Monday, November 25, 2013

The Power of Observation

In his foreword to The Best American Essays 2012, editor Robert Atwan has some interesting commentary about today’s creative nonfiction students. He writes, “They apparently believe that when they write an essay—whether it’s required or inspired—they should write about themselves. An essay for many of them is wholly autobiographical, pure and simple.”

He goes on to ask why: “Could it be that many students don’t know enough, don’t have favorite artists, composers, books? Or have no passion for anything outside themselves and their own microculture? Or could it be that today’s young writers are afraid to tackle subjects that are presumably for experts? In other words, that they believe that an explication of [an artist’s] artistic genius could only be set forth by someone with a PhD in American art history? Are students so intimidated by expertise that they’ve lost confidence in their own powers of observation?”

Wow. A bit harsh, perhaps, but given his position as editor of The Best American Essays, and the fact that he actually founded that publication in 1986, and he has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, the Boston Review, and the Atlantic Monthly AND has done many other things there isn’t time to mention here, I’m inclined to believe him. Atwan is talking about MFA students specifically, but one can assume his comments that show favor for the topic-oriented essay would apply to writers in general. It’s not hard to imagine him issuing the same admonition to any writer of nonfiction.

Of course, Atwan is not the only one who would like to see less focus on the personal and more focus on topics or subjects other than the writer’s life. In an essay on this very subject, poet Nancy Kuhl sees the current popularity of personal writing as a result of a common assumption that “writing is primarily a means of self-expression, as opposed to a craft or a creative discipline.” She argues that many students—she draws on her own as examples—see writing as therapeutic, and as such they think it matters more how the writer grows through the process of writing than how the reader is affected by the work or how it is evaluated according to literary standards.

I think some writers might be tempted to believe the same thing: that writing is about expressing the inner self, it’s healing. Kuhl herself points out that yes, writing can be healing and surely is therapeutic, but she quickly follows that by saying healing and therapy are not the point and certainly not the main goal of writing. And yet, still, the notion of finding one’s self with words persists. Perhaps this accepted notion of writing as self-expression is what drives nonfiction students toward the personal essay. Perhaps it is what increasingly drives professional writers toward it as well, including myself.

Let me be clear: I do not have anything against the personal essay. I’ve written a lot of them, and I’ve read a lot them, and I really like a lot them. But I agree with Atwan and Kuhl that students—and by extension all writers of nonfiction—should not see nonfiction as limited to the personal essay alone. If writers have strayed away from the art of essaying that, as Atwan defines it, is “the trying out of, or fooling around with, ideas and observations,” and if those essays are largely without the kind of substance readers need, then yes, we have a problem here. If people are writing primarily for self-expression or therapy, as Kuhl suggests, and not to offer others a new way of viewing the world or a new understanding or insight into something, then yes, we might be misunderstanding the purpose of writing.

I think that, overall, a return to ideas and observations will bolster nonfiction’s reputation and quality. I would like to see more topic essays and more narrative journalism in the realm of nonfiction, as would Kuhl and Atwan. I want to see nonfiction writers exploring the lives of others or topics that aren’t their own lives more often, because I think writers are allowed to exercise their powers of research, observation, and truth-sifting in more fruitful ways when they are evaluating others, not themselves.

Atwan questions whether today’s MFA students are brave or skilled enough to essay. Are we confident in our own powers of observation? Can we tackle the big topics? Can we find a more universal truth than the truth as we’ve lived it individually? Those are the questions I’ll leave you with, and I hope you find that yes, you do discover and relish the power in your own observations.

Stephanie Anderson is a first-year MFA candidate in creative nonfiction. She holds a bachelor of arts degree in English from Augustana College in Sioux Falls. Stephanie has worked as a journalist for a farm newspaper, and then as a writer and photographer for an international humanitarian aid organization, a job that took her to developing countries around the world. Her work has been published in The Chronicle Review, SCOPE Magazine, and Farm and Ranch Living. She lives in Boca Raton with her husband, Ryan.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Essential Truth: Blurring the Lines of Creative Non-Fiction

Blurred Lines

I send my brother a piece of my writing.  It’s about us- something that happened a while ago, a moment from a time I assumed he wouldn’t remember, but that I had held onto tightly.  He ponders it over for a few days, then he calls me to discuss…

“I read the story you sent, and it was extremely well written (why thank you, dear brother), but I had to read it three times, because I specifically remember that experience, and my set of memories seems to color things differently, so I think I'm overlaying things I remember with things you didn’t necessarily remember or feel, but the way it was written definitely evokes a feeling of anxiety.”

Did I blur the boundaries too much?  Or was that my goal?  Is my writing meant to only be “gotten” or “understood” by me?  Am I that selfish?  Probably.  But I also think that the way we as writers “color” things, as my brother so eloquently put it, can be an elegant method to fill our stories.  Writing is an art - we’re making things beautiful.  It works the same way it did in kindergarten when your neighbor might have colored the dog blue and you colored it beige or brown.  Your five-year-old self might have scoffed, but the dog can be blue if it appears as such to them.

The essential truth, however, the “anxiety” that my brother felt when reading, was the main point I was trying to capture in the piece, and how it comes across is always going to be based on the reader’s perspective.  It is the responsibility of a writer to illustrate emotion on a page, while the reader is entrusted with interpretation. 

A good friend once told me, “Everything is perception.”  It is our passion to paint pictures for people, but we can still craft a portrait that someone might color differently because of their experiences, opinions, and feelings.  If everything is undeniably about our insight, then we must have faith in our readers to make the leaps between our lyric essays, discern our extended metaphors, and understand all of our undertones, no matter what shade they choose to look through.  And as for staying inside the lines, it may be the right thing to do, but so much beauty comes from our flaws, our inability to stay inside our specific genres, and our need to blur boundaries so we can lose ourselves in pages and pages of colorful splendor.

Brittany Ackerman is a second semester graduate student studying for her MFA in creative non-fiction.  It is her first semester teaching English Composition, and so far she loves it.  Aside from reading, writing, and now grading papers, she does ballet and enjoys baking treats.  She has a mean recipe for a cookie dough filled cupcake!  Yum.  She is also a Disney enthusiast and travels often to the magical theme parks worldwide.  

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

On Finding Our Voice

We may squeak when we mean to roar. No, first year GTAs are not of mice, we are of the genus panthera leo, also known as the lion, ferociously testing out our roar, or more accurately, timidly testing out our roar while clad in an armor of bravado.
And if that’s the way we do it for the first few weeks, it’s okay, because soon our faux-poise solidifies, and materializes into the real deal. And then one day, a few weeks in, we find that, yeah, we’re teaching, but more than that, we’re teachers, and even more than that, we’re teachers with something to say. Yeah.
So what do we do with this roar we’ve discovered? We’re molding young impressionable minds, we don’t want to be sliding down some weird slippery slope with this powerful roar of ours. Because opening up to us is this dawning realization that yes, we are the masters of our domain, and yes, we have this captive audience, a captive audience, who have to sit there. So as we realize the power of that roar, we must also know that, à la Superman, it must only be used for good.
There’s no doubt about it, teachers, like the rest of the population, come with a wide range of opinions and biases, loves and hates and weird-ass convictions. We are all passionate about something or another. Some of us even have wacky off-the-wall idiosyncrasies that we perhaps might feel free to espouse to those glowing, fresh-faced, sometimes malleable young minds in front of us. (Yes, there are one or two in the bunch.) So how much sharing can we freely do before it starts getting weird? 
It’s definitely a balancing act. When I think back on the favorite teachers I’ve had over the years, the ones that shared bits and pieces about themselves made it easier to connect with them, while the selective nature of their bits and pieces made me wish I knew just a little bit more. With the over-sharers, on the other hand, it seemed like the entire class knew just a tad more than we all really wanted to know. It’s something I’m still deciphering – how much is too much? (In fact, I just had to edit this paragraph to remove stories about two professors – one a bits-and-piecer, and one an over-sharer. So, okay, I tend towards the over-sharing, but not so much that my students are rolling their eyes. Hopefully.)
In short, yes, it will get weird if you tell your students about the time you saw a UFO when you were nine and although the rest of your family saw it too, they all walked away and pretended that nothing happened as if they’d somehow all been hypnotized. Or share your opinion about how the NRA is a blight akin to the Bubonic Plague and need to be kneecapped before they wipe out 30-60% of the population (citation needed). Or divulge your theory that cats are evil and out for world domination and are just lulling us into a false sense of security with their carefully orchestrated and deceptively cute lolcat memes.
Yes, it’s a balancing act, and we all violate our own self-imposed code at some point or another, but then we can go home, eat some gummi bears and watch Jon Stewart, and start afresh the next class period. (See what I mean about over-sharing?)

Lisa Chiles is a first year MFA Fiction candidate whose life has been so consumed by GTAing that she regularly has visions of ungraded papers chasing her with bayonets. She lives with the handsomest dog in the universe and will fight anyone who says otherwise. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Listening to the Art

Recently, while walking to our MFA workshop room—the one with the faux-wood conference table the size of a newborn whale and a ceiling full of fluorescent, sometimes ticking, buzzing, blocks of light—a fellow MFAer whose piece would be workshopped that night said something that, I think, any writer can relate to. It was something along the lines of, “If writing freaks me out so much, if it’s this painful, should I be pursuing a degree in it?”

Now, no matter how many times I’ve been workshopped, there is always a high level of anxiety that arises as I’m walking through the doorway into fluorescent limbo. Like an itch in an area of the body that can’t be scratched in public, I don’t acknowledge it, I keep my hands upon the vinyl veneer of the baby whale and smile and nod and write things down that I won’t make myself read for at least a week. Things like: “Let’s talk about the dream sequence” - an abundance of snickering.

I’m not saying the concept of being workshopped stunts writers’ creativity, but being workshopped is one of the many pressures of an MFA Creative Writing student, along with the imagined judgment of an idolized professor, the killer piece that another MFAer got published (even if you’re also totally proud of them), not to mention the way teaching, mainly grading papers, acts like an ice pick to your time and creativity. Yeah, we need to suck it up, no doubt, but if we let these pressures consume us, writing can absolutely become freaky and painful.
My motto this semester was taken from a quote I read by Junot Diaz:

"The whole culture is telling you to hurry, while the art tells you to take your time. Always listen to the art."

Even back in August, I knew too well that these pressures could cause writing to quickly become work instead of a cathartic, pleasurable activity that was essential for my sanity and happiness. Consequently, in this first semester pursuing the MFA at FAU—a program that has so kindly welcomed me into its strong, careful arms—I try to think of or re-read this quote whenever I am freaked out, bummed out, struggling with the idea of majoring in something else, or watching one more episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia on Netlflix. I should write it on a handy notecard or get it tattooed to the back of my hand, maybe.

We also can’t forget that being a writer is masochistic in nature. Another Diaz quote that I found while searching for the above one illustrates this:

"I just want to write four books before I die. For real. And yes: I worry all the time about never writing again. Most of my writer peers write like it’s a daily they’re producing. I write like it’s an organ I’m pulling out of myself."

Anyhow, it is nice to know that, first of all, other writers struggle with this issue, and secondly, that I’m allowed—as an artist—to take my time and write, which, let’s face it, probably takes way less time than worrying about what the whole culture of writing is thinking and doing, and being too paralyzed to write at all.

Kim Grabenhorst is a first-year MFA student at FAU who, other than writing, likes refurbishing old, beat up, forgotten pieces of furniture into colorful, functional, happy things. She would also be one of the first to sign up for a procedure that could replace her blood, permanently, with iced coffee, so that she would be freed from the alluring, capitalistic chains of Starbucks and her Keurig.