Listicle: Punctuation & Grammar Essays that Entertain as well as Teach

  • Brisse, Emily. “The Geography of Sentences.”
  • Crair, Ben. “The Period is Pissed.”
  • Gass, William. “I’ve Got a Little List.”
  • –. “And.”
  • Hale, Constance. “Sin and Syntax.”
  • Iyer, Pico. “In Praise of the Humble Comma.”
  • Lukeman, Noah. “A Dash of Style” by Noah Lukeman
  • Mali, Taylor. “The Impotence of Proofreading.”
  • Morano, Michele. “The Subjunctive Mood” from Grammar Lessons
  • Norris, Mary. “Confessions of a Comma Queen.”
  • –. Videos of Mary Norris speaking on a variety of grammar and punctuation topics are available at The New Yorker.
  • Pinker, Steven. “What the F***: Why We Curse.”
  • Samuel. Benjamin. “The Comma from Which My Heart Hangs.”
  • Staid, Mairead Small. “The 27th Letter.”
  • Stein, Gertrude. “Poetry and Grammar.”
  • Thomas, Lewis. “Notes on Punctuation” (1979), found in the sixth edition of the Norton Reader
  • Voight, Ellen Bryant. “The Art of Syntax” (book).
  • –. Several of the essays in Voight’s book “The Flexible Lyric.” See access to EBV’s “Rethinking Adjectives” from the “The Flexible Lyric” here (other essays are available, too).

Editor’s Note: thank you to all in the CW Pedagogy Forum who made suggestions for this list.

Writers to Read: Sophfronia Scott on Donald Quist’s “Harbors”

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During contentious presidential elections such as the one that just ended, some voters tend to offer up the notion of leaving the United States should candidate X win. The threat gets tossed about too glibly, especially when for years citizens have left this country after experiencing real—not anticipated—trials and hardships. Donald Quist, a black American writer and English lecturer living in Bangkok, Thailand, is one such expatriate and he examines his life and the urge to seek a new one abroad in a powerful essay collection, Harbors (Awst Press).

This book comes at a time when the volume of our social discourse is tuned to deafening levels and the back and forth spews at a head-spinning rate. Into the cacophony steps Quist with the fierce voice and loving, but critical eye of a 21st century James Baldwin. And since a whisper draws more attention than a shout, by the time in one of his essays Quist states calmly, clearly, succinctly, “I am angry,” he has us all by the ears and the words resonate to a depth of earth-shaking proportions.

He wasn’t/isn’t always so quiet. As a child growing up with kids from the wrong side of the tracks or, in his case, school bus route, in Maryland, Quist hit a boy and made him bleed for taking his action figure. At 16, frustrated over having to drive one of his grandmother’s drunken friends home, he snatched away her foam-plated Meals on Wheels lunch and demanded she account for her seemingly rude behavior and burdening of his granduncle. However these outbursts only made clear to him what he didn’t understand, an awareness we could use more of today. He learns all is not as obvious as it seems. He learns the truth of what his grandmother, an ardent fan of Jerry Springer’s raucous talk show, often told him, “Boy, pay no attention to what a person says. Watch what they do.”

Quist writes, “I’m reminded that people have complexity and duality, not unlike an exploitative tabloid talk show allowing individuals largely unrepresented in mainstream media to share their experiences.”

He finds himself cloaked in this complexity and duality in “The Animals We Invent,” when he goes to work for the mayor’s office in the town of Hartsville, South Carolina, and finds himself suffering the sting of two worlds when an arson incident leads to a rash of racial profiling encoutners as police seek the perpetrators whom the victim claimed were black males—they weren’t. He fields calls from enraged citizens. “Aren’t you angry?” one asks. Though Quist himself has been stopped by officers he answers with a pragmatic, “What do you want me to say, sir?”

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But the question he’d like to answer in an interview, the reporter doesn’t ask. How can he still speak for the mayor’s office? “If she did ask, I’d answer honestly—I have something to say about refusing to be victimized by fear. I wasn’t to share what I’m learning about the capacity of grace, and the difficult but empowering work of allowing myself to forgive without forgetting. Because if I wait for the pain I witness to be validated with an apology, resentment will tear into my body like sharp, dirty fangs to snap my bones.”

Quist weathers the storm but the squalls large and small keep coming, one upon the other, until he punches a hole in the door of the restaurant he owns with his Thai wife. He questions why they continue to live in the racial equivalent of a tornado alley. The essay “In Other Words” relates the discussion he has with his wife about leaving the country. He writes at times, in an interesting twist, from her point of view. “… when customers do stuff like the patron who tried to avoid paying the bill earlier, it is hard not to feel like it’s a part of something else, something systemic, a lineage of oppression that frames so many of his daily interactions.”

I call attention to this particular essay because of the deeply personal nature of his considerations. Quist blames no one—not candidates, not police officers, not the nature of their small South Carolina town. He is simply looking for a way to walk through the world without a centuries-old burden upon his shoulders. He writes, “I yearned to go abroad to find myself beyond the classification of my race and nationality. I wanted an opportunity to live in a place where I might move beyond the limits of myself.” And though in Thailand he might, as his wife warns him, only experience different debts and new prejudices, Quist also recognizes the possibility to experience new freedom.

With this concept alone, this idea of a new freedom, he challenges our notions of America as land of the free, home of the brave, by showing us in his beautiful, unflinching prose that no matter how bravely a person might live in this country, he or she isn’t necessarily free. The vulnerability Quist brings to the page is palpable especially as he relates feelings of guilt, shame, and disappointment (often in himself) in addition to his anger. He cannot ignore, for example, that his father left Ghana for the U.S. to escape a kind of living that now benefits Quist in Thailand.

He writes in “Junior”: “I wanted to tell you about how leaving makes me feel like a traitor, and about how it feels whenever I read news about black suffering in America. I meant to ask you if the advantages of living in a place ever make it easier to forgive its crimes. I wished to voice to you the conflict I experience daily while enjoying the benefits I have in Thailand and the knowledge that so many are silenced and detained by the same governing force that has made it easier for me to hail a cab. I wanted to discuss military dictatorships promising democracy, decency, values, and standards while violating civil liberties, and talk about how every day I witness others bear the type of suppression that led you to emigrate from Ghana.”

So many writers can rage—so few can show or even connect to what lies beneath it. Harbors is an important human document because the author doesn’t invoke self-pity or even sympathy. Instead he, much as Baldwin did, presents his life as testimony and makes you stand with him equally at a vantage point where all can view the situation and say with utter certainty, Things should not be this way. Quist doesn’t pretend to seek clear answers—he knows there are none. But like any good essayist, he knows it is important to ask the questions and try on many answers. “Once I’ve crossed over this deep expanse,” he writes, “I don’t know how long I’ll wander or how far I’ll stray. But I promise you, I will do my best to make the journey meaningful.” With Harbors, Quist has already, to a great extent, done this for all of us.

Editor’s note: Read Sophfronia Scott’s “Writers to Read” about Robert Vivian’s Mystery My Country here.

***

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Sophfronia Scott is author of the novel All I Need to Get By (St. Martin’s Press); her work has appeared in Killens Review of Arts & Letters, Saranac Review, Numéro Cinq, Ruminate, Barnstorm Literary Journal, Sleet Magazine, NewYorkTimes.com and O, The Oprah Magazine. Her forthcoming novel, The Light Lives Here, will be published by William Morrow/HarperCollins in September 2017. She also has on the way an essay collection, Love’s Long Line Alone, from Ohio State University Press. Sophfronia is on the faculty of Regis University’s Mile-High MFA and blogs at www.Sophfronia.com.

Kyle Simonsen on My Favorite Essay to Teach: Susan Orlean’s “Meet the Shaggs”

Susan Orlean begins her essay “Meet the Shaggs” by noting that “depending on whom you ask, the Shaggs were either the best band of all time or the worst.” Unless you are asking my students. Then they are unanimously the worst.

I introduce my students to the band itself before I actually assign Susan Orlean’s essay. First, I play them a bit of the music: a twangy, off-key, discordant cacophony that many visibly react to. I ask them to write a short description of the music after they’ve listened to the song, threatening to play more if they stop writing. Then I show them the cover of the album, the three girls—Betty, Dorothy, and Helen Wiggin—posed on a dark stage with their instruments, and ask them to describe the imagery on the cover. They do so, and then I take volunteers to read their descriptions aloud.

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Some are more vicious than others, but they’re nearly universally disparaging and judgmental. One student called them “a trio of people who are as ill-clad as they are tone deaf,” whose earnest music sounds “like an electrified accordion taking a tumble down an escalator.” Another student wrote, “‘You can never please anybody in this world,’ they sing, which is true in the sense that you can never please anybody while playing them this awful, awful song.”

Then we read “Meet the Shaggs,” and we find that Susan Orlean, as part of her profile of the Shaggs, describes their music very differently. The judgments are still there, but they aren’t Orlean’s; instead, she quotes Frank Zappa and anonymous music critics from the Internet—the latter sounding much like the descriptions by my students. Instead, Orlean’s descriptions are, well, descriptive. She calls the music “winsome but raggedly discordant pop,” nailing down the genre, but also notes some potential influences: “the heptatonic, angular microtones of Chinese ya-yueh court music and the atonal note clusters of Ornette Coleman.” Yet she also manages to be conversational, writing that “something is sort of wrong with the tempo,” and wondering if “they are just a bunch of kids playing badly on cheap, out-of-tune guitars.”

What I like about an exercise like this one is that it focuses in on something essential about becoming a better writer: knowing what’s possible. In getting to compare the descriptions they write—first to each other’s, and then to Orlean’s—students get to see that the way they chose to describe it initially isn’t the only way, and that two very different descriptions can also both ring true.

Some of my savviest students have noted that the judgmental descriptions sometimes say more about the person doing the describing than the object they are describing, leading into discussions about tone, voice, and narrative persona—we know Orlean is smart, knowledgeable, and compassionate not because she tells us these things about herself, but because she demonstrates them in her descriptions of the music and her interactions with the members of the Shaggs as she interviews them for the essay.

Orlean’s knowledge, for instance, is evident in all the ways that she suggests the exhaustive research that informs the piece. She mentions her interview with the town historian from Fremont, New Hampshire, where the Shaggs grew up, and quotes from his book about the town. She hints at numerous interviews and conversations with music critics, local residents who knew the girls, and the Shaggs themselves. And yet all of this research fades into the background of the Shaggs’ origin story—I know this, because I see the sudden realization of the tangible legwork that went into the essay dawn on the faces of students as we comb through it.

The real reason this essay is my favorite one to teach, though, is Orlean’s compassion. I believe one of the greatest gifts of studying creative nonfiction is that it allows us to close the span between our lives and the lives of others, others who may be very different from us, to know them and understand them. This is important in memoir, of course, where the marginalized can tell their story in their own voice, but also in essays like “Meet the Shaggs,” where Orlean sheds light on the loneliness and suffering the Shaggs endured at the hands of their abusive father, telling their story and replacing our reaction of loathing with our capability for understanding—even if I doubt any of my students are listening to the Shaggs on their commutes home.

[Listen to “Philosophy of the World” by The Shaggs here.]

***

kyleprofilephotoKyle Simonsen writes, edits, and parents two children from his home in Wahoo, Nebraska. He teaches at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. His writing also appears in Sidebrow, Opium Magazine, and Rain Taxi, among others.

Hey You, Speak Up!: On Teaching “Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp” by Joy Williams

whaleOn writing fiction Joy Williams recently observed, “a novel wants to befriend you, a short story almost never.” She didn’t reveal her thoughts on the essay, but my belief is she considers this genre your best friend, as in the friend who tells the truth whether you want it or not.

Sometimes nice is what we want, but not what we need, and I find the greatest foe to undergraduate student essays is sentimentality. “But I don’t want to be mean,” students plead, as they argue for bland stories about roommates or touching family moments. That’s why my best friend in the classroom is Williams’s environmental rant, “Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp.”

From sentence one, Williams pops the balloons of that special Disneyland vacation with Dad:

“I don’t want to talk about me, of course, but it seems as though far too much attention has been lavished on you lately — that your greed and vanities and quest for self-fulfillment have been catered to far too much.”

Right away she confronts the reader of selfishness, of destroying our ecology one tiny selfish comfort at a time. The class recoils from Williams—her dark humor doesn’t translate and her polemic puts them on the defensive. They begin to talk about how they hated this essay and how this author will never persuade anyone by alienating her readers. Sometimes, the students get pretty harsh.

Success! My nice students are no longer nice, aside from that one student with the Bad Brains T-shirt who totally gets it and wonders if she’s the only one, and she could be wrong, but she finds Williams funny? I want to throw this student a parade, but I play it cool for we’ve gotten to the next step: it’s time to examine why and how, exactly, Williams is so skilled at pissing us off.

1) Williams uses second person with conviction:

“You just want and want and want. You don’t believe in Nature anymore…Your eyes glaze as you travel life’s highway past all the crushed animals and Big Gulp cups.”

In composition classes, I ban second person because students use it as a crutch to avoid real claims. (You know what I mean.) When Williams uses second person, she means you, you there, washing down that In-n-Out Double-Double with a bucket-sized Diet Coke.

2) Exclamation points have became the default setting of texts and emails, used to convey false enthusiasm over trite conversations. Williams wields hers like a weapon:

“You don’t want to think about it!”

“Yes! If it weren’t for the people who kill them, wild ducks wouldn’t exist!”

3) Williams creates disruption through short, powerful sentences:

“And the word environment. Such a bloodless word. A flat-footed word with a shrunken heart.”

“Florida is crazy, it’s pink concrete. It’s paved, it’s over. And a little girl just got eaten by an alligator down there.”

“You’re eschewing cow.”

4) After zooming in to look at the details, it’s worth panning out, to examine her overall structure. What scaffolds the essay?

Williams moves from outright accusation, to an imaginary conversation between herself and the reader. As the reader claws her way through rationalizations and comforts Williams ousts them out, one by one, anticipating every move and blocking escape. She not only anticipates the reader’s counterarguments but implicates herself. By the end, there is nowhere for the reader or the author to hide.

I’ve taught “Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp” alongside “Consider the Lobster” by David Foster Wallace. Both essays, after extensive mental journeys, conclude with the same plea for mindfulness, but Wallace’s ruminations are in stark contrast to Williams’s sawed off shotgun. Love or hate these writers, I tell my students, they have a distinctive style. Within a few sentences we know who they are, the literary version of “Name that Tune.”

Final hope: students might see voice is worth risking alienation.

**

Kelly+Ferguson_RedKelly Kathleen Ferguson is the author of My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself. Her work has appeared in mental_floss magazine, Poets & Writers, The Gettysburg Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and other publications. She teaches creative writing at Southern Utah University.

My Favorite Essay to Teach: Jorge Luis Borges’ “On Blindness” — by Gwendolyn Edward

GwendolynEdwardMy introductory to creative writing students have preconceived notions about what non-fiction is or should be. The essay as a form of non-fiction is not well known to them; the genre has been established in their minds as one devoted to the long-form narrative: shocking tales of harrowing experiences or bestselling celebrity memoir. They are worried about being tasked to write non-fiction because they do not think their lives have been interesting enough; they worry they will be reduced to writing about cliché subject matters like death of grandparents, breaking up with a significant other, the first time they saw or did something incredibly shocking. They also seem preoccupied by the idea that non-fiction is simply storytelling.

But non-fiction is not relegated to the telling it straight storytelling and it does not have to be book length. It finds a home in different types of essay as well, and essay—in the introductory class—is our non-fiction focus. I begin our unit with a quote from Philip Lopate:

The essay is a notoriously flexible and adaptable form. It possesses the freedom to move anywhere, in all directions….This freedom can be daunting, not only for the novice essayist confronting such latitude but for the critic attempting to pin down its formal properties.

When Lopate says the essay is flexible, I tell my students that I believe he’s speaking to two different qualities: the types of established essay and the way essay influences the genres of poetry and fiction.

We begin by talking about the traditional narrative essay: using narrative and the personal experience as an investigative tool. The braided essay: narrative threads and themes that work together to create a certain impact on the reader. The lyric essay: one concerned with representation of time and use of language. The researched essay: one that relies upon response to other writers and events and relays required and investigated material to the reader. The meditative essay: a dwelling of thought on a subject matter that trumps narrative. We also talk about ideas central to the essay, confession and revelation, and how they’re different.

We look at “purer” forms of all these types of essays, but my favorite part of our unit on non-fiction—the last essay we read—throws a curve ball to the students. Now that they’ve seen the essay is in fact rather approachable, now that they’ve been assured that they all have something to write about and that sometimes, the fun, sometimes, in non-fiction, is working with story or form to find meaning, they encounter an essay that achieves the same goal but does not fit the boundaries we’ve established. It breaks the rules we’ve put in place. It is Jorge Luis Borges’ essay “Blindness.” In the essay, Borges recounts the loss of his eye sight and how terrifying it was—initially—for an author who relied upon viewing the written word to compose and revise. But he also learns that this loss is not one that overwhelms; it is loss as recovery and discovery.

What Borges offers them in “Blindness” is all types of essay in one. The narrative aspect is present across the essay—the story of Borges deteriorating eyesight and his journey from writer of prose to writer of poetry. The braided essay is present too in the way Borges moves between central themes. The lyric essay is embodied in moments of poetic description. The researched essay is there too in all the authors’ lives and works that he discusses. The meditative essay is present throughout: Borges, on multiple occasions, anticipates needing to contextualize his content and so he gives us thoughts as opposed to action. Confession is present in his fears, and the over-arching glue to the essay is revelation: that blindness is not a not such a bad thing after all, when it has in turn given him so much.

“What do we call an essay like this?” I ask my class. “How do we define it? More importantly maybe, why would we need to define it?”

My students are smart. I don’t mind bragging about this. They suggest all sorts of reasons: we need rules and terms so that we learn how to manipulate them in productive ways; we label it because it helps us locate types of essays we want to read and write. But there’s always a student too who catches onto my game and says something along the lines of “maybe we don’t need to define it. Most essays aren’t really just one kind at all but use elements of different kinds anyway.”

This, in part, is why I assign Borges last. We’ve established what we can do and are capable of in non-fiction, and now that we’ve looked Borges we understand too that we have permission to play with form and content. Non-fiction is not an either/or type of writing; elements of different types of essay can be present all at once. But more than this, Borges also makes us think about how non-fiction writing speaks to all writing and what is most important to the writer: language.

Borges has used the essay as a teaching tool about other genres. Education is central to all literature and creative writing, I tell my students. Non-fiction, poetry, and fiction all teach us something about the human experience, just in different ways. In non-fiction we have the tool of knowing that this thing—this story, experience, trial, the thoughts, epiphanies—belong to a person who we are invited to view and respond to. There might be something more approachable about non-fiction. We might be willing to learn more readily when we know what we’re hearing is true. What better tool for education do we have than honesty about experience?

The goal in reading “Blindness” is twofold: students become more aware of the styles of essay and how—like Lopate says—they’re flexible, but students who are not sure how to “read” poetry become aware of one method of approaching it.

Students often struggle with poetry—not only the labyrinth of interpretation, but the idea of poetry itself. It seems students fall into one of two categories: familiar with canonical poetry and receptive to discussion about more contemporary texts, or distrustful of poetry and viewing it as cryptic or inaccessible.

I often teach the unit on non-fiction before poetry for the express purpose of using Borges’ “Blindness” as a way to begin thinking about poems and how to read them. Early in the essay Borges says,

“One of the colors that the blind—or at least this blind man—do not see is black…. I, who was accustomed to sleeping in total darkness, was bothered for a long time at having to sleep in this world of mist, in the greenish or bluish mist, vaguely luminous, which is the world of the blind.”

My class tends to agree with Borges: the non-blind think of blindness as blackness or a dark nothingness. Borges’ experience is instructive because it teaches us something about our perceptions of limitations or obstacles: they can be wrong, and sometimes, surprisingly so.

Borges, I tell my students, is teaching us a way of seeing. His essay, more than anything else, is giving us ways to approach writing across genres: he shows us how to see with language, and seeing with language is one form of understanding, uncovering, discovering. When we discuss the essay and how Borges begins his foray into poetry, we talk about how we process language. Most of students’ reading is done silently, but reading any piece of literature—be it prose or poem—can be transformative when read aloud.

“Why don’t we just look at one of his poems,” I suggest, though this is planned ahead of time. We look at Borges’ “On His Blindness.” I project it onto the screen at the front of the room and then we read it silently to ourselves. On a second read, I ask students to sub-vocalize, to play with how to stress words, where they find pauses both directed and natural. Then we take turns reading it aloud. Inevitably the students read it aloud in different ways. In the first line some students read “like it or not” as factual; others give inflection which suggests a wry humor. And in the third line some students will read “single thing”, stressing the words, giving them more weight. As the poem continues, some students pick up speed. Some students slow down. By the time we’ve made it through our volunteers, we’ve had at least ten different interpretations of how the poem sounds, resulting in at least ten different interpretations of what is most important to the poet and each reader.

Borges, in “Blindness,” is delighted at the discovery of sound that is given to him when he loses is eyesight. Sound is applicable to all writing, and in reading “Blindness,” I hope students continue to think about how non-fiction writing and reading can inform their approaches to other genres.

“Imagine what Borges must have felt like—that amazing discovery of what sound can do. Borges says in ‘Blindness’—of learning other languages—‘that each word was a kind of talisman unearthed.’ He continues to say, ‘I had replaced the visible world with the aural world….’ What if we learned to do that too? To think not only of what we write but what that writing sounds like and how it guides our readers?”

By the time we begin our unit on poetry, students seem more at ease. They may still be uncertain as to whether their readings are “right,” but they can talk about content and meaning and how sound affects these. I hope that they begin to see more truth in what Borges says about blindness: “Blindness has not been for me total misfortune; it should not be seen in a pathetic way. It should be seen as a way of life: one of the styles of living,” just as thoughtful use of language is a style of writing. I hope they begin to see the lens of Borges’ truth in their own experiences. I hope that the boundary between essay and reader collapses and that they find one of the greatest joys of non-fiction: when we find ourselves becoming the text of an essay, when the experience of one person becomes the experience shared among many.

Borges says of James Joyce, “Part of his vast work was executed in darkness: polishing the sentences in his memory, working at times a whole day on a single phrase, and then writing and correcting it.” What if all of our work was this tight? This thoughtful? What if we all could learn to compose with some form of blindness—that as much as it limited us—also freed us?

Blindness is a concept we keep working with; Borges’ essay trails us throughout the semester. One of the prompts I give students in response to this essay is think about a time you were blind to something and what you learned when you eventually realized you weren’t seeing. As we begin our unit on revision students read sentences from each other’s work that they like and they explain why the language attracts them. Many times, the students whose work is being read delight at this when the discover the intricacies of language are actually engaging their readers—just as much, sometimes, as their stories do. At the end of the semester, Borges finds us again. Students must revise a piece for class—a poem, essay, or short story of their own invention—and they must read an excerpt, demonstrating that they’ve thought about how sound affects meaning in reception. My favorite time in the semester is this: the end. Not because my work—for the time being—is done, but because when we hear each other’s work we also hear the labor and heart that went into the revising. The pieces we read in workshop evolve into work more nuanced. We learn to see our own work a bit differently, and we learn to see each other’s work differently too.

**

Gwendolyn Edward is a Pushcart nominated writer of non-fiction, poetry, and fiction. Her work has been accepted by Crab Orchard Review, Fourth River, Bourbon Penn, Crack the Spine, and others. She retains a MA in Creative Writing from the University of North Texas where she worked with American Literary Review, and she is currently pursuing a MFA at Bennington. She works with Fifth Wednesday Journal as an assistant non-fiction and fiction editor and also teaches Creative Writing.

Assay@NFN15: “Crafting True: The Complementary Worlds of Narrative Journalism and The Essay”

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  • A bullet point summary by Angele’ Anderfuren @AngeleOutWest

Panelists:

  • Megan Kimble @MeganKimble
  • Lisa O’Neill @LisaMOneill_
  • Katherine E. Standefer @girlmakesfire
  • Hattie Fletcher of @cnfonline

Topics:

  • The intersection of journalism and creative nonfiction.
  • The differences in reporting a story and telling a story.
  • The telling of our truths, of a truth, of another’s truths.
  • Objectivity and perspective.

Defining the topic:

Journalism is…

  • Reported material
  • A story based on verifiable facts
  • Not usually first person, but could be in some instances
  • The destination

Creative Nonfiction/Essay is…

  • Stories with less of a formal structure
  • Often first person in the story
  • The experience of discovering truth
  • Story out of what’s really happening
  • Using the devices of fiction to tell a true story

 

How journalism can help or hinder the form:

Katherine, comes from a fiction and poetry writing background before being a journalist:

  • Journalism helped me limit my scope and make sure the right stakeholders are involved in the conversation
  • Projects start personal and grow outwards
  • I became a better nonfiction writer by examining how other peoples’ stories related to my story
  • Asks, how do I bring a reader into the sensory world, how do I making meaning associatively?
  • One thing journalism has to offer is clarity of purpose in the story

Lisa, was a general assignments reporter for small newspaper in Louisiana, then did PR for a nonprofit:

  • I came to writing as a way to make sense of the world
  • I wanted to be a journalist because I saw journalism as a way to create change
  • I loved the diversity of the job
  • I found myself frustrated because I had opinions about things and felt that objectivity in journalism was limited and not entirely true
  • I was aware how I was shaping stories by who I was putting first
  • One thing I think about is: How much I need to be in the piece?
  • What do I have to offer as a narrator versus a witness?
  • It is really important to me to include other people’s voices

Hattie, Managing Editor for Creative Nonfiction magazine:

  • We don’t always talk about the history of creative nonfiction
  • There are two strands to the history:
    • St Augustan and Montaigne
    • An evolutionary strand from journalism and new journalism
  • Journalism was assumed to be authoritative knowledgeable, objective, just-the-facts writing
  • But a lot of writers came to say that is crap
  • There’s been a steady infusion of first person journalism, not the front page but in the features
  • CNF the magazine comes more out of that second thread, the new journalism thing
  • We have a preference for information-based narrative.
  • But we try to provide spaces to accommodate more of the genre.
  • We do more fact checking than most; we draw the line on calling people’s family members.
  • There’s enough of a debate in CNF already, so you must verify what’s verifiable. If you don’t, that undermines the credibility of the story that is being told.

Differences in craft…

Megan:

  • First real job out of school was as an assistant for the LA Times. Was told, if your sentence doesn’t contain a paragraph’s worth of information, it is not a good sentence.

Hattie:

  • Creative Nonfiction magazine and the Atlantic article – a comparison

·      Recently Joe Fassler had his essay “Wait Times” published in CNF (4500 word version) and a shorter (2500 word version) published in The Atlantic with the title “How Doctors Take Women’s Pain Less Seriously: When my wife was struck by mysterious, debilitating symptoms, our trip to the ER revealed the sexism inherent in emergency treatment.”

  • The CNF version of the story has some reflection, about the medical system, what it is like to see someone you love in pain
  • The Atlantic had a better title, more grab-able and sharable, tons of comments
  • Fundamentally the same story
  • Joe preferred the longer version with the space to reflect, artistic space
  • “A lot of the nuance of the story got lost”
  • “It is a completely different reading experience.”
  • Internet journalism, it’s kind of about fanning the flames.
  • You’re not expecting to be surprised

Ethical obligation as journalists/writers of CNF…

Katherine:

  • Similar to the way a reader is going to show up differently, I show up differently depending on the piece that I am working on
  • I am sort of a character along the way but I don’t know what way I will appear in the story, how much will get cut out

Lisa:

  • Relationships are the priority in my writing
  • My time in public relations is really helpful
  • Some journalists would come in with no sense of the complexities of a person’s stories
  • I come out of that with a need to feel authentic and recognize the power dynamic at play
  • I consider when I bring in a voice recorder and when I don’t, putting in time with people
  • Who I am is really clear in the persona

What about the I…

Megan:

  • Absence vs presence of the narrator changes the piece
  • I always have to ask, is this person necessary here?
  • The “I” can help guide readers and show them how to get there

Hattie:

  • Information rich writing also needs to be personal
  • The reporter needs to be present in some way
  • I don’t want the solution to be “put yourself in it,” but that is often what we need to answer, why you are writing this story.
  • A personal investment has to be shown in the narrative.

Lisa:

  • What is the lynch pin of the story?
  • Does something in my life or experience illuminate something in the story?
  • Can it bring something to the reader?
  • Will it be about me in a way that is distracting from the story?
  • Will it compromise what the story is truly about?

Kati

  • Book rec: Katherine Boo – Behind the Beautiful Forevers
  • http://www.behindthebeautifulforevers.com/
  • The final section of the book is on her research
  • She interviewed the same people multiple times to check out the story, interviewing other witnesses
  • She didn’t need her presence in the story to be credible
  • Including myself becomes this tool, it is credibility from recognizing the reporting of the reporting
  • What are ways in which I have to acknowledge my privilege and my understanding of the place or lack of understanding

Megan:

  • Filtering the information that is the truthiness journalism through personal experience
  • What can any one person do with big issues?
  • Who am I to write this?
  • The I can be an accessible way into a daunting, big topic
  • Bringing readers along on that journey with you

Lynn Kilpatrick on JoAnn Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter”

Lynn KilpatrickLynn Kilpatrick’s essay “(we interrupt this life for what some people might call ‘vacation’)” is forthcoming in The Ocean State Review. Her essays have been published in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, and Ninth Letter. Her collection of stories, In the House, was published by FC2. She teaches at Salt Lake Community College.


I wish I could remember the first time I read JoAnn Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter.” It might actually have been when it was originally published, June 24, 1996 in The New Yorker. What I do remember is being immediately taken with the voice of the piece, which is at once knowing, aware of the writer’s perspective of hindsight, and unknowing, returning, as much as possible, to the innocence of the time before the event.

The part that grabs me first is on that first page:

The Milky Way is a long smear on the sky, like something erased on a
blackboard. Over the neighbor’s house, Mars flashes white, then red, then
white again. Jupiter is hidden among the anonymous blinks and glitterings.
It has a moon with sulfur-spewing volcanoes and a beautiful name: Io. I learned it at work, from the group of men who surround me there. Space physicists, guys who spend days on end with their heads poked through the fabric of the sky, listening to the sounds of the universe. Guys whose own lives are ticking like alarm clocks getting ready to go off, although none of us are aware of it yet.

What I love here is how, unbeknownst to the first-time reader, she gathers the pieces of her essay together. The essay begins with her dog, then she introduces the squirrels, slyly, and then the big piece, which at first seems like just a bit of description, just some window dressing: the night sky, the men she works with; then suddenly, the hint, their lives “ticking” away, how blissfully unaware they all are, just then.

I teach this essay to my students, both in creative writing and in literature, so that they might understand how meaning is made, and, perhaps more importantly, how writers and readers arrive at meaning.

Did Beard, nearing the end of her essay, intend to return to the squirrels, writing “Silence. No matter how much you miss them. They never come back once they’re gone”? As a writer, I’d say no. She didn’t set out to write that, but when she got to that point in the essay, that’s where she was, it’s what happened. She followed the threads of her essay, the clues she so clearly laid out in the beginning, and they led her to this conclusion.

For my creative writing students I also want to stress the craft of construction. No, she didn’t plan on writing that line, but then she did. So then what?

The most important details I want my students to notice are in the careful stitching together of the three narrative strands of this essay: her dying dog, her ruined marriage, and the death of her co-workers. Workplace shootings are so commonplace now that readers might fear the essay will veer uncontrollably into melodrama or sentimentality. Combine the shooting with the death of a dog and divorce, and the essay seems almost destined to be overwhelmed by the elements of all three events. How does the essay avoid this, I ask my students. How do we prevent our essays from being overwhelmed by sentimentality?

The answer, Beard shows us, is balance. The workplace shooting takes place in the context of her life with her dog and husband. The story of her dog and husband take place in the context of the shooting. All three events are important. The craft of this essay emerges in the balance of these events.

But how do we take these different events, my students ask, and make one essay? We look at Beard’s essay for a model. We notice how threads from one story, the blackboard at work, for example, show up in other stories (the simile “like something erased from a blackboard”). How it all comes together in the end, her friends gathered at her house, her dog, the inevitable knock at the door that will bring the husband, the return to the dark night sky of the opening scene.

Whether I’m teaching this essay in an Introduction to Creative Writing course, or a Non-Fiction Writing course, or Introduction to Literature, my students and I always come back to language. Why this word instead of another? Why this image to conclude? How does she get the word “plasma” to resonate across the entire essay?

As Beard’s essay closes, the essay demonstrates to us how to construct just such an essay, how to establish the essay as “a place of stillness where the particles of dust stop spinning.” In the case of this essay, the distinct parts come into equilibrium, where each can be understood in relation to the other, where the whole achieves more than the sum of its parts.

Topic: Essays by Writers of Color

IMG_7690Thanks to Cyn Kitchen for this list:  essay (not memoir) recommendations by writers of color, who are American, but who are not writing about race.

Please add your suggestions in the comments!

__________

  • Richard Rodriguez, Darling, excerpted in Harper’s.
  • Alice Walker, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”
  • Louise Erdrich
  • Roxanne Gay, Bad Feminist
  • bell hooks
  • Alison Hawthorne Deming, Colors of Nature
  • Stacyanne Chin, The Other Side of Paradise
  • Ta Nehisi Coates, Beautiful Struggle