We had the pleasure yesterday of a visit from Stewart O’Nan, best known for novels such as Emily, Alone, Wish You Were Here, Speed Queen, Songs for the Missing, and the recently released, The Odds, but also the author of an interesting book of nonfiction, The Circus Fire, about the horrible blaze on July 5, 1944, in Hartford, Connecticut. We’d read an excerpt from the book as well as last week’s articles from Gerard and Schwartz, so we were prepared with questions for Stewart about the research and writing of his book.

Here are some interesting thoughts that came from Stewart’s thoughtful responses to our questions:

1.     In response to a question about whether the way he approaches writing fiction differs from his approach to writing nonfiction, he talked about his obligation. In fiction,  he said, his obligation was to his characters and the accuracy of their actions and responses within a specific world. Such hold true for his approach to nonfiction as well, but in that genre his obligation expands to take on the expectations of his readers, who come to hear a true story, and to the material itself as he does his best to pin down the facts.

2.     Considering the level of detail in The Circus Fire, which I would describe as lush and authoritative, Stewart talked about how he wanted “coverage” in the book. In other words, he wanted to include as many particulars as he could, not only the facts of the fire, but also the particulars of the circus world and the world of North Hartford in 1944. Stewart expressed a mild complaint about his approach, claiming that he sometimes included details that the reader didn’t need and that the story could have moved along more quickly had he pared things down. It was refreshing to hear such an accomplished writer speak critically of his own work, proving what we all know: It’s so hard to get everything right.

3.     Stewart also talked about how he broke the first rule of journalism, which is, the more sources you have, the more confusing the story gets. In this complicated story of a fire, the source of which has never been nailed down, many inadequacies and rumors have spread. In the interviews that Stewart did, he found many conflicting stories. Thus, his job was to corroborate as many of the facts as he could. If he was unable to nail down a fact, he quoted the person claiming that fact to make clear that this was this one particular person’s version of the truth.I can understand, then, the attempt to gather more sources in an attempt to verify more facts. Still, Stewart feels he could have simplified things for the readers.

4.     Stewart also talked about conducting interviews with people who had either gone to the circus that fateful day or perhaps meant to go but for one reason or the other stayed home. I’ve long believed that conducting interviews is very much a matter of carrying on a good conversation that begins with the interviewer’s curiosity. Stewart said he usually began his interview with the question, “Tell me about that day.” I like this open-ended approach, this invitation to narrate. It focuses the interview subject on the facts while also leaving room for stories and details that might not come out if the interviewer has too strict of an agenda. The interviewer, as Stewart did, can then direct the conversation with appropriate prompts: “Did you go to the circus that day?” “Where did you sit?’ “What did you do when you realized the tent was on fire?” Etc.

Stewart spent a glorious hour with us during which he was generous and forthcoming and extremely personable. It was easy to see that interview subjects would feel very comfortable telling their stories to him. Again, I stress the importance of being curious. It’s in people’s nature to tell us what they know. . .if we’ll only ask them.

The rest of our workshop featured the discussion of two essays from our members. Both essays, interestingly enough, experimented with form. One of them was a photo essay, the photographs providing invitations and illustrations of the text. The other essay was what Brenda Miller would call a hermit crab essay, taking on, in this case, the form of a class syllabus as a way of investigating extremely complicated and personal material about gender identification. Both writers were doing interesting things with the juxtaposition of form and content, and it reminded me of  an earlier conversation this quarter that came from the Brenda Miller article that described the efficacy of these non-traditional forms in terms of them providing the safety from which to express difficult material.

The images of the photo essay were not only representational of the objects photographed but also contained the emotional complexity of the writer’s feelings about those objects. The imperative language of the syllabus stood in stark contrast to the moments of vulnerability and uncertainty that arose in the text itself. This contrast between certainty/comfort and uncertainty/discomfort led me to improvisie a writing activity on the spot. I’ll try to reconstruct, expand, and refine it now:

1.     Think of one thing about yourself that you’d like to change. Maybe it’s a physical feature, or maybe it’s a personality trait. Anything that you wish you could change and that is within your power to change.

2.     Imagine that you’ve achieved that change. Writing in the second person, Imagine a perfect moment in which you’re free from the flaw that’s burdened you. Be specific. Maybe it’s a glorious spring day, and you’re walking through a park. Maybe you’re challenged by another person or an occurrence, but you don’t react the way you would have in your prior life. You’re someone different now. You’re better, more ideal. Describe the landscape around you with that fact in mind. Maybe you begin, “One day, you’re the person you always wished you could be. You’re walking down the street and. . . .” Evoke a feeling of confidence and security. Your past life is gone. You have faith in the future.

3.    Shift to what you can’t know within that cocoon of comfort. Allow a glimmer of your past life to emerge. “You can’t know that somewhere in the future you’ll see/hear/meet/etc. (fill in the blank with a particular; maybe you’ll meet a person who reminds you of who you used to be; maybe you’ll catch yourself about to say or do something that you would have said or done in your previous life), and when you do, you’ll (fill in the blank with your emotional and/or intellectual response, looking for the contradictory layers within that response).”

I’d love to hear how this activity works for you. I’d even be glad to see some samples posted to this site.  Feel free to modify the prompts anyway you’d like. The objective is to end on a resonate chord made up of at least two different notes, one of comfort and one of dread; one of certainty and one of uncertainty; one of this old life still visible beneath the veneer of the new life.

 

 

12 Comments

  1. Richard Gilbert on May 10, 2012 at 5:16 am

    I love what you’re doing with this class, Lee. Per Nan: Journalism is too important to be left to the journalists! His insights and doubts are sure stimulating. Ditto for your two very different works by students. I’m thinking about your exercise . . . but our semester is all over but the shoutin’.

  2. Lee Martin on May 10, 2012 at 12:47 pm

    Richard, thanks, as always, for your comment. I hope you have a great summer. Ours here at OSU will be abbreviated since we’re ending in early June on the quarter system and returning in mid-August on the semester system.

  3. Bridgett J on May 12, 2012 at 10:01 pm

    This is a fantastic exercise. I completed it twice yesterday, and I think I have finally found the way into an essay I’ve been wanting to write! Thanks!!!

    • Lee Martin on May 13, 2012 at 10:48 am

      Thanks, Bridgett! I’m always so pleased to hear that an exercise was helpful. Good luck with the new essay, and thanks for taking the time to comment.

  4. Melissa Cronin on May 15, 2012 at 11:05 am

    Thanks again for a much needed writing prompt! I will get to work on it and let you know how it turns out.

    • Lee Martin on May 15, 2012 at 12:27 pm

      Please do, Melissa. Good luck!

  5. Melissa Cronin on May 17, 2012 at 11:15 am

    This is what I wrote for exercise #7:

    It’s a mid-July afternoon, and you’re suddenly the person you have always wanted to be – guilt free. You’re walking through the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, thirsty and hungry. You spy a table with peaches. You squirm you’re way around the crowd of shoppers – a mother pushing a stroller with a whining infant, a homeless man holding a sign that reads, anything will do, an elderly woman pushing a carriage full of greens. Standing at the fruit stand, you reach you’re arm out long, touch a downy peach, pick it up, hold it in the palm of your hand, lift it to your nose, then inhale.

    Suddenly, a loud pop fills the air around you. Daylight turns black. The peach is gone.

    You wake up, sitting on a grassy knoll overlooking the farmers’ market, hugging your knees as you rock back and forth. People are screaming. Sirens are blaring. You look down at your arms and legs; they’re covered with scratches. Your knees are the color of a thunderstorm cloud. Your feet are naked. Your white shorts and t-shirt are covered in blood. You touch your right cheek and feel something sharp – a shard of glass. You scan the chaos below and catch sight of a brown car with its front end smashed in, and the windshield with a spider web of cracks spreading from its center – the eye of the storm.

    You slowly stand; an electric current shoots down your spine and legs. A cold numbness fills your limbs. Your toes tingle. You do not scream or cry. Instead, you walk down the grassy slope, now wet with rain, then make your way back to the farmers’ market. Bodies lay twisted on the hot, burgundy pavement. The peaches are smashed, their juices, like a watercolor palette, trickle with the juices of strawberries and melons. You look down and notice that you are standing in a puddle of blood and watermelon juice. Your heart rate accelerates and you can feel your heart beat in your ears. After taking several deep breaths, your heart rate slows to a steady beat. You turn your head, flipping aside strands of hair sticky with blood away from your face. Out of the corner of your glazed eye, you glimpse a woman some ten feet away from you, outstretched on the sidewalk. She’s lying near a downed peach stand, the metal posts scattered like pick-up-sticks. She rolls onto her left side, reaches her bloody hand out toward you, and cries – “Please don’t let me die.”

    Your gut stirs and gurgles; you recognize that peach stand. But you ignore this sensation, and, instead, run over to the woman, your feet slapping through deep, black puddles. “Don’t worry. I’m here to help you,” you say. You kneel by her side, ask her name, where she’s from, if she’s alone. She’s able to state her name and give you phone numbers of people to call.

    Suddenly, you notice the color in her face change from pale to gray, and her breathing turn labored. A firefighter rushes in the direction of other injured pedestrians, almost passing you. But you grab him by the sleeve and tell him, “I’m a nurse. This woman needs help immediately. I think she’s bleeding, internally.”

    The firefighter places a red tag – urgent – on the woman’s big toe and yells for another rescue worker. When the second rescue worker arrives, he looks at you knowingly. You look at him with curiosity, your thick eyebrows forming a connected line. His solid,

  6. Melissa Cronin on May 17, 2012 at 11:18 am

    Sorry, for some reason my previous post didn’t take then entire essay. Here it is again:

    It’s a mid-July afternoon, and you’re suddenly the person you have always wanted to be – guilt free. You’re walking through the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, thirsty and hungry. You spy a table with peaches. You squirm you’re way around the crowd of shoppers – a mother pushing a stroller with a whining infant, a homeless man holding a sign that reads, anything will do, an elderly woman pushing a carriage full of greens. Standing at the fruit stand, you reach you’re arm out long, touch a downy peach, pick it up, hold it in the palm of your hand, lift it to your nose, then inhale.

    Suddenly, a loud pop fills the air around you. Daylight turns black. The peach is gone.

    You wake up, sitting on a grassy knoll overlooking the farmers’ market, hugging your knees as you rock back and forth. People are screaming. Sirens are blaring. You look down at your arms and legs; they’re covered with scratches. Your knees are the color of a thunderstorm cloud. Your feet are naked. Your white shorts and t-shirt are covered in blood. You touch your right cheek and feel something sharp – a shard of glass. You scan the chaos below and catch sight of a brown car with its front end smashed in, and the windshield with a spider web of cracks spreading from its center – the eye of the storm.

    You slowly stand; an electric current shoots down your spine and legs. A cold numbness fills your limbs. Your toes tingle. You do not scream or cry. Instead, you walk down the grassy slope, now wet with rain, then make your way back to the farmers’ market. Bodies lay twisted on the hot, burgundy pavement. The peaches are smashed, their juices, like a watercolor palette, trickle with the juices of strawberries and melons. You look down and notice that you are standing in a puddle of blood and watermelon juice. Your heart rate accelerates and you can feel your heart beat in your ears. After taking several deep breaths, your heart rate slows to a steady beat. You turn your head, flipping aside strands of hair sticky with blood away from your face. Out of the corner of your glazed eye, you glimpse a woman some ten feet away from you, outstretched on the sidewalk. She’s lying near a downed peach stand, the metal posts scattered like pick-up-sticks. She rolls onto her left side, reaches her bloody hand out toward you, and cries – “Please don’t let me die.”

    Your gut stirs and gurgles; you recognize that peach stand. But you ignore this sensation, and, instead, run over to the woman, your feet slapping through deep, black puddles. “Don’t worry. I’m here to help you,” you say. You kneel by her side, ask her name, where she’s from, if she’s alone. She’s able to state her name and give you phone numbers of people to call.

    Suddenly, you notice the color in her face change from pale to gray, and her breathing turn labored. A firefighter rushes in the direction of other injured pedestrians, almost passing you. But you grab him by the sleeve and tell him, “I’m a nurse. This woman needs help immediately. I think she’s bleeding, internally.”

    The firefighter places a red tag – urgent – on the woman’s big toe and yells for another rescue worker. When the second rescue worker arrives, he looks at you knowingly. You look at him with curiosity, your thick eyebrows forming a connected line. His solid, brown eyes, stern voice, and thinning, red hair remind you of someone you once knew, but you can’t quite pinpoint who that would be.

    You stand up, step back a few inches, and stammer over your words: “Sorry. I hope I didn’t do anything wrong. I was just trying to help.” Your hands are now as cold as dry ice. Your throat feels like someone stuffed it with sandpaper; it’s difficult to swallow. You start to shiver. What’s wrong with me? you think.

    “Are you okay? the rescue worker asks.

    “I don’t want to get in the way.” You’re suddenly afraid of the rescue worker, but don’t know why.

    “You saved this woman. If you weren’t with her, she would’ve died,” the rescue worker says.

    His walkie-talkie blares with static. The rescue worker speaks into it, urgently requesting a helicopter. Then he recommends you seek medical attention: “There’s a triage area set up just over there.” He points in the direction of Fourth Street, just a couple of blocks from where you are kneeling with the injured woman.

    You take the rescue worker’s advice, suddenly feeling a sense of calm – your hands warm-up, you stop shivering and it becomes easier to swallow. Before making your way over to the triage area, you reassure the woman that she is in good hands.

    Aside from minor injuries – bruises, scratches and a few abrasions – you’re okay. You call your sister, who lives in Santa Monica, and was at work at the time of the accident. She starts to cry when you tell her what happened. You tell her that everything is okay, that you were not badly injured.

    She praises you for helping the woman who cried out. “I just wish I was there,” she says.

    You begin to tell her that you wished you could’ve helped more people. But, as your lips purse, forming the W in the word wish, you pull them back into a pencil thin line. You swallow hard, and remind yourself that, at least, you helped save a life.

  7. Lee Martin on May 17, 2012 at 12:02 pm

    Wow, Melissa! Thanks so much for sharing this very powerful piece. The lush detail is fantastic, each particular steeping us more deeply in the scene. The second-person point of view provides a nice tension between the slight remove of that perspective and the very intense drama of the narrative. I’m so glad this writing exercise led you to this piece. Thanks, again!

    • Melissa Cronin on May 18, 2012 at 10:57 am

      Thanks, Lee! I rarely write in second person, so this was a fun challenge for me.

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