creative nonfiction

A special sentence structure

July 17, 2017 | 15 Comments

Top reads of 2015

December 28, 2015 | 6 Comments

M Train is a portrait of the artist in real time. Patti Smith rambles around New York City, travels overseas to attend a meeting of an odd society devoted to continental drift that suddenly disbands; she writes and muses in a beloved café near her East Village townhouse that one day simply closes. She impulsively buys a Far Rockaway beach shack that Hurricane Sandy promptly submerges.

We see her consume much coffee and the odd meal—vegetarian snacks, really, they seem to keep her going. She tends her cats, falls into bed with her clothes on, somehow loses a beloved coat, leaves a special camera on a park bench. Spacey? Truly. Yet paradoxically mindful. She’s always reading, writing, drawing—and charmingly caught up in TV detective series. Her book’s title may refer to memory, where Smith spends many waking hours. Her past and ongoing lives feel deeply processed. A stoic romantic, her globetrotting habits include tending dead poets’ graves.

For all this detail, she leaves out a lot. Her focus may be the key to M Train. And you always know where she is in time and space or flashback—reminiscent of Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own (reviewed)—despite scant connective tissue. She never plods in what’s basically a chronologically intercut with penumbras of backstory. There’s almost nothing on her poetry and music careers; Smith’s past lives emerge as resonant memories during her peripatetic foreground narrative.

This is a widow’s story. A message from someone in her late sixties living with loss. Her husband, guitarist Fred Sonic Smith, vanished at age 45, slain by a heart attack; her beloved brother who managed her tours fell to a stroke soon after. Smith’s laconic artistry can be seen in her placement of Fred’s spare scenes. No deathbed stuff, however. And her two adult children don’t appear in this slice of life. If sadness suffuses M Train, the book isn’t glum. Shining through is Smith’s sense, lifelong and apparently innate, of divinity.

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Great digestive tidings

November 27, 2015 | 6 Comments

Two weeks ago Kathy and I fixed Thanksgiving dinner for our daughter Claire, son-in-law David, and adorable 11-month-old granddaughter, Little Kathy, in Virginia. How is it possible that we got the cutest, sweetest, smartest grandchild on earth!?

I actually asked this of the continuing studies students in my memoir-writing class, grossly abusing my teacher’s mantle. Said with a wink, it was, sort of. They laughed, most of them grandparents themselves and getting the joke, even a woman with great-grandchildren.

Over the years, my Mom’s habit of slinging a quick roux of butter and flour over the bird has devolved into my practice. On Mom’s turkeys, little dough blisters erupted here and there on the golden skin. My logic that led to my practice is that roux is a sealant, keeping the meat moist. Thus my rouxing too often and too well. At Claire and David’s, before it was over I’d used 1.5 pounds of butter, with flour as needed, and seasoned with salt, pepper, and sage. I basted every thirty minutes, the crust deepening with each application. Our turkey resembled a crunchy blob. The drippings, plus leftover roux, make killer gravy. Literally. You can feel the arteries in your temples seize.

So baby’s first Thanksgiving was a success.

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Space cadets

November 5, 2015 | 4 Comments

Once I met a woman who blurted after I’d given a reading, “Writers . . . They’re known to be egotistical.” She peered into my face. I was speechless. She’s a professor of literature! Plenty of untutored laymen share her impression.

I say this while immersed in Of a Fire on the Moon, the account of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon in 1969 by a man who fueled that stereotype, legendary egotist Norman Mailer. Reading it because of another book I’m reviewing, I find Mailer’s stance may imply at first blush I’m smarter and feel more, which gives me the right to be this self-referential. But I can’t help but think as well of the burden of such a claim. To be smarter and more empathetic. You can see, too, that he isn’t just winging it—his language and insights reveal he’s deeply immersed. His idiosyncratic impressions of the astronauts are interesting and, let it be said, funny.

In other research for my upcoming review, I perused Oriana Fallaci’s account of the mid-1960s space program in her critically acclaimed but now hard-to-find book, If the Sun Dies. Published in 1967, three years ahead of Mailer’s, Fallaci’s reflects greater access. In what seemed a less intense period, she hung out with and interviewed, astronauts. They clearly liked her. And she scored a sit-down in Alabama with rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who was the Nazis’ before he was ours. This for me was the high point of If the Sun Dies—Fallaci had been a young resistance fighter in Italy in WWII, and loathed von Braun; she intercut their interview with her memories of occupying German soldiers. Her later work obscures this one’s brilliance. Fallacii (1929–2006) was a brave, blazing talent.

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Mister Essay Guy

September 30, 2015 | 9 Comments

In Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy, Dinty W. Moore plays both straight man and humorist. He answers prominent creative nonfiction questioners—who pose ridiculous or book-length conundrums—and then he presents his more-or-less illustrative essay. Out of the absurd queries flow pervasive exaggeration, deft timing, addled answers, and wry storytelling. This sustained comedic performance glimmers with wisdom concerning life and the creation of art.

To state the obvious: Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy employs the structure of an advice column. Many now call such a borrowed structure a “hermit crab,” a term coined by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola in Tell it Slant. Within Moore’s clever container, this mega hermit crab, are baby ones, such as essays presented as lists, and one on a cocktail napkin.

And then there’s his playful, celebrated experiment in form, “Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge,” a Google Maps essay on his encounters as a bumbling college student charged with escorting the befuddled literary lion. A personal favorite Moore works in is “Pulling Teeth, or Twenty Reasons Why My Daughter’s Turning Twenty Can’t Come Soon Enough”; he explains in his preceding answer that it’s all he could salvage from a failed book project on adolescent girls that consumed five years of hard labor.

In “Have You Learned Your Lesson, Amigo?” Moore appreciatively dissects the craft of two con artists who fleeced him on the street. This is reminiscent of his essay “The Comfortable Chair: Using Humor in Creative Nonfiction,” in Writing Creative Nonfiction, edited by Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerrard, which profiles an unctuous but irrepressible furniture salesman named Howie. Moore so admires professional competence that he’s amused by Howie and less than outraged by the latter pair of larcenous fellow travelers.

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Memoir pro & con

June 5, 2015 | 16 Comments

Positive energy is the best energy, certainly the most sustainable. But we must admit the opposite is also true. There’s an odd power in negativity. A roomful of happy folks can be cast into quiet doubt by one vehement naysayer. And yet, when negativity goes too far, as Jonathan Yardley appears to do in his review for The Washington Post of Will Boast’s Epilogue: A Memoir, it kindles defiance in turn. Going beyond what he views as Boast’s inadequacy, Yardley unloads on memoir, youth, and the MFA.

He makes me want to read the book. It’s about how Boast, at age 24, is left alone in the world after his father succumbs to alcoholism—his mother and brother having already died—and he discovers that his father had sequestered a wife and two sons, Boast’s half brothers, in England. The memoir comes highly praised for its artistry, and that’s a clue to Yardley’s choler.

At first I assumed his pique was about amateurs, non-literary types getting their messy life stories into print. Then I realized it wasn’t that, not not entirely. Yardley’s broadside in large part reflects the difference between the world of New York trade books and the world of literary academic books. The camps are permeable—as Boast himself shows, winning a New York imprint (Liveright, his publisher, is a division of Norton)—but they’re very different. And Boast has the gall to straddle them: a trade publisher and artsy content.

A year after Yardley’s broadside, it appears to be the proximate cause of two interesting recent columns, “Should There be a Minimum Age for Writing Memoir” in the New York Review of Books’ series Bookends, where two writers opine on opposite sides of some divide.

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Emphasizing structure

April 29, 2015 | 6 Comments

I suppose like all writing teachers, I try to emulate certain teachers. But mostly I’m trying to be the teacher I wish I’d had. Someone who illuminates a genre and saves me from myself. The latter is too much to ask, I know. But here’s a secret. I think I’ve become a good teacher of memoir writing, at least for beginners.

A key reason for my feeling of success is my evolving emphasis on structure. In my experience, green writers can produce creditable-to-impressive work if they focus not just on the story they want to tell but on how best to present it. Fine work ensues in my memoir classes if I show students framing, braiding, Hermit Crabs, and segmentation along with scenes and persona and the rest. Structure cracks open their material to themselves. Structure makes the eye-popping difference between a plodding chronology and a memoir essay enriched with layers and refreshing rhetorical moves.

I’m talking about receiving poignant and interesting work from a twenty-year-old. Someone who has read one novel for enjoyment in his life, whose grasp of grammar is shaky, and who has never willingly written. Much less taken a creative writing class. Maybe every teacher is doing that. If so, I’m conceited for suspecting I’m special. But amidst the very hard work of teaching, receiving such writing keeps me going. A kid’s essay may be a tad lumpy, a lopsided vase, especially the first draft, but it can also be—undeniably—art.

“Art is made of emotion, is about emotion, and asks for an emotional response,” I told my students this semester.

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