Happy 10th!

boxes (1)Rain fell sideways on a November night ten years ago as half a dozen friends formed a chain between a U-Haul and a storage unit. The light from headlamps danced as bodies swung, passing twenty-pound cartons hand-to-hand. Photographer Summer Moon Scriver and I had barely made it onto the last ferry of the night, me behind the wheel of a truck packed with 300 boxes of books. book box (1)

That night was the culmination of four years of collaboration for Summer, book designer Bob Lanphear, and me to produce Hands at Work: Portraits and Profiles of People Who Work With Their Hands.

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The project arose from an exhibit of black-and-white photographs of people’s hands by Summer. The images of the hands of a baker, a knitter, a spinner, and a gardener spoke to me of a passion for work that I had once had and lost and that I know is missing for many other people. I wanted to give voice to those stories of satisfaction with work.

In The Reinvention of Work, Matthew Fox writes, “When work moved from farm to city, from land to concrete, from hands to machine—in short, when the industrial revolution redefined the meaning of work for us—much was lost. Perhaps the greatest loss was the sense of cosmic wonder, of interrelationship with the universe, with nature, with the stars and breezes and plants and animals that was integral to workers on the land. No paycheck can make up for that loss.” 45The people featured in Hands at Work have found a way to make up for this loss: they use their hands to shape, slice, birth, repair, heal, communicate, and harvest.

10They talk of living in their hands and needing to get their hands dirty, cold, or wet.

For them, the materials they use are alive and responsive; their hands teach them things they didn’t know and connect them to different times, places, and people. 21

We had no difficulty creating a list of people who rely on their hands for their work in our small, rural community on Lopez Island in northwest Washington, though we did venture beyond our home for a few profiles.   Whenever we made the first call to ask people to participate, most were humble, doubting that their work, their stories, and their hands could be of any interest or importance. We followed up by sending a written description of the process, and when people agreed (and everyone we asked ultimately did), we scheduled an interview and photo session at their places of work.

Summer and I arrived with lights, cameras, black backdrops, notebooks, pens, and the gift of a jar of locally-made, soothing hand salve. As Summer set up equipment, I explained that our goal was to engage in this process of documenting their work like ballroom dancers, leading and following as gracefully as possible. At times, I helped Summer with photographing by moving lights or suggesting shots to illustrate the subjects’ words about their work. Often, Summer added her own questions to the interview as she viewed the work through her camera lens.

Most of the time, it was graceful; every time, it was fun. Like the day we met with Irene Skyriver in her garden.

“What comes to mind with the title?” I asked.

36“I’ve always thought of my hands as rototillers in the dirt,” Irene said, scooping out a shallow hole for the corn seedling she was planting. Summer squatted beside Irene, focusing her camera lens on Irene’s calloused hands. Click. Click.

“How would you describe yourself and the kind of work you do with your hands?” I asked, crouching in the dirt and balancing my notepad on my knee.

Irene stayed focused on the task before her. “I’m not a studied gardener,” she said. “There are so many things I don’t know about gardening. I’ve never read one gardening book – it’s just not my style. Trial and error is.”   My left hand slid across the page, scrawling as many of Irene’s words as possible.

17As we talked with and photographed people at work, their fervor for painting, weaving, fishing, cooking, quilting, sculpting, boat-building, puppeteering, and even car repair was palpable and exhilarating. All expressed gratitude for being watched and listened to as they went about the work that feeds their souls. We recognized how rare it is for any of us to spend that much time talking about our work.

The sessions typically lasted two hours. Then Summer and I each went to our home offices, Summer downloading photographs to her computer for editing, and me transcribing my hand-written notes to my computer. What followed were hours and hours of mostly solitary work shaping pictures into portraits and words into stories. Sometimes one or both of us needed to do some follow-up – more photographs, more questions. Then we repeated the process with the next person on the list.

Four years later, Summer and I saw the results of our work transferred by fork lift from a warehouse into a rental truck. For the next few hours, the rhythm of windshield wipers accompanied our conversation on the drive to the ferry terminal. A few days later, we launched the words and images into the world at a celebration at our local community center.

I’m celebrating again as I think back over the decade since the book’s release. It was a joy to talk with people about their work, and I still feel a thrill when people tell me Hands at Work moves and inspires them. I continue to believe it remains timeless.

So. Here’s a math equation for you to consider:

4 years to write X 10 years since publication = 40% off

That means Hands at Work, originally $34, is available for $20 (tax and shipping included) until December 16 if you order online here. Hands at Work just might be a perfect gift for someone in this holiday season.

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*All black-and-white photographs by Summer Moon Scriver©

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.

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