Angela Kelsey

Tell the Story

book 22 of 24 books in 28 days: writing creative nonfiction

Filed in Books, Writing :: February 28, 2010


Writing Creative Nonfiction: Instruction and insights from the teachers of the Associated Writing Programs, edited by Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard, has the same textbook-y feeling of other neglected books on my sagging shelves.  It is also similarly a shame that I am just now digging into it.

It’s divided into three sections:

  • I. The Art, the Craft, the Business
  • II. Aftershocks–Responses to the Genre
  • III. Creative Nonfiction Reader

The first selection  of the first section is “Why I Write” by Terry Tempest Williams.  Download Whyiwrite.  Yes, please download it and read it.  It’s very short, and I can’t do it justice by pulling out bits of it.

Another chapter in the first section that I find really insightful is  Phillip Lopate’s “Writing Personal Essays: On the Necessity of Turning Oneself Into a Character.”  When I think of characters in memoir, I think of other people, not myself.  I know that I am revealing my self, that just like McCarthy and other writers, I want to let the reader know my flaws and shortcomings; I know that the “I” of my memoir is distinct from the “I” who physically sits at my keyboard right now.

But I hadn’t made this leap: “A good place to start is your quirks.  These are the idiosyncrasies, stubborn tics, antisocial mannerisms, and so on that set you apart from the majority of your fellowmen.”  I have a few tics and mannerisms, and I don’t think I included them in my memoir.

He also warns against self-dislike, writing that

an odor of self-disgust mars many performances in this genre and keeps many would-be practitioners from developing into full-fledged professionals.  They exhibit a form of stuttering, of never being able to get past the initial, superficial self-presentation and diving into the wreck of one’s personality with gusto.

The proper alternative to self-dislike is not being pleased with oneself–a smugness equally distasteful to the reader– but being curious about oneself.  Such self-curiosity (of which Montaigne, the father of the essay, was the greatest exemplar) can only grow out of that detachment or distance from oneself about which I spoke earlier.

Self-dislike as stuttering and the alternative to self-dislike as self-curiosity: these are ideas I can remember and use.

In “Researching Your Own Life,” Michael Pearson writes, “As strange as it may sound, all memoir is a process of researching one’s own life.  By that I mean rethinking, of course.  I also mean reimagining and perhaps revising–because to see the past anew is often to view it, even at great distances, more clearly.”

Pearson sites Doris Kearns Goodwin, Mary Karr, and Frank McCourt as memoirists who returned to the scenes of their projects not only to verify their memories but to stimulate them.  “Memory is an archive like any other and can be used as such.  The materials stored there can sometimes be tested against other sources.”

I’m going to have to step away from the computer and take a drive or two–unless I listen to E. Ethelbert Mille, who, in his essay “Learning to Breathe After the Memoir” advises the opposite. He writes, “I wrote [Fathering Words] from memory.  I decided not to read old journals or letters.  I didn’t want to talk to anyone in order to obtain an opinion or insight.  I needed to trust my memory.”

Miller concludes,

A memoir is a photograph.  It captures the pose, the way we wish to see ourselves and how others see us.  My life has been a way of learning how to push back the darkness in this world.  One struggles to be good and when one fails, one struggles again.  This is how I write.  Starting over meant writing my memoir.  I needed to know more about the writer I am, and the writer I am becoming.

Section III is a collection of creative nonfiction pieces.  I recommend  Barry Lopez’s “Murder” and Annie Dillard’s “Flying in the Middle of Art.”

What do you think: to research or not to research?

Filed in Books, Writing

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