Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

Posts tagged ‘creative writing’

Give Me the Streets of Manhattan

Well, I did another disappearing (and reappearing) act for a number of good reasons but not-so-good excuses–graduation, illness, travel. First and foremost, I neglected updating this blog while I was finishing up my undergraduate degree at Texas Christian University. Yep, that’s right, I am now officially a graduate with a BA in Writing! Actually crossing the finish line was one of the most rewarding, challenging, and fulfilling things I’ve done in a long time. While trying to keep sane as the deadline for my 140-page thesis approached, I was busy going to Kansas for Thanksgiving, visiting NYC to celebrate my one-year anniversary with my man friend, and taking exams. Fortunately, I made it through the whole thing in one piece with a couple rather sparkling (if I do say so myself) commendations: Honors Laureate from the John V. Roach Honors College and summa cum laude (I hung in til the bitter end and kept up my 4.0 GPA). Unfortunately, all this hard work led to a severe lack of sleep, which weakened my immune system. The fever and congestion set in early in December, and now I’ve officially had bronchitis for two weeks, though I think possibly longer considering I started coughing three weeks ago. Needless to say, hacking up my lung every two minutes (I have some fabulous back pain from the intense coughing spasms) has prevented me from updating my blog after I walked across the stage. Now that I’m finally getting back with it, I’m writing this post under the influence of codeine cough syrup, which was a last resort from my doctor when he realized I’d been coughing pretty much non-stop in the two weeks since I’d seen him last. So, if this post sounds a little off, write it up to narcotics.

Now that I’ve got a pretty little diploma sitting on my shelf, I have to face the future: getting a job. If you or anyone you know is hiring in the NYC metro area, let me know! I am taking any leads I can find. Facing the new year and facing a new chapter in my life has a nice pathetic fallacy to it, because as 2012 comes to a close, so does the time in my life that I spent at TCU. I’ll miss Fort Worth, my job at the Writing Center, the campus, and most of all my friends, but like most somewhat well-adjusted adults, I realize change is necessary and vital to continuing to grow and flourish. I’m busy updating my website, putting finishing touching on my resume, and writing cover letters.

But apart from filling up the folder titled “Professional Development” on my computer, I’m back to writing again. This writing is actually, well, fun, very much unlike what I was doing towards the end of this past semester. The writing I completed for my thesis (four essay comprised of 20-50 pages each) was done at breakneck speed towards the end, and once I turned it in at the very last minute (technically four minutes past the deadline), I thought I’d never want to write again. I’ve actually told the boyfriend to forcibly hold me down and say, “REMEMBER HOW MUCH YOU HATED FINISHING YOUR THESIS?” if I ever say, “You know, maybe I should go get an MFA in Creative Writing.” The reasons for me slowly coming to hate CNF were pretty basic–I’d been working on the damn project for three years and I was tired of looking at it. Mentally and emotionally exhausted, I was just trying to eke out the final draft in time to graduate. I wasn’t reading for fun; I wasn’t writing for fun; and most of my time seemed devoted to managing a low level of panic.

The low level of panic abated little by little once I was done, and because of graduation and Christmas, I received an iPad mini (if this were a tech blog, I’d explain my reasoning, but it’s not, so I’m not explicating my thinking process) and some Amazon gift cards. I have my reservations about Amazon, but I’ve already committed to the Kindle format, so I keep with it. I got some new books and sat down with my cozy little iPad by the fire to read. And you know what? I got inspired. Reading In Praise of Messy Lives: Essays by Katie Roiphe actually got my brain gears turning again and churning out the writing without deadlines and without fear of workshop or critique. I wrote seven pages in an hour and have been taking notes in my notebook ever since as the mood strikes me. I won’t have too much time to devote to writing now that I’ve got to hunker down to job stuff, but the relief is overwhelming to know that my honors thesis did not fully turn me away from writing, that I still have a passion for what I love doing most. I have several ideas for essays so far, mostly about things that happened at TCU, because I want to write about my time there before I emotionally close the door on that part of my life. The one I have worked on so far finds loose inspiration from Walt Whitman’s “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun,” from which I stole the title line for this blog. I’ll briefly recopy it here:

1
Give me the splendid silent sun with all his beams full-dazzling,
Give me autumnal fruit ripe and red from the orchard,
Give me a field where the unmow’d grass grows,
Give me an arbor, give me the trellis’d grape,
Give me fresh corn and wheat, give me serene-moving animals teaching
content,
Give me nights perfectly quiet as on high plateaus west of the
Mississippi, and I looking up at the stars,
Give me odorous at sunrise a garden of beautiful flowers where I can
walk undisturb’d,
Give me for marriage a sweet-breath’d woman of whom I should never tire,
Give me a perfect child, give me away aside from the noise of the
world a rural domestic life,
Give me to warble spontaneous songs recluse by myself, for my own ears 
only,
Give me solitude, give me Nature, give me again O Nature your primal
sanities!
These demanding to have them, (tired with ceaseless excitement, and
rack’d by the war-strife,)
These to procure incessantly asking, rising in cries from my heart,
While yet incessantly asking still I adhere to my city,
Day upon day and year upon year O city, walking your streets,
Where you hold me enchain’d a certain time refusing to give me up,
Yet giving to make me glutted, enrich’d of soul, you give me forever 
faces;
(O I see what I sought to escape, confronting, reversing my cries,
see my own soul trampling down what it ask’d for.)
2
Keep your splendid silent sun,
Keep your woods O Nature, and the quiet places by the woods,
Keep your fields of clover and timothy, and your corn-fields and orchards,
Keep the blossoming buckwheat fields where the Ninth-month bees hum;
Give me faces and streets–give me these phantoms incessant and
endless along the trottoirs!
Give me interminable eyes–give me women–give me comrades and
lovers by the thousand!
Let me see new ones every day–let me hold new ones by the hand every day!
Give me such shows–give me the streets of Manhattan!
Give me Broadway, with the soldiers marching–give me the sound of
the trumpets and drums!
(The soldiers in companies or regiments–some starting away, flush’d
and reckless,
Some, their time up, returning with thinn’d ranks, young, yet very
old, worn, marching, noticing nothing;)
Give me the shores and wharves heavy-fringed with black ships!
O such for me! O an intense life, full to repletion and varied!
The life of the theatre, bar-room, huge hotel, for me!
The saloon of the steamer! the crowded excursion for me! the
torchlight procession!
The dense brigade bound for the war, with high piled military wagons
following;
People, endless, streaming, with strong voices, passions, pageants,
Manhattan streets with their powerful throbs, with beating drums as now,
The endless and noisy chorus, the rustle and clank of muskets, (even
the sight of the wounded,)
Manhattan crowds, with their turbulent musical chorus!
Manhattan faces and eyes forever for me.

The essay is basically about how I have come to love NYC after having either mistrusted or hated the city most of my life. Here’s a little snippet, now that my brain finally seems to be shutting down from the cough syrup:

“Well, that’s the place to go if you want to be a writer.”

This response, or some variation thereof, is one I often heard when people asked me what my plans were for graduation and I told them somewhat sheepishly that I was going to move to New York City. Like asking a child what she wants to be when she grows up or asking a high-schooler where she will go to college, asking a college graduate what she will do after graduation was the constant question I heard whenever I announced I had just graduated. I was enormously proud of this accomplishment, and with good reason—I had graduated in three and a half with a 4.0 GPA from a private university, which I attended on a full-tuition scholarship, so I kind of enjoyed telling people that I was finally done. I had ample opportunity to brag, because being in your late adolescence means that whenever you meet someone, they will ask you where you go/went to college and what you will do/are doing.

Part of this repetitive, “Oh, yeah, New York is the place for writing” was from people who did know the publishing world or were familiar with the number of famous writers who live(d) in the Big Apple. Because we had already established that I graduated with a BA in writing, my fellow conversationalist would assume I was going there to play the part of the wide-eyed, enthusiastic, idealistic young woman bent on fulfilling her dreams (this is not why, but I let them think that because it sounds so much more romantic than the real reason). With a knowing nod, we moved on to other topics, so I did not have to explain that many of my writing idols (Eula Biss, David Sedaris, Sloane Crosley, etc.) had all lived in New York at one point or another, and that their experiences in the city had shaped their writing.

The other group who gave this response came from people who viewed the big city as the only place for anything cultured, erudite, or urbane. This subset of people were my family and friends and acquaintances, who, like me not too long ago, knew little to nothing about New York City and both revered and feared it like some exotic foreign country, totally unfamiliar and strange, full of exciting and dangerous things. I did have to explain that five of the Big Six publishers were located in New York and that many other fields claimed their respective capitals in NYC. As cheesy as it sounded, I would proffer, “Well, it’s one of the literary and cultural capitals of the world,” and their already wide eyes would grow wider at the idea of going to such a wonderful and terrifying place.

I do not wish to sound like I am insulting anyone who views New York City in this way; indeed, I still do in many ways, mostly because I understand that truly being familiar with a place takes years, and even in my hometown I often find myself a mere visitor in the world of upper-middle class white suburbia. In some ways I am still like my friends and family who both revere and fear New York as some sort of mythical Oz where you either reach all your goals or end up in a back alley with your wallet stolen and your throat slit. We view the city this way because of lack of exposure and the aura of mystery that has grown around the Great White Way.

I grew up knowing phrases like “the Great White Way” because I was relatively “cultured,” you could say. My parents took my brother and me to plays, musicals, art exhibitions, museums, symphonies; we all played musical instruments; our house was drowning in books, tables trying to come up for air underneath waves of newspapers and open books clinging to the life vest of a bookmark. I knew the things that cultured, intellectual people are supposed to know, both from exposure and my perfectionist streak that led me to learn history and art and literature in school. I took ballet lessons for almost a decade and played the flute. I read the classics and studied for tests. I grew up in the DFW metroplex, so I went to a big city on a regular basis. I knew more about this kind of life than say, my uncle’s wife, who grew up in Nebraska and didn’t see an escalator until she was nineteen. In short, I knew what city folks know.

But I was also hopelessly Midwestern. My family was fortunate and affluent enough that we got to take regular family vacations, but we almost always travelled west—Washington, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Hawaii—and almost rarely east of the Mississippi—Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and rural Kentucky were about as far east as we went. I went to Florida once to visit a friend but without family. My parents distrusted people on the East Coast—my grandmother raised my mother to not like Yankees, and this grandmother was the only grandparent of mine not to live and die in Kansas. There wasn’t much choice but to fit into the Midwestern stereotype: hardworking but not too ambitious, polite but not effusive, kind but not warm, honest but not abrupt, and pragmatic but not blunt.

These values were further instilled by a practical, Methodist worldview, so when I first visited New York City at age fifteen, I, like most of my Texas peers, viewed the big city as a place full of pushy, rude, aggressive North Easterners who neither had manners nor patience. I was also scared—perhaps the New York City of the 1970s and 80s had been popularized so much in movies and TV shows that the rest of the country was unaware that the City had sorted out some of those issues, thank you very much. So when I got off the plane at LaGuardia, I was there for a weekend-long trip with the rest of my high school band. Two hundred of us did sightseeing in one amorphous blob that clogged already full sidewalks and unfortunately undermined our own ability to enjoy the city. During that brief visit, I saw Midtown East, Times Square, Battery Park, Central Park, Carnegie Hall, Rockefeller Center, and the New York Philharmonic. I hated it. The masses of people were forceful and abrasive; the flashing lights of Times Square and the constant barrage of shouting and honking were overstimulating; and the street peddlers and panhandlers were a bit overwhelming for a sheltered tiny white girl. The only part of Manhattan I actually liked was Central Park, and we only spent a brief hour there before boarding the buses again.

When my parents suggested we go back and see some Broadway shows to celebrate my sixteenth birthday the next year, I politely said thanks but no thanks—I’d had enough of New York for a lifetime. I got my doses of New York through seeing my high school’s production of West Side Story, watching 30 Rock and Thoroughly Modern Millie, flipping through women’s interest magazines, and reading my favorite essayists like the aforementioned Sedaris and Crosley. New York was still a faraway place of fairy tales, which offered both the fantastic and the phantasmagorical, like a forbidden forest. And more intriguing still, all these books and movies and shows had these references that I couldn’t catch, like little jokes that only the insiders got, things like Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock saying, “I would go, but I haven’t been above 72nd Street in over a decade” and then pausing to take a drink of scotch for comedic effect or Sloane Crosley complaining about the conundrum of choosing between a taxi or a subway late at night or David Sedaris talking about how much he hates Midtown during the holidays. I chalked my failure to know a sign of my being a good, down-to-earth Midwesterner and not one of those snobby, East Coast types. I excused my knowledge about art and architecture and literature by being a) grossly illiterate in the world of fashion and b) a girl who could saddle and ride a horse, milk a cow or a goat, break ice on the pond for the cows in winter, and feed the chickens. Not getting the punch line for a joke about Astoria or Park Slope wasn’t a defect, necessarily, just indicative that I wasn’t one of those impatient, rude New Yorkers with their gaudy accents. I’d keep my splendid silent sun and corn-fields and quiet places by the woods—you could keep the streets of Manhattan for all I cared.

Have a safe and happy New Year, everyone! See you in 2013!

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.

 

To Write, To Publish, To Blog

Blogging has three main uses: personal expression, professional development, and class crowdsourcing. Personal blogs are popular—sites like WordPress, tumblr, and Blogspot provide forums to express opinions, share information, and network with people who share similar interests. On these sites, you can “follow” users whose posts you like, and as the person blogs, their posts will be sent directly to your inbox. Bloggers can tag and categorize their posts so that other bloggers can find posts about their interests. Users receive feedback through comments, likes, and views, all available through the “site stats” on WordPress. The barriers to expression are low—regular accounts are free, and all one has to do is type and hit “publish.”

You can also use blogs for professional development. A person can build a professional website through WordPress, e.g. Paying for a domain name (mine would be $17/year) and professional options, job seekers can post resumes, professional headshots, sample work, biography information for potential employers to review. These options are particularly valuable for writers, musicians, and visual artists, who all benefit from being able to share their work online. Examples can be found at melsphotos.tumblr.com. spurriermusic.com, and katiegoodrich.com.

But most applicable to education and technology are course blogs. I have had at least three courses involving class blogs: two French classes and an English class. My English class required a certain number of blogs about our readings, then a certain number of responses to other writers’ posts. This system avoided the dread online forum/thread on so many eCollege courses. Students had more freedom in what they posted and how they posted. My first French course utilizing a blog (lebavard.wordpress.com) benefited from teaching students how to post, how to tag, how to categorize so that students had a rudimentary understanding of how to publish online while getting practice in French composition skills. The other course created benefits of crowdsourcing. Students are supposed to follow French news, but because the abundance of news through large media outlets (televised, articles, etc), no one student could possibly take in all the French news every day. So we each post one blog a week, and we each have a “beat”—mine is education, while others write about politics or health. This way, we all benefit from the collective research and media knowledge of others.

Although my Editing and Publishing course included a website at the end to which all students contributed, students received no practice in building a website, creating an account, or publishing online. Although organizing content was simplified, students lost the community feel of reading others’ posts and feeling like their own contributions mattered. With such low barriers to expression and how easily one can create an account, professors and teachers can use blogs to connect students. My teachers have primarily used one of two methods—1) invite students to become members of one blog or 2) ask students to post the link to their personal blog so that other students can visit, read, and comment.

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 Foxy Journal

Apart from professional development and blogging about publishing, this WordPress also serves as a forum for me to write creatively and discuss creative writing. I’m currently in a graduate-level creative nonfiction workshop, and one of our assignments is to read The Journal of Jules Renard on our own time and journal about it. Jules Renard is not well known in English and American literature; in fact, his works such as Poil de Carrote and L’Ecornifleur rarely appear in the literary canon so often taught in high schools and universities. But this neglect is such a shame, for Renard’s writing is beyond simple lyricism and grace—it is clear, concise, and thought-provoking. Renard has inspired many a writer, and reading his journal is an excellent example for writers to follow, for, as writers, we are never done developing or honing are craft. There is always another book to read, another form to experiment with.

In the first creative nonfiction workshop I took the second semester of my freshman year of college, we read a piece that was full of short maxims in an anthology titled The Lost Origins of the Essay by John D-Agata. One girl in our class commented that they were “truth bombs.” Our assignment over spring break was to write our own series of truth bombs. I believe I’ve since “lost” (or conveniently misplaced) my truth bombs. I’m guessing that whatever an eighteen-year-old girl had to write in the way of truth bombs isn’t much worth repeating. My writing is rarely concise. I tend to ramble a fair bit, and I have this awful habit of constantly repeating myself, as though I believe the reader isn’t going to get it the first time, so I just have to pound the point into the reader’s head. Frankly, it’s a little insulting to the reader—childish hand-holding between the writer and reader. One of the biggest lessons I’ve had to learn as a writer is to trust your reader.

Anyway, I digress. Back to one Jules Renard. From the get-go, I’m sure he and I are going to have a good friendship, even though he’s, well, dead. In French, renard means “fox.” Before I even open the cover, I think, “Damn, this is gotta be good.” So when I begin reading, what do I discover? A whole new set of truth bombs. Not aphorisms, not adages, not maxims. Truth bombs. I assumed that reading snippets of a late-eighteenth-century writing was going to be a challenge, but I immediately found myself in dialogue with Mr. Renard, because he immediately challenged me:

“Talent is a question of quantity. Talent does not write one page: it writes three hundred. No novel exists which an ordinary intelligence could not conceive; there is no sentence, no matter hoe lovely, that a beginner could not construct. What remains is to pick up the pen, to rule the paper, patiently to fill it up. The strong do not hesitate. They settle down, they sweat, they go on to the end. They exhaust the ink, they use up the paper. This is the only difference between men of talent and cowards who will never make a start. In literature, there are only oxen.”

Immediately I want to protest, “But I’m a writer! And I have writer’s block; I can’t help it!” I think to myself, “Psh, I work in a writing center. Trust me, there are some sentences that are beyond the beginner’s grasp,” as elitist and horribly condescending as that sounds. But then I wonder, “Hrm, that concept of ruling the paper, just writing and writing until something good comes out.” Most of what I write is absolute shit. There’s no getting around that word. Most of it quite simply sucks. Hard. But when you just write and write and write, eventually you’ll strike gold, or at the very least fool’s gold. I’ve got to just go and go and go. Already Renard is providing me lessons about being a writer, but in a more modern context: type until your fingers are numb. Control the screen. You are the master of your own Word document.

But beyond the lessons and content Renard is passing on to me, I’m looking at his syntax above all, or lack thereof. For example, one line reads “A scrupulous inexactness,” another, “Fingers knotty as a chicken’s neck,” “A simple man, a man who has the courage to have a legibile signature.” “The scholar generalizes; the artist individualizes.” These aren’t even complete sentences, but they’re compelling and fascinating, like flash fiction in ten words or less. Maybe these phrases don’t constitute a story; maybe they don’t make up a scene. But I feel like I’m getting an intimate look into his mind, random thoughts he had and just jotted down. I do this, except on my iPhone. A phrase or thought pops into my head, I open my notes, and type it out before returning to whatever it was I was doing. The juxtaposition of two opposing thoughts—scrupulous and inexactness, a gorgeous simile of knotty fingers, and the idea that those of us who hide behind a chicken scratch signature are cowards. Makes you think, doesn’t it? All of a sudden I want to work harder whenever I use my credit card. But my favorite so far is, “To have a horror of the bourgeois is bourgeois.” One sentence, and I want to say, “Yes! Exactly! How did you do that? That would take me three paragraphs to explain.” Frankly, it’s kind of sexy for a dead guy, how he can capture the fact that memories can use your brain as a tambourine. Lately, I’ve been experiencing this every night,and consequently I’m so sleep deprived that it took me half an hour to go grocery shopping because I kept forgetting which aisle I was on.

What are like are the breadth and depth of his one-liners; I feel like I can curl up in them, sleep in them, explore them. There are a few words, ten at most, and yet I want to live in them, emulate them, experience them. I walk away not inspired but contemplative. When was the last time one sentence made me really think?

His prose his sparse yet full. On the one hand I think of haiku and the prose poetry of Gary Young; on the other, I think of a fusion of romanticism and realism. He focuses on some of the details (even the mundane) of life—a bitchy mother-in-law, how a spider glides on an invisible thread as though it were swimming in the air, that the ideal of calm exists in the sitting cat. But he also extols nature, the verbal version of romanticism. Renard is a contemporary of the avant-garde school of impressionism: Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet, Degas, Pissarro, Renoir, yet his work is reminiscent of his art contemporaries through his use of the written word to capture a snapshot of life, a brief moment snatched from time. But he also is expressing his personal views on life—representing the world through a lens not based on time of day or fleeting feeling of the moment, more on the thought passing through his mind.

Renard leaves me with the inner workings of his mind, snippets of what passes through his mind during any given day. Although he doesn’t share explicit details or his personal life, the prose feels incredibly intimate. I feel as if I am almost intruding, looking through a keyhole into which I should not be peering.

Yes, No, Maybe

I currently have an internship at the TCU Press (http://www.prs.tcu.edu/ for more info) where I do a little bit of everything: copy editing, copy writing, office administration, etc. But my main role in the Press is helping handle acquisitions. I wrote the following paragraphs as part of an article at editingandpublishing.wordpress.com:

The Acquisitions Process

When an acquisitions editor decides to pitch the book for the publication green light, marketing and sales factor into the equation. Oftentimes, the decision to publish a book comes down to the numbers: how many books will sell and at what price compared to the cost of actually publishing, promoting, circulating, and distributing the book. The information goes into a formula—a profit and loss (P & L) sheet. In essence, the marketability of a book comes down to numbers: how many books will actually sell, and how does that number compare against the cost of publication?

Determining P & L

Authors often must provide information to help calculate the P & L—who the audience is, what the market is, and why that market is profitable. The publisher will likely compare the manuscript or proposal with similar books already on the market—i.e., the competitors. The publisher will also likely discuss what season the book belongs in and what line the book should be published with. Editors and financial analysts use this information to determine the number of books that might sell and at what list price, if the book might have rights to sell (foreign, book club, movie), and what kind of royalties the author should receive. All the cost information is fed into the P & L, and if the book is projected to be more than marginally profitable, the project will probably proceed.

University presses operate under a different model. Because university presses rarely make a profit off the books they publish, they consider more about furthering a body of knowledge and publishing good works. Less time is given to P & L and more about how the book will fit in to their general focus and readership.

My job at the Press is slightly less involved. Basically, I read the cover letter, the proposal, the chapter outline (if there is one), market/competitive analysis (if existing), and the sample of text provided. TCU Press focuses on publishing literature of Texas and the South(west). So, many of the proposals we receive focus on cities in Texas and the South/West, Southern/Western culture, and Southern/Western history. We do occasionally publish works that aren’t Southern/Western-oriented, but these are exceptions rather than the rule. We try to preserve local history and specialize in regional literature. A good amount of the proposals we receive fall into the South/Western category, so my job then is to sort out the wacky/zany proposals from those we could actually publish.

At eleven40seven (www.1147.tcu.edu), we would review submissions to the journal and sort them into three piles: yes, no, and maybe. The “yes” pile consisted of those that were of high quality and we knew we wanted to print. The “no” pile included those works that after one read we knew we didn’t want to include in the publication. The “maybe” pile included the borderline ones that we might put on our online edition of the journal and not in print. Depending on the number of acquisitions, we could spend hours deciding how to manage those three categories. Some pieces are a definite “yes.” They stand out in quality, and you know after one read that they’re well written, well thought out, and well executed. Many of the “no” submissions are similar–after just a couple lines/paragraphs, you know that this piece just isn’t quite there style-wise, quality-wise, or otherwise.

But the process listed above is for an undergraduate, student-run journal. I’ve just started looking at acquisitions for the Press, and I realized that I needed a more discerning eye than “yes, no, maybe.” Although we have editorial standards at eleven40seven, I knew I needed to come up with a way to look at these proposals and write up an assessment/recommendation to the head of acquisitions at the Press. For ethics and privacy, I won’t include any specific texts, authors, or titles. The following are the basic questions I ask myself when looking at a text (in any genre):

1. What is the author’s objective/purpose? What is the author trying to do?

2. How well is the author achieving that objective? Why or why not?

After these questions, I have to divorce the content from the style. I can’t care about what is written; I must focus on how it’s written. I may be reading a political treatise (for lack of a better word) with views completely contrary to my own–I may be offended, angry, and indignant. But instead of rejecting it on the basis of its content, I have to see how well they’re building their ideas and their argument. Is the rhetoric strong? Is the writing clear and concise? Are the paragraphs well organized and structured?

I may intensely dislike the topic of a story or find it boring because I don’t really care about military history or esoteric writings about obscure topics. I have to ask if the writing is fitting with the audience–easy-to-understand writing for a commercial audience or more difficult, specific topics for an academic audience.

After this initial process, the question breaks down by genre. Some of the questions overlap from genre to genre, but here are the major ones I look at for each genre.

Fiction

1. How is the author developing the characters? Are the characters flat, rounded, or dynamic?

2. Is the author showing or telling us about the characters? Is the author hand-holding the audience? (In creative writing terms, showing versus telling is one of the major phrases you hear. A lot. Showing means that you are demonstrating something about a character or a relationship by their actions, their thoughts, or through dialogue, not through telling us what the character is like. Additionally, hand-holding means you’re over telling or over explaining a concept that the reader would be able to infer on his or her own. A major principle I’m looking for: Is the author trusting the reader to understand? Audiences are smarter than one might think, and they get the point without explicit explanation.)

3. How does the author construct scenes? How does the author use sensory detail to describe physical parts of appearance and setting?

4. What is the chronology of the timeline? In media res? Lots of flashbacks? How do these transitions work from past to present or present to past? Does this approach to chronology serve a specific purpose? Does it help the reader understand the nuances of the situation?

5. What kind of figurative language does the author use? Metaphor? Simile? Symbolism?

6. How is the narration? Does it flow smoothly? Is it confusing? Is the prose interesting and compelling?

7. After a few pages, do I want to keep reading? Am I interested?

8. Is the dialogue strong? Is it stilted? Unnatural? Overly formal? Consistent with the characters’ personalities and backgrounds?

Poetry/Prose Poetry

1. What is the structure of the poem? Is it stanzaic? If so, do the structures of the stanzas serve a specific purpose?

2. Is there a rhyme scheme? If so, does the rhyme scheme act to heighten the poem, or is it arbitrary?

3. What kind of rhythm does the author use? Pentameter/tetrameter? Iambic? If there is a specific rhythm/meter, why is the poet choosing this form? Is the poem in free verse? Why?

4. What sort of sound devices does the poet use? Assonance? Consonance? Alliteration? Do these sound devices add to the meaning of the poem? Do they work well together?

5. Is the diction of the poem strong? (To many poets, poetry is language distilled to its most vivid form without over telling.) Is any of the diction shocking/appealing?

6. What kind of figurative language does the poet use?

Creative Nonfiction

1. What is the form of the essay? Epistolary? Essay? Memoir? Short nonfiction? Personal essay/narrative?

2. How well is the text constructed? What is the structure? How is it organized? How are the transitions?

3. Is the prose compelling? What is the diction and the word choice? Is the writing lyrical or not?

4. What is the tone? How well is the author  conveying that tone?

5. What figurative language is there? How effectively is it used?

6. Is the writing clear, concise, and to-the-point?

7. Does the writing address its intended audience well?

I’m sure there are more questions that I’m forgetting, but those are the basics. Once I answer those questions (either mentally or by actually writing them down), I am able to write a brief summary and brief assessment of the quality of the writing and whether or not people would actually buy/read the book. There are, of course, other processes to the acquisitions process apart from what I’ve listed above, and I plan to address them in later posts. But for the sake of simply reading a manuscript and making a decision to recommend or not, these questions are my starting point. I am not an expert in any genre, nor I am well versed in all the conventions of each genre. I simply use some basic “criteria” to start thinking about the quality of a piece, whether I like its subject matter or not.


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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