Monday Evening Nonfiction: The truth as I see it on a Monday.

  • I love the name Sheila. It was the name of a sexy young English teacher at my school. All the intellectual boys had crushes on her and called her by her first name, which was why I hated her. She was a creative writing teacher. I’d taken my creative writing class the year before with an older, less sexy but totally brilliant woman who had intended to be a nurse and wasn’t quite sure how she’d become a high school English teacher. Sheila, on the other hand, was one of those lovely, rebellious, idealists who wanted to teach English to save the world. How you can save the world while teaching in a Catholic high school is beyond me, but I love her name anyway.
  • One of my favorite counterproductive pastimes: Go to gym, work out extra hard, come back to eat several handfuls of Cheetos and have a strong Captain and Coke.
  • I’m torn between two attitudes toward life. One is the practical approach that says people should work hard and not complain too much, that happiness is a choice we have to make. The otheris the idealistic feeling that we all deserve better, and in particular that I deserve better. I want everyone, and especially myself, to live a life full of inspiration and joy, to be paid well to do work we love, and to come home happy to the people we love every day. I also want to learn to be happy with what I have.
  • I am very in love, and I feel even a little silly about it. I am the kind of in love that involves getting jealous sometimes, even though I thought I wasn’t the jealous type. It’s the kind of in love that makes me afraid because I think it’s the very kind of in love people are talking about when they say love doesn’t last. I hate to imagine that people who find their marriages stifling and oppressive were once as in love as I am now. And the hardest thing about being in love is not being able to get inside the other person’s head. You can never ever know — really know — what he is thinking or feeling, and the more in love you are, the more painfully obvious it is that you are alone, in a sense. And yet, the miraculous part is that despite being trapped inside ourselves, we can offer each other shelter. It’s such an incredible gesture — the hug.
  • I once tried rearranging the days of the week so Monday would be less painful, but it mostly involved renaming the days to things that sounded less depressing, but I couldn’t remember what the days were, so I guess it failed. Turns out that’s just another example of ways I need to learn to cope with what is and focus on the things I have power to change. Although I’m not religious, I realize this is where the Serenity Prayer would come into play. I don’t know why, but that was the main prayer we said on my high school dance team, the one year I was on it. I quit after freshman year because I didn’t like the coach or the dances, but the girls were mostly nice, and that prayer was a pretty good one.

God grant me the serinity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Nonfictionist: Kim Hosey

Today’s Nonfictionist Q&A is with my friend Kim Hosey. Kim is a reporter, CNF writer, blogger, photographer, wife and mother. I love talking with her about the everyday struggles writers face — you know, that complicated task of being a creative person while still fulfilling all the responsibilities of being a functional human being. You should check out her blog, AZ Writer, to see what she’s up to.

Spring Fever

You’ve been a reporter and a creative writer, how do those two things overlap for you in creative nonfiction?

With the unfortunate exceptions of my brief forays into poetry and one suspense story, my creative writing has always been creative nonfiction. I just didn’t know it had its own club until a few years ago. I had completed my journalism degree from Arizona State University and was working as a freelance journalist and magazine writer, but I started to get the sense that I was a slightly different kind of writer, a storyteller. I loved the information-gathering power and skills that journalism had given me. I still use them nearly every day – tape recording interviews, checking up on sources and information, background research. But one thing that bugs me with much of daily journalism is that once a story is established, you can never find the beginning again. You don’t usually — really by the structure of it, can’t — get the whole story. You get little bits here and there, glimpses in overview as the story progresses. One of my favorite articles I wrote – and the writing sucks; I like it for the concept – was a piece I wrote in college about how most college students didn’t understand the any of the background of U.S. relations with Iraq. The facts kept coming at us, but no one, at least at the time, had backed up and told the story to our generation. I’m embarrassed to say I had to look a lot of it up myself. It’s not usually up to daily reporters to tell readers the meaning or structure of a story. They’re not storytellers. They report current stuff as it happens. A crucial position, to be sure, and probably more necessary to society than what I’m moving toward in my writing. But it wasn’t precisely what I wanted to do, though there is much overlap. It’s not what I’m best at, either.

Being a reporter taught me to gather and present information. But that’s not telling the story like I wanted to tell stories. “Creative” writing lets me back up or zoom in as the narrative dictates and tell the whole story or even just select, shining pieces of it, either in installments (as I do on my blog, with vignettes from my family’s life) or in one go, as in a book (which I also hope to do).

I’m sure that’s not everyone’s opinion of journalism, and not everyone’s plan with creative writing or writing a book. But it’s close-ish to what I see my “calling” to be.

How do you make writing about science creative and beautiful, and why?

The short answer to both questions is, it IS beautiful. That’s why I feel compelled to write about it; and that’s how, on the rare and happy occasion it happens, I get to write such nice-sounding stuff. How can you not write pretty when your topic is the first seconds of the universe? But I think the deeper answer is in uncovering unexpected beauty. We all know a sunset is beautiful (and I’ve written on those). But what about the sawing and grinding mouthparts of an insect? What about a mathematical equation? For me, it’s about getting closer, physically or figuratively. When you’re really, really close, the hairs of a fly on a garbage pile can resemble a forest of steel spires. The facets of its eyes are iridescent. Knowing how that stuff works makes it even cooler.

And the spiderman is always hungry...

Another thing is the people behind the science. I’m sure there must be some dull scientists out there, but I have yet to meet them. A cosmologist used a soda straw and wall poster to talk to me about the beginning of the universe once. An amateur astronomer described scanning the skies during a viewing marathon: finding a galaxy, just as three neighboring telescopes blinked briefly and whirred while they turned, “as if whispering the secret of it to one another.” My dad used to explain physics principles using salt shakers and Fisher Price people. I love the people behind science.

I love when you write about your son. Does he know you write about him? How does he feel about it?

He’s the easiest person in the world to write about, both because there’s endless inspiration (whether in his awesome essence of kidness, his kindness or in his fascination with all things booby- and butt-related), and because he honestly loves being written about. When I write about anyone else, I worry. What will they think? Will my husband be mad I poked fun at our conversation, or that the world now knows we had a fight on Election Day? It doesn’t even have to be anything bad; just the act of quoting people, saying their names or rendering their experiences in a “writerly” fashion sometimes makes them uncomfortable.

Not my son. He puts it this way: He loves me. He loves bugs, and dirt, and farts and Nickelodeon shows and feeding the geese and a million other things. Why shouldn’t everyone know about these things? I tell him what I’m writing all the time, and he unreservedly approves. He even makes suggestions (though how I’m supposed to make an entertaining blog post about “when Brennan stepped on my toe during line-up time” has yet to come to me). I suspect this happy arrangement won’t last forever, but I’ll take advantage of it while it does.

Your photography is often a big part of your blog. How’d you learn to shoot?

I tell people I’m self-taught. That’s true, in that I have no formal or even informal training. I’ve never taken a photography class or even attended a workshop. But “self-taught” isn’t exactly right. I didn’t figure out anything I do with a camera all by myself. I talk to fellow photographers, both amateur and pro. I read tons about photography. I’ve spent countless hours playing on, er, I mean perusing photography websites, particularly Flickr.com. I learn which styles appeal to me, then try the techniques the photographers used to achieve the effects. Plus, I contribute to the websites. Flickr users are great at offering feedback, which is helpful in the same way that it is with writing. I upload some shots I think are wonderful (Ego? What ego?) and sometimes they get a real ho-hum response. On the other hand, I add some photos almost as an afterthought and get a flood of positive feedback. It helps to learn what works and what doesn’t, and then go back and apply those lessons the next time I shoot (or write). I really have learned photography about 90 percent through feedback. The positive feedback is certainly more fun to receive, but sometimes I suck. Out loud. And I’d like to know about it and fix it.

Honestly, I think the key is to not get too full of oneself. You see it with writers and photographers, across all levels of talent and acclaim. With any creative product, particularly when the artist is trying to capture something meaningful to him or her, the product itself becomes sacred. You can’t mess with it. For the most part, I love when my stuff is chewed up and spit back out in an order I hadn’t considered. I don’t have to take the suggestions, of course, but that feedback is part of the process. I’m putting it out there for others, not for myself. If what I’m doing is truly sacred, I’ll keep it private. But I think writers, photographers, bloggers, anyone who produces for an audience and then cries foul when the audience responds is being disingenuous about motive and missing out on a great learning experience.

What’s your biggest writing challenge, and how do you cope with it?

Focus! I study about a million things. This may sound impressive, but it’s absolutely not. It means I have a hard time getting beyond the “study” phase to the “write something, already” phase. I constantly have towers of open books around me. Piles of notes. Twenty-five tabs open on my Internet browser. And half a page written. (But it’s a great half-page.)

I mostly get around it by imposing deadlines on myself – I’ll have this query sent out by tonight, or two more pages done before I pick up my son, things like that. Also, having an extended community of writers and readers helps keep me accountable. I know I’ll blog regularly and keep trying to get my stuff published because if I don’t, I’ll have bunch of e-mails telling me to get off my lazy butt and get going. And if all that fails, at least my floors get a good scrubbing while I procrastinate.

Anything else you want to share?
My son would like to share something about the toilets in the first-grade boys’ bathroom. But maybe that’ll end up in my blog.

Disturbance in the Bookstore

In the bookstore, I am easily disturbed. It’s late in the day when my brain, like a glass of dirty water, has had time to settle,  and the slightest touch makes the sediment stir up, cloud, and find its way back to the bottom. First, in the fiction/literature section, which offends me with its refusal to acknowledge the art of truth, I notice book covers with part of women’s bodies and feel the body itself (not just a woman’s) is still not seen as an integrated thing — that not only do we divorce mind from heart from body, but we also divide hand from foot from belly from face. And then there are our genitals, which have been reduced to trite symbols for lives unlived and fears unfaced.

I decide to wander. Walk up and down the magazine wall, then up and down it again, fascinated with the organization of all these monthlies whose employees wonder how long they’ll have jobs, and the quarterlies with their intellectually subversive content most people will never read, and the glossies with their pages like candy — indie photographs with a dash more color, very fashionable. In the center is a hefty shelf of bridal magazines, women’s fashion and Bop, which is a piss poor excuse for porn, Disneyfied for consumption by indentured innocents. It is this that makes me go. To the tables in front — best sellers and special promotions. Sexy title: Girl Bomb. Illustration: Torn pink fishnets on white space. Subtitle: something about near homelessness. Internal monologue says this is bullshit, even if it might turn out to be a good book because anyone with a title and cover like that does not deserve to write the memoir of teenage, female, punk rock homelessness, especially if they were never really homeless, and I think I need to email a certain writer when I get home — But someone’s got to write the book.

This thought, in all its ridiculosity, comes to me. And while the half of my brain that was listening to the news today says that’s bullshit, that nothing really has to be written, that books ain’t sellin anyway, that no one will care if the book never forms, the other half of my brain and all the rest of me is saying But yes, it matters.

I pick up a book I should not pick up, a biography of Proust because I still believe I’ll read Rememberance of Things Past one day, and a copy of Bitch magazine and get to work.

Literary Proof of our Social Atheism

Further proof that no one seriously believes in an afterlife anymore:

“You had better shove this in the stove,” Mark Twain wrote to his brother in 1865, “for I don’t want any absurd ‘literary remains’ and ‘unpublished letters of Mark Twain’ published after I am planted.”

Previously unpublished works that Mark Twain told his brother he’d “better shove in the stove” are going to be published next month. Oh, sure Twain explicitly said he didn’t want any of his work being posthumously published, and if anyone respected his wishes, the stuff wouldn’t get published, and none of us would have any intention of buying it. We’d be saying how Twain would be turning in his grave and how we have no rights to use his works against his wishes.

But look, we’ve been using the Bible against the wishes of its supposed creator for centuries now, so why not just go ahead and apply the same practices to American literature. The dead clearly have no posessions. Oh sure we divide up their belongings according to their last living wishes, but only to keep the survivors from fighting.

Perhaps the best reason not to be a writer is that once you’re dead, people will learn every embarassing detail of your life. Excuse me, but I need to run home and burn some old journals.

Nonfictionist: Thomas French

For today’s Nonfictionist, I was thrilled to have a little Q&A with Thomas French, who is probably most often described as the Pulitzer winning author of Angels and Demons (not the Tom Hanks movie), but he’s also a great reporter all around and an incredibly nice guy. I met Tom when I was a student in Goucher College‘s creative nonfiction MFA program. Accomplished writers like him can be intimidating, but Tom is the kind of person who will come sit at your table at breakfast in the college cafeteria and talk about movies with you. I hope you enjoy what he shares here, and check out some of his work.

I’m curious about the intersection of journalism and creative writing. What makes your work cross the line from journalism to creative nonfiction?

That’s a tricky one for us to start with. I’m not a fan of the term “creative nonfiction.” When my sons hear it, they smile and say, “Um, dad, does that mean that at Goucher it’s okay for you guys to make stuff up?” I find that most attempts to categorize the kind of work we do land us in the brambles. “Literary journalism” has a cool ring to it, but I’d feel self-conscious about describing my own work that way. I’ve heard some people talk in very serious tones about “reportage,” and you can tell how much they love the way the word rolls out of their mouths, especially that last Frenchified syllable. The smart-ass inside me laughs at that term, every time.

But enough of me being contrary. How would I describe the work I do? It definitely feels creative. I don’t believe in making things up, unless I’m ready to call it fiction and be done with it. Having said that, I don’t feel constrained in any way by writing true stories. Life is filled with enough wonders to satisfy an army of nonfiction writers. I love disappearing inside other people’s hidden worlds, mapping out their secret histories, figuring out what they hold dear and what they fear and what makes them feel the most alive and what wakes them at 3 a.m. and gets them staring at the ceiling. I love the beautiful surprises waiting inside everyone around me. The specifics of how they get through a day. Sometimes I feel as much an anthropologist as I do a reporter or writer.

What writers have you looked up to?

I’m promiscuous in my worship of other writers. People like Tracy Kidder, Adrian Nicole Leblanc, Mike Sager and Laura Hillenbrand always take me to someplace new and show me things that make me want to keep going. I’m particularly enamored right now with Michael Paterniti’s The Long Fall of One-Eleven Heavy, which I think is one of the most haunting stories I’ve ever read. The first time I read In Cold Blood, I was in eighth grade, and I could feel my head exploding. I read The Right Stuff for the first time in college, and still can’t believe, all these years later, what Tom Wolfe was able to do on the page.

The list goes on and on. I grew up in a newsroom, and therefore have learned tons from reporters like Anne Hull, David Finkel, Rick Bragg, Jim Sheeler, David Maraniss, Madeline Blais, Wil Haygood. Just this afternoon I read a piece by Gene Weingarten in the Washington Post, about parents who accidentally leave their babies in their car seats and then return and find their children dead in the heat, and it was so shattering that I could not help sobbing at my desk here at Poynter.

I am afraid of poetry but am learning to face that fear. I have a special attachment for Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, which I reread about once a year, just to be stunned again by his gift for language and image. He has this description of Pat Garrett, the lawman who ended up killing Billy the Kid. I would kill to have written it:

Ideal assassin for his mind was unwarped. Had the ability to kill someone on the street walk back and finish a joke. One who had decided what was right and forgot all morals.

I read a ton of fiction. In fact, I probably read more fiction than anything else, because I have a hard time paying attention if there’s not a story attached. A weakness, I know. So be it. I read anything and everything, from trash to classics, as long as it’s well-done. I particularly love Cormac McCarthy and Patrick O’Brian and Don Delillo and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I believe that Chronicle of a Death Foretold should be required reading for all crime reporters. I recently finished Roberto Bolano’s 2666 and am still reeling. This morning, when I woke at 4 and couldn’t go back to sleep, I reread one of my favorite passages from Blood Meridian, which I keep beside my bed and which includes one of the all-time killer paragraphs:

The judge smiled. Whether in my book or not, every man is tabernacled in every other and he in exchange and so on in an endless complexity of being and witness to the uttermost edge of the world.

Have you ever tried your hand at fiction or another type of writing? How’d that go?

My first stories, in fifth grade, were lurid made-up accounts of bank robberies and floods — perfect for a future police reporter. In junior high I wrote a series of ghost stories for the sole purpose of terrifying my little sister. Good times, yes; to this day, when I remind Brooke of those plots, she shudders. But once I got into journalism and started wandering inside other people’s true stories, it quickly felt as though that was what I was supposed to be doing with my life. As much as I love fiction, I worry that my imagination would never match the vividness of what I learn every time I’m out reporting.

What about a project really grabs your attention and makes you want to write it?

My curiosity leads me, always. I like big issues tucked inside compelling stories. I look for something that nags at me, or for something that I just can’t let go of. Usually there’s a mystery I’m trying to solve. I started on 13, a project about seventh graders — for the record, I came up with the title long before the movie — because Nat, my oldest son, had just turned that age and had suddenly turned into this alien creature and I wanted to understand more of what was happening with him, what his life was like, but knew he would never tell me. I started on Angels & Demons, a project about a murder case here in Tampa Bay because in the newspaper coverage of the case I kept seeing photos of the mother and two teenage daughters who were killed, and there was something in their faces that got to me, something sad, even though the photos were taken long before the murder, and I wanted to know who they were and what made them so sad. I started on The Hard Road, a story about an elementary school teacher who hit four kids coming home from school one evening and then just kept driving, because in the aftermath, when two of the kids died, this woman was so completely hated and because I wanted to know why she did it, since this was someone who had never previously broken any laws and who by all accounts absolutely loved children and had devoted her life to them.

What’s your latest project?

I’m writing a book version of Zoo Story, my last series at the St. Pete Times. I started on this project six years ago after I read Life of Pi, a novel from the point of view of a man who grows up on the grounds of a zoo, and I was intrigued by what the character (and the author) had to say about the mistaken assumptions we make about zoos and captivity and freedom. I wanted to see if the novel was right, if that’s what life inside a zoo was really like. So I spent the next several years reporting inside the Tampa zoo, which was going through an interesting period, trying to reinvent itself and move from being a respectable mid-sized zoo to become a big zoo. The book is focused inside this one institution, but ultimately it touches on the history of humans and zoos and on the place that zoos have today in a world where species are dying off at a rate much faster than when the dinosaurs were wiped out. It’s a story about life and death and the limits of freedom. And lots and lots of animal sex. Don’t get me going on the reproductive systems of African elephants . . .