Nonfiction meets in a seminar room that feels straight out of Harry Potter - we're in a converted house called Sunset Cottage, in a room with walnut paneling and glass-fronted bookcases and a big square table that all 9 of us sit around.
The teacher asked us to talk about our lives rather than stressing our writing credentials. Around the table, starting with me: circus performer; ex-nun; philosophy professor; transgender MTF; advertising copywriter; Ph.D candidate in Creative Nonfiction (and our class "fellow", who helps run things); judge; Ph.D candidate in American Literature.
We read a few quotes about the nature of literary nonfiction -
Memoir is not about recapturing something. Those things are not made of words--so any attempt will be failure. (Rebecca McClanahan)
It’s hard for beginners to accept that unmediated truth often sounds unlikely and unconvincing. If other people are to care about your life, art must intervene. The writer has to negotiate with her memories, and with her reader, and find a way, without interrupting the flow, to caution that this cannot be a true record: this is a version, seen from a single viewpoint. But she has to make it as true as she can. Writing a memoir is a process of facing yourself, so you must do it when you are ready. (Hilary Mantel)
The quick sketch of character and moodiness and evocativeness and action of fiction, the musicality and cadence and swing and rhythm and crisp imagery and line-cracking power of poetry, the play and banter and battle of voices of the theater, the camera eye of film, the shapeliness of sculpture … the athleticism and grace of dance, all these things are meat for the essayist … (Brian Doyle)
In observing the world, I'm increasingly convinced that the story people claim about what happened is tremendously more consequential than what actually happened...Not the concrete experience, but the ways human beings have abstracted from concrete experience with great and lasting consequence to themselves and others. (Kyle Minor)
My concise description of memoir is “the truth, artfully arranged.” Now we can argue about the meaning of the word truth for weeks, but I’d rather not. I think – despite all of the weakness of memory (and for that matter, observation) – that sophisticated readers understand that the truth they are given in memoir is the author’s subjective truth. There is no hope of objective accuracy, nor would that be as interesting to read. But you go after your truth, with honest intent. That means that an author who is willingly, consciously subverting what he remembers is not writing memoir, by my definition. Cross that line, and you are writing fiction. Which is fine, but it is another project entirely. (Dinty W. Moore, who is our teacher here).
This lead to a discussion starting with the question, "Is it OK to rename characters in memoir?" Answer: Yes, if it otherwise doesn't matter, or it's kind, or it stops you from being sued. Also, it turns out that you're more likely to be sued for defamation if you damage someone's livelihood. So write that Dr. Smith was a bad golfer or a terrible cook, but if you're going to criticize his psychiatry, name him Dr. Brown.
We also discussed combining characters for dramatic effect. Answer: Probably better to find your way through telling what really happened--compressing time too much, combining events, and merging people into characters is often just writerly laziness. What makes non-fiction different is that it's not always convenient.
Another participant brought up an essay, Corn Maze by Pam Houston, which I hadn't read before, but I read it tonight and it says some great things about facts and truth in non-fiction. Recommended!
We talked about how we must be kind but honest with critique, focusing on the mechanics and technique, and it's not kind to say something's good when it's not. And that the goal of the week is to generate short essays that can later be expanded, so that we go away from the workshop with things to work on.
Then we read a short essay, Hochzeit, and talked about it--circular imagery going with a circular structure, physical point of view, what gave us clues about where and when the narrator was.
About two minutes on each question. Dinty (teacher) stressed that it's not about following directions, if something different comes up, or we flowed into another image, or thought of something which led to something else, write that. This is just to generate material that we may or may not use later. We were asked to write by hand unless we had terrible handwriting problems, to feel the flow of the words in our bodies more.
What is your first memory?
When did you realize that your parents/parent/parental figure was imperfect?
What, looking back, did you not understand about your family? (That you know now)
What secret have you still not told your parents/family/children/loved ones?
20 years ago, what would have surprised then-you about who you are today?
Who in your family did you not like? (Like, someone you were supposed to love but didn't like)
Write about a boyfriend/girlfriend/significant other that you don't remember or don't think about much
Your favorite item of clothing as a kid
A time in the last five years when you acted badly.
Then we took a 30 minute break for coffee and walking around.
When we came back, we started with a student question: What do you do when you have a raw, exciting piece, and you get several drafts in and feel like it's gone flat and you've lost the spark? This was a common feeling for the writers at the table. Consensus was that inspiration must come twice: in the initial draft, to get the idea down; and in revisions, where you allow your piece to change and re-shape with new ideas that come up as you revise. (This is why "second draft" does not mean "fix the spelling"). All the writers agreed that this stage of the work passes as long as you fight to sustain your interest through the next few drafts.
Dinty passed out napkins and gave us each a maraschino cherry on a toothpick. We then wrote from these questions, about 2-5 minutes on each. Again, it was more important to keep writing and associating than "follow directions". He gave the example that if the color triggered thoughts about Aunt Erma's lipstick or the red Keds we wore in elementary school, write that, or what that inspires. Don't feel like you gotta stick with the literal cherry in front of you.
What does the cherry look like?
What does the cherry smell like?
What does the cherry sound like? (Go with it!)
What does the cherry feel like? (We were encouraged to prod it, roll it around, rip it apart)
What does the juice-blot on the napkin under the cherry look like?
What does the cherry taste like? (We were offered fresh cherries if we felt ours was too fondled :) )
10-minute break to clear our heads.
We read the beginning of Lia Pupura's On Coming Back as a Buzzard and talked about the way she uses language. Some people liked it, others were tired of the If I Was An Animal genre.
From the freewriting above, choose one thing that came up from the question prompts and one thing that came up from the cherry prompts, and write for 15-20 minutes on each. Then, from whichever of those two you like best, write a short piece (250 words plus title) to read aloud in class tomorrow.
Read these essays (we have a packet) for discussion tomorrow.
Instructions, As If by Dinah Lenney
Field Guide to Resisting Temptation by Sarah Wells
Strong Men by Hope Edelman
Read the rest of On Coming Back as a Buzzard, then choose something to "come back as" and write an essay to read in class on Wednesday. 300 words plus title. Do some research so that the details will be accurate and good.
Rest of the Day
Lunch together in a dining hall that looks even more like Harry Potter--exposed beams, stained glass. I teamed up with kathrynrose online and we did two forty-minute writing sessions on the first assignment, and I did some animal research.
Took a short break in my room, then a communal dinner (Indian food). Another short break during which I revised my piece for tomorrow and wrote a longer version including a more specific prompt for LJ Idol.
Readings--tonight the fellows (teaching assistants) read. I'm proud to say our fellow was the best! She read a terrifically funny and moving essay about going to a lesbian consciousness convention with her lover and feeling like she wasn't right to be there. She also:
1) Stuck to the time limit
2) Read loudly, clearly, and with expression
3) Read confidently, without rushing or apologizing for her work.
There were some other strong pieces and a nice mix of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, and the fellow from hybrid literary arts brought a tiny handmade book. The readings lasted just under an hour (perfect length!).
I walked back to my dorm with two other writers from my class and we talked about the assignments and our work so far. This casual collegiality is something I've missed a lot from school, and it's one of the main reasons I'm here.
Now I'm going to read some essays, make some notes, and get my ass to sleep.