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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Condolences to the U.S.

This year’s 4th of July celebrations stretched over an entire week on the rural island where I live. Many tourists from the mainland took advantage of a midweek day off from work and turned it into a vacation that reached across weekends on either side of the national holiday.

We crowded both sides of the street running through our village for the annual parade, this year dedicated to our local solid waste and recycling center.

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Instructions at Lopez Island Solid Waste Center

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People attended concerts, cookouts, and the Farmers Market; paddled and cycled, joined the Lions’ Club Fun Run/Walk, perused used books at the Friends of the Library sale, and lazed on the beaches.

 

kayak

 

Except for the annual community fireworks display at 10:30 PM, there was a noticeable (and blessed) absence of whistling and exploding firecrackers at private events. Evidently people responded to the dozens of reminders posted along island roadways that all personal fireworks are banned in our county.

I’ve long felt ambivalent about 4th of July festivities. Too often, much of the celebrating focuses on the use of violence and war to protect our “freedom;” nowhere is that more evident than rockets bursting in the air, often over fragile wildlife habitats and bodies of water.

declaration-of-independence.jpgBut this year, my emotions included grief. Ever since the vitriol of the 2016 Presidential race and the resulting election of Donald Trump, I’ve worked to manage the anger, fear, and sadness that shadow me. As I re-read the U.S. Declaration of Independence this week, I was struck by the explanation of the reason for this declaration:

“The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these States.”

That statement is followed by a long list of “facts” to prove that claim. Many of the examples resonate with actions of our current President, this one in particular:

“He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.”

So, yes, anger, fear, and sadness shadowed this year’s 4th of July for me.

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David Oates, author & teacher

A couple of days later, I received word from writing friend and teacher David Oates that one of his essays had been published in Terrain.org’s “Letter to America Series.” Through this collection, the online magazine presents “urgent, powerful, and beautiful post-election responses from writers, artists, scientists, and thinkers across the United States.” The series began on November 17 when Alison Hawthorne Deming published her Letter to America in response to the election. Her instructions about how to respond were clear: “Think of the great spirit of inventiveness the Earth calls forth after each major disturbance it suffers. Be artful, inventive, and just, my friends, but do not be silent.”

People have followed Deming’s instruction in the form of poems, photographs, traditional letters, and more. David’s response took the form of a condolence letter. As good sympathy notes do, David’s words consoled me—and reinforced Deming’s urging to not be silent. I recommend you read David’s entire essay; this especially spoke to me:

“Each of us wants his or her own way. But we are unhappy–lonely, abandoned, miserable–unless we are profoundly woven in with others. The tearfulness and sorrow of our present moment come from a feeling that in this dimension we have received a profound wound. And we’re all bleeding. David James Duncan calls it our civic grief.

Here we aim for possibility, a more perfect union. Here in our striving and imagining we know vulnerability, this heartbreak, this civic grief.

Let us miss it so fiercely that we become real again, re-inhabit our skins, our plazas and public places, our words that once rose above us like a phalanx of bright spearpoints. Let us grieve as long as necessary and remember as hard as we can.

And then act.”

Four years ago when David was guest faculty in my writing program, he became an example for me of how to overcome fear of speaking out through my writing. “Be grounded in your process as a writer so that your writing isn’t dependent on what others think.”

There’s much comfort and sustenance in the Terrain.org series, and it’s all just a click away. It’s another place I turn to remember the earth’s and our nation’s great spirit of inventiveness. It gives me strength to act.

Afterthought #65 – Better Than Liking

cwcYou know that feeling when you return from a conference (probably on any subject, but for me, it’s usually one focused on writing) with notes scrawled all over handouts and your program? And your mind swirling with new ideas? That happened to me earlier this month at the Chuckanut Writers Conference. This was the second time I attended this annual event, and it was every bit as good as the previous one. Knowledgeable presenters, inspiring topics, innovative approaches, and thought-provoking conversations.

eaOne session I’ll be sharing with my writing group was led by former Washington State Poet Laureate Elizabeth Austen regarding critiquing others’ writing. I’ve re-blogged her post about references to help in Getting Beyond “I Like…” As much as we writers might think we want to hear those words, I agree with Elizabeth that, if that’s all someone says, “It’s sweet but has no nutritive value. It’s like giving someone who craves protein a gumdrop.”

In addition to Elizabeth’s post, here are a few gems she spoke about that I’ll draw on to give meaningful feedback:

Praise what’s vital, vivid, alive, and evocative.
Switch from “I like” to “I notice.”
Comment on what stays with you and what you remember.
Avoid saying, “this doesn’t work for me,” or “if this were my piece I’d…”
Critiquing someone else’s work develops skills for your own revision.

And I’ll remember her advice when receiving critique:

Take the comments and allow them to metabolize before revising.
What we make is not us.
Precise critique conveys a sense of having been read deeply.

Thanks for the protein, Elizabeth!

*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, previous posts, maybe even bumper stickers.

Elizabeth Austen

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This morning I’ll give a talk on workshops and critique groups at the Chuckanut Writers Conference. Here are some of the resources I’ll cite and recommend, plus a few extras:

Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, David Bayles and Ted Orland

Searching for Our Mother’s Gardens, Alice Walker

Simone Weil on Attention and Grace

Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process (pdf)

Interview with William Stafford on workshops (among other things)

The Writer’s Portable Mentor, Priscilla Long

Writing Alone and With Others, Patricia Schneider

The Writer’s Companion, Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux

In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop, Steve Kowit

“In the Workshop after I Read My Poem Aloud,” Don Colburn

Next Word, Better Word, Stephen Dobyns (esp. the chapter on revision)

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A Call to Right

A plastic bag dangled from the door of our mailbox, a thin cardboard box raincoated against the drizzly, winter day. Suspecting the box contained a book I’d ordered, but not remembering which title I was awaiting, I walked briskly home, my yellow lab changing his trot to a sprint to keep up with me.

bookWhen I freed the box from the bag and tore it open, a thin, green volume slid out—Kim Stafford’s latest collection, The Flavor of Unity: Post-Election Poems. kimThe son of poet William Stafford, Kim greets the dawn each day as his father did, “writing the date, a few sentences about the previous day, then an ‘aphorism’ (a thought, a pattern observed, an idea…), and then a poem, half a poem, or notes for a poem.” While some of this writing eventually ends up as published poems, Kim finds that, “mostly, this custom allows me simply to settle my spiritual accounts for the day, and then to proceed with some modest added clarity to thread the needle of modern life by taking action.”

Like many of us, Kim especially sought clarity in the days following the 2016 election. So he leaned on his daily practice to consider a path toward healing the schisms that only deepened after the divisive election season. These considerations led to thirty poems about the work we all have to do if we’re “to be one people again.” The book’s title poem speaks to the source of our unity.

The Flavor of Unity
     El sabor que nos hace únicos.
                                ~ Inca Kola slogan

The flavor that makes us one cannot be bought
or sold, does not belong to a country, cannot
enrich the rich or be denied to the poor.

The flavor that makes us one emanates from the earth.
A butterfly can find it, a child in a house of grass, exiles
coming home at last to taste wind off the sea, rain
falling into the trees, mist rising from home ground.

The flavor that makes us one we must feed
to one another with songs, kind words, and
human glances across the silent square.

You can listen to Kim read this poem on a post by the PBS News Hour.

 

It’s rare for Kim to use rhyme, but in “Righter” he puts it to good use to issue a challenge—with humor.

               Righter

When things go catawampus,
when silences abound,
when nations reel from troubles
and tyranny is crowned—
by writing, be the righter,
and see what can be found
for remedy and comfort
by writing stories down
of all our old connections,
then pass your blessings round —
for people long divided,
restore our common ground.

Kim’s “Citizen of a Troubled Nation” especially spoke to my feeling called to write.

   Citizen of a Troubled Nation

Vast your calling: Serve everyone.
Small your power: One voice.
Clear your path: Honest words
Certain your days: Struggle.
Vast your purpose: Make history.
Focused your goal: A mere footnote—
                                       That sings.

Kim writes at the beginning of his book that poems from it can be reprinted at will, as long as they include this acknowledgment:

Reprinted by permission of the author from The Flavor of Unity, by Kim Stafford (Portland, Oregon: Little Infinities, 2017)  www.kim-stafford.com.

Ever since I met Kim Stafford when he was guest faculty in my writing program, I’ve adopted his morning practice (usually a good bit after dawn) to begin the day with some small bit of clarity. Here’s something close to a poem that I wrote, the morning before the presidential inauguration:

The Pen is My Tool

to build bridges,
to tear down walls
of fear and hatred,
to open doors
and hearts.

My pen is a tool
I need to sharpen
and oil and set
firmly on pages
and put into others’ hands.

I hope that Kim’s poems I’ve included here speak to you. If so, it’s likely that the other twenty-seven in the book will as well, so I encourage you to purchase a copy for yourself, and perhaps a few extras to share with others. You’ll find ordering information by searching for “The Flavor of Unity: Second Edition” at www.lulu.com. When it arrives in your mailbox, open the package, make a cup of tea, and let the flavor of unity in these words fortify you to act.