A Creative Nonfiction ABC

Some days, writing is tough, seems beyond my skills, makes me wonder if I’ll ever master the craft of creative nonfiction. As I prepare for the launch of my memoir, “Hiking Naked: A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance,” I’m much more focused on my calendar, press releases, and book orders than generating new work. I know I’ll return to it, and when I do, I’ll have Karen Zey’s ABCs to guide me. I suggest the same guidance fits for fiction writers, too.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

zz zeyBy Karen Zey

Avoid adverbs assiduously.

Befriend brevity.

Capture sensory details: creamy, crackling or crisp.

Devise dialogue that sounds like real talk. Drop the tags.

Em dash your way to emphasis—and limit those exclamation points!

Flash your essay. Or pen your theme in long form.

Grasp the grammar rules. Ain’t no problem bending ’em on purpose.

Heed your inner muse, but write beyond the self.

Imagine the reader imagining your experience. Read your work aloud.

Juxtapose tender and tough to add depth.

Keep studying your craft—writing is arduous.

Lay down heartfelt moments with lyricism.

Merge metaphors and memories for prisms of meaning.

Narrate with a compelling arc: sweeping tale or braided strands of thought.

Open with a strong hook that hints of more to come.

Punch up your ending with a powerful thought that lingers.

Question every word choice. Quell your penchant for purple prose.

Revise, obsess; revise, lose sleep; revise…

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Re-Blog “Writing is Art”

Earlier this month I reviewed  Spry Literary Magazine’s ABCs of Creative Nonfiction series. Now I’m sharing a thought-provoking post by writer and teacher Debbie Hagan about essay-writing. Hagan is also book reviews editor for Brevity Magazine, and she skillfully discussed a new essay anthology I might need to add to my library:  I’ll Tell You Mine: Thirty Years of Essays from the Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program (University of Chicago Press, 2016) and how it motivated her to create a class for art students on revision and to think of writing as art. Whether you’re a writer, artist, or reader, I think you’ll find Hagan’s post interesting (just click on the link below).

via Today’s Lesson: Writing Is Art — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog

Creative Nonfiction from A-Z

typewriter2 (1)When I introduce myself as a writer, the person I’m talking to typically asks, “What do you write?”

After I reply, “Creative nonfiction,” I usually hear, “Oh…” and my new friend’s eyes focus somewhere beyond my face as if I’ve responded in a foreign language. I understand the confusion.
CNF60_Cover-1Essayist Scott Russell Sanders claims that the term nonfiction was coined by librarians to show their libraries weren’t filled with frivolous things. The genre’s name says more about what it isn’t, than what it is. It’s like saying that classical music is non-jazz or wine is non-beer. Lee Gutkind, founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction Magazine, describes what creative nonfiction is in detail, but also offers this succinct and accurate definition: “True stories, well told.”

And that’s where the creative part comes in. A well-told story, whether true or made up, relies on literary craft techniques of characters, scenes, dialogue, setting, and description. It’s just that with true stories—nonfiction—the writer can’t exaggerate or lie about what really happened, can’t create characters that don’t exist, wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) falsely describe a setting. Or, as Gutkind says, “You can’t make this stuff up!”

ABCs-of-Creative-Nonfiction-1What creative nonfiction writers do, though, is shape their stories—personal essays, memoirs, narrative nonfiction—just as novelists and short story writers do. They (we) use a range of storytelling techniques and tools. Recently, the editors of Spry Literary Journal undertook the task of compiling descriptions of some elements of the genre and, with the help of twenty-six writers, launched The ABCs of Creative Nonfiction.

Linsey Jayne
Linsey Jayne

Linsey Jayne, poet and founding co-editor of Spry, began the series this way:

“Reading the work of a gifted author in the genre suddenly gives you the feeling of being swept into your closest friend’s dream. Notes meet rhythm to become symphonies. Something about the artful way in which such a writer paints the universe invokes a sense of empathy. Her stories make you feel all the more human, connected to yourself and to the world. She sweeps you up into something that once seemed as ordinary as walking across your living room floor, but now is laden with the meaning that builds in the hundreds of times you’ve walked across that floor while holding the hand of your child or laughing with your loved ones late into the night.”

What followed Linsey’s introduction were twenty-six mini craft lessons to correspond with the letters of the alphabet. There was A is for Accoutrements by Spry co-editor Erin Ollila, B is for Bravery by fellow Whidbey Writers Workshop classmate Chels Knorr, and E is for Ethics. One of my favorites was Q is for (Not) Quitting. As a contributor to the journal’s Issue 2 with my essay Cycles, I was invited to participate in the series; my offering was S is for Setting.

Linsey concluded the ABCs of Creative Nonfiction posts with this reflection:

“Writers in the genre need to offer journalistic honesty, interrogating the elements of their pasts (or the pasts of their subjects) to the point of pain and often at the risk of their emotional stasis for the sake of their craft. They have to swear. A lot. (Honestly, I can understand why.) They need minds that are equal parts surrealist, absurdist, realist, magician; they need to care so much that when their worlds sweat, they sweat.”

Whether you’re a reader or writer (or both) of creative nonfiction, I think you’ll enjoy Spry’s A-Z compendium about the genre. If you get hooked, as I did, you can also check out the magazine’s ABCs of Writing for Beginners and ABCs of Fiction Writing. Up next from Spry will be the ABCs of Flash Fiction.


“Road Trip” Author Interview

mark (1)

A stack of books teeters on my night stand—there’s so much good reading, I always have multiple books going at a time. One that I just finished is Road Trip, by Seattle author Mark Rozema. I first encountered Mark when I served as nonfiction editor for Soundings Review, and the journal published his personal essay, “Sacred Places.” It’s a lovely essay about, well… latrines, mountains and forests, a dog, and what is holy or sacred.

book cover road tripMark and I met in person briefly at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program’s residency last August; I was thrilled to learn then that “Sacred Places” was to be included in Road Trip (Boreal Books, 2015), Mark’s collection of autobiographical essays.  In Road Trip, Mark reveals much of himself—his loves, his questions, and his certainties—as he takes us to the places he treasures and where he explores family and friendship and change and loss (including losing his father to Alzheimer’s disease), all with humor, generosity and a spirit of adventure.

There’s something for everyone in this slim collection; you can read a sample from the book’s opening essay, “Wherever the Road Goes,” at Red Hen Press. I admire Mark’s writing and wanted to learn more; here’s what he had to say in response to my questions.

Iris: You include much sensory detail about the places you write about. Do you journal when you travel?

Mark: I do, but if you looked inside one of those travel journals, you’d find cryptic little snippets, descriptions of a mushroom, common and Latin plant names, sketches, place names, things like that. I have a dozen journals sort of like this. And I don’t bring the journals on adventures that are physically demanding. I just try to pay attention and remember things well.

When I’m out in nature, I find the notebook a distraction. I’d rather be in the moment. To record the moment as you are in it is to add a layer of distance, of interpretation. I find that when I’m fully in the moment, it’s not so hard to recall it later—especially if it is in a landscape that I know well because of repeated immersion in it.

 On a trip, what I read is as important as what I write, and for me that includes things that will help me know and understand where I’m at a little better. So it includes things like field guides and maps—lots of maps. I want to name and identify things.

 Iris: Music and sports are important in your life, and they show up in many of your essays (sometimes in the same essay, as in “Make a Joyful Noise”). I’m impressed with how you bring readers in to both of them. What are some of the techniques you use to help readers “hear” the music and experience the challenges on the track and climbing mountains?

Mark: If you spend time among athletes, you’ll know that they tend to be articulate about their particular sport. They may not be writers, but they are carried away by the love of their sport, and they know it intimately—both how it feels in the body and in the spirit. They develop a particular sport-specific vocabulary. For instance, if you hang out with rock climbers, you’ll hear delightful verbs that precisely capture the nature of movement, to make distinctions between different kinds of movement—“crimping, stemming, jamming.” A sprinter has at least a dozen ways to precisely describe a pain in the hamstring.

I think the same is true of musicians, the way they talk among themselves. Obviously, they use specific musical terms, but they also use “ordinary” language in ways that personify their instrument. Jazz musicians talking about the different ways to get music out of a horn might use language that is furious, gentle, funny, sexual, spiritual—the whole emotional range.

 I don’t know if it’s a technique, but I think good writing about sports and music comes out of the realization that the language has to move in a similar way to how the breath moves, how the body moves while in the midst of the action. So I suppose an awareness of sentence length—how it can vary to reflect the movement of the air and the body—is a technique. I don’t consciously think of this while writing, but I might try to accentuate it in a revision. When I look at some passages (such as one where I describe playing trombone in the Grand Canyon), I see alliteration and assonance, musical phrasing—things from the poetry toolbox.

Iris: One thread in your collection is your religious upbringing and how your spiritual path has evolved. What is it like for you to write about something so personal and which can be the source of much conflict among people?

Mark: It is actually kind of satisfying to do it, and the result has been gratifying. I’ve been touched and honored by the responses of some readers who don’t share my religious (or political) views at all, but felt a shared sense of values when I described taking care of a loved one with dementia, or feeling the urge to offer praise for the beauty of landscape.

Journeys are complicated. I enjoyed the opportunity to approach the issue of religion through storytelling—and to try to dial back the resentment and dial up the humor. I didn’t worry about how people would take it.

Iris: In this collection, you use a variety of forms for your essays (such as numbering sections of the essays and using white space for transitions). At what point in the writing process do you decide on the essay’s structure?

Mark: I decide on form pretty far into the writing process. For a long time, it’s like a puzzle that I haven’t pieced together. When I have tried to plan things early in the process, it seems that the writing itself leads me away from my plan. It wants to do its own thing. I discover what I want to say in the act of saying it, and I discover the form only when the content is pretty clear. I think this is because there is sometimes an underlying theme that is layered beneath a more obvious theme or thesis, and the decisions I make about structure might be determined by the underlying theme.

Iris: Do you write only creative nonfiction?

Mark: Yes. It’s what I enjoy. I got my MFA in poetry, but it is for the best that my thesis never became a book. Once upon a time I wrote a story that was sort of okay, but, my goodness, it was a lot of work. More trouble than it was worth. And I wrote a play that was terrible—but I learned to respect playwrights. Of course it takes practice to become good at anything, but I think nonfiction suits my temperament.

Iris: Please describe your writing process.

Mark: I don’t follow a repeated, systematic approach. Each essay probably is born in a unique way. But I do have habits and conditions that make it more likely for good work to emerge. I have to be relaxed and in a physically comfortable position. Sitting is actually not so good. I need to move around. I might, right in the middle of composing, feel a need to go for a run. When I come back, things flow better.

I start with a pen and notebook—a purple or green gel pen with a nice fat line. Somehow, I am more free to explore and discover what I want to say when it’s with a pen. I can’t abide the sound of machinery, like a lawnmower in the neighborhood, but rain on the roof is good for my process. Good coffee and a dog curled up beside me are helpful as well.

 Iris: What are you reading now?

Mark: Like you, I have more than one book on my nightstand. Right now I’m reading: The World Is On Fire, by Joni Tevis; Being Peace, by Thich Nhat Hanh; Quench Your Thirst With Salt, by Nicole Walker; Reclaimers, by Ana Maria Spagna; The Best American Sports Writing of 2013; Spillover, by David Quammen. I recommend all of these.

 Some writers I return to over and over again—for inspiration, edification and enjoyment. Among my favorites: Wendell Berry (both poetry and prose), Pattiann Rogers (a really great poet), Oliver Sacks, and David Quammen. I want to say something about those last two: It is a rare thing to find writers who can unfold science to the general reader, with humor and compassion and imagination, and in language that is lively and accessible. I have learned so much about the world from these two authors.

Iris: Thank you, Mark. I’ve learned much about the world—and writing—from you!

bookshopLopez Island readers can hear Mark read from Road Trip at Lopez Bookshop on March 18 at 7 PM. Mark will be joined by poet Holly Hughes.