Finding the “I” in Creative Nonfiction: Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story

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Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story examines what makes a good piece of nonfiction. She writes, “Every work of literature has a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say” (p. 13). Gornick examines several essays and memoirs to explore how the situation and the story work in creative nonfiction. She stresses that we cannot just tell the situation, but must also know what the story is that we are trying to tell.

Finding out what the story is in the piece then allows the writer to organize their writing around this insight. We can then look at the narrative line of the work and tie this to the wisdom that compels it. Gornick pushes us to ask: “Who is speaking? What is being said? What is the relation between the two?” How does the insight gained come to bear on the structure of the narrative? Is the reader along for the same journey of discovery as the speaker? Or does the reader know the outcome at the beginning and watch the narrator struggle with it?

She looks especially at the narrator of these nonfiction pieces to see what they can tell us about how we can coax the story out of our own experiences. We don’t always have to know who we are, she says, but we have to know who we are at the moment of writing. This is an important insight. It is easy to think of the nonfiction self as a given. We could assume that we are cohesive selves with only one voice and when we write nonfiction, we use that voice. But this is far from true. Our voice and perspective change with different situations and with time. Which aspect of yourself is telling the story? Gornick suggests crafting a persona based on the insight that drives the piece. What is the story of this situation? Which aspect of yourself is best suited to tell that story? Answering these questions will allow us to know who we are at the moment of writing.

One aspect of this that really stuck with me was Gornick’s discussion of how to treat subjects. She insists that writers of nonfiction must treat their subjects, including themselves, with empathy and dimension. Is it true that you are completely innocent and your foe is all monster? Gornick pushes us as writers to make things more complicated, more dynamic than that. She asks us to look at situations from multiple perspectives to get at the stories. This includes looking at ourselves from multiple perspectives. We can’t just rely on being the hero or heroine of our own story, fighting the forces of evil. That story’s been told and doesn’t resonate as honest. After all, we’re all more complicated than that, aren’t we?

 

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.

Call for Submissions: Brilliant Flash Fiction

A shoutout to fellow wordpresser, Brilliant Flash Fiction, who is accepting submissions of (you guessed it!) flash fiction!  Their submission guidelines are below. Check them out!

 

Tell me a story in 1,000 words or less.

Email it to brilliantflashfiction@gmail.com.
If I like it, I’ll publish it in the next available edition of Brilliant Flash Fiction.

Please send original, unpublished work. If you do not receive an acceptance or rejection email within three months, I’m afraid you must assume the worst.

I accept all genres: sci-fi, memoir, historic fiction, etc.  No graphic violence or porn, please.

Be sure to paste your story into the body of your email and also attach it as a .doc file.

Please do not submit more than two stories quarterly (during a 3-month period).

At present, no payment is available. Authors will enjoy sharing their work with an appreciative audience and the possibility of having their work published in a to-be-announced anthology.

 

 

Eschewing Genre in Creative Nonfiction: Richard K. Nelson’s Make Prayers to the Raven

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Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest by Richard K. Nelson is a documentation of the plants and animals that frequent the forests of interior Alaska. It’s true that this book is about a place I am currently enthralled with. It’s also true that there’s a soft spot in my heart for any book about plants and wildlife. However, what makes this book really interesting is the ways in which Nelson eschews nonfiction genres to come up with something all his own.

This book could have been a narrative of his experiences living in a Koyukon village in the 1970s. It wasn’t. It doesn’t occur in chronological order and doesn’t have much of a narrative arch. Instead, the book is structured in chapters such as “The Birds” and “Ecological Patterns and Conservation Practices” with subheadings for individual species and phenomena. This sets the tone for the work feeling like a guidebook to the forest.

Instead of listing facts about animals and plants, however, Nelson draws on a multitude of sources in order to give a greater picture of how the Koyukon people view and interact with the world around them. He uses the research of anthropologists who have come before him, anecdotes from his experiences of living in the village, and excerpts from his own journal. The effects of these sources are interesting. What is structured and presented as a catalog of facts about the forest becomes a little less black-and-white. This is apropos given the nature of Koyukon beliefs and knowledge about the forest, which is up for interpretation and change based on personal experience. It is also appropriate given Nelson’s awareness of his own status as an outsider, which makes him wary of speaking for the Koyukon people. By using this variety of resources including his own experiences and journal entries, he can give his readers the same impressions that he had without putting words in other people’s mouths.

Nelson as the writer is interestingly placed in this book. For a book that uses anecdotal evidence and journal entries for much of its information, the narrator is surprisingly absent. This is because all of the personal writing and experience that Nelson uses is always about something other than himself. His journal is only used to further give information and rarely gives his own ideas or thoughts. Nelson very consciously positions himself as an outsider in the village and the culture about which he is writing, and he does a good job of keeping himself an outsider in the book that he writes.

The end result is that this book is not an anthropological study of the Koyukon people, or a wildlife guide to the forest of Interior Alaska, or a narrative about Nelson’s experiences there. Instead, there’s a melding of these possibilities. For me as a writer, it made me think a little more broadly about the ways that I can structure and inform my nonfiction. Nelson shows that the structure, the sources used, and the position of the I do not need to all line up to one traditional standard genre. Instead, using these things in unconventional ways can allow us as writers to come to greater truths than following convention alone.

 

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.

Call for Submissions: Adriadne’s Thread

Thanks to Duotrope, I’ve found this new (to me) lit mag called Ariadne’s Thread. Check them out!

 

Ariadne’s Thread publishes poetry, fiction, articles and short essays and other contents that may not be that easily classified, provided they match or complement the literary nature of the magazine.

Submission Guidelines

The Magazine tries to enforce a sof rules policy, meaning that we are always willing to make exceptions to our rules and guidelines provided the quality of the submitted content justifies it.

Please bear in mind that, due to the high volume of submissions, our response times became quite long. Though we are trying to shorten it, chances are that you will have to wait about 3 months for a reply.

General:

  • The editor’s decision is final.
  • We’ll reply to all submissions, both the accepted and the rejected ones
  • The issue for which you submit (except the theme issues) has the value of an indication. We may choose to consider your submission for another issue.
  • In principle we will only published previously unpublished material. In some specific cases, and provided we are informed, we may choose to make an exception.
  • Please don’t send more than 1 submission on each topic per issue. If you do, it will be rejected without being read.
  • We tend to favour serious over humourous and deep over light.
  • We accept simultaneous submissions if:
  • You let us know that you are doing it
  • You agree to inform us that your all or part of your submission was accepted for publication elsewhere.

Poetry:

We will consider poems of any length while admitting that our life would be easier if all poems had between 25 and 45 lines.

We tend not to enjoy poems about pets, holidays or witty, purposeless wordplay but we welcome anyone who proves us wrong.

We tend to prefer, however, the kind of well crafted poetry that is emotional, not being sentimental, that tingles both the emotions and the mind and can change the way we look at life.

Please submit 3 to 6 poems (if you submit more than 6 poems, your submission will be automatically rejected.

Fiction:

Due to its size, Ariadne’s thread can only accomodate shorter forms of fiction. Apart from that, no rules and no limitations. Challenge us and our readers.

Please submit up to a maximum of 3 stories. If you submit more than 3 stories, your submission will be automatically rejected.

Short essays and Reviews

There are no specific subject constraints but we are particularly interested in:

  • Short, compelling texts on English-language authors that are unfairly  half-forgotten
  • Texts on translated authors that should be better known
  • Challenging and thought provoking texts about the conventions we tend to blindly follow.

If you have something in mind and are not sure if it could interest us, please click here to send us your suggestion.

How to Submit:

Please use the submission form on our website.

We don’t accept  submissions by mail.

The contents need to be sent as an upload and must be in word (.doc or .docx) or Acrobat pdf format.

 If your submission is accepted

We’ll contact you, asking for your confirmation

If, and only if your submission is accepted, you will also have the option to send us:

  • a note about the texts you are submitting if you think readers will benefit from some additional information about your text.
  • a picture (size and resolution)
  • a biographic note (biographic note field)
  • an url for your website

If you choose to send us this  additional information (it is optional), we’ll display it in an author profile publicly available in this site and you will be provided with the means to edit and delete it at any time.

The notes on your submitted content will be placed under the issue in which they are published.

Copyright

By submitting you grant us the rights to publish your work in Ariadne’s Thread magazine, both in print, in electronic format and in the magazine’s web site.

After publication, the copyright of your work remains yours.

All authors published in the magazine will receive a free copy of the issue in which they appear. They will also be  invited to read at the issue’s launch.

 

Click here to submit

Using Fiction in Memoir: Maxine Hong Kinston’s The Woman Warrior

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Maxine Hong Kingston uses fiction to heighten the poignancy and power of her memoir, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts.  Throughout the book, Kingston uses not only her own memories, but also the stories she’s been told to form for the reader a picture of her formative years and the tension she feels as she creates an identity for herself.  She uses fictional elements to speculate, draw meaning, and show her reader the effects that stories (whether they be true or not) come to bear on one’s identity.

Kingston opens her book with “No Name Woman,” a story about her aunt.  But this isn’t just any family story.  It’s one that is shrouded in mystery and silence.  Because of this secrecy, Kingston must resort to speculating to fill in the details of this story.  It’s important that she understand the details because this story is one that her mother uses as a cautionary tale.  In ruminating about the details of this story, Kingston comes up with several possible variations even ones that she admits are improbable and don’t fit.  She wrestles with understanding the details of the story so that she can find “ancestral help” (8).  However, this speculation has come to bear on Kingston’s understanding of herself as a Chinese-American woman.  Kingston shows us through these variations of the story how this family narrative has shaped her understanding of many things.  It shaped the way she understood her relationship with her parents, and with her extended family.  It shaped the way Kingston understands what it means to be Chinese and what it means to be a woman.  It shaped her relationships with men and her ideas about differing standards of beauty.  Ultimately, it shaped how Kingston came to understand her own identity.  In sharing these different versions of the story, Kingston shares with her readers her process for dealing with the story and shows the reader the impact that both the story and the silence surrounding the story have had on her.

In “Shaman” Kingston takes her storytelling even further from anything that could be seen as the “objective reality” that we normally associate with the genre of nonfiction.  The chapter starts with a ghost story from the point of view of Kingston’s mother as a schoolgirl.  In it, her mother actually wrestles with a ghost before exorcising it from the school.  In a genre bent on “honesty” and “truth,” stories like this one can be difficult for a reader to swallow.  But Kingston uses the story to show how she came to see herself living in a world full of ghosts. She says that “America has been so full of machines and ghosts — Taxi Ghosts, Bus Ghosts, Police Ghosts, Fire Ghosts, Meter Reader Ghosts, Tree Trimming Ghosts, Five-and-Dime Ghosts. Once upon a time the world was so thick with ghosts, I could hardly breathe; I could hardly walk, limping my way around the White Ghosts and their cars” (96-97). This discussion of ghosts shows the importance of Kingston’s childhood understanding of being “other” in America and allows the reader to feel the otherworldliness of that experience.  Describing that feeling and the day-to-day happenings in her life alone would not have given the same emotional impact to the reader.  By using these fictional elements, Kingston lets her reader feel along with her the supernatural, the fear, the separateness that comes with understanding herself in relation to her surroundings that way.

Kingston’s fictional storytelling reaches its apex in “White Tigers,” in which she spends nearly twenty pages telling the story of Fa Mu Lan.  However, she does not tell the story in a detached, here’s-a-story-from-my-childhood sort of way.  Nor does she tell it in a let-me-tell-you-a-historical-story-of-my heritage way.  Instead, she tells the story in first person, as she experienced it herself when she “couldn’t tell where the stories left off and dreams began” (19).  In telling this story in first person, the reader can begin to understand the impact of this story on a young Kingston and can feel the expectations and potential that Kingston would have felt as a child.  It also brings home her point when she says, “My American life has been such a disappointment” (45).  Because the reader has seen the story of Fa Mu Lan from the eyes of Kingston herself, the reader can understand on a deeper level the sense of disappointment that the author must have felt.  Finally, Kingston shows how important this story and stories in general have been in her life when she compares herself to Fa Mu Lan, “What we have in common are the words at our backs” (53).  Here she suggests that while they do not have the shared experience of going to war in ancient China, the stories that they have in common unite them.  Because of this, Kingston can use Fa Mu Lan’s story to come to a deeper understanding of herself, her experiences, and her expectations.

Throughout the book, Kingston tells her reader about listening to the talk-story of her family and the ways in which these talk-stories came to bear on her understanding of herself. She writes, “When we Chinese girls listened to the adults talk-story, we learned that we failed if we grew up to be but wives or slaves” (19). More than just telling her reader the importance of these stories on her life and memories, she shows us by telling us the stories, too. They have more weight than we usually give fictional stories because we can see how Kingston was influenced by these stories. Because we are told the stories as well, we as readers can also be influenced by them and therefore relate to Kingston and her experiences.

Though it may seem that including these non-factual stories in her memoir undermines the validity of the truth of Kingston’s memories, it actually has the effect of giving a fuller picture of her dreams, expectations, disappointments, and fears.  Without these stories, it would be more difficult for readers to understand the complexities of Kingston’s experience growing up between cultures.  These stories allow the reader to feel the dissonance between Kingston’s Chinese upbringing and her American existence.  In the same way, when writing nonfiction, we can use fictional elements and stories to give the reader a fuller picture of our experiences.  Fictional stories often hold weight in the factual world, coming to bear on the ways that people understand themselves, the places around them, and their relationships with society at large.  Using these fictional stories to give a fuller picture is especially useful in memoirs.  If we are trying to understand and to help our readers understand our experiences, the stories we tell ourselves can give more insight into how we’ve developed and come to understand ourselves.

 

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.

Call for Submissions: Purple Pig Lit

Purple Pig Lit is a fun, funky magazine that’s open for submissions.  Check them out!

SUBMISSION GUIDELINES

Purple Pig Lit seeks submissions of previously unpublished fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and visual art. We accept submissions year round and publish daily.

To submit, please send your work to purplepigsubmissions@gmail.com. A cover letter is nice but not needed. Do tell us who you are and attach a bio with your submission. We do read simultaneous submissions, but please withdraw your work immediately upon acceptance elsewhere.

Poetry submissions should include no more than five (5) poems. Combine all poems into one document. Accepted format is rtf, doc, docx.Nonfiction and fiction submissions should be no more than 3,000 words. We will look at chapbooks, but please, no more than 30 pages. With that being said, submit away!

How to Make Memoir Meaningful: Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories

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Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories: A Sojourn into Memory is a thoughtful, compelling book. Twice as I was reading it, I felt an overwhelming urge to put down the book and write. Both times the writing and feelings were so moving that I was brought to tears. It is a gathering of thoughts and questions on memory and memoir.

 

I will admit, I am skeptical of memory and wary of memoir. To me, memories are so malleable, so constructed (See Radio Lab’s episode on Memory and Forgetting.) that I’ve never felt that I could trust them as a source of truth in writing. And as much as I’ve been wanting to write more nonfiction, I cringe at the idea of writing memoir. Isn’t it just navel-gazing? Aren’t there some truths that are better portrayed through fiction?

 

Hampl’s Stories addresses both these points directly. In fact, these are the themes that the essays in the book pivot around. The book opens with an iteration of one of her childhood memories, which Hampl then examines for accuracy. In doing so, she points out the several lies in her story and allows herself to explore why her memory would make such deceptions. This sets the tone for her essays, which do not claim a factual, historical truth but instead dig for something deeper.

 

She follows this up with ruminations about why people write memoirs and the importance of memory. She presents the possibility for memoir as a political act, a witness to the world in which it takes place. Instead of memoir as a focus on the self within a larger picture, Hampl offers the option to think of memoir as a focus on the larger picture through the lens of the self. She uses the Vietnam War, communist Czechoslovakia, St. Augustine’s Confessions, and Anne Frank’s diary to illuminate the different ways that constructing memories can be political acts. This connection of the personal to the political is one way that memoirs can rise above navel-gazing and become relevant throughout history.

 

She also addresses one of the biggest problems that memoir writers have: how to fold people you know and love into your stories. In her poignant last essay of the book, she leaves her readers with a question mark. She examines the ways that she has dealt with this issue especially in regards to her mother.  In the end, the reader leaves feeling that Hampl is still wrestling with how to understand the tension that exists between her relationships and her writing.

 

One of the most compelling things about this collection is Hampl’s stunning honesty. One might think that a memoir about memoir (a meta-memoir, even) might be the consummate act of navel-gazing. But Hampl’s honesty keeps the book from veering off into that realm. She points out the lies in her own memories, examines herself under glaring light, and writes openly about her struggles with various topics. It is this honesty that allows her to connect her own stories with the larger world.

 

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.