Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Writers Forum Presents Susan Bono on the Art of the Essay: How to Write Creative Nonfiction

In her Writers Forum workshop last month, Susan Bono discussed the art of the essay, describing it as a "small, subjective look at life." The founding editor of Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Narrative started with a great overview of the broader genre of creative nonfiction (aka literary or narrative nonfiction), which also encompasses forms like narrative journalism or the lyric essay.

Lee Gutkind, founding editor of the esteemed online journal, Creative Nonfiction, defines the genre "simply, succinctly, and accurately as 'true stories well told'... The word 'creative' refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques fiction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present nonfiction—factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner." (Excerpted from Gutkind's book YOU CAN'T MAKE THIS STUFF UP: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction—from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between.)

With regard to the genre, Bono quoted many authors' takes on essay (and memoir) writing:
Phillip Lopate, author of the 2013 book To Show and to Tell: the Craft of Literary Nonfictioncalls it "a mode of inquiry." Tristine Rainer, author of Your Life as Story: Discovering the New Autobiography and Writing Memoir as Literature, says it's "a progression towards personal truth." Bono paraphrased Vivian Gornick, author of The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, as saying that memoir documents the movement toward wisdom. It's "a mind puzzling its way out of its own shadows."

In other words, said Bono, creative nonfiction isn't merely about telling the facts; it's about making meaning from experience--"the antithesis of a reality show that's just one event after another." The writer must embark on a journey of discovery, make a movement toward new territory, experience a shift, a change, a transformation, to get at the heart of the matter. A mere chronicling of events leads readers to wonder why they should care. Bono called it the "so what factor." To form trust with the reader, the writer must be willing to expose flaws, embarrassments, failures. The reader wants vulnerability.

"You must introduce yourself to the reader each time you write," said Bono, explaining two errors that beginning writers often make: 1) not giving the reader enough information about you and 2) not telling the story (the deeper meaning). By this, Bono distinguished between the factual and the actual, which leaves room for the narrator's interpretation of events. You might relay the situation as 'you stole the candy' or 'you're fighting cancer' or 'the weight you can't lose.' But these situations become stories when their meaning is conveyed, when the author gets at their deeper, more universal truths.

How to go about writing an essay? Judging from the interesting array of traditional and experimental forms (especially in lit journals these days), I'd guess there are probably as many structures as there are fingerprints. Bono offered the following "list of cheap tricks"--rules of thumb that can be broken:

  • the reader should know in the first 3 paragraphs what the essay is about (you can even show readers where you're taking them in the first sentence)
  • there should be more scene than summary, letting the action unfold in real time (even if in the past)
  • check the structural frame (return the reader to the place you began, but with new understanding)
  • use dialog to bring characters into the room
  • use restraint--a good tool when relaying difficult events 
  • end with action or gesture rather than with commentary
  • don't tell the reader how to interpret your story's themes--that's the audience's job

Bono suggested we "build an inner teacher who will accompany us throughout our days as a writer." One way to do this, besides the obvious practice of writing itself, is to keep a book near your writing area and open it before you begin; using others' writing or writing advice as stimulation is "an economical, easy way to become a better writer."

In addition to the books listed above, here are a few more that Bono recommends:

  • Judith Barrington's Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art
  • Adair Lara's Naked, Drunk and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay ("a breezy writing style with fun, practical tips")
  • Sheila Bender's Writing Personal Essays: How to Shape Your Life for the Page ("it breaks the essay down into various forms")
  • Phillip Lopate's anthology Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present ("the 25-page intro is really good on aspects of the form")
  • Louise Desalvo's Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives ("especially addresses difficulties on writing about traumatic material") 

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