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.


*Afterthought #45 – Her Head in the Clouds

*Afterthought #45 is a reblog of a post, “My Head in the Clouds,” by children’s author, Bonny Becker. On December 4th and 5th, Bonny will be at Lopez Bookshop for two events. On Friday evening, she’ll share with adults about her experience collaborating with a Disney/Pixar artist on her latest book, Cloud Country. The next morning, she’ll lead a storytime with kids.

Bonny is on the faculty of Whidbey Writers Workshop, my MFA program alma mater, and I remember her excitement when she learned that Pixar artist Noah Klocek wanted her to write the text for his picture book. Bonny’s post describes her experience, and I was especially struck by the similarities in her writing process for a children’s book and my own process writing personal essays:

“I needed something for Gale [the main character in Cloud Country] to want or need to seed the story… stories that work have something deep driving them. Something that the creator often doesn’t even know themselves. There’s something there that keeps us coming back again and again to an idea or image or story seed or scene. So more looking at clouds. More pondering. More drafts trying to find my own story in this world.”

I’m looking forward to learning more about this author’s process in addition to hearing her read. Whenever Bonny read from her books at faculty readings at the MFA program residencies, the adult writers were on the edge of their seats. I expect the same will happen for Bonny’s audiences at Lopez Bookshop this weekend.

*“Afterthoughts” are my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning’s worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, books, maybe even bumper stickers.

Books Around The Table

cover cloud pixar release

The call was unexpected and exciting. Disney Hyperion wanted to know if I’d be interested in helping a Pixar artist develop a picture book. Art director Noah Klocek had been selected for the Pixar Artist Showcase, a Pixar program in partnership with Disney Hyperion press that gives some of Pixar’s very talented artists a chance to express themselves more personally on a project of their own.

The names Pixar and Disney certainly got my attention. But I was cautious. I had lots of questions—first and foremost was this a project I could relate to? I knew that Noah had already created several story lines for the book and had a specific character and world in mind. So what was that world like? Would it be appealing to me and a place where I could see creating a story?

Disney sent me some sample art. It was totally charming. I loved…

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Afterthought #42 – Taking Risks

sr folks (1)
L to R: Lorna Reese, Jeremiah O’Hagan, Iris Graville

Earlier this month, I posted an interview with Lorna Reese, founding editor of SHARK REEF Literary Magazine. Lorna spoke of her commitment to provide a place for hardworking writers to have their work published and of how SHARK REEF has changed since its beginnings in 2001. One of her innovations has been to invite guest editors to review submissions, and for the past six issues, Jeremiah O’Hagan has joined Lorna as prose co-editor. Lorna knew of Jeremiah’s writing from his essay, “Crash”, published in SHARK REEF’s Summer 2012 issue, but she’d never met him face-to-face—until last week, that is. Jeremiah travelled from his home on the mainland to Lopez to join Lorna and me for lunch and a walk on the beach.

“He’s a brilliant young writer,” Lorna had said about Jeremiah when I interviewed her. I agree, having been in writing workshops with him at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program. Not only does Jeremiah write gorgeous essays, but his introductions to SHARK REEF issues teach you something about the craft of writing and make you want to dive into each piece selected. Here’s an excerpt from “Taking Risks,” his introductory piece for the current issue:

The best essays and stories and poems have horizontal and vertical plots. X and y axes. Physical and emotional journeys. As characters move through the outside world, they are transformed inside. They dive deep for self-discoveries, climb high for perspective. Or put in terms of popular music — every story needs a bridge. It needs to go somewhere unexpected and memorable.

In the best-of-the-best writing, the emotional journey transfers to readers. We become the narrator’s consciousness. We are whisked away, we feel the floor drop out beneath us.

Poetry co-editor Gayle Kaune said, “The best poems … tell us something authentic and ineffable that can only be retold by the poem itself.”

Richard Widerkehr, this issue’s other poetry co-editor, said, “I like poems that take risks, not just in language, but risks of the spirit.”

That’s it, isn’t it? We catch and tell stories to risk our spirit.

Thanks, Jeremiah, for taking risks in your own writing and for recognizing when others “catch and tell stories” to risk their spirits.

*“Afterthoughts” are my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning’s worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, books, maybe even bumper stickers.

Residency Preparation

Author Kelly Davio offered good advice on her blog for beating the post conference blues following the Pacific Northwest Writers Association 2015 Summer Conference.  I acted on Kelly’s guidance by connecting through social media with several writers I met there and by reviewing my notes and organizing them for future reference. And Kelly’s post conference suggestions remind me of  the importance of preparation prior to such events, too.

mfa_home In my January 2013 blog post, “Preparation,” I described my routines before heading to my public health nursing job, entering Quaker worship, and beginning my daily writing. This week I’m recalling the benefits of advance focus as I plan for the upcoming Residency of my alma mater, Whidbey Writers Workshop Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program.

Now a Whidbey alum, I’m not enrolled in any of the MFA courses that current students will attend in the morning. So I’ll devote those hours to my own writing, and I’ll follow Kelly’s post-conference advice to “try something new.”  She wrote:

That new craft pointer you heard about in a workshop? Take it out for a spin.

I’ll try out some of the tips I learned in Kelly’s PNWA workshop, “What Prose Writers Can Learn from Poetry,” as I work on BOUNTY – Lopez Island Farmers, Food, and Community.

   BOUNTY artistic director, Sue Roundy
Photo by Steve Horn
                      Photo by Steve Horn

Perhaps the 300-word profiles I’ll be drafting to accompany nearly thirty photographs of farms and farmers will take the form of prose poems.

          Photo by Summer Moon Scriver

And when I turn to editing my memoir manuscript, Hiking Naked – A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance, I’ll refer to notes from other sessions I attended such as “The Top Seven Manuscript Pitfalls” by Jason Black and “The Five Stages of Editing” by A. C. Fuller.

photo 1

The most challenging part of my residency preparation, though, is deciding which afternoon sessions to attend; like any good conference, the residency schedule has me wishing I could be two (or more) places at once. Here are the topics and guest faculty I have my eye on:

Craig Lesley– Eccentrics and Leftouts (those people whose stories often aren’t told)

Stefon Mears – Stay Organized with Scrivener (software for writers)

Shannon Huffman Polson – Writing Grief

Melissa Hart – Cinepoems and Video Prose (digital storytelling)

Jo Scott-Coe – Reading (and Writing) Through Rejection

And at the end of what promises to be a stimulating two weeks, I’ll have Kelly’s remedies to turn to if I suffer from post-residency blues.