Monday, August 23, 2010

Wise words about not producing enough words

Once, writer Richard Hoffman, whose two workshops during my MFA program triggered a big surge in my craft, counseled me this way, when my father was dying and I was worried that my writing output was declining: "Life first, writing second."

I took his advice then, put down my pen and my overly rigid expectations of myself for a few weeks. I came through the other side, ready to produce new writing again, richer I think than if I had forced myself to keep to a normal schedule.

Now, I find myself coming back to Richard's advice again. I've been across the country for two weeks at my mother's hospital bedside, and I've been struggling (but managing) to keep up with my students and teaching obligations, and to turn in contracted, assigned writing projects. But I've also been struggling, and not managing, to continue to produce a thousand or so words a day for new memoir and essay pieces.

Richard's words come back to me and I have to remind myself of their wisdom and the gift of freedom they gave me four years ago. I may be absent from my usual output (and from the blog) for a while longer, but I have come to realize that unless I take on Life first, writing second – then what would I, as a nonfiction memoir and personal essay writer, have to write about anyway? Unless I attend to life as it unfolds, what could I possibly have to say that might matter to anyone else's life?

While I'm still away (in several ways), I invite you to skip through the blog archives, especially to the posts where I've passed on more of Richard's wise words about writing here and here. In comments, maybe you can also share your own ideas and experiences about how you manage, or don't manage, to write while in the middle of personal crises.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Can we write the *right* dialogue in creative nonfiction?

In my Rutgers class this week, we're discussing writing dialogue in creative nonfiction pieces. One topic is how to deal with the issue of whether you've gotten the words right -- especially someone else's words which appear between quote marks -- and how to define what right means in creative nonfiction dialogue. Sometimes my writing life and my teaching life dovetail in unexpected ways.

Last night I was doing research for an essay in which I wanted to quote a celebrity. It was something he had once said while on stage and the clip has been shown numerous times on TV, as well as on YouTube and zillion websites. I thought it would take me only 2 minutes, and at first, it did.

I pulled up the video footage from the original broadcast, on an official YouTube channel, wrote down what I heard and figured that was that. Then I wondered. What I'd written just seemed a little too grammatically correct. What he'd said was clearly not scripted, and what I'd transcribed didn't sound as spontaneous as he appeared to have delivered the lines. I listened a few more times, but I still *heard* it the same way.

So I went searching for a written transcript of the event, which took longer, but finally found three different, credible sources. Guess what? All three had a slightly different version of what he'd said. One matched mine, the other two did not. Yet all conveyed exactly the same gist of his words, the meaning was clear and identical in all three versions...but the exact words were not.

Did it matter?

It made me think about how we creative nonfiction writers (not media reporters) record and then later write dialogue. We strive hard to get it "right". We agonize. We use everything at our disposal to not only get the words onto the paper we believe others said, but to be sure the meaning is clear too. Sometimes, the latter trumps the former. But in the end, we usually have only our faulty memories to fall back on. And even when we have more, it's still not an exact science.

Consider my little investigation. There was a video and audio recording. Those who had first transcribed it to written words were experienced reporters. And yet, who was "right"? The audio, even on the original clip from the broadcaster who first aired it, was just the slightest bit fuzzy. Maybe because when performers speak into the mic instead of singing, they hold it at a slightly different angle. Also, he was rushed and sounded out of breath after just finishing a long song and dance routine and was wiping his face with a towel. I'll bet if I asked someone who had been in the audience what he'd said, I'd get a different "quote"too.

All the time, I learn something new about writing and about how we nonfiction writers go about reconciling the need to be truthful with the human error built-in to the enterprise.

I used the version which I felt most matched the tenor of the performer's message. That's often the best we can do.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Eat Love (sometimes Pray and Argue): The Personal Essay

Yesterday, my mother and I had chicken for dinner. Hers was plain broiled with a side of steamed mixed vegetables. Mine was a grilled chicken wrap from the cafeteria. I spread a towel across her hospital bed, laid out my wrap and fries, and if I concentrated only on the conversation, for brief interludes it felt a little like being at the kitchen table, something I'm missing while away from my family.

Which is my slightly convoluted way of introducing my essay this week over at YourTango, on the many merits of eating together as a family -- not occasionally, but daily.

"My husband and I, and our two sons, ages 12 and 16, eat dinner together every night. As a family. At the table. TV, computers and texting not allowed. I have it on very good authority that this will enlarge our kids' vocabulary, boost their test scores, help them stay drug- and stress-free and even, paradoxically, trim waistlines (the author of that study obviously hasn't had my lasagna).
That all sounds super duper terrific, but none of the supposed benefits are why we do it. We eat together because it feels right. For that half hour, we ignore the outside world. We talk, sometimes argue, laugh and plan both trivial and important stuff. We look one another directly in the eye and speak out loud, often in full sentences, with no abbreviations. Emotions, not emoticons."

You can read the rest here.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean Out: Links for Writers – August 6th Edition

August in New Jersey. Does "HHH" mean anything to you? Here, it's shorthand for hazy, hot and humid. Did I say it's hot? And humid, as in 80 percent humidity? Hope it's nicer where you are. Here are this week's links, shorter than usual. Because it's hot. And humid.

►All in one place, links to the Greatest Magazine Articles ever, including Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, Consider the Lobster, and so many other classics of literary journalism (via Dinty Moore).

► Continuing on the theme, Joe Tone gives us six of them, re-imagined for the digital age. Example: "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold. What it Would Look Like Today: @GayTaleseEsq RT @OldBlueEyes: I'm feeling kind of sniffly. Think I may be coming down with something."

► Do you feel like you're always on, as a writer? Linda Sienkiewicz does.

► An indie bookstore in literary Brooklyn might not be the best example of the health of the rest of the industry, but it's still pretty interesting to peer into Greenlight Bookstore's ledgers. And, isn't the place gorgeous?

► Today's the last day to enter for a free copy of the memoir The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry (Kathleen Flinn). Go to last week's Friday Fridge post and leave a comment by midnight tonight.

► Finally, that's one way to create book buzz, or maybe two: (1) Hire folks to make it appear they are loving the experience of reading your book (in public), and then (2) garner coverage for the stunt. I ain't criticizing. Book publicity is hard.

Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Personal Essay Writing and the Heavy Construction Connection

I love reading the comments others leave, not only because I enjoy knowing that something I posted here connected with other writers, but also because I usually learn something. Like this gem, left by Lisa McKay, on a recent guest post from Candy Schulman. Lisa’s comment about Candy’s description of the essay writing process hit the bull’s eye for me. She wrote:

“Amen, especially the part about the number of revisions it can take to polish a 1000 word essay. Very occasionally complete essays are ‘gifted’ to me. More often they take weeks to construct - sometimes the process feels like working to build a bridge from both banks of the river simultaneously. Thanks for your post.”

Thank you, Lisa M.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Of memoirs and meaning. (Or, not)

I'm sort of living deep inside a client's manuscript this week, editing and thinking very carefully about it, so I knew blogging time would be scant. I was, however, planning to write something here today about the value of a truly nuanced literary memoir, one which delves deep into the writer's life, told from the long-lens perspective of someone who has looked back with real curiosity, who has processed the meaning and metaphors of the important themes of his or her life and experiences.

But then I read about this book deal, and decided, nah, I got nothing. Know what I really hate about publishing "news" like this?  They even use the old term "memoirs" with an s. Sigh.