Jan 17

Bored With Death

The litmag editor opens her mail. She's eager to see today's nonfiction submissions:

1. The family is at Grandma's hospital bedside. A wonderful lady when she was well, now she can't speak and looks awful. The machines are beeping. Then Grandma is dead. Everyone feels terrible.

2. The pet is the best friend and companion anyone could have, a fount of unconditional love and loyalty, just like a person, and did many cute or amazing things, but then he gets sick and dies and leaves the owner only terrible emptiness.

3. The longtime friend gets breast cancer or ALS or has a stroke and bravely fights it and dies.

4. The husband, in his 70s or 80s, dies. What a good man he was, taken before his time.

5. The wastrel uncle or brother, a smoker and drinker who was never there for the narrator, is dying. It's terrible, but the narrator thinks it's important to sit with him through his last days and coma and forgive him.

Say. . . It's possible to write a good family essay or memoir that's not about somebody's death. Professor John N. Morris advised me, about poetry (but I use it for everything), "When given a choice between writing about life and death, choose life. It's much more interesting."


1. Write about Grandma's most wonderful talent.
2. Write about why you became so emotionally attached to and dependent on an animal.
3. Write about the friendship in the days long before the friend got sick.
4. Write about the husband, keep the work in a file, and wait until you read about a call for an anthology about widowhood or bereavement.
5. Write about what the brother or uncle did in life. His waywardness will make better reading than the self-conscious narrator's inner struggle at his bedside.

Consider, in honor of those you've lost: Would you prefer that your author relative write about your death -- or write about what you did and accomplished while you were living?

Jan 06

Pumping Up Prose Style

At the last prose reading I attended, each piece was competently written in a funereal monotone that never varied or picked up its pace. Not a simile or metaphor anywhere; no sensations were described except those that came through eyes and ears; vast on talk and low on action. Very low-risk writing and deadly dull, like an electronic hum. And it was all very serious, so I know it was intended to be literary art.

Completely sterilized flatline prose, "strike out all the adjectives" prose, Ray Carver prose without Carver's timing or delicacy -- is too common. It seems to me as if the "personal style" we writers are all supposed to develop on our own won't happen anymore unless we are taught or encouraged to write memorable as well as competent prose. I wanted to say, "Hey, creative people,
  • try making up a simile to describe that "indescribable" thing!
  • Get your characters up from their tables and moving!
  • You don't have to give us every sniffle of every conversation! Paraphrase the dull stuff!
  • The other three of the five senses aren't illegal!
  • Convey a range of emotion!
  • Put in a subplot so we have two things to care about!
  • Lighten up just once, even if it's just the briefest mention of the bizarre or amusing!"
Nov 03

Adding Facts to Personal Essays and Memoirs

It should be obvious but sometimes isn't: Facts are basic to nonfiction writing. Even a personal essay or memoir relying mostly on the author's memories gains power by using "hard facts" from other sources: photos, reports, quotations, definitions, dates, and interviews. Maps, court records--facts are everywhere, and readers need them to fully enter the world of your essay. But surprisingly, writers of personal essays often don't think to mention what year they are recalling, what town they lived in, the names of their parents and siblings, the name of the rival school (Hamilton? Franklin? Something like that. Does it matter? In nonfiction, yes). They often neglect too even to describe themselves, as they were or as they are.

Some writers arrive at creative nonfiction thinking "creative" means "no research." (After those college research papers, what relief!) But even if you don't use all the facts you find, the ones you do use give your personal essay muscle and traction. Did "your father read books", or did the shelves he built in your basement overflow with his personal library of 200 Civil War biographies and histories? (Research the family photos! Open the old boxes!) Did "your family go to church," or did you and your mother and older brothers Allen and George take a slow-moving city bus every Sunday to the First Christian Church on Maple Street? (How far was it from home? How much was the bus fare? Interview your mother, or look those up.) Trying to recreate your reality in your nonfiction? As you revise, find and share with your readers the facts of who, what when, where and why.

Do it too for yourself, just to own your own facts. It feels like owning gems.
Aug 29

So You Want a BFA. . .

Young people considering writing careers sometimes ask about the BFA>MFA track and I tell them, "No! Anything but that!" And mean it. Biology! Classics! Business! Please, please use your undergraduate years to learn something besides creative writing! I know a New Yorker short-story writer who graduated from the Colorado School of Mines. The story that made him famous is about cavemen.

In my experience the best possible background if teenagers can't wait to see themselves in print before they're really ready is journalism. Journalism school teaches how to observe and write about something besides yourself. You learn to write hard news, features and profiles, all requiring fantastically different strategies and skills. You practice doing research, interpreting statistics and trends, doing interviews. I hope J-school still teaches ethics and accountability. It pushes you out on the street and tells you not to come back until you get and write the story.

That happens to be my own background. There wasn't a BFA in creative writing so I wanted to be an English major. My parents wanted me to learn a trade so I went to J-school and owe it everything. I was taught to write clearly and be responsible for what I wrote. Also, ultimately my work serves others, whether it's information or entertainment. All those apply to creative writing. I lived on what I learned in J-school while getting my MFA. BFA doesn't mean you learned anything about writing. Journalism means that you did. And you know the famous names who were journalists before they were novelists: Dreiser, Hemingway, and so on.

BFA>MFA>(and, oh no!) Ph.D in Creative Writing . . .and you'll still have to hand over your writing sample to answer, "Can you write?"
Jan 01

Not Compromising on Candor

Believing that my candor was compromised in the past few months I felt unable to write here or anywhere. I want to forget that whole period. It had nothing to do with writing except to choke it off. When that happens, creativity backs up and assumes monstrous forms: worry, sickening fear, stress, insomnia, lack of motivation, negativity; that's the result of no freedom of expression. There was a gorilla in the room and I learned that there are some gorillas I just can't ignore, and that if another one comes knocking I should never ever open the door even a crack.

After being freed from that compromise I completed a draft script of the "Giving Voice" poetry project and submitted it to the group which plans to perform it with me February 28 at the Mad Art Gallery in Soulard. I enjoyed giving the 20 poems different "settings" to enhance the message and impact of each. It was like placing gems in the appropriate jewelry settings. These are poems their authors favored that somehow never got published. I am waiting for feedback on the draft. I hope intensely for the group's approval and cooperation but if I can have only one of those it'd be cooperation.

Next, I got my five best poems out in the mail. They went to Prairie Schooner, which had encouraged me to send again. They now have a brand-new editor after the retirement of editor Hilda Raz after 30 or so years. The policy is still "no simultaneous submissions."

After that I wrote a barrage of short articles that I'd put off, and then had some realizations. One, there is always still time to be great. Two, there is no point in compromising any more. I've already exposed in writing everything I am, and it's easy to find and judge. Like Whitman said, "I contain multitudes." Deal with it. Three, there is no point in making gestures just to be able to say, "Well, I made a gesture." I will either have to foresee an outcome in reality, or it is not worth doing, like applying for jobs 1000 other people are applying for.
Jun 13

When Writers Are Describing YOU.

Teacher evaluations are hard to open and read because they are unanswerable. I can't say, "But--" or "If--"; it's over. There's no correcting, even of the praise ("What you liked a lot wasn't the main thing I was trying to teach you!"). Evaluations go into a semi-permanent file. A student evaluation somewhere says about me, "She wears cheap jewelry."

Even worse, some writer's creative nonfiction features a certain character: Let's say it's you. But unlike a student evaluator, the creative nonfiction writer doesn't judge you by even a vague set of standards; his or her view is totally subjective and piecemeal. The writer "characterizes" you, describing a few of your traits, and, oh God, quotes selected things they claim you SAID. Even if it's a flattering characterization, your gut reaction will be to cringe or criticize. Student wrote about me in a free-write: "Catherine is very organized." What could be wrong with that, you say? Well, she didn't add that I am also very beautiful! I don't believe that anyone who has ever been quoted in print thinks he or she has been quoted correctly. But there you are on paper, exposed to the eyes of strangers, and a mere pawn in the writer's world.

So, yes, real people will feel annoyed and upset when they read what you wrote about them--even if what you wrote was nice. What you wrote won't ever match what they'd write about themselves, if they could; but they can't. Your job as a nonfiction writer: Honesty. And maybe for the sake of peace not presenting your "characters" with a gift-wrapped copy of what you wrote. If they find it themselves they can always say that you didn't know any better.
Apr 19

Literary Lies

. . . . Honesty is power. We know this because half our upbringing is learning how and when to put a lid on it. Our culture idealizes honesty, but most of our institutions and social customs are not built on it; instead, they are built to withstand its force. In place of speaking honestly, we are taught to use honesty’s back roads: gossip, kidding, sarcasm, exposé. “Tell us what you really think” is usually only said, these days, as a way to shut you up.

. . .Intimate essays and memoirs and poems serve as antidotes to daily low-grade mandatory dishonesty. My motives for writing intimately, besides the pleasure of telling my version of events, include exploring what happened and why, finding excuses for myself, getting even, and nailing hypocrisy—and I am as honor-bound to nail my own as I am to nail someone else’s. It’s not just a matter of honor, either. If I know I did wrong and in my writing I don’t admit to it, my writing will lack the voltage of honesty.

The personal essay or the memoir provides a portal through which the reader may pay a visit to himself, his real self, the one who doesn’t have to dissemble or lie. Just as an athlete has a moral obligation to not use performance enhancers, the writer of first-person nonfiction is obliged to present readers with an honest record of human experience, not only because it is human but also because honesty itself needs preserving.

On my computer I have stuck a little note: “I have a doctor’s excuse to tell the truth.”

Hidden in that note is a piece of folk wisdom: that the truth is medicinal, that it cures. We believe this so fervently that when we hear a memoirist has lied, we feel outraged, as if we had been given poison instead of medicine. . . .

-Catherine Rankovic, excerpt from St. Louis Magazine essay, Dec. 2006
Feb 24

Creative Nonfiction Blues

Creative Nonfiction, the magazine, has begun to suck.

I’ve subscribed to the genre’s flagship journal, Creative Nonfiction (abbreviated “CNF”), for eight years, since issue #21, and recently it’s changed its format, logo, ad policy and placement, and (here’s my beef) quality. The journal version had a dullish cover; its new format’s cover is still dullish but sized for newsstand sales. Editor Lee Gutkind (“the godfather of creative nonfiction”) and staff used to send me a semiannual so filled with thrilling essays that reading it was a kind of debauchery, and I set it aside until I could fully savor it, as if it were a box of chocolates. And I worked for the day that I would believe I’d written something good enough to send there.crnonfictionblues

Subscribe to CNF and you will receive its anthologies from time to time. In Fact (2004), was a winner I assigned to a dozen of my classes, and The Best Creative Nonfiction (2007) showcased daringly different shapes for creative nonfiction and included essays culled from other litmags such as PMS (poemmemoirstory). The Best Creative Nonfiction Volume 2 I threw away. I’m tired of reading about how lost and lonely a man feels after paying for a blowjob. The Best Creative Nonfiction Volume 3 (2009) didn’t make a lot of sense, but one of its essays, “The Face of Seung Hui Cho,” about the perpetrator of the Virginia Tech massacre, was such a knockout that I sent its author, Wesley Yang, a fan letter.

The format change began with issue #39, and the current issue, #40, is the second of this type. CNF fills these big pages with white space, hideous illustrations, big “pull quotes,” and ads for MFA programs, but the body type is freakishly tiny (9 point? 8 point? at least one point smaller than the old type). There’s a sense of hollowness, and darn it, they’ll fill the hollow with fevered prose about breast cancer (by a famous name, but written as if she’s the first ever afflicted and the first to write about it), the winners of CNF’s daily tweet contest (#cnftweet), and, in the current issue, #40, themed “Animals,” with nothing-to-say narratives by writers with famous names describing their raccoon problems or their daughter’s pet mice, or their ditz of a spendthrift father; and a crossword puzzle. No lie! And maybe the worst: lyric essays, low on substance but done up in diva prose. That’s prose which requires the use of the word “thus.” Or Tinkerbelle prose, which requires the word “chrysalis.” Even Philip Lopate’s column, and the interview with Lauren Slater (who owes her fame to CNF) say nothing new. Thanks, Lauren, for telling the world that writers of creative nonfiction have to make stuff up. We don’t.

I’m never against change and maybe the new CNF is just getting its legs and will prosper. Hope so. Reading #39 and #40 I realized what I want: essays searing enough to shift my perceptions, esthetics, and boundaries, and my whole life. I want the “human news” the best essays deliver. I want the cutting edge of the expanding universe of creative nonfiction. I want to be spellbound by sheer excellence. I want creative nonfiction so real it makes me writhe. The editors know what I mean.

Jan 22

The Future of Writing: Read Locally

The latest issue of Creative Nonfiction, #31, is about the Future of Writing.

In the future, says one of the essayists, Astro Teller, huge omnimedia publishers will publish and mass-market seven books a year. People will buy and read them. But readers will be far wiser about the string-pulling and adthink that goes on behind those books. They will want to do a new thing: seek writing directly from the writer, guaranteed no middleman -- the Real Thing, the Genuine Item, pure and honest. It will be "in" to "read locally."

Writers will still want to write and sell one of those seven big bestselling books. There will be more writers, which means more competition. But you won't be looking for an audience; the audience will look for you. Books will rise to the top by choice of the readership, not the publishers. Local will be cool. And with no middleman, you will get 100 percent, not 10 or 15 percent, of what your writing earns.