Wednesday, June 28, 2006

But is it really True?

I was in the Creative Nonfiction workshop at the Summer Writer's Institute. There's often confusion about what, exactly, Creative Nonfiction is.

"If it's creative, how is it nonfiction?"

Our workshop leader, Kathleen Finneran, explained to us that the "creative" part comes in how you tell your story and in the writing itself. Does your life story look like an encyclopedia entry, just a straightforward listing of facts? Or can you pick important episodes from different parts of your life, and, juxtaposing them, create an even more compelling narrative?

Creative Nonfiction doesn't have to be memoir. The genre comprises essays, opinion pieces, blogs, biography, autobiography, food writing, travel writing, oral history, reviews, literary journalism, and on and on.

Basically, Creative Nonfiction is anything that tells a good and interesting story, while still being true. The creative part refers to the way the story is structured and to its writing, not its veracity.

Different authors draw the line in different places, of course. Some stretch the truth to tell a better story. Some lie. There are not yet any hard-and-fast rules for the genre. The current thinking is that as long as you're honest about what liberties you've taken, then you're OK.

Finneran published an essay called Lying in the Land of Memoir: straddling the Line Between Fact and Fiction suggesting that there are three acceptable ways to bend the line between fact and fiction:

1) Make up dialogue: but carefully. The writer must remember that the conversation really took place, have some memory of what was discussed, and how the conversation ended. Then she (or he) can carefully recreate the conversation as closely as possible to how it probably occurred.

2) Conflate time: gently. Perhaps something that really took place over two nights looks like it took place in only one night in the piece, so that the narrative flows better. Personally, I'm a little uncomfortable with this one.

3) Leave stuff out. Well, duh. It boggles my mind that people cry, "That's not what really happened!" just because the writer doesn't mention that Jim Bob was also in the room. I mean, perhaps Jim Bob isn't really a major character in this story, he didn't contribute anything meaningful, so it would just be confusing to bring him up for no apparent reason. In a history textbook, the author would mention that he was standing silently in the corner all night. In Creative Nonfiction, the author has the freedom to choose whether or not his presence is significant.

Other authors take much greater liberties. In her "memoir," Bitter is the New Black, Jen Lancaster admits that she has left out the names of places she worked, changed the names of the characters, altered the timeline to move the story along, and combined some characters together, all in a story about how long she was unemployed and why. That, in my opinion, is a thinly fictionalized novel, based heavily upon the author's own experiences. Ditto with James Frey's A Million Little Pieces.

Ira Sukrungruang also takes liberties in his (fun!) creative nonfiction. One scene in his first memoir is bookended with what's happening on The Crocodile Hunter on TV. The TV was on, Animal Planet was on, The Crocodile Hunter was on. But he doesn't really remember exactly what was happening in the show while he was having this particular conversation with his mother; he filled in the details to bring the story to life. That, too, is further than I'm willing to bend the truth, but I respect that he's honest about what he's done.

So, that's creative nonfiction, and I guess I'll write about Kathleen Finneran and the workshop participants tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Like Me?

The biggest mistake I made at the Summer Writers Institute was to try to keep working (a little) throughout. I went in to the office for a few hours at least a couple of evenings a week during both weeks of the workshop, and that was exhausting.

Even without trying to split my focus in yet another direction, I was trying to complete coursework for a 3 credit graduate-level course in two weeks, which sounds insane. (I have one follow-up book to read and paper to write, as well as a revision of some of my previous work, then I'm all done.) Many nights during the second week, I passed out, exhausted, well after midnight without having completed quite all of the required reading. The first week was much the same, except that my stamina was greater and I always finished everything. Next time I hope to go away for a workshop, so that my focus is not at all split.

It worked like this: The Institute comprised four workshop groups: Fiction, Advanced Fiction, Poetry, and Creative Non-Fiction. Every morning, we met in our individual workshop groups for 3 hours, then broke for lunch. After lunch, we met all together to hear speakers and have panel discussions.

The morning sessions varied depending on which "class" you were in. Some groups workshopped every day; mine didn't. We watched a fascinating documentary, did in-class writing exercises, discussed published pieces (the nightly reading assignments) and had class-type discussions every day. 3 days a week, we also workshopped each others' work.

We spent 1/2 hour on each workshopped piece, and we each had a piece workshopped once each week. I spent about an hour reading each piece and preparing my thoughts for every workshop, and I think that was probably typical.

The level of participation in my group was quite impressive, and I'll talk about that more tomorrow, including who led the workshop, who else participated, and what sorts of things they were writing.

The afternoon sessions were fascinating. We had published writers talk about Craft, we had writers reading from their own work, we had a panel of literary journal editors (all men, all white, all in their 30s /early 40s, a highly representative sample). We had a notable publisher from an academic press, we had a food critic from Sauce magazine, we had a relatively useless talk about creating an author website (useless because none of the panel participants understood even basic web design). The directors of the MFA programs at Wash U and UMSL spoke, as did a couple of instructors.

Perhaps the most useful thing of all, especially with the afternoon sessions, was that I was surrounded by writers, real writers, all of whom kept referring to all of us as writers, real writers. And that was really something to contemplate.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Time for Bed

My sister's bridal shower in Valparaiso, IN was perfectly lovely this weekend. It was a "times" shower, where every guest was assigned a time of day. I had "afternoon," and my card said,
For afternoon or any other time . . . but not for work

I got her a lovely nightgown and matching robe, in translucent antique white. Very wedding night. She blushed satisfactorily.

My Writer's Institute starts tomorrow. So I might not be writing much here for the next couple of weeks, or I might be in a writing frenzy and posting daily. Time will tell.

Regardless, have a lovely June!

And, Elizabeth, I might not have mentioned this, but I hate the phone. And I really don't want to intrude right now. But I'd love it if you feel like calling me sometime to let me know how your week's going. Just call at home, because anytime I'm at home it's a good time. I hope you're having a wonderful time. I hope you're too busy to call, and way too busy to be reading blogs. And we should start Yoga again soon: Paul says that my posture sucks and I'm tense.