Monday, March 31, 2014

Cooking Eggs and Writing Fiction

I have a good friend in Los Angeles who always tells me to be strong in my relationships.  She says I can never let a man see my “yolk,” the uncooked me, the droopy, yellow sadness of a mess I can be after a breakup, a rejection, or just a bad day.  “They only want to see your shiny shell,” she’d affirm.

In Tayari Jones’s revision workshop, we learned that creating fiction is a lot like cooking an egg.  She often referred to that task, the crafting of the text, as more of an emotional undertaking than writer’s work.  The raw egg is your unadulterated sentiment that stems from real life experience, the pure grit of feeling, the essence of your opus.  In order to cook it up into a fictional piece, compose characters and breathe life into them, you must first boil the egg, therefore solidifying the emotion into something tangible, unbreakable, and palpable.

He saw my yolk!  Over easy, for sure!  I’d cry to my pal as she sat sunny side up listening to my trials and tribulations.  “Stay strong, no one wants runny eggs!”   One day, she actually made me eggs at her apartment, and I watched her patiently time out the cooking.  She dressed them with a bit of salt and pepper, sat them next to garlic spinach and fresh berries and served me the plate, hot and steaming.  The eggs were perfect - centers sturdy with just the right amount of yolk melting like lava when I pricked them with my fork.

Tayari Jones is right.  It’s not only about becoming a better writer, but also growing as a person.  If we serve a bunch of raw emotion on a plate, no one will want to finish the meal.  But, if we study practices of writing, sharpen our tools, become skilled in all areas of the craft, then we can lure readers in with artful appeal and the delicious tales we tell.

I don’t want to be fake though.  The right person should appreciate all my angst!  “Sure, sure babe,” she would say.  “The right one can handle the yolk, but you can’t let them see it all spilled out in the first act.”

Brittany Ackerman is a second year MFA in creative non-fiction.  She eats two hard boiled eggs for lunch every day to ensure stability in her writing and emotional life.  In regards to the recent Cheetos debate that has broken out on campus, she prefers the puff to the crunch.  

Monday, March 24, 2014

Ode to the Community Workshop

For the past three months, there have been eighteen creative nonfiction books scattered on the floor around my desk (oh, don’t worry, I don’t vacuum). There are craft texts and essay collections and memoirs and anthologies, and I want to assign my community workshop students everything. Initially, as I began planning for the class, part of the reason was because I felt I had something to prove. I’m youngish, not widely published outside of the news realm, and I haven’t been teaching long (not to brag or anything). I was terrified the people who signed up for my class would take one look at this face, which has never been on a book jacket, and demand a refund. I figured I needed every last text in my library if I was going to earn their trust and respect.

But I also wanted to assign them everything because creative nonfiction is awesome. I’d read a craft chapter on writing about family and think, They’re going to love this! and then a captivating personal essay and think, Their lives have not begun and will not begin until they read this! And this too! I came to our first session with five readings for the week, and my seven adult students were like, Whoa, slow your roll, we have jobs you know. But they were also like, I love to read and write and learn and I’m really happy to be here! Maybe just give us three of those for now. We talked about all the possibilities of creative nonfiction – the opportunity to tell stories that are both imaginative and true – and I was jazzed and they were jazzed and everybody was jazzed. They had questions, and I had answers, and these answers not only satisfied them, but satisfied me, and I felt relieved and I felt good. We did an in-class writing exercise, and watching them scribble seemed sufficiently exciting until one man looked up and said I thought I knew what I was going to submit for my first workshop, but this is going to be even better!, and then I died of happiness and came back to life so I could talk creative nonfiction with these people again the next week.

We’re six sessions in, and it’s been this way every class – electric with lively discussion about the genre and about the assigned readings and about each other’s work. Each week we all marvel how fast the two hours go by, and each week I do some extracurricular marveling at how astute these fellow writers are, how eager and how talented. During workshop, they offer respectful and constructive feedback that reflects how earnestly they’ve absorbed our craft discussions, and they submit writing that does the same, and beyond that, that moves and inspires their peers, myself very much included. I don’t know that I’d necessarily forgotten, but having the opportunity to facilitate this workshop has reminded me how much I love creative nonfiction and how energizing it is to be a part of a community of writers who feel the same way. I’m not saying it’s not a lot of work. (It is.) I’m not saying it’s not intimidating to stand in front of a room of adults who are depending on you to teach them something they care about. (It is.) I’m just saying that it’s worth it.

Risa Polansky Shiman is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction. She is a blog hog and she knows it.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Writing is Like Riding a Bike. And Also Lying. (But Not Lying About Riding a Bike)

            So, I took up bike riding not too long ago as a way to trick my body into thinking its having fun while getting exercise so I can stop wheezing like Darth Vader every time I go up a staircase. There’s a nice little bike trail by my house and while occasionally I’ll pass other people on bikes and do that “Hi, I am on a bike and you are on a bike too, we are on bikes” head nod thing, mostly I’m by myself with nothing but the sound of cars passing nearby and Various Outdoor Creatures. So I’m usually all alone when I get to my favorite part, this overpass tunnel that the bike path cuts through. On one side is a canal (though me and my romantic notions would refer to it as a river, but more on that later), and after a heavy rain the water encroaches onto the path, reaching for the tips of my sneakers as the pedals cycle downwards. On the other side are uneven stacks of rocky concrete chunks piled against the overpass wall. It’s cool and dark and the acoustics turn the rumble of cars passing overhead into an encompassing roar that’s part wave and part runaway train. It’s downhill either side of it and so I’m always speeding through in a moment that stretches out in time with the wall of noise, with the lapping of the water. A moment of unreality, darkness and sound. As soon as I get my bike out for a ride, I’m already thinking about the tunnel.
            But it’s also a lie.
            Not literally, you can come to my house (no you can’t), find the bike path and follow it and see the tunnel for yourself, it’s definitely a thing that exists. But you’d be disappointed. It is after all, just an overpass with a canal on one side. Even walking, you’re barely in it for more than thirty seconds. It’s also smack in the middle of Boca Raton, which is like trying to put the portal to Narnia in an Office Depot, (unlike Bed, Bath Beyond, which I’m pretty sure actually has the portal to Narnia in it).
            But a sad overpass does not make for an interesting story, and that’s where the lying comes in and the title of this thing starts to make a little more sense. Because the essential job of the writer, the fiction writer at least, is to lie. Even in the most real of realist pieces that are the written equivalent of those hyperrealist paintings that look like photographs, there’s some lying involved because who would want to read a story where things are presented exactly as they are?
(Boring people, maybe?)
Because you have to sell it, you have to make it interesting, worth someone sitting down and reading all the way through and if the story you tell is, “I like bike riding and sometimes I bike under an overpass and there’s a canal,” there’s nothing there. It’s perfectly accurate but also perfectly dull and uninteresting. So you have to lie. And not in the sense where the tunnel is now lengthened by ten, the water flowing thick and black and as you pedal you hear the faint, disembodied sounds of a child crying. Because that’s just ridiculous. But all it takes is a small change, a touch of the eerie, a splash of difference that can elevate it from the mundane to the intriguing and make it something that someone wants to read. Because everyone can go and see an overpass but not everyone has felt the cool air caressing their arms and legs and hot, red face as their ears ring with endlessly repeating echoes that all vanish as soon at the tires of the bike touch sunlight.
The overpass tunnel is my favorite part of the bike trail because of its potential. All it takes are few changes here and there, a few choice tweaks, and it can become something more than the truth could ever make it. Because when you build something up, craft it to be more than it is, when you lie, that’s when you get something worth talking about, that’s when you start to approach a greater truth.
Or at least, an interesting story.

Megan Hesse is a second year MFA student, with a BA in Literature and a PhD in Making Questionable Decisions. If you happen to see her riding her bike, try not to laugh too hard.