Writing Outside the Self
As a writing teacher and coach, I have the opportunity to help myself and others think carefully and creatively about how we render characters. How can see our work through a more-aware lens?
I often find myself curious about the depictions some of us bring about people who might have different experiences than our own. As a I grow and learn more about the systemic ways people of color are undercut by the dominant culture, I have gotten more confident about asking questions that might help a given writer consider what they'd already drafted to see if the current writing can get more nuanced and compassionate in terms of writing outside one's own experience.
Recently, I had a piece accepted by Full Grown People; the essay is called Caught Between the Cow and the Buoy. Once it was accepted, the editor carefully combed through the piece, and called me out, gently, about a sweeping generalization I had made about Mexican Americans.
At first, I felt defensive, then chagrined, then empowered.
My goal with the line I had written was to bring a complex portrait of my father and his friends, but I had, in fact, perpetuated a notion of brownness being associated with violence or criminality. This was never my intention, but implicit bias is part of the national DNA, and here I was, adding to the master narrative in ways I stand against. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to see my own bias, and to address the line with more complexity and nuance—having this pointed out empowered me to work toward the compassionate, thoughtful work I want to bring to the world in my own writing and in others.
Last year, I read Roxanne Gay's Bad Feminist, and in it, she takes a lot of books and movies to task for their rendering of African American characters - Gay asserts something along these lines: most white writers depict black characters as using their agency in the world to solve the white people's problems (think Driving Miss Daisy and The Help). In this way, these characterizations perpetuate the "magical negro trope."
With that said, all of us might want to think about a character’s strength, resiliency, and power as something she/he uses for herself/himself and/or her/his family rather than just helping the (white) people around her/him. It doesn't have to be a lot – and if you’d like to do more reading on this topic, check out this awesome article by Daniel Jose Older, “12 Fundamentals Writing of ‘the Other’ (and the Self)”. This essay has helped re-see my work - I need a different lens, and the guidance of other readers--to grow both creatively and critically.
Do you have other resources you suggest writers can use to help address the implicit bias we bring to our work? I’d love to hear about them!
Last May, I graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts with a MFA in Creative Nonfiction. This is a talk I gave about two memoirs I studied to help me write my own:
This blog post is a summary of a panel I attended last January for my MFA in nonfiction from the Institute of American Indian Arts. This presentation dove into the subject of writing about one’s own life for both fiction and nonfiction. The audience was deeply encouraged to put the concern of how people will receive and respond to the work aside during the first draft. If we worry about the material when it will be out in the larger world, we are not giving the story its best chance. Melissa Febos emphasized we need to not censor our work in the process of creating it. For her, she works to find her biggest, most uncomfortable questions and then tries to write her way to those answers. We’ll have time later to consider what should stay in and what should come out. Melissa added that, “Chases out the things I have been hiding from in my mind.” Elissa Washuta opened with this great nugget: in the two different process of writing and publication, we will change the work greatly and there is enough time for us to consider what should stay in the work and what should not.
Then a discussion followed about how each writer creates a complicated and compelling persona/narrator on the page. It is important to remember that we will never be able to represent our full selves on the page. Melissa put it this way: (and my, how helpful these words were) pluck out a single thread within the work and consider the version of yourself defined by a single thread of pursuit – Ask yourself: what am I chasing? And are the scenes revealing this chase? Once a single thread is identified, search for what to leave out and the surprising news is that we might need to leave out almost everything.
Regarding audience and writing about people in our lives, it was suggested that a consistent voice was one of the most important ways to engage them. For Melissa, she thinks of one person she might be writing for, and often, this person is a younger version of herself, offering something that might have provided resonance and meaning to that younger person. For Elissa, she tries to implicate herself more than anyone else. She stated that, “The narrator’s culpability makes for more interesting reading.”
This makes me remember a thought from the writer/priest Frederick Buchener – he says that the phrase, “Love thy neighbor as thyself” needs to be flipped – to love thyself as thy neighbor because we often treat others in our lives with more compassion than we do ourselves – and to show compassion to all the various selves we’ve been along the way – and if those selves are unseemly, all the more call to show compassion.
This past week, I attended the fourth residency of my MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. And again, what an incredible rich set of offerings. I began feeling pretty low about the memoir I’ve been working on—it is worth it? Do I have the skills to tell a compelling narrative? Do I understand enough about the story I’m drafting to complete a 120-page thesis? Even though I had excellent insight and feedback from my third semester mentor, Elissa Washuta, I was experiencing the typical memoir blues.
On the first night, a conversation with Marie Helene Bertino helped me understand how important confidence is to finding one’s voice. And feeling lost is a huge part of the journey. Then, for lunch the second day, I sat next to Manuel Gonzales who reminded me that we have to write 5-7 drafts before we begin to understand what we’re writing about.
That night, I had the honor of introducing one of the evening readers Lidia Yuknavitch. I’d heard her speak at AWP last year, and this experience was transformative. And she certainly delivered, opening our hearts with honesty and vulnerability, and healing us through craft and insight. Her talk helped restore some of the initial spark I felt when I started this memoir.
I was feeling stronger about my material, and being in workshop with Melissa Febos was a big part of this. She would often ask us, “What stood out as high topography” in the given piece we were discussing. This simple question helped me strengthen my revision sensibilities–I’ve written over 250 pages while in this program, but what should stay and what is left to be written?
I attended craft talks about what it means to be a part of a Native-writers focused program and how we can learn to deal with cultural conflict in the classroom. Other topics included how to deal with competition, how to make the personal public, and writing as a healing act, Natalie Handel.
I also watched two films: Drunktown’s Finest, written and directed by Sydney Freeland and Imperial Dreams, co-written by Ismet Prcic. All of these experiences, along with the side conservations between talks and at meals, helped me gain traction on the material.
The final craft talk and reading was offered by Joy Harjo, and, of course, she shared so much that was instructive and resonant, with the top take away being that healthy systems need movement, and memory is a system, and in writing memories, they will change, and that is part of the point.
I left feeling restored and connected and part of something powerful and important. I am grateful for this program and the level of insight it offers again and again. If you are looking for a MFA program, put this one at the top of your list. The deadline to apply is February 1.
Ramona Ausubel is faculty at IAIA and I heard her speak this last summer about the revision process. She’s a master storyteller and the insights she offered were practical, inspirational and specific She asserted that it’s really important to slow down when thinking about how to revise, especially when one is trying to make sense of the heap of the advice one might get after finishing a draft. Finding one’s approach to revision is key, and what works for her is what she calls the “black hole” strategy.
She offered these steps:
I loved the unusual ways to frame revision offered in Ramona’s talk – it felt like at the end of her presentation, I had more tools in the revision kit, giving me more power to take my work deeper.
Here's something fun! Please vote for our SWSX panel:
Public Vote accounts for 30% of the ways SWSX selects its panel for the EDU conference - it'd be great if we could talk about how the Digital Story talk created community, explored personal challenges and embraced technology as a means for personal expression.
To use the word transformative for the past eight days might seem an exaggeration, but in this moment, with the day dawning and the inspiration percolating, it fits.
A few insights from my third residency for my MFA program include:
-Using poetry to teach and inform memoir is a brilliant move – thank you Chip Livingston for the amazing care and approach to our writing and to the improvement of our work. Using the prose sonnet for both my fiction and nonfiction might just be the thing I need to re-enter my material. Thank you to my workshop peers for the community, richness, and connection.
-From Melissa Febos: Writers shouldn’t avoid themselves – we can be afraid and we can still write. We are not merely navel gazing, we’re navel knowing, and there’s power and importance in that knowing, especially when the craft is stellar and the knowing is profound.
-Ernestine Hayes: Told us that she always begins her talks with two truths:
1) Almost every textbook and academic source defines pre-European contact to North America as pre-history, but indigenous people had/have their own history. Before colonialism, indigenous people possessed vigorous legal, health, educational systems that functioned well for thousand of years. Don’t forget this.
2) Even if colonialism hadn’t happened, Indians would be in the 21st century; they’d have roads and airplanes; they would be modern. However, there would significant differences: the populations wouldn’t be so vulnerable to diseases, especially alcoholism; people would speak their own languages; the children would have more opportunities.
-Ramona Ausubel: One of her many excellent revision insights included: Think about the opposing forces in your work beyond the usual tensions of humor and sadness, etc. Make a list of 10-20 elements/things in the work – what’s pulling against it? What’s the opposite pole in the ground? Work with these opposing poles to create deeper tension, so that readers feel the tug. As we engage these forces, they will strike an emotional note on the string on the wire between the two poles.
-Stephen Graham Jones: Hook lines matter, and make sure you have a second hook line somewhere in the first page. If a first line intrigued a potential reader, then the effective second hook line will guarantee that the reader will stay in the story for its entirety. He also proposed, “If you don’t have an axe to grind, how are you going to sharpen your teeth?”
-From Derek Palacio: With these two opposing forces being true: not knowing enough and still being inextricably connected to a cultural and family legacy, we must write toward our fears.
I am deeply grateful for the chance to grow my understanding of craft while in this program, for the many insights available at every turn, but I’m more grateful for the kind of people here: for the ways teachers treat students as equals, as fellow travelers in the country of writing. Thank you, IAIA MFA program.
We're all so busy, aren't we? I'm having a terrible time keeping up with folks' birthdays or sending them a note or even a text to let them know how much they mean to me. I'm being selfish - as a writer must. Almost all my spare time is going into this work: revising a novel, developing a memoir, teaching, trying to spend time with my family.
So, I'm taking a short cut here. I'm simply going to post the footage from my June 10th reading at Malvern Books (a gorgeous book space), so splendidly hosted by AR Rogers and Wade Martin and RawPaw Press.
I'm reading from one of the two memoirs I have started over this past year, tentatively titled Upstream. It's a book exploring the role of institutionalized education on one family. I read 3 sections (and yes, I have a memoir section written in the 3rd person pov!). The third piece has language (lots of it), so maybe if that's not your thing, don't watch the last portion. Thank you to those that came, to AR and Wade, to Malvern, to Nathan Brown and Elizabeth Bayou-Grace, my fellow readers.
This past summer, I had the delight of hearing Derek Palacio share his ideas on writing a book-length manuscript, and I really took a shine to the way he framed his talk.
Palacio discussed how Christianity can serve as metaphors for faith in one’s writing—his discussion helped me reframe how the fundamental religion I grew up can be an important part of my writer’s mind. This reframe can offer me metaphors and an understanding of the power of story. It can also help me see that faith cultivated is a much stronger faith (in this last case, I’m thinking of the faith one needs in both the writing process and one’s creative ideas).
Derek offered a four-step framework for the long-form process. The first step is the one where we will necessarily spend most of our time. He asserted, and effectively illustrated through the Moses and the burning bush narrative, that writing a longer piece requires madness. Writing a novel or memoir requires a certain amount of delusion—that this thing that has appeared in front of me could lead to other things. Derek then explored the relationship between fate and doubt, asking the question, “How should I respond to this mysterious urge?” We can doubt it, as Moses initially did, or we can have faith in the idea and see where it can take us. Derek suggested that the question whether to believe in the idea is more about doubt in the self rather the idea.
The next interesting point about the madness phase lies in the notion that we have to bite off way off more than we can chew. If a story presents itself in good faith, we must follow it, write it, or we will lose more than we gain. We have to be willing to be a stranger trying to write in a strange land. It is necessary to overreach. The final point about this phase is that all the following steps must be subordinate to this one.
The second step is mania: “The white page recedes and the warm comfort of text emerges. We need to attach landscape and meaning and a world emerges. Plot can expand like a gas. What might happen transforms into plot.” Derek then quoted John Gardner – “the writers first job is to authenticate the story’s primary meaning. The what, who, where.” Who else but the writer can do this?
The third step is exegesis, where writers have to figure their way out of the first draft, trying to connect to the original fire that lit the inspirational pyre. This step is followed by doubt, and I loved Derek’s assertion that this was the most Catholic of the four steps. I felt like my brain exploded when I heard that there are different kinds of doubt—this was key insight; doubt in fourth step so different than the doubt in the first. And the practical applications for the revision process are many: doubt everything equally; forget what you know is good about the first draft; work with the premise that everything is bad unless proven otherwise.
Derek laid out an effective means for considering the long form narrative and I feel empowered by the framework he shared. Amen.
I recently received an email from a student, with this question, "How difficult is it to enter into the publishing world for a writer? I understand and accept that it's a competitive field, but would a GOOD writer have very extreme amounts of difficulty selling a work which deserves publication?"
It's not surprising if you've never been given a straight answer because being published is such tricky business, especially as the industry changes so much. I do believe that if a writer consistently works to improve his/her craft and is relentless about improving the craft and submitting work, he/she will get published. Starting small is helpful - stories or essays in journals/lit magazine helps build one's confidence and craft - those are important carrots to weave into one's writing life. There are probably 1,500 people in the US, apart from screenwriters, who make their livings as writers, and this includes folks who are wildly successful such as Stephen King, Anne Rice, etc. Most writers have a day job . . .
This may be super frustrating to read, but being in it for the process, rather than the publication, is probably helpful. It has helped me focus on healthy factors I can control:
-finding joy in figuring out plot and character, line and image
-creating a community of people who are also committed to process and actually hone their craft
Then, the publications I have had become side benefits, not the focus. It's not an easy shift, but it's made all the difference.