From the Creative Nonfiction Workshop–Week 1

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

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.



  1. Roberta W. Coffey on March 28, 2012 at 3:57 pm

    Hi, Lee,

    I’m so glad to see that you’re sharing your expertise and knowledge with FB writers.
    I read your piece with great interest, and intend to follow your further posts, with an eye to applying these lessons to my own memoir-in-progress.

    All best,


    • Lee Martin on March 28, 2012 at 4:13 pm

      Hi, Roberta,

      Thanks for reading the post. I enjoy thinking more deeply about the issues that come up in workshop, and the blog allows me to do that. If I can share something that will be helpful to other writers, so much the better. Good luck with your work!

  2. Stephen Grim on March 28, 2012 at 4:41 pm

    I was excited for this anyways, but I’m even more amped that form is going to be one of your main focuses. You know how I like me some form equaling content.

    • Lee Martin on March 28, 2012 at 4:55 pm

      Thanks for reading, Stephen. We’ll see where we can go as far as matters of form.

  3. Richard Gilbert on March 28, 2012 at 4:54 pm


    I have been waiting for this with bated breath. And how perfect it is, and perfectly timed for me. I was just considering a great exercise for my classes from Now Write, edited by Sherry Ellis. This prompt, by Marcie Hershman, relates to the emphasis on time in memoir (on page 142, if you have the book); however, it’s an exercise meant for the first day of class. I think I am going to steal yours for tomorrow and try it on two classes!

    I think the subprompts within yours are very helpful. And I can pass out Ira’s essay and have them read it first.

  4. Lee Martin on March 28, 2012 at 4:57 pm

    Great, Richard! Please let me know how the writing activity goes. Perhaps I can convince some of my MFA students from the workshop to comment here on how the activity went for them yesterday. Anyone?

  5. Melissa Cronin on March 28, 2012 at 6:29 pm

    Thanks Lee. This is just what I need. I ‘m working on a chapter of my memoir which focuses on my relationship with my father. I’m particularly interested in enriching characters, and finding a healthy balance between the “situation” and the “story.” I’ll be sure to take part in these exercises and continue to follow your creative nonfiction workshop.

    • Lee Martin on March 28, 2012 at 7:51 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Melissa. I hope this post and the ones to follow will be useful to you.

  6. Susan Lerner on March 28, 2012 at 10:14 pm

    LOVE that you’re posting this. Great class and exercise. Only wish I could be there!

    • Lee Martin on March 28, 2012 at 10:21 pm

      Thanks, Susan! I hope the posts will be helpful to folks. Thanks for reading!

  7. Beth Bates on March 28, 2012 at 10:53 pm

    Thank you for your generosity. I’m eager to read the “Chop Suey” piece, but the link is not working. I do hope the issue is resolved.
    Kind regards,

    • Lee Martin on March 28, 2012 at 11:49 pm

      Beth, I’m sorry about the broken link. “Chop Suey” is in BREVITY, issue #19. Thanks for your comment.

      • Gail Weiland on April 2, 2012 at 11:15 am

        Lee, I also had trouble just clicking on the link, but then I copied it and pasted it into my browser and hit ‘go’ and it worked perfectly. Thought you might want to pass that on.

  8. Josie on March 29, 2012 at 10:49 am

    Kal Bashir is a great believer of “situation over structure” over at

    • Lee Martin on March 29, 2012 at 2:12 pm

      Josie, thanks for this link. It makes me think of the comparative mythology expressed in Joseph Campbell’s THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES. Still, I’m wary of assembly line approaches to works of literature since I believe that many different forms are possible as writers have proven through the ages. One of the things that excites me about creative nonfiction is how elastic the form is and how it continues to evolve. I’m not in favor of experimentation for experimentation’s sake, but I find it exciting when new forms come on the scene as necessary containers for what the writer is trying to express. Thanks so much for your comment!

  9. Richard Gilbert on March 29, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    The exercise went great this morning with my two classes, Lee. These are just freshman and don’t identify themselves as writers, except one, a creative writing major. My classes are themed composition classes–Memoirs of Childhood and Dangerous Youth–and so they have read three memoirs so far, written a short memoir and a memoir analysis. Anyway, this produced great stories, so evocative. The neat thing about the prompt is that it channels everyone toward the dual perspective, even me, since I did it right along with the first class. I had them read Ira’s essay, too, before hand, and that helps. And it shows how subtle the later or distanced perspective can be and still work.

    So, thanks!

    I’d be interested to know why you think that a dual perspective has become a defining characteristic and almost a requirement for memoir, to a greater or lesser degree. Is it that we know the author made it out alive and is in a different time and space, and therefore that the distanced persona merely reflects this and satisfies a deep if unspoken expectation? Also, do you know of good memoirs in which it does not operate? I love Alison Smith’s Name All the Animals, for instance, and it does not seem to apply. Then again, Birkerts in The Art of Time in Memoir says it can be supplied by what is presented; that is, by the ordering intelligence. Which seems a stretch, but since I love Smith’s book, and the sparingly reflective memoirs by Tobias Wolff, I’ll buy it. The most heavily reflective memoir I love is Updike’s Self-Consciousness, which reminds me of Speak, Memory but which I like better.

    • Lee Martin on March 29, 2012 at 1:52 pm

      Richard, I’m glad to hear the writing activity went well. My thoughts on the dual perspective in memoir is that we need that voice of experience in concert with the voice of innocence (I’m borrowing Sue William Silverman’s terms here) to create a fuller character of the writer and to allow us access to that writer’s sensibility as he or she interprets the experience. I can think of Barry Lopez’s short piece of memoir, “Murder,” as one that uses that reflective voice sparingly and instead relies on the details and action to express the meaning of the narrative.

    • Lee Martin on March 29, 2012 at 1:46 pm

      Dinty, thanks so much for the link to Ira’s essay, “Chop Suey.”

  10. […] ** Read Lee Martin’s fine discussion of this essay, with writing prompt ** Share this:EmailFacebookTwitterMoreDiggStumbleUponRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  11. Julie Farrar on March 29, 2012 at 7:29 pm

    I’m glad I found this link over on Brevity. I heard you speak at AWP. So little of this insight into the foundation of essay and memoir was being taught when I was in school. Thank heaven for the internet now so I can get the kind of education I wish I could have found when I was in graduate school. I’m printing out this exercise to try this weekend.

    • Lee Martin on March 29, 2012 at 7:39 pm

      Hi, Julie! Thanks for your comment. I hope the exercise bears fruit for you. Please feel free to let us know how it goes.

  12. Richard Gilbert on March 31, 2012 at 10:21 am


    I just posted an essay at my blog, Narrative, about my 1970s memories of writer Harry Crews (but mostly of me!) in which I try to pull off the “now” and “then” duality throughout:

    • Lee Martin on April 2, 2012 at 8:13 pm

      Love this, Richard! Thanks so much for sharing. Please forgive the brevity of my response. Family illness in Illinois has kept me away from home the past few days, and I’m playing catch up.

  13. Margot Miller on April 2, 2012 at 5:47 pm

    I have shared this link with several people and plan to share the subsequent ones. I was wondering if you will compile all the text and lessons/prompts, sublessons/subpromts as well as the essays/bibliog of writers you site in one place, at one link that will remain active. I would like to include it in the Guidelines for “The Delmarva Review” and on the Easter Shore Writers web page or newsletter. It would be such a great service.

    • Lee Martin on April 2, 2012 at 8:06 pm

      Dear Margot,

      Thanks so much for sharing the link with folks. I’ll do my best to compile a list of texts, etc., but I may not be able to do so for a while due to the fact that my uncle is near death in Illinois. I’ve been there the past few days and have returned to Columbus to teach my workshop tomorrow. I’m sure I’ll be going back to Illinois in the next couple of days. I’m not even sure that I’ll be able to post a new entry this week, but I’m going to try. Maybe I could find a student who could help out while I’m going through this tough time. I do so appreciate your interest in my blog and your willingness to spread the word.

      All Best,

    • Lee Martin on April 11, 2012 at 2:59 pm

      Margot, you’ll notice that, thanks to the help of my student, Silas Hansen, we now have an entry on the blog that provides a directory of links to many of the readings and writing activities that we’re using in our MFA workshop in creative nonfiction. We’ll be adding more links as the weeks go on.

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