Creative Nonfiction Subgenres Help (page 3)
The Personal Essay
The personal essay is characterized as having the attributes of honesty and humility. The author appears as a flawed individual trying to work something out, not a godly being with all the answers. As we read writers' intimate truths, we grow closer to the essayists who are revealing who they are, how they think, and how they feel while striving toward deeper understanding. Ultimately, while reading the best personal essays, we read as if the exploration is our own—the writer and reader are one, sharing the journey of understanding experience through reflection. It's a large and important task for such a short, humble form.
In The Art of the Personal Essay, Philip Lopate describes the personal essay by looking into its history and likenesses to early writing. The conversational aspect of the personal essay makes the form a relative to Plato's dialogues. Lopate believes that "personal essayists converse with the reader because they are already having dialogues and disputes with themselves." The personal essayist writes in order to explore these disputes. Lopate credits the French author Montaigne as the first writer to talk to himself convincingly on the page and allow a reader to feel he or she is eavesdropping on the writer's solitary mind. Writers such as Charles Lamb, William Hazlett, E. B. White, and later, Joan Didion, among so many others, kept the personal essay form alive. Today personal essays appear in literary journals, national magazines, newspapers, and National Public Radio commentaries, as well as themed anthologies. The Best American Essays is an important annual publication edited by Robert Atwan and guest editors.
How can you identify a personal essay? First and foremost, you will most often see the use of the pronoun "I." It is assumed in personal essays that what is at stake is the writers' coming to know more than they did at the opening of their essays about their feelings, thoughts, and connection to whatever has hooked their interest. There is no need to be objective, but observing others in addition to one's response to them is, of course, important. No one wants to read a completely self-referential piece of writing, and no writer can actually learn and grow and make readers believe in this learning and growing without observing the who, what, where, when, and how of what surrounds him or her. Personal essays contribute information to others about the world, even as they evoke a particular author's singular emotional journey.
When the personal essay includes narratives of being immersed in travel, nature, sports, and investigations, the attitude that distinguishes them as personal essays is this: The writers are telling the readers how they cared about things that happened to them while they were involved with those travels, that time in nature, or a particular investigation. Good examples in contemporary publications are Susan Orlean's essay on raising chickens, "The It Bird," which appeared in the September 28, 2009 New Yorker (www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/09/28/090928fa_fact_orlean), and Jack Heffron and John Boertlein's essay "Death on a Quiet Street," about an unsolved murder in a middle class 1960s Cincinnati neighborhood, which was published in the April, 2008 Cincinnati Magazine (www.cincinnatimagazine.com/article.aspx?id=47780). There are also dedicated anthologies of essays on travel, nature, and sports writing published in Houghton Mifflin's The Best American Series each year.
If a personal essay is not organized as narration (the telling of an event through time), it may be organized by other rhetorical patterns: description, comparison and contrast, how-to, cause and effect, division and classification, or definition and argument. Sometimes personal essayists claim argument and persuasion are not part of their realm as they are not writing to change anyone's mind but to explore their own. However, many recognize that all writing is argument—as authors we are asking people to see it our way for at least a moment. So, personal essayists sometimes apply rhetorical patterns to the task of persuading others to reconsider beliefs or actions, which produces an urgency of occasion and an avenue for thorough exploration of topics that may be controversial or misunderstood. Russell Baker's "The Plot Against People" (www.srs-pr.com/plot.pdf) argues via classification and division that inanimate objects aspire not to work. Judy Syfers's essay "Why I Want a Wife" (www.cwluherstory.org/why-i-want-a-wife.html) uses definition to argue that the role of a wife as someone whose job it is to be always at the ready to fix and make things more comfortable is dehumanizing.
Some personal essays are short vignettes, often called sudden nonfiction. Editors and writers Judith Kitchen, Mary Paumier Jones, and Dinty W. Moore have done much in fostering an understanding of how short prose pieces belong in our creative nonfiction lexicon.
In the 1990s, Judith Kitchen and Mary Paumier Jones collected work for two anthologies of short nonfiction, In Short: A Collection of Brief Nonfiction and In Brief: Short Takes on the Personal. In their introduction to In Short, the two assert, "…something is going on out there. Almost simultaneously, many fine contemporary writers are writing in a new form: a nonfiction form, literary rather than informational, and short—very short." The writer Bernard Cooper explains in his introduction to the book that his attraction to the short form mirrors his experience viewing Dali's "The Persistence of Memory." To his surprise, this famous masterpiece measured only 9-1/2 by 13 inches. Having been surprised by its small size, he became convinced that compression intensifies a view. Life, he said, is over quickly, and from his intense experience viewing the Dali painting, he abandoned using poetic forms and lines that he felt caused his writing to sound stilted; he wrote short nonfiction prose, which sounded better to him. When Kitchen and Jones created their anthology, Cooper's work was at home with the short nonfiction of others.
A few years later, Kitchen and Jones collected more short nonfiction work to present the "reflections and musings of writers who think about what it is to live in these times and recall what it was to live in other times." They wrote that the essays in the resulting book, In Brief, were intended to invite us to "speculate, but always about the world we know, have known, or could know."
Over a decade ago now, creative writing professor Dinty W. Moore established an online magazine named Brevity (www.creativenonfiction.org/brevity/index.htm). The magazine publishes well-known and emerging writers working in essay form using 750 words or less. Dinty W. Moore's 2006 book The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction further established the subgenre of creative nonfiction in 750 words or less. The "something going on out there" continues to gather speed.
In 1997, the prestigious Seneca Review added the lyric essay category to their genre list. On the Seneca Review website, the late editor Deborah Tall calls this form "poetic essays" or "essayistic poems," and explains that the lyric essay gives "primacy to artfulness over the conveying of information." Doing so, it might move by association, like poetry does using images and be short, or it might meander, incorporating techniques of fiction, drama, journalism, song, and film, accruing weight by collecting fragments and "taking shape mosaically." It may rely heavily on repetition for structure as poems do.
In 2003, John D'Agata edited The Next American Essay, proclaiming a need to read the pieces he included not for the "nonfiction" in them and not for the facts, but for artfulness of the writers writing about human wondering. D'Agata received attention for the way he threaded his own ongoing essay throughout the anthology making it, according to Michael Silverblatt on Public Radio's "Bookworm" program, "a living biography of an art form." D'Agata became the lyric essay editor for Seneca Review. The swell in the creation of lyric essays has now become a surge.
In Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, Miller and Paoula quote D'Agata as having stated the "credo" of the lyric essay: "Lyric essays seek answers, yet they seldom seem to find them." In a lyric essay, the authors decide, "the quest is the focus, not its fulfillment." The lyric essay "stresses what is unknown rather than what is known."
A more traditional personal essay certainly may seek but not find an answer and still illuminate a point. It certainly may describe the journey toward an answer evocatively by relying on images and leaps of association. It may have a meditative or reflective feel to it. So, for me, the most distinguishing feature of the lyric essay is an architecture that relies on fragments strung together or housed inside another structure. The lyric essay often uses patterns borrowed from other venues. In Tell It Slant, Paola and Miller dub this the "hermit crab essay." Writers have created lyric essays using the names in their address books or times in a bus schedule as jumping off points for associations that accrue. They write between the stanzas of a poem or ingredients of a recipe. Paola and Miller tell us the lyric structure protects, "the soft underbelly of the essay," material that is too vulnerable to be exposed to the world without protection. In addition to the hermit crab essay, the two authors name collage, mosaic, and braided as lyric forms authors employ to do their seeking.
It seems that every decade or so, specific patterns come into vogue to name the way creative nonfiction writers explore. Colleagues, critics, and classroom teachers notice the patterns and how they help in exploration, and then names for the patterns evolve as different people notice different nuances that intrigue them and name the writing strategy for that nuance. What is important is not the nomenclature, but the way the patterns facilitate writers' thoughts and feelings by opening pathways of investigation.
Olivia Dresher of Seattle's Impassio Press (www.impassio.com) is dedicated to publishing a form of lyric writing she calls fragmentary writing. Her focus is on notebooks, diaries, and journals. In her essay, "Art is a Lie that Tells the Truth" (www.fraglit.com/impassio/art-essay.htm), she writes:
The many different kinds of journals, diaries, and notebooks…what do they have in common? What links them? Form is what links them—the fragmented form of writing straight from life, drop-by-drop. This fragmented form thrives on the absence of any pre-established rules or boundary lines. It's pregnant with possibilities.
The directness and intimacy of the journal form is seductive. The form says: Create your own style, write whatever you want, you're completely free here. The form says: Say it however you want to say it. The form says: Tell the blank page what you can't tell anyone else, and tell it however you want to tell it—whether several times a day, or once a day, or once a week, or once a month, or as inconsistently as you need to. The form says: Make this your own world, write it down so it won't disappear. The form says: The moment matters, your words matter, the thoughts expressed matter—now and tomorrow.
Even a novel in diary form follows this spirit of freedom. Fiction in the form of a diary creates the illusion that it's the real thing, and within that illusion truth is expressed, as all art is a leap of the imagination.
And so, with recognition for the intensity and clarity of the short form, the focus and the freedom it allows, writers are flocking to the personal essay subgenres of sudden nonfiction, the lyric essay, and fragmentary writing. Creative writing classrooms are bustling with prompts that allow students to create these pieces and audiences are thrilled with the intense bursts of emotion and the tight focus on moments, places, people, and times.
For a long time, memoir meant a book-length nonfiction prose narrative that allowed a writer to share a large part of his or her life. Today, publishers and authors are using the word for first-person narrative essays as well as for book-length narratives. In Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, Paola and Miller point out: "To be memoir, writing must derive its energy and its narrative drive from an exploration of the past. Its lens may be a lifetime or it may be a few hours." They go on to discuss E. B. White's "Afternoon of an American Boy" as memoir in that he recalls a period in his teenage years when he first got up the courage to ask a girl out to a dance. To define the difference between personal essay and memoir based on page length, Sue William Silverman writes in her book, Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir, that personal essays are usually 1–25 pages and book-length memoirs are a minimum of 150 pages.
In memoir, the writer writes with a narrower lens than in writing autobiography, which may cover a multitude more facts and events. Within this narrowed lens, especially for book-length memoir, there are three important musts noted by William Zinsser in Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past. The need to adhere to these three elements creates the necessity for memoir writers to study the craft of fiction:
In addition to understanding character development and plot, memoir writers understand the difference between outer and inner story. In Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir, Sue William Silverman uses this quote by Soren Kierkegaard as an epigraph: "Life must be understood backwards. [Although]… it must be lived forwards." She goes on to explain that memoir is told in two voices: the "innocent voice" of the author who is telling the facts, the surface story, and the action; and the "experienced voice" of the writer that employs "metaphor, irony and reflection to reveal the author's progression of thought and emotion." She also points out that a memoir is "a search to see past events or relationships in a new light." Therefore, the "experienced voice conveys a more complex viewpoint, one that interprets and reflects upon the surface subject."
As memoirist Abigail Thomas says in the "Preface" to Thinking About Memoir: "Memoir is the story of how we got here from there." Therein lies the importance of literary craft: The identification of (whether for book-length narrative, traditional personal essay, a mosaic of shorter pieces collected together, or individual sudden nonfiction) where the innocent voice's story starts and ends, as well as the choosing of images and details the experienced voice knows, provide the emotionally accurate tone.
Coda on Creative Nonfiction
In the creative nonfiction genre, to a large extent, the name of a particular subgenre is in the eye of the beholder. Silverman talks about immersion essays, while I talk about investigative essays. Miller, Paola, and Silverman talk about the meditative essay and look at whether the writing moves by action or contemplation, while I talk about rhetorical patterns and look at the structure that holds the essay together. Whatever the approach, if your creative nonfiction evokes events and experiences of your life as if you are living them as you write, you will bring readers on a journey in which they learn what you have learned by writing of your experience, and both you and your readers will gain a new or refreshed way of seeing and feeling.
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