know what our college roommates, from thirty years ago, ate for breakfast this morning, and it can be difficult to gain distance from a character when she is still right there, hoping you’ll “like” her handmade inspirational posters. These people, our characters, are persistently with us—and not just in our memories.

And, of course, they all have their versions of stories. That’s always been true, but now the bar for commenting has been lowered significantly. That story you’re telling about your halcyon days can become distorted or commandeered—tainted, even—as it passes through what we might call “the Facebook fact-check.”

As it happens, I have some experience with this. I have an unpublished cultural memoir set in the Dominican Republic and Texas, concerning events that happened in the 1970s and ’80s. In it, I piece together, much in the way my memory works, vignettes that touch on both the traumatic and the mundane. In great detail, I describe my aunt’s palpable grief—she went from catatonic to howling in pain—on the afternoon we learned that my father had died piloting an air force plane. I mention how an uncharacteristically blonde, blue-eyed Dominican classmate derided some earrings my mother had brought back from a trip to Venezuela. If I had published this book in the early days of the web, and especially before Facebook, and if, through a freak act of nature, a copy made it back to the Dominican Republic, someone might have quibbled about the narrative, recognized him- or herself in the story and related to or separated themselves from it. Maybe I would have received an e-mail or two with pointed questions: “Hey, did I really hurt your feelings when I said your earrings should be worn only by classless maids?” Or “Why would you write about your aunt crying like that?” By contrast, that same interaction on Facebook or any other social media platform would be instantaneous and, for me, a huge distraction from my work. The mirror social media holds up to my work, so far, has intimidated me enough to keep me from publishing. Not because I have startling revelations that cast people in my life negatively, but because in my writer’s mind, my past has its own past. I can’t get lost in the reverie of recalling that past when so much of it is so present every time I update my Facebook status.

And yet, perhaps there’s hope. I take heart in knowing that although social media supplies us with instant memory on steroids, the content itself can be ephemeral. The moment a corporate institution goes down, so does the content and so do your memories. Our data could be one hack or natural disaster or bankruptcy away from exposure or deletion. In many ways, the steady storytelling we’re imprinting on the web is no different than jotting an idea on the back of a napkin and misplacing it.

And perhaps that’s for the best. We shouldn’t rely too heavily on external digital memory. The noisy interactions on social media distract at every level, and the illusion of perfect recall is a siren’s call. It’s hard to resist since it’s omnipresent in daily life, and so usable, but even the most assiduous curation of interactions on social media has a cost. If our postings on social media and the web keep giving us perfect recall, then the story is authored for us; we become transcribers rather than storytellers. As writers, we delight in that moment when memory becomes story. We need to forget in order to engage in the essence of remembering.

– See more at: https://www.creativenonfiction.org/online-reading/perils-perfect-memory#comment-45317

A simile a day could keep boredom away…

By Yolande Clark-Jackson

I just finished reading Mary Karr’s memoir Lit.  This is the third of the three phase memoirs that pretty much revolve around the fallout from her childhood traumas. Lit details the events of Karr’s life as a young woman, wife, mother, and writer who for many years battled alcoholism and the demons of her past. It also develops into a story about how the author unexpectedly gains a deeper self-awareness and faith in a higher power. It begins with an open letter to her son as part apology and part explanation for what she feels she cost him. Yet, I believe all three books are loosely dedicated to her mother who often appears as nemesis or heroine in her memoirs. Karr’s mother also battled alcoholism but is sober for most of this last installment.

What works in this memoir is what works in all of three of Karr’s memoirs. She has the ability to write a tragedy like a shameless comedian, and her writing voice is generous with metaphor and simile. This keeps the reader entertained while she has to relay necessary information. Background sections of memoir could get stale, but Karr avoids this with the use of figurative language. Her Texas colloquialisms also add texture to her rich and colorful prose. For example, when she realizes she has to check herself into a hospital to avoid suicide, she writes, “It’s a relief to place myself before the staff person on duty, asking him to call my doctor because   I’m fixing to off myself.”

After finishing the book, I went back to re-read the first fifty pages and counted over a dozen similes. My favorites: “My head pitches back like a Pez dispenser.” “The suds swirled down my torso like chrysanthemums in a Japanese wood-block painting,” and “Mother’s yellow station wagon slid like a Monopoly icon.”
Karr also has a gift for telling a story in a way that is entertaining for the reader even though the subject matter is gravely serious. This is not to say that she makes light of the seriousness of her experiences. It is just to say that she is able to inject humor at just the right moments in her narrative to stay true to how she was taught to communicate and move in the world. Language was how she learned to cope with dysfunction.

A great memoir should make readers think, feel, understand, and relate on one level or another. I think Karr’s animated comparisons allow the reader to get closer to her and her past in a way a simple straight forward retelling couldn’t.  She takes you on a wild trip down her memory lane, and her style of writing makes it worth the while.

The Memoir Dilemma


post by litsense

My current dilemma about finishing my memoir, besides the serial procrastination, is that the people I write about will not like that in the process of exposing myself, I will expose them too. My mother may not like what I have shared that makes her appear self-centered, and my husband might be embarrassed to read what I was really thinking so many years ago. It’s my story, I tell myself, my truth, but that argument feels weak against the cold of the back of a shoulder turned against you. In any event, I think any writer who writes about their life and their family has to face this fear in order to write the story they feel they have to tell. Lee Gutkind offers this:

Writing true stories about family goes beyond the normal complications of writing creative nonfiction, because you are digging deep into your own roots and personal foundations. Once you begin to do this, you are relinquishing, to a certain extent, whether deliberately or not, the safety and security of your house and home and family. Your parents, spouse, siblings, cousins, and everyone else may continue to comfort and love you, but they will probably never again trust you completely. They will always wonder what you are going to write about them next.

Of course, the other side of the equation is that they might also treat you with a bit more care and respect because of the power of your pen. So, it’s not all bad.

Bottom line, if you write about your family there is a risk, and the decision is if it is a risk worth taking.

Alexis Paige’s Seven Ways of Looking at a Resolution

By Yolande Clark-Jackson

I recently read this blog entry by Alexis Paige on Brevity and it got me thinking about my own writing resolutions. I have a memoir I need to finish, some habits I need to form, and some tools I need to sharpen in the toolbox, so I could relate to this writer’s musings about her writing life.  The only thing I must preface this repost with is a side note on her first resolution. She includes an excerpt from another writer who shares her thoughts on blogging that struck a teeny tiny nerve. When you read it, you’ll probably think that I took it too personal, and you’ll be right. Yet, I still want to state my opinion about blogging here, especially if you have ever been met with this conflict yourself.  In my opinion, blogging shouldn’t be about expanding a platform or be seen as creating distractions from more important things. It should be about thinking, writing, and sharing. And, if one writes for the sake of writing, whether anyone reads it or not, then the writer can never arrive at a conflict.   Yet, despite her blog entry leading in with a question on whether or not blogging is a worthwhile endeavor, Paige includes some thoughts that I felt would appeal to writers across genre lines. She is honest and funny, and makes herself vulnerable to the reader like many non-fiction writers do. This makes her reader take what she writes personal. You become invested. Ms. Paige also includes titles of some other great posts from the past year that were published on the site. So, all in all, it’s a good read, and I felt it was worth reposting.

Seven Ways of Looking at a Resolution”  by Alexis Paige

1) I will blog. Or, not.

On Being an Inept Blogger, by Marcia Aldrich, January 13th, 2014:

“I should be finding ways to focus my reading, not further my distractions. So too with my own writing. I have a file cabinet with drafts of essays I haven’t managed to complete, drafts of books I’ve abandoned in boxes that block movement in my study…

“So why take time away from my primary pursuits to write a blog? Wasn’t I going to contribute to the problem, writing more stuff no one has time to read? And yet blogging was one of the crucial elements I was advised to undertake in the service of promoting my book.”

In this post, excerpted on Brevity, and available in full on her Backhand Blog, Marcia Aldrich makes a wonderful case for ambivalence regarding the age-old question: to blog, or not to blog. Aldrich outlines varied bloggerly concerns—from time, topic, and focus; to her own resistance to writing about the act of writing about something (suicide) that was, in the first place, very difficult to write. She says, ultimately, “I’d rather have the book languish on the dustiest shelf in the world emporium of remaindered books if to sell it I had to perform his death over and over. I had done that in writing the book, and it was all I could do.”

This post made clear two things: blog or don’t freaking blog. I didn’t know I was looking for permission on this account until I read about Aldrich’s struggle. She freed me to embrace my digital media ineptitude, or contrariness, or fear, or whatever it is. And so, my friends, I resolve in 2015 to do one or the other, resolutely. Or, maybe I will go back and forth, continuing to agonize (the way I do over the last 10 pounds, as if they matter, if they are the last lbs. on Earth) about the dreaded “platform.” (See how I put it in quotes? That’s because I refuse to acknowledge the writer’s “platform” as “a thing.”) You know what now seems a more doable resolution, one far from the maddening meta-toils of the blogging question? Losing those last 10 pounds.

2) I will do my homework.

Seven Essays I Meet in My Literary Heaven, by Jennifer Niesslein, January 21st, 2014

Look, I love lists, stacks, bullet points, maps, and assignments. Tell me what to do, please. Writing prompts, however, I do not love. It’s okay if you do (I’m not here to hate), but prompts make me think of husky-voiced workshop house-mother types off-gassing incantatory affirmations and possibly Nag Champa incense. Don’t get me wrong, I like Nag Champa: many languid afternoons were spent lolling under its spell. The point is, by way of my own associative rabbit hole, I find writing prompts, well, kinda culty.

But Niesslein’s inspired list of seven essay types with accompanying contemporary examples, from The Essay that Manages to Be Funny, Poignant, and Thought-Provoking All at the Same Time; to The Essay that Illuminates Naked Yearning, provides perfect assignments for the essayist. Not too amorphous, not too prescriptive. So in 2015, I’m going to write one of these from Niesslein’s list. If you’re a resolutions overachiever, you should probably do all seven. Any fewer and no Auld Lang Syne for you next New Year’s.

3) Embrace Rejection!

The Form Rejection Letter Decoder Thingy, by Brevity’s Sarah Einstein, Feb 10th, 2014,

Sarah Einstein takes the sting out of rejection with her downloadable Cootie Catcher, which offers kind and generous reassurances to the delicate writer: “The piece was beautifully written and the editors feel sure some lucky journal will take it.” Or, “The editors admired the piece but it reminded them of another they published last issue.” See? It’s not you! Really. It’s them! Now go print one off, and put it on your desk next to the Magic Eight Ball. During writing breaks, you can consult the oracles.

4) Don’t reinvent the wheel/ Keep submitting!

Finding A Market For Your Flash Nonfiction, by Chelsea Biondolillo, March 11th, 2014.

I actually started this one in 2014. First, I ripped off her succinct cover letter and saved it in my submissions folder. (It’s an homage, okay?) Then, I took Biondolillo’s exhaustively-researched list and put it up on a bulletin board. I’ve submitted to a good number of these journals already and will round out the list in 2015. Why reinvent the wheel when the Internet (I mean, Chelsea) has already done the work for you? Bonus? You can cross-reference rejection letters with your decoder thingy from resolution #3. And then make ironic DIY wallpaper out of all of the above.

5) Let out the words trapped inside.

On Writing, Survival, and Empowerment, an interview with Brevity’s Kelly Sundberg, by Sarah Einstein, April 16th, 2014.

“I had compulsively searched the internet for stories about domestic violence, but much of it wasn’t recognizable to me. The authors weren’t grappling in the way that I was grappling.”

Perhaps all writers have stories they need to let out, in order to free not only themselves, but to free others from similar experiences, or to free others to make art out of travail. My own, which I have guarded tightly for 13 years, has only recently begun to rise to a place from which I might access and write it. It’s the story of, and here’s the problem, my rape? sexual assault? which occurred on a trip to Italy in the summer of 2001. See how language still eludes me? Grappling is the word Sundberg uses to describe the process of writing her domestic abuse story in such a way as to remain faithful to a certain ambiguity. I suspect that when the writer becomes a statistic, the language has to be dealt with as much as the event. Is rape what you want to call it? someone said to me in those early days. I didn’t want to call it anything, actually, and so for years I ate it and drank it and drugged it and stuffed it. But stories have their own buoyancy and schedule, and as I said, mine is surfacing. Now is the time for me to let out the words. Sundberg did it, and though she might disagree, she did it bravely. And I can do it, and so can you.

6) Lean on a To-do List

Lightning and the Lightning Bug: A Revision Checklist, by Susan Tiberghien, July 3rd, 2014.

Writing is often unsatisfying. You go away to your cave, for years at a time, and you emerge squinting and grizzled with (if you’re fortunate) some finished work, perhaps even (if you’re really lucky) a bound rectangular object made of paper and ink, filled with pages of said work. See, I made this! you can say. You can finally show the object to people; the work is real. But from most days at the writing factory you return empty-handed. No sales, no widgets. After many days like these, I need to sink into a concrete writing activity. I need some tactility, proof of my own writerly existence. A revision checklist, like Tiberghien’s here, can provide just the structure I need when writing begins to feel like a formless slog. So the next time I find myself on a dry-cereal-eating pajama-wearing-for-days bender, I vow to pull out this revision checklist and my red pen. And you should join me. (Pajamas optional.)

7) Give Yourself Permission

Give Yourself Permission, by Brevity’s Allison K. Williams, November 24th 2014

“You are what you present yourself as. You have a right to define yourself, and project that definition to others. Every time you say what you want to be is what you are, you help move yourself ahead and you let others help you move ahead. Like dressing for the job you want to be hired for.”

Fake it until you make it they say. They say a lot of things, some of them glib, some helpful. But, hey, I’m not above platitudinal assistance. Every year around this time, I get caught up in the clean-slate fervor of the season, searching for a new slogan to take with me into the next. I found 2015’s mantra in Williams’s heartening post, and thus, all year long I will be giving myself permission. To write. To fail. To succeed. To move myself ahead. This phrase, like bits of poetry or jingles or slogans before it, will be the layer of mental nacre I wear into the shiny new year. I’m giving myself permission, for example, to declare the following: I am finishing my first memoir and actively seeking an agent and publication. Just writing that down makes me feel a little taller. What will you do this year to move your writing ahead? What will you give yourself permission to claim in 2015?

__

Alexis Paige’s work has appeared in Passages North, Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, and on Brevity’s blog, where she serves as Assistant Editor. Winner of the 2013 New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Prize, she also received a recent Pushcart Prize nomination and a feature on Freshly Pressed by WordPress. Twice named a top-ten finalist of Glamour Magazine’s essay contest, Paige holds an MA in poetry from San Francisco State University and an MFA in nonfiction from the Stonecoast creative writing program. You can find her at alexispaigewrites.com.

 

A Manuscript Critique Sale to Benefit Caregivers – And A Little Personal History, Too

I stumbled across this post this morning and wish I had found it sooner, but here it is. The sale date is tomorrow. Read on:

 

By Robin Black   Any interest in having your prose or poetry manuscript reviewed by the likes of Philip Levine, Elizabeth McCracken, Ron Carlson, Tony Hoagland, or perhaps some other equally amazing author?? There’s an app for that. . .or anyway, there’s a website. And you’ll be …

via A Manuscript Critique Sale to Benefit Caregivers – And A Little Personal History, Too.

No Place Like Home

            This time of year, when I’m not skipping through mounds of crackly leaves, or sipping hard cider on my porch swing, or carving intricate designs on pumpkins, or canning the bounty of my prodigious garden, I’m preparing for winter. Taking a cue from neighborhood squirrels, who think my house a great place to gnaw on, I make list of things I should get busy with before winter turns my vistas brown and gray. At the top of my list is changing the filters in the floor vents and furnace. It’s not a big deal, but because I have to stop doing all the things listed above, I like to put it off. At least until I run out of hard cider.

Changing the floor vents is accomplished with little fanfare. I think I could change both of them in the duration of a TV commercial, especially during political campaigns. But the furnace is in the basement. If essays had sound effects, there would be one after the word “basement.” DA DA DAAAAHHH!

The basement is a place I avoid. To reach it, one exits a barn-type door and descends a short, steep stairway on a back-porch type area, to a landscape of red clay, spider-family webs, and darkness. It is cool and damp and perfect for serial killers, vampires, zombies and lifeless, decapitated bodies who crawl around in the dirt. It is also the storage area for gardening tools, which are known to be aggressive.

I take my little flashlight, too small to double as a weapon. It’s quiet in the basement. Cavernous and shadowy, with earthy odors and ancient dust whose waftings harbor secrets. Bad ones. When I reach the old metal furnace, the rusted doors scrape against the edges of the machine. An ominous, baleful silence is broken and battered. I am sure I have awakened dormant demons who are poised to uncoil from sinister corners, ready to abduct and drag me to a lair from which I will never see light again. I slide the filter into its slot and clang the metal door shut. It doesn’t go well, the door is out of its frame and the hollow stillness at my back makes every inch of my feigned composure crumble. “It’s nothing,” I tell myself, “Stop being a wuss,” but my feet carry me quickly away.

I have survived another trip to the basement. And for now, the monsters are contained.

By the way, I never do the things I suggested at the beginning of this tale. Perhaps I should. At least the hard cider part. It might arm me against the murky mysteries downstairs.

Encyclopedia Johnson

 

By Liat Faver

My greatest regret in reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson was I felt rushed. I needed to finish the book in time to write about it, and in three weeks I drove through its 1402 pages like a mad woman. When Johnson himself informed me “if we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read” (747), I took it to heart. I found occasion to savor it, hovering over passages that stunned me with their intricate beauty and acuity. Rarely did this tome inspire ridicule; however, I was often dismayed with Boswell’s manner of crossing the same streets repeatedly. I realize he wants to paint an accurate portrait of a man he admires above all others. Yet I wonder if it is necessary to take us through so many of Johnson’s daily events with so thoroughly fine-toothed a comb.

It is easy to see the objectionable side of Dr. Johnson, his self-importance, argumentativeness, and the annoying quality of being correct most of the time. But we warm to him when we see “his brown suit of cloaths looked very rusty; he had on a little old shrivelled unpowdered wig, which was too small for his head; his shirt-neck and knees of his breeches were loose . . . a pair of unbuckled shoes by way of slippers” (280). Here we find the old curmudgeon in his rumpled and unadorned simplicity, loveable and mortal.

Our fascination with Johnson begins when we read that he once beat his school mistress. This is offered as an example of “that jealous independence of spirit, and impetuosity of temper, which never forsook him” (29). We are intrigued by his prodigious powers of recall when his mother insists that he memorize and recite lessons in a prayer-book, and he does so in stunningly short order. We then read that he stepped on and killed a duckling when he was three-years-old, and composed a beautiful, if remorseless epitaph. When we are told the duckling story isn’t true, we are informed, in a footnote, according to Miss Seward, the value in this fable and other childhood tales that can’t be proven, is in “the seeds of those propensities which through his life so strongly marked his character” (31). Thus, we are introduced early to Johnson’s tendencies toward inflexibility and supremacy, and “aversion to regular life” (47).

Numerous letters to relatives, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances often repeat themselves, and I wondered why Boswell included so many. Eventually I came to appreciate them as evidence of the frequency of written communication in Johnson’s era. They also convey emotion and humor, and elucidate the elaborate turns-of-phrase common to the eighteenth century. In a beautiful missive to Joseph Baretti, Johnson expresses affection, “’I would have you happy wherever you are: yet I would have you wish to return to England . . . You may find among us what you will leave behind, soft smiles and easy sonnets’” (257).  The letters also evince historical dealings more colorfully than simple narrative.

I disagree with Johnson’s belief that “’women have all the liberty they should wish to have. We have all the labour and the danger, and the women all the advantage . . . If we require more perfection from women than from ourselves, it is doing them honour’” (944). And he over-simplifies grief and its longevity, saying, “’In time the vacuity is filled with something else; or, sometimes the vacuity closes up of itself’” (714). He seems heartless in his regard for children when he reveals that he “’should not have had much fondness for a child of my own’” (737). Yet he suffers considerably after his wife’s death, and exhibits great affinity toward his step-daughter, and Boswell’s children, and in one of his many defenses of Johnson, Boswell tells us “man is, in general, made up of contradictory qualities” (1399).

As an observation of historic and political events, Life gives an insider’s account of the time it occupies. We hear of the American struggle for independence, controversies over slavery, public execution, etiquette in the classroom, and more. Discussions between Johnson and his cohorts traverse many themes, from wine consumption, to Parliamentary procedure. When Johnson falls ill, we learn of the dropsy, blood-letting, and the application of squills.

Boswell’s devotion to Johnson is painstaking and affectionate. We see his “strange and somewhat uncouth” appearance, his “convulsive cramps” and “slovenly mode of dress.” It is touching to watch him walk with “the struggling gait of one in fetters” (1398). Johnson’s voice may still be heard in the pages of Boswell’s biography, a man with the “power of seizing the useful substance of all that he knew” (1400). And we can’t help but listen.

Boswell, James. Life of Johnson. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc. 1980. Print.

 

 

The Top Ten Reasons Why Writers Make the Best Friends

From the South85 blog:

At the conclusion of an alumni weekend during the Converse College MFA residency, I sat with three friends/colleagues/fellow alum who gathered for one final moment before parting (again) to return to our respective homes after a fun-filled, raucous, inspiring time.

As we reflected on various moments, all of us anticipating and dreading the impending depression that results from returning to the “real world,” the thought for this blog post struck me.

Read the rest of Kathleen Nalley’s South85 blog post here.

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Interested in an MFA program? The deadline to apply to Converse College’s MFA program is October 1st.
Information on limited scholarships and teaching assistanships are available here.

 

 

Lessons and Locutions

By Liat Faver

Books that are written to instruct can be dull and repetitive. Becky Bradway and Doug Hesse are aware of this, and they have written a book about writing that piques creativity. Creating Nonfiction: A Guide and Anthology contains well-structured lessons followed by an anthology that houses a wealthy store of contemporary authors and interviews that keep the reader enthralled and amazed.

The section on craft discusses form, description, dialogue, style, and revision. We learn that we may separate creative nonfiction “into two rough piles: ‘information’ and ‘idea.’” And we may toy with these two piles in degrees of nuance and revelation to whatever effect we wish because “what writers do with an incident or memory is generally more important than the subject matter itself” (38). I placed markers in the chapter on form to highlight several paragraphs with suggestions for generating ideas, questions to address the specifics of what one is writing and why. I found myself feeling like I had entered a familiar classroom with a favorite professor. Bradway and Hesse’s direction is detailed and intricate, but gentle and encouraging in its delivery. I was inspired to return to stories of my own to apply what I was learning, to manipulate structures and time, and experiment with dialogue.

Bradway and Hesse find new ways to shed light on standard information. It is heartening to see oneself in missives about falling “in love with words . . . putting them together in unique ways . . . forced to define what had previously been overlooked” (78). It is liberating to note that “unconventional punctuation shows that we’ve moved from the realm of the conventional to the literary” (83). The authors don’t encourage us to blatantly ignore rules. They present examples and show us how best to choose our own unique styles without losing our readers in the process.

I am fond of the revision process. This does not mean that I don’t find it tedious and dull sometimes. Creating handles this subject meticulously, emphasizing the fact that while “the act of writing can seduce and beguile, causing us to love our worst lines” (98), we must realize the fatality of the flawed phrase, sentence, paragraph, or even chapter. How many times have I forced myself to remove something I thought enchanting? And how much information has been jettisoned because it was useless? How often have I noticed, after reading something more than ten times, that I’ve left out vital data, or punctuation, or that I’ve misspelled a word, or missed the boat entirely? It serves us as writers to be reminded that details must “develop the larger narrative pull and thematic concerns” (113).

Creating concludes its lessons with chapters on research, interviewing, and writing ideas. Although I tend to resist research, it is usually necessary to good writing. And I often find myself enjoying the process, despite my aversions, and Bradway and Hesse take me to task, calling writers detectives who don’t consider research “an odious, dreaded task but an adventure in finding an answer and getting a fuller picture” (120).

As a book on the craft of writing, Creating Nonfiction is one of the best I’ve read, and its anthology is wonderful, with numerous variations on style and form, and topics ranging from the operations of a candy factory, to the squalid conditions of abject poverty. As one who yearns to improve, I will continue to use this book. If I were teaching, it would be indispensable.  I have touched on a fraction of what makes this book a must-have for aspiring writers. To wit, it is a gold mine.

Bradway, Becky and Doug Hesse. Creating Nonfiction: A Guide and Anthology. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2009. Print.

What writers have on their bedside tables

A fun project from author Shannon Huffman Polson, author of North of Hope. It’s called The Bedside Table Project. Below is the description from Shannon’s site:

Part voyeur, part inspiration, every Monday you get a glimpse into the lives of authors and other thinkers who share a picture of their bedside table, a view into what matters to them right now, the things that inspire them, that occupy their minds.


Connect with Shannon on Twitter, Facebook, and her website.