Practice for Writing Creative Nonfiction Help (page 3)
Practice for Writing Creative Nonfiction
Personal essays, vignettes, flash nonfiction, letters, and journals culminate not only in the evocation of particular human questions and insights, but in the dissemination of information and the education of readers on particular subjects, the ones the writers are exploring to find answers to life questions.
When you sit down to write creative nonfiction, you may have a word length in mind or the idea for a whole book. You may want to write in journal entries or in one long paragraph, in letter form, or in essays that follow rhetorical patterns of thinking.
The exercises that follow will help you use the material you have from your life, research, and knowledge to write first-person pieces that move and inform others as well as focus or change your perceptions about what you have experienced.
Let's start by exploring the rhetorical forms you might use to organize explorations.
Eight Rhetorical Patterns and How to Use Them to Create Essays
Narration—In this form of organization, a writer moves through time in chronological order, telling a story by relating events as they occurred. This story may be from a memory, a current happening, or one that will happen or is longed for and can be fully imagined.
Description—Although all narrations require description or readers won't feel like they are in the story, some creative nonfiction has as its mission the desire to evoke one place, person, thing, or event through the use of details that make the reader feel in the presence of the writer's subject.
How To—Using how-to (or process analysis, as it is also called) writers tell how something is done or something is made. There are always steps to be ordered and detailed. Inside the steps, anecdotes, which are short narrations, might be employed; description is always necessary as readers need to know what results, procedures, and variations look, feel, taste, smell, and sound like. They need descriptions of how they know they have succeeded and/or what the failure to receive expected results looks like.
Comparison and Contrast—We are born comparison makers. Using our abilities in our writing means we tell what is the same and what is different between two versions of something, whether they be places we swam as children, cars we've had, our grandfathers, or schools we went to.
Cause and Effect—What happens in life can often be traced back to an event or a decision we or someone else made. Writing about the results of experiences can help us relate more of our life experiences.
Classification and Division—Sometimes we like to put our experiences and thoughts into categories and compare those categories to explore more than we might otherwise.
Definition—Writing from our own perspective about what something is, we write using all of the other rhetorical devices. We describe, compare and contrast, show how something is made or done, delineate effects and classify kinds of whatever we are describing. Very importantly, we call attention to function.
Argument and Persuasion—Sometimes we write to affect how people think about a situation and to help them change their minds and hearts. People who write from personal experience can be quite persuasive. If an author suffers from an illness that most readers don't realize afflicts people—say social anxiety—that author can argue that the illness exists by sharing stories about moving through life with the illness, describing what it looks and feels like, and talking about how the sufferers are impacted by those who don't understand. The author can talk about how the condition is the same and different than other mental and emotional afflictions. To use personal experience to write an argument, the writer needs to know the point under consideration and how to make it real to the reader and pull the reader into the information.
You can learn to use these forms to begin, shape, and extend your creative nonfiction pieces. Ultimately, some of your writing will use one form for the overall organization and some will combine the forms to help you write your experience. You might be interested in my book Writing and Publishing Personal Essays for more detailed illustrations of how to develop essays.
Here are ways into each of the eight kinds of essays:
Narration—Tell the story of a time you were not allowed to eat or buy something you wanted. Where were you located? Who was there with you? What did they say? Why did you want to eat or buy this thing? What did you do or not do? What did you think about next? How did things turn out?
Another way to approach narration practice is to think about commonplace things—light bulbs, fences, or chewing gum, for instance—and tell a story that comes to mind from your experience involving one of the objects. Maybe it is a story of sitting in the dark with someone because of a power outage and learning something about them you never would have guessed, or perhaps it is a story about misunderstanding a sign and hiking on the wrong side of fence and coming eye-to-eye with a bull.
Description—Write about an environment as if you were writing an extended riddle and want your readers to guess what you are writing about (a swimming pool, a beach, a locker room, your favorite friend's house, a particular classroom or meeting room, or a garden, for instance). Describe texture, sound, taste, smell, and some of what it looks like without naming the environment. You can tell an anecdote about yourself being there, if you'd like. When you are done writing your description, title the piece with the name of the place you've been describing. The end result should illustrate your feelings about the place you have chosen.
How-to—Take on something you have never described how to do before and think of it as a title: "How to Lose a Good Friend," "How to Mourn a Break-Up," "How to Make Sure Your Loved One Doesn't Discover the Special Present You Bought," for instance. Figure out the steps in accomplishing the goal and write your way from step one to the final step, being sure to name specific equipment needed (a Facebook page for gossiping, a box of chocolate, a gallon or two of ice cream, a cluttered closet). You may begin the piece with an anecdote about why you are the one to tell us how to do what you have chosen to write about. End with a passage about how you (or your readers) will realize the goal has been met.
Comparison and Contrast—Is your life very different than the life you or someone close to you thought your life would be by now? Have you had to move from a town thinking you'd hate your new location only to find out that you love it? Have you moved thinking you would love your new situation only to find out you are homesick for the place you came from? Have you thought you were getting fired only to find out you were being promoted or vice-versa? Think about a time that something went terribly right or terribly wrong. Write your initial vision using details and images that show, show, show how you thought things would be. Then write what actually happened, using specific details and images. You will find that you have a new perception with which you may end your piece.
Cause and Effect—Every change starts with an action or a thought. Think of a time that you did something differently than you had anticipated— walked instead of drove or drove a new route; took a job you had never imagined you would have; said yes to a date with someone you had thought you weren't interested in. Describe the action you took and tell the story of what resulted.
Classification and Division—We all experience kinds of people, events, places and situations we can write about by separating them into types. Choose a topic and figure out at least three categories into which the topic can be divided. Here are some examples: Do you think of the clothing purchases you make as having categories: things I need, things others think I need, things no one, not even me, thinks I need? You can write about kinds of entertainment in an original way: what the media thinks you want to do in your spare time, what your friends think you want to do, what your family thinks you want to do, and what you actually want to do. Think of types of phone calls received in a day and order them from those that are welcome to those that are unwelcome and those that are dreaded. Do you have types of ex-friends? Can you order them from merely annoying to downright destructive? How about types of losses, in order, from inconsequential ones to those that left you bereft?
Definition—There is so much we know deeply from our firsthand life experience that others know about only through cursory definitions: what it means to be a single parent, a caregiver, a bus driver, a self-supporting student, a diabetic, or a snake handler, for instance. Take on a role you play or have been assigned and define it for others by writing anecdotes showing yourself engaged in the role, delineating the effects of having that particular role, giving instructions on how to perform that role, and/or comparing being in that role to being in another one. You can write about what is not included in that role that others assume is, or what abilities and freedoms you lose or gain as a consequence of being in the role.
Argument and Persuasion—Here's your chance to employ any combination of the preceding rhetorical forms to write to change others' minds and/or move them to action. What you choose to write about should be something from which you have benefited or something of which you have been a victim. You can be funny or serious in your approach. Do you want to excite people about composting? Make sure they know the impact of not taking care of their teeth? Do you want to make sure they stop texting while driving? Make sure you have at least three supports to present as back up for your way of thinking and knowledge of what the opposing point of view would be and how you can overcome objections. Then order your supports and retort to the opposition in a way that builds your case. Use anecdotes from your life and the lives of those you know or have read about. Be sure to show the positive consequences of changing the behavior or thought you want to change.
Writing an Oral History, An Exercise from Kit Bakke
After writing her memoir, Miss Alcott's E-mail: Yours for Reforms of All Kinds, in the form of e-mails between Louisa May Alcott and herself, and as papers on transcendentalism, Bakke began writing oral histories and helping others to do so. The oral history can be a form of investigative creative nonfiction. Bakke says:
Writing an oral history is a good way to dip your pen into creating character and story out of the ingredients of the everyday life around you. An oral history is not about facts as much as it is about an individual's memory. For facts, you can go to newspaper archives and history books. Oral histories preserve the memories and stories that add color and humanity to the bare bones of the documented past. Particularly good examples of collections of oral histories are John Hersey's Hiroshima or Walter Lord's A Night to Remember. These memories were about spectacular events (the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the sinking of the Titanic), but everyone you know has a story to tell—each person's reminiscence adds to the richness of human experience.
Many people start by collecting oral histories from grandparents or great-grandparents—family origin stories interest almost everyone. The web has many resources for the oral historian—organizations, conferences, journals, classes, books.
"A good way to start is to do an interviewing exercise with yourself," Bakke instructs:
Sort your own life into sections like childhood events, biggest struggle, biggest success, greatest satisfaction, the public event I remember most, the holiday tradition I like best, how I was introduced to a new technology, what it was like to move, etc. Then frame a few questions to ask yourself: "Describe your earliest childhood memory" or "Tell the story of your biggest success in high school" or "What video game do you first remember playing, and what was it like?" or "Describe your childhood heroes" or "How were common illnesses treated in your family when you were young?" Answer them in writing and then think of how you'd build up the story of your family by asking similar questions to your parents, siblings and other relatives.
Writing Historical Events in Memoir, An Exercise by Linda C. Wisniewski
Wisniewski, author of Off Kilter: A Woman's Journey to Peace with Scoliosis, Her Mother and Her Polish Heritage, teaches her students about writing history in their memoirs:
Remember the Ken Burns Civil War series on public television? Its most beautiful aspect was actors reading aloud the personal letters of soldiers to their wives, mothers and loved ones back home. When the terrorist attacks in the U.S. occurred on September 11, 2001, many young people asked, some for the first time, what it was like to live through an event sixty years prior: the Japanese surprise air attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.
"Were people scared back then?" "How did they cope with impending war?" How helpful it would have been to know how our grandparents felt about a similar event.
Many of us want to write about the historical events that took place during our lives. A common mistake, however, is to forget to put ourselves into the story! Your family and friends, even readers you've never met, are more interested in your personal take on national and world events than they are in another report on the event itself. They can read that in a history book.
Her idea is this:
To get started, make a list of the historical events that have taken place during your lifetime. They should be things we all know about, events that were reported in the newspaper and on television.
Next, pick one and write about it in a letter to someone you know. Be sure to tell the person things like how old you were at the time of the event, where you lived, and what you were doing when you heard the news. How did you feel about that day? Set a timer for 20 minutes.
When you are finished, add a postscript: How do you feel about the event today?
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