Faye Rapoport DesPres

Wrapping Up: Alternative Creative Nonfiction

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 4.35.47 PMSo far in our Creative Nonfiction Writing workshop we’ve attempted to define creative nonfiction, we’ve explored the difference between the “situation” and the “story” in CNF writing, we’ve read a guest post by Michael Steinberg on The Role(s) of Memory and Imagination in Literary Memoir, and we’ve discussed a number of sub-genres of Creative Nonfiction, including: Video Essays, Personal Reportage, Personal Cultural Criticism, and the Lyric Essay. This week marks the final week of introducing new readings and definitions in our class, so it makes sense that the sub-genre we’re talking about–Alternative CNF–could be considered under the category of “everything else” that functions as real-life-based writing. Creative Nonfiction continues to expand as a genre, and writers are experimenting with a variety of forms, from flash (very short) pieces to segmented texts…from graphic novels and essays to works that combine text with visual arts. Definitions and lines become fuzzy at this point: it’s easy to wonder if a piece a prose poem or a short lyric essay, for example. Labels don’t always seem to work.

What’s important, I think, is that the conversation continues and that writers continue to experiment with their work until they find forms and language that express their creative vision. Of course there is great value in the more traditional, fleshed-out texts we’re used to reading and describing as personal essays. I don’t think it’s necessary, however, we to choose one format or the other(s). We can enjoy the many opportunities that both writing and reading these different lengths, formats, and styles present. I say we enjoy the bounty!

One of my favorite pieces we read for this week’s class is titled “I Met a Man Who Has Seen the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and This Is What He Told Me.”(1) The short piece, written by Nancy Lord, relates exactly what the title implies: what the writer was told by a man who had seen a member of a bird species believed by many to be extinct. The piece is written in brief, titled fragments of one short paragraph each. For example:


This is the word he let out as he grabbed for his wife’s arm. He knew what he was seeing, and he could not believe that he was, in fact, seeing it. If for 60 years something has been missing, it takes more than the sight of a large, utterly distinct flying bird to convince a man of what is possible. (2)

We can see just from this single segment from the essay how skillfully the writer compresses a great deal into just a few sentences. Somehow she manages to relate the breathlessness of the moment, the stunned reaction of the man, and the depth of the meaning of the incident, both literally and figuratively, in three sentences. Each section is just as carefully crafted and compressed, and each builds towards an ending sentence that packs an emotional wallop. (I won’t spoil it…read it!)

Meanwhile, in September, cartoonist Alison Bechdel was named as one of 21 new MacArthur Fellows. Bechdel is the author of two graphic memoirs: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic and Are You My Mother?. What does such an honor mean for a graphic memoirist? For one thing, clearly there is room for graphic essays and memoirs on literary shelves.

Now it’s time for me to wrap up this series of blog posts, which has been chronicling our Creative Writing Workshop since early September. We have four sessions left in our class (two before Thanksgiving and two after), but the first two of those classes will be devoted to in-class workshops during which students will critique each others’ ten-page personal essays. This provides students with the opportunity to both give and take feedback before handing in their final work. The first class after Thanksgiving will be devoted to a guest speaker: Jeanne Veillette Bowerman, editor of Script Magazine, who will talk about how she turned a series of tweets on Twitter into a short movie script called Impasse. Jeanne, a screenwriter, is also the moderator of the #scriptchat hashtag on Twitter (and she happens to be a dear friend). In fact, we’ve enjoyed several guest speakers in our class this semester: Jim Kennedy, author of the pushcart prize nominated essay “End of the Line, which appears in Man in the Moon: Essays on Fatherhood, and Mary Elizabeth Pope, a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emmanuel College and the author of the short story collection Divining Venus. My thanks to each speaker for spending time with our class. Our final class will be devoted to an in-class reading, in which students will read from their work in front of the class and any family or friends who choose to attend.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of blog posts chronicling our undergraduate Creative Nonfiction Writing Seminar. The effort has been a bit of an experiment. Thank you for stopping by the blog, and please leave a comment to let me know you were here and to tell me if you enjoyed this series and would be interested in similar posts in the future. In the coming weeks I’ll get back to blogging about the writing life in general and any news that comes up about my own work.

Works Cited

1. Lord, N. “I Met a Man Who Has Seen the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and This Is What He Told Me.” The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers Of/On Creative Nonfiction. Eds. Robert L. Root, Michael Steinberg. 6th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012. Print.

2. Ibid. p. 116.


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