“So Dennis, what did you learn in school today?” Episode 2

Two Classes Down

Creative writing class-fine arts center (40269...

“Praise De Lawd!”

The journey continues.  I have just completed the 2nd course of my Certificate  in Creative Writing program: Introduction to Creative Nonfiction, or CNF if you please.

Much praise goes out to the instructor.  I think she did an excellent job, especially in dealing with my whining about the nature of the stories we had to read. I originally was going rate the course an A-, with points taken off for the nature of the stories.  Honestly, some of them were just plain depressing. Visits to graveyards.  Abortions.  Observations on an organ donor’s dead body being kept “alive” while prepping the parts for removal. Unwanted pregnancies. Loved ones dying of cancer.  A teen swimmer drowning. Loved ones dying of Aids. I think it was the third class where I asked her if it was ok if we just read essays by Poe for the rest of the course.

Now I admit, I am unfair here, because I penalized the course for  the negative.  I guess that’s because it seemed like I was reading one “downer” story after another.  Did anybody live happily ever after?    At first I felt  that the ten percent “bummer”  stories stole something from the total enjoyment, and that bothered me.  No A+ from my red pencil. I’m a predominantly positive person, so reading those stories really left me feeling kind of bummed out.  However, I also gained some knowledge about this form of writing, and gained a bit more knowledge of the writing style that’s closer to my heart  as well… as undeveloped as my style  is!  Also, my instructor correctly pointed me to look beyond the content and detect the structure.  But an even more compelling reason to give it my full A rating is that it’s totally unfair and absolutely wrong of me to brush off someone else’s pain and sadness.  This genre contains stories that are open wounds laid out for public consumption, and the authors should at least get an encouraging pat on the back.  Key word here: nonfiction.  Real pain.  Real suffering.  Real impact on the authors’ life.  Life is not always happily ever after.

On the other hand, the 90% was GREAT!!!  My concentration is in Creative Nonfiction Writing.  So, exactly what is this form of writing?  Lots of definitions given by lots of writers and critics, often in lengthy, no make that very lengthy  discourse.  Allow me to give my version, in shorter form.

“My Humble Attempt to Define Creative Nonfiction”

First look at the “nonfiction” part of the name.  It’s exactly what it means.  It’s based on something that is or was real… it really happened, it really existed, you really were scared by this, you really were scarred by this.  If I’m writing a memoir or a personal essay it’s a real event from my life.  Note: it’s just centered on one event, one experience, one memory.   Creative Nonfiction is not an autobiography, it’s examining one event, a slice of one’s life, and in particular a life-changing/affecting moment.  The concept is couched in “self-discovery” – I take you, the reader, along with me on my personal journey of discovery about this story, and if we end up in a different frame of mind or a different place from where we started, fine!  I should write to make you enjoy the ride.

The “Nonfiction” Part:  Discovering You Through An Event, or Person, in Your Life

The stories I’ve read covered the gamut of topics in this genre: stories of the time spent in a clinic with a loved one dying of cancer.  Reminiscing about going for the first time to your ancestral German city with your Jewish father, who fled there as a child as Hitler began his insanity, and discovering how it shaped your father and subsequently your relationship with him.  Growing up in a Puerto Rican community in New York, condensed into a simple story of watching an old home movie of a family party, remembering the faces there and then spinning out to episodes about each member, and then spinning back into the party with the sights and sound and smells of the meals and the music and joy in that gathering.  Taking your one year old son hiking up to a mountaintop in a baby backpack, moving through the clouds and fog, and sharing the joy in that experience.

The “Creative” Part:  Painting Word Pictures, Evoking Feelings With Words

The story, “Cloud Crossing” by Scott Russell Sanders, who wrote the story of taking his one year old son up to the mountains, contains one of the best lines I’ve ever read that paints a picture and an emotion with words.

Once I carried Eva outside, in the first spring of her life, and a gust of wind caught her full in the face.  She blinked, and then gazed at the invisible breath as if it were a flight of angels streaming past. Holding her in the crook of my arm that day, I rediscovered wind.”

That, to me, is where the “Creative” part comes in.  The incident, the feeling, really happened.  The creativity is in the telling!  Much classroom discussion on using the words to color:  do you stay inside the lines, or can you go outside them?  After all it’s your story!

The “Nonfiction” Part:  Discovering Others Through You

I mentioned the memoir and personal essay as sub genres of CNF, but they are also joined by two others: what’s called Literary Journalism and Cultural Criticism.  Once again, based on  fact here, in this case it’s not directly about you, but how you see something as you’re involved in it.  The subject is not you, directly.  It’s about a specific public event, a person or a group of people, an occurrence of public interest, a common mood…you get the picture. Think of a story written, by you,  about a 9/11 survivor’s first return to Ground Zero.   That moment should be 75% of your story.  The remaining words are spun out of that moment to cover other things that touch upon the  event (how was America before and after 9/11, how did that person fit into that, etc.)  but they should spin back to that moment.  You either write about the escape from the disaster, or you write about the return to the scene, but only one of these two is the star of the story.  In my mind, if you write about the escape it’s a “report.”  The return is a story. This is the type of writing that appeals to me the most.

Now, This is What I’m Talking About!

Gay Talese has been dubbed the father of this new form of literature, and his article for Esquire Magazine “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” has been cited as the definitive example of CNF writing in just about every thing I read or researched in this course.  It has all of the elements I’ve described.  It’s not a biography about Sinatra, it’s an essay, a profile if you will, of him.  From the introduction in Esquire Magazine:

In the winter of 7965, writer Gay Talese arrived in LosAngeles with an assignment from Esquire to profile Frank Sinatra. The legendary singer was approaching fifty, under the weather, out of softs, and unwilling to be interviewed. So Talese remained in L.A., hoping Sinatra might recover and reconsider, and he began talking to many of the people around Sinatra — his friends, his associates,his family, his countless hangers-on– and observing the man himself wherever he could. The result, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” ran in April 1966 and becameone of the most celebrated magazine sfories ever published, a pioneering example of what came to be called New Journalism– a work of rigorously faithful fact enlivened with the kind of vivid storytelling that had previously been reserved for fiction. The piece conjures a deeply rich portrait of one of the era’s most guarded figures and tells a larger story about entertainment, celebrity, and America itself.

It’s a damn good article that I thoroughly enjoyed  reading and writing my final class essay about, due in no small part to my interest in the “Rat Pack” already in place.  Then we also read another Talese piece, “High Notes.”  In this one he profiles Tony Bennett  through  observing him in a recording session with Lady Gaga.  That’s right, Lady Gaga.  Talese runs with the stars!  That ain’t a bad way to make a living!  Seriously though, it’s good writing.  It’s detailed, and he goes to great lengths to paint the scene.  You see what he sees.  He describes mannerisms, expressions, clothes, people, how they look, how they act.  Sinatra pulls out a “thick, but clean” wad of bills, and then calmly proceeds to lose six hundred dollars at blackjack.  Notice this difference: I simply said Sinatra calmly lost six hundred dollars.  Talese breaks it down…it was lost over several bets, and Talese details  eachbet, taking you a little deeper into the event.  That’s how I’d like to write.Writer Gay Talese at the Strand Bookstore, New...

So at this time I want to grow up to be like Talese.  I asked my instructor if she can assign me to write a profile on Beyonce and Jay-Z, and I can get to hang  around with them.  One of my classmates pointed out the potential problem with Jay-Z coming downstairs in the middle of the night to get something out of the fridge, and there I  am sitting on the couch jotting down whether he’s wearing Sean Jean label pajamas or his own label, and also asking him what Beyonce’s wearing in bed ’cause that’s all part of  the profile too, you see.

“You can’t call security on me!  I’m writing an essay on ya’ll for my homework!”  he shouted as a  very disturbed Jay-Z activated the alarm system.

Finally, Remember:  Nonfiction = THE TRUTH

While Talese represents the pinnacle of Creative Nonfiction, there exists the Ultimate Bad Example.  Does a  memoir titled “A Million Little Pieces” by James Frey ring a bell?  The name Oprah Winfrey familiar?  Yep, he’s the guy that was busted for falsely claiming his material was a true story.  It’s either a memoir (truth) or it’s fiction, and unfortunately it was promoted as the former.  From what I’ve learned, assuming I learned it correctly, the CNF writers and critics are still doing some serious debating on the structure of the genre, particularly  in the area of how memory affects truth.  You can remember your  grandfather telling you about his first prom, but can you  remember the words verbatim, or just the gist of them?  Is it important to remember what he said, and not worry about what he was wearing?  Maybe it matters if you want to convey  his  being a sharp dresser, but if you can’t remember that detail should it stop you?  That’s the debate that’s left, as far as I can tell.  Just don’t make it up  it if he NEVER talked to you about his first prom. Other than that I hope I hope I’ve succeeded in sharing what I’ve learned.

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