Five weeks ago, I celebrated the “birth day” of my first grandchild (Maggie), born to my son and daughter-in-law in Chicago. That’s where I’m writing from now, as I spend this month learning to be a grandmother.
There’s a part of me that also wants to be in Seattle tonight to celebrate another “birth day” – the launch of the memoir, Guts, by Janet Buttenwieser. For the past seven years or so, Janet and I have written together, critiqued each other’s work, and boosted each other’s spirits while seeking publishers. She helped me discern that the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program would be a good fit for me, and more than once she’s bolstered me when doubts about my writing overcome me. And through the years, we’ve also become friends. Seeing her story in print is a great joy.
Guts is a memoir about family, friendship, illness, loss, and hope. Janet was working on it when author Brian Doyle came to teach in our writing program. Here’s what he thought of it: “Can you read a book about pain while grinning and trying not to cry and not being able to think of a single book that’s anything like it? Yup. This one. Guts.”
If you can’t make it to the release party tonight, check Janet’s website for future events. I know I’ll be getting to at least one of them. In the meantime, Maggie and I will be cheering her on.
It’s finally here: the publication day for GUTS!! I’m over the moon that this long-awaited day has finally arrived. Tonight is the first of many celebrations and events: a launch party hosted by the wonderful Hugo House. For the past few weeks, as people have received and read advance copies of GUTS, I’ve been sent […]
Much has happened since that August residency of the Whidbey MFA program. Now I’m a graduate of the program (here I am in 2014, surrounded by members of my writing group who cheered me on at my graduation). And I’m still lucky to be part of the community of skillful writers and teachers I met at Whidbey, but, sadly, the program has closed.
During the first year after I graduated: I sought an agent (was rejected by some very good ones) as I revised the manuscript some more; I entered contests that would lead to publication (received a lovely rejection from one and was a finalist in another) while revising the manuscript again; and, while tinkering a bit more, I researched small presses that accept un-agented manuscripts.
That’s when I found a perfect fit at Homebound Publications. Two years after that first discovery of a home for my book, I had a contract with Homebound; my manuscript had been revised once again following review by my editor, Leslie M. Browning; we selected a photograph by Nancy Barnhart that Leslie used for the cover; I had dinner with my publisher (our first face-to-face meeting); and my manuscript—now a book—was off to the printer.
Soon (just six years and one month after my MFA classmates critiqued that first chapter), I hope to be surrounded again by my writing group, friends, and family at my book launch on Lopez Island.
On September 16, 2017 there are bound to be more good memories to look back on—with or without Facebook’s help.
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.
Essayist 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!”
What 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, 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.”
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.
Kim, himself an accomplished poet and teacher, shared his father’s daily practice with me and other students at a Whidbey Writers Workshop residency one January. Since then, I’ve followed the practice, well… not every day, but it’s how I begin my writing time many days. The routine is simple enough:
write the date (Kim calls this the “open sesame” move; once you jot the date on a page, you’ve accomplished the most difficult part—you’ve begun)
make notes from a recent experience, connection with friends, an account of a dream… nothing profound is allowed
record an observation, a list of things you learned in the past week, a free-standing sentence, an idea, a question, a puzzle…in other words, writing of some provisional understanding of daily life
write something like a poem… or notes toward a poem… or sets of lines that never become a poem.
As the year draws to an end, I’ve been reviewing my writing in poetic lines. Most qualifies as those “sets of lines that never become a poem.” That doesn’t discourage me; Kim says only about a quarter of his father’s notes actually turned into poems.
One entry did catch my attention, though. I wrote it a year ago during my Quaker meeting’s annual Silent Day, and when I re-read it during this year’s day of silence on December 21, the reflection was all-too familiar.
One Day More
in just one day,
I can make up
for all the days
I haven’t centered,
haven’t let go,
haven’t stripped away
all that isn’t essential.
Yet, this one day
is a start,
is one day more
Whatever your practice is, I hope it supports you to be present to all that is essential.