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.

spry-banner-trans-ish-49

Return Home

fishingA light breeze swept strands of hair across my face as I sat on the beach of Lake Michigan. Memories of standing beside my dad on a lakeshore pier floated in, too; clusters of men waiting silently—tackle boxes and pails at their feet, cigarettes glowing between their fingertips—watching for fishing poles to arc and listening for the jangle of bells. They’d delight in my jumping up and down when, unknown to me, they tripped the tiny bells on their lines that signaled a catch.

The memory was strong, more than fifty years later, when I returned recently to my birthplace, Chicago. This time, I’d walked just five minutes from my son Matthew and daughter-in-law Jenn’s apartment on Chicago’s north side to once again view the lake’s edge. Although no one was fishing at this spot, I kept expecting to hear tinkling bells.

My parents and I left Chicago for a small, Southern Illinois town (population 300) when I was ten years old, and I’ve been back only a handful of times since then. Now I live on Lopez Island, WA, and I consider the Pacific Northwest my true home. Yet, there’s been something familiar, home-like, whenever I’ve returned—the way Chicagoans stretch their As when they talk, the citizens’ unwavering support of the underdog Cubs and Bears, the nods and smiles of strangers I pass on the street—and I noticed it even more on this visit.

Those noticings got me thinking about the idea of home.

This isn’t the first time I’ve pondered the word. As is true for nearly every writer I’ve ever talked writing with, the meaning of home shows up in my own free writes, essay drafts, poems, and memoir. And here it is again as I try to make sense of how, so far from my small, rural, island home in the rain shadow of the Olympics, I feel at home on the concrete sidewalks, in the shadows of skyscrapers, scanning the teal blue lake ruffled by the wind.

IMG_1849It’s logical enough to conclude that, as the expression goes, “home is where the heart is.” During this latest visit to Chicago, all of my immediate family (my deepest heart connections) was together in the city of my birth. A sense of hometown pride stirred on the Chicago River boat tour  and during a visit to the Chicago History Museum.chicago_history_museum_outside

New thoughts about home surfaced, though, when I attended Matthew and Jenn’s Mennonite church. That particular Sunday, the service focused on United Nations’ World Refugee Day. Observed on June 20 each year, this event honors the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children forced to flee their homelands under threat of persecution, conflict and violence. This congregation knows a bit about such threats—many of its members fled Cambodia, Latin America, Nepal, Bhutan, Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi. I can’t begin to understand what home means to them.

I’ve been fortunate to move freely in search of home, responding to the sense of true home that I first recognized on a visit to Salt Lake City. There, snow-capped peaks of the Wasatch and Oquirrh ranges block the horizon and encircle the city’s downtown and crisp the air, their distant, icy coolness reaching the boulevards. Inexplicably, my Midwest heart felt the magnetic pull of mountains. Their force tugged again as my husband and I, ready to return to school, chose Seattle—surrounded by the Cascades and the Olympics—over Boston and Washington, DC. Years later, it was the spicy scent of ceanothus, a shiny green shrub that colonizes after forest fires, that confirmed my geography of home in the Pacific Northwest. It was as if “home” chose me. Thinking of the refugees relocated to Chicago, I wonder how, or if, they feel at home in a place not of their choosing, far from the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and connections of their homelands.

As I boarded the ferry for the final leg of my journey “home” from my Chicago birthplace, Mt. Baker and the Salish Sea shimmered as the sun set. I know how blessed I am to call this place home.

IMG_1861

Expired

The envelope from the Washington State Department of Health arrived in April, just as it had every year since 1981. The seven years before that, I’d received a similar one annually from the Indiana State Board of Nursing. For forty years, I never hesitated to check the boxes, write the check, and mail in the renewal for my registered nurse license before the deadline of my birthday in May.

Over the course of four decades, I worked in surgical intensive care, oncology, nursing education, hospice and home health, public health, and school nursing. For about twenty of those years, I pursued nursing with passion and single-minded zeal, clear that it was my calling. Throughout the last half of my career, though, I considered (often with much angst) that perhaps I was being led to different work, or at least to a different way of working. That search has fueled much of my writing, including my first book, Hands at Work, and my forthcoming memoir, Hiking Naked – A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance.

inactiveTwo years ago, just one month after sending in my license renewal, I left the school nurse position I’d commuted to on another island for five years. The following year, when the RN license renewal notice arrived, I checked a different box—INACTIVE—and paid a slightly lower fee. The form I completed explained that with this new status, I had no continuing education requirements, and I couldn’t practice. That was fine with me, for I no longer felt called to work as a nurse at all. And yet, I wasn’t ready to entirely let go of the piece of paper that had permitted me a credential, and an identity, I’d held for most of my adult life.

For weeks after this year’s renewal notice arrived, the envelope sat in the basket on my desk. Periodically I’d read the guidance:

Avoid an expired credential: Do not let your credential expire. You must make sure we have your renewal before it expires. Otherwise, you will not be allowed to practice.

One day, shortly before the renewal deadline (and my birthday), I called the Nursing Commission to verify what would happen if I didn’t renew my license in any category at all.

“Your license will be listed as expired,” the voice on the phone replied.

Expired. My dictionary offers these definitions and synonyms:

Expired ~ verb  1 my contract has expired: run out, become invalid, become void, lapse; end, finish, stop, come to an end, terminate.

But those aren’t the words I want to use to describe my decision to not renew my nursing license. Instead, this action signifies release, transformation, and acknowledgment of a long, full, completed career. So last weekend, I asked my women’s group to join me in a symbolic “renewal” of my license. They passed the form from hand to hand, each folding or shaping it in a way that would change it to a size to fit in a small, lidded dish I cherish. For now it sits on my dresser next to a photograph of my dad and me the day I received my cap in my first year of nursing school.

license (1)

 

My dictionary tells me expire can also mean to breathe out, exhale. And in order to exhale, you have to inhale; to expire, you must inspire. Those are the actions and images I choose to focus on now, nearly a month after my nursing license has expired.

Renewed by Renewable

Renewable 9781631529689_FullCover 3Nov14.indd

At age fifty, I snapped half a plastic handcuff around one wrought iron bar of the White House fence. Glancing over my shoulder at the famous sloping lawn and the imposing white pillars of the south portico, I slipped the other cuff around my maroon leather glove and locked it into place. 

That’s how Quaker author Eileen Flanagan opens her latest book, Renewable: One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness, and Hope. There was no way I could stop reading. Later in the first chapter, I read words that especially struck a chord. Eileen described feelings from a year earlier that ultimately drove her to the White House fence.

Sleepless at 3:00 a.m., I stared at the ceiling in a midlife hormonal funk and realized with a shock that my life was not what I had expected.

Though our stories are quite different, I resonated with Eileen’s analysis of a source of her tossing and turning:

I had felt alone in my midlife angst, though I knew I really wasn’t. I’d heard whispers from my middle-class friends, more than one of whom wished she had less house and more freedom. At the very least, everyone I knew had too much junk in the basement and too many e-mails.

 In Renewable, Eileen describes her yearning for a different way of life—perhaps more like the simplicity of living in a mud hut as she’d done as a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana— and to live up to her potential. Additionally, as she grew increasingly worried about her children’s future on a warming planet, she felt unable to make a difference to address the complex issue of climate change.

EQAT-logoEileen writes with wit, wisdom, and honesty about her journey through a spiritual midlife crisis. Ultimately, her concern about climate change led her to work with the nonviolent, direct action environmental group, Earth Quaker Action Team, and to a sense of fulfillment and hope. Her book gives me hope, too.

About twenty-five years earlier, and at an age very close to that of Eileen when she longed for a different way of life, I’d been in a similar frame of mind. Torn between feelings of impotence to promote health for people in need and uncertainty that I was still being called to work as a nurse, I stepped off the Middle-America treadmill in search of clarity and a simpler way of life. In my forthcoming memoir, Hiking Naked – A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance, I recount how, in 1994, I quit my job as a public health nurse and convinced my husband and our thirteen-year-old twin son and daughter to move to Stehekin, a remote village in Washington’s North Cascades. Though far—geographically and metaphorically—from the fence around the White House, the solitude of Stehekin helped me find the clarity I sought about how I’m led.

During those years in Stehekin, I came to understand that callings may change throughout someone’s life. Since then, I’ve also discovered that discernment about work is an ongoing process. Eileen’s writing has been a companion along the way.

I first met Eileen in 2010 at a Friends General Conference Gathering when we both gave readings from our own books—I from my first book, Hands at Work, and Eileen from her then-new book, The Wisdom to Know the Difference.NewWisdomCover-lowres

Based on the Serenity Prayer, The Wisdom to Know the Difference presents stories of people finding the courage to change their lives (and sometimes the world), as well as stories of letting go and finding peace. It’s a book I return to when my clarity about how I’m led turns murky.

EileenFlanaganSeatedsquare
Eileen Flanagan

Now I’m inspired by Renewable, both as a seeker and as a writer, so I contacted Eileen with some questions that she graciously responded to.

Iris: Your book includes many threads (your Irish heritage, discernment about leadings, Peace Corps experiences and Africa, the environment—to name a few). When you began to write, did you know that all of these themes would be included?

Eileen: Not really. At first I described it as a book about money. Then it was a book about buying a new house. The Peace Corps and my Irish family history kept showing up, no matter what I thought I was writing about, but there were other stories, too.

When I gave the first draft to three friends to read at the same time, they all agreed that there were too many themes, but disagreed about what should stay and what should go. One said she thought I should cut the parts about climate change, and that was really helpful because it made me realize that climate change was one of the parts I absolutely couldn’t cut.

This is my third book, but it was the hardest to write because of the question of what to keep in and what to cut out. A life is messy and full of lots of experiences, but a memoir has to have some focused story line, or it would be unbearably boring for the reader.

Iris: Please describe your writing practice or routine.

Eileen: It really depends on whether or not I’m working on a book. This past year I’ve spent a lot of time publicizing Renewable—public speaking and writing articles—which means my writing time comes in fits and starts. I’m hoping in 2016 to get back to a daily writing practice, which is essential when I’m working on a book. For me, that usually means going to a coffee shop and staying at my computer for at least the morning, whether or not inspiration seems to be there with me. One of the nice things, now that I’ve been at this awhile, is that I can finally push some pages out, without constantly rewriting every sentence as I go, and trust that I can always edit later.

Iris: What place does writing have in your Spirit-led work?

Eileen: Writing plays an important role, though it’s not the only form my work takes. I think one of my gifts, as I say in the book, is helping people to make connections. Writing is one of the ways I do that, though I also feel led to public speaking and activism, which are different expressions of the same gift and leading.

Iris: What kind of response have you received from readers of Renewable?

Eileen: I’ve gotten so many positive responses. Although it’s nice to hear from people who have similar stories, my favorite responses are often from people whose lives look very different from mine on the surface, such as an Air National Guard Colonel at midlife and a school teacher who knows that the system she’s working in isn’t serving kids. The teacher said to me, “I don’t know about climate change, and I’m not going to do the kind of things you are doing, but hearing your story makes me want to be more courageous in speaking up at my school about the things that I see that are wrong.” I loved that.

And I especially love Eileen’s answer to this last question. As writers, we rarely know what effect (if any) our words have on readers. I believe that’s out of my hands, yet it doesn’t stop me from hoping that by sharing my story, others will be strengthened to honor their own. Eileen’s Renewable has done that for me.