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.

Spring has Sprung in Paradise

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Day Evening 13 of 18. I don’t want to lose a minute so I won’t rush into tomorrow. Each day and night at Ragdale offers magical momentsIMG_0259 and the last few have been exceptional, at least in terms of weather. I can’t recall the last time I was out and about and so warm I had to take off my coat. With the ice and snow melting and the right boots,  inspiration surrounds us.

Tonight those of us with rooms in The Barn shared some welcoming moments at the Ragdale house that involved pizza, wine and a sunset that couldn’t possibly be properly captured with a camera.

IMG_0257The thing about Ragdale is you want to soak it all in with as wide a lens as you can bring to your senses. Walking back to my room I looked up into the dark sky to see it sprinkled with stars. Such a magnificent view defies a caIMG_0263mera lens, but hang in my memory it will.

Since my last residency, pictures and sculptures have been rearranged. Amid all the books near the stairwell to my room stands this proudly poised dancer.

On the other side of the wall in a room housiIMG_0265ng a TV I’ve never once seen turned on, this boy and girl quietly stand next to each other, forever too shy to turn and introduce themselves.

A new season has sprung. We lost an hour last weekend setting the clocks ahead, and it feels like an hour lost in paradise. If anything, a reminder of how fast the days fly by and how extraordinary are the moments when we follow our passions, even if they seem unreachable. But who knows? Maybe I’ll catch a star tomorrow night.

Step by Step

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I even found new pictures to take.

Day 7 of 18 at Ragdale, the artist retreat in Lake Forest, IL, and I’m into some intense editing—so much so that I’ve already done two loads of laundry. Those who know me will realize I’ve gone through the entirety of distractions I’m capable of unearthing so edit I must, right after I’m done with this blog.

The writing process is hard. Draft after draft you work on structure, point-of-view, character and scene-building until your story feels organic. It has a beginning, middle and an end that takes the reader on an interesting journey. Then you workshop it or have other writers read it for their advice. Often that means creating a new draft, other times it brings you to the revision process.

We were talking about that process last week in class. (Yes, I actually left Ragdale for half a day, stopped home to see the extent of destruction that occurs in 48 hours when I’m not there, then headed to the second to last class of my second semester at The Writer’s Studio. “I got the printer to work,” I was told on the way home. I was thrilled. Imagine my surprise to find it does in fact work, on the counter between the dining and living room….. More on the value of the room we call the office later, but see how good I’ve become at distraction?)

In class I compared completing an essay to giving birth, only harder. My teacher, Kevin, has a child, and he was the closest to relating. I know the younger women in class who picture children in their future will agree. It’s painful beyond belief but unequivocally worth it in the end. I’m at the point where I have to look at every word in every sentence to make sure it’s not only the right one in the right place but that it moves the story forward. I like this step. It means I’ve created something that works and now I need to fine-tune it. Nothing’s ever perfect so it’s a difficult step to complete. There comes a point where you just have to let go.

In one of my earlier stages of distraction yesterday, I emailed a former neighbor and writer and likened this step to walking your daughter down the aisle at her wedding. There she is: your greatest project, the prettiest moment of her life to-date, bubbling over with happiness while you’re still processing how she learned to ride a bike, read a book, get to school on her own. Already you have to “give her away,” and she’d prefer you do it with a smile on your face as you hold back cardiac arrest, billions of memories and tears as well as a newfound utter disrespect for the passage of time—what the hell is the hurry?

Letting go is a stage in nearly every part of life, and it’s a tough one to face in any situation. Not much is ours to keep and nothing worth having lasts forever. Letting go means you’ve held on to something you value otherwise whatever you thought you possessed would be easy to give away. Letting go is packed with insecurities and fears, doubts and disbelief, what ifs and if onlys. It’s as much an act of faith as any religion. People say “trust me, it’s part of life,” and “you’ll survive, I promise,” but those first steps without something you’ve learned to appreciate quake with anxiety.

I need to get back to a story I hope is worth sharing, one I believe some will identify with and may even help them feel more confident despite the fundamental imperfections uniting us. Letting go of some stuff is easier than others. Much isn’t nearly as important as others. Still, letting go step by step is relative. Whatever we’ve worked so hard for or in service of is hard to release because whatever “it” is always takes with it a piece of our soul.

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.

The Gift of a Good Book

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There’s always fascinating information from The School of Life in Brain Pickings. Here are the simple and grand reasons why reading is so valuable:

What Books Do for the Human Soul: The Four Psychological Functions of Great Literature

by 

“Writers open our hearts and minds, and give us maps to our own selves.”

The question of what reading does for the human soul is an eternal one and its answer largely ineffable, but this hasn’t stopped minds big and small from tussling with it — we have Kafka’s exquisite letter to his childhood friend, Maurice Sendak’s visual manifestos for the joy of reading, and even my own answer to a nine-year-old girl’s question about why we have books today.

Now comes a four-point perspective on the rewards of reading by writer and philosopher Alain de Botton and his team at The School of Life — creators of those intelligent how-to guides to modern living, spanning everything from the art of being alone to the psychology of staying sane to cultivating a healthier relationship with sex to finding fulfilling work. In this wonderful animated essay, they extol the value of books in expanding our circle of empathy, validating and ennobling our inner life, and fortifying us against the paralyzing fear of failure.

1.  IT SAVES YOU TIME

It looks like it’s wasting time, but literature is actually the ultimate time-saver — because it gives us access to a range of emotions and events that it would take you years, decades, millennia to try to experience directly. Literature is the greatest reality simulator — a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you can ever directly witness.

2.  IT MAKES YOU NICER

Literature performs the basic magic of what things look like though someone else’s point of view; it allows us to consider the consequences of our actions on others in a way we otherwise wouldn’t; and it shows us examples of kindly, generous, sympathetic people.

Literature deeply stands opposed to the dominant value system — the one that rewards money and power. Writers are on the other side — they make us sympathetic to ideas and feelings that are of deep importance but can’t afford airtime in a commercialized, status-conscious, and cynical world.

3.  IT’S A CURE FOR LONELINESS

We’re weirder than we like to admit. We often can’t say what’s really on our minds. But in books we find descriptions of who we genuinely are and what events, described with an honesty quite different from what ordinary conversation allows for. In the best books, it’s as if the writer knows us better than we know ourselves — they find the words to describe the fragile, weird, special experiences of our inner lives… Writers open our hearts and minds, and give us maps to our own selves, so that we can travel in them more reliably and with less of a feeling of paranoia or persecution…

4.  IT PREPARES YOU FOR FAILURE

All of our lives, one of our greatest fears is of failure, of messing up, of becoming, as the tabloids put it, “a loser.” Every day, the media takes us into stories of failure. Interestingly, a lot of literature is also about failure — in one way or another, a great many novels, plays, poems are about people who messed up… Great books don’t judge as harshly or as one-dimensionally as the media…

Literature deserves its prestige for one reason above all others — because it’s a tool to help us live and die with a little bit more wisdom, goodness, and sanity.

Complement with the greatest books of all time, according to 125 celebrated contemporary authors, then revisit The School of Life’s imaginative exploration of Heidegger’s philosophy via a shrimp and Alain de Botton on how art can save your soul.

http://www.brainpickings.org/2014/10/09/school-of-life-literature-reading/

Here’s the You Tube video that accompanied this article in Brain Pickings:

http://youtu.be/4RCFLobfqcw?list=PLwxNMb28XmpdJpJzF2YRBnfmOva0HE0ZI

Legacies are All We Have Forever

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Our lives begins to end the day we grow silent about things that matter. — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Nonviolent resistance, the cornerstone of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, is a powerful resource we can all practice. January 15 marks his 86th birthday. In his honor, it’s worth thinking about what we can change by lending peaceful actions and words to the things that matter to us.

There are endless issues needing attention from equal rights and the environment to sensible gun control and the unfriendly political personality. We don’t have to argue or blog or Facebook or Tweet. We can show our kids, nieces, nephews and grandchildren what matters by example.

We can choose not to buy them guns to play with, and we can share our doggie bags with the hungry. We can pick litter from the sidewalk and put it in the garbage. We can hang our voting receipt on the refrigerator. We can treat each other respectfully, even if it’s not returned.

Children are sponges so they’ll pick up on what we do as long as we’re consistent. Then, when we can talk to them about weighty matters we have validity. The one or the many little things we’ve chosen to do or not to and the kind words we’ve chosen to say day after day earn us credibility, perhaps the most powerful tool.

Building a legacy begins when we start to care about others. The Montgomery, AL, bus boycott King led in 1955 went on for 381 days before the Supreme Court ruled that segregation on transportation was illegal.

In 1963 he was part of the March on Washington, bringing a quarter of a million people to the National Mall in Washington, D.C, to shine a light on the lack of civil rights, jobs and freedom. He had a dream and he told the world about it.

In 1964, at the age of 35, Martin Luther King, Jr. received the Noble Peace Prize. In his acceptance speech he said,

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

In the same year, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, making it illegal to discriminate against blacks or other minorities in hiring, public accommodations, education or transportation.

And he had only just begun. In 1965 he led thousands from Selma to Montgomery, AL, in a nonviolent march for voting rights. They were brutalized by law enforcement every step of the 54-mile route. When marchers tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge through Selma, state troopers on horses attacked them. They were threatened by a restraining order to disband before trying again. Faced with ignoring a pending court order, King led 2000-strong nonviolent marchers again to the bridge and when confronted once more by troopers, the marchers got on their knees to pray then turned around and marched back to Selma. Six months later President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In 1968 he was gunned down on his motel room balcony in Memphis, TN, where he was protesting on behalf of striking city garbage workers.

You can choose not to rally thousands and still create change. The courage of your convictions makes a difference in your world every day. Every little person in your life looks up to you in every sense of the word. Think about using your words and actions for the greater good. There’s nothing to lose.

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost – Bookworms Club

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My laptop continues undergoing a tune-up before I start school in mid-January, and both packed and yet-to-be filled boxes abound around the condo we’re moving from at the end of the month. I’m focused on organizing the pieces of our lives so the next stop in our journey unfurls as uncluttered and stress-free as possible so I can participate in class without being too distracted. Still, I’m hard-wired to find time to write and read. I picked up Meaghan Daum’s new book of essays, “Unspeakable,” and am up late into the night reading and re-reading it. What an amazing piece of work. She’s a brilliant writer.

This morning skimming through email I found this timely and timeless poem in a LinkedIn discussion. We’re all entering a New Year if not a new home. I hope you, too, are as inspired by this masterpiece as I head back onto the path full of boxes.

 “The Road Not Taken” is one of Frost’s most critically acclaimed poems. The poem starts with the narrator standing at a fork road where he is supposed to make a decision about which road to take. As he knows he cannot take both road at the same time, he try his best to look at one road till it bends in the undergrowth, but then he takes the opposite road. While travelling through the selected road he is constantly thinking of the road not taken. As most of us do, probably Frost is pointing to the truth of life. That none of us try to concentrate on our present task or the path which we have taken. We always try to think of the lost benefits from those untrodden paths, as the saying goes – “ The road is always greener on the other end”. 

 Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference  

 In the end our narrator writes that he will be recalling this journey with a “sigh” in the future. Whether the sigh is a happy sigh or sad sigh, is something we as readers have to interpret. Or maybe even the narrator also didn’t know. All he knew was that, “All the difference in your life was finally because of the road you selected.”

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost – Bookworms ClubBook