A good short story, personal essay, poem, or memoir captures the texture of life. The most celebrated memoirs are those which tell more than one story. For example, in Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life we read about the boy's education and conscience, but also about the bad second marriage his mother is trapped in, and how she is changing, doing things formerly out of character, like campaigning for JFK. These experiences happened during the same period. They were parallel.
Wolff could easily have written the entire memoir about his youthful self and how he learned to lie and fight. He could have written a fine memoir just about his mother's life. Either one would probably have been swell. But these in reality were intertwined, and Wolff wrote them that way.
What this appears to accomplish:
1) More accurately depicts the boy's exterior reality (events, conversations, his stepfather's behavior, friends and schooling and lessons learned)
2) More accurately depicts his interior reality. We all live more than one life at a time. In fact, at least two: the life that people can see and the one they don't. I've read (dull) stories and essays delving deep into an individual's emotional life that never indicate that this character or person has a job, or siblings, or a loan to pay off, or a best friend who isn't a dog, or a political opinion, or a goal.
Fiction and nonfiction have this in common: To capture the texture of real life, the work needs a subplot or more than one narrative thread.
You can see this on television, say, on The Simpsons, when the main story is about, for example, Homer, but a secondary story is woven in about two other characters. If you look for this, it is absolutely everywhere. That's because having two or more threads captures the texture of life.
When your creative prose seems dull or flat or thin or like "weak tea," it's usually because it has only one facet or thread. A secondary or parallel story, or "subplot," is a lot of work for the writer and requires skill. It is a large part of what makes superior fiction and creative nonfiction. You can spend years in creative-writing courses and never once hear about subplotting, or why subplotting is as basic as the "main story." I have, however, heard a poet say, "A poem should always be about two things." Poets get it.
Prose writing is a little different. After you have learned how to develop and play on one thread, attempt to add another to the piece you are working on. Don't worry about how well or poorly you do it at first. I said it's a skill and that it's not easy.
Brilliance is revision and revision is brilliance.
Brilliance doesn't come in the first draft. Brilliance is accumulated over drafts.
Writers are very lucky because we can take our first drafts and over time develop and craft them. A first draft is like Adam's rib. We add the muscle, nerves, flesh, hair, and breath of life. Editors, publishers, and fellow writers help us polish the work until it shines and communicates perfectly, and keep us from making public our inevitable misjudgements and mistakes. That's why your favorite writers dazzle you. How do they do it? Revision. That's why years pass between their books.
We all want to write brilliant first drafts and be done with it. That's like wanting to climb Everest right this minute without a base camp or a team, or have a baby right now without a pregnancy. That'd be brilliant, but it's unlikely. Don't pressure yourself with the belief that you can or should write brilliantly immediately and all by yourself all the time--that you must be superhuman. That will be unproductive. Revision is very human. The humanity which soaks into the work through revision is what makes it brilliant.
What had I done wrong, I wondered, and slunk away.
Now I'm beginning to see how what I wrote startled her.
- I had re-named, for an audience, the man she had called Dad and I had called Grandpa.
- In doing this I had asserted my difference from her. Mom did not at that time perceive us kids as differing from her in any important way. I was the eldest and my job was to break such news ("Mom, we're different from you") and absorb the response.
- In writing "Grandpa Pongratz" I had used the power to name. Such power in the hands of an eight-year-old--anybody would freak out.
- By writing, I had transplanted Grandpa from our entirely private family hothouse and placed him in the light normally reserved for public figures.
- Words on paper strike much harder than information conveyed verbally.
- Until that moment her father had not existed on paper, in prose, independently of his own hand.
Reminded of this by seeing Indian Paintbrushes growing in the roadside today, and remembering that long-ago car trip, on which Mom told me the name of those orange flowers.
More on this later...
Just that morning I'd told a friend that I didn't bring certain of my works to workshop, fearing to offend or embarrass. I'd tried it, and it seemed to do just that -- poem not mentioned, eyes averted. But inoffensive material didn't get the rigorous criticism I need to strengthen my work. It was a lose-lose situation. What the heck am I doing? What kind of game am I playing? "Hide the Catherine"? For what? For whom? And if it's a lose-lose, why play?
I never wanted to be that way. My seventeen-year-old self, who wanted to become a great poet, sneers at me. I tell students never to compromise (understanding that sometimes a writer has to compromise not her honesty but her manner of expression if feedback indicates that her writing is sloppy or isn't communicating what she wants it to). I want never to compromise out of fear. But it's become routine! I have secret poems I shy from showing. I tell people who see them -- warn them -- it's not me who writes them, it's an alter ego. Let's see: did Mayakovsky play that game? Rimbaud? Whitman? Did Norman Mailer? Who wants to read poetry like weak tea? Exactly who is benefiting when I shield them from the real me? Who do I think is being well served when I compromise my art?
I've been re-reading and re-working unpublished poems and feeling that each and every one is hopeless, irreparable. Of course they are -- if it isn't the real me who is writing them, but the nicer me. The Cowardly Lion version.
On the other hand, insatiably I read myself raw on any first-person books about the writing life, like Bird by Bird, One Writer's Beginnings, and The Artist's Way. My Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath fell to pieces and I'm annoyed they don't sell it in hardback.
This would be weird if I were unique, but it seems writers at all levels, all of them dying to publish, prize those esthetic-autobio-musings-type books, but can't swallow how-to-write books, even if they can be had at any library for free. Instead writers will pay flaming cash and cross a time zone to hear a living published writer TELL them about these publishing things that seem to them so magical and mystifying.
That's because we are soulful & don't believe what those how-to books and articles say. For the majority of writers (and other people!), magic and mystery trump planning and common sense. We live in a sort of Bronze Age of the mind. We want to see and hear in person the writer who has pulled the sword from the stone. Then we believe. Maybe we hope too for a little dharma transmission.
After months or years of heroic solitary labor, the Lone Writer emerges, reeling, with a stack of pages: a literary masterpiece. Published, it becomes immortal.
The image of the Lone Writer, the burner of midnight oil, the solitary genius, haunts us, but it's misleading. In a word, it is false. The Lone Writer is like the private detective in his trenchcoat and fedora, or the Texan with a six-shooter and spurs: simplified, stylized images, created for entertainment. We know better than to confuse them with real people. But belief in the Myth of the Lone Writer lives on, even in the minds of writers, and unlike our images of detectives or Texans, this image can destroy people. It destroys writers.
The truth is that there is no such thing as a Lone Writer.
-But, but! Some great writers of the past actually worked that way. Edgar Allan Poe, for instance. Right?
-No. Poe was a magazine editor. He spent his days reading other people’s writing.
-Well, Ernest Hemingway wrote at his stand-up desk alone in the woods.
-He was alone while he wrote, but he had a great editor advising him and keeping him on track: Maxwell Perkins of Scribner’s. Hemingway called Perkins his most trusted friend.
-Well, Thoreau, then.
-Thoreau’s mentor, author Ralph Waldo Emerson, opened his home to Thoreau and at times supported him financially. Walden Pond was on Emerson’s property. And even at Walden, Thoreau was not always alone: His book describes the many visitors he had while living there.
-Sylvia Plath wrote the Ariel poems alone at 4:00 a.m. while her children slept.
-Those poems didn’t come out of thin air. For seven years Plath was married to British poet Ted Hughes. All that time they were a team. They read and critiqued each other’s poems. They had shared interests. Plath typed Hughes’ manuscripts and got him published. Hughes gave Plath writing exercises when she felt blocked, and inspired her to write a voice play and children’s books. Each deeply influenced the other.
-Emily Dickinson never left home.
-She asked the biggest poetry editor in the U.S. to critique her poems and come visit her. (He did.) They corresponded for 25 years.
-Twain’s first novel, The Gilded Age, was a collaboration with a writer named Charles Dudley Warner. Look, why are we focusing so much on writers? Why don’t we focus on what they wrote? That's what's important.
-I think we want to figure out how they achieved what they did.
-One thing is sure: They didn’t do it being Lone Writers.Because Lone Writers hold themselves apart from the world, there are all kinds of writing and publishing opportunities they will never hear about. They forego the chance that someone will suggest, for their manuscript, a really great title, or a better ending. They will never meet someone who knows a friend-of-a-friend who can help the writer get a grant, or get on the “New and Notable” list. However, it will be bitterly clear to the aspiring Lone Writer that other writers benefit from such “connections.”
Literary history, like art history, is full of artists’ circles and groups and movements and hot spots, as on the Left Bank in Paris, or Harlem in the 1920s. Can it honestly be said that because Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston worked together, or because Van Gogh and Gaugin were friends, they sacrificed their originality and integrity? Artists of all kinds need a community. Friends. A circle. Colleagues. A support group. A network. Sponsors. Grantors. Accomplished writers have always had these things – or they figured out how to get them.
- Gertrude Stein had Alice B. Toklas and a weekly salon for artists and writers at her house.
- Virginia Woolf had Leonard Woolf and the Bloomsbury circle.
- T.S. Eliot had as his mentor Ezra Pound.
- Jack Kerouac had Neal Cassady and a bunch of poet friends.
- The Brontë sisters had each other.
How do I know all this? I used to be a Lone Writer.
In writing workshop this is often called "dialect," although technically the English language has only one dialect -- "Pidgin" English, now rare, spoken in the South Seas -- so what you really mean is "accent." But call it what ye will, matey, arrgh, a little goes a long way. Your model for doing it correct-like is Mark Twain. Mid-19th-century American "Southwestern humorists," Twain's forerunners, wrote comic novels about backwoods characters, their texts all misspelled to convey the sound of their speech. From the author George Washington Harris:
Hit am an orful thing, George, tu be a nat'ral born durn'd fool. Yu'se never 'sperienced hit pussonally, hev yu? Hits made pow'fully agin our famerly, an all owin tu dad. I orter bust my head open agin a bluff ove rocks, an' jis' wud du hit, ef I warnt a cussed coward.
It's fun to write, but the irregular spelling makes these texts viciously hard to read. Twain's genius was to let his characters use vernacular speech, but tone the author's artifice way down:
He kept me with him all the time, and I never got a chance to run off. We lived in that old cabin, and he always locked the door and put the key under his head nights. He had a gun which he had stole, I reckon, and we fished and hunted, and that was what we lived on. Every little while he locked me in and went down to the store, three miles, to the ferry, and traded fish and game for whisky, and fetched it home and got drunk and had a good time, and licked me.
These days we worry about being accused of stereotyping. So if your speaker or character has an accent and you absolutely must use it (knowing that it conveys the character's social class and locale), let the character use one or at most two instances of it. Your readers will "get it," keep it in their heads, and won't have to decipher misspellings. Example: "He wrote me from overseas. I have a box of his letters. I saved ever one." That character never again uses her "accent" throughout the whole novel. You can really trust your reader with this. Twain proved it.
They come to fiction writing imprinted with "flashback" although "flashback" is supposedly an advanced fiction-writing technique. Flashback in beginning fiction is the equivalent of the downcased "i" in beginning poetry. It is a borrowed form of originality, and its reasoning is that "Other people do it."
I always give students this lecture hoping they won't waste their efforts on what I call the Barstool or Bathtub story. That's when you tack your character on a barstool and have him do nothing but think back on sordid past events. Don't show him thinking about sordid events. At least show him living the sordid events. Don't put your main character in the bathtub and keep her there while you describe her reveries or resentments. The reader, who reads a story wanting to enter a world where people do things, realizes early on that your character isn't going to do anything but sit, and is disappointed.
Creative Nonfiction, the magazine, has begun to suck.
I’ve subscribed to the genre’s flagship journal, Creative Nonfiction (abbreviated “CNF”), for eight years, since issue #21, and recently it’s changed its format, logo, ad policy and placement, and (here’s my beef) quality. The journal version had a dullish cover; its new format’s cover is still dullish but sized for newsstand sales. Editor Lee Gutkind (“the godfather of creative nonfiction”) and staff used to send me a semiannual so filled with thrilling essays that reading it was a kind of debauchery, and I set it aside until I could fully savor it, as if it were a box of chocolates. And I worked for the day that I would believe I’d written something good enough to send there.
Subscribe to CNF and you will receive its anthologies from time to time. In Fact (2004), was a winner I assigned to a dozen of my classes, and The Best Creative Nonfiction (2007) showcased daringly different shapes for creative nonfiction and included essays culled from other litmags such as PMS (poemmemoirstory). The Best Creative Nonfiction Volume 2 I threw away. I’m tired of reading about how lost and lonely a man feels after paying for a blowjob. The Best Creative Nonfiction Volume 3 (2009) didn’t make a lot of sense, but one of its essays, “The Face of Seung Hui Cho,” about the perpetrator of the Virginia Tech massacre, was such a knockout that I sent its author, Wesley Yang, a fan letter.
The format change began with issue #39, and the current issue, #40, is the second of this type. CNF fills these big pages with white space, hideous illustrations, big “pull quotes,” and ads for MFA programs, but the body type is freakishly tiny (9 point? 8 point? at least one point smaller than the old type). There’s a sense of hollowness, and darn it, they’ll fill the hollow with fevered prose about breast cancer (by a famous name, but written as if she’s the first ever afflicted and the first to write about it), the winners of CNF’s daily tweet contest (#cnftweet), and, in the current issue, #40, themed “Animals,” with nothing-to-say narratives by writers with famous names describing their raccoon problems or their daughter’s pet mice, or their ditz of a spendthrift father; and a crossword puzzle. No lie! And maybe the worst: lyric essays, low on substance but done up in diva prose. That’s prose which requires the use of the word “thus.” Or Tinkerbelle prose, which requires the word “chrysalis.” Even Philip Lopate’s column, and the interview with Lauren Slater (who owes her fame to CNF) say nothing new. Thanks, Lauren, for telling the world that writers of creative nonfiction have to make stuff up. We don’t.
I’m never against change and maybe the new CNF is just getting its legs and will prosper. Hope so. Reading #39 and #40 I realized what I want: essays searing enough to shift my perceptions, esthetics, and boundaries, and my whole life. I want the “human news” the best essays deliver. I want the cutting edge of the expanding universe of creative nonfiction. I want to be spellbound by sheer excellence. I want creative nonfiction so real it makes me writhe. The editors know what I mean.