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Let’s Pretend: Alter Egos and Creative Nonfiction

Yesterday, Cathy and I went bowling with some of my MFA creative nonfiction writers. I’d told everyone in advance that they’d have to arrive with assumed names—bowling names, if you will. They took the task seriously, and just like that we created our alter egos. In other words, we created second or different versions of ourselves. When we write memoir or personal essays, whether lyric or narrative in nature, we consciously or unconsciously speak from a certain aspect of our personality—some part of the self that we sense is necessary to the exploration of certain subject matter. We’re made up [...]

By | 2018-10-08T08:17:31+00:00 October 8th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Does Your Mother Know You’re Reading That?

Here at the end of Banned Books Week, I’m reminded of a time when my mother bought two boxes of books at an auction and shared them with me. This was in the town of Sumner, Illinois, population 1,000. I went to a high school where there only thirty-seven kids in my freshman class. By the time we graduated, there were only twenty-eight of us. Seven of the original thirty-seven had dropped out; another two had moved away. It was a small, mostly working-class town, where reading wasn’t always valued. Where would it get you when it came time to [...]

By | 2018-10-01T07:43:32+00:00 October 1st, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Essays and Making Sense of Our Lives

This morning at the YMCA, a man I didn’t know asked me, “What did Mr. Cheever write?” I had no idea how this man knew I had any knowledge whatsoever of John Cheever. “I read the quote on the back of your shirt,” the man said. I realized, then, I was wearing a tee-shirt from the Young Writers Workshop we run at Ohio State University. On the back of this shirt is the quote: “It seems to me that writing is a marvelous way of making sense of one’s life, both for the writer and for the reader.” It’s true [...]

By | 2018-09-24T08:42:42+00:00 September 24th, 2018|Uncategorized|4 Comments

Something Happens: Constructing a Scene

It’s a rainy day here in the Midwest, a perfect day for staying inside and doing. . .well. . . doing nothing. It’s the sort of day that doesn’t make good material for a narrative. A sleepy day with not much from which to make a scene. Whether we’re writing fiction or memoir, our narratives invite a reader along on a journey by presenting scenes of dialogue, description, history, action, and consequence. So on this rainy day, I’d like to offer up some thoughts on scene construction. Consider, for example, the opening of this scene from Eric Puchner’s story, “Last [...]

By | 2018-09-10T06:50:21+00:00 September 10th, 2018|Uncategorized|2 Comments

Ten Quotes for Writers on Labor Day

On Labor Day, I like to give thanks for the fact that I’m able to spend a good portion of my time moving words about on the page. When I left college between my junior and senior year, I worked for a year and a half in the press room at a tire repairs manufacturing plant. I burned my arms on the presses, I breathed silicon fumes, I worked ten hour days, I came home so tired in the evenings that often all I could do was bathe, eat, and fall asleep. I can’t tell you how much I admire [...]

By | 2018-09-03T09:49:36+00:00 September 3rd, 2018|Uncategorized|2 Comments

Beginnings and the Work Ahead of Us

We’re making the turn to autumn, and with it many parents are sending their children off to college. For them, it’s a thrilling time, not unlike the feeling we writers get when we start a new project. The beginning is also just a bit nerve-wracking, and at times downright scary. It comes with equal measures of possibility and uncertainty. My neighbor reports that her daughter, after three days, is unhappy because she’s not making friends. “Give it time,” the neighbor told her. “It takes time.” Nothing could be more true when it comes to writing. Those new projects? They’re thrilling, [...]

By | 2018-08-27T07:47:43+00:00 August 27th, 2018|Uncategorized|2 Comments

Ten Tips for Constructing Plots

I've just returned from the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers' Conference, where I taught a workshop in the art of the novel. So much of writing a novel involves the shape we find for our material. I'm sharing this post from two years ago in hopes of helping those of us who are wrestling with this form of storytelling, a form Henry James called a rough, shaggy beast. A friend of mine, an excellent poet, was talking to me recently about plot. He didn’t understand, he told me, how we fiction writers did it. It was beyond him [...]

By | 2018-08-20T08:41:27+00:00 August 20th, 2018|Uncategorized|2 Comments

The Narrative before the Story Begins

When we construct a narrative, whether we’re writing fiction or nonfiction, we’re well-served by giving some consideration to the question of what readers need to know about what happened before the story begins. In other words, characters, whether inventions or real people, carry certain histories into what I like to call the dramatic present, by which I mean the sequence of events at the heart of the particular story line. Something has happened before that story begins to take shape on the page. Characters’ histories help create the actions and events of the stories we come to tell. A common [...]

By | 2018-08-12T23:51:26+00:00 August 12th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Be Specific: Truthful Stories for Untruthful Times

All my life, people have confused my name with that of Lee Marvin, the actor known for playing hardboiled characters and also for live-in girlfriend Michelle Triola’s palimony suit in 1971. It happens time and time again. Sometimes people actually introduce me as the actor. Sometimes people try to turn the name confusion into a joke. In either case, each time someone dredges up Lee Marvin’s name, I cringe, even though I always quite enjoyed his performances. I cringe because by now both the confusion and the joke have become stale. That doesn’t keep each person, however, from either failing [...]

By | 2018-08-06T07:32:36+00:00 August 6th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Writing a Novel’s Opening: Paying Attention

I’m getting ready to teach a workshop in novel writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference. This will be the tenth consecutive year that I’ve taught at this conference, which I think is one of the best in the country. I could tell you why—an emphasis on craft and not publishing (no agents or editors lurking in the weeds), small workshop size (six participants), stimulating craft talks, an egalitarian atmosphere with accessible faculty members, an abundance of social activities, outstanding readings by faculty and participants alike, individual conferences for each participant—but what I’ve come to tell [...]

By | 2018-07-30T06:51:28+00:00 July 30th, 2018|Uncategorized|6 Comments