What My Students and I Learned This Semester in Creative Nonfiction Workshop

Big Thing #1: Neatening the messy truth never works. Nürnberg Prozess, Büro für Druckschriften-HerstellungStory: A sweet-hearted student wrote a moving essay about her difficulty with “being held” following her father’s death. She began her essay with an amusingly awkward forced hug—an assignment from her Family Sexuality class to practice “hugging until relaxed”—and concluded with her “surrender” into her friend’s arms at the hug’s end. Everyone loved the essay except for its conclusion.

In a conference with the student after workshop, I explained what I thought was the problem: the resolution just wasn’t as concrete and thus convincing as the wrenchingly funny opening scene. “Did this surrender really happen?” I asked. “It sounds like you’re lying.”

I didn’t really mean to accuse her of lying, only to convince her of that disparity in concreteness. Turns out, though, she had lied—not intentionally, of course, or even with intent to deceive but just to simplify the messiness of her struggle into a more satisfyingly redemptive conclusion. There’d been no surrender in that hug. After we both recovered from her surprising lie—as much to her as to me—she revised the piece to reveal what really happened, transforming a good essay into a publishable one.

Application: Tell the truth, don’t prettify it.

Big Thing #2: Contrary to the usual creative writing mandate to “Show, don’t tell,” most good writing requires both.

Story: Two students who particularly explored this truth were a chemistry major and a woman from a missionary family in Kenya. Both wrote from a knowledge-base completely foreign to us, thus running into a classic writerly problem which the missionary-kid characterized as “balancing explanation with story.” Explain too much, and you end up with a boring commentary on what happened; explain too little, and readers get lost. As the chemistry major said, “The audience cannot read your mind.”

Throughout the course, the students tugged at the delicate membrane between showing and telling, testing the delights and dangers of being too baffling or too, as I call it, “explainy.” By semester’s end, both consistently wowed us with their work, delighting us especially with a close-up of cosy Nairobi teatimes and a wacky book review/lab manual hybrid on the chemistry of poisons.

Application: To take us somewhere we’ve never been—which is, after all, every creative nonfiction writer’s job—you need to show AND tell, judiciously.

Big Thing #3: Scheduled, specific assignments not only motivate idea-less students but—counter-intuitively—often result in their most creative work.

Story: Several students struggled with motivation and, as one put it, “finding something to write about” for the course’s ten pieces. The first six assignments were pretty narrowly defined and came one right after the next; pretty much everyone found those fun, easy to write, and creatively empowering. Open assignments with longer deadlines were more challenging.

Application: If you’re stuck, give yourself an assignment. And a due date.

Embarrassed_Father_-_Vintage_family_PhotoBig Thing #4: Learning to write better teaches humility.

Story: Several students identified “taking criticism” as a struggle in the course of the semester. Here’s a reflection from one student’s revision account: “I was pretty judgmental of the big guy, so I tamed that part down. It felt mean when I looked at it again. I don’t think I lost anything at all, the scene wasn’t really about him anyway.” The student’s introspection and writerly focus say it all.

Application: Find yourself some honest readers, then pay attention to them. It’ll help your writing and your soul.

Malassezia_lipophilis_3_loresLittle Thing #1 (Big Thing #5): Clichés are like fungus: ubiquitous but strangely more embarrassing and disgusting than most other writerly ills.

Story: Student after student confessed to clichés. They hardly needed to, since I routinely point them out in class. Even their revisions had clichés—as do my own, unless I’m super vigilant. In class, I put quotation marks around their clichés in Google to convince them. The phrase “inextricably linked,” for example, gets “About 715,000 results (0.15 seconds).”

In a way, clichés are wonderful: someone’s once-creative, collectively approved wording. That said, clichés remain the bane of good writing—Oh no! That’s “About 3,160 results (0.51 seconds.)”

Application: Look again. And again. They’re there.

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Creative Nonfiction: Top Tips for Memorable Memoirs and MORE!

Photo Credit: Simon Howden / http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

My husband parks our silver F150 in a turnoff, which is really a patch of pounded land where folks have repeatedly turned their cars around after realizing the road goes nowhere. I imagine drug dealers, prostitutes, meth heads, and hormonal teens fighting for this spot on steamy summer nights, but for now, it’s just Charles and me. And my doubts.

He turns off the engine, and in the silence, we wait. We are surrounded by thousands of acres of farm fields, old growth hardwoods, and murky cattle ponds. The land is beautiful, and this type of setting would normally calm my nerves, but not this time. Not now, as I’m waiting at the end of the road for a stranger to arrive. My heart races and my breath quickens, as I realize, with sudden alarm, that we might be in danger.

“Should we have brought the gun?” A question I never thought I’d ask. Even though I despise America’s love affair with arsenals, in this position, I wish I was holding a gun.

“What gun?” He’s barely paying attention to me as he checks email on his phone.

“The one in the garage.”

Charles laughs. “It’s a 22.” With sarcasm he insinuates that if we find ourselves going head-to-head with a coyote or a tom cat it might come in handy. A hardened criminal? Not so much.

“Well what if it’s a setup. One of those Craigslist crimes?”

He doesn’t answer. Just keeps emailing.

11:49. No sign of the white Ford truck we are waiting for. “Of course it’s a white Ford,” I say. “Does anyone drive anything else around here?” I’m sure we’ve passed at least forty-seven white trucks since we left the interstate. Forty-six of them, Fords.

I open the door and get out to stretch my legs. The sounds of rubber tires and gasoline engines roar in the distance. Somewhere, within earshot, the newer highway ribbons through these fields, and I feel a little comfort thinking I can run toward the noise if it comes to that.

Then the engine noise comes closer, and the white truck we’ve been waiting for eases its way into a corner field and comes to a stop in front of a metal gate, a rusty chain locking the gate closed.

In the movies, headlights would have flashed, drums would have punched a dramatic rhythm, and a heavy pause would have filled the screen. Instead, Charles’s phone rings. “Yep, I see you. We’re headed that way now.”

I return to my passenger perch and close my door just in time, as Charles is already putting the truck in gear.

“You have the money?” he bites his nails, a habit he’s had all his life.

“Yes,” I check my purse, just to make sure. Cash only, I remember the stranger’s instructions. My pulse shoots flares.

And then it happens. We climb down from the bench seat and enter an isolated pasture with a man we’ve never met.

What’s this scene about? Do you suspect this couple is about to engage in some sort of illegal transaction? Are they in danger? Or is it just a creative twist on something as ordinary and realistic as buying a cow?

If you guessed a cow, you’re right. This is part of a creative non-fiction proposal that enabled me to become the 2012 recipient of the Mississippi Arts Commission’s Literary Arts Fellowship, an honor I am privileged to accept.

Whether writing about cooking or canines, remember non-fiction doesn’t have to be dry.

Try these tips:

  • At some point, let us know exactly where and when the event takes place, but use subtle hints to set the scene (music, tv, news, technology, etc., to hint at the era.)
  • Use sensory details – smells, sounds, sights (avoid writing “I see… I smell…I hear…”)
  • Involve more than one person in the scene…it’s not all about YOU. Describe something specific about the other characters. Use a few snips of dialog and let unique personalities shine.
  • Elicit an emotional response from the reader. How do you want them to FEEL when they read the story?
  • What is the main point of the story? What question do you want to answer? Try to leave the reader with one main thought, all while trying to show rather than tell.

When you write, what approach do you take to make the mundane magnificent? Share your thoughts about creative nonfiction and learn more about this interesting genre by visiting http://www.creativenonfiction.org/

Julie’s first novel, Into the Free, hits shelves February 1. Learn more at www.juliecantrell.com