Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

Posts tagged ‘creative nonfiction’

Excuse Me, But Is This Too Revealing?

During the second semester of my freshman year, I was sitting in the hallway of my dorm studying for a psychology exam. My roommate was in the middle of a family crisis, so I was giving her privacy while her boyfriend comforted her. From what I can remember, it was a Friday night, so a lot of the girls were dressing up for a night out, wearing surprisingly little considering it was 40 degrees outside. One girl (I can’t remember her name so I’ll call her Nicole) was waiting outside her room for her friend to arrive. Nicole’s back coat was longer than whatever dress or skirt she was wearing underneath, and when the friend arrived, Nicole turned with her back to me and opened her coat and asked, “Is this too short?” For all I knew, she was flashing her friend. Like most things in life (relationships, money, etc.), my motto is “If you have to ask, you can’t _____.” For example, “If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it” or “If you have to ask someone to change or tell you they love you, you can’t afford to be with them.” My motto in this case was, “If you have to ask if it’s too short, then it’s too short.”

As I said, this motto applies to many areas in life, including writing. Every creative nonfiction writer, especially memoirists, faces the dilemma of how much he or she should reveal while writing personal narrative. Oftentimes, the characters in the memoir/essay are still alive and ostensibly can get their hands on a book. And often the writer is not portraying the characters in a particularly flattering manner. Unfortunately, the writer cannot wait for every possibly offended person to die or cut out all the salient details, so the question is, “How much should I reveal?” Casting others in a negative light is dangerous or implying potentially harmful sentiments has its consequences.

It’s no secret that memoirists often tweak the facts of the past to suit their purposes (if you want factually accurate, buy an autobiography), but how far is too far is the debate that rages on in the writing community–at what point does omission or minor changes become lying? Should writers alter their story to avoid hurt feelings and harming relationships at the risk of their own artistic integrity? My answer? It depends on how important these relationships are to you and how understanding the other person is likely to be, especially if he or she is litigious (think libel) or particularly sensitive. Some memoirists write under a pseudonym or change the story enough that they decide to publish the book as fiction–the creative nonfiction has become narrative nonfiction. The story is marketed as a novel, and the writer is free to manipulate the story any way he or she pleases. The internal turmoil can be excruciating for a writer, but after careful contemplation, he or she comes to the conclusion that he or she is most comfortable with.

But not all would-be memoirists go through traditional publishing channels. Blogging sites allow any writer to instantly write, post, display, and share anything he or she likes–from fiction to political opinion to book reviews to memoir–without the inspection of an editor or a lawyer, for that matter. If your blog is not advertised to your family and friends, feel free to post whatever you want. But it’s like posts on Facebook–consider your audience before you press enter, because there are 100+ people who might see it. And be doubly careful, because once you press publish, there’s no disguising yourself or taking back what you said once someone has read it. The “e” in “e-mail” or “e-journal” does not stand for “electronic”: It stands for “evidence” and “eternal.” Whatever you put out into the blogosphere is fair game for anyone to read, copy+paste onto a word document, and keep forever.

Is it counterproductive to the writing process to self-censor in the name of sparing others’ feelings? For one, writers who are not absolutely clear about their meaning leave the ambiguity of the written word as a communicator (again why going through a traditional publishing channel when discussing personal issues is preferable to the blogging world). But to answer my question: Yes, and no. Many writers pride themselves about their transparency and honesty in their writing, baring all in the name of the craft. But for me, I have different priorities. I’ve edited out a fair bit of potentially damaging material from my own work, or if I do write pieces that are damaging, I never submit them for publication or share them with others. I cannot claim to be a tell-all writer, but I’m okay with that, because I put my family and friends first and my needs and wants as a writer second. I struggle with the decision to hit the delete key, but usually I don’t regret keeping my relationships intact. I’d rather give up some of my artistic authenticity than insult my loved ones or harm our relationships. Perhaps I lack the courage or even maturity, but I have plenty of writing material without hurting others. One of my favorite authors of all time, David Sedaris, is shameless when using his family’s stories in his work. I suppose he’s already cleared it with them or maybe has come to terms with the possibility that his family will resent using their histories. I have no idea. But I am not a bestselling author, and I do not pretend to be more than I am as a writer. I have humility and appropriately modify my writing.

As I mentioned above, many writers claim to be set apart from the crowd by their open and honest writing. News flash: it doesn’t. I may self-censor, but because there is a plethora of writers who claim to be brutally honest, any declaration of honesty is rendered null and void. So when you’re considering how confessional to be (and that’s a whole other topic–confessional writing), remember that putting it all out there is not being artistic. A true memoirist carefully selects what to reveal in order to craft a narrative. Writing ad infinitum about your feelings or problems in an attempt to be an artist without consciously deciding what to discard and what to display is the opposite of good writing. The best writers are meticulous in the way they portray themselves and others–before they submit the manuscript or press “publish,” they have decided what to include and what to leave out and have accepted the potential fallout.

 

The Demon in the File

I worked as an acquisitions editor for eleven40seven: TCU’s Student Journal of the Arts (www.1147.tcu.edu), so I had the privilege of reading all the submissions and recommending the picks that would appear in the journal that semester. As a creative writer, I had a pretty okay knack for separating the wheat from the chaff, an ability I used later as an acquisitions assistant at TCU Press (www.prs.tcu.edu). One semester, I read a short story fiction piece about a selkie–a seal that lives in human form. I liked the story, as did my fellow editors, and was curious about what a selkie was and its place in mythology, so I did some googling and found a Wikipedia page about selkies (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selkie). The plot line of the short story I was considering was almost identical to that of the movie The Secret of Ronan Inish. Although the plot points weren’t exactly the same, the two were close enough that I knew the writer had stolen the story line from this movie. I informed the editor-in-chief, and we did not select the piece for the journal, as we almost had.

The specter of plagiarism had reared its ugly head. The editor-in-chief and I had half a mind to send an e-mail to the writer warning him or her (I can’t remember the writer’s gender) about the dangers of plagiarism and how had we had reported this piece to the university authorities, he or she would have been promptly placed on academic probation at the very least and at the most expelled. I am not sure if the writer was consciously plagiarizing, accidentally blurring the line between intellectual property and “creativity,” or really had no idea that what he or she was doing was definitely unethicial and possibly illegal. The faculty advisor for the journal had never encountered such an issue, and he was flabbergasted than anyone would so brazenly plagiarize another’s work and submit it to a journal.

I work at the Center for Writing at TCU, and I often work with students who are shocked to find out that they are violating all kinds of rules in their papers when they do not properly cite their sources or even paraphrase. I am not sure where this ignorance comes from, as works cited pages and MLA format are standard fare for high school English research papers, but I occasionally have to put the fear of God (or at least the law/student handbook) into these students to get them to realize that plagiarism is a big big deal. Professional writers do it, sure–but they get severely penalized for it. I had a friend at SMU who wrote papers for other people for a fee; the practice disgusted me, but not my university, not my problem. I find myself saying over and over, “You have to cite your sources; the issue is non-negotiable, unless your professor already knows all your sources from course readings and has no reason for works cited.” I give the spiel about ethos, credibility, and a paper trail for other readers who might be interested in the research, but I emphasize the whole, “this could get you expelled or a whole lot worse” bit. Their eyes widen a little, and they listen a little more intently when I tell them how to cite their sources depending on the style guide.

I bring up the issue because today I read an article that concerned a totally different topic but discussed plagiarism in the publishing industry and the subsequent recalls that result from a publisher realizing, “Oh my dear Lord, we just sent out 50,000 copies of a book that is plagiarized” (full article here: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/09/how-to-make-a-book-disappear/262469/). Anyway, Maria Konnikova cites several instances of publishers having to recall books because of plagiarism:

“1999, to take one example, was a particularly impressive year. In September, Grove/Atlantic junked 7,500 just-printed copies of James Mackay’s I Have Not Yet Begun to Fight: A Life of John Paul Jones after “an absolutely scathing indictment” of plagiarism (apparently, Grove/Atlantic hadn’t cared to investigate the fact that only a year prior, John Wiley & Sons had to withdraw Mackay’s biography of Alexander Graham Bell and pulp all remaining copies, for the very same reason)….More recent examples abound. In 2006, Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan made headlines for plagiarizing her debut novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life; Little, Brown promptly recalled the 55,000 copies that had already been shipped. 2009 saw the recall of the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization—a recall its editor likened to the “first instance of mass book-burning in the 21stcentury.” In 2011, the new thriller Assassin of Secrets, by Q. R. Markham, was found instead to be an assassin of other people’s work—and all 6,500 copies were recalled by Little, Brown. And just this summer, David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies was recalled by publisher Thomas Nelson—apparently, it contained one too many lies itself.”

I know I’m incorrectly block quoting here and thus becoming a hypocrite (WordPress is kind of limiting when it comes to formatting), but plagiarism is not a thing of the past–it is a ghost that haunts every writer, every publisher, every student, even if they don’t realize it’s there. I don’t know if we need to have an awareness campaign out there or just plain better education at the high school and collegiate level, but people need to realize it’s not just a legal issue, it’s a moral issue.

My next post will probably concern the opposition’s argument about new media, the strangling effects of copyright law on creativity, and the electronic marketplace’s changing of the scene of intellectual property. I agree to some extent, but as a writer myself, if I found someone plagiarizing my work, I would sue that person for all he or she was worth until they paid through the nose for violating my intellectual property, even if that idea/term is relatively new in the grand scheme of things. But, a post for another day.

The article also discusses how some memoirs have gotten the shaft for not being memoir enough. There has always been a fine, fine line between what is creative non-fiction and what is fabrication. I’ll readily admit that I have manipulated certain parts of my past to better fit a story line, to be more entertaining, to allow me to skip over giving background information and just keep moving along. But creative nonfiction writers have to be wary that at some point, putting too much fiction in the work moves it from memoir to a novel. A Million Little Pieces is famous for this controversy when Oprah took James Frey down a notch when he appeared on her talk show.

It’s not a news flash that not everything that appears in a memoir in completely, one hundred percent true. For one thing, memoirs are subjective, not objective. If you want reality and truth, go for an autobiography that’s more about relaying truth (a debatable idea in our post-modern world) than about entertaining. For another, memoirs are based on memory, and psychologists have proved that our memories are faulty and suggestible. Every time we call up a memory, our brain slightly modifies it and stores it away in the new, revised form. This problem has led many judges to start disallowing eyewitnesses from testifying in court–we just can’t trust their memories to be accurate. For another, memoir makes no attempt to avoid bias. After all, it’s about a story, usually a piece of a person’s life (for example, if I were to write a memoir, it would not go from childhood to now–I’d focus on a specific aspect).

I’m not defending memoirists who fabricate an entire life that never happened or include so much sensationalism that they abandoned the basic outline of the past a long time ago. But let’s cut some memoirists a break–they’re not claiming to give the whole and absolute truth, nothing but. Memoir is an incredibly difficult genre to write well. It’s not hard to write out your life story, but it’s damn hard to make it well written and effective. Many professional writers don’t even attempt it, and I would argue that it’s the most difficult genre to write well. I think the whole reality vs. fabrication is a little more shades of gray than the plagiarism issue. After all, a memoir is a recollection, and a memoirist is a writer first–we concern ourselves with tweaking the truth for a better piece of writing.

I’m not a memoirist; I’m an essayist. However, I do include personal writing in my works, and I’ll be damned if someone cries wolf because I changed a scene to include me cutting tomatoes rather than just sitting at the table during the conversation to add drama. But I’ll also be damned for taking someone else’s work and claiming it’s my own. We should all know better.

The Memory in the Memoir

Memoir is one of the big ticket items in our literary zeitgeist. Memoir appears everywhere on the bookshelves and on the homepages of Barnes and Noble and Amazon. From the French mémoire, the memoir is a form that has in some ways surpassed the novel and is the most prominent form of nonfiction in contemporary literature. Writers, musicians, artists, politicians, and public officials have all jumped on the bandwagon. The appeal of memoir is simple–we assume that “this really happened.” The person writing actually experienced what we are reading. We’re consuming some form of truth, a primary source document by someone who really lived it. For example, Memoirs of a Geisha by Aruthur Golden and Geisha, A Life by Mineko Iwasaki both deal with the life of a Kyoto geiko. But while Golden is a white man writing a fictional account, Iwasaki was the most renowned and famous geiko of her time. In fact, she sets the record straight about some of the misconceptions sown by Memoirs, such as the fact that high class geiko are essentially courtesans who sell their virginity for the highest bidder and that they are essentially the Japanese equivalent of escorts. (In truth, there is no true “Western” equivalent of the geiko; it simply does not neatly translate into our standard of company for hire). The appeal of Iwasaki’s account over Golden’s is clear; she lived the life of a geiko in Gion. We can believe her more than we can Golden. Her memoirs are true memoirs, rather than Golden’s fabricated account. A memoir of a Holocaust survivor can be trusted more than Holocaust fiction.

Yet the validity of memoir has come under some scrutiny, particularly after the Million Little Pieces scandal on Oprah. Although James Frey’s book was marketed as memoir, much of his account is fictionalized, although loosely based on truth. The appeal of this traumatic account being factional was just too tempting for marketing purposes; it’s more entertaining as memory than it is as made-up. Augusten Burrough’s Running with Scissors came under similar fire when his own family members questioned the truth of his accounts, and one can assume that Burrough’s took large liberties when recounting his family history.

This literary license leads one into the skepticism a reader must either put on hold or caution when reading the memoir. Because our memories are not video recorders, accurately transcribing and recording our past, many memoirists edit, delete, or alter the account either because their memories are truly faulty, they can’t fully remember, or the edited version better suits the storyline and artistic style of the piece. Creative nonfiction is allowed a little bit of latitude with “fact” when it comes to the memoir. Our memories are far from perfect, and sometimes the “truth” needs tweaking to better serve the genre. Yet one must draw the line with how much a writer can change the past; the account must be based on reality, with additions and deletions minimal and based on need rather than sensationalism. It’s a fine, fine line, one which personal essayists and memoirists struggle with daily.

Additional backlash comes from critics who accuse the memoir as little more than the published equivalent of a psychotherapy session, the thought being if you drank, drugged, or sexed as a way to deal with inner pain and external turmoil, go ahead and share with the world. Why not? Skeptical readers assert that the memoir is indulgent and guilty of navel-gazing. The question arises, “Why should we care if this happened to you? Quit it with the confessional whining and self-serving recounting of your past.” But in truth the memoir is more than self-absorbed rambling. The memoir, when well-written, provides an account of an aspect of the writer’s life, a way for readers to live vicariously through an experience or theme of a person’s life and perhaps reflect on their own. The memoir taps into the human story, the human experience, which, in my opinion, is what true art strives to do. Art tries to tap into the One Story of humanity, what it is to be human, to be cliche–the human condition.

At this point I should make a clear distinction between autobiography and memoir. Autobiography, while also a reflection of a person’s life, is usually a linear account starting from the beginning and moving toward some presupposed end to the present. The writer is attempting to accurately and truly represent the passage of their life, from childhood through adulthood in the ownward march toward death. Autobiographers are often older, able to go through decades of life (presumably full and hopefully well-lived). Autobiographers take little artistic license and are concerned with the retelling of the life story. A memoir, on the other hand, usually focuses on one time period or one aspect of the writer’s life, usually coming-of-age, a relationship with a parent or the family, a traumatic event, or a lesson learned. The memoir is often about self-realization or self-actualization, the process through which the writer lived to reflect and reconsider their past through an artistic lens. The writer is using a dual mode of narrative and reflection to weave an overall picture of an aspect of their life. For example, in Loose Girl, A Memoir of Promiscuity, Kerry Cohen Koffman recounts her parents’ divorce, troubled youth, and subsequent “loose behavior” and how she learned to overcome her low self-esteem and develop a healthy sex life. Alex Lemon’s Happy recounts his years of alcohol and drug abuse as he coped with his strokes and brain surgery, how he recovered and dealt with his lost identity as a star baseball player.

The memoir is a difficult form, and one struggles to come across a well-written memoir in the wealth and breadth of memoir available today. Writers struggle to avoid the trap of “And then…and then…and then…” Rather than merely recounting a story, the memoirist must endeavor to interweave the past with the present person. We must know who the person was when it happened to them, otherwise why should we care? Why should we be invested in what happens to this person? The memoirist must create themselves in a new image, into a character and avoid the urge to provide all the backstory, the impulse of “They won’t understand if I don’t give all the background information.” The memoirist must trust reader just enough to assume they’ll put the pieces together but not too much that the reader becomes lost and confused.

Much of this post is coming from The Art of Time in Memoir by Sven Birkerts, who supplies the different subgenres of memoir, good examples of each, the challenges of memoir, etc. But I want to stop recounting his point and offer my own criticism of the memoir. Rather than disliking the memoir for its self-indulgence, I think the memoir has become too popularized, too dominant on the nonfiction shelves. Anyone can write a memoir and sell it if famous enough (Bristol Palin, anyone?) The art and craft of the form becomes secondary to the personality of the writer (who usually works with a ghost writer). My issue comes from not the idea that memoir is essentially narcissistic and an exploitation of our culture’s fascination with dysfunction and self-help. I’m not of the opinion that the memoir belongs in the closet instead of on the bookshelf. The well-written memoir is an experiment of introspection and self-knowledge, the combination of experience in the moment and the looking back of a different person.

No, my criticism comes from this idea that memoir is a one-size-fits-all way to represent a person’s life. That anyone with a ghostwriter, a computer, and a celebrity personality/scandal/entertaining story can publish a worthwhile memoir. The memoir has exploded. The memoir worth writing is not the memoir of the famous screenwriter or the celebrity singer; the memoir worth reading has been carefully crafted, edited, and manipulated to show a person’s life without specific chronology, without all the details spoon-fed to us, without the writing handholding his or her reader every step of the way. As a creative nonfiction writer,  I acknowledge the immense difficulty of writing a memoir and writing it well. How to tell your own story, represent it for a reader–this thing is daunting and seems impossible. It is a form and a genre that is delicate and difficult to master. The well-written memoir is not about the story but instead how the story is told, how the narrative connects with the reflection.

 

The Method in the Madness

Just a little over a week ago, my friend and I were standing in front of a painting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The painting looked more or less like a bunch of random, schizophrenic scribbles–babbling, rambling artistic squiggles that were akin to a magic eye drawing. I have no strong aversion or love toward modern art, so this interpretation is up for debate. My friend and I had been discussing writing, as we are wont to do. She’s a fiction writer, focusing in the short story and young adult fiction. We spend a lot of time discussing our writing, focusing on the similarities and differences in crafting our respective genres.

I pointed to the painting, my finger following the curve of the wiggling lines, and said, “That’s pretty much how my notebook looks before I write something.”

She looked surprised. “Really? But your writing is so straightforward and structured.”

“Yep, pretty much. Once all the crazy is out on paper, it all comes together when I start typing up the final product. The structure comes from a lot of mulling and pondering and jumbled up thinking in my head, and then once the ideas come out in the end, it’s all neat and pretty.”

This conversation, of course, wasn’t the first discussion I’d had on the writing process. As a peer consultant (read: tutor) at the Center for Writing at TCU, I spend a good deal of my time discussing how to brainstorm, how to write a first draft, how to revise and edit, how to include sources, how to use run-in versus block quotes, and on and on and on. I try to avoid the formulaic, five-step process when talking to other students. They’ve heard it before, and they’ll hear it again. Repeating that step-by-step process is nothing more than white noise, so introducing new approaches to the same old, same old helps keep attention. But this writing process is for formal, academic prose and is intended to create genre- and area-specific discourse for the sake of passing a class.

In contrast to straightforward academic writing, my discussion of my creative writing process is vastly different. My boyfriend, who has a BFA in film, writes screenplays and once asked me about my writing process, whether it came in bursts of inspiration or from studied, drawn-out linear thought or through just sitting down and hitting the keys until something worthwhile appears on the page.

My answer?

All three.

For the purpose of this post, I’m going to discuss my creative process in regards to the essay. I write poetry and prose poetry, but since those aren’t my focus in creative writing, I’ll let you use your imagination for how I write in those conventions. In short, the main difference is that poetry and prose poetry are for cathartic, emotional purposes, and the final product rarely, if ever, makes it outside of my file folders on my laptop. And usually, almost always, I get my ideas from sudden inspiration that just hits me. I have to write down whatever I’m thinking at that very second; otherwise, I’ll lose it. This necessity has led me to write the first few lines of a series of prose poems on my phone while walking over narrow stone streets in New Orleans. I almost broke an ankle and got hit by a car, but I had to write down the lines in my head that instant. Damn broken bones and human-versus-car accidents, I had ideas.

But back to creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction for me is an intellectual exercise, a playing with ideas and thoughts I’ve had churning and burning in my mind for weeks, months, even years. It feels like the back of my head is kind of like a cement mixer–always turning, always mixing, always folding ingredients together until a final product comes out. Oftentimes I don’t even realize the idea is in there and has been all along until I sit down at the computer and just try to get it out there. For example, the majority of these blog posts are from things I’ve been musing on a little bit at a time until the half-baked thoughts come out in a semi-coherent, semi-comprehensible process that I record on the page.

My admissions essay to TCU is a good consideration of this principle. I chose a prompt that read, “Go forward or backward 100 years and tell us about your day.” I later found out that most of the students who choose this prompt end up talking about 100 years in the future and their robotic cat. At 17, I had no interest whatsoever in discussing the massive advances in technology or the equivalent of dystopian flash fiction. Instead, I chose to go backwards 100 years to 1908. I looked through the list of major historical events that occurred that year and chose Gandhi doing his first demonstration against the registration of Indians in South Africa. I chose this topic back in early September but didn’t actually begin writing the essay for another month. Without fully realizing it, I was deciding how to structure the essay, figuring out how to tie the topic back into me, and doing research on the topic. My parents thought I was procrastinating, but when I finally stared at that blank screen in front of me, I wrote 500 words in about 15-20 minutes without breaking a sweat. The result of that essay as part of my application was a four-year full scholarship.

Other times, this semi-subconscious thought process takes months, even years to complete. I’m currently working on four or five forty-page essays for a senior thesis to graduate from the honors college at TCU. I began thinking about what I wanted to do for this project during the second semester of my freshman year, two years ago. I knew I wanted to write CNF, and I knew I wanted to focus on the essay, but other than that, I had no idea what I was going to do. During the fall of that year (2010), I stumbled across an idea while writing a short essay for class about feeling like an outsider when I’d grown up so much in the majority of my hometown. I was trying to examine feelings of alterity and otherness that I’d so rarely felt during my somewhat sheltered upbringing. This idea led to a thirty-page essay that meandered through topics that had already been discussed and explicated ad nauseum. After about three or four months of banging my head against a wall, I met with my advising professor to talk about the direction of my thesis. Forty-five minutes later, after having sifted through the hot mess of my essay, we came up with the project I have now–essays on the places I’ve traveled, my experiences in those places, and the history of those locales. I got to combine my ability to write sensory detail, my love of history, and my strength at explicating without having to rehash tired ideas already explored. Once I had the idea, the rest was easy. I wrote about 40 pages in less than a couple months.

But if the idea isn’t fully formed and no divine inspiration comes, you’re forced to sit and keep on typing until you write something even slightly useful. Taking that scrap of useful writing and expanding on it until it becomes a full-fledged essay takes a little time, but to make it a product you’re happy with? Well, let’s just say lots of writers have the philosophy that pieces are never finished, only abandoned. And if you’re stuck with twenty pages of okay writing that you want to transform into something else, to twist and meld and mold an un-malleable piece and bend it to your will? That kind of falls into the whole idea that you should wait a year between writing something and editing/revising it. Stay away from it for a good, long while, then come back when you’re fresh and have a clearer sense of your objective, once you’re not so entrenched in just typing it all out.

When I’m traveling, I try to keep a travel journal and take lots of photos of what I’m seeing so that when I go back to write, I have a clear memory of what I did and saw and thought to translate into an essay. These lead to the schizophrenic notebooks full of little drawings, hastily-written anecdotes, messy notes from museums and exhibits, and little thoughts I jotted down in the margin while I was out. This notebook is the physical manifestation of the mental process that seems to be going on all the time without my even realizing it, the crazy recording of the meandering, wandering lines that my brain follows when classifying and reorganizing cluttered thoughts. Out of the coffee-stained, water-logged pages comes something almost worth writing, something I can push and knead and flatten into the written word.

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