From the Creative Nonfiction Workshop: Week 10

Folks, we’ve reached the end of my ten-week MFA workshop in Creative Nonfiction, so this will be the last post from the trenches.What a glorious group of writers I had the privilege of sharing the table with on Tuesday afternoons. A big shout-out to each of them for the talents they brought to our workshop room, plus the thoughtfulness and tact they displayed. They were truly a community of writers genuinely interested in helping one another more fully realize their essays. Thanks, too, to everyone who has taken the time to read these posts and to make a comment. It’s been a pleasure to have you on board.

Yesterday, we had two essays up for discussion, both of them trying something a little different (at least for these two writers) with form. We talked about a braided essay and made suggestions for how the three strands could better be in conversation with one another. My point here was that it’s not enough to just weave three strands together; they have to actually talk to one another, and they have to invite the reader into the conversation. This particular essay was trying to weave together the writer’s response to aging, her feelings of losing her son as he grew older, and the diagnosis of a friend’s illness. It was that last strand that seemed to not quite be talking to the other two strands. Everything seemed to be revolving around issues of loss, but when I asked the writer to talk about what she was going for in the last move of the essay (sometimes I find it helpful in a nonfiction workshop to invite the writer to speak, and I was just about to issue the invitation when one of the students said she thought it might be helpful in this case; great minds thinking alike!), the one that tries to contain all three strands and make them resonate with meaning, she talked about issues of losing control. All of a sudden, I started to see how the three strands were indeed wanting to converse. The loss of control, perhaps physically and/or emotionally, we experience as we grow older. The loss of control over a child’s life as that child grows older. The loss of control of health in the aftermath of a diagnosis. I asked the writer if she had talked to her friend about parenting before the friend was diagnosed. The writer said she had. So that was in part the person she was with this friend. She was a mother who could talk to this friend about how she felt about “losing” her little boy, about having him grow toward manhood where he would make choices on his own, etc.  How, then, did the friend’s diagnosis affect the person the writer was with her? Did that diagnosis change her from mother to something else? I realized that what was keeping this strand from conversing with the other two was the fact that in the sections about the friend’s illness, the focus was always on the friend and what it was like for her to get that diagnosis. Ah, but what was it like for the writer? That seemed to be the key to better fitting this strand into the others.

It seems to me that with something like a braided essay, it’s helpful at some point  to write a single word in the center of a piece of paper, the word that your instincts tell you is at the heart of the essay. Free-associating with that idea is a good way to discover the other strands of the essay and to start exploring that question of why these strands belong in the same piece. How do they connect to that single word that you’ve written down? This can be a helpful process when you’re first drafting the essay as well as when you’re re-envisioning it.

Our other essay was in the form of an interrogation. The writer created two personae. One was the part of her who had always told a family story a certain way. The other persona was the part of her who insisted on knowing why she chose to tell the story that way when she knew it wasn’t completely true. The essay was in the form of a back and forth dialogue between these two parts. We talked about how the personal essay takes this very approach even in a more traditional form. We’re always watching the writer’s mind at work as the various parts of the self engage in conversation. Why, then, did this particular essay have to be shaped into this form? As I recall (and my students may need to help me out here), we decided that the form of the interrogation made it impossible for the writer to get off the hook. The form pinned her down so she had to answer. Perhaps the questions from the interrogator provided a means of forcing herself to take a harder look at the material and the self than she would have done in a more traditional form.

When we began this workshop in March, I said that our focus would be on characterization and form. I closed yesterday with some thoughts about how the writer’s job, no matter the genre, was to deepen characters and situation. Of course, in creative nonfiction this deepening often involves writing from those contradictions that we all have within us. I made reference to Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners and what she says about the writer needing to be able to see different layers of reality in a single image, character, situation. To my way of thinking, this is as true for the nonfiction writer as it is for the fiction writer, and that’s why I encourage us all to practice thinking in terms of opposites. Love can co-exist with hatred. Courage can co-exist with cowardice. Moral judgment can co-exist with decency. You can keep forming binaries for a long, long time. Human nature and the world around us is that complicated. Paying attention to characterization and finding the proper form in which to contain the appropriate opposites will create memorable essays.

So I wish you all a happy summer! I’m not sure what I’ll do blog-wise this summer, but you can bet it’ll be something. Until next time, whenever that time may be, I pass along this advice from Isak Dinesen who said she wrote a little each day, without too much hope, without too much despair. Stay in love with the journey, my friends, and trust that it’ll take you where you’re meant to be.




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