Making the argument

In the Spring 2011 issue of the bible of creative nonfiction, the journal Creative Nonfiction, Phillip Lopate explores whether the essay is “exploration or argument,” ultimately deciding that the best creative nonfiction essays do, in fact, make an argument, even if implicitly. And he says that teachers of creative nonfiction are at a disadvantage in one distinct way: “The creative writing teacher, whose authority extends from being a practitioner of the form, is not a trained rhetorician” (58).

Ah-HA!

Not so, Phillip Locate. For I AM a trained rhetorician. No wonder I have no problem teaching my Advanced Comp students that their creative nonfiction pieces MUST have a point, MUST persuade in some small way, MUST make an argument of some kind.

I feel quite good knowing that I have an advantage in this arena, for I am both trained rhetorician AND professional, published writer (in addition to teaching College Composition, which is all about argument and research). Hooray! (Of course, all of this know-how has zero effect on my ability to get stuff published quickly…I have to run the same marathons as you, trust me.)

So I need to put on my rhetorician hat here for a moment and share a few tips on making an argument in a creative nonfiction essay.

 1. Once you settle on an idea, ask yourself why you want to write about it. The answer to that question (unless it is a banal ‘because I want to’ or ‘because it’s interesting to me’) will likely provide a skeletal framework for your argument that will be cleverly and creatively embedded in the piece.

2. In creative nonfiction, you don’t really want to bash the reader over the head with your point or opinion or argument. You must use language, scenes, details, dialogue, description, structure, anecdotes, and moments of reflection to do that work for you. Subtlety can be just as persuasive as the invisible bat to the head. There should be no point at which you editorialize or moralize (‘the reason I’m writing this is because’ or some form of ‘the moral of the story’ or ‘what I learned was’…just don’t do it), but rather gently persuade through the hypnotic pulse of your sentences and structure. In this case, the whole really is the sum of its parts. Get the reader on your side – no one likes to be preached at.

3. Here’s a simplified rhetoric lesson. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Think about what persuades you. When you read an opinion editorial, do you ever think, ‘huh, never thought about it like that before.’ Gotcha! You’ve been persuaded. The piece made you think and feel something. Now, to make that work in a creative piece, think about the purpose of the essay you’re writing and the one single scene that you can include to show the import of your purpose. You’ll probably end up with more than one scene, but nobody likes to be overwhelmed, so start with one. You can build from there.

Say you want to tell the story of your dad’s abuse and how you have started to heal physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Your recovery is important because you finally feel like you are becoming your true self, out from under the weight of this experience and knowledge. The argument is that it IS possible to move past such a trauma. The story should demonstrate that abuse is dangerous and damaging and anyone reading the story should take solace that a) they are not alone and b) it IS possible to feel whole and human again.

Let’s start there.

What scene would be most important to include? Perhaps the moment you stood up for yourself and fought back. Okay. Write that scene. Now go back and think again about your purpose and argument.

Build on what you started with…what other scene might be important to include for variety and perspective? How about a moment from way back – your childhood. A moment where you were treated abominably to show the longevity and history of this abuse. Check. Write that scene.

Now your piece is getting pretty long, but you need another scene to round it out – you don’t want your story to be two-dimensional. No one is ever persuaded by two-dimensional arguments. You must address the counterpoint…your dad’s perspective.

So you pick a scene that balances the impression that you’ve given thus far that he is a two-dimensional monster…now he becomes human. It’s not important that you show readers that you have forgiven him – you may not have and this isn’t his story. This is YOUR story, so the focus should remain on YOU.

You may decide after writing these three scenes, revising, re-ordering, and polishing that they will stand alone without any explanation – the scenes make the argument. Or you may decide to play with the pieces and the structure and experiment with presentation. Whatever you decide, the underlying argument is clear because you thought about your purpose in advance, which provided a structure and guideline for your decisions.

Remember to have a purpose when writing – it will strengthen your story and improve audience (and editor!) reactions.

Midweek Writing Prompt: Family Interview (9/3/14)

In my classrooms and workshops, I strive to create safe, welcoming writing communities where individuals feel free to explore ideas, stories, and concepts without judgment. After all, we need those spaces to get started. The judgment – of editors, professors, critical friends – will come later. But in the beginning, we need that soft, friendly embrace where anything is possible and everyone loves you. Let’s go there together.

When my schedule allows, I will post writing prompts for you to play with. I encourage you to write something and to share those initial efforts in the comment section, or even your response to the prompt – tell us what happened when you sat down to write. After all, some of these prompts will lead you down a path toward publication – I’ve seen that happen often enough to be confident in that statement.

Give it a try! 🙂


 

Writing Prompt: Family interview

This prompt is a little more involved, but might produce some great stories and ideas.

Locate your oldest and most lucid living family member. Call or visit that person this week and interview him or her about your family’s history. Dig deep and ask the tough questions. If there is something that no one talks about, but everyone is aware of, ask about that. Try to get your relative to spill the details. (Years ago, one of my students discovered through this exercise that she had a relative in the Klan.) If you know of no such juicy story, then focus on finding out what life was like for this person when he or she was young. What were the circumstances leading up to this person’s courtship and marriage? What were the challenges in the family early on for him or her? Use your imagination and come up with a list of questions that reflect what YOU really want to know. I suggest offering to buy coffee or lunch as well.

At the very least, you’ll learn some new information about your family, have a delightful conversation with a person you likely don’t spend a lot of time with, and may come away inspired to write something. You’ll be happy you did this! 🙂

 

 

Taming the grammar beast

Writers and academics and linguists and regular folks argue incessantly about grammar – what IS proper grammar? Is it really necessary to follow stringent “standard American English” grammatical rules when writing? The myriad answers you receive to these questions can be frustrating, daunting, and confusing. Because there is no one answer.

Here’s my take on grammar for anyone who wants to be a published writer:

Make sure your sentences are clear and clean. No typos, no misspelled words, appropriate punctuation for your purpose.

But HAVE a purpose. When considering how a character in your story should sound, or how a particular passage should visually look on the page, think about what you want to accomplish and why. Why should that character sound like a caricature of Paula Deen? Is that really necessary? Why does this person speak only in slang? Why did you not use any commas or periods? What effect were you going for by using no paragraph breaks, no conjunctions, and no apostrophes? If there is no good reason for the choices that you make in your writing, then default to what most people would consider “proper” grammar.

The important thing is to create clear prose. Clarity = good writing. And there’s no getting around that. If it isn’t clear, your reader will not understand what your story is about, and you will lose an editor’s attention faster than a yellow jacket fleeing poison spray.

Consider your audience and compose for them. Beyond that, I suggest ignoring the hundreds of opinions on the issue. Write, write clearly, and write for a specific audience. Don’t let the grammar beast block your path.

Midweek Writing Prompt: Landscape Memory (8/27/14)

In my classrooms and workshops, I strive to create safe, welcoming writing communities where individuals feel free to explore ideas, stories, and concepts without judgment. After all, we need those spaces to get started. The judgment – of editors, professors, critical friends – will come later. But in the beginning, we need that soft, friendly embrace where anything is possible and everyone loves you. Let’s go there together.

When my schedule allows, I will post writing prompts for you to play with. I encourage you to write something and to share those initial efforts in the comment section, or even your response to the prompt – tell us what happened when you sat down to write. After all, some of these prompts will lead you down a path toward publication – I’ve seen that happen often enough to be confident in that statement.

Give it a try! 🙂


 

Writing Prompt: Landscape Memory

Think about a place in your life where you experienced some kind of hurt, whether it was physical or psychological or emotional. The place where this hurt occurred holds powerful stories of your experience. You may need to close your eyes and really meditate on what this place looked like, sounded like, smelled like, felt like. Allow yourself to fully feel all of the sensations, and once your mind is overloaded with sensory details, start writing. It doesn’t matter how you begin or where in the space or moment you start, all the matters is that you start writing. Write until all of the sensory details and actions and conversations and landscape descriptions are down.

Now save it and step away. Don’t read what you just wrote right away. Talk a walk. Fix yourself a cup of coffee. Go outside and breathe in the fresh air. You have just relived a landscape memory and you may still feel the effects. New ideas may sprout out of this foundation, or perhaps just expanded ideas based on what you just wrote. When you are ready and feel suitably refreshed, return to your words and read what you wrote.

See what happens. You might be surprised.

 

 

Try something new

As today is the first day of the semester at my university, and I will be meeting my first class of students this afternoon, I wanted to honor the idea of the new – new semester, new season, new students, new challenges – with a brief post about trying something new in your writing.

If you’re like most writers, you spend a lot of time composing words in Times New Roman 12-point font in sentence and paragraph (or stanza) form on 8.5 x 11 pages of paper (or digital versions of the printed page). The lines of text on the page look like the lines I’m typing here. Horizontal, moving from left to right, lengthy blocks followed by more lengthy blocks of text.

When is the last time you played with how your text LOOKS on the page? Not just a different size or font type, but how the words are structured on the page. Say you’re musing about that time when your boyfriend proposed

in

front

of

a

waterfall?

What if you played with s p a c i n g and visual appeal?

What effect might that have on your story?

 

As I try to remind my students when we start experimenting with visual form, if you’re going to go for it, go all the way. No half-ass attempts here. If playing with the way the words look on the page makes sense for your story. . .if adding that visual element will strengthen and improve the impact of your piece, then you must try it. You can always go back to the safe zone.

F

R

E

E

YOURSELF

FROM

THE

SAFE CONSTRUCTION

 

AND

Try something new. You might be very surprised at the result.

🙂

You’re not (revising) alone

The revision process for any writing is daunting, especially when done alone. So don’t remain alone! Join or create a writing group with two friends or colleagues. It doesn’t matter if you all prefer different genres and styles and subject matter. The important aspects of a writing group are support, encouragement, and revision suggestions.

Last month, I gave my writing group a piece that I’ve been revising and submitting to literary journals for almost two years. They had never seen it before because I wrote and revised it alone. And in that solo capacity, I got the piece to the point where I was receiving golden ticket rejections (see my earlier post about positive rejections for more on this), but felt I could go no further. So I sent it to my friends and asked for their help. Something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I had worked with it so often that I felt I must be missing something obvious. And I knew the ending still wasn’t right.

We met at a great neighborhood deli for a late breakfast before we jumped in to discussing our pieces. They had each sent a piece to the group, so we spent time discussing revision and expansion ideas for each one over the course of two hours. When they got to mine, I listened, took notes, and asked for clarification. I was thrilled and relieved when they showed me things I couldn’t see, and when they helped me brainstorm tangible options for the ending. When I sat down to revise the piece, I could just feel how right their advice was, and it took a few hours because revision is hard even when you know what has to be done. When I sent it back to them for a quick once-over to make sure I had achieved what we discussed, both responded enthusiastically that I had done the necessary work and the  piece was much stronger. This built my confidence and I sent it off to another journal for consideration, confident that it really is now just a matter of time until some editor says yes.

If it wasn’t for my writing group, I would still be mulling over the potential problems with that piece. Thanks to their insights, suggestions, and ideas, I moved much more quickly into a “completed essay” that is now more competitive.

The idea that writers work alone is only partially true. Perhaps the original writing is composed in a solitary state, but the revisions taste much better in a group.

Create your own writing group (no more than three people total) and meet once a month to discuss ideas, focus on fixing a broken story, or to create goals. You won’t be sorry! 🙂

 

Midweek Writing Prompt: The Power of Repetition (8/20/14)

In my classrooms and workshops, I strive to create safe, welcoming writing communities where individuals feel free to explore ideas, stories, and concepts without judgment. After all, we need those spaces to get started. The judgment – of editors, professors, critical friends – will come later. But in the beginning, we need that soft, friendly embrace where anything is possible and everyone loves you. Let’s go there together.

When my schedule allows, I will post writing prompts for you to play with. I encourage you to write something and to share those initial efforts in the comment section, or even your response to the prompt – tell us what happened when you sat down to write. After all, some of these prompts will lead you down a path toward publication – I’ve seen that happen often enough to be confident in that statement.

Give it a try! 🙂


 

Writing Prompt: The Power of Repetition

Write a true narrative in the form of a list beginning with a series of identical phrases. Each section should be connected to the others and each statement should be a sentence. It can be a super short sentence, or a long and involved one, or something in between. But write the sentences in this order with each sentence on its own line:

I wish (3 separate sentences)
I remember (3 separate sentences)
I should (be) (3 separate sentences) – the phrase can be I should or I should be, but whichever you choose, be consistent
I am (3 separate sentences)
I will (3 separate sentences)

The goal of this prompt is to reinforce the power of collage and repetition. You could think of this as a narrative poem, or a list poem. Very often, poetry and creative nonfiction can go hand in hand. This prompt should help you to see and feel that. You could have a current writing project or story in mind so that you are re-creating it in this form, or you could just start afresh with wherever these phrases lead you. When I do this exercise with my students, I’m always blown away by the results. Give it a try. You might be surprised.

 

Demystifying “a good fit”

The phrase “a good fit” is often deployed in rejection letters and is rarely expanded upon, leaving the recipient wondering WHY the piece wasn’t a good fit for that publication at that moment in time.

If you’re like me, you don’t care what the reason is, you just know that the editor wasn’t interested for some reason and it’s time to move on and find someone who is interested. Try, try again without stopping.

However, I know from being a professor and workshop leader that most writers, especially new writers, aren’t like me at all. Most writers want to know why. If for no other reason than to improve the piece for the next place.

Ah, disappointment. Those answers are rarely available, which leaves writers flailing in the dark, paralyzed by uncertainty. No concrete reason was given, no specific feedback or advice proclaimed, so this “good fit” statement must just mean my story sucks and I’m a terrible writer and I should just quit.

No, no, no!

If your mind gravitates toward such thoughts, stop that! 🙂

A good fit could be code for “we hate your story,” but I’ve come to believe that’s really not the case in most instances. Think about it. Why even say that if they really hate your work? Why make the effort? Perhaps I’m just an optimist, but I doubt a very busy editor is going to expend one precious second giving you ANY explanation unless she just doesn’t think the story fits in with the other stories that her team has accepted for the next four issues. And beyond that, if they DO hate your work, why would you care? There are journals aplenty to choose from. Go find another.

Consider, too, that perhaps the editors received ten pieces that deal with the exact same subject matter and they just prefer one over the other nine. And yours is in the nine group. Doesn’t mean your story sucks, just means someone else wrote about the subject in a way that struck that editor’s fancy more strongly than yours did.

A classic bad fit would also indicate the writer failed to do her homework by reading a few issues of the publication. Very often, writers submit works to publications that are a terrible fit in content or style, but because they didn’t read the guidelines or review at least a few pieces in an issue, they missed that and now it’s the editor’s job to point that out. I guarantee those rejections also do not come with an invitation to submit more work. Editors like writers who pay attention, at the very least.

In the end, “a good fit,” could mean anything. Don’t let it stop you from submitting that piece elsewhere, or writing more. Doing your homework and investigating publications a little bit before submitting is a good way to avoid an instant rejection, but it’s certainly no guarantee. There are too many elements, too many moving parts and personalities and genre needs floating around the editorial board’s table.

Don’t take the “it’s just not a good fit” news to heart. Just take the punch, don’t spend too much time overthinking your work, and re-submit elsewhere right away. Rinse and repeat until your work finds a publishing home.

You can do this!

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