Monthly Archives: December 2011

Writing Privacy into Nonfiction

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Kaylene Johnson’s “Peering at Privacy in Creative Nonfiction provides thoughtful fodder for us writers of memoir, essays, CNF. It’s a critical, intellectual though not academic consideration of what to include and what to exclude in these very personal pieces we write. Some people, upon hearing this, may think it obvious. Others might absorb every word of it like a stray cat at a tin of tuna. Me? Her essay gave me cause to think of various ways privacy has affected the essays I’ve already published, though didn’t really compel me to contemplate my future writing. Warning to tender writers: Johnson’s essay could very well scare you into second guessing yourself.

Let me explain.

“For the creative nonfiction writer, perhaps no decision is more pressing than what to reveal and what to leave unsaid,” Johnson writes in The Writer’s Chronicle, the monthly magazine of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. “Exposing one’s self invariably involves revealing the lives of others; one’s story is inextricably linked to the stories of other people.”

For me, an essay is a nonfiction, factual, non-mystical, non-sappy attempt to take readers on a journey. My preference is to incorporate elements of fiction so that it strings the reader along and doesn’t focus on me, the writer, but the concept or experience I’m sharing. The essay or memoir isn’t about me, per se, even if it is occasionally in first person. What’s important is the dialectic the piece elicits.

One writer, Johnson claims, “asks friends, both before writing about them and before sending the essays to publishers, for their permission. In some cases friends said yes to begin with but later decided to remain anonymous.” Really? This isn’t journalism or a biography. I’m an essayist, who, like Joan Didion or David Foster Wallace, turns common icons on their side, attempting to understand them from a different angle. I do not think believe in the necessity of asking permission from everyone who might make an appearance in my essays. That’s not to say that I condone libeling anyone or even making them simply feel uncomfortable. It will happen, though.

On the other hand, but not necessarily conversely, the need for fictional techniques and clever writing does sometimes arise. For instance, in the first essay I published, “In a Sentimental Mood”, the subject of my essay was jazz. I’d just witnessed renowned jazz bassist Ray Brown’s penultimate performance, and consequently had an epiphany about the music. One person helped me see the world of jazz backstage and on tour. That person I did protect. He was sensitive and didn’t know what the ramifications could be if I used his name. I therefore avoided it. His name wasn’t an imperative piece of information because the story wasn’t about him. He was easy to disguise as a deus ex machina, the gasoline in my vehicle tour through jazz. He read the piece during its composition and upon publication. He appreciated my sensitivity to his needs and was happy with the outcome; though had he not wanted me to write about him, he’d have to be written quite differently. Rest assured, however, he would have been in the essay.

As essayists, memoirists, CNF writers, we have the options to include fictional techniques that help us get avert certain problems.

“In these cases, (the writer), like many authors facing the same dilemma, used literary techniques to protect people’s privacy. He changed the details or used composite characters to conceal their identities,” Johnson writes.

 

More on privacy in CNF later.

A Second Look at Damned: Reading into Chuck Palahniuk

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Some writing techniques of Chuck Palahniuk’s latest novel seemed rushed, maybe even lazy, to me. As mentioned in a previous post, Palahniuk intrigues me. Damned, which I just finished, marks the seventh title of his that I’ve read. It’s also the one about which I’ve been most critical.

The end faltered. The structure all but disintegrated and often looked like a crutch. The characters lacked dynamicism.

Each chapter begins with a nod to author Judy Blume. “Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison.” It appeared humorous at first until I rethought it: Blume’s market is generally younger than the protagonist’s age, 13. (Bad form on research, Chuck.) These openings are established like prayers or letters. I think they’re set up as a preface of the coming chapter. After two chapters the “Are you there” dulls of repetition. Finally they appear as unnecessary; They add nothing to the chapter. They have, in fact, strangled the entire structure of the book, emphasizing their seemingly rushed structure. For a better time spent reading loosely connected chapters I’d read David Rakoff’s essay collections Half Empty or Fraud.

 

With fewer than 100 pages remaining in the 247-page novel, I finally stopped to ponder continuing with the butchered book. I opted to do so. How would the author end his version of Dante’s Inferno?

I’m glad I did. I love that some authors today allow books “to be continued”, this one included. Given Palahniuk’s obvious play on The Inferno, the loose ends he didn’t tie up, and learning that Madison’s been granted permission to live instead in Heaven (possibly even be alive again), Part II may just be a tilted mirror of Dante’s Paradiso.

One more negative note, Chuck overwrote the foreshadowing to the protagonist’s death scene. Heavy-handedness damped the effect of Madison’s actual death.

Some positives: I’m curious what will become of the existential crisis our protagonist has been cursed with.
What a hilarious folly that Madison might indeed end up like her detestable famous-actor mother in Part II.
How could you not be intrigued by an author whose setting includes such places as the Swamp of Partial-birth Abortions, Great Ocean of Wasted Sperm, or Dandruff Desert?

In addition, and in true Chuck Palahniuk writing style, there were delightful lines and scenes. These are sometimes what make a Palaniuk title last so long in the psyche. Here were some of my favorites:
“Unpleasant as death might seem, the upside is that you only suffer it once…. You won’t be asked to perform an encore. Unless, just possibly, you’re a Hindu.”
“In Hell, it’s our attachments to a fixed identity that torture us.”
Scene: two characters performing cunnilingus on a demonic giantess– sounds, smells, sights, and all.

Enjoy reading, but don’t expect literary genius. As I said in my previous Chuck post, I don’t consider him literary, but he is a bloody damned good writer. Would I reread Damned? No. I would, however, recommend Chuck’s other titles. He’s too damned tasty and twisted, rhythmic and raunchy to miss.

LIVESTRONG’s Sustainable Architecture

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Lance Armstrong’s LIVESTRONG foundation is already a name aligned with sustainability of the body, but its new headquarters in Austin, Texas, has also made headway in the world of sustainable design and building— and finance. The outfit leased corporate office space for 10 years already; it was, therefore, time to invest in its own fiscal future by making its own space. San Antonio, Texas-based Lake|Plato Architects and the Austin, Texas-based Bommarito Group helped achieve that vision by designing the project. Together they transformed a 1950’s warehouse in the urban revitalization district of East Austin into a high contemporary building used by staff, researchers, and patients.

The highly contemporary interior space is illuminated by natural light. Some offices like open-concept boxes of wood, which was made by re-milling the building’s roof decking. Existent beams were reused for enhanced interior architecture aesthetics. The former building’s concrete was also reused as retaining walls, garden elements, and walkways. The reused or repurposed materials help to ground the otherwise steely appearance.

The headquarters also includes meeting rooms, dining facilities, an in-house gymnasium,

and an open-air courtyard for its 88 employees. Expansion plans are already under consideration as the LIVESTRONG itself grows. It is currently some 30,000 square feet under one building.

“This warehouse is being transformed to meet the entire corporate needs which include all offices and functions relating to an office and an expansion plan for a Patient Navigation Area,” according to The Bommarito Group’s web site. “This space will first navigate in diagnoses but more important, support a person through the heeling process once diagnosed with cancer.”

The project has earned many awards, including a listing among the AIA COTE (Committee on the Environment) Top Ten Green Projects this year. It is also a LEED Gold-certified building.