Welcome to what will be a series of ten posts from my MFA workshop in Creative Nonfiction at The Ohio State University. I did this same thing last quarter for my fiction workshop; now it’s time to step out from behind the scrim of fiction to the full exposure of nonfiction, where facts count but so does artistic styling.
On the first day of a workshop, I like to suggest a focus for our conversations about one another’s work as well as the craft articles and published essays we’ll be reading. This quarter, I’m interested in paying close attention to form and characterization. I’m interested in the personae we create on the page of a piece of cnf as well as the way we go about building characters of depth, including our own character when we speak in a piece of memoir or a personal essay. I’m also interested in how successfully we wed form and content so that the shape of an essay best allows the expression of the writer’s journey through its particulars.
Vivian Gornick, in her wonderful book about the craft of the memoir, The Situation and the Story, tells us that each piece of memoir has a situation, which she defines as “the context or circumstances, sometimes the plot.” We might call this the surface subject or the apparent subject. Perhaps it’s the narrative of the first time your mother took you bowling, as is the case in Ira Sukrungruang’s brief essay, “Chop Suey.” The story, Gornick says, is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” Here, we have what we might call the deeper subject, the one that rises through the pressures of the situation and particularly through the opposing aspects of the writer’s sensibility. Ira’s essay opens with statements of what he knew about his mother as they entered the El-Mar Bowling Alley one day. He knew she expected him “to be the perfect Thai boy.” He knew that she didn’t like the blonde American women she feared would seduce him. He knew “her distrust of the world she found herself in.” Notice how the story, or the deeper subject, already exists in this opening. The statement about the mother’s distrust of the American world sets the stage for what the drama of the narrative will produce, the deeper subject (or the “story,” to use Gornick’s terminology), which is one of ethnic considerations, dignity, pride, and parental protection. All of this works its way to the top through the tensions of the narrative. To read this wonderful piece in its entirety, please go to this link : http://www.creativenonfiction.org/brevity/past%20issues/brev19/sukrung19.htm
Judith Kitchen says that in an essay we participate by paying attention to the attention that the writer pays to the material under consideration. In other words, we’re interested in what Mike Steinberg calls “the inner story,” or the story of the writer’s thinking. We’re interested in following the conversation that the writer is having between the various parts of the self as he or she reflects, interrogates, speculates, meditates, examines, digresses, projects, and acts as the interpreter of his or her own experience. The essayist, then, constructs a multi-layered persona, through which to best consider the thing he or she has come to the page to explore. Gornick calls this persona, “the involuntary truth speaker, who implicates himself not because he wants to but because he has no choice.” At some point, the essayist needs to know who he or she is in any particular essay. Such knowledge, Gornick says, allows the writer to create a persona that best serves the insight that an essay finally expresses. In the case of “Chop Suey,” it’s the insight of the young Thai boy, observing his mother’s response to a racist man who means to belittle her, but ends up being belittle himself due to the mother’s sharp use of irony. To achieve that turn at the end, Ira wisely creates the persona of the naive boy, who by the essay’s end, co-exists with the wiser boy, someone more aware of racism and the dignified response to it that preserves dignity.
So, a quick writing activity to help generate some material while also providing the opportunity to put into practice some of the techniques relevant to characterization, persona, and the role of the truth speaker:
1. Recall a childhood memory from your early school days, something that you can’t get out of your mind even though years have passed, something that’s still somewhat unresolved, something that you regret, something that changed you, something that helped shape the person you are today. An object may help you recall such a moment: a jar of paste, the braids of a girl in your class, a pair of scissors, etc. Write some opening lines that use the object to set a narrative or a meditation into motion while at the same time beginning to create a persona on the page. An example from “Chop Suey”: “My mother was a champion bowler in Thailand. This was not what I knew of her.”
2. Write a few lines that further establish who you were at that period of your life. Begin, if you wish, with the words, “I was. . . .” Fill in the blank in a way that gives you and the readers an idea of who you were within the moment that you’re recalling. Re-read the opening of “Chop Suey” for a clear example of this.
3. Articulate some mixed feelings relevant to what you’re writing about by completing this prompt: “Part of me. . . . .but another part of me. . . . .”
4. Write another few lines that return to the narrative or to the description of and meditation on the object with which you started. Feel the modulation of voice and persona as you move from the what I’ll call the dramatic present to the more reflective voice and then back.
5. Consider why you’re writing about this moment in your life by completing the following prompt: “Maybe I can’t forget. . . . .or maybe. . . . .”
It’s important, when writing a piece of memoir or a personal essay to establish early on who’s speaking and for what purpose. To refer to Kitchen and Gornick again, your reader wants to be part of the attention being paid to a situation and to the story, or the deeper subject existing beneath it. We’re interested not only in what happened but more so in what the writer makes of what happened. This requires a graceful movement between the person the writer was in the midst of the experience and the person the writer is now as he or she reflects on it. I hope this writing activity will help you feel that movement while also generating a piece of writing that you can continue to develop in your writing room.