Category Archives: essays

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.

SheWrites: Women Writers Support Women Writers

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We writers need the camaraderie of other writers for commiseration and for our own growth. SheWrites has given me that.

When landing upon SheWrites a few months ago I didn’t take it seriously. “What am I going to do with a bunch of whiny women who want to publish in Good Housekeeping? How can I learn from women who write poetry about puppy dogs?” Nonetheless, I joined a few groups within the site and sat patiently. The emails started trickling in. More and more of them had links to, questions about, or discussions starting on topics that related directly to my own needs. I was thrilled! These were not women lollygagging in their writing. These were women who could write better than I and who were published better than I.

 

SheWrites Isn't Grrrrzly or Girly

In November came National Novel Writing Month. Since I’m not a fiction writer, I might have shrugged it off, too. But these women were sending a flurry of activity to SheWrites. Their energy and enthusiasm compelled me to participate, too. I altered the rules of the one-month writing challenge to suit my nonfiction needs, and noticed that poets, journalists, and professors were also doing that.  The experience garnered me new readers for critiques, new friends, and heaps of information about publications of my interest.

 

 

Here are some of the topics we discuss:

  • informative, graduate level (but only sometimes academic) reads about the writing process
  • news about members’ recent publications and acceptances
  • daily reports of our goals
  • warnings and advice about how to deal with agents, editors, and publishers
  • the submission process
  • preparing books for agents and/or publishers
  • epublishing

The diversity of the membership helped me to easily find writers with similar experience and/or professional drive. It’s not just a site like Facebook for Writers; it’s chockablock full of articles and essays and webinars by professionals in all realms of the writing industry. There are also classes.

What is this thing?

SheWrites isn’t a bunch of angry grrrrlss. Nor is it a pack of flufftarts or catty women who hoard their contacts to themselves. It’s everything, every woman. This group of women understands that the road to success is paved with sharing and supporting. This is evidently only what the most professional writers understand (from my 15 years of experience). It’s networking. It’s a font of wisdom from 15,000 members in 30 countries.

Kamy Wicoff started it as part of Salon for Women Writers, which has branches in the US and England. Find out more about the impressive story here.

 

Submission Mission Is Busy!

Consider how you can benefit from some of these groups:

The Submission Mission (we have monthly online chats)

Essay Writing  (we discuss the craft and techniques within writing essays and share news on publications that are paying or accepting specific sub-genres or even having contests)

Global Writers (we have just commenced monthly chats, and I’ll be leading January’s)

Virtual Critique Group (where we even discuss critiques of query letters)

 

Some of my personal benefits

Another element of the site I like is the ability to publicize yourself and help support others who need some confidence with it. My Twitter followers, blog subscribers, and professional Facebook connections has jumped because of SheWrites connections. I’ve discovered how to build an author’s platform and how to write better query letters. I’ve earned a reviewing position for which I can review new and undiscovered literary journals. I’ve jumped into the gorgeous ocean of online literature, much to the relief of my sometimes Luddite mind.

The site’s updated multiple times daily, not just by member activity but by an effective and efficient administrative staff. It’s easy to navigate, though there is an unending amount of information on it, so start small. It’ll definitely grow on you! It’s free. You don’t have to feel bad if you don’t pay it a visit for a few days. Have emails sent to your Inbox and weed through them to find what appeals to you. Then join the conversation immediately.

In the end SheWrites has made me a more productive, more effective, more connected, and better read writer. That’s especially important to me as I transition from journalist to literary writer. For it I am thankful.