From the Creative Nonfiction Workshop, Week 2

In light of my uncle’s death and a trip to Illinois to see to family matters there, I asked for a volunteer from my MFA CNF workshop to do a guest blog post this week. Michael Larson has kindly obliged, and in just a moment, I’ll paste in his entry. Before I do, though, let me see if I can put together just a few thoughts about form in creative nonfiction as suggested by Brenda Miller’s article, “A Case Against Courage in Creative Nonfiction,” which appeared in the October/November, 2011 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle. Brenda argues, and convincingly so, that it often takes cowardice rather than courage to write good cnf: “We need to shift our allegiance from exerience itself, to the artifact we’re making of that experience on gthe page.” By placing our attention on “all the stuff that comprises form(metaphor, image, syntax, structure), we invite what Brenda calls “inadvertent revelations.” In other words, the “deep and scary emotions” surface through an attention to form rather than to the naked expression of those emotions.  “Honesty, authenticity, bravery: all these qualities emerge under cover of form, voice, metaphor, syntax.”

So before I turn things over to Mike Larson, here’s a brief writing activity designed to do exactly what Brenda has described. To supplement this activity, I suggest that you read Jill Christman’s essay, “The Sloth,” which appears in Brevity #26 (2008). By the way, we’re working on putting the links to most of the readings and the writing activities in one place for your benefit. Thanks, Silas Hansen! Here’s the activity:

1.     Think of some sensitive personal material, something painful, embarrassing,           shameful.

2.     Find an interesting  fact from nature, science, art, dance, or whatever field outside the self that appeals to you. Open an essay with a statement of this fact, knowing that it will begin to build a metaphor that somehow converses with the sensitive material with which you’re working.

3.     Find a narrative moment that’s associated with that fact. In other words, begin to tell a story of a single moment that was significant for you in some way.

4.     Insert a line of relevant backstory, the thing we need to Know about you so we can fully appreciate the narrative  you’re constructing. What did you carry with you from the past into that moment that you’re recalling and narrating?

5.     Write a few more lines of narrative until you feel compelled to. . .

6.     . . . pose a question

7.     Answer the question in a way that shows how the metaphor you’ve constructed from the physical fact opens up something about the personal experience (the sensitve material).


And now, with my tremendous gratitude, I’m pleased to introduce Mike Larson:

The Case of the Present Tense in Creative Nonfiction

Hello there, truth tellers. Professor Martin, that is to say, Lee, graciously asked me to write this week’s dispatch from the nonfiction workshop trenches but, before I get into the grit and gristle of things, I want to take a moment to introduce myself. My name is Mike Larson, and I’m a second-year MFA graduate student in fiction here at OSU—you heard that right, fiction. Though I am smitten with my liar’s art, in my sophomore year of graduate school I have been taking a few nonfiction workshops, where I’ve been writing about my experience volunteering with the post-tsunami disaster relief in Japan. I’m also the online editor of The Journal, which means I run our little magazine’s blog, and if you like, you can read more of my musings over there (my most recent post is on the This American Life/Mike Diasey dustup, and differences between journalism and creative nonfiction, so it might be of interest to readers of this blog).

On top of all that, starting a little over a week ago I became a teacher of a creative writing course in fiction, and one bright morning early this week I found myself the bar table in my kitchen, alternately reading articles for nonfiction workshop and chapters of Writing Fiction, the textbook for my own class. It struck me that a line from the textbook by Janet Burroway, indirectly, had something to say about nonfiction.

Much nonfiction writing, from editorials to advertising… works largely by means of logic and reasoning. Fiction tries to reproduce the emotional impact of experience. And this is a more difficult task, because unlike the images of film and drama, which directly strike the eye and ear, words are transmitted first to the mind, where they must be translated into images (25)

To be clear, Burroway isn’t talking about creative nonfiction in these lines. But if we use these characteristics to distinguish plain, old nonfiction from fiction, then, it seems to me, creative nonfiction falls betwixt them, and bears both their burdens. A work of creative nonfiction is tasked with reproducing the emotional impact of experience and sorting through that experience using reasoning and logic particular to the author. In general, we expect the author and/or narrator of a piece of nonfiction to do more of the interpretive heavy lifting for us, than the author and/or narrator of a work of fiction.

After I finished prepping for my fiction class, I started reading one of the student essays for this week’s nonfiction workshop, part of which was in present tense. As I turned pages and creased corners, I started wondering if nonfiction told in the present tense is sufficiently capable of sorting through experience, and, more broadly, questioning how the present tense works differently in nonfiction that in fiction.

As I approached this pickle, I used as my example, my experience with first-person fiction and first-person nonfiction narratives rendered in the past tense. From my encounters with such yarns, I’ve come believe the role of the double “I” in nonfiction (that is, an “I” narrator that has suffered through the tale being told) is usually much more active than its twin in fiction; in past-tense, first-person nonfiction narratives, we expect the narrator telling the story to have a more significant voice in the narrative—to step in and tell us what the significance of certain events or emotions was—than in past-tense, first-person fiction narratives. There are doubtless exceptions to this rule, but, for the most part, I think it holds. With this in mind, I began to wonder how the rules of the present tense might be different for nonfiction, broadly speaking.

In fiction, it is commonly thought that the present tense lends narratives a sense of immediacy, and I can accept that (though a well-constructed past tense can have much the same effect). When present tense is combined with a first-person narrator in fiction, it often, though not always, leads to narrative that people think of as voice driven. A character narrating events as they happen is granted leeway to ramble, to dwell and linger on the seemingly insignificant, and this creates a sense of a voice—direct access to the language that the character has for his or her world. While this does a lot to characterize the first-person narrator, some of the narrative’s ability for self-reflection is scarified.

Before I turn my attention to how the present tense works in nonfiction, it’s worth noting that, similar to the third person omniscient point of view, the way we use tense in fiction and creative nonfiction is a conceit. When we construct narrative in literature, different verb conjugations and points of view combination can be used to describe the same event—the hurling of a piece of footwear can equally be “I threw a shoe” or “He throws a shoe.” Moreover, in fiction, even though the present tense might make writing seem immediate and make the details being presented feel more random, the reality is that the writer has just as much control over the shape of present-tense prose—none of the details are random and the events aren’t actually happening in “the now,” though they may be carefully structured to seem that way.

In the case of creative nonfiction, Robert Root, drawing from the way the tense is used in lyric poetry, calls the present tense “the lyrical present,” and makes the case that when the pure present (as opposed to the historical present) creates a sense of timelessness, a kind of eternal present. I’m on board with Root, but I would further add that, on the average, nonfiction narrative in present tense is more evidently shaped than it’s fictional counterpart. That is to say, because nonfiction is more concerned with acts of interpretation by the author and the speaker, the details and actions presented in present tense nonfiction tend to be arranged so that the interpretation is less ambiguous. Like the fictioneer, a nonfiction writer might want to give their prose the feel of having been composed “on the spot” as it where, but he or she is even more conscious to create a sequence of events and detail that lends itself to a clear interpretation, even while it raises questions and pokes at some of life’s ambiguities. This makes sense on a certain level, because while much fiction is written in a manner that lends itself to many different “readings,” in nonfiction is usually heavier on interpretation by the author and/or the narrator.

Now, these are simply my observations, having read a few meager shelves of nonfiction, but I feel they have some basis. Keeping this in mind (or simply considering that present tense works differently in fiction and nonfiction) might be of use to the writer who hopes to try their hand at a little truth.

Well, here Lee asked me to write something about form and content and I went and rambled on about tense. In my defense, tense is both form and content, in a way. In any case, I’ve said my piece and shall henceforth confine my noticings to workshop. It has been a dandy of a course so far, and I look forward to rejoining the ranks of you readers out there. I’ll be seeing you all in the comments.





  1. Brandon Timm on April 9, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    This blog post was exceptionally enlightening, I think, for two reasons:

    First because I think that works of Fiction are seen more often as works of Artifice, that is, something created and shaped, each word a mark made by the crafter’s hand so that the work becomes what it is we think the writer envisions it to be, and that Non-Fiction (or CNF in this case) is usually seen as the retelling of an event that was shaped not by the hand of some person but by the invisible hands of some people; events and individuals being what they are less by choice and more by the happenstance of an event being retold. But, as Lee and Mike have invited us to see, CNF is not so different from Fiction in that the telling (the language, PoV and tense, the scene and, as Lee suggested in his exercise, the thing outside of use that can help contextualize the emotion being conveyed through concept and imagery) is guided; it’s shaped by a crafter’s hand.

    The second thing – and I bring this forward as if I had stumbled upon the dot-dot-dash of a hidden path towards the X that marks Paradise – is what Mike says about tense. That, in one way, whether it is told in present or past, all Non-Fiction is told in the Double-I; it is the narrator looking back. And, since it is always nice to tie an ending to its beginning, I think it takes not courage to look back, but more of a curiosity, one that can turn the looker sideways to see – and then tell – the story not just as it was then, but as they see it now, the thick of it being conveyed through carefully crafted language.

    • Lee Martin on April 10, 2012 at 9:37 pm

      Brandon, I think you’re articulating some important things here. I agree that a piece of cnf is crafted in much the way a piece of fiction or a poem is, and I, too, found Mike’s exploration of the effects of the present tense in cnf illuminating. Thanks, as always, for reading and for taking the time to comment.

  2. Michael Larson on April 10, 2012 at 11:41 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Brandon. One of my favorite things about nonfiction is how the double “I” often plays such a big part. Another student in the workshop pointed out that Lee’s writing exercises are great because of their specificity, and how they suggest a practical, sentence-by-sentence approach to the questions of getting that double “I” onto the page. Even if you don’t wind up writing out the exercises line by line, looking at them to get clues about how to structure revelations can be quite helpful.

  3. Richard Gilbert on April 16, 2012 at 10:33 am


    Thanks so much, first of all, for calling our attention to Brenda’s essay—I had marked it to read but set it aside and forgot—and I read it with appreciation. You distill it well here, the gist being your “In other words, the “deep and scary emotions” surface through an attention to form rather than to the naked expression of those emotions.” This the difference between a narrator who is off-putting because he hasn’t learned anything or because the story is ONLY the situation and not the perspective or wisdom.


    Thanks! Present tense really is worth pondering. It would seem hostile to that “double I” you speak of. But for a breathtaking example of how a present-tense essay can be shot through with a distanced narrator as well, see Lee’s “Never Thirteen,” collected in Such a Life. I sure hope he teaches it. It catches the sweetness of young love and also the more knowing older narrator’s rue.

    Just as present tense may be a more advanced technique (not better) than past, the double I in this essay is truly a feat because he makes it work with present tense—and the double I can be hard enough in past tense. And, as I say, the basic story, which is wonderful, about two thirteen year old kids in love, is not ruined by the distanced voice’s intrusions but enhanced. Remarkable.

    • Michael Larson on April 23, 2012 at 10:20 pm

      Thanks for the reading recommendation Richard. I just got my copy of Such A Life in the mail from University of Nebraska Press and have been meaning to crack its pages — that might be a good place to start. Lee sent out another CNF essay that uses the present tense to students in the workshop this weekend: “Oranges and Sweet Sister Boy” by Judy Ruiz. A great read and worth looking at to better understand this technique.

  4. mimi chiang on May 23, 2014 at 1:02 am

    I am new to creative writing but deep in the trenches of a memoir. Tense (as in maintaining one throughout a piece) has always been an achilles of mine because english is my second language. I was in search for advice on whether it appropriate to include present tense in a piece of writing that is otherwise primarily written in past tense. This was such an enlightening and helpful post!

    Thank you

    • Lee Martin on June 3, 2014 at 3:36 pm

      Mimi, please forgive me for taking so long to reply to your comment. I’ve been traveling quite a bit, and somehow your post escaped me. I do so appreciate your taking the time to read my blog and to leave a comment. Good luck with your tenses and your memoir!

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