The “I” and the Eye in Nonfiction

IMG_3200.jpgI am emerging from a journey through a long tunnel. Five years long. A nonfiction tunnel that has involved two gut-and-rewrite revisions, a lot of ruminating on structure, story, the passage of time, and thesis–yes, thesis! Of which I can and will write more later, closer to the book’s publication next year.

What I can say now is that it’s historical nonfiction, sweeping in scope, and I am exhausted from writing it, but in the best way. I have learned more than I could have imagined when the first glimmers of this project showed up on my horizon.

Jan Priddy‘s post on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog sums up the creative part of creative nonfiction tidily. Priddy says:

The creativity is in the telling, not the story.

Which takes me back to Draft 1. It was earnest, packed with facts, burdened and burdensome in its effect. My editor asked me where I was in the draft? Who, me? I needed to be there. Yes. I did. I spent the next year or so trying to find myself in the narrative. I didn’t have to be the expert in the content. That was not my role. What I needed to own was the voice, the viewpoint. In other words, I needed to employ my fiction writer’s soul to find the story in the history I wanted to bring to the page.

Here’s what Jan Priddy says about that:

Beyond reporting, we locate ourselves in space, notice how the wind blows, push through dream and beyond to possibility. Observed closely, we may recognize our identity among our fellows and among that greater reality of nature, the life we have in common, the painful memory that triggers compassion, that joy and sorrow and lived truth. The writer’s experience can be startling.

And it was. By Version 2, I’d shed quite a few facts, and around 100 pages. By Version 3, I was starting to craft a thesis, a point to it all. I’d learned what it was the work was all about, what I wanted to say that no one else had said before in quite that way. I was figuring out how to bring to the page the electric charge that had wanted me to write this in the first place.

Next, fold in research to find provenance and get permission to reprint photographs for the project. In that round, I found a whole new way to look at the work. The final manuscript began to coalesce around archival and contemporary photographs, maps, and a single brilliant cartoon. I learned the language of rights and permissions, and I began to learn how photographers on two continents and in two different decades  saw the events of their time and chose to document them.

As Priddy puts it, creative nonfiction “may alter our recognition of ourselves in the world beyond.” I hope my book will do that for readers, as I know that writing it has done for me.

 

The Tenderness of a New Draft

I’ve often wondered at my ambivalence about giving new work to someone else to read. I mean, I’ve done this for years. I do want to know what’s wrong with my draft. I know there’s always something wrong. I know I don’t have the judgment to see it yet. But sometimes, especially with something that’s really new and just developing, I really just want to be acknowledged. Let’s face it. I just want to be told what’s right.

So this post on Brevity’s nonfiction blog really spoke to me.  L. Roger Owens frames the whole complicated business of asking for feedback in terms that finally made sense. He begins with an anecdote about his 8-year-old daughter:

“You’re a writer, Dad,” she said. “You can give me some pointers, if you want.” In other words: Here, Dad, take the bait. This could be the last time I ever ask for your feedback.

How easy it would have been for me to declaim on showing versus telling, the importance of eliminating adverbs, writing with specific details (“Did he fall out of a tree or was it an oak?”). And then end my craft talk with a kicker-quote by Annie Dillard or Natalie Goldberg.

But I didn’t.

He goes on to talk about how to think through what you need at different times when you might ask for feedback, so you don’t need to end up shutting down your inner child. Instead, you just learn to shield her tactically.

I’ve discovered there is an art to asking for feedback, and if you learn it, you can get the kind of feedback you need, when you need it.

It’s good to remember that the self who makes me long for praise is the very one whose boundless energy throws up the best ideas for me in the first place. I don’t need to outgrow her, just channel her energy where it serves me best, and acknowledge that sometimes we all just need a little praise.

Welcome Aboard the Spaceship: More on Ursula K. Le Guin

I remember when I spent a couple of weeks in a writing  residency at a cottage on the beautiful grounds of the Hedgebrook Foundation. The notebook on the table contained entries from writers who had stayed there before me. On one page, Ursula Le Guin had drawn a little lizard and commented on its presence, signing the entry, UKL. I was in awe of who had been there before me, and yet, somehow, I felt invited to the great party of writing and life. I felt as if I’d been allowed to shape the two in my own way.

Tributes are pouring in now, some formal and respectful, others more personal, remembering moments and insights and connections, human to writer, with no difference between the two.

Here’s one on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. Excerpt:

Ursula K. Le Guin helps me know where I am.

She is not gone.

And this beautiful account of friendship and of a child’s glimmering insights from William Alexander. Excerpt:

Ursula died at the age of eighty-eight–a multiple of eleven. I wish she could have waited for ninety-nine instead.

She collaborated a few times with my youngest daughter Iris. Together they told stories about monkeys and cats.

And that in turn reminded me of the time I read Catwings to my son back when he was five. We read it many times. We read the sequels. The very notion of cats with wings gave rise unfailingly to delighted laughter and to the anxious turning of pages.IMG_2220IMG_2219 2

And then there was wonderful Alexander, lost and treed, cold and terrified by a wandering owl, who was then found by a stranger and discovered an entire family of most unusual cats.

Of course, back when I read these out loud, over and over again, I had no idea that many years later I would meet a wonderful Alexander who was a friend of Ursula’s. There’s that invitation again, a kind of magic that we ought to make the effort to pass along.