Publishing essays

April 21, 2015 | 8 Comments

Teaching memoir, ver. 3.0

March 11, 2015 | 14 Comments

I blogged last year about teaching memoir by emphasizing the essentials of persona, scene, and structure. Except now I list and teach scene first because students get the macro aspects of voice faster—essentially persona, the writer now, talking to us about the past—but many need help understanding how and why to dramatize, to make scenes. So SPS: scene, persona, structure. From the start, this gives us a shared vocabulary. To understand scene, you must understand summary—and often students who have written vivid summary think they’ve written scene.

That’s the thing about teaching writing: you must teach so much at once. You hope that by providing good models, students will emulate more than the stated focus. And they do. Nothing teaches the teacher, however, like teaching. Last year, my college juniors and seniors in “Writing Life Stories: The Power of Narrative” said they wished that I’d emphasized structures earlier. So this time I have.

Structure, the shaped mode of presentation, excites students. They see how it can help them crack open their material. They grasp that it can cut plodding “and then” or unnecessary backstory. Halfway through the semester, already I’ve shown them: braiding; framing ; collage; and Hermit Crabs. Next we’ll look at segmentation.

Emphasizing essay structures has caused me to realize that I can organize my entire class by examining different writing structures.

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Solnit’s ‘Faraway Nearby’

August 8, 2013 | 13 Comments

Rebecca Solnit tried to leave home at fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen. At last, at age seventeen, her jealous mother and her indifferent father sent her into the world like a girl in a fairy tale:

“For that odyssey my mother would not let me take any of the decent suitcases in her attic but gave me a huge broken one in which my few clothes and books rumbled like dice in a cup. My father gave me a broken travel clock that he said was worth repairing and I kept it for years before I found that it was not.”

The Faraway Nearby opens with 100 pounds of apricots, collected from her ailing mother’s tree, ripening and rotting on Solnit’s floor, a bequest and a burden as if from another fairy tale. The fruit was a story, she explains, and also “an invitation to examine the business of making and changing stories.” So Solnit tells her own story, shows how she escaped it by entering the wider world of others’ stories, and how she changed her story as she better understood her unhappy mother.

What sent her mother’s indifference toward her into permanent rage was when she asked young Rebecca, age 13, for sympathy when she got a lump in her breast, and Rebecca, who hadn’t received much sympathy herself, failed to supply it. With effort, as an adult Solnit realizes that her mother had had a hard life, was trapped in her own story of victimhood, and must’ve cared for her before memory: “She gave me everything before she gave me nothing.”

Out of duty and from solidarity with two of her brothers, Solnit ends up tending her mother through her long decline from Alzheimer’s. The apricots arrive near the end of this sad period, which Solnit terms a serial emergency. Having hooked us with this, her story, Solnit tells us it doesn’t much interest her anymore.

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Adair Lara on collage, narration & scene

December 8, 2011 | 7 Comments

Start a scene as late in the action as you can and get out right after the change.—Adair Lara Naked, Drunk, and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay by Adair Lara. 247 pages, Ten Speed Press. Lara on collage: The risk with collage is that while it looks temptingly simple—much as an abstract expressionist painting might to a student painter—it is not. An intuitive calibration of effects must supply the sense of unity that …

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The Beatles were all about this

October 22, 2011 | 9 Comments

I found Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland by way of a British blog, The Beatles Songwriting Academy, devoted to learning to write songs by studying the Liverpool lads. It’s not just a worshipful fan site: blogmaster Matt Blick rebukes them for lame songs (his “Hall of Shame” includes “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”) and for some stinky rhymes that mar great songs. But Blick has a “Be-atltudes” page, too, in which he enumerates virtues, especially the prolificacy of Paul McCartney and John Lennon:

“Between 1962 and 1970 Lennon & McCartney wrote close to 200 songs. Almost all were recorded and released. The majority were top 10 hits as singles or album tracks. Whereas most writers today would throw away a song that wasn’t good enough for their next album or didn’t fit stylistically, the boys always had a reason to finish that song. And because of their insane recording schedule they always had to come up with more songs.”

Mates and rivals, who happened also to be gifted, Lennon and McCartney inspired and goaded each other to craft new work. What’s ranked as one of the greatest songs ever written, and their masterpiece, “A Day in the Life,” which concludes Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, showcases their separate gifts being expressed together under the pressure to come up another tune. They melded utterly separate lyrical fragments each had written.

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Dinty W. Moore on essays, essaying & earning self-knowledge

September 24, 2010 | 13 Comments

Dinty W. Moore’s books include a popular spiritual inquiry, The Accidental Buddhist, and an award-winning, nontraditional “generational memoir,” Between Panic and Desire. His new book—his sixth—is Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction (Writers Digest Books, 262 pages). “The personal essay is a gentle art,” he writes, “an idiosyncratic combination of the author’s discrete sensibilities and the endless possibilities of meaning and connection. The essay is graceful, wise, and always surprising. The essay invites extreme …

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Honesty in memoir, ver. 3.0

April 7, 2010 | 6 Comments

The etymology of fiction is from fingere (participle fictum), meaning “to shape, fashion, form, or mold.” Any verbal account is a fashioning or shaping of events. Remembering and fiction-making are virtually indistinguishable. The memoir rightly belongs to the imaginative world, and once writers and readers make their peace with this, there will be less argument over questions regarding the memoir’s relation to the “facts” and “truth.” —David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto A year ago I aired David Shields’s original …

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