Thursday, July 26, 2012

Creative Nonfiction Workshop with Jerry Dennis

At Antioch, I also sat in on Jerry Dennis’s Creative Nonfiction (CNF) talks. He is a master storyteller and a swell writer. (I am currently reading his book The Living Great Lakes.

He says our goal (and challenge)in CNF is to take a personal story and make it universal. He likens this process to fishing tales, which all have a narrative arc.

Biography, journalism, and travel writing are nonfiction, but they are not necessarily Creative nonfiction.

The key difference is CNF is told with a narrative arc. CNF writers use fiction like techniques to tell a story, yet the story is based on truth. (Jerry recommends studying legal briefs to study language.)

He cites Sue Williams Silverman "Fearless Confection: a Writer's Guide to Memoir", as a good source, as well as her suggested reading list.

Here are several examples of CNF:

Memoir is autobiography that is not the whole story. Usually a memoir shows only a brief period of time in the author's life. A good example is This Boy's Life, by Tobias Wolff. The memoir covers a period of about five years of Wolff's boyhood.)

(Biography- is less creative form than memoir. Tells the facts, but not necessarily a story. Relies more on "telling.")
Autobiography- 1st person memoir often a public figure

Immersion Journalism, like Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. (The author lived for a year working minimum wage jobs to see how one survives doing that.)

Personal essay - where an author refelcts on an idea or experience. A personal story that has wide appeal.(I recall a fine essay a student of mine once wrote about seeing the ocean for the first time. It was his own experience, yet the details placed the reader at the scene with him.)

Meditative essay and Lyric essay share some of the qualities of personal essays. Think Diane Ackerman or .
in all cases, CNF writers pay attention to narrative, language, and reflection. Like good poetry, CNF is not just about the writer, even if the piece is a memoir. The purpose goes beyond the self. For example, Jerry's The Living Great Lakes includes stories and scenes of his adventures on the lakes, but the book is not about him; it's a living history of the lakes.

Jerry discusses the Terrible Blank Page: What to Write?. All writers suffer anxiety in front of the blank page or the blinking cursor. Jerry begins with an image, such as skating on a frozen lake. He believes images help engage and ground the reader. “[Creative Nonfiction] should give you more than expectations. It should explode.” He recommends reading Ian Frazier, who conducts immersion journalism, ‘relevant tangents just for the joy of it’, and E.B. White, who writes unexpected sentences. Jerry discusses how “surprise is crucial in nonfiction, as in any form of writing. “ I want to read a sentence and not know how it’s going to end.” Surprise can be subtle, but it keeps readers reading. “You never know where White is going with the sentence,” Jerry says. “Good sentences give off a little light, they are charged, they are alive. Start [ your manuscript] from the alive sentence, from the part that interests you.”.

Jerry also discusses the ‘two conflicting voices that coerce you or prevent you from writing.” It’s a paradox because the same voice that compels you to write , (this is great stuff, oh yeah, can’t wait to share this one) can also block you from writing, (This sucks. Nobody wants to read your work.)

His advice is to just write. And when that doesn’t work, go out and live. Then write about it.

The following are examples from Jerry Dennis’s work:

The first sentence of his book proposal of The Living Great Lakes:
“When fresh water becomes as precious as gold, the Great Lakes will be the mother lode.”

From his blog:
“Last week Glenn Wolff and I posed as poster children for an upcoming campaign by the Grand Traverse Conservation District to raise awareness about the beautiful and fragile Boardman River.”

To give you an idea of Jerry’s character, he calls his blog ‘Bountiful World’

Me with Jerry Dennis at Antioch Writers' Workshop 2012

Happy Writing.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Les is More

“Keep the ceiling low enough you can keep your hat on. Don't let anyone else invade your head.” Les Edgerton, AWW 2012, on writer’s block

I love this guy. Not in the madly in love-will- elope-with- him sense. He’s already married, so that would be weird. But one of the highlights of the Antioch Writer’s Workshop was each morning in the lobby of the campus building, Les Edgerton held court. Laptop open, papers and books scattered around him, Les obviously had work to do, but he never let that impede a chance to bond with any conference participant or faculty who stopped by to chat. Even people like me who were not signed up for his afternoon workshop. He is saucy and edgy, so the surname Edgerton is no accident.

Les, a mystery writer, screenwriter, essayist and blogger, makes no apologies or excuses for his background: ex-con (I'm all cleaned up now and you can invite me into your home and don't have to count the silverware when I leave.), former hairdresser (Warren Beatty in Shampoo had nothing on me), twice divorced (third time is the charm), and non-stop smoker (No, you don’t look like you carry matches.) There is no shit about Les Edgerton.

If you read his blog,
you will see his generous curiosity, and how he bonds with writers of all stripes. He is a treasure, and hopefully will be invited back to AWW. Even if you are not lucky enough to get in they limit the size, you can learn a lot by reading his book Hooked and listening to him in casual conversation.

A common thread I have found among most successful authors is their generosity, and Les is generous in spirit, time, and advice. In my many years of attending writers workshops and conferences, I have only come across two bestselling (herein unnamed) writers who were self absorbed and egomaniacal. Most authors are willing to pass the torch for mastering craft. Process and marketing work. Les not only made me laugh very day, he gave me a couple of agents’ names and said I should mention him in my queries, and he is also willing to give me a book jacket blurb when I find success with my own fiction. In his inscription, he wrote “I will be standing in line for you to autograph my copy of your book.”
I love you Les.

More gems from Les’s indomitable wisdom.
... Senility isn't when you forget to zip up your pants... it's when you forget to zip them down...

Advice for writers: There is no such thing as a synonym. There's just the perfect word. The perfect word doesn't come in groups.

If life hands you lemons... make lemonade. Then... try to find someone to whom life has handed vodka...

Never argue with an idiot. They'll drag you down to their level... and then beat you with experience.

Me with Les at AWW 2012. I am holding a copy of Hooked.
Happy Writing.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Poem is a Simultaneous Act of Resistance and Praise

I recently attended the annual Antioch Writers Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Back in 1988, when I was a fledgling writer, it was my first of many writers’ conferences. I have grown immensely since 1988, but that doesn't mean I have nothing left to learn.

I came away from the first workshop feeling the molecules in my body had changed, so I was excited to return to Yellow Springs for another week. The original conference was held at Antioch College, a lovely liberal arts campus. I had known the college closed for awhile, but they had reopened with a small student body, and i believed this conference would be held at the college. (This was explicit on the web site, but I tend to skim details.) When I drove into town, the old college looked like news footage of Bosnia. I drove around the abandoned buildings until I found a groundskeeper who told me the workshop is now held at the new Antioch University Midwest campus just at the edge of town.

Enough back-story. What did I glean from this experience?

We go to conferences to make connections with other like-minded souls. My friends and family don't mind that I write, but they don't care about the process. Only other writers understand suffering over the word, fretting over using ‘mysterious’ vs. ‘esoteric’ in a sentence or line.

In the morning craft talk on day one, poet Jeff Gundy discussed Finding What Shines and how poets hurry slowly. The energy behind our work is in the quickly written draft, but the soul of it evolves slowly through multiple revisions.

He paraphrases William Stafford and Donald Hall by stating, "Write great poems but lower the standard." As poets we want to write grand messages that will solve the world's problems and carve our names in infamy. Yet as Jeff points out, we need to lower our lofty goals and write for an audience of possibly just ourselves. We can't solve the world's problems in one poem. We can only tap at them, nudge a small reaction, which creates another reaction, where poems speak to other poems (and the reader.)

A poem comes from a life, not a study. William Stafford writes in Writing the Australian Crawl, “When I write, grammar is the enemy…Swimmers know that if they are relax on the water it will prove to be miraculously buoyant….writers know that a succession of little strokes without any prejudgments about the specific gravity of a topic…will result in creative progress.”

Poems that matter also go beyond craft . In an essay The Art of Finding, Linda Gregg states, “Too often in workshops and classrooms here is a concentration on the poem’s garments instead of its life’s blood.”

. “You can produce fine poems without believing anything…” we have all seen well crafted work that possess attention to diction and syntax, but under the glossy surface is air. This type of writing becomes “manufacturing instead of giving birth.”

Do we need to know what every poem means? Lit teachers like to beat meaning to death. I don't always care about literal meaning because my accumulation of life experience does not echo yours, and we will find multiple meanings in the same combination of words. What feels blue to me renders you orange.

This is what Jeff terms as a ‘happy problem’.

Beginning poets often believe poetry relies of self expression. It's all about me! Well, no, it's not.
You kind of don't matter after all. You are only a channel. Poems that matter are about what happens around you, not just to you.

The poems we looked at in session 1 were Some Say Horsemen, Some Say Warriors, by Sappho; The River at Wolf, by Jean Valentine; The Half-Finished Heaven, by Tomas Transtromer (tr. Robin Fulton); All the Fruit, Friedrich Holderlin, (tr. Robert Bly]; and When the Neighbors Fight by Terrance Hayes.

His exercise was to let yourself be drawn to a line or two in one of the poems and let that line open your imagination to praise or lament. Essentially the line becomes a catalyst for your own poem.

Above all, read poetry

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

This Post Has Nothing to do with Writing

Dispatches from the Hot Zone

Aftera series of severe storms, Much of Ohio is without power. 53% of residents in my county have has no electricty for 3 or more days.

The power outage feels and smells like the summers of my childhood BAC (before air conditioning.) It even has he familiar lost sounds, of birds and distant (some not so distant) barking dogs. Instead of the constant whir of the AC and the blare of the TV set, (I don't really miss TV other than the news and Big Bang Theory.) I read every night.. That, too reminds me of childhood nights ready Nancy Drew novels, sometimes under the covers by flashlight once my parents expected me to be asleep.

In the dark I can see lightning bugs. I used to run around the yard and catch them in a jar as a kid, disappointed they were dead in the morning.

Neighbors have been going outdoors, communicating with one another. We gather up lawn chairs and chat in the shade, much the way my folks did when I was a kid.

But all that luscious reminiscence was written early in the outage. We’ve had a week of ninety plus temperatures.

He is how I really feel:

It’s Girl Scout Camp sleeping inside a stuffy spider infested cabin.

It's easy to distinguish those with and those without power. Those with have smooth, styled hair, and they looked less stressed than the mangy haired, wrinkly shirted lot of us without.

My daily habits are awry and I keep forgetting to floss. My teeth and gums feel ranky.

I buy wife beaters to sleep in. I haven’t (yet) resorted to leaving my house in a tank top. I have old lady arms, and I fear my power will return in the middle of the night and my neighbors will see me in boxers and a tank top flapping my arms and flabby white legs as I leap to close the windows and blinds.

On the third day I went to Mc Donald’s for breakfast. They have free wifi. I overhear two older women talking. “Now I know why women get married again when their husband dies. They need help. Forget love. They need help.”

There is a nice breeze coming thru the bathroom window day 4. I'd like to move my couch in there and sleep but it won't fit.

I had bought a couple of O2 cool fans. They are battery operated and provide about 4 hrs of steady breeze. Sleep is tolerable. The inventor deserves a Nobel prize.

Finding various places to hang out is a challenge.
I’ve been hanging around Starbucks, Loitering, along with the hundreds of other powerless. I find new venues in case my picture is hanging under a NO LOITERING Sign at Starbucks.

Went to Giacomos twice yesterday to charge up and use wifi .I can't go the today because it's a holiday. Who stuck a holiday in the middle of a power outage? Not great planning.

Not exercising. Too hot. I did trim some hedges at 7 am by hand. Moved about three muscles. But the rest of me is quickly devolving into a lump of mozzarella cheese. I sweep the flors while the house is still table before meeting Elizabeth for lunch.

Elizabeth and I are squatters at the mall; we plugged in our laptops and phones next to the pop machines, sitting at a table dragged in from the food court.

We talk to a woman whose campsite was vandalized, “And did you hear about the run on the ice truck the other day?”

Elizabeth and I are like teenagers, sitting across the table from one another writing funny messages to each other on Facebook.

ME: Squatters at the Mall starring Laura Moe and Elizabeth Christy. They steal power! They talk to strangers! Rated R.

Elizabeth: R for language. No one is intended to shed any clothing.
about an hour ago ·

Me: That would make it a horror film.

23 minutes ago · Like.

Amy:This Almost made me get on the Shadow, drive to the mall, plop at a table near you, and then type something creepy only someone who could see you would know :-) Not ruling it out.
13 minutes ago via mobile · Like.

Me: but Amy, we know what you look like!
2 seconds ago · Like

It's become an uncomfortable comport zone of sorts, lazy heat, do nothing days. Most of my movement happens in the morning when the heat is tolerable. Today the forecast is 100 plus heat index.

There is no writing exercise today because it’s just too hot to write.

Happy Writing and may you be blessed with electricity. :).