Truth: the great equalizer in creative nonfiction & life

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In this spring’s Writer’s Studio creative nonfiction class, author and teacher-extraordinaire Lauren Cowen talked on the first night about the irony of this genre—it being described by what it isn’t. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for professional wordsmiths, but from the start we know it’s not fiction. Yet, it still doesn’t tell those who don’t understand the genre anything about it. Some will come to a conclusion like, “Oh, so you just write essays like in high school,” then become a little less impressed with us and prouder of themselves. “Yeah, just essays because they’re so easy. Lord knows capturing the truth, making it compelling and universal, couldn’t be more effortless,” is my kindest retort, occurring only on days bordering on me being comatose.

I have pages of notes on the many eloquent ways Lauren explained creative nonfiction. Nuggets of wisdom include, “it’s a pact between the writer and the reader, a process of discovery” and “credibility is key, it has to have happened, it has to be emotionally true and factually true.” She spoke of its difficulties: “It alludes paraphrase, it yields and it complicates,” and she talked about its governing intent, “dwelling in the world you do know to find out what you don’t know.” She spoke of wrestling with a story’s “aboutness,” drafting and redrafting, always rooting for the story you want to tell, bearing witness to the details and the subtext, weaving in research and authority from emotion and events to write clearly and honestly. And all this from the first night.

Our winter semester’s teacher, reporter and author Kevin Davis had us read the latest book from the “Godfather” of creative nonfiction, Lee Gutkind. Writer James Wolcott of Vanity Fair magazine had ridiculed the genre and Gutkind, who publishes the magazine Creative Nonfiction, by calling him the Godfather. But it eventually backfired on Wolcott, as the genre is often referenced as the literature of reality. And while Gutkind is famous for insisting he’s not the creative nonfiction police, his insistence for truth and fact-finding, credibility and correctness offer strict boundaries.

Kevin, too, had a wealth of insights to help define the genre. He spoke of how small moments reveal universal truths, and, therefore, the importance of remembering details and expressing them carefully are paramount. His discussions on structuring creative nonfiction is invaluable. Character descriptions that give readers a hunger for what’s at stake in the story, scenes and dialogue that move it forward, research grounding us further in the facts, private and intimate knowledge—these are the pieces that connect experiences and make the truth more compelling, transforming and revealing than any other kind of storytelling.

Still, we learn in all our classes and in personal experiences that some who claim to be creative nonfiction writers will play loose with the truth. It can be as seemingly innocent as thinking that changing a minor detail will make a sentence sound more lyrical. James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, revealing how he rehabilitated himself from alcohol, drugs and crime rocketed him to success when Oprah Winfrey featured him on her show. After some easy fact-checking revealed Frey’s fabrications, his public humiliation focused a powerful light on the most essential requirement of the genre. Creative nonfiction must be true, not truthy, not composites of real events. The authentic retelling of small or large moments is mandatory.

Creative nonfiction may be the most potent genre because truth is power. The genre is certainly among the most challenging to write because many truths are tough to relive regardless of one’s wealth, color, gender or culture. As a result, the courage to use truth to retell stories has, in worst cases, the power to reveal atrocities and stop us from repeating them. In best case scenarios, the truth gives faces to vulnerabilities, connecting people and ideas, thereby making it more difficult for inequity and intolerance to spread.

Changing a detail because it adds a little more interest to a story or opens up possible misinterpretations of the bigger story is wrong. And it’s unnecessary. Fix a creative nonfiction piece by writing the truth or simply call your story fiction. Because there is no creative nonfiction police, it’s up to the writing community to police itself. Gutkind says, “More than in any other literary genre, the creative nonfiction writer must rely on his or her own conscience and sensitivity to others and display a higher mortality and a healthy respect for fairness and justice… Write both for art’s sake and for humanity’s sake.”

There’s a lot at stake.

A Complicated Calling

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If I had to have a calling, why couldn’t it be teaching or fighting fires or some other noble pursuit that makes a difference and is more…tangible? Something that would not have me fantasizing about tossing this laptop off the 21st floor balcony and watching it shatter into pieces.

I had a second essay workshopped in the last class of this semester’s Writer’s Studio, and it ends up I have to revise this one, too, and get it to my professor in order to get approved to move on to the next semester. I wrote and then revised my first essay while at Ragdale, and I think I nailed it. I was so excited. Now I have to blow up the draft of this second essay; I mean what else can “relook at the structure” mean?

I didn’t even think we had another semester this Spring, which is probably half the reason I’m so bummed. Enough about how brilliant I am not. The bigger question: to write or not to write? Writing is a difficult passion to pursue day after day. When I just can’t do it, I read for inspiration. Aside from being profoundly moved, the activity makes me all too aware there are already countless great writers in the world. Who needs another one? One who feels mediocre in this pursuit at best?

Boy, would my mom come in handy ri8362d-00130006ght now. Perhaps writing about her loss is what’s bringing all this indecision front and center. She’d say, “knock it off, Dollface, and just do it!” All my life she told me I had a book in me. I wish she told me where to find it. And I’m glad she’s not around to read that sentence. It’d go over as well as a B-. She never understood the + and – concept in grading, and to my horror would march down to my grammar school to explain her problems with it everytime a teacher would add that element to my grade.

Shirley Stone’s life wasn’t a quiet one. She reveled in her passions, and she shared them with everyone. Of course there were those she didn’t see eye to eye with, and I imagine they thought she marched too loudly through life. But that wouldn’t bother her. She lived comfortably in her skin, confident in her decisions, satisfied with the outcomes. She always found it futile to look back.

My mom made the most of every day, and she did her best every day. She loved and laughed as she nurtured anyone lucky enough to cross her path. She was wise and her genuine interest in others was as much a part of her DNA as was her eye color, shoe size and the cancer that took her too soon.

She’d remind me nothing worth having or wanting so much comes easy and to knock it off, sit my butt down and do what I need to do to move to the next step. And then a few minutes later I’d get a Shirley hug, strong, heartfelt, pats on the back, and an “I love you Dollface,” whispered into my ear.

My mom, my muse, my best friend. I think of her every day, and that’s reason enough to keep on pursuing this passion. I couldn’t let her down when she was alive. To give up because she’s physically not here would be inexcusable. Thanks for that, mom, wherever you are. I’ve no reason to doubt her expectations of me aren’t any different today than they were decades ago. Giving one’s all when the going gets tough was part of her fiber. So there it is: why I can’t give up. Even the thought of letting her down when she’s no longer with us isn’t in my fiber either.

Talk about powerful love and confidence, bridging death to have my back. Even if this writing gig doesn’t pan out, I most certainly pulled the long straw. I will always be Shirley Stone’s daughter.

The Magic of Ragdale

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Success! Fellow writers know how rare it is to start anything about one’s writing with the word success. And here I’ve already used it twice. I arrived at Ragdale 16 days ago with specific goals in mind. Not spoken aloud or committed to anyone but me. I should do that more often given I’m fairly certain I’m my toughest critic. I needed to complete a second essay for class, and I needed to redraft my first essay and hand it in at the last class, which is tonight. Since the program isn’t graded, it’s what our teacher uses to gauge whether we’re prepared to move on to the next semester.

Lastly, I’ve been fussing with an essay for more than a year, redrafting and revising and getting nowhere. Some of the drafts are downright embarrassing. I decided while here at Ragdale that this essay is a bully, so I did what one should do to any bully— blow it up. No, I do not mean literally. The only advice I have to handle human bullies are to bully them back. They usually don’t want you on their playground but haven’t a clue what to do if you don’t cave when they geragdale2015t in your face. Blowing up an essay I’ve struggled with day after day, month after month, was the only solution I could arrive at that wouldn’t have me cleaning and landscaping all of Ragdale to avoid revising it for the 734th time. “Killing your darlings,” is what William Faulkner said about the writing process, and knocking off my lead, some well written passages and its structure is what I did.

Once I realized what I had to do, it wasn’t that hard. In fact, it was a relief. I let go of the old, the obvious, and even some pretty good insights, all of those darlings I thought were critical to the piece. I did new research, opened a new page, took the time to create a solid new lead and blew that bully right off my laptop. Well, not right off, but over the course of ten days I have a new essay on an old topic that’s been intimidating me for too long. And if feels great.

I’ve been spending a lot of time (practically all of it, through the magic of Ragdale) lining up the right words in the right order all in the pursuit of good story telling. What a crazy calling is working with words. I don’t think anyone chooses to be a writer, we’re just born with the gene. And with it rarely comes the feeling of success so I’m wallowing in it. I’m inhaling the last hours of this residency, trying not to get caught up in the thought of reentering everyday life and marveling at the great fortune that allowed me a second residency where many a muse await their artist—be they visual, musical or wordsmiths. Still, I miss my family and friends. It’s time. I don’t want to get in the face of success.

Lighting Fires at Ragdale

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We moved recently and the one thing we don’t have in our new condo that we really miss is a fireplace. So how fortuitous to spend 18 cold winter days at Ragdale where of course they have one!IMG_0246 I haven’t lost my touch either, it’s burning pretty darn good and that’s without the help of last year’s expert fireplace lighter and poet extraordinaire, Katie Riegel.

They’ve rearranged some of the furniture and artwork recently. I don’t remember this beautiful piece of sculpture here where all kinds of plants including geraniums IMG_0251anxiously await Spring, literally sprawled against the windows to soak up enough sun to bloom. I appreciate their impatience.

I’m in the same room I was in last year, the Hay Loft, and this year my neighbor is my friend and mentor, Rita Dragonette. Last year that room was occupied by Jill Wine-Banks, who I met through Rita. We both miss her lots but know she’s on to something special with the book she came here to work on last year.

As was the case before, there’s a fascinating group here again–visual, composers, poets, non-fiction, fiction and multi-genre artists, all who raise the bar so high it’s both exhilarating and intimidating. In other words, I really need to quit circling this wagon and jump on. Enough procrastinating this morning. I’ve got stories to tell.

Musings on writing

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Tomorrow I head to Ragdale, an artist- and writer-in-residence retreat in Lake Forest, IL, to spend 18 glorious days focusing on my writing. I’ve wanted to write for as long as long as I can remember. I was blessed with a career and awesome bosses who allowed me to write for clients and—god love them—a salary. The idea of being allowed the time, monastic quiet and like souls to work on my own words and ideas that have been percolating in my mind, on my computer and in notebooks is akin to winning the lottery (I’m guessing).

I’ll miss my family and friends. We just moved to a beautiful highrise overlooking the frozen lake. I’ve finally emptied the last box. Admittedly, the thought of how all that time-consuming organization might be rearranged is a little bit more than a nagging concern. But I can use the change in scenery, and I know my family can use a break from me!

My oldest daughter, Jill, is moving into her first house today. Last year when I left for Ragdale, I’d been helping with her newborn son. This year within weeks after I return she’s due to deliver a brother to Patrick Xavier (Pax) and Caitlin. For one week in my absence my youngest, Jackie, is heading to Florida as assistant softball coach to North Park University’s softball team and to help recruit new players in return for a Master’s Degree she’s earning there. I cannot articulate how surreal it is to write and read this last paragraph. Where did the time go? How did this happen so fast?

We moved into our first home 31 years ago, a few months before Jill was due. Reagan introduced his trickle-down effect, Ghostbusters was a hit and my friends made those costumes for a Halloween party! Tina Turner was asking What’s Love Got To Do With It and the clothes we were wearing are too silly to even try to describe. Phones attached to wires and walls, computers were a new technology and we got mail through the post office in an envelope with a stamp. Addresses were at least three lines long, and I don’t know of anyone who thought much of an @ symbol.

We were in our second home when Jackie arrived. Clinton defeated Bush, Sr., Johnny Carson turned The Tonight Show over to Jay Leno after a 30-year run, Basic Instinct, A League of Their Own and A Few Good Men were at the box office, and I’m pretty sure a bunch of my girlfriends and I attended our first Madonna concert.

I’ve learned of love and loss, shared laughter and shed seas of tears, survived what I was I sure I wouldn’t and experienced moments I never dreamt could happen. Very little remains the same except my desire to write. Can I capture those fleeting moments and the profound significance of so many of them with my words? Will anyone care if I do?

I don’t know that I’m writing for fame or fortune. Maybe it’s to share that universal experience of the sum of those days and months where we plan and fail, trip and fall, get back up, celebrate successes and mourn losses big and small and repeat it all, thinking that combined those events lead us to something more meaningful than the sum of those days and months.

All my life, all our lives, add up to right this moment, don’t they? We’re products of our past, but all we really know is only in this very moment. It’s been said we make plans and God laughs. I wonder what She thinks when we work so hard to share the meaning in our lives?

The Years Fly By

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IMG_0025Today we celebrated my grandson Patrick’s first birthday. Of course first birthday parties are for family and friends; they’re a big hoopla and for a long time I didn’t understand why so many of us continue this rite of passage. But today it all became clearer.

One of my daughter’s long-standing friends, Stacey, was talking about how fast the year flew by, recalling how lucky a handful of us were to witness Jill giving birth to Patrick at home. My niece Nikki and her family were there. She was a bridesmaid at Jill’s wedding, and it was fun to see her reconnect with Stacey and another friend/bridesmaid, Nora.The opportunity to visit with my brother-in-law and sister-in-law, two people I love dearly and simply don’t see enough, meant so much, too. They know Nikki and commented on how her kids are growing so quickly.

From Jill’s wedding through the pregnancy to Patrick’s arrival last February much changed among her friends and family, be it new jobs or new bosses, heartbreaks, more kids and any number of events that occur in such rapid succession when you’re in your 20s and 30s. In the older demographic that my in-laws and I represent, the change isn’t as frequent, but when it occurs it’s significant. We recently moved and that process filled a lot of the last year. They’re busy with a two-year-old and she’s a teacher—two huge challenges, especially if you’re dedicating your life to teaching students in the Chicago Public School system.

Birthday parties for one-year-olds are for friends and family who are busyFullSizeRender in the day-to-day of life but relish the chance to reconnect with those they love. They give us pause, allowing us to acknowledge, appreciate and catch up with the people we care about, to get a glimpse of their expanding worlds.

The year did fly by, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to recap those months. Patrick won’t remember, but everyone else in that room this afternoon will. Now I get it.

What Would You Do Different?

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If you knew you would be okay, what would you do different? It’s a great question, and it was asked last Sunday by one of the nine stars in “My Second Act, Survivor Stories from the Stage” at the Athenaeum Theater. My friend Emily was one of the nine, although I wish she were in the audience sitting next to our friend Lori and me instead having to play this part. The show is produced by the Women Survivor Alliance, a growing organization working to empower, educate and connect women affected by cancer. Their mission: to help survivors find their voice, improve the quality of life and embrace their 2nd Acts. emily

The Emily I know has always embraced life, even after a diagnosis of an impossible-to-prounounce leukemia caused by the treatment needed to beat breast cancer. But last fall she gave us all a huge hug by publishing a book of her poems illustrated by her water colors: Lending Color to the Otherwise Absurd.

For as much as I wish I didn’t have a reason to sit in the audience, it was enlightening. And humbling. It gives one pause to sit quietly and listen to nine brave women from every measurable demographic talk about the wisdom gained while beating down that horrible medical monster called cancer. And what a great question from one of her co-stars: If you knew you would be okay, what would you do different? group-on-stage1e Would you be doing what you’re doing now? Are you waiting for some allusive milestone before going after your passion? If by some miracle every roadblock you see in your path were torn down, do you know where you’d be headed? It’s worth thinking about. And if you need further inspiration, keep a copy of Lending Color to the Otherwise Absurd by your side.