ENG 162 Fall 2013

ENG 162 at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor ME, taught by John A. (Don't ever, ever ask!) Goldfine johngoldfine@gmail.com

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Week 6 Theme: Place

Week Six Theme-- place:

Instructions: On your own blog, write a piece which uses the ideas in this lecture.

Ancient folk thought places had their own 'genius'--a spirit watching over and protecting a pasture, a woods glade, a cliff, a swamp. Some of those spirits were benign, some a little more troublesome.

You've worked with stories, people, dialogue. This week you're going to focus on creating a scene, a physical place.

To avoid: a million adjectives. To consider: populate the scene with your own thoughts. Goal: a sense of place.

My books are alphabetized by author. I pull down the first one: "In The Belly of the Beast' by Jack Henry Abbott. I open the book at random--and here's a description of a prison strip-cell:

"It is a big square concrete box. The cell has nothing on the walls except for a single solid-steel door at the entrance. The ceiling is vaulted about fifteen feet above the floor and there is a bare lightbulb that stays lit, day and night.

In fact, there is no way to discern the days and nights in the cell except by counting the times you are served your food through a slot in the door. How do you connect this with what you have done to be placed there?

The floor inclines from the walls inward to the center of the cell. It inclines gradually, like the bottom of a sink. A toilet bowl is more accurate. Then, in the center of the floor is a hole about two incles in diameter. It is flush with the concrete floor, as flush as a hole on a golf course. At first, its purpose mystifies you.Stains of urine and fecal matter radiate outward from the hole to within a foot or so from the walls. The stench is ever-present.There is no bed-rack or bunk.

There is nothing but the smell of shit and piss, and the glare of the light--out of reach--which is never extinguished.The light is present even when you close your eyes. It penetrates the eyelids and enters your visual sensations in a grayish-white glow, so that you cannot rest your eyes. It throbs always in your mind.

Usually you are given nothing to wear but a pair of undershorts, and if you are lucky, you will receive a sleeping mat and a bedsheet.At first you move gingerly about the cell because of the body wastes of prisoners who preceded you. You spend much of your time in the first long days squatting with your back defensively against a wall--squatting on the outskirts of the filth on the floor which radiates from the hole. Staring into it. If it were desolation you were facing as you stare off in your cell, it would probably inspire you in some small way. Poets have sung songs about scenes of desolation.But what faces you...."

And on Jack Henry Abbott goes. Focusing an immense amount of attention on a scene which is stripped of all the things that people usually focus on when they describe scenes. How does he do it? What's the trick?

Very plain writing. Very precise. Very detailed. Removal of himself from the scene while, paradoxically, creating a powerful authorial mind. And, desire, desire to render a scene not from the outside in, but from the inside out....

If Jack Henry is a little too much to take as a model, try this:

There's no story, no dialogue, no action, not even direct description of the people involved--and yet, sort of by ricochet and indirection, it all comes out. Notice also that for the description of the orchard to fully work, for us to understand his woe, he does more than describe--we get an Aquafina bottle, a cash register tape, and so on.

I'm just saying a description of place can cover a lot more territory than you might imagine.

Try this for a last example:

"After a bout of disabling cramps on the bathroom floor I carefully hobble down the stairs and collapse onto the couch into a fetal postion. When the cat is ungraciously booted out of the way, Bill's voice cuts through the mind numbing discomfort, "you don't look so good, should I take you to the hospital?"

"Not unless you want to carry me."

"That seals it, get up... if you can."

Once there it becomes evident that Bill is only here for comedic amusement. He sits through the check-in process with wide-eyed wonderment, chit chatting with the nurses, unfamiliarly exploring the process from one nurse to another, waiting room to triage to waiting room and down the winding overwhelmingly white neon lit hallway to the examination room. Bill, being that aggravating type of guy who swaggers out of a life threatening flu epidemic with a case of the sniffles, feels the need to point out all of the things I don't notice anymore; the nurses' purple scrubs and booties that look like shower caps over their shoes, supply carts stocked with blood sample vials, baby sized stretchers on the walls, wheelchairs and cots followed by rolling IV stands. Bill's disposition toward hospitals is that of childlike fascination without the fear. To me this place inspires an unsettling sense of relinquishing all autonomy over one's most valuable and inarguablely true possession, my body, in the most humiliating of manners. One's ass hanging out of her johnny doesn't command an exorbitant amount of confidence. If the examination room had possessed windows, my dignity would have flown out of one at machIII at the words, "please remove everything from the waist down... " to which I silently attach an "and wait here for an hour or so in this chilly room with a thin bedsheet for a blanket while I fetch the lubricating jelly for your examination."

The room is white washed from the drop tile ceiling to the excessively waxed tile floor. Everything is shrink-wrapped and in its rightful place. It's impeccably clean, which used to comfort me as a sign that I'm in a place run by people who know what the hell they're doing, but now means only that the janitors should be running the show. Indulging on the filtered Ben-Gay air, my lungs don't seem to mind that I haven't had a cigarette in a while. The walls exude anticipation and readiness. It's wasted on me. For the next four hours at least these walls will not be visited by exhausted EMTs or doctors barking orders at fumbling nurses. Mine is a walk-in visit, the slowest increment of time imaginable. Time enough, in fact, to think of 12 different ways to describe my symptoms in an intelligent manner without using the words "rectal bleeding" or "loose stools". Despite my preparation, the doctor's overeducated ego shrinks me down to a white trash pion. Bill's loosening grip on tactfulness only further attacks my pride. Just in time to prevent me from telling him to get a grip, the percocets swallow me up into euphoric relief. The room becomes less ominous but no less alien. Until I am half willingly swept out into the dark chilly parking garage by Bill's impatient sense of injustice, I am under the microscope. Once outside the building I find myself curiously gravitated toward its doors and the answers we passed up for our pretentiousness."

Copyright(c) 2006 by Elissa Colbry

Week 6 Prompts: Place

Week Six. Prompts 26-29. Place. React to three of these prompts on your blogs. You're using these as springboards to write about place.

26. You haven't been there since you were little. Now you go back....

27. The safest place in the world....

28. A picture postcard view and you hate it, because postcards belong to anyone with the money to buy one. If the tourists ever got past the obvious, they'd see what you see....

29. When you finally arrived, it was nothing like you imagined....

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Piece of the week so far....

Week 4 - Prompt: What would you like to be paid to talk about?

As I talked to my ducks tonight, they listened with such contentment.  A few even rested in my arms as we sundered around the yard while I took note of the fall season beginning to make its mark on the trees.  Then when they entered the freshly cleaned Duck Hut and waded through the waves of fluffy spread out hay they quacked their appreciation to me.  Even my most obstinate little one was more yielding to the idea of going to bed for the night.  This is just one of the many moments of enjoyment that they have given to me, and even the less peaceful moments I can truly say haven't been regrettable.

For years I had wanted to have ducks but always found some reason not to.  Finally after talking to someone I worked with and about two months of serious research I came home with six baby mallard ducks from the Tractor Supply store.  On the 30 minute drive all I could think of was, "Am I ready for this?" and "Am I going to keep them alive?".  I was now responsible for these little guys that sat in a small box of the floor of the passenger's seat peeping at me.  Was I ready for this?

When they came home with me it was still too cold out in our garage for them and I didn't invest in the special heat lamp.  They started out living in the house in an unused garden tub in our master bathroom.  I took a heavy black garbage bag and lined the tub using duct tape.  Then I would daily replace the wood shavings and try to hold each of them for a few minutes.  After about 3 weeks it was time to teach them how to swim.  (Yes, I had to teach my ducks how to swim and this is normal.)  This was done with a paint roller pan so that there was a slant for them to walk down and was not so deep that they might drown.  (Seriously!)  After a couple of weeks I had to re-evaluate their situation because they were too big for the paint pan and they absolutely loved swim time.  I had my husband build a platform that took up about 1/3 of the tub.  The platform became the dry area while the rest of the tub held water that I would increase the depth to as time passed.  For the ducks to go from the water to the platform they had a set of stairs made.  It was the cutest thing; they easily learned how to use the stairs.

After about 2 to 3 more weeks I was beginning to fear that they would get out of the tub and have free roam of my bathroom.  The days were getting warmer but the nights were still very cold.  With help I had 2 appliance boxes made into one and a small kiddie pool at one end, and again they had stairs to get in and out of the pool.  I encased an electrical blanket with a zippered mattress protector and had this on the floor underneath their hay.  This was their home for a few more weeks while we converted my son's old playhouse into the new Duck Hut.

After insulating, wrapping it in plastic, and laying down linoleum flooring so that the inside of the Duck Hut could be hosed out the weather was warmer and the ducks were older.  It was time for them to move out.  With this big step also begun their time to go outside during the day when we are home.  The adventures of duck raising were just beginning. 

Six months later I can say that it was the best thing that I did and I regret that I never did it sooner.  There is so much that I would love to share about my six feathery friends, and I am quite sure that others would find it just as enjoyable and entertaining.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Tuesday Blues & A Possible Slight Change of Plan

7:30 AM Tuesday morning 9/24 when I ordinarily would be digging into your posts to read and comment...I will be in a hospital johnnie, getting zonked on legal drugs, prepping for a minor procedure that, minor as it is, will probably keep me all day at EMMC (I'd rather be at EMCC!) and send me home in a condition where I would make even  less sense than usual if I commented on your blogs.


I will do my very best to catch up on everything posted on your blogs Monday night. I will work Tuesday afternoon and evening if I am able.  And I will certainly hit your blogs again on my regular Thursday.  (I'm on a TThSu rotation usually.)

Week 5: Narrative aka story

On your own blog, think about the material in this post as you write your own narrative (your own narrative is your theme for the week.)

Proceed cautiously!!! If you actually worry about the stuff below, it may paralyze you! Many a good story was told around a cavemens' campfire, or as medieval pilgrims wandered footsore, or in a cowboys' line shack with blizzards raging outside—without giving a thought to any of what I say. Quite possibly the same story in all three cases!

Keeping my warning in mind:Experimental and post-modern writing aside, a narrative usually implies a series of reversals or challenges needing to be overcome. That little formula covers everything from the Iliad to the story of Moses to the tale of Cinderella to last week’s cineplex blockbuster.

Narrative usually has an arc: a series of rising actions leading to mini-climaxes and then culminating in some sort of major climax and then a resolution and final gathering–together of characters left standing.One of the reasons the American Civil War fascinates people so is because it fits this pattern so well: the back and forth battling culminating in Lincoln’s death and the meeting of Grant and Lee.Great stuff that just happens to actually have happened.

Which is where you come in in Creative Nonfiction.

This is all by way of introducing this week’s theme: action, narrative, stories.Creative nonfiction does not depend on narrative the way it depends on voice, ideas, things, places, people. But it often is pretty dry without a bit of a story.If I were writing about cutting wood, getting it in, burning it—I could give you statistics, numbers of cords, types of wood, sawing and splitting issues, distance I haul it, description of my woods, data about my woodstove and its manufacture and purchase.I could do better than dry—I have things to say in my own voice, from my own experience, and in my own words about all those items, and it would be okay stuff.

But it would be so much better, don’t you think, with a few stories, tales, anecdotes, yarns, all true: a dangerous chimney fire during a blizzard; a deeply mired wood-wagon and me dressed all in mud; a kicking-back chainsaw heading for my foolish face; a hung-up tree jumping off a stump with my tender spots on its mind; my wife stripping to her bra to clean the narrow chambers of an antique woodstove where my brawny arms won’t reach; hot coals jumping out at innocent long-haired dogs; little children sitting on the cellar steps watching mumma making kindling, etc.?

Action, narrative, stories is what you’re going to be working on this week.

Here’s a warning: in fiction, a story is its own justification. If you have a good yarn, the world will beat a path to your door.In creative nonfiction, a story is not its own justification. It is not the king, it is the courtier. The story is in aid of something else: a larger point, a deeper understanding, a different focus.So, this week’s assignment is not stories. It’s stories-aiming-at-something-else-beyond-themselves. Write, but don’t just tell a story—use a story.

Example: http://yosemite.emcc.edu/faculty/jgoldfine/double_standard_dad.htm

Stories Part 2

Most of the course up to this point has been geared to getting you to put in details, examples, and stories that you know from your first-hand experience. Nothing is going to change--that's what the course is about.

Why? Why is the course about that? Because "to see what is in front of one's nose requires a constant struggle." George Orwell said that.

You must believe that the world starts with what's in front of your nose. Sadly, most people give up the constant struggle to see it. They accept shadows and imitations. If I say 'Outastata,' they laugh, say, 'Masshole,' and start some involved story about a slow Winnebago and a tourist who insisted that he wasn't buying any so-called live lobster that was green--lobsters are supposed to be red! No downeaster's gonna fool him.... Etc, etc.

You can't do that. You have to really look at the story, see the details. What if the above story really happened to you? I don't believe it did, but what if? What are your obligations to the reader?

You have to note that the Winnebago was a 1979 model, that its tires were bald, that one of the brackets holding the roof ladder was held onto the vehicle with a coathanger, and that the Masshole driving was that very old-man kind of scrawny, but he looked like he once had been a fat man. You noticed his hands quivering as he pointed at the lobster tank. For a second you almost thought he was going to cry, but then his voice grew loud and hard, hard enough to remind you of your grandfather who thought of nothing, ever, but his time in Korea at the Chosun Reservoir where his best friend had been killed. Every one said he used to smile before he went to Korea, but you'd never seen him smile. This Masshole reminded you of him.

And you have to remember that when he pulled out his wallet to pay for the lobster--finally--it was an old-time kids' cowboy wallet with gimp stitching that was coming undone and that he paid the last $2.25 of the bill with quarters and a few dimes and nickels and that his wife had to find a last quarter in the Winnebago. That he and his wife had argued over how big a bag of potato chips they needed.

And that when you said, 'Have a nice day,' the wife smiled and said, 'Thank you, dear,' and the old guy said something under his breath that made you start hating him all over again, just when you were feeling a little sorry for him.

Details, examples, stories, pushed to the limit and right under your nose, if only you will open your eyes, hard as that is (it's hard because the world is hard, and it's easier to make do with a model or a sketch rather than facing the whole nasty confusing messy itchy stinky thing.)

More on narrative

I'm finding a lot of people having trouble with narrative. Instead of really telling a story, writers are recounting events in an outliney sort of way without any dramatization. It's not laziness; they just seem to have forgotten what we all know instinctively--that a good story has to have a problem, a conflict, tension, collisions (and I don't mean car crashes!). So, the writer is defaulting to a very dry, hunkered-down defensive, one-thing-after-another way of writing.

Here's an example, not from any student's writing, one I'm making up for this lecturette. I'm getting narratives like this:

When I was a kid, I went out trick or treating on halloween and collected a lot of candy. When I got home, my mother made me share it with my little brother. He was always the skinny one, unlike me, and I resented having to share my candy with him, but I was obedient and did what my mother asked.

That's a very dry, minimal graf--it's not really a story. I describe a situation without dramatizing or detailing it in any way. A lot of you are giving me comparable pieces. Here's a better version:

When I was a kid, I went out trick or treating on halloween and collected a lot of candy. Bags and bags of it, really. It was the early fifties and, even considering inflation since then, candy was very very cheap. The grownups in the neighborhood had all come up during the Great Depression and they were just loving the fifties: big cars, lots of booze, nice clothes...and a ton of candy for the kiddos. "What are you supposed to be tonight?" they'd say, and then dump a big Snickers or two in my bag.

So, one shopping bag was never enough for all the loot.

When I got home, my mother would tell me to share my swag with my too-little-to-trick-or-treat brother--bratty, snotty, mom's-cutiepie SETTTTTTTH! (I always said his name in the same manner I would later say the word "MOTHERF**ER!") I couldn't stand him, but I knew I had to obey or he'd go whining to mom. Seth was a pest, Seth was skinny (I was not), but, okay, I dumped my bags, all my bags, out on the bed and started sorting candy.

On the left, far away from SETTTTTH's bed went all the Snickers, the Peanut Butter Cups, the Three Musketeers, the Welch's Fudge, the Charleston Chews--all the chocolate and candy bars I loved. Then in the middle, I'd make a second pile of the okay stuff: candy corn, caramel, jawbreakers. That stuff was good but not great. It was my backup candy and would last me a lot longer than a loose Snickers bar!

Then on the right, closest to Seth's bed was the pile of stuff I intended to give him: nice healthy apples, dark bitter licorice, weird homemade candies, mints. All the stuff I hated would do very nicely for the little brother I hated.... And, best of all, my mother who had no sweet tooth at all, also had no clue that Seth was only getting the sweepings, the garbage, the less-thans and left-behinds and also-rans and never-wases from my bags and bags of candy.

She'd see the pile and nod with satisfaction. John was good, John was obedient, John was sharing nicely with his little brother.

Seth, though, Seth even at age 4 or 5, knew better than Mom what was really going on.

That's better, but it still doesn't quite turn into a narrative. To do that, I'd have to go further and create scenes of me laughing at Seth for not getting any good candy and him throwing an apple at me and me beating the crap out of him and my mother coming into our bedroom and hearing the truth of the deal from Seth and her confiscating all my candy and me then hating Seth with a hatred no human ever experienced in all of recorded history and him smirking his miserable skinny-ass smirk as he sat there on his bed eating MY Snickers....

Then we'd have a story.

Week 5 Prompts

Prompts for week five: Some timeless stories for you to tell. I'm looking for narratives spun off these prompts, stories that somehow come to mind with these prompts-and I threw in a few extras, but you’re still only on the hook for three:

17. You’ve lost It! Where is It?

18. The earth has moved under your feet, gloriously!--and nothing will ever be the same again

19. You’ve done something terrible and know you will go to Hell.

20. The battle begins!

21. You go on a journey.

22. A stranger comes to town.

23. Arrow points to defective part.

24. We name the guilty man!

25. Everything you thought you knew is wrong, nothing is what it seems.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Piece of the week, so far:

13. I just googled the phrase 'if these could talk.' What inanimate thing do you wish could talk?

If these trees could talk, they'd say "hey lady, get your dog away from me", "ease off on the chemically treated mulch, mister" and "do you really think L.L. will love you forever just because you're carving it into my skin?"  The blue pine growing in the town center would nag the town council on the placement of its yearly fancy holiday dress ad nauseum.  "No, I really think the gold and red look tacky this year.  Listen, we ought to find it in the budget to get some new decorations.  Do we want to give the world the impression that we're just a sad little podunk town?  And fix my star, for God's sake!  The left part's light has gone out.  How can I be a star when my star is just a pathetic cold lump sitting on top?!"

The weeping willow in the park will grumble about its label.  "I have happy days, you know.  Just because of my name doesn't mean I don't have happy days.  Honestly, the birch and the hemlock were being so dire the other day, and who came to the rescue with jokes?  Who had the entire park in stitches?  And then you have just one off day and everyone says "Ah, well, don't mind that chap, that's a weeping willow for you.  Always doom and gloom.  People just don't get me.  Lot's of stress, this kind of lovely plumage, you know.  The most striking tree in the park, next to the water's edge, lots of pressure to shade lovers and look good in photographs..."

The maple would deeply resent its lot in life as a giver of maple sugar.  "Oh, no, go on, please do take as much as you want.  I simply insist.  It's not like I was going to use that for, oh, survival or anything.  It's not like I didn't spend my entire year working hard to store all that sugar.  But no, I insist.  I just need it for survival, you need it for pancakes.  Mother's in town I'm sure, want to impress her with your ability to live off the land, don't you dearie?  Don't want her to insist you come back to live with her in the city, now do we.  Go on, stick a spigot in my friend.  Can't risk sucking me dry and not having enough, can we?"

The hedges would border on the ability to communicate, not being proper trees, like simple ogres that garble something out and then you pat them on the head for being so good as to utter barely intelligible sentences.  Some of the trees would be quite keen to mock them for this.  The birch, for instance, in its glorious white wrappings, would snicker at the hedge's childish attempts to communicate.  "Had good day today!  Squirrel!  Squirrel sat on me!"  "What's that, you say, hedgie?  A squirrel shat on you?  My, how disgusting!"  "No..."  The hedge would become quite confused at this, and would wrinkle its face in perturbed frustration if it had a face.  The hemlock would be quick to jump in and defend the hedge, perhaps because the hemlock itself comes quite close to looking like a hedge.  "Oh, come off it birch, where's the sport in picking on poor hedge?!  Honestly!"  Birch would grumble in defensive irritation "just having a bit of fun, no need to get your knickers in a bunch..."  Hemlock would be there, comforting the confused hedge, shushing in parental tones.  "There there, dear hedge.  A squirrel, how wonderful!  Was it a grey one or a red one?"  Sometimes birch would make hedge cry, and there would be no hope for cheering it up, and the rest of the day the others would have to hear the moans and cries of an inconsolable hedge.  "Doesn't get the stress we deal with day to day," weeping willow would mutter.  "Doesn't get that I have it much worse."

Most trees would avoid conversation with ornamental fruit trees.  Their narcissism is well known, and when they are flowering they can be absolutely overbearing about their beauty.  As if that wasn't bad enough, the fruit trees with grafted branches can be absolutely batty.  All those split personalities, you know.  On days when they're reallywound up, they're unbearable to even walk by.  One part reciting Shakespeare, another screaming "the soup!  I know I had some soup here!  How DARE you lie to me about my soup?!" while three or four others chatter with each other about the most trivial things.  It's usually the quiet branch that's the most disturbing that you'll want to avoid, however, mumbling incoherently until it suddenly bursts out with "I'll bite you, I will!  Come one step closer and I'll have your scalp firmly between my teeth!"  Of course, that's ridiculous because trees don't have teeth; but quite unsettling to listen to, nonetheless.

Oak trees, especially the wizened old ones, like to build on their reputation of being rather wise.  But talk with one for more than a minute and you'll find yourself quite disappointed in how shallow they actually are.  "My advice to you, my boy, is this.  My advice is that you should go and sell everything you own, and start afresh in this world.  You should tell your father that-  I say, did you here that, just now?  Those two yew, nattering on in the background.  Like they are the two most important trees in the world!"  The oak will harrumph at its own self-importance.  "I've been around for over 100 years, what could Ipossibly have to say that's important?!  Oh no, DO go on with your mockery you two ninnies, I heard what you muttered just now!  Listen boy, ignore those two- those twobaboons!  The one on the left just got its branches pruned, thinks its the bee's knees now.  I had someone carve their name into in my trunk in 1915, but I guess I'm just a winded old gasbag to them, aren't I?"  The oak will usually continue on with its unasked for wisdom - "do onto others as they would do onto you", "never look a gift horse in its mouth", "floss twice a day or in between meals" - until you're finally able to slowly back out with false excuses of direly needing to be elsewhere.

Jungle trees that like to shout "snake!" and laugh hysterically when tourists dive into the brush, grand redwoods who mention theirs' and every other creature in the area's bodily functions while you attempt to enjoy the view and a cup of joe during an early morning sunrise, tiny bonsai that like to pontificate on cultured beauty and the role of Asian culture in the Western hemisphere...  They all have something they like to contribute to the world, after being kept quiet for so long.  Strange how grass parks have become all the rage these days.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Week 4 Theme. Truth...or Consequences. Playing with truth, facts, and the area just beyond them

Part of your fourth week assignment is to take the assignment at the end of the lecture material and do it on your own blog.

The word 'creative' came up several times in the writers' autobios I'm seeing. Most people won't admit to being creative--and for very good reasons.Even I--and I have my creative times--loathe being told I'm creative. It's always a set-up and a put-down in the form of a compliment.There are practical people, there are hard-headed people, there are people who make things happen in the real world of adults--and then there are dreamy, touchy-feely goofybugs who come up with weird stuff and the grownups smile fondly, pat you on the head, and say, 'Isn't he creative!'Isn't he a hopeless but harmless jerk is what they mean!

And it gets worse.

Once you're tagged with being creative, it's your job to come up with the themes for the Christmas Pageant and the Prom. You have to write the skits and the funny songs, and, God help you if they're not creative enough to get everyone to come up to you afterwards to say, "Oh, you're so creative, I wish I could write like that."Because if they don't come up, you just fell short and your reputation is on the line: be creative, on demand, by command. You're not much use for anything else, are you?

So, don't be holding your breath for me to comment that something is creative. Not a word in my teacherly vocabulary, unless I know the person very well and think they can handle a little irony. Doesn't happen much. I wouldn't use it, except ironically.

And in the world of schools, 'Creative Writing' is short-hand, like basketweaving, for a big frill, something only for the lazy, the half-cracked, the black turtleneck crowd.So, why is the darn course called 'Creative Non-fiction'? I named it! I could have called it, "Writing Non-Fiction Using Techniques Traditionally Found in Fiction.' But that's a mouthful, and as I was coming up with a title, everyone kept calling it 'Creative Writing' which made me writhe.

So I started answering back, "No, Creative Non-fiction." And they would repeat it back, like a two year old testing out a tough word. "Creative Non-fiction?""That's it," I'd say.

So, don't worry about the creative part. It just means that if you want to use dialogue, scene-setting, narrative suspense, or other odd techniques , you have a license.And the line between fiction and non-fiction?

Fiction always contains non-fictional elements, and vice-versa. Here's a passage from my response to the first prompt about being alone in a room: "Maddie the Collie is flopped in front of the cold wood stove, so I'm not quite alone. A kitchen chair lies across the couch, just to ensure that Maddie stays on the floor, no higher. But Chloe the Malti-ShihTzu is squeezed down at one end of the couch, just avoiding the chair legs."

Let's do a fact/fiction check-up. Maddie is a collie and was lying in front of the stove. There was a kitchen chair on the couch. Chloe is a Malti-ShihTzu. Chloe was NOT on the couch squeezed in the way I described.Actually, she was on a chair Maddie is also not allowed on. I changed that detail to offer my reader the chance to create an amusing picture in his mind if he so chose. Chloe often does just what I described, but didn't happen to be doing it when I looked around.It sure doesn't matter to Chloe if I fib about her whereabouts. Something like this just improves the moment. And the writing. I got 'creative'!

What would be a problem would be this: "Maddie the Collie is flopped in front of the cold wood stove, so I'm not quite alone. A kitchen chair lies across the couch, just to ensure that Maddie stays on the floor, no higher. But Chloe the Malti-ShihTzu is squeezed down at one end of the couch, just avoiding the chair legs. Maddie looks up, sensing that Chloe is getting something she can't have and I hear a low and slow growl begin at the back of her throat. Chloe whines and I hear her toenails click on the floor as she scutters away from the larger dog's anger. Maddie readies herself to attack...."

That is not shading the truth. It's just lie after lie. The difference is that the second version gives a wholly wrong impression of what I saw and heard. The first doesn't.You may disagree! That's what we're here to play with in our writing: that shadow area between fiction and non-fiction, the one people like to call (God help us!) 'creative.'

Your assignment for next time (and it goes on your own blog) is to write about something in your own life.

1. Write about it as close to black and white, just the facts as you possibly can.

2. Then write about it so that the basic facts are there, unchanged, but you throw in a little fancy stuff to improve the story--you make the girl a blonde instead of a brunette, you add a few horsepower to the engine, you buy a few more dollars worth of clothes than you actually could afford--all this done, not to lie, but to make the truth sharper and, if you will, even truer.

3. Finally, start with the same material but let it off its leash. It originates in fact, but winds up as fiction. Now the details aren't changed to tell the truth in a new way--they're just pure fiction.

Later addition: I was reading a review of a memoir by Elie Weisel called 'Night.' Ruth Franklin, the reviewer, is talking about what writers do to memories and facts, and she makes some of the points I want to make in Week Four:

"Like any memoir 'Night' must balance between absolute fidelity to the events and the making of literature. Its poetic austerity comes at a cost to the literal truth.... [N]o memoir can be at once an unerring representation of reality and a genuine artistic achievement.... Wiesel recognizes the memoirist's dual obligation--to the truth, certainly, but also to tell his story in the most interesting, most memorable, most meaningful way possible.... [T]he memoirist must have the liberty to shape his materials into a work of art."

That's not a license to make things up and lie; it's a demand on you to see that your raw materials are just that, raw, and, alone, will not answer.

Week 4: Truth or Consequences Prompts.....

Respond on your blog to 3 of these 4. Remember these are not questions on a test--even if they sound like it--and I don't care about the answers. They are springboards for writing of your own on the week 4 theme--the writing is what I care about. So, don't be fooled by the question format into thinking your job is to 'answer.' DO NOT ANSWER THESE QUESTIONS!

13. I just googled the phrase 'if these could talk.' Wow, if these walls could talk, sure, but also if these hips could talk, if these cars could talk, if these pots could talk, if these dolls could talk, if these old keys could talk, if these stones could talk, if your boss could talk, if these trees could talk, if these quasars could talk--well, there are 7 or 8 million more entries to hunt through.... You've just spent a week writing about stuff in a journal, thinking about the walled-in room where you're working. What inanimate thing do you wish could talk?

14. Wishing? Lying? Dreaming? Dancing? Boxing? Cooking? What is writing like for you?

15. You have a friend, lover, s.o., parent, whomever--and you have a magic potion. Once they take it they will tell you the absolute truth for one minute. Who do you give it to and what do they say?

16. Somebody just offered me the chance to get paid for gassing on about one of my favorite topics: dogs. What would you like to be paid to talk about?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Power Outage Outrage!

Notice the URL of this site!  Today it's a lie!

CMP lost my power last night at midnight and claims to need 22 hours to find it again, so I am coming to you today courtesy of the Belfast Public Library.   I'm not in Swanville.

From the bottom of its cold, corporate heart, CMP apologizes for any inconvenience!

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Week 3 Theme: scene-setting and dialogue

Theme for week three: setting scenes; doing dialogue

On your own blog, take the theme material and write a piece using it, a piece with scenes and plenty of dialogue.

Sometimes--in fact, lots of times--writing comes alive when people are trotted out to speak and act. You as a creative nonfiction writer need to be able to set the scene, bring out some warm bodies, make them open their mouths and talkWhen this works, you'll feel like your material is writing itself. When it doesn't work, you'll feel like you're giving the material CPR, but there's no heartbeat, no breath, and why oh why won't they let you stop?
If I knew the secret of how to get the first consistently, I wouldn't tell you! I'd quit teaching, bottle it, and make a million selling it to struggling writers. But, alas, there is no secret.Or rather there are bits and pieces of secrets.
Don't pick a topic you're too emotional about--that hurts the writing.

Don't pick a topic that blahs you out--that hurts the writing.

When setting a scene, don't go crazy with adjectives. "The busy, sprawling mall with its happy crowds of overdressed shoppers and screaming bratty kids was the place where the worst moment of my young life occurred due to the disgraceful behavior of the handsome man who had been my crazy heart's only focus for seven exhilarating years."That's not good writing! It's heading off in a thousand directions.

This is more effective: "I watched as long as I could, but finally Joe's back disappeared into the crowds of Christmas shoppers. Busy shoppers, every one too busy to notice me, sobbing on the bench where my life had just ended."A lot is left unsaid, a lot is left up to the reader to fill in. We've all been at busy malls before Christmas: we can handle it.

Doing dialogue is a real art. You might have the touch, might not. It's not simply a question of making people sound like the really sound in real life because in many cases that would be, "So, ferchrissake, who gives a, I mean who who hoo hoo hooooooo like care... cares, oh shit I'm sorry I don't know why I'm.... Arright I'm okay really but like what fucking difference does it care I mean make anyway, uh really, he doesn't know and uh really care either so what am I supposed to do when he comes crawling back like if he did I'd give a shit anyway, the big--ah, what's the use you don't want to hear this but he is, he is a just a big go ahead say it he's an asshole he's always been an asshole, even if I do love him. I'm so stupid."
I confess that, having written this, I kind of like it, even though it was supposed to be an example of bad dialogue (monologue, actually!)Let's clean the tape up a little. Journalists do this all the time without being accused of being novelists! Notice that what I'm aiming for is the tone, the essence, the truth but not the whole and exact truth that a tape recorder would catch: "It doesn't make a fucking bit of difference whether he knows or cares how I feel. All I know is that I won't give a shit-- I won't care, I swear it, I won't, I won't--not if he came crawling back on his hands and knees. He's an asshole, that's all he is, it's all he's ever been. I fell in love with an asshole, okay?--so what does that make me?"

I think the second version is tighter, tells the reader more, but it's more speechy, which isn't what you necessarily want. But I'm not revising today. I'd call that a teensy slip off the tightrope. Yes--you're walking a tightrope, creating a scene and some dialogue.

So, you know to avoid too many adjectives. What about action verbs and adverbs?

The student snarled nastily, "This course sucks."

I retorted hotly, "Nunh-unh!"

The student glared angrily at me and tittered mockingly, "It does too and so do you!"

I stared back coldly and snapped briskly, "You're out of here, pal."

Ain't that awful? (Hint: your answer begins with a 'y.') That's bad writing. It's often attractive to people who aren't sure they have really done what they want to do, and it's something to school yourself away from.

The dialogue should read:
The student said, "This course sucks."


"It does too and so do you."

I said, "You're out of here, pal."

If that sounds too plain, well, too bad--all that other stuff, those action verbs and adverbs, make the writing look like a military humvee painted pink and decked out with flowers. Just silly.

Hey, class, let's take a lecture break!I wrote the above material this past summer. Now (6/26/05) supper is over, the missus and I toasted our just-sold car we called 'Whitey'--we bought him new in '92) in cheap champagne. You want scenes & dialogue? How about silly champagne toasts?

We're sitting on the porch in near darkness, killing a bottle, surrounded by dogs who wonder if they are ever going to get a post-supper walk.

Me: Go with God, Whitey! (sip)

Missus: I'll drink to that (sip sip). Happy trails! (clink)

Dogs (in unison): Sober up, you guys--for the luvva pete, when do we head out?

That was just an intermission--now back to your regularly scheduled lecture: This course is about using the tools of fiction in writing non-fiction. You don't know as writers which of your tools are sharpest until you try using them, and once you find what you're sharpest doing, there still are no guarantees. On any given day, your muse may be out visiting buds and not be there to inspire you.Me, I am pretty good with dialogue, pretty poor with description--know thyself!

Most popular fiction is written like a movie treatment: quick scene setting , lots of dialogue, lots of visuals, and finding what you can do to transfer some of this to your nonfiction is what's up this week. PS: You'll notice I'm using the word 'dialogue' when actually I have only a single voice, a monologue! My bad! You can have more than one speaker!

Week 3 Prompts: scene-setting and dialogue

Prompts 9-12, Week 3. Don't forget scene in your rush to do dialogue--and don't forget new paragraph for each new speaker (not each new sentence from the same speaker!).... Post three on your blog.

9. Writers have to listen to themselves; writers ought to always be talking to themselves. Try a conversation between you and yourself. Sometimes arguments are fun.

10. Go to a crowded public place (not one of your classrooms, though) and be a fly on the wall. Just listen. Can you pick out conversations? Write down a little of what you hear, maybe as dialog (he said--, she said--)

11. Try an I-said, he/she said conversation. Set the scene somehow.

12. Go to a crowded public place (not one of your classrooms, though) and be a fly on the wall. Just watch. What's going on? Set that scene.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Here it is week 3, and where should you be, what should you have done?

Posted on your blog:

Week 1:

* three part writer's autobio
* 5-7 day journal
* three prompt responses

Week 2:

* theme on week's topic: you in the larger view
* three prompt responses

Wednesday, September 04, 2013


Nine years ago, I had an ace-student, Stargazer Lily, whose blog link you see below.  I certainly never forgot the incandescent writing and her blog handle, but I only thought about her real name the first class and then fifteen weeks later when I did grades.

But today there she was sitting in Carol Lewandowski's office!  Stargazer Lily!  I'd never seen  her before and I had long ago forgotten the name she uses on her Social Security card.  Check out Stargazer Lily's blog!


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