by Amanda Schuster
When I first started writing creative nonfiction earlier this year, I panicked. I am a person who likes to solve a problem, to tick a box, to arrive. I am at my most satisfied when I have completed something, or at least achieved a portion of what I set out to do. Similarly, in writing poetry and fiction, I like to get to a point that I can call it good enough, send it off, and all is well. But when it came to writing nonfiction, I found I couldn’t do that; letting it go, even if to only one or two people, didn’t feel like ticking a box or solving a problem. It felt like exposing parts of myself and parts of my mental and emotional processes that I wasn’t sure I wanted anyone to see--those thoughts and attitudes I experienced but which I was afraid to commit to in writing. I couldn’t hide behind the guise of a character or a voice not my own, as I sometimes did (or could plausibly claim to do) in fiction and poetry. It was painful, and I was ready to quit.
At first my nonfiction work only existed as side notes to the novel I’m working on while I attend the Mile-High MFA program at Regis University. As I wrote parts of the novel, thoughts and memories would arise, and I felt compelled to stop to write them down before continuing with the book. After doing that several times, I thought that maybe those side notes could become works of creative nonfiction. However, I knew very little about how to go about doing that, so I decided to learn. I signed up for a dual-genre study, with creative nonfiction as a secondary genre, and began to work on my first piece for submission to the workshop. Writing creative nonfiction allowed me to directly address my experiences, which was refreshing, but it also left me feeling raw and exposed in a way I hadn’t expected.
In creative nonfiction, I am learning, the writing process and the mental and emotional processes of the writer are often one and the same. As Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola explain in their creative nonfiction textbook Tell It Slant, “As you write [creative nonfiction], in a sense, you re-create your own past and your sense of self, and you do so in front of a live audience, over and over again.” In other words, the process of our becoming--the mental and emotional development that is usually kept private or only shared with those closest to us--becomes part of a nonfiction writer’s work and thus becomes accessible to anyone who reads it.
With my love for all things tidy and complete, the thought of exposing the mess of my process to another person, let alone one I hardly knew, was terrifying. During my first several attempts at writing creative nonfiction, this fear nearly paralyzed me. I thought, as we often (and usually mistakenly) do, that I was alone in my fear. When I finally went to members of my writing community with my concerns, nonfiction writer and faculty mentor Kathryn Winograd gently but firmly told me that creative nonfiction is about “the messy process of the mind, not about the neat, pat answer,” and that fear and discomfort over facing and exposing that is sometimes part of the deal. My adviser and poet Andrea Rexilius suggested that I step back and hybridize to give myself a little of the cover that fiction had been providing me.
I took the advice of both mentors, and, slowly, it helped. Telling myself that, if I needed to, I could hide parts of my process by retreating to fiction freed me up to put on paper what I wanted to say without the immediate fear of being exposed. Reminding myself that every writer has a messy process, and that one of the points of the creative nonfiction genre is to explore and capture that process, gave me the courage to stay in it.
In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg warns us that “it is important to remember we are not the poem.” She reminds us to “stay fluid behind those black-and-white words. They are not you. They were a great moment going through you. A moment you were awake enough to write down and capture.” Human experience is infinite, and words will never be able to capture the entirety of a person’s existence, or a character’s, or a moment’s.
I am slowly learning to let my work stand on its own--to let it be a moment, a perspective, a snapshot of a specific time and a specific place--rather than expecting it to represent me permanently and in entirety. I’ve had to learn that, just like in life, I will never be able to tick all the boxes in my writing, or to wrap up my thoughts in a complete and tidy package. This perspective makes me more willing to embrace and disclose the mess of my process.
It is both a frustration and a relief that I can write until the end of time and never capture it all. The boxes will never all be ticked, the problems will never all be solved, and I will never completely arrive. I try to remember these things now when I still feel anxious about exposing my process via writing. The words may be mine, and they may be a reflection of a moment through my perception, but they are not me. I am made up of infinite moments captured and uncaptured that can never be fully rendered in art. Ultimately, I’ve decided (see how I wrapped that up neat and tidy, there?) that I’m okay with this, partially because it’s an unavoidable part of life so I kind of have to be, but mostly because that’s exactly where the most lively and interesting parts of writing--and life--happen: in the exploration, the uncertainty, the mess.
Resources and Additional Reading:
“Writers on the pain of hindsight in publishing”
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones
Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, Tell It Slant (creative nonfiction anthology and guidance)
Kathryn Winograd’s website
Andrea Rexilius’s website
by Pj Holliday
When I began writing poetry, I had the tendency to fill the lines with abstractions that left my classmates with the difficult task of understanding the poem. We’ve all heard numerous times how an overuse of abstractions does not allow the reader to grasp your meaning. We’ve heard how concepts such as love, freedom, and hope have meanings that are too subjective and should be avoided when writing poetry. But for me, being able to use abstract concepts in my writing has allowed me to come closer to shaping the expression I want readers to experience. That is, an impression of the visceral through language. And yet I know there aren’t words that can ever deliver the true elements of my experiences. For years, I did not understand how to write from the perspective of the reader -- my poetry would consist solely of abstractions, and the responses were always the same: that I needed to anchor the feelings to something concrete. I was told that it wasn’t realistic to envision that any human would be able to understand terms like grief without an image of what grief looks like to me. Language is flawed when it comes to sharing experience, but for me, through the use of abstraction in poetry, I think it comes close as possible.
As an artist inspired by cubists, expressionists, and impressionists, I enjoy looking at ways I can let my imagination artistically capture the mood, the light, and the shape of a thing, a person, or a place. In abstract art, the concrete is broken and image is distorted. It’s as if you’ve peeled an apple, which has then lost the security of its coating. The core of the apple is vulnerable both to the way in which it was peeled and to the perspective of the person who took its skin.
As a poet, I feel similarly about letting my mind create a world from my subconscious. Ezra Pound famously said to “go in fear of abstractions,” arguing instead that the image should be described in its purest state. As in visual art, when I abstract lines in my poetry, my imagination feels free to create a world outside the expected frame. Abstracting lines means that I can come up with the wildest metaphors, then rework them into the thing I am creating.
Still, abstraction without imagery, I am told, is not enough -- especially when it presents a unique challenge for the reader to interpret meaning. I often find myself being pulled back to address meaning and from where the meaning is derived. When that happens, I ask myself: Am I allowed to create something that makes the reader work for the so-called meaning? How do we define what is undefinable? It’s as though there must be a reward at the end of writing an abstract piece of work. Are abstractions then most powerful when they are earned? That is, when the poet has reached deep enough to connect it to something concrete, allowing the reader to better experience the visceral through language?
This experience of the concrete through the abstract -- this “taste of earned fruit,” as I like to call it -- is what I now strive to work toward in my poems. It is a term derived from a moment in my favorite professor’s office. She said, “PJ, what you wrote here is not concrete enough, but because of the line above it, you’ve earned the use of this abstraction.” It is delivering my interpretation of an open-ended concept. If the reader can experience that hard-to-define abstraction from my perspective as a writer, then I have earned the satisfaction that comes with using abstraction to allow the reader to come close to connecting to my experience.
Typically, when the meaning of a line is elusive to the reader, it tends to be described as abstract. But meaning is a subjective and wandering thing that appears at different times in different minds and changes all the time. Why then should it matter how abstraction is used, when not everyone will receive the meaning in the same way? But it is possible, I have discovered, to bring a sense of satisfaction to the reader with an elusive abstracted line by anchoring the abstraction to something specific.
While what I wish to express cannot always be captured in words, words are how I convey my deepest pains and joys. And I have learned that if I want to bring my pains and joys to the world, then I have to create them in a way which allows others to access them. I have often heard that if I am the only one able to experience my work, then I have not dug deep enough to create a good poem. “The English language would be without some of its most memorable poets,” writes Rabi Shankar, if abstractions were written off completely (In Praise of Abstraction). Using Wallace Stevens’s poem, “On This Beautiful World,” Shankar helps us explore abstraction. In this poem, we witness Stevens’ effective use of the abstract because he associates it with the concrete:
On This Beautiful World Of Ours composes himself
and hems the planet rose
The poem attempts to promote the sensation of abstraction of beauty. While the language choices initially create abstraction through what feels like syntactic confusion, the specificity of the color, rose, the character of the lecturer, and the verb to hem all work together for a full visceral experience for the reader. We often think when an abstraction occurs in a thing of beauty, or is associated with a thing of beauty, the beauty of the thing is lost. Beauty as an abstract concept is one which does not hold finite meaning. The poem that attempts to define “A beautiful world” through concrete image is one where poet and reader discover this beautiful world through abstraction. And the poet has earned the fruit of his effort. “Because at the middle, if only in sense and in that enormous sense, merely enjoy.”
Because the thing that makes a beautiful world is subjective. It’s just as subjective as identifying the thing that makes a beautiful poem. Without abstraction, we would never be able to discover those to-be-avoided cliché truths about beauty, love, and freedom for ourselves. With abstractions we can instead be conduits, completely disappearing as the subconscious takes over to bring the writer's world to light. Within those spaces, where the abstraction and concrete meet to create the metaphysical, the reader can finally know how to experience my interpretation of grief, love or beauty. Without definite or fixed meaning, the reader can still experience the blood-pumping sensation that comes when allowed access to the taste of the poem; that is, the taste of earned fruits.
Ravi Shankar’s In Praise of Abstraction: Moving Beyond Concrete Imagery“
The Ultimate Poem Is Abstract” by Wallace Stevens
by Allissa Woodson
I have always felt that my writing was an act of independence, and an assertion that I had control of my emotions. When I first started writing, it felt good to me that, even though my emotions were written out on paper, I had the sole right to them. It felt like therapy. It made me feel strong and capable. I found solace in my solitary practice, and I liked having physical control over my thoughts and feelings. Here they are, sorted out in a way that feels right to me on the page and I can share that or throw it away.
Sometimes, though, my writing felt selfish. When I got serious about it, my time became less dispensable. The people I loved (often not writers themselves) felt neglected because in addition to the time I was taking to write, I was also busy with biology homework and handing out pancakes at the local IHOP--the normal undergrad gig. There weren’t many in my life who fully saw the value of the work I created, or the necessity of writing as a form of therapy. There were times I felt unsure and frustrated, and even times when I felt totally uninspired because of the lack of support. So naturally, it became my own responsibility to take care of my writing needs, and to do what I needed to do to stay sane. But writing all alone is a difficult practice, and hard to sustain without support.
I met the person who would become my friend and my writing partner in January of 2017. Pj and I clicked right away. We were the only two poetry students in our cohort at the Regis’s low-residency Mile-High MFA, so we were instantly paired off together. The person that you write with doesn’t have to be someone who shares the same beliefs or that writes the same way; my work was winding and abstract while Pj’s was imagistic and compact. However, I always valued her advice and insight, and because of our mutual visions, our work naturally moved in a similar way towards a complex web of emotions and ideas that we are both happier with.
Pj is from Houston, and for ten days every January and July, we attended lectures and workshops together. Most importantly, though, during that time, we wrote. While we got so much done during those ten days, it still didn’t feel like enough time. After the first residency, we didn’t do a great job of keeping in contact. We sent a text message here or there, but nothing organized or planned.
The most important part of having someone to write with is that you hold each other accountable. Finally, knowing I had to take action if we wanted to stay in touch with our creative partnership, I set a notification on my phone for every Friday: “Check in on Pj.” Whenever the notification went off, I sent Pj a quick “How are you?” text, which inevitably led to a conversation about our latest projects and our lives. I quickly fell into this Friday routine, and even the simple back and forth check-in had me feeling like I needed to write more and feeling more inspired.
It wasn’t until the the third Mile-High MFA residency when program coordinator and fiction writer David Hicks, along with his colleague and close friend, Sophfronia Scott, gave a powerful lecture about their relationship as “writing buddies”. The idea instantly clicked. I knew that Pj and I would be able to write together in the same way. We already had started a habit of maintaining contact, which seemed to be the biggest hurdle. David and Sophfronia discussed how they had used various video chat services. We took that advice and ran with it, so when the residency came to an end, our writing buddy relationship didn’t.
The concept of writing buddies is not a new one. It's no secret that T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound exchanged letters and that Pound heavily edited Eliot’s draft of The Waste Land. The New York School of Writers, which included writers such as Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Barbara Guest, were known for their collaborative work both amongst themselves and with painters. In The Art of Poetry: Poems, Parodies, Interviews, Essays, and Other Works, Kenneth Koch writes, “We were very close friends, John, Frank, and I, and poetry was a big part of it... we inspired each other, we envied each other…we were almost entirely dependent on each other for support” (213).
With inspiration from other writers who had done the same before us, the weekly text message between Pj and I turned into a weekly video chat. With that method of communication, we developed a routine that works for us, and we now cover a lot more ground. We always spend the first half of the chat talking about what we are up to and how our writing is going, which is always the most valuable aspect of the chat for me. The weekly writing feedback and advice that I get from Pj, and hearing about her own struggles as a writer, all come together to inform my writing. Because of that, I never begin the second half of the chat, (that is, the writing part), feeling like I don’t know what to write.
Elizabeth Bishop describes her first talk with her lifelong friend Robert Lowell about writing poetry as "exchanging recipes for making a cake." Pj is always showing me new recipes, and it saves a lot of time; where I might be experimenting with too much salt or licorice, Pj may have already tried it and be able to give me the feedback that helps me get to my desired result more quickly.
One of the other benefits of having a writing buddy is that it is much harder to slack off when you have a camera pointed at you (or another set of eyes on you, if you are in person). For our sessions, Pj sets a timer, or we just go until one of us is tired. Sometimes I read instead of writing, or do whatever else it is that I need to do. Sometimes only the chatting gets done, and not the writing. Sometimes our planned writing schedule gets postponed three times in a row. No matter what, though, we plan the next chat.
The distance between Houston and Denver no longer feels as far as it once did. Writing together with Pj via video chat versus in person has still had the ability to transform my work. We have both learned to find what is lacking in our own work by seeing the strength in one another’s. We share our words and worlds. That experience adds a new vocabulary and allows me to see the power of a single image or the impact of a well-placed line break. Having a writing buddy has meant receiving and offering insights, making suggestions and asking questions, and it has helped me make significant changes to what and how I write. Not only do I get more writing done, but the quality of the work I create has improved along with my feeling of confidence and self-worth. The writing buddy relationship we have built is genuine, and I feel only great work can come out of it.
Because of establishing this writing buddy relationship, I no longer feel the guilt of neglecting others around me. I no longer feel selfish in taking this time to write, because it’s not just about me. Having a writing buddy is about making a commitment to support someone else in their writing. It’s about holding each other accountable to the work. But it’s more than that: We erase the doubt that we have for ourselves about our potential as writers and the difficult aspects of our own work.
Koch, Kenneth. The Art of Poetry: Poems, Parodies, Interviews, Essays, and Other Work. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 1996.
Preview Koch’s book here
by Ted Downum
I come from a proud Irish-American drinking family. Even by the high standards established by my mother’s ancestors--even by the standards of my grandfather, who drank himself to death when he wasn’t that much older than I am now--I was a high achiever in the field of alcohol abuse.
Though I’m now several years sober, I have usually shied away from delving too deeply into my personal experience of addiction (or my family’s experience). Who would want to read what people in twelve-step programs would call “war stories”—sordid tales of alienated girlfriends and vexed relatives, lost jobs and DUIs, trips to the emergency room and various rehab clinics? Why would I want to relive those experiences, fictionalize them, and put them on display for the world?
I never saw myself ever fictionalizing my life as artfully as other fiction writers until I read Lucia Berlin's stories. Because of her work, lately, I feel less hesitant about using a real event as the seed for a work of fiction. In reading Berlin, I realize that the central aim of her work--like any conscientious writer of literary fiction--is to unearth and present to her readers, the humor and devastation embedded in the human experience, which is probably the most powerful aspect of writing.
In carefully wrought and deeply affecting stories often drawn from her own unusual life, Lucia Berlin displays lives thrown out of balance by addiction, poverty, cultural displacement, and simple, powerful human urges--for love, belonging, and comfort. If you’ve never read a Berlin story, you need to add her to your reading list.
As an aspiring short-story writer (and one who shares many of the same thematic interests as Lucia Berlin), I found a great deal to admire in the posthumous collection of her selected work, A Manual for Cleaning Women (2015), published eleven years after her death. The pitch of emotion Berlin summons in her stories, with language that somehow manages to be both spare and rich, is painfully intense and incredibly engaging. Her stories about alcoholics—Berlin herself struggled for much of her life with a crippling alcohol addiction—have all the unsparing honesty of Raymond Carver, but where Carver’s drunks are often lost or numb, Berlin’s alcoholic characters suffer terribly, and she makes us feel every twinge of their thirst.
“Unmanageable,” one of the short stories in the collection, follows the efforts of its Berlin-surrogate narrator to secure a drink in the early hours of the morning. The story holds a bitter irony in its title: though the narrator’s drinking problem has clearly reached the point where an outside observer could call it “unmanageable,” the narrator displays focus and determination that no alcoholic in the maintenance stage of her drinking would find surprising, or even especially remarkable. "Taking the bottle with her, she went to the bathroom then. She showered and combed her hair, put on clean clothes. Ten more minutes. She checked to see if the door was locked, sat on the toilet and finished the vodka [...] She moved the laundry from the washer to the dryer. She was mixing orange juice from frozen concentrate when Joel came into the kitchen, rubbing his eyes. "No socks, no shirt” “ (153).
Berlin is concerned with engaging the reader in her characters’ desperate everyday realities, such as the alcoholism of the narrator in “Unmanageable.” Through the recovering alcoholic’s journey, she asks readers to connect with their own humanity, recognizing that life can be messy and unromantic, and fraught with its own kind of peril.
Berlin once said in an interview that, "I think writers want to change their realities in some way. You want to show what’s lovable and beautiful and so you sift through your life and you can look at it one way, or you can look at it another. And writers, I think, are people who need to affirm, need an affirmation about their life. And to me, it’s a way to make things positive, not in a corny way, but to make beauty out of negative things or difficult times, or just to make sense” (Lucia Berlin: Writing Advice And More…).
Indeed, Berlin’s ability to sift through her life, to mine her personal experience for story material in an attempt to make sense of it, is quite artful. Having herself raised four sons while working assorted odd (and sometimes degrading) jobs, locked in a long battle with alcohol addiction, Berlin honed her talent for portraying everyday human struggles to an amazing sharpness. She excels in capturing the moments of grace and beauty that arise in the midst of family dysfunction, economic struggle, and substance abuse. “This sounds funny now, but it wasn’t then when she was sobbing, sobbing, as if her heart would break. I patted her and she flinched. She hated to be touched. So I just watched her by the light of the streetlamp through the window screen. Just watched her weep. She was totally alone, like my sister Sally is when she weeps that way” (Panteón De Dolores 251). While she conveys breathtakingly lovely demonstration of empathy for her characters, Berlin, still never glosses over their struggles, or the hurt and bitterness her characters feel.
Lucia Berlin's clarity of language enables the reader to share in her raw, hard-won honesty about her addiction, about the damage it permitted her to do to herself and her life. She reminds me that employing my own experience--however uncomfortable that might be for me, the writer--is crucial to the emotional depth of my writing. Berlin reminds me that writing good fictional characters is about revealing what it means to be human, and that experiences are not the only place I should look when I set out to create a plausible character, but to always look into my own heart.
Learn more about Lucia Berlin
Other books by Lucia Berlin