Content Tagged ‘Philip Gerard’

Mister Essay Guy

September 30, 2015 | 9 Comments

Ancient stories . . .

June 18, 2014 | 15 Comments

“It has to be about the reader,” began Philip Gerard. “If not, what am I doing with your book?”

Gerard’s keynote that Friday opened the recent River Teeth Nonfiction Conference at Ashland University in northeast Ohio. His opening words hung in the air. I tried to claw my way back to them. Yes. That’s it. Talk about that. Only he moved on into his focus, the allure and the power of research. He’d stated a profundity—in practice, a paradox— about writing and publishing and just as quickly left it. Upon reflection, his intended connection was obvious: give good content.

But what’s good? What does serving the reader mean? “Why should I read your story?” haunts writers, especially those of personal essays and memoirs. (And even if writers can answer for themselves, editors and publishers will rule before regular readers can.) How many celebrated books have you not finished? What did most readers like? At base maybe there’s character, or at least personality, that we respond to. Before that, there’s technique. Hence the endless discussions about craft at Ashland in those last days of May.

Before the writing conference, I’d ended my teaching year, undergone 2.5 weeks of Hospice volunteer training, and attended a camp for schoolteachers on how better to teach English to non-native speakers. Pedagogy was much on my mind. I’d had my own best teaching semester ever. I’d marveled at the information, enculturation, and student involvement fostered at Hospice and at the way my Otterbein University colleagues taught a classroom full of teachers. At Ashland, there were those thrilling flashes of insight between presenters and audience.

Just people helping people, trying to teach them—always a compelling meta-narrative. Maybe the oldest story in the book.

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Undercurrents in narrative essays

February 5, 2012 | 4 Comments

I admit, I told a class last semester, that we read stories for various reasons, including intrinsic interest. “If you score an interview with Barack Obama,” I said, “you can lean pretty heavily on that. But otherwise, stories that grip us involve some tension—a conflict or question.” How to get this across to students—and to myself—keeps me occupied. And it devils me when I receive a student’s personal narrative that lacks any urgency or even movement. Or when I churn out one myself.

Such flat writing flunks the “So What?” test. Bruce Ballenger writes in Crafting Truth: Short Studies in Creative Nonfiction:

The simple question, What is going to happen next? is triggered by the tension between what readers know and what they want to know. This is the most familiar dramatic tension in storytelling.

Of course, Ballenger adds, withholding information can seem manipulative, since readers know that the writer knows the outcome. Narrative alone isn’t enough:

Ultimately the work has to answer a simple question: So what? Or as Philip Gerard suggested, What is at stake here? Why might this story matter to the reader? What is at stake for the writer or the characters? Is there a larger truth that will somehow matter?

Questions or mysteries drive effective writing more than a mere narrative of events. E.M. Forster puts it this way in Aspects of the Novel: “ ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” And a plot with a mystery in it is “a form capable of high development,” Forster adds: “The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.”

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Poetry & journalism

March 23, 2011 | 3 Comments

Archibald MacLeish’s great essay on literature vs. transcription. Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or better.—John Updike As with David Shields, when Archibald MacLeish talks about “poetry” he means poetry in the larger sense of writing that is literary art vs. writing considered a mere transcription of events. Good journalism was never that, but exemplary works of reportage have always tended to get lumped by the literati—perhaps more so in MacLeish’s day—with garden-variety news …

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Lessons from writing my memoir . . .

August 22, 2010 | 17 Comments

Five years ago I began writing a memoir about my experiences farming in Appalachian Ohio. My official start was September 1, as I recall, but I was gearing up at this time of year, in late August, when the common Midwestern wildflowers are blooming. Right now, you can see flowering together in fertile meadows and damp unkempt roadsides: purple ironweed, saffron goldenrod, yellow daisies, and, above it all, the airy mauve bursts of Joe Pye weed. Shade trees look dusty …

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